Talking Translation at Ugly Duckling

Ugly Duckling Presse‘s Cellar Series, a semi-secret salon held at irregular intervals in the Presse’s basement headquarters at the Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood, offered up a pair of blue ribbon speakers last night: Richard Sieburth of NYU, who is known for his excellent translations from both German and French (e.g. Hölderlin, Büchner, Leiris and Michaux), and poet Christian Hawkey, whose latest book, Ventrakl, published by Ugly Duckling, I recently reviewed. The series can’t be made open to the public in the broader sense, because there just isn’t room. Even as it was, audience members were crammed in between (if not on top of) pieces of printing equipment and big boxes of paper. But never fear, the readings were recorded for podcast, and I’ll post the link to it when it goes live. It’s definitely worth a listen. Hawkey’s book is a stunning meditation on, with and through the poems of the great German expressionist poet Georg Trakl, and Sieburth read a series of beautifully translated geometry-based poems by Eugène Guillevic, who like my beloved Raymond Queneau studied mathematics; a book of these poems, Geometries, is just out from Ugly Duckling, and a sample poem can be read on the Presse’s website. The Q & A after the readings was fascinating, with Sieburth and Hawkey (along with Celan translator Pierre Joris, who chimed in from the sidelines) talking about the materiality of language and the transformative process of shifting poems from one language to another. Hawkey, responding to a question from the crowd, talked about the role played in his work by so-called homophonic translation, a technique made famous by Louis Zukovsky. Hawkey did a lot of it in the process of composing the poems that make up the bulk of his Trakl book, but, as he explained to the audience, in his own work homophonic translation is only an early step in the process of composing a poem, never the final one. A certain randomness inevitably results when you replace words in one language with words in another on the basis of their sounding vaguely similar, though of course the process is never truly random, it’s just that you’re using the focus on sound to turn off the bossy, cognitive, semantics-obsessed part of your brain – i.e. the dumb part that can’t write poetry – so that the other part can give you some words to work with. Homophonic translation proved a fruitful way for Hawkey to interact with Trakl’s work, and the poems he composed using the material thus generated seem to slide in and out of a Traklian universe, creating what I’ll call a sort of Übertraklung (Trakl + Übertragung [translation]) that both is and is not a translation of Trakl’s poems. Hawkey admitted that he also lifted lines from other Trakl translations to knit back into these poems, tightening the weave. I myself make occasional use of homophonic translation when I teach translation; it helps nudge students who are too caught up in struggling with the semantics of the poems they’re translating to just stop and listen. A little of it goes a long way. Richard Sieburth concluded the discussion by talking about his relationship to the two languages he translates from, German and French. Listening to him speak about them, I was left with the impression that German, which he spoke as a small child, really is the language of his heart, while French, which he started learning at 11 or 12, is more the language of adult desire and erudition. All of these are powerful forces.

P.S. By the way, if you missed the event and are curious, there’s a podcast posted (in two parts) here – look for the files dated 2/15/12 and 4/20/12.

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