I am thrilled to present this editor’s feature, an interview with translators Cynthia Hogue (Poet and Professor and Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry at Arizona State University) and Sylvain Gallais (Professor of Economic and French at Arizona State University). Their translated work, Fortino Sámano (the overflowing of the poem), published with Omnidawn in 2012, received the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award from the Academy of American Poets. The book is a dynamic and layered set of translations as the series of 39 meditations are a set of deeply lyrical poems written by Virginie Lalucq, which are then followed by what one could call “philosophical translations” by Jean-Luc Nancy. Lalucq’s poems are focused on one single image of a Zapatista lieutenant in the moments before he was executed by firing squad. For me, what is most fascinating about this remarkable project is the layers of translation: image to poem, poem to philosophical meditation, French to English—each of these moments of translation is its own complex interpretative schema, which, in the end, becomes a full view of the impossibility of getting language to do what an image does. Of course, all of us poets will keep trying. After all, that failure of language to ultimately capture what it describes is what poetry is all about, that reaching.
I had the unique opportunity to talk with Gallais and Hogue for an interview with Air Schooner that focused on their work on Fortino Sámano. While the podcast, because of time constraints, could not feature the entire interview, I am happy to offer the entire exchange (with a few bonus questions) for this issue of Tupelo Quarterly.
SW: Cynthia, you’ve worked with poetry deeply connected to photographs before, especially in When the Water Came. Can you talk about the connections (or perhaps disconnections) between the kind of “translation” work you thought of yourself as doing in that book and what you and Gallais were doing in these translations? And can you share some of your thoughts on the relationship between poem and image?
CH: In When the Water Came, the photographer, Rebecca Ross, and I were careful not to pair photographs with textual images, so that no reader could take the photographs as illustrating the poems. We thought of the relationship of text and image as dialogic and intertextual. That is exactly the connection that Fortino Sámano sets up between the poet and the philosopher, the photograph having become the subject of contemplation rather than visual equivalence. We can say that the poem exists because of the photograph. It is a contemplation of what the photographic image captures and represents. But the originating photograph is not at all affected by the existence of the poem, for it exists separate from both the poem and the poetic commentary. In the same way, as Benjamin theorized, the translation exists because of the original work, but the original, Fortino Sámano, isn’t affected one way or another by the translation in English. It is disconnected from the translation. That is really a paradox of translation that was brought home to me when we did a bilingual reading in Paris with the two authors, and all the photographs—ironically, there were a lot of photographs of the reading because Jean-Luc Nancy came and he has been quite ill—edited me out. The translator’s necessary humility (you learn it if you don’t have it already!).
SW: These poems are focused primarily on one photograph, is that right? Can you tell us a little bit about the image?
CH: So, the poet saw the exhibition of photographs by Agustín Victor Casasola taken of the Mexican Revolution, and this particular one captured her attention, because it was a photograph of a man who had been alive at the time of the photograph but who was about to be executed. And that caused Virginie Lalucq to begin to contemplate what the image is able to do, what it is actually conveying. In fact, it seems to be conveying life at a moment that is really on the border of life and death, and yet an image is not alive – it just appears to be alive; it’s a representation. So she began to write about that. She doesn’t try to resurrect Fortino Sámano – there isn’t a lot known about him. They know he was a Zapatista, they know that he was a counterfeiter, and on those charges of being a political subversive, he was executed. But she isn’t really interested in that; she’s interested in the aesthetic question. So her poems circle around his image, but they also at times go into his voice, and they occupy, they reanimate his voice; and at other times they’re in her voice, thinking not only of Fortino Sámano in that image, but other images that populate the poem. Sometimes they’re fabulous, sometimes they’re highly abstracted, so the series really is a rumination on how the image functions. There’s actually some parts of the series that are highly experimental, other parts that are almost like fairy tales, and then there are parts that are very precise meditations on the act of measuring, on measurements, which Sylvain recognized as having mathematical significance, that, of course, were just going right by me. Does mathematics contain images? Is the language in which imagery, an image is represented – must it be cohesive, even though the image itself seems to be a whole, but, in fact, is partial?
SW: Sylvain, can you talk about those moments where you recognized those mathematical connections? As an economist, it must have been really fascinating to find a poet working this way. Why do you suppose Lalucq engaged with such precise notions of measurements?
SG: It was very subtle, and after I had read the work many times during the process of translation. I realized that Virginie was thinking about, to give one example, how words work, that they are (on the page) material, but how they, words, don’t work as labels because you need to be able to measure labels (they are 3’ high, or whatever, she says at one point). Words—now, I guess, poetic words, though—are “immeasurable.” “As much as possible words are not alike,” whereas labels must be identical. And this is where the mathematical concept comes in: a value (poetic words) is immeasurable because it is imprecise, either in excess or not enough. Nancy explains, “The poem gives words a common measure, which reading recalculates each time.”
SW: Speaking of Sylvain being an economist, I wanted to ask him what his initial reaction was to the idea of actually translating the poems?
SG: Well, it was rough at first, but you know it was wonderful for me in the end, because I never did that before, alone of course, economics or pages of political science, but nothing else, and it was kind of a constant shuttle, a constant exchange between Cynthia and myself. I had to dig deeper and deeper into the French language and the French meaning of words – and not only words, because you may know that syntax is very important, you know, French is not like English, so the syntax, place, location, of the words is very important. So at first sight, at first glance, the absence of clear meaning is experimental, so you have to try to be in the mind of the poet, Virginie. Of course I learned a lot, also about English.
CH: And, you know, my French is not quite good enough to conduct a conversation in French on experimental poetics, so Sylvain would be the one having the conversation with Virginie when we would consult her in Paris. And it was incredible – it really was very, very exciting.
SW: I read the introduction, so I know just the little tidbits you give about her and waiting for her in the cafe. Is there more you can tell us about Lalucq? What’s she like, and what was it like to be in contact?
CH: Oh, she’s incredibly intellectual, and also a very warm and grounded person. She’s voluble, like an overflowing poem herself. Her work is experimental, but it’s also image-driven, much as Fortino Sámano is driven by the contemplation of an image. Moreover, she’s so attentive to the language, she has absolutely dazzling plays with words and the texture and tone of the poems. I think that’s what attracted Jean-Luc Nancy, who noticed her first book and sent her a note about it. He asked her to join him for an international symposium on contemporary poetics at which he had been invited to speak at l’Université Catholique de Louvain-la-Neuve, and out of that occasion was born this collaborative book, which we have now translated.
SW: One of the really unique things about the book is that not only is it a beautiful translation of poems, but then you have this – I hesitate to call them “philosophical commentaries,” but that’s sort of like what they are. They’re poems themselves, the commentaries themselves.
CH: You know, he’s also practicing deconstruction. He was himself trained by – I believe Derrida was on his dissertation committee – so he’s a philosopher of aesthetics, but he’s really also a poststructuralist, and he’s writing in a very traditional genre, the explication of the text, the explication du texte, but of course he’s playing with that genre. He’s also engaging her language so deeply at the level – not only of idea, but at the level of language and the diction and even the phonic aspects of the poem – that he taught me, and probably us, a lot about what she was doing poetically.
SG: I would like to say something about that. I would like to use an analogy. Think of Virginie Lalucq as the composer and Jean-Luc Nancy as the interpretative soloist. Reading Virginie Lalucq without Jean-Luc Nancy is a different experience. And he was the right one – he chose himself, of course – he decided to do it. But nobody else could do that, nobody else could write so wonderfully. They are beautiful, like poems, as you say. It is his field, it is his specialty so I think again that reading Virginie Lalucq without the commentaries – is very different than – with commentaries. You see what I mean?
SW: Yeah, absolutely. I wonder, too, if – as a poet myself, I couldn’t help reading these and think, “If somebody was gonna do this to my poems, what would it say?” And then I started thinking, did you guys have a bunch of jokes at home about what Sylvain would do with one of your poems as an economist, just how he would translate it? [laughter] Like a Cynthia Hogue poem translated into what it would mean if it was just purely economical? [laughter]
CH: No, but what a great idea! [laughter] It was so not his field that sometimes he would – of course, he’s completely, classically trained in French, the tradition of French poetry – come to me and he would say, “This makes no sense. Good luck.” And he would just hand me the literal translation.
SG: The first time you read it, thanks to Nancy, you can understand it.
CH: But one thing I would add, and I realized it as we’ve been talking about Lalucq, is that she’s really responding to the photograph of a Mexican Zapatista who’s being executed. And the Zapatistas were revolutionaries. And she’s writing at the time that the U.S. government is invading Iraq, and there’s a reference in the poem to being in a place where it’s spring, and everybody is flaunting the new Parisian fashions, and the bombs are far away. And imaginatively, she’s in the two places: she’s thinking of the bombs falling, and she’s safe in Paris. And I think there is that aspect. She’s not really commenting, but she talks about the images of dictators with their subheadings, right? What does that add up to? Our age’s “Ozymandias.”
SW: It seems to be that this book has a lot to teach us about our current political moment right now. How do you imagine the connection between this book and this moment in time?
CH: Virginie Lalucq is a librarian at Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques in Paris, and while she is not what we’d call a politically engaged poet, she has been part of a feminist network of experimental young poets who are astute world citizens. She told us a summer ago that she had become very involved in responding poetically to a politically-motivated murder of a student at her university, an activist protesting the resurgence of the extreme rightwing in France, who was shot and killed by a rightwing activist. Everyone was shocked. Such violence is unusual in France because of the gun laws.
The kernel of Fortino Sámano, on the other hand, was planted when she visited an exhibition of documentary photographs of the Mexican Revolution, which took place about 100 years ago. The broad liberation movements of the past become the documentary exhibitions of tomorrow.
SG: More to the point of your question, though, is that she had the perspective of the French about the Iraq War—recall that France was one of three countries that refused to sign on to the U.S.-led coalition. I am also a French citizen. She was writing during the build up to and the actual invasion by the U.S. coalition of Iraq, just as I was translating this work over many of the years of that war, during which time I also, incidentally, became a U.S. citizen. The writing and its “overflow” into our translation was war.
CH: Right! Reading this poem, you intuit the contextual connection, that for Virginie, there was a cognitive dissonance—spring fashions in Paris, and elsewhere, bombs falling in Iraq. It is so subtle that we didn’t notice the import of the juxtaposition for some time. Of course, poetry transcends its historical moment, looks close, gets a wound, steps back again to get distance, transforms the material, edges back up to source, reconnects to make the something that is the poem of attentive engagement, we might say. What the poem says about our moment is that it is already a representation, which we recalculate with each reading.
SW: While we’re bombarded with images that are much like this one, if not exactly like – very similar in context – it would be interesting to think of the book as really speaking to the actual moment we’re in right now.
CH: She ends her series with this little meditation on the difference between the function of labels and words, as Sylvain was talking about earlier, and how labels have to be all alike, but words differ among themselves. And just like Sylvain was saying, the nuances – you can’t convey a nuance, and you’re not supposed to convey a nuance with a label, right? Labels are outsized. And it’s like everything gets labeled today. These images, they have labels, and then everything has to be alike.
SW: As you’re talking, I can’t help but think about the ways the project seems to be about the impossibility of translation, or the failure of language. Was that your experience? And it might be interesting to hear from both Cynthia and Sylvain on this subject.
SG: I thought all along, What has she gotten me into! I’m an economist. Translating poetry was never on my imaginative horizon, but since working on Fortino Sámano, I got interested enough in the field to translate a Mexican American poet, our colleague Alberto Ríos, who grew up in Nogales on the U.S. side, into French. I translated his long short story, “The Curtain of Trees,” which was very hard. The culture of the Arizona-Mexican border is very foreign to the French, but the language was so clear and simple, almost like a folktale—I thought that would make it easy to translate, but it was very hard to convey that pellucid quality of prose. It was flat in French.
CH: Translating this poem was a challenge, almost like a puzzle you have to work on until the pieces are in place. However, you can translate a work and get the meaning across, but lose everything that makes a poem a poem. You can put the puzzle together, but it’s not the work of art. We have been quoting Frost in my translation seminar, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.” That was driven home to me during the bilingual reading, hearing the authors reading the original, and then reading the English following them. It might seem obvious to say this, but the two versions were not at all alike! What we tried to capture in English was a sense of and feeling for the original, and then we tried to make a really good work in English. Like a mirror image, something might be different but you can recognize it as itself, hopefully.
SW: So, some of our readers might not know that you two are married — a translation duo who are also married, and I just wondered if there were any sort of funny kind of moments that happened between the two of you in response to trying to translating these poems together?
SG: Sometimes I would say the words with the meanings, and sometimes well, I’m pretty sure once or twice I would say – I just, I couldn’t help laughing a little, because it was just not the right meaning or the correct meaning.
CH: Well, I would say that there’s been funny things that I haven’t expected, like learning a fashion tip from translating this experimental poem. Because I’m tall, and therefore if I fall down, I fall much farther than many other women, I tend to wear flat shoes. I had never heard of mules, and I thought it was a mistranslation. And so I was looking around for shoes or sandals, and you can imagine that did not work in the poem, and I’m checking the word with Sylvain, and I’m saying, “This is a howler – you’ve got a mule in this!” Well, who knew that mules were open-heeled, high-heeled sandals! Who knew that? We were having coffee with a Canadian Fulbright scholar that year, who happened to be a very cosmopolitan woman. And she just looked at me, and Sylvain just looked at me, because they both knew fashion much better than I. So I didn’t expect that.
SG: And now she’s wearing heels every day...
CH: No, I’m not wearing heels; I still don’t wear heels. I have the big feet of Cinderella’s older stepsisters, so wearing mules is dangerous for me. But I notice what they are now, and I will say, “Oh look, that petite woman is wearing mules!” [laughter] Yes, we have fun. But when he visited me in Santa Fe when I was on the Witter Bynner Translation Fellowship, we only had a weekend, and I made him work all weekend.
SG: What I’d like to say, though, about the entire translation is, when I read the French version, it’s just like music. Whereas, for Cynthia, when she’s reading behind me, for her – it is about lyrics. Many people, when they are reading together, they say, “Oh, I like the sound, the intonation, the music” – once somebody said – “the music of your language.” But they could understand nothing. The words come later.
Cynthia Hogue has published eight collections of poetry, including Revenance (2014), and, with Sylvain Gallais, the translation of Fortino Sámano (The overflowing of the poem), by Virginie Lalucq and Jean-Luc Nancy (Omnidawn 2012). She is a 2015 NEA Fellow in Translation.
Sylvain Gallais is an economist whose most recent book is France Encounters Globalization. Hogue and Gallais received the 2010 Witter Bynner Translation Residency Fellowship from the Santa Fe Art Institute, and the 2013 Harold Morton Landon Translation Award from the Academy of American Poets. Hogue and Gallais teach at Arizona State University.