Surreal & Elemental:
An Interview with E.C. Belli

by: Elizabeth Clark Wessel

Editor Elizabeth Clark Wessel talks with emerging translator E.C. Belli.

I was lucky enough to study translation with E.C. Belli at Columbia University, and I’ve been fascinated since then by her translation process, her fierce advocacy for the little known (in the U.S) French poet Pierre Peuchmaurd, and the work that has resulted from it. She has rendered the elemental, late surrealistic poetry of Peuchmaurd in an evocative, emotional English, and the collection she translated and edited is now available from Oberlin College Press. You can read more of Belli’s translations here.

How did you first become interested in translation and in the translation of poetry? And can you describe some of your first experiences with translation?

I suppose I’ve never experienced life without translation. I grew up speaking French with my Swiss father and my sister (in school as well) and English with my British mother. My mother was very firm about not letting us speak anything else than English with her as she wanted us to be bilingual. After living a day in French, I’d come home and attempt to recapitulate it all in English. It was constant and exhausting. 

As for the translation of poetry and literature, I first became interested in it when I started reading poetry as a preteen. Three authors in particular: Edmond Rostand, Alphonse de Lamartine, and Victor Hugo. But really I think it began with Edmond Rostand (best known for Cyrano de Bergerac): a teacher in junior high school, Madame Vera, gave me his out-of-print book Les Musardises. His poem “Le Petit Chat” had charmed me and I kept going on about it in class. She just pulled out this old book for me one day and sent me home with it. It was my first treasure.

I then discovered Rostand’s play, L’Aiglon, based on the life of Napoleon II (later called the Duke of Reichstadt). Specifically, an unfinished poem from 1894 that was featured in the supplementary materials. It’s called “Un Rêve” (a few lines actually made it into the fifth act of the play): the Duke and Seraphin Flambeau, an old soldier from Napoleon 1st’s Army, stand in a field after Flambeau has struck himself with a sword to avoid being taken alive by the police. In his dying haze, Flambeau imagines he is back at the Battle of Wagram and is dying an honorable death from battle-related wounds. The Duke joins him in his reverie and sees the field fill with dead and dying men, and finds himself helpless amid this widespread suffering. It’s so beautiful and dark and tragic.

I remember wanting, very badly, to translate “Un Rêve” for my British relatives, in particular my grandmother, who is a poet. I’d go at it line by line, on the fly, doing the best I could. Sometimes something magic happened and a line came to life, but more often than not it fell completely flat. It was very frustrating. Two years ago, I wrote an “adult” translation of the poem during a class. It has a lot of problems, but I love it and keep going back to it to make changes. It’s my secret project. I suppose that was my first experience with ‘real’ translation.

What attracts you to a certain project? And specifically, how did you come across the work of Pierre Peuchmaurd?

Oh, I’m hopeless. Love, death, and the carnal! I end up with terrible crushes on projects. And writers. They are often formally innovative and always very charming. I think I literally fell in love with Peuchmaurd when I first read him. I discovered his poem “It Will Come in My Left Lung,” shortly after his death, on the French poetry blog Poezibao. I just wept and wept, even though I didn’t know him. I then went on a rampage and devoured “A Treatise on Wolves” after which I bought all of his books. They were very hard to find. A lot are out of print. But his son, Antoine, has a bookstore in Montréal, Librairie Le port de tête, where he keeps a lot of his father’s works. Check them out on Facebook.

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Susanna Nied on Translating alphabet
by Inger Christensen (Part Two)

by: Iris Cushing

Part two of Iris Cushing’s interview of Inger Christensen’s translator. Read part one and an excerpt from alphabet.

Susanna Nied

Iris Cushing: What has it been like to live with alphabet for over 30 years?

Susanna Nied: Not a day goes by without something from alphabet coming into my mind: a poem, a phrase, an image, an arc; sometimes in Danish, sometimes in English, sometimes beyond language. Of course this is partly because Inger Christensen’s poetry is phenomenal— but also because alphabet‘s themes, its focus on the natural world, and even many of its specific images, were already there at my core from the time I was quite young. Judging by the response alphabet has received, I suspect that many people, disparities aside, connect with it in that way. Part of Inger’s gift is this uncanny ability to be simultaneously specific and universal. It marks all six of her poetry volumes, despite their significant differences.

In my own case, I’m the kind of person who has to stick her nose into every flower; stare and stare at every plant, bug, bird, animal; know the names, relationships, interconnections. So alphabet had me hooked with that first apricot tree. I share Inger’s fascination, though not her depth of expertise, with theories of language history and language development, and with the way that words carry traces wider ranging and older than we know. Though at some level, I think, we do know. And of course, Inger and I were both part of the first generation to grow up under the threat of nuclear war: she from the time she was ten years old, I from birth. The Cold War years were, as Inger once said, “very cold indeed.” There was not only a sense of impending nuclear holocaust, but also this inexorable proliferation of nuclear pollution and other lethal pollution. I grieved for the inevitable losses. I still grieve for them. Against the backdrop of all that, alphabet spoke directly to me from the moment I opened it, and it continues to speak to me.

One reader wrote, ‘thank you for giving the world back to me.’

IC: Can you say something about alphabet’s impact on you as a translator?

SN: Translating alphabet was an early peak experience, one of the great pleasures of my life. It certainly clinched what would become my lifelong addiction to translation.

It was a little strange to feel this strong personal satisfaction with the translation, and yet to have the manuscript rejected by publisher after publisher. Twenty years went by between translation and publication. I got pretty discouraged. I knew nothing in those days about the financial realities that U.S. publishers live with. Now that I do know, I’m grateful beyond words to New Directions for bringing out not only alphabet, but all five of Inger’s other volumes of poetry as well. Publishers do not make profits from poetry. They especially do not make profits from poetry in translation. I thank my stars for this gutsy, small, independent house, New Directions, and for the dedicated people at its helm.

The fact that alphabet worked out well in English, in terms of form, was partly luck. English and Danish are both Germanic languages, and the family relationships in their vocabularies made it possible for me to approximate alphabet‘s original patterns of alliteration, internal half-rhymes, and unusual on-again, off-again meters. Read full article

Susanna Nied on Translating alphabet
by Inger Christensen (Part One)

by: Iris Cushing

Iris Cushing asks Inger Christensen’s translator about process, affinity and language on the 50th anniversary of Christensen’s literary debut (her first book, Light, just published in English by New Directions last year, came out in 1962).

Inger Christensen

Susanna Nied

Inger Christensen & Susanna Nied.

In the spring of 2011, I happened upon Inger Christensen’s alphabet, a slim New Directions paperback, and came under the spell of its exquisite structure almost immediately. I couldn’t fathom why I hadn’t heard of the poem before. The fact that it and Christensen were (and are) almost entirely unknown in the United States stuck me as a loss, but also gave the book the quality of found treasure—a jewel hidden in the vast avalanche of contemporary poetry. The beauty, fragility and moral courage of the poem sparked my curiosity about poetry in translation in a way nothing else had before.

Christensen, considered among the major European experimental poets and writers of her generation, was born in 1935 and raised on the east coast of Denmark’s Jutland peninsula. She later moved to Copenhagen, and then to Århus, where she earned her teaching certificate before going on to teach at the College for Arts in Holbæk. She authored several books of poems, including IT, Butterfly Valley: A Requiem, and alphabet, as well as novels, essays, plays and children’s books. Often mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature, Christensen received numerous international awards, including the Swedish Academy Nordic Prize. Her work, which has been translated into over twenty languages, engages ecology, phenomenology and politics without ever letting a razor-taut line of language go slack.

alphabet begins at the intersection of two systems: the Fibonacci sequence and the Latin alphabet. Like these systems, the poem maps both language and the material world—but rather than organizing the world, alphabet reveals its vitality, discovering freedom just under the surface of constraint. It is entirely appropriate that the governing patterns of alphabet come in the form of numbers and letters. These are human symbols that carry meaning on the most minute level, which, in the case of Christiansen’s poetry, is also the most profound level.

Susanna Nied’s translation of this groundbreaking poem, which earned an American-Scandanavian PEN Translation Prize in 1982, opened a window for America to see into Christensen’s dense, dazzling world. I approached her with several questions about how she discovered and came to translate Christensen’s work. The close affinity shared by Nied and Christensen (who died in 2009) across continents and languages comes through in the work; it’s a joy to hear the story told by Nied. Here, she begins by sharing how she discovered Inger Christensen’s work, and what it’s been like to live with alphabet for the last 30 years.

I had the pleasure of corresponding at length with Susanna Nied throughout the summer about her work translating Christensen, and over the next few weeks Circumference will be sharing more of that correspondence.

–Iris Cushing

Susanna Nied: I basically lucked into alphabet. I had acquired a taste for Danish literature in the mid-1960s, as an exchange student in Denmark. I began translating around 1970, with a small collection by the 19th-century Danish poet J. P. Jacobsen. (Rilke liked him, so I wanted to see what he was about.) Then I discovered Inger Christensen’s two earliest books, Light and Grass. I was baffled and smitten, and I translated them—as a way of trying to understand what she was doing—while I was in graduate school here in San Diego in the 1970s. In some ways, those were stumbling translations; my Danish (far from perfect, even at its best) was rusty, and of course there was no Internet back then. Read full article

An American in Dante’s Inferno

by: E.C. Belli

Mary Jo Bang speaks with E.C. Belli about the process of carrying this epic journey over into our English.

As if to leave a voice echoing in the hallway of years, as if to say This is now, This is us, Mary Jo Bang presents a volume of Dante’s Inferno that has gnawed at and digested the elements of our present. The filth, the grime, the greed is ours. We recognize it: it bears the marks of our today.

We know what purists will say—and yet Mary Jo Bang has done the most American thing you can possibly do: she has shown up to the fancy dress party in jeans and a white t-shirt screaming, We are allowed here too! This is our space to fill also.

What we have to thank Bang for above all is her willingness to break the sacrosanctity of an epic that has been held, for all these years, at arm’s distance, sheepishly, faithfully, terrorizing for its blue blood.

With an introduction that leads the reader, step by step, through the circles of hell before she experiences, as Bang puts it, her “Mind and body caught midmotion in the unfathomable,” and a translator’s note pearled with insights on Bang’s meticulous process, this Inferno calls to the reading public with generosity, telling to creep out, for a minute, of the large print sorcery, the emotional pornography, and the dystopias, and bask in a sublime classic.

E.C. Belli: Different translators have different methods. How did you approach this text? How did you start? Basically, what were your steps?

Mary Jo Bang: I would begin translating each canto by reading William Warren Vernon’s two-volume Readings on the Inferno of Dante: Based upon the Commentary of Benvenuto da Imola and Other Authorities. That 1906 literal prose translation traces the commentary on the poem, line-by-line, all the way back to Benvenuto, a lecturer at the University of Bologna who was born shortly after Dante died and whose commentary on the Divine Comedy was one of the earliest. I would then read Charles S. Singleton’s prose translation done in 1970, and then John D. Sinclair’s from 1954, examining the small differences between the two. Then I’d often go back to the Vernon to see what choice he’d made at the same moment, and I would re-read the surrounding commentary.

I think what is gained in this new translation is this sense of contemporaneity. The cost of achieving that was that I had to sacrifice, here and there, a strict allegiance to the original.

At some point in the process, I’d begin my own translation and then eventually stop to compare my attempt to other translations, primarily (but not limited to) those done by: Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander, Mark Musa, Allen Mandelbaum, Michael Palma, and Ciaran Carson. If I still had any questions, I’d do a word-by-word dictionary translation for that tercet and the surrounding ones using the Sansoni Italian/English English/Italian dictionary. Sometimes I would do entire pages of word-by-word dictionary translation.

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