Difficult Fruits and Paraphrase: Guy Bennett talks to Andrew Maxwell about Translation and Constraint

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Guy Bennett and I live in the same town, though in Los Angeles that's like saying we live in the same century, meetings are so improbable here. So it was rather appropriate that the two of us would have our first real conversation while both in Paris last summer, hunting down Hans Bellmer's grave in Père-Lachaise, half a world away from it. A good afternoon, great conversation, enough to guarantee a future interview, of which this must be only a small beginning. It was a kick to see how many things we had a mutual fascination for: obsessive book design, ambient tape experiments, the films of Paradjanov (seven of whose screenplays Guy translated for Green Integer in 1998). But what was a real revelation to me was just how much this guy had done in a short decade, as a poet, a designer, an editor and, most impressively, as a translator — not only from the French, but from the Russian and the Italian — from Khlebnikov to Deluy, Giraudon to Giovanna Sandri — Guy Bennett is as curious as he is relentless. But you couldn't know it from his demeanor, which is pretty California casual, despite an irrepressible excitement for the countless everything. It's good to track that everything down. Here's a bit of our conversation, and an excerpt from a recent article Guy wrote on translation for the magazine L'Oeil de boeuf, to appear in its December issue. We thank the editors for their permission to reproduce it here…

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AM: When Double Change began, it struck me that there wouldn't be anyone more in sympathy with this sort of project than you, Guy. Not simply because of your longstanding engagement with French poetry, but also because so many of your projects are collaborative in nature, whether you are operating as a poet, translator or designer. This year has been a particularly busy one for you, I've noticed. What all have you been up to?

GB: A lot, it seems, when I think back on it. I've been writing, and have had work published in France (in La Polygraphe and L'Anthologie 2000 [Paris: Fourbis, 2000]) and Brazil (in Sibila), and a new work, 100 Famous Views, has just come out as a special issue of John Lowther's 108 magazine. A lot has been happening with translations as well: there were the pieces you and Macgregor presented in the "French issue" of The Germ this past June, the translation of Michel Leiris' Operratics, which came out in July, and Mostafa Nissabouri's Approach to the Desert Space, which was published in September. Sometime during all that, I finished the translation of a book for the Getty Conservation Institute (on rock art, of all things), gave readings in San Franciso, Paris, and Los Angeles, and zipped down to Marseilles to do some research at the CIPM. And then there was the paying work (!), which, in addition to teaching, included a lot of typesetting and design jobs, mostly for Green Integer, but also for O Books, Tracy Grinnell's Aufgabe, and my own Seeing Eye Books. A lot of stuff!

AM: Damn, that's busy, but it seems pretty characteristic of you. You really disappear into the material, and seem to rather thrive in that maelstrom. I understand this somewhat, because I've always assumed art practice to be arts activism first, with the emphasis on activism, activity. Now you're clearly one of the most active agents in this strange unnameable community of translators and poets, but so much of what you do is in the service of other writers and projects. It reminds me of Cid Corman a bit, this man who helps bring René Char and Francis Ponge into an American purview, who quietly assembles a portion of literary history through gathering, gleaning. Meanwhile you, like Corman, have your own poetic practice riding shotgun to the rest of it.

GB: First of all I should say that, at least for myself, translation is not done solely in the service of others; it is also a selfish activity that I pursue for my own benefit. Since, with respect to poetry, I only translate what I like, translation is a way for me to get closer to work that I find appealing. It affords me an opportunity to spend more time with that work, to get inside it and try to understand what in it excites me. If I can figure that out, if I can actualize whatever that is in a translation, not only will I have captured some of the energy of the original piece, but I will also have shed some light on my own aesthetic preoccupations, and that revelation may well come to shape and inform my own writing in the future.

AM: You're right, of course, "service" is inexact. What I'd like to say is that your work is very social, but in a way qualitatively different from someone like, say, Frank O'Hara, an example of a social poet whose poems are unthinkable apart from their material context. His poems are literally built out of other artists and their productions, poems, paintings and so on, collage constructions assembled from a certain social necessity. But even though this is the guy that says expression is just someone standing in front of things, you never quite lose sight of the fact that O'Hara is conducting the interview. In your poetry, you make a similar use of found materials, but your presence as a personality is subtler. It's the materials which are explicit, which stand out. I'm thinking of The Row and 100 Famous Views, both of which derive in very exacting fashion from two very exact sources, both serialist in nature: the music of Webern and Hiroshige's Views of Edo. In each case, there's a preoccupation with method, how meaning is contained and given from a limited source material, a material however faithfully preserved. Your poems seem to describe in a way different from how painting describes — perhaps the analogy is more to photography. You are "reproducing" a subject, but the subject is partially method itself.

GB: That's definitely true, particularly of the pieces you mention. Both The Row and 100 Famous Views are more "about" the method that generated them than they are about describing or narrativizing the work of Webern or Hiroshige. They were both basically attempts to apply to poetry the generative strategies that shape and drive their sources, not unlike the "renga" written by Octavio Paz, Jacques Roubaud, Edoardo Sanguineti and Charles Tomlinson, which technically is not a renga at all, but a series of sonnets. In his preface to the work (Renga, Gallimard, 1971), Paz explained that their goal was not to appropriate a genre, with its unique formal and stylistic features, but to implement a system that would generate poems, thus making the creative process itself the implicit subject of the work. To pick up the photographic analogy you introduced above, we could mention Ralph Gibson, who claims that the act of photographic perception is the true subject of his photography.

AM: Well I know you've taken up photography lately. And I'm interested in how photography in some ways finds an analogue in the reproductive strategies of translation. There's a sense of "viewpoint" that I'm suggesting that I think is really French (cf Resnais, Robbe-Grillet). Is that fair of me to say? Naturally there are real constraints imposed by the technology of the camera, and you adopt similar constraints in both your own writing and translations. I mean, these constraints are there already, given the limitations of any language, but you aggravate them with experiments in formal design and selectional restraint: anagrams, serial variations, syllable counts, stanzaic inversion. You have a certain love of difficulty, Guy…

GB: I wouldn't call it difficulty, nor would I say that the sort of constraints I enjoy working with appeal to me for their relative degree of complexity — they don't. At least, that's not why I choose them; they simply appear to be the most appropriate formal vehicles for the project at hand. (I should add that I lack the rigor of hardcore writers under constraint — I'm just not capable of that kind of sustained intensity. My use of constraint is conceptually based and thus it tends to be more flexible — even whimsical — than it is rigorous.)

As for similarities between photography and translation, the one that immediately comes to mind is their shared lie; you know: photography is supposedly objective — the camera only records what's there — and translation is supposed to be faithful — you only translate what's there ("just the words," as a former teacher of mine once put it). Obviously, these are falsehoods. These practices — like all creative activity — can only be subjective. Both depend, as you suggest, on our perception of what it is we are seeking to "reproduce," to use that term (maybe "recreate" would be better). In both cases, the variables are so numerous that it comes as no surprise that we can have many different photographic treatments of a given subject — even by the same photographer — or many different translations of a given text. This is not so much due to any limitation in the respective technologies of photography or translation, but rather to the limitations (due either to ignorance or consciously made choices) that define our perceptions as seers on the one hand and readers/writers on the other.

AM: Though perhaps these "limitations" also become instrumental. One need only look to Stein or more contemporary writers like Hannah Weiner or Leslie Scalapino to see what's been made from perceptual difficulty. And forgive me for retaining this word. I always view difficulty as a positive condition, necessary for a plural and skeptical poetry. I think it's the basis for a lot of the more interesting strategies that modernism gave us...this certain dialectic between economy and fantasy. Obviously the Oulipo group has made brilliant use of this. On that note, can you talk for a bit about your collaborations with Michelle Grangaud?

GB: There've been no concrete collaborations to speak of, but rather a series of contacts revolving around translation. I first became aware of Michelle Grangaud's work in 1993 or '94 when I got a copy of her Geste, which had been published a year or two earlier. As frequently happens when I get interested in someone, I immediately went out and got copies of her other books, and then began translating them. I soon got in contact with her and we started corresponding. At one point, I began submitting translations of her work to magazines. Jeff Clark published one of them — a beautiful prose piece on writing and letter forms called "On Japanese and Other Angels" — in the second issue of Faucheuse, which also contained some of my own work: poems from a collection called "Self-Projections" (itself a work based on somebody else's work: self-portraits by a contemporary Dutch photographer named Marlo Broekmans). When Michelle got a copy of the issue, she took the constraint I had used in those pieces (which consists of "extracting" a secondary poem from a source poem by selecting from the words that fall at the end of each line, the same process that I used to write my first book, Last Words [Sun & Moon Press, 1998], and which was inspired by Joan Retallack's Afterimages), and wrote a new work using it. That text — which could be read "straight," but which also contained a secondary text consisting of the last words of each line — was published in the literary supplement to Le Monde later that year. When I saw it, I used it as source material, extracting a new poem from it by working with the first words of each line, the resulting piece sounding vaguely Un coup de dés-ish. And that's as far as that particular exercise went. At one point, we spoke of collaborating on a series of anagrammatic poems taking as their source material the opening lines of Mallarmé's sonnets, but sadly that project came to nought.

To come back to translation, Michelle translated poems from both "Self-Projections" and The Row, and her translations are truly remarkable. Not only do they read beautifully, they also retain the constraints that shape the originals. While "Self-Projections" would be difficult enough to translate, since each translated poem has to work individually but also must contain, in the words at the end of each line, the secondary poem which also has to be able to stand on its own, The Row would be virtually impossible, it seems to me. It features a number of formal constraints, the most severe of which is the fact that half of the twenty-four poems that make up the collection are "lexical anagrams" of the other half (i.e. the poems are presented in pairs, and the second poem of each pair was written by scrambling and recombining the words of the poem that preceded it). So not only does the first translated poem have to work on its own, it also needs to serve as the lexicon of the second poem, which is essentially a kaleidoscopic recombination of that lexicon and which has to work on its own as well — a diabolical task!

AM: I would imagine Grangaud's innovations would have to be even more inventive given that French grammar doesn't often allow for the sort of disjunction and anaphoric displacement that English enables.

GB: There you've hit on one of the most interesting differences between French and English usage — the respective flexibility of each language vis-à-vis its syntax. English, for example, permits a certain "blurriness" with respect to syntactic categories: nouns can be used as verbs, conjunctions and prepositions can be eliminated without doing too much damage to the cloth of meaning. French on the other hand doesn't allow such tinkering. Syntactically it is more supple, however. Sentences can be articulated in a seemingly endless assemblage of relative and subordinate clauses — like an extravagant Calder mobile — that just isn't manageable in English.

AM: And it makes for some markedly wooden translations when translators reproduce those clauses too literally into English. You have to break a lot of rules and be flexible. I've just begun to translate from the French, and perhaps it's that exhilaration with rule-breaking that makes English seem more plastic and hybrid to me. Though I'm trying to hear how certain artists break rules within their respective languages. Hip-hop is great of course, the endless puns and phrase flexing. Though compare even a mediocre American MC like Jay-Z to French rappers like Akhenaton or Assassin and you see where that flexibility ends. Or just as interesting, comparing a poet like Bruce Andrews to Valère Novarina, the way possible deformations resonate differently within each linguistic context (though I should say as a rookie I have no idea how Novarina actually is heard to a native French speaker)...

GB: Through the ears, as he himself recommends.

AM: Ha, okay. I think you speak to this context somewhat in a recent essay in L'Oeil de boeuf, "Translation of Poetry/Poetry of Translation," especially as you use the word "paraphrasis," which literally means "speaking around" and "pointing beyond." That seems perfect for what you and Grangaud did, in the context of this sort of round robin through various journals. But paraphrasis also has the fundamental sense of "clarification." Do you think that can be a possible end of translation: clarity? And clarify what... is there light at the end of the tube?

GB: As an aside, first let me say that, I think Clark Coolidge is closer to Novarina than Bruce Andrews is. Bruce's poetry derives so much of its energy from disjunction and juxtaposition, whereas Novarina is much more fluid, more — well — lyrical, and in a very graceful, unselfconscious way. To give a fruity analogy, it's like the difference between a prickly pear and a D'Anjou pear....

AM: Well, they both have their fruity moments. But, no, you're right, apples and pears, perhaps incomparable. There's much more song and theater in Novarina. Heidsieck might be a better example for Andrews, I'm not sure. Someone who really challenges syntactical and orthographic conventions. But I'm sorry, go ahead...

GB: So to come back to the issue of clarity, yes, I agree that translation is perhaps inevitably an act of clarification, whether we intend it to be so or not. I likewise agree that the truly interesting question here is the "what" of translation. We need to ask: what exactly is being clarified when translation occurs? I would argue that, with respect to poetry at least, what is being clarified is that which the translator has determined to be most significant in the original poem, and that again comes back to perception, willful or otherwise. As I wrote in "Translation of Poetry/Poetry of Translation," that seems to be the most appropriate definition of a "successful translation" (i.e. "the translator has successfully conveyed what he has determined to be most important in the original poem"). I don't know if I would say that clarity is the end of translation, however. The means maybe, but not necessarily the end. The end, for me at least, is recreation, transpoeisis, if that is not too unfelicitous a coinage. In this sense, all of my work is translation, even when it isn't, strictly speaking. I mean, my tendency to write through someone else's work, be it Webern, Hiroshige, Marlo Broekmans or whomever, is basically an attempt to translate the aesthetic energy of a given work from one medium (music, printing, photography, etc.) into another (language). From this perspective, it's hard to say whether my writing is driven by the desire to translate, or whether my translations are driven by the desire to write, but in a way, it doesn't really matter; however one looks at it, the result is the same: stuff gets written. To quote Paz again — and I agree with this completely — to translate poetry is to write it.

AM: While you also imply here in transpoesis a sort of "deep reading," a perceptual endeavor of infinite latitude. However it sounds, I like the almost animist conceit within it, that something is "crossing over." In "Translation of Poetry/Poetry of Translation," you begin to think about translation using this concept of transference or displacement: when moving a bowl of water from one table to another, try to keep as much water in the bowl as possible. But while water is lost, what's more compelling seems to be what leaks in...the strange excess, the strange new water. Do you feel this element of "visitation," something slightly mediumistic going on?

GB: Maybe...

AM: Well maybe I'm trucking in a few too many pagan conceits. But the subject can just as well be approached from a materialist standpoint. Elsewhere, for instance, Hal Foster uses these ideas of displacement and excess to speak about Hans Bellmer's monstrosities, his doll objects. I know you've been recently working on a volume of Bellmer's writings, no?

GB: I've translated his two Doll books (The Doll and The Doll at Play). They'll be published as a single volume by Green Integer around the beginning of the year.

AM: Am I right to say that you have an interest in this element of material transference, and what becomes of the strange remainder?

GB: I'm definitely interested in the notion of material transference, and — though I'd not thought about it in those terms — perhaps this is what draws me to Bellmer's work, especially the Doll. The manipulations that he subjects it to are a type of material transference based on anatomical displacement, since the Doll is disarticulated and reconfigured to create a series of unexpected biomorphic variations. This technique has its exact parallel in language — specifically, in the anagram — as Bellmer himself noted, and this I find fascinating as it relates Bellmer's experiments with the Doll to the practice of writing. This connection between the two is even more interesting when one considers that Bellmer created the anagrammatic poem and, in his essay "Notes on the Ball Joint," he equates the Doll to experimental poetry. How's that for material transference? — gliding from one machine of meaning (the modular body of the Doll) to another (the modular body of language) via the anagram.

AM: I wonder if this is what also draws you to design and typography? This point where a basic material yields to meaning, or just as often veers away from it (as in much visual and lettrist poetry). Where line and letter collaborate, or betray each other, or (like Bellmer) create perfect monsters…

GB: I'm not sure what draws me to type and design, but the ways in which both contribute to the potential for meaning are definitely exciting to me. In this respect, I've been lucky to typeset books for a number of small presses and magazines specializing in poetry (notably, Sun & Moon Press, O Books, Green Integer, Seeing Eye Books, Rhizome, Aufgabe), since it's really in poetry where the influence of textual design on meaning is most potent. I think this stems from the fact that while prose form inevitably adopts the written conventions of a given language (in English, for example, running left to right, top to bottom, 'til it fills the page, from the very beginning to the very end, where it stops), in poetry, no such convention exists. Sure, the left to right, top to bottom "path" is still there, but how the poet negotiates the journey is entirely open to discussion. First of all, a poem might be written in verse, prose, or a combination of both; lines may be short, long, metered, rhyming, intact or broken; they might run horizontally and/or vertically, or be scattered all over the page; the poem may be in a fixed form, or not, etc., and all these perimeters have to be determined with each new poem. (For this reason it seems to me that, on a fundamental level, all poetry is really about form, and to write poetry is to work in form, whether consciously or unconsciously, and this from the very first line since the moment the first line is broken, form begins.)

To come back to the role of type and textual and/or page design in relation to the above, it's clear that things like typeface, character size and leading, their relative proportions with respect to the text on the page, the position of the text on that page, its relationship to the margins, their relative width/depth, the dimensions of the page, the shape, feel and color of the paper, etc., all of that enhances or detracts from our experience of the poem, and so the poet/designer/typographer could play with those additional variables in writing/designing/laying out their work. It's no surprise that the work of such poets/designers/typographers (like Kurt Schwitters and Hansjörg Mayer, though the same is true of Giovanna Sandri, who is not a typographer, however) tend to be visually driven, as you suggest. In the case of a typographer setting work written by another poet, such as I do, for example, what he's basically doing is interpreting (might we say translating?) the poem graphically by selecting those typographic/design features that best present or convey the text in question, whatever "best" might mean in this context.

AM: So here again, even as a typographer, you're somewhat the translator, assessing the contour and the limits of the poem, after some distillate…

GB: I think all book designers and typographers are "translators" of a sort, in that they leave their mark on the work as they shepherd it from one medium — the manuscript — to another — the book, thereby making it accessible to a different readership.

AM: Are you moving in this direction with your own poetry, toward a formal synthesis of the visual and the verbal?

GB: Actually not. Though I'm a big fan of visual poetry (and secretly pride myself that my first published book translation — Giuseppe Steiner's Drawn States of Mind — was a collection of poems that contained no words), my own work remains strictly verbal. There have been occasional forays into the territory of visual poetry — three "visualized" typographic poems on lines by Giovanna Sandri (an Italian poet whose work deftly navigates the waters joining verbal and visual approaches to writing), and a series of typographically articulated aphoristic pieces called "[met]Aphorisms" that were inspired by Phil Baines, a typographer/designer whom I greatly admire — but these pieces are anomalies in my work. They were all published in magazines — Ribot, Faucheuse, Rhizome, syntactics — but never tempted me sufficiently to explore that territory more at length.

AM: You should. I think the Baines-inspired material is really rich, and there's very little work of that complexity on the American scene right now. So then, what's next for you? Now that you've finished the Bellmer, you must already have sixty-two projects lined up…

GB: Don't say that! My desire is to continually do less and less, until I get to the point where I'm not doing anything at all. Then I can just hang out, read a bit for pleasure, and actually take a break — that would be nice. There's just a few loose ends to tie up between now and then. First on the list is a catalogue that I'm writing with my wife, Béatrice, who is curating a show that will take place at the New York Public Library next fall. It's for an exhibit of French and American literary magazines featuring translations of poetry from one language into the other. The exhibit will later travel to L.A., then — we're hoping — to France. There's also Roubaud's Poésie, etcetera: ménage that I'll have finished translating by next May. Green Integer will bring it out in the fall, I believe. Also out in fall will be a new book of poetry: a collaboration with Ron Griffin, an L.A. based visual artist who works with found materials that he organizes into paintings using constraint-based systems. That will be published by ML & NLF in Italy. I've also started translating a piece by Novarina — Le Monologue d'Adramélech — that I'd like to publish as a Seeing Eye Book in 2003, and that's all that's on the horizon for now.

AM: Ha, just a "few" loose ends. Glad you're liberal when practicing restraint, Guy.

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Excerpt from "Translation of Poetry/Poetry of Translation"

Translating Constraint

You translate the constraint, in addition to (at times, instead of) the poem. In an honest translation, priority must be given to the limitations that inform the original — whether a traditional verse umptina or an Oulipian zippogram — even if the "content" of the poem will suffer as a result.
     A translation of an anagrammatic poem that is not anagrammatic itself is a lie.*

* And the reader may counter that the translation of an anagrammatic poem that is anagrammatic is not a translation. The reader is right; see below.

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The Impossibility of Translating Constraint

An anagram cannot be translated. At least, not entirely. Certainly, the words formed by permutating the letters of the original words can be translated. However, such a translation fails to convey the constraint. Such a translation fails.

Difficulty: The closer the poem is to the nuts and bolts of the original language (as are poems featuring a constraint related to the mechanics [orthography, syntax, puns, etc.] of the original language), the more difficult the translation.
     If the constraint is deeply rooted in the original language (like the anagram, for example), strict translation is impossible, and transpoiesis is necessary: one must recreate a work in the target language using the same constraint. One does not translate the words composing the original poem, one translates (in the sense of carrying over from one language/literary tradition/culture) the creative act from which the original poem is sprung.

EXAMPLE: The following anagrammatic poem was written by Hans Bellmer and Nora Mitrani (with the collaboration of Joë Bousquet), on a fragment from Nerval: "Rose au cœur violet." Two other poems follow; the first a German version on the same Nerval fragment by Unica Zürn and Hans Bellmer, the second, my own English version. The second and third poems are not translations of the first; they are recreations written through the same constraint from the same source fragment.


Rose au cœur violet

Se vouer à toi ô cruel
A toi, couleuvre rose
O, vouloir être cause
Couvre-toi, la rue ose
Ouvre-toi, ô la sucrée

Va où suréel côtoie
O, l'oiseau crève-tour
Vil os écœurera route
Cœur violé osa tuer

Sœur à voile courte — écolier vous a outré
Curé, où Eros t'a violé — où l'écu osera te voir
Où verte coloriée sua — cou ouvert sera loi

O rire sous le couteau
Roses au cœur violet


Rosen mit violettem Herz

Hortensie reitet zum Olm
Sie loht im Zorne, meutert
Hoer, Untier, Mimose lenzt
Entröte sie im Holzturm
Lunte her, zittere im Moos
Turmotter, ziehe mein Los
Immer zeitlose Totenuhr

Romhure zotet mit Eselin — Listviehmormone zetert
Nimm Lottes Eiterzeh vor — Lusttote, nimm rohe Reize
Heize Monstrumteile rot — los, hetze mir vir Motten

Vorzeiten-Himmel rostet
Ins leere Ruhm-Motto Zeit
Zieht Reim vom ersten Lot

Im letzten Ei Rest vom Ohr
Violetter Zenith-Sommer


Rose With The Violet Heart

Soothe leather with rivet,
thee lit. O thwart Eros' hive,
overthrow it. The she-eel at
the raw, lithe torso: Eve hit
it here (that sore) with love.

There — violate others with
a slit. He hit two over three
tho' their earthiest vowel
over-oil thee with threats.

Throatier thieves who let totalities hover, whet her
thievish tool where treat wove stealthier, o thither,
here shoot what trite veil heaviest root let whither.

Ætherish whorlet veto it —
rose with the violet heart.

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The translator's task is harder than the poet's; the poet creates, the translator recreates. His choices are both limited and dictated by someone else whose priorities were self-imposed. The translator is not a writer. He is condemned (or permitted, depending on how you look at it) to re-write only.

(Oeil de Boeuf, 22 (Dec. 2001): 71-81)