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A conversation with translator Andrew Zawacki

Is it possible for the original text to be reborn through the translator?

Living as I have, as an interloper in the South for the past decade, I can’t help but hear “reborn” as a religious term, one that makes me particularly uneasy, borderline queasy. For one thing, rebirth implies that something has died, so stands in need of renewal, and that’s simply never true of a poem, not least when it’s undergoing translation.

To the contrary, a poem remains very much alive during that process, even kicking—in fact, that’s one of the many troubles inherent in trying to translate a poem: It just won’t sit still, let alone cooperate. (In this way, Sébastien’s work occasionally reminds me of my daughters, ages two and six, i.e., total pains in the ass.) For another, I’m committed to translation not as purification, which a rebirth is meant to make happen, but rather as contamination. My English versions of Sébastien are necessarily infected by his French, which my versions can’t and don’t seek to “cure,” even as I pollute his work by carrying it into English (actually, the French would say I’m translating his work into “l’américain”).

Nor should we pretend that he writes “French,” which in turn I’m rendering in “English,” as if either language were monolithic or stable: There are many idiolects and dialects and elastic innovations of French, of course, including Smirou’s highly peculiar lingo, just as there are multiple English tongues, among them mine—to say nothing of the fact that Sébastien and I are ceaselessly changing the registers in which we speak our “own” respective languages. And I should probably refrain from assigning us to “respective” languages altogether: Influenced by a bunch of American poets, starting say with Jack Spicer, Sébastien writes in a French already contaminated by English (as well as one infiltrated by Italian psychoanalytic theory); in parallel, whether translating poetry or writing it, my English has a convert’s zealous French floating around in its blood. Sébastien’s poems are no small part of that vascular system.

In any event, to consider a text being “reborn through” a translator sets the latter up as a god, some above-the-fray entity that washes the original words, in order to cast out imperfection, drape them in raiments of white. I feel very far from doing anything that undirty, or wanting to.

You described these poems collectively as a “chapter,” and we’ve formatted them as discrete poems in a series, but what relationship do you see at play between the serial poem and the long poem here? We’re thinking specifically about how each of these poems ends with a variation on the same line, like a refrain. How did the dynamics between these poems affect your translation process?

Without having wanted to legislate, in advance, how exactly I’d translate this book, I was forced to acknowledge its structure, respect its pliantly constrained layout. Beau voir is fractal: eight chapters, each containing eight poems, with every poem comprising an octave of lines. (One poem is even organized according to alexandrines. The title features eight letters, in English no less than in French.)

As you say, all the poems within a given chapter end with a line that’s repeated, if not exactly then with only slight variation. Moreover, as in the medieval bestiary, animals here appear in order of decreasing physical size, from the lion to the glow worm. I felt I ought to keep that sense of increasing diminution (compelling oxymoron) in mind, as it cut across the pristine symmetry of the whole, even if its attendant feeling of—what? Descent? Tapering? Shrinking? Devolving?—were more affect or atmosphere than formal constraint.

Alongside that odd movement, as I read left to right across the pages of the book, of progress married to retreat, of inertia toward a vanishing point (the traipse, the trick of perspective), there’s the fact that some animals don’t quite seem to fit, at all: the dodo is extinct, for example, the glow worm a mere insect. Each of the eight chapters is an intense, focused, eccentric investigation—part phenomenological, part psychological—of the relationship between a viewer (quite often the reader herself) and a creature that’s crept into her line of sight. While there’s no narrative per se in operation, the poems within each chapter are doubly directed: each poem races toward its final line, which can only gain in gravitas with each reiteration, while the whole chapter hyperventilates toward its close, as if bobsledding into a vanishing point, along the slipstream of an oblique and imaginative but nevertheless insistent argument.

Whereas no chapter is a prereq for the one that follows, in terms of action or the advancement of any philosophical inquiry, there’s no escaping the order inside each chapter. Given the emphasis in Beau voir on vision—as well as not seeing, or seeing only piecemeal—Spicer’s characterization of the serial poem, as flicking on and off the lights of rooms one enters and exits, seems appropriate.