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Rimbaud Complete
Wyatt Mason
(editor and translator)
Modern Library
606 pp.

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The Wag Chats with
Wyatt Mason

Wyatt Mason discusses the difficulties and joys of translating poetry and tells us why he thinks the details of Rimbaud's life—mythic or otherwise—are irrelevant to our understanding of his poetry.

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?

Mason: 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.

WAG: What attracted you to Rimbaud, in particular?

Mason: 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 fun.

WAG: What is the greatest difficulty you face as a translator?

Mason: 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.

WAG: Which translators do you particularly admire—and why?

Mason: 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, really.

WAG: 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?

Mason: 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 Hell.

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.

WAG: 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?

Mason: 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 escapades.

WAG: Did your own appreciation of Rimbaud change as you worked on the translations?

Mason: 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 his art.

WAG: What projects are you working on now?

Mason: 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.

WAG: It sounds as though you're staying safely away from what you termed 'sewage.'

Mason: Well, in translation, I am, which is a start.

—Interview conducted by Charlie Onion

Posted June 1, 2002



Photo Credit: Patricia Ackerman

Wyatt Mason, whose Rimbaud Complete is now available from the Modern Library, studied literature at the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, and the University of Paris. His first translation, Pierre Michon's Masters and Servants, was a finalist for the French American Foundation Translation Prize. He has translated five books by Michon, including the forthcoming The Origin of the World. His current projects include a translation of Arthur Rimbaud's complete correspondence, and a new edition of Dante's La Vita Nuova, for the Modern Library. His writing has appeared in The Nation, the Los Angeles Times, and many other publications.



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