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In Conversation with Susan Wicks & Valérie Rouzeau

Posted by Arc, 23rd January 2014

©Joanna Eldredge Morrissey
©Joanna Eldredge Morrissey
Valerie Rouzeau by Durigneux
Valerie Rouzeau by Durigneux

As Talking Vrouz begins to get its first batch of positive reviews we spoke to Susan Wicks about the book.

Cold Spring in Winter (Pas Revoir) was shortlisted for the Griffin Prize and won the Scott Moncrieff Prize. What did winning these prizes mean to you and for your work together?

Being shortlisted for the Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize and winning the Scott Moncrieff felt like a public validation of what I was attempting in Cold Spring... - almost an acknowledgement of its difficulty. That name - Scott Moncrieff - is such an august one, and one that's been echoing through my consciousness of what matters for so many years... The Griffin was not a translation prize as such but a prize for poetry, so that felt more like a celebration of Valérie's work, and also of our collaboration. But it was a complex experience - many miles away from the quiet business of making or translating the poems themselves.

The prize and shortlistings have had more tangible effects too. Valerie's work is a perpetually fresh discovery for me, and, like any translator, inevitably I agonise about whether I've been able to do it justice in English. I suppose the prize listings have given me more confidence in what I'm doing, both when I'm working as a translator and when I'm working on poems of my own. Perhaps they've given me a greater freedom to trust my own instincts, though the translation process and the questions I've continued to ask myself and Valérie have been essentially the same.

What marks both of your work our is the use of language. Can you talk a little about your relationship to language, how do you use it to serve your ideas, experience and emotions?

This is hard to talk about. I'm not sure that this degree of separation between language and 'ideas, experience and emotions' is helpful. In this case, the language and the idea are inseparable - often it's the language itself that seems to spark the idea - look at the way the whole poem on pp.110-111 seems to spring from the 'delayed / délayé' linguistic mis-match! In other cases the playfulness of the language modifies the idea by investing it with humour and/or painful ironies, as it does in the 'PIN/ spine/ PIN/ prick' wordplay of 'To meet your soulmate...' on pp.82-83. What does seem clear to me is that here language is a medium that bubbles and ferments, and is nourishing, and slightly inebriating - something you could get quietly drunk on while wearing your arm out stirring it with a spoon - not the clearer broth I'm aiming for in my own work.

You describe beautifully, in the introduction to Talking Vrouz, your process of translating. I wonder if either of you could talk more about the dialogue you hear between the two versions of the poems as they sit side-by-side in the bi-lingual edition, and whether knowing this is how they'll be presented has an effect on your thinking?

No, the parallel text edition doesn't actually influence my translation process - or not in ways I'm aware of. But I'm so glad the originals are accessible to the book's readers, many of whom will be more or less able to follow them. That too is liberating: I know that a reader who understands French will be able to see where I've apparently chosen to diverge from the most obvious semantic meaning, and that makes me feel as if the reader is sharing in the translation process, the way a proactive reader shares in the making of any poem. I find myself hoping, of course, that a perceptive reader of poetry will understand why any apparently daring decision was taken! Not least, I know there is no question of the original poems' being somehow 'replaced': they are still there, and can still speak eloquently for themselves, even in this English edition. I find that very reassuring.

What plans do you have for future collaborations?

There's nothing concrete on my side at the moment - though I'm eager to read everything Valérie writes. But Talking Vrouz offers only about a third of the 161 sonnets in the Vrouz sequence, which itself won France's prestigious Apollinaire Prize. I'm seriously tempted, in the long term, to try and give that book the complete English translation it deserves.

And then I asked Valérie Rouzeau to add anything to the same questions.

Cold Spring in Winter (Pas Revoir) was shortlisted for the Griffin Prize and won the Scott Moncrieff Prize. What did winning these prizes mean to you and for your work together?

I think it meant, though I knew it already, that Sue is a wonderful poet and her translation a real work of art. The Griffin was a wonder, we even saw and heard the impressing thunder of the Niagara Falls ! I feel happy, and proud to have my poems so beautifully alive in English via Sue's virtuosity. Feel unable to do the same in French alas, but do hope this will change before the next end of the world !

What marks both of your work our is the use of language: Valerie for your original writing and Susan for your approach to translating it. Can you talk a little about your relationship to language, how do you use it to serve your ideas, experience and emotions?

I cannot, I do not both write poems and theorize. Cannot concentrate on creation proper, and what I am doing with the tongue indeed. Much comes from my readings of course, but not only the great poets inspire me, dead or alive, I should say that the mere fact of breathing and being moved can be the source of a poem. The death of my young father was a shock, that is probably the main reason for the "weirdness" of the poems...

Valérie, we hear from Susan about the translation process from her viewpoint, what is your role/experience of it? And how does it affect your writing of new poems, if at all?

Sue is the author of Cold Spring whereas I wrote Pas revoir. I was of little help indeed. It's a whole job of reinventing the poems across the Channel and I owe Sue Wicks more than I can say...

(SW) It's the very inventiveness of what you [Valérie] do in French that makes any translator of you have to 'reinvent' - and without your poems in the original, not only the translations but that whole pretext for renewed inventiveness just wouldn't be there!