WAG:What attracts you to a new
project? Is it simply a love of the writer's work?
Or is it the lack of a good English translation
that drives you?
Love is the only good reason to translate.
The writing has to be there, has to be so compelling
I'd feel like having it in my head for the rest
of my life, because that's where it ends up taking
root. To translate something that stinks is deeply
unwise. It's like filling your head with sewage.
What attracted you to Rimbaud, in particular?
He's one of a dozen essential poets, and
he's impossible to get right. Meaning he has so
many styles, so many voices, that there isn't one
set of solutions that can provide a way in: you
need scores. This makes him very hard, but very
What is the greatest difficulty you face as a translator?
Misconceptions. The greatest difficulty is
less a matter of the challenges that a particular
author poses than the degree to which the practice
of translation is misunderstood. It is a deeply
useful and humble activity, a means by which a writer's
gifts are delivered far from their origins. It requires
great devotion and generosity, and yet translations
are often used for target practice. "Of course,"
wrote D. J. R. Bruckner in a review that ran some
time ago in the New York Times of a new translation
of The Magic Mountain, "the pleasure
of going through any translation is to catch lapses."
Anyone with a semester of German can, dictionary
in hand, look at someone's version of, say, the
Duino Elegies, and whine that schrecklich
doesn't mean terrifying. Of course it doesn't:
it means whatever Mr. Rilke meant it to mean, and
he's not around to tell us. So we should look to
the poem for answers. Language, and literary
language in particular, acquires meaning in context.
Words are vessels that context fills with substance:
they mean little without being used in a
phrase; and the phrase is less intelligible alone
than when seen in a paragraph; and a paragraph in
a section, a section in a chapter, a chapter in
a book. Like the books they're based on, translations
must be evaluated holistically, not piecemeal,
as is commonly thought.
Which translators do you particularly admire—and
Jerome and Tyndale, for giving us Latin and
English Bibles, respectively, and were killed for
their presumption. Golding for his versions of Ovid,
Baudelaire for his Edgar Allan Poe, Chateaubriand
for his Milton, Beckett for himself. Guy Davenport,
more recently, for his unique eloquence when rendering
Attic Greek. Christopher Logue, who knows no Greek,
but has translated Homer into an idiom that Borges
would have loved, or at least I do. Richard Howard,
whose delicate, careful work has brought more French
writing into English than seems possible for one
man to manage. And, so many others: Lydia Davis,
Roger Shattuck, Arthur Goldhammer, Paul Auster,
Stephen Mitchell. My list of favorites is endless,
Rimbaud Complete includes fifty pages of
Rimbaud material that has never before appeared
in English. Could you tell us a little about this
material, and why its appearance in English is important
to our understanding of Rimbaud?
There are three groups of writings that no
one had adequately dealt with before in English,
all of which revolve around one subject: How Rimbaud
Did It, i.e., his path to poetic originality. There's
a notebook he kept as a kid, when he was around
eleven; there's a bunch of poems he wrote 'for school';
and then a rough draft of part of A Season in
The notebook is interesting because
it gives us a window into what he was reading. Most
of the notebook is akin to a commonplace book, a
journal in which we write out passages of things
we like. His has a lot of animal fables, "The
Ant and the Grasshopper," that sort of thing,
along with passages from the Vulgate Bible. What's
more, many of these entries have been fudged, either
expanding or contracting their sources, and so we
can read them as a very early sort of literary criticism
on Rimbaud's part. What's so important about the
notebook is that it shows our earliest example of
Rimbaud the reader. Show me a writer who isn't a
great reader and I'll show you someone not worth
reading. Rimbaud, we know from his letters, was
book hungry. So the notebook was an early menu.
Next, the so-called 'School Exercises'.
These were all written over the course Rimbaud's
early teen-age years, and all of them were indeed
brought into existence by assignment. The reason
we have them, or eight of them, is due to each having
won one prize or another, and as a result was printed
in one of the regional school journals that ran
the smartest kids' work, as much as a perk for the
kids and their parents as it was a pat on the back
to the principals of the schools in question. Anyway,
these exercises have previously been dismissed by
American scholars as being uninteresting, which
is a mistake. They are fascinating if we read them
with an eye, again, to how Rimbaud is learning to
become Rimbaud: by reading. Each of the exercises
begs, borrows and steals from other writers. Sometimes
the professor asks for a translation of a previous
author, or that Rimbaud write in another writer's
style. On one occasion, Rimbaud has the balls to
pass of a poem by another writer as his own—and
gets away with it, the theft not being discovered
until the early 20th century.
The last piece of the previously
untranslated puzzle is the fragmentary draft of
Rimbaud's most famous work, A Season in Hell.
It's an illuminating look at a work in progress,
full of wrong turns, dead ends and reversals as
we see him come up with one idea, abandon it, run
with another one, cross it out and then take off
again. If you compare it to the final version, you
can see him struggle for a page in the draft, a
struggle that yields one super line he harvests
for the finished version.
Through the years, Rimbaud has become a celebrity
figure of almost mythical proportions. You stress
the poetry over the celebrity, though, and in the
introduction to Rimbaud Complete, you write
at length about how carefully he prepared his poetry.
When it came to his composition practices, he was
far from a drunken poet spouting spontaneous, ecstatic
verse. Where do you think the 'real' Rimbaud lies,
on the sliding scale from careful poet to ecstatic
visionary? And how much should that figure influence
our appreciation of his poetry?
I think the 'ecstatic visionary' angle is
horseshit, along with most of the rest of the mythic
baggage attached to Rimbaud. If you want celebrity,
watch Entertainment Tonight. It you want
poetry, read Rimbaud with an open mind. Because
if you don't you'll be searching the poems for signs
of 'ecstatic visions,' or 'adolescent angst' (since
he wrote most of his poems as a teen) or 'gay ideas'
(since he had at least one intimate relationship
with a man). Such reductive readings, which are
still in the vogue despite their obvious shortcomings,
are a mean thing to do to a poem and a stupid thing
to do to oneself: they rob us of the essential thrill
of the experiencing a poem. Poems are vessels of
indeterminacy and doubt, not solutions to quiz questions
about the poet's philosophy of living or amorous
Did your own appreciation of Rimbaud change as you
worked on the translations?
It deepened my understanding of, and respect
for, how serious a stylist and innovator he was,
and redoubled my disgust at how grotesquely the
cult around his life has disfigured the face of
What projects are you working on now?
A book by Dante, La Vita Nuova, his
little treatise on love and poetry and where they
intersect. And several books by the great French
writer Pierre Michon.
It sounds as though you're staying safely away from
what you termed 'sewage.'
Well, in translation, I am, which is a start.
conducted by Charlie
June 1, 2002