Donald Revell: Questions of Translation

In coming issues, OmniVerse will turn its eye toward translation, with works on and of the community of poetry across languages. We introduce these issues with this adaptation of a talk given by Donald Revell on “questions of translation.”

The “what” is, thanks to Rusty & to Ken, dearly in hand.

And thus the “how,” for good or ill, is wholly self-evident.

All that remains for me to discuss is the eccentric sublime and embarrassment of “why,” with, of course, the anecdotes and aspirations thereto appertaining.

…naturally I speak only for myself. Why anyone else might take up the task of translating another poet’s writing is, to me, a darkness.

I translate “in solitude, for company.” The phrase is Auden’s, speaking of prayer, and prayer works just fine for me. Like God, the poem I hope to translate is forever innocent of my various intentions. And like God (and unlike any foreseeable poem of my own), it is always and helplessly available to my endless imprecations. Poor God. Poor French poem. I would be lost without them.

Lost where? In my solitude, and without company. After more than 40 years of writing poems, I found that my solitude had become crowded and isolate. I was (and remain) surrounded by words, my words, and with no one to talk to. I am on an island like Prospero’s, exposed to the loneliness beautifully articulated and achingly embodied by Shakespeare’s mage. But thanks to Apollinaire, to Rimbaud, to Laforgue and Verlaine, (whom I have willfully shipwrecked as surely as Prospero shipwrecked Alonso and company) I have enjoyed access to a really different loneliness on that same island—i.e. to Miranda’s. Consider her situation as refrain in Auden’s The Sea and the Mirror:

My dear one is mine, as mirrors are lonely

Apollinaire, Rimbaud, Laforgue and Verlaine are my dear ones, yet translation (a carnival mirror raised to the level of an aesthetic ideal, and a moral of sorts) insists that I remember that Each is a One—monad, isolato, orphan, integer or what you will; my companioned solitude is solitude none the less, but not lonely. The mirror is prepared and waiting. The mirror is filled. Hear Miranda, upon hearing the company and cacophony of other human voices, exclaim:

O brave new world that has such people in’t.

And then the mirror is abandoned. Always attend to Prospero’s immediate heartbreaking undeniable aside, sotto voce:

’Tis new to thee.

I translate on the island of my own writing and life. There, somewhere between an Eros and a permanent address, I keep a mirror for dear ones, and one at a time, they sometimes appear. I am thrilled by the company of one I’ve loved for years and years at a distance suddenly distorted to be near, to be nearly Myself. My desert island is a difference then, and for a while. (I can honestly say that all my happy memories of writing are memories of translation.) My familiar language speaks to me in ditties of no tone or new tone. My passion is returned, fulfilling the promise of a new infancy (’Tis new to me) without a life to come. Without a life to come? Of course. Apollinaire and Laforgue, Rimbaud and Verlaine are gigantically remote, secure in the backward and abysm that knows not Me. Having translated them, what is there to say. Perhaps only a variation of Ashbery’s beautiful blessing in disguise: “I am still alone. But want you with me.”

As to this afternoon’s occasion. Verlaine, in Romances sans paroles, is both the Prospero and Miranda of himself. (Rimbaud, to be sure, is Ariel and Caliban. If this were an essay instead of afternoon, we could spend a lot of pleasurable time parsing and proving as much with suitable quotations. And as for the desert island? The island is a gunshot, Eden before and Eden afterwards; it was only a flesh wound after all.) Together, Verlaine and Rimbaud were and are A TEMPEST sure enough. At the end of Shakespeare’s final play, Prospero requires and achieves our liberating forgiveness:

As you from crimes would pardoned be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

In every disenchanted rapture of Romances sans paroles, Verlaine requires nothing less.

from Forgotten Showtunes


Don’t you see, and you must see it, we must
Be forgiven: from the sunshine of forgiveness
Comes our joy; out of the murk of the bad days,
Well, on bad days we bitch and moan.

Infant souls, voluptuary sisters
Gone far away into soft confusion,
Unknown to men, unknown to women,
We are a new oblivion.

Let’s be children, let’s be little girls,
Ignorant as air and astonished by everything,
Transparent as the air on apple boughs,
Ignorant even of forgiveness shining down.

To every apple tree, an Eden. To every translation, however imperfect, to every translator, however bemused in ignorance, Verlaine allows a new oblivion, and then a moment of applause. Thank you…