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Thursday, May 25, 2017


I  typically have four or five books out that I'm reading at any given time. I have notebook now just for the purposes of recording everything I've read completely through.


I am looking at a translation of Reverdy, in the NYRB / Poets series, edited by the indefatigable Mary Ann Caws. It has translations by Padgett, O'Hara, Asbhery, Rexroth, and Caws herself.  Some of this is leaving me cold, in terms of the translations.  If you didn't know any better, you'd think Reverdy is writing very freely, but looks how he starts a poem with an alexandrine: "Les yeux à peine ouvertes / La main sur l'autre rive."  It looks like he will prefer units of 6, 4, and 8 syllables throughout this poem.  And he rhymes when he wants to as well, but not regularly.  Jakobson says that any grammatical feature, if repeated, becomes poetic, so "Une heure tombe / Il fait plus chaud." Two present tense verbs in two phrases of equal length [4 syllables].  Rexroth's "The falling hour / It gets warmer" manages to destroy this very simple and easily translatable passage. "The hardly open eyes / The hand on the other shore." Notice how Reverdy begins every phrase at the beginning of the poem with the noun or pronoun: les yeux, la main, et tout, la porte, une tête... "The hardly open eyes" destroys this effect.

"Et tout ce qui arrive" = "everything that happens there." Maybe arrive simply means happens, but it seems weak, flat. "Le soleil prend toute la place" = "The sun fills everything."   That is simply banal.  Prendre is take, seize.  Place could be a plaza?  So the sun seizes the entire city square. Rexroth also doesn't notice when the poem shifts to the past tense for a few lines. He translates the imperfects as present.  

There is little that is cantabile in KR's translation here.  He messes up basic syntactic parallelisms and even phanopoeia, the most translatable aspect of poetry: its visuality.  Reverdy's delicate tone is nowhere in evidence.

Granted, Reverdy leaves little space for the translator to move around in.  The simple, French 101 syntax is uncompromising, especially since he uses syntactic parallelism as a musical device.

{To be fair,  I turn the page and find a perfectly fine translation by the same poet.}

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