To translate the spirit is an intention of such enormity, so phantasmal, that it can well turn out to be inoffensive . . . —Borges, “The Translators of The 1001 Nights”
by Jerome Keeler
I had Borges’s writings on translation in mind when I picked up Azure: Poems and Selections from the “Livre,” the recent translation of Stéphane Mallarmé by Blake Bronson-Bartlett and Robert Fernandez. The book’s reputation preceded it. It aims to convey a sense of the peculiar energies a reader of Mallarmé’s time would have perceived in his work by rendering this work vital to our own time—that is, by creating translations that work as contemporary poems. Previous renderings, the translators feel—they single out the highly-regarded efforts of the Henry Weinfield (University of California Press, 1994) and E.H. and A.M. Blackmore (Oxford, 2006)—are too academic, too antiquated in their diction, and, most importantly, too occupied with preserving meter and end rhyme at the expense of other poetic qualities. The present version, as the translators’ note explains, “privileges a certain music—a striking music—that is integral to Mallarmé’s poetics.”
These are admirable aims. But they introduce a new set of challenges in tackling Mallarmé, who is justly considered the least translatable of French poets. This is all to say that Bronson-Bartlett and Fernandez had their work cut out for them, and I confess I found it hard not to go in rather skeptical of the project.
To lend some concreteness to assessing the collection, I would like to focus on important parts of two of Mallarmé’s most representative poems. Here, then, is an excerpt from the early and relatively accessible “Azure,” in the more faithful rhyming translation of Weinfield as well as the present translation.
—The Sky is dead.—Toward you I run!
Bestow, O matter,
Forgetfulness of Sin and the cruel Ideal
Upon this martyr who comes to share the litter
Where the happy herd of men is made to kneel.
For there I long, because at last my brain,
Like an empty rouge-pot on a dressing stand,
Has lost the art of decking out its pain,
To yawn morosely toward a humble end . . .
In vain! The Azure triumphs [. . .]
—Sky’s dead.—Toward you I run. Give, o
Heaviness of all things, forgetfulness of the Ideal
And of sin, to this martyr who sojourns
Among the sweat of mortal cattle.
I want out. My empty brain, empty
As a pot of face paint at the wall’s foot,
Dry, empty, it can’t face paint, mask, a weepy idea
Shuttling some girth toward pinned eyes . . .
Vain! Azure triumphs [. . .]
There are many interesting points of comparison here. The most noticeable, I think, are the differences in the treatments of the second stanza. Certainly the longing and the morose yawning of Weinfeld’s rendering, and even the rouge-pot and the dressing stand, feel mannered by contrast to the touches of the present translation. The wordplay of “it can’t face paint,” for instance, strikes me as just the sort one might encounter in a contemporary poem. The enjambed free verse of the present translation feels fresher as well, especially in contrast to Weinfield’s base of rhymed iambic pentameter. The decision to abandon end rhyme and regular meter, in fact, seems much more significant to this collection as a whole than any updates in diction. But this brings me to what I find the more interesting points of comparison: the first stanza, and the thought that follows the second. Here, in terms of contemporary feel, there is, I think, little meaningful difference between the translations. This sort of unevenness from stanza to stanza and also from poem to poem reflects the general situation in the first half of this collection.
I intend this not as a major criticism but simply as an observation about the challenges in rendering a late nineteenth-century poet contemporary. Mallarmé was heavily influenced by Baudelaire, and his early verse, composed in the 1860s, has a decidedly Baudelairean atmosphere: “Ennui,” “the Ideal,” and “Azure,” often apostrophized and capitalized, are invoked repeatedly. Consider “Azure.” For Mallarmé, this is not simply a color that sounds like it belongs in a poem but a conception, an atheist alternative to “ciel,” which, in French, can mean both sky and heaven. This is lost on us. And if “Ennui” can’t necessarily be called antiquated, it’s hard to imagine anyone today blissfully cultivating it in the manner of Baudelaire and the Decadents. “Boredom” isn’t really an update, but it’s also not so intimately bound to a particular historical context. And it is, at least, a translation. I wondered why it, or something like it, did not appear. Occasionally, in fact, the translators conceive an ingenious solution—I particularly enjoyed “infinite whatever” as a rendering of “langueur infinie” (literally “infinite languor”) in the poem “Sigh.” It’s a wide departure from the original but a perfect expression of contemporary sensibility. For the most part, however, the vocabulary of the Symbolists and their precursors remains untouched. The presence of such content in one stanza or poem, then, with an update such as “night cinema,” “Oxys” (for Oxycontins), or “Gravitrons” in the next, seems an indication of an unfinished battle—or perhaps simply an unwinnable one. In any case, I found the issue intriguing, though sometimes distracting, and I wondered if more might have been done to address it.
I don’t wish to give the impression that nothing in Azure feels truly contemporary. The shorter poems toward the end of the collection are remarkably so. These are drawn from Mallarmé’s mature verse of the 1880s. The Baudelairean influence is diminished. The translators are in their element here, and they take more liberties in departing from the French. Certain gestures are masterful and can be appreciated without comparison to the originals, as in the final stanza of “Scrap, as for an Album”—
Such a raw, clear
—and the opening stanza of a section from “To you colonist”:
Can’t believe this incredible joy
And won’t ironize it, open
No more than a tossed mattress
And it would require a separate review to do justice to the 108-page selection from the “Livre,” Mallarmé’s manuscript notes toward a book-of-books that would reveal “all existing relations between everything.” This selection, translated into English for the first time, is a significant contribution to Mallarmé scholarship. But it is much more than that. I was pleased to find that these notes, fragmented and unfinished as they may be, and in fact precisely for that reason, read as a kind of postmodern concrete poem in the form of an outline for a book/stage play, complete with crossed out words, diagrams, arrows, and equations.
I would like to shift focus to the translators’ goal of conveying the music integral to Mallarme’s poetics. This seems to me a much more interesting aim. It is also one in which they largely succeed. For Weinfield and other translators, end rhyme is the most important property of Mallarme’s verse. It’s hard to say they are wrong in this. However, this is also the property most difficult to do any justice to. Mallarmé’s end rhymes are often far too complex, and too spectacular, to be transferred into English. The results are bound to be disappointing. This is particularly true of two of his greatest achievements, “Prose (for des Esseintes),” which contains a series of masterful homonymic end rhymes that cross word boundaries, and the delightfully inscrutable sonnet “Her pure nails,” also known as the “Sonnet en –yx.” The latter is far and away the most significant offering of Bronson-Bartlett and Fernandez’s collection. To understand why, we must know a bit more about the poem.
The “Sonnet en –yx” consists of two quatrains followed by two tercets. It contains an intricate scheme in which end rhymes are “crossed” between the quatrains and the tercets, playing on the cross of the letter x itself and on the image of a cross that occurs at the beginning of the first tercet and that is central to the meaning of the poem. The crossing is achieved through an inversion of the gender of the rhymes between the quatrains and tercets: the first and third lines of each quatrain end with a rhyme in the masculine yx or ix (onyx, Phénix), while the second and fourth lines end with a rhyme in the feminine ore (sonore, s’honore). Each tercet contains one rhyme ending in the feminine ixe (fixe) and two rhymes ending in the masculine or (septuor). The centrality of the poem’s sounds to its meaning is signaled by the wordplay of its opening phrase, ses purs ongles (her pure nails). When said aloud in French, the sounds of the first three syllables of this phrase are nearly identical to the sounds of the phrase c’est pur son (it’s pure sound).
This feat is impossible to reproduce in the absence of gendered nouns. The best a translator can do is preserve the rhymes ending in x sounds and skip the other rhymes altogether or offer some less satisfactory substitute. Weinfield tries the latter, other translators the former. Bronson-Bartlett and Fernandez realize that English allows for wordplay of other sorts.
Here is the final stanza of the poem in the original, followed by a fairly literal translation by Patricia Terry and Maurice Shroder, and then the present translation.
Elle, défunte, nue en le miroir, encor
Que, dans l’oubli fermé par le cadre, se fixe
De scintillations sitôt le septuor.
She, in the mirror, nude, defunct, although
Within the framed oblivion at once
Appears, all scintillation, the Septet.
She, stripped, dejected mist in the mirror, even
Though in this oblivion, frame-enclosed, is fixed
The coming cinquefoil, sext chiming, for our septet
The masterstroke here is the last line, which plays on the interactions among the sounds and appearances of French and English words. Most obviously, the line mirrors the sibilance of scintillations–sitôt–septuor through “cinquefoil,” “sext,” and “septet.” And it is not only the s sounds of “scintillation” and “sitôt” that are evoked but their initial vowel sounds: the san of “scintillations” is suggested through the visual “cinq” of “cinquefoil,” while the si of “sitôt,” is conjured, one might say, through substitution: the French six is pronounced cease, and “sext,” one of several ecclesiastical terms central to the poem, designates noon, the sixth canonical hour. The line goes even further when considered on a strictly visual level, playing on the French five, six, and seven (cinq, six, sept), openly through “cinquefoil” and “septet,” and obliquely, again, through “sext.” Thus the translation renders explicit a counting that is essentially subliminal in the French scin–si–sept. This counting is significant: it prepares for the culmination in “septuor,” the revelation that the “pure nails” referenced in the poem’s first line are the seven stars of the constellation Ursa Major. In terms of the actual words, with the exception of “septet,” Bronson-Bartlett and Fernandez’s line is nowhere close to the meaning of the French. I can only imagine how long it took to conceive. I would not have minded more like it.
There are many more qualities that distinguish this collection from previous translations. This is a surprisingly visceral Mallarmé, still largely impenetrable except through close study or previous knowledge, yet easier to appreciate for the immediacy of its imagery and the beauty of its language. Those with purist tendencies are sure to object to the collection’s many departures, and those who have not read Mallarmé previously will need to turn to exegesis. But I think that, despite all of this, and rather miraculously, the translators accomplished much more than could reasonably have been expected.
Wesleyan University Press (2015): $17.95
Jerome Keeler is a freelance writer living in Princeton, New Jersey.