From Chicago to Uzès, Working with Words in a New Landscape: A Conversation with Translator Susanna Lang – curated by Naoko Fujimoto

Susanna Lang divides her time between Chicago and Uzès, France. Her chapbook, Like This, is forthcoming from Unsolicited Books. Her e-chapbook, Among Other Stones: Conversations with Yves Bonnefoy, (Mudlark: An Electronic Journal of Poetry & Poetics) and her translation of Baalbek by Nohad Salameh (Atelier du Grand Tétras) were both published in 2021. Her third full-length collection of poems, Travel Notes from the River Styx, was published in 2017 by Terrapin Books. Her poems, translations and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in such publications as The Common, december, Delos, New Poetry in Translation, American Life in Poetry, Rhino Reviews, Calyx and The Slowdown. She translates French to English. Her translations of poetry by Yves Bonnefoy include Words in Stone (University of Massachusetts Press, 1976) and Baalbek by Nohad Salameh (forthcoming from L’Atelier du Grand Tétras in fall 2021). She just finished translating Mes forêts (My forests) by Hélène Dorion.

Naoko Fujimoto: Congratulations on your move to France! Living in a foreign country, and actually breathing in their air & culture is much more vibrant than translating from afar. I heard that your bed delivery was so complicated. How do you like living your new life?

Susanna Lang: I like my new life very much, though we haven’t exactly moved to France—we’re spending two months in the fall and two months in the spring, when the weather is lovely and the town is lively but not overwhelmed with tourists. It shakes up my ideas to be in different landscapes, and the pace of life is much slower, much of it spent outside—hiking, exploring, having an “apero” on the central square. I love how even the simplest structures in France have beautiful lines, and how the French live with their history rather than tearing it down. A farm will have outbuildings from different centuries, and they all have a kind of elegance though they were built to be functional. I also enjoy the few days we spend each time in Paris, which is as bustling  as New York except for how much time the French spend eating, again on the terraces of bistrots. And the French celebrate poetry and history with plaques and statues throughout Paris, and a large, crowded poetry festival in front of Saint-Sulpice each June. We’re timing our spring visits to end in Paris for the Marché de la Poésie.

The central square in Uzès, where Lang lives; a street in another old town, Sommières; the towers of Uzès seen from the top of a foothill outside the town; and her writing room.

NF: Could you also tell me why you decided to move to France? (I thought that you received an award or scholarship of some kind?)

SL: No, no award or scholarship. It’s been a dream of mine for a long time, and my husband (who doesn’t speak French) generously adopted it as his own. I translate French poetry as well as writing my own, and that’s much easier when I’m spending some of every year in France.

NF: You just finished translating a Canadian (Quebec) poet, Hélène Dorion. Would you like to share three interesting, yet difficult moments from that project? 



on appelle des catastrophes

pour les couvrir du tissu

de nos indifférences

nos regards étouffent

sous les poignées de cris

jetées dans les fosses

we invite catastrophes

and then cloak them

in the cloth of our indifference

our eyes muffled

by a handful of cries

tossed into the mass graves

These lines are from one of the poems I brought to a Third Coast Translators Collective workshop. French is much more comfortable with abstraction than English, and in this passage Hélène mixes abstractions like catastrophes and indifference with concrete metaphors in ways that were difficult to translate. I had particular trouble with “étouffent” which usually translates as “suffocate,” but these are eyes that can’t breathe. I thought about bandaging the eyes, which stopped some of my readers. They suggested muffled, snuffed out, covered, blocked, smothered, extinguished. One reader asked how anything could be bandaged by a sound. Another said the gorge was like a grave—so maybe buried. What helped me was the comment that I shouldn’t normalize the wording if it’s strange in French; a good reminder for me.


dans nos corps

il fait un temps d’arn

de ram         zip et chus

sdf et vip

il fait triple k

usa made in China

un temps de ko

pour nos émerveillements

il fait casse-gueule

un bruit de ferraille

déchire le paysage

comme un vêtement usé

in our bodies

it is a time of rna

of ram         of zip and cdc

peh and vip

it is triple k

usa made in China

a time of ko

for our amazement

it is touch and go

the sound of scrap metal

tears through the landscape

like a piece of used clothing

This was probably the most difficult poem to translate in the collection. Hélène’s book is a celebration of forests, but also a lament for what we have done to them, and how we have lost ourselves in losing our relationship with the natural world—but also with language. This passage uses abbreviations and acronyms to talk about the degradation of language, and refuses to capitalize them so they are not immediately recognizable even to a French reader. Some were easy to translate—RNA is the direct translation of ARN—but others were ambiguous. CHU is Centre Hospitalier Universitaire, and as close as I could come to what those are in France is Community Health Center or CHCs, but Hélène wanted something shorter and didn’t care if the meaning was exact, so I switched to CDC that everyone in America knows now. SDF is “sans domicile fixe” so we would normally say homeless or unhoused, but there is an acronym for “people experiencing homelessness,” though I don’t think many Americans are familiar with it. I wasn’t sure whether “triple k” was KKK; it was, but Hélène said no one in Canada says “triple k” either. Yet that was what she wanted in the translation and in the end, it’s her poem, so I argue but then let the poet make the final decision if she’s really invested in it. 


sont venus le premier regard

le premier pas

les maisons de la plaine et du lac

celle du bois

la fenêtre de l’amour

qui referme celle de la peur

then came the first eyes

the first step

the houses of lowland and lake

the house in the wood

the window of love

that closes the window of fear

Here is an example of a passage where I was sufficiently unhappy with Hélène’s request that I held the line. She didn’t want the repetition of “house” and “window,” and French has these very specific pronouns (in this case, “celle”), where gender and number allow the referent to be clear in ways we can’t be in English. I tried every syntactical variation I could think of, but in the end I told her we needed the repetition. Since she was using very repetitive language in any case, in order to create a pounding refrain, I thought the repetition would fit in, and she respected my judgment.