In Their Own Words

Robert Fernandez and Blake Bronson-Bartlett on their translation of “Another Mallarmé”


Sad flesh. And I've read all the books.
Adieu. Go down below. I feel like birds are drunk
On hanging around the unicorn's froth and sky.
Nothing, not old gardens in the eyebanks,
Will box up, tidy, a heart sloshed at sea.
O nights! Nor the lamp's Sahara
On empty paper,
And not the sixteen-year-old nursing.
Fuck this. Steamship tipping your mast,
Lift anchor for nature's exotics!
I'll slough off Ennui by being cruel
And I'll believe again in the supreme farewell of handkerchiefs!
Maybe the masts, which want storms,
Storms where the wind bends its knee over shipwrecks
Lost, mastless, mastless, nor fertile isles…
Dear heart! Hear the song of these watchers of the sea



May nymphs bubble over.

                                             So clear,
Like blood fountains, their color misting
The drouse, bundles of slumber.

                                                      Did I love a dream?
My uncertainty, dread's tremble of prehistory, is confirmed
In many an intricacy of twig, which, the real wood itself
Demurring, proves, christ! that I, alone, proposed
For my victory, a crown of roses—

Let's reflect..

                        As if these women needed
Are desire's phantoms! Faun,
Phantom troops emerge from blue,
Dead eyed, grief drowned, from the brightest:
And the other? All sighs. Is she then
The opposite of warm sun on wool?
Not that! But, awe-struck, drained, immobile,
Fever breaking on her head, sauna, and struggle
No water murmurs, not streaming, from my flute
In the bush blushing with accords; and the only wind
Out the two pipes ready to spill before
And drip sound in fever droplets,
Its, the horizon not flexed a crease,
The calm breath visible, poiesis,
Of spirit's flame aligned with heaven.

O Sicilian shores, gentle swampland
Of my satanic rapes, envy of suns,
Unspoken under corollas of lightlice, SAY IT:
"How I cut here the thorn, rose mastered
By genius; when, on the scabbed gold of distant
Greens, giving vine to fountains,
Billows a tent of wet white silk:
And how in the beginning of song
This swans' clatter off, no! of naiads skimming
Or plunging.."
                         Inert, all burns in the savage hour
Without traces, by means of which art detailed
Too much to be cut—hymen—for the one reaching la:
So would I wake to the first urge,
Upright, alone, under a tinted light-ribbon,
Lilly! for ingenuity, one among you all.

Other than zero modulated by lips,
Kiss which, traitor, insures hell,
My heart, untouched, yet bears
The strange proof of some god's tooth.
Wait! to such constellations raised among
My inexhaustible, twinned reed, we played beneath azure:
We who, turning away from worlds,
See, across one long orison, that we amused
Rock and tree and grass and animal
With strange confusions of heaven and song;
And to love's apex plays,
Away from lust and returns,
Closed eye tracing pure thigh,
A ribboned vanity, droning line.

Do, then, ecstatic instrument, unholy
Syrinx, flower again in lakes where you call me!
Me, from my pride masks, I'll speak a while
Of Deesses; and in pagan images
Undo their belts to get at shadow:
So when, from grapes, I've sucked clarity,
Banished regrets scattered by my snappings,
Laughing, I'll raise in armfuls to the summer sky
Light, ballooning skins, like kites,
Gaze through it all as evening, star strands, shine.

O nymphs, let's inflate, once more, some assorted SOUVENIRS.
"My eye, peering through reeds, speared each god's
Neck, which then cools the sting in waters
And anger makes the canopies tremble.
And the splendid lily disappeared
In the clarities and gasps, o stones!
I run; when, at my feet, entangled (dying
In their serpent's stiffened languor),
In each other's quilled arms, the sleepers;
I take them, without unlocking them, and fly
To this wall, hated by mottle's stupidity,
Of wild rose sunstroked, wiling last musks;
Such the same at day's end our struggle."
I adore. O savageness of virgins,
Red balloon, burden, savored, nude,
Gliding from my lip which sips fire
And in torn sheets! flushes flesh's dread:
From inhuman tread to the skittish heart
Which opens onto innocence, wet
With exposure's mad, despairing heaves, at least.
"My crime lies in having, pleased to quell split-tongued
Fears, shredded the messed bouquet,
Of kisses the gods kept so tidy.
For I anguished to hide this thrum smile
Under the whispers of she alone (holding on,
With bare finger, so that her candor
Kept itself in ripples of a sister's shine,
The child, naïve and unblushing):
As from my arms, undone by uncertain trespass,
This prey, ingrate, is delivered pitiless
On my sobs, still breathless."

And there it is! On to new fortunes, trailing
Tresses knotted to my horns:
My passion, purple and already ripe—
Every pomegranate bursts and murmurs with bees;
And our blood, electric to whoever eats it,
Flows for the panoply of eternal swans, desire.
At the hour of tinted gold and ash
A feast perfects itself beneath magma flecks:
Aetna! it's you, visited by Venus,
Ingénue whose talons stick with lava,
When thunders are quieted or flame dies,
This queen's mine!

                                 O certain hubris..
                                                                 No, but the soul
Of empty speech and leaden body
Lately submit to noon's bright silence:
Spent, I must sleep on burning sand,
As I love, open mouthed, star's decantings!

Sisters, adieu; I go to see your shadows stretch.

Translators' Note: Another Mallarmé

We undertook this translation because we feel that interest in Mallarmé, among younger poets in particular, is dead. Our primary aim was to create translations that sound like his poems—that bring his music into harmony with the 21st century. That most bourgeois of poets in life, Mallarmé is—like Hölderlin, like Rimbaud—a poet of the caesura: of the withdrawal of the gods. He registers and transmits their absence and, with that absence, calls into the foreground the fact of human limits (historical, linguistic, material) and human potential.

Mallarmé is, therefore, also a poet of revolution, even though his poems are hermetic, bejeweled, and resistant. In a word, his poems are "French," in all the derogatory senses attributed to the proper name by, for the most part, Americans. We subscribe to none of the nationalist hypocrisies that would inhibit our admiration for Mallarmé or our translations of his largely untranslatable poems. American readers are entangled in their own historical drama, and we have attempted to confront to this formative dissonance as we prepared our translations.

Mallarmé is not only a poet of a different time and place—a different world and sensibility—his poetry is imbued with a profound historicity that is nevertheless specific to late nineteenth-century France as it prepared itself to make the leap into Modernity. These conditions are evinced in the fact that Mallarmé's poetry is, to interpretation, seemingly inexhaustible. That magic of form and diction, mastered by few, made him difficult and deeply frustrating in his time and place, as it does in our own. Where better than the United States, so reviled by revolutionary intellectuals in contemporary France, to resurrect him?

We do not respond to this question without the usual reservations. How to make these poems live again, in English, without betraying Mallarmé? How to make American readers want to read Mallarmé without betraying Mallarmé? How to make the poems live and stand on their own? How to give voice to his revolutionary poetics?

As translators, we feel that our work with Mallarmé both brings the poems into our history and retains the original gambit made by the poems. We may even go so far as to say that his poems emerged from a transitional moment in late 19th-century France that is structurally analogous to America's in the early 21st, and that we have brought that analog to light.

We feel, thus, that we've done the work of translation. But we've also taken liberties; we've tried to see and to know his poetry; we've invoked its genericity; and we've affirmed its ludicrous demands with great irreverence and faith—seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, meaning, and feeling. We have believed in the impossibility that a foreign, distant poetry could be brought over into new life, a new time, and a new language.

To highlight our specific contribution to the legacy of Mallarmé, we offer below a comparison of two well-known and respected translations of his verse—Henry Weinfield's (University of California Press, 1994) and E.H. and A.M. Blackmore's (Oxford, 2006). For our comparison, we have selected the first four lines of the second stanza of one of Mallarme's more difficult and ambitious poems, "Funeral Toast." Above the four lines, the last line of the previous stanza is given in brackets for reasons that will soon be evident. The lines in French read:

[Retourne vers les feux du pur soleil mortel!]

Magnifique, total et solitaire, tel
Tremble de s'éxhaler le faux orgueil des hommes.

Cette foule hagarde! elle annonce: Nous sommes
Le triste opacité de nos spectres futurs.

In the first of our four selected lines, the word "tel" is used as an indefinite pronoun, rhyming with "soleil mortel" ("mortal sun") and, if not referring to the "sun," then to some other masculine noun (nouns being gendered in French and "tel" being masculine and singular) in the poem. This usage is exceptional in French, because "tel" and its variants are more commonly used as an indefinite adjective. Le Petit Robert also gives this exceptional usage of "tel" a "literary" designation, and for this reason much of our work with the four lines in question hinges on the exceptional "tel's" animating effects. A relatively literal translation of the lines would therefore read as follows:

[Return to the fires of the pure mortal sun!]

Magnificent, total and solitary, such/such a one ["mortal sun"]
Trembles to exhale the false pride of men.
This haggard crowd! it announces: We are
The sad opacity of our future specters.

Henry Weinfield translates the four lines as follows:

[Return toward the fires of the pure mortal sun!]

Magnificent, complete within itself alone,
It stands as an admonition to the foolish pride of men.
This haggard crowd announces: We are nothing, then,
Save for the sad opaqueness of the future ghosts we bear.

Weinfield has made several interesting decisions in his translation. By transforming "total and solitary" into "complete within itself alone," Weinfield captures the sense of Mallarmé's pair of adjectives. But the phrase is strictly Weinfield's, not Mallarmé's, for at least two reasons. Mallarmé provides a triad of modifiers: "Magnificent, total and solitary." What the triad amounts to, in sum, is as abstract and as speculative as Weinfield's "complete within itself alone." But the difference between the translation and the original is significant. Weinfield gives his readers a sum, while Mallarmé gives his readers parts. Weinfield achieves this effect by maintaining the first adjective and then presenting the sum of the second and third adjectives with his formulation: "complete within itself alone." But the phrase is not in the poem; rather, the phrase is a free-translation based on Weinfield's reading of the poem.

Such liberties are not taken in vain, however, because Weinfield takes them in order to preserve the original rhyme scheme, which, as the translator states in his introduction, he feels is the most important property of Mallarmé's verse.[1] We can assume, then, that the new phrase, "complete within itself alone," was introduced to preserve the rhyme scheme of the original lines. As mentioned above, the last line before our sample four ends with "soleil mortel." The complete line in French is: "Retourne vers les feux du pur soleil mortel!" Weinfield translates this line as follows: "Return toward the fires of the pure mortal sun!" Because Mallarmé achieves a perfect rhyme between the two lines—"mortel" and "tel"—while Weinfield chooses a slant rhyme—"sun" and "alone"—rhyme may or may not truly be Weinfield's motivation for introducing his phrase, "complete within itself alone." So if Weinfield has taken his liberty for its own sake, we applaud him, as we imagine that he would only have done so to carry over into English what literal translation could not.

The second reason that the phrase is Weinfield's and not Mallarmé's is demonstrated in the next lines from our sample four. At the end of the first line, the pronoun "tel," which serves as the subject of the verb "Tremble" ("Trembles"), has been moved to the beginning of the second line, so that subject and predicate can be read continuously on one line. This rendering of the line makes way for the new phrase ("complete within itself alone") in the first line, thus allowing him to remain faithful to his beliefs about Mallarmé's rhyme scheme. And yet the phrase and the slant rhyme are not faithful to the poem. The emblem of this inconsistency appears in Weinfield's second line of our select four, where the animated image of the "mortal sun" "Trembl[ing] to exhale" has been replaced by a static monument that "stands as an admonition to," rather than releasing with breath (an essential reference, it would seem, in a poem), "false pride."

Weinfield therefore creates sums in Mallarmé's innately multiple verse. He takes liberties as a translator by forging grammatical continuities where they are complicated by poetic form and by positing speculative images where only traces are given. Weinfield also subtracts crucial elements from Mallarmé's verse, as when he deletes Mallarmé's odd, but characteristic, typography in the third of our sample four. It is as if he had no other goal in this case but to render uninterrupted a clause broken in the original by a "!."

We find some of the same tendencies in E.H. and A. M. Blackmore's translation.

Sublime, total and solitary, then
he fears to breathe out the false pride of men.
"We are", declare these haggard teeming hosts,
"the sad opaque forms of our future ghosts."

Blackmore offers a variation on Weinfield's fidelity to Mallarmé's rhyme while taking different types of liberties. Keeping "total and solitary" intact, he suggests "Sublime" in place of "Magnificent," as if to forego the easy and direct translation of "Magnifique." This choice constitutes another type of liberty: the introduction of a new word, with its own philosophical and aesthetic referents. Additionally, Blackmore does not preserve the exact rhyme of the original poem, because the second and third lines of our sample four rhyme in the original (as in Weinfield), not the first and second (as in Blackmore). However, Blackmore offers a perfect rhyme ("then"/"men," unlike Weinfield's "sun" / "alone"), and he preserves the rhythm of the line by substituting "tel" with the adverb "then." The reader may or may not feel this substitution to be incongruously prosaic.

Like Weinfield, Blackmore also introduces a subject before the verb "Tremble" at the beginning of the second line. Because "tel" (substituted by "then") is no longer the pronoun for "Tremble," Blackmore offers the somewhat misleading "he" as the grammatical subject of the line. We say "misleading" because, in this case, "tel" appears to be made to refer to the deceased poet, Théophile Gautier, the one being "toasted." Even if Blackmore's rendering of the line is valid enough, the "he" is not quite as exceptional the original.

And yet Blackmore preserves some of what we hold dear in the original, and what Weinfield withdraws from it, such as the image of the sun "breath[ing] out the false pride of men," as well as some peculiar typography. The peculiar typography in Blackmore's translation, however, is not Mallarmé's but Blackmore's. In place of Mallarmé's "!" and ":," the translator has rewritten the line with quotation marks. Here, again, the reader may find the extraordinary rendered prosaic. We might even say that these changes do not serve to carry over what is exceptional in Mallarmé's verse but to neutralize its most characteristic effects. The quotation marks offer the reader the familiarity of speech framed by prose. Consequently, Blackmore's punctuation makes our sample four lines more legible and less multiple than they are in the original.

By various means, Weinfield and Blackmore succeed most in their translations of Mallarmé's verse by subduing it and constraining its most unwieldy characteristics. No doubt, Mallarmé's poetry still poses significant challenges to the reader in both Weinfield's and Blackmore's texts. But in both cases the challenges are not always posed by Mallarmé's poetry. As the reader will see in our translations, we have attempted to carry over from Mallarmé's verse all that Weinfield and Blackmore did not. We have been taken up by the task of doing so—it has fueled our endeavor—as all that has been left out of previous translations has increasingly appeared to us to be all that we feel is most important about Mallarmé's work and perhaps even art in general.

Magnificent, plenary, this
Nothing sucks decorum from the breasts of men.
You pathetic fucks! Confirmed: We are
Frigid echoes, stony elegiac gaze of future specters.

What we have added to previous translations, we believe, is only what has previously been forgotten in the movement from one national language to another. We have sought to carry over, above all else, the shock of (historical, theoretical, aesthetic) rupture that the mastery of form, subjectively conceived, cannot suppress, because it is inscribed within its conditions—because poetry is conditioned. Our intention is not to displace our predecessors—we openly admit our dependence on the precedent they set. Rather, our goal is to make poetry that exceeds both poet and translator to become the very name of intervention.

[1] "What I can say, with absolute certainty, is that in translating the Poesies it has been essential to work in rhyme and meter, regardless of the semantic accommodations and technical problems this entailed" (xi).

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