Jennifer Higgins, In Other Words
Cold Spring in Winter is the latest addition to Arc's 'Visible Poets', each volume of which includes both a general introduction and a translator's preface, in the spirit of the professed aim of the series which is, as Series Editor Joan Boase-Beier states, to 'make the work of both the original poets and their translators more visible' (p.9). This statement, and Susan Wicks's subsequent candid discussion of the difficulties and rewards of the translation process, give this volume an air of being at ease with its status as 'two texts in one' — an ease that many translations lack. This approach is particularly apt for Valérie Rouzeau's work, which is shot through with English words, and which frequently merges one word with another, blurring boundaries between and within languages.
Rouzeau's Pas Revoir (to use its French title) recounts the death of the poet's father through the voices of the mourning woman and the girl she used to be, the child's language mingling with the stunned, disjointed expression of the bereaved adult. The resulting sequence of untitled poems presents fast-moving images of the father's illness and death, interspersed with memories of childhood. The language is urgent, disjointed and complex but never obfuscatory, always communicative. Wicks describes her response to the challenge of translating Rouzeau as allowing the poetry to 'cut through [her] natural defences' (p.12). Her translation not only reads as a cohesive and idiosyncratic work in its own right, but also succeeds in responding to more aspects of the original's complexity than one could imagine to be possible on first encountering the French text.
Some of the sequence's most immediately obvious challenges are in its use of invented words and disjointed syntax. These could be disorientating were it not for Rouzeau's frequent, unifying, use of rhyme and assonance. Wicks wisely avoids trying to replicate the exact position of these features. Instead, her rhymes respond to, and develop, the effect of those in the original. Thus, Rouzeau's lines 'Les lilas là là les galets c'est vrai au fond des grands vases. / Rien qu'une alouette de vivante pour s'en aller' (p.22), become 'The lilacs there and there the pebbles true inside to weight the biggest vases. / Nothing alive to leave here but a lark' (the lines read literally as follows: 'The lilacs there there the pebbles it's true at the bottom of the big vases. / Nothing but a lark alive to leave'). Wickes shifts the intensely alliterative 'l' to the second line, thereby also linking 'lark' to 'lilacs' in the previous line. The accumulation of 'l' sounds allows the flight of the lark to contrast with the stillness of the cut flowers and, simultaneously, to recall them, so that the bird's flight emphasises the stasis of the flowers and of the grave at which they are placed.
Wicks also rises to the challenge of Rouzeau's invented words. Rouzeau's line 'Pas mouranrir désesperir père infinir lever courir' (p.20), is rendered 'Not deadying oh not desperish father everlast get up run fast' ('Not dyinlaugh desperish father infinish get up run'). These coinages fit easily into the texture of Wicks's verse, thanks to the simplicity and informality of her own idiom. Indeed, such is the flexibility of Wicks's English that there are moments when the French and English are almost in dialogue. Where Rouzeau writes of the apples in her father's truck that they are 'Golden jusqu'au trognon' (p.50), Wicks translates 'Delicious to the core'. Together, the French and English playfully suggest the name of the apple that neither, individually, names.
Any translation invites questions over decisions made over the rendering of specific words and this is no exception, but these are too minor to mention here. They would be small quibbles over a translation which captures so much of a complex voice without losing its own cohesion, making Cold Spring in Winter a bold and inspiring companion to Pas Revoir.