Between dog and wolf

For a few months now I’ve been under the spell of the 16th century French poet Louise Labé — or, rather, of Olivia McCannon’s versions of Labé in Modern Poetry in Translation 2016/1. A Renaissance woman in both senses of the term and a feminist centuries before the word was coined, Labé also wrote poetry that, in the words of McCannon’s MPT introduction, “rewrites the male Petrarchan tradition, giving it a blast of positive, debunking energy, a strong female voice and an intelligent physicality.”

The poems have a touch of Renaissance magic about them, channelling the newly-reinvigorated classical tradition through a humanist sensibility that is at the same time recognisably modern and subtly alien. They are also startlingly frank for their time, as in this from the opening of Sonnet 18:

Kiss me again, kiss me, kiss me more:
Give me one of your most mouth-watering ones
Give me one of your most smouldering ones
I’ll repay it with four, hotter than any embers.

Kisses were (as always) a common trope in sixteenth century love poems, but mostly coming across as incorporeal tokens of abstract desire rather than a physical, messy, full-on snog (which is pretty much the only way to take the connotative nexus of “smouldering”, “hot”, “embers” and the suddenly-literal “mouth-watering”). Yes, the fact that the opening alludes to Catullus 5 would have given a degree of air cover, but it’s nonetheless brave stuff for a 1550s poet, and doubly so for a woman writing in such a restrictive patriarchal tradition: chaste courtly love this ain’t.

In the sestet the poem pre-empts Donne’s bedroom syllogisms by half a century, before signing off with an innuendo so bold that it makes Hamlet’s sexual wordplay sound like Carry On Elsinore:

Now you and I will live our lives twice over
Once inside our self; once in our lover, and
Love, if I dare think this thought aloud,

Living in reserve makes me impatient:
How will I ever satisfy my ache,
Unless I rouse myself to seek, astride.

This is beautiful writing, woven from sound-patterns that both suggest and resist a formal rhyme-scheme, slippery with shifts of idiom and voice, utterly mesmerising.

The obvious question is how much of this remarkable voice comes from the original poems and how much from Olivia McCannon’s versioning. And this is where I crash into the rockface of my own ignorance: I only speak what a friend calls Emergency French, which is clunkily just-about-functional for booking a restaurant or asking directions to the town centre, but several orders of magnitude short of understanding nuance or tone (or, for that matter, holding a conversation about anything other than the weather). Give me an annotated edition of Labé ‘s poems and the best historical dictionary available, and I would be no closer to understanding a shred or a whisper of Louise Labé’s original voice.

This is the challenge of reading poems in translation, and why translation is so vital. It also, for me, prompts some recurrent thoughts about language and the impulse to write poetry in the first place.

From one perspective, the frustration of not being able to experience an original poem other than by the intercessions of a mediating translator is just a more obvious version of the ultimate failure of language to be able to communicate anything undistorted from one human mind to another. And to write genuine poetry you need to have a healthy distrust of language (or, put another way and in my lazy shorthand, all poetry is translation).

This works even more strongly in the opposite case, i.e. the experience of translating between two languages that the poet knows intimately. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that translators like Olivia McCannon or MPT editor Sasha Dugdale are also formidable “original” English-language poets: moving between two languages inevitably heightens a writer’s awareness of their mother-tongue as both fallible medium and contingent tool. Once I know that the spaniel sat beside me as I type this is not universally a dog, but at different times and places a dog, canis, chien, κυνὸς, cane — and that’s just the few that I know out of thousands — then it’s no longer entirely possible to believe that he is a dog, at least not in the way that a child unquestioningly believes when they point at a picture-book and spell-cast “dog”. But in losing that certainty we make poetry possible.

A few years after I first crossed the line between mentally translating from Latin and Ancient Greek, and genuinely reading and thinking in the languages (however tentatively), I experienced something I have never since forgotten. One glorious summer afternoon towards the end of my first year at university I was sat in the college library, stuck indoors from chronic procrastination while the rest of Oxford was noisily and deliriously enjoying itself below the open window. In front of me was the Iliad book 1, and as the sun inched a shadow of window-lattice over the page a single line hit me like a cross between a high-voltage accident and a magic spell:

βῆ δ’ ἀκέων παρὰ θῖνα πολυφλοίσβοιο θαλάσσης

I could see, hear, taste, smell the beach at Troy, the seaweed and the swell, the reek of armies and what Ezra Pound would awkwardly call “direct treatment of the thing itself”. Not only had the line communicated before it was understood; it was gloriously, magically untranslatable. Yes, he went in silence along the shore of the resounding sea, but those words in English don’t carry the same trace elements and isotopes, the same radioactive connotations, the same meaning. Like most people I had understood this rationally for years, but until then I had never properly felt it.

Which I why, ever since, I’ve kept on translating for practice or ritual or indulgence, and perhaps also why I love to read translations from languages I don’t speak, to see how someone else has tried to transmit the untransmittable — and what magic is sometimes made in the attempt.

And it’s on one level why my initial response to last month’s referendum horror was to reach for the MPT 50th anniversary anthology Centres of Cataclysm. And why, a few weeks later, coming across an off-target review of that book made me want to shout about how fantastic it is, and how vital MPT is to contemporary British poetry, and how life-affirming good translation can be.

Seriously: the first poem in the book (Miroslav Holub’s “The fly”) is worth the cover price, and there are 350 more pages brimming with great poems — familiar favourites and new discoveries, faithful renditions and mercurial interpretations. I was delighted to come across Frances Leviston’s “Reconstruction” again, and equally delighted to meet Hai Zi’s “Sonnet: Crown” for the first time. And when Yves Bonnefoy died this month I turned to page 300 and read “Threats of the Witness”. But there’s too much good stuff for me to list it here like the catalogue of ships: Centres of Cataclysm demands to be read, by anyone who cares for poetry in the world today.

The title of this blog-post borrows from another piece of untranslatable idiom: the French entre chien et loup refers to twilight, the liminal time of magic and ambiguity when the wild and the domesticated blur into one other — the time of the loup and the loup-garou. It has been a favourite of mine ever since a French friend first explained it, and perhaps doubly so because I know that its nuances and complexities are lost on me, other than as a reminder of the slipperiness of language.

In any case it is untranslatable, which points to the place where the real poetry comes from.