In Their Own Words
Joshua Corey on “Trying to Translate Ponge”
My Ponge translation project began as it were inadvertently, on social media, where very occasionally an ephemeral suggestion sticks around long enough to become compost and feed something green. I said on Facebook that someone ought to do a new translation of Francis Ponge's first book, given all the interest lately grouped under such filiations as "the new materialism," "object-oriented ontology," "thing theory," "actor-network theory," "hyperobjets." Why not you? came the reply, and it was a question I could only answer in the affirmative. With the nimble aid of my colleague Jean-Luc Garneau, a Professor of French at Lake Forest College, I was able to overcome the defects in my French (which I read passably, speak abominably, and understand when it's spoken hardly at all) and tackle Ponge's wry, dry, surprisingly sympathique prose poems, "taking the side of things" as ordinary as an oyster, a snail, raw meat, or a wooden crate. Sometimes the poems stretch or contract like telescopes, discovering microcosms of the sea and macrocosms of the pebble; sometimes they satirize people, all too object-like in their self-made Skinner boxes.
Ponge is a much-translated poet and the poems in his first book, Le parti pris des choses, published in the darkest moment of the German Occupation of France in 1942, have probably been translated more often than later, more overtly experimental works such as Le fabrique du pré (The Making of the Meadow) or Savon (Soap). But to me he offered an unexpected detour into phenomenological and ecological concerns that have been back of my own writing for almost two decades, but which I had never confronted with anything like Ponge's own pungency and wit. My task as I saw it was to bring Ponge into an American English, not to efface the work's historical particularity but to make its strangeness and strangely companionable qualities more palpable.
I knew that I could never do justice to Ponge's passionate love for the French language, which seems to have its mythic origin in his childhood obsession with the Littré dictionary in his father's library; indeed, many of the pieces in Partisan of Things read like a cross between a dictionary definition and a suavely compulsive researcher's field notes on the word-things that he has discovered, as it were, in the wild. Ponge's writing is filled with puns and plays on the smallest details of words and letters; to take the most well-known example, his poem on the oyster (l'huître) makes witty use of the circumflex (ˆ) covering the 'I' like the oyster's shell covers "the viscous green bag" of the organism itself. There can be no equivalent of this in English, and I didn't try to find one.
But when translated with conscious simplicity, Ponge speaks very well for himself about and along that tantalizing margin where the word seems to take on flesh. Ponge's oyster pearls "a little phrase" (shades of Proust's Vinteuil?), while human beings in their humanism express themselves in words the way snails express themselves with, and in, their shells. Toward the end of the long concluding poem, "Pebble," Ponge's speaker addresses himself to "a void in signification [that] leads me to reflect upon the defects of a style that depends too much upon words." That consciousness of "void" (une disparition de signes), evoked by objects as a kind of negative image of the Kantian ding-an-sich, is at the center of Ponge's philosophically witty stance at the intersection of signifier and signified.
Perhaps this excuses too much, but I think my pleasure in translating Ponge derives in part from my awareness that whatever manifests that void—the absent presence of what gets lost in translation—can be no defect of the work but a manner, rather, of keeping faith.
TWO POEMS BY FRANCIS PONGE
translated by Joshua Corey and Jean-Luc Garneau
Fire classifies. At first the flames direct themselves along a kind of line—
We can only compare the march of fire to that of animals: it must quit one place in order to occupy another. It maneuvers at times like an amoeba, then like a giraffe: pouncing ahead with the neck, creeping along behind with the feet.
Once the methodically contaminated masses have collapsed the escaping gases light a path for a solitary rabble of butterflies.
Beneath me, always beneath me, is water. My eyes lower when I look at it. Like the dirt, like a part of the dirt, like a mutation of the dirt.
It is white and shiny, formless and cool, passive and obstinate in its only vice, gravity, going to extraordinary lengths to satisfy it: contorting, piercing, eroding, filtering.
Also within water this addiction plays its part: collapsing ceaselessly, at each instant surrendering its form, humbling itself, lying flat on the ground, corpselike, like the monks of certain orders. Always lower: that seems to be its motto, the opposite of "Excelsior!"
One could almost call water mad because of its hysterical need to obey only gravity, which possesses and obsesses it.
Of course, everyone knows this need, which must everywhere and at all times be satisfied. This armoire, for instance, shows great stubbornness in its desire to adhere to the floor, and if it found itself unstable for even a moment it would rather fall over than contradict gravity. And yet to a certain degree it plays with gravity, even defies it: it doesn't simply collapse—its cornice and moldings remain intact. There persists in it a resistance in the name of personality, for form's sake.
Liquid by definition is that which prefers to obey gravity rather than maintaining any particular shape, and which refuses all shapes for the sake of obeying gravity. It sacrifices all firmness in the name of this obsessive, unhealthy scruple. It's this addiction that renders it fast, sudden, or stagnant, shapeless or ferocious, shapeless and ferocious; ferociously burrowing, for example; or sly, infiltrating, taking short cuts. We can do with it what we like, sending water through pipes to cause it to spring vertically, finally to enjoy how it falls like rain, a real slave.
However, the sun and the moon are jealous of this exclusive influence, and they try to pressure water whenever it leaves itself vulnerable in large expanses, offering the least resistance when it spreads out in shallow puddles. Then the sun extracts a greater tribute. It forces water into a perpetual cycle, like a squirrel in its wheel.
Water escapes me, running between my fingers. What's more, it's not even the clean escape of a lizard or a frog: it leaves traces and spots on my hands that take a long time to dry if I don't wipe them. It escapes me and marks me, without my being able to do a thing about it.
Ideology is the same. It escapes me as it escapes all definition, yet leaves behind in my mind and on these papers its traces, its shapeless smudges.
Restless water, sensitive to the slightest shift in inclination. Skipping down the stairs two steps at a time. Playful, obedient like a child, coming right back when called by a tilt to one side or the other.