“What fun we’ll have, amid such pidgeons!”: Rimbaud in Translation

by Jacob Sunderlin, Co-Editor of Poetry

One hundred and fifty-seven years ago today, a  provocateur was born in France.  Arthur Rimbaud—published by fifteen, retired by twenty, dead by forty—wrote famously in 1871: “I’m now making myself as scummy as I can. Why? I want to be a poet, and I’m working at turning myself into a seer. You won’t understand any of this, and I’m almost incapable of explaining it to you. The idea is to reach the unknown by the derangement of all the senses. It involves enormous suffering, but one must be strong and be a born poet. It’s really not my fault.”

Coincidentally, he who was “from the depths of the sea, back to the block”–Snoop D-O-double-G–was also born today, forty years ago.

We were recently treated to this wonderful new translation of Rimbaud’s sonnet “Rêvé pour l’hiver” by poet, physician, and translator Jenna Le, who was kind enough to address her process with us via email.  In celebration of Rimbaud’s life and work, the translation and interview appear below.

Rimbaud’s Fantasy

This winter, we’ll speed off in a carnation-colored coupe,
our asses afloat on soft blue cushions.
In every corner of the car, a nest of kisses waits.
What fun we’ll have, amid such pigeons!

You’ll shut your eyes in order not to see
the jealous evening shadows,
a pack of black-furred demons and black-furred wolves,
shove their snouts against the windows.

…when, all at once, on your sensitive cheek,
a spider-like kiss will set its tiny scratchy feet;
it’ll jog along your jugular…

You’ll beg me: “Help me catch this little beast!”
And we’ll grope each other’s skins in an effort to seize
that spider—which will outrace us for hours.

Rêvé pour l’hiver

L’hiver, nous irons dans un petit wagon rose
Avec des coussins bleus.
Nous serons bien. Un nid de baisers fous repose
Dans chaque coin moelleux.

Tu fermeras l’oeil, pour ne point voir, par la glace,
Grimacer les ombres des soirs,
Ces monstruosités hargneuses, populace
De démons noirs et de loups noirs.

Puis tu te sentiras la joue égratignée…
Un petit baiser, comme une folle araignée,
Te courra par le cou…

Et tu me diras : ” Cherche ! ” en inclinant la tête,
– Et nous prendrons du temps à trouver cette bête
– Qui voyage beaucoup…]

Sycamore Review:  In the New Yorker, Daniel Mendelsohn recently theorized: “the chances that Rimbaud will become the bible of your life are inversely proportional to the age at which you first discover him.”  Yet, we’ve recently been treated to a new volume of Rimbaud translations from octogenarian John Ashbery.  How did you first come to Rimbaud as a reader?  What continues to interest you about his poems?  Why are we still talking about him?

Jenna Le:  I first fell into Rimbaud’s arms at age 13, when my middle-school French class was assigned to read the much-anthologized sonnet “Le dormeur du val.”  Then, two years later, I was wandering alone in a Boston bookstore, straying afield from the science-fiction section where I usually woolgathered on summer afternoons, when the French boy-genius’s Einsteinian mop of brown hair caught my eye from the cover of his Collected Poems.  Opening the paperback to a random page, I began reading the poem “Roman,” whose penetrating psychological realism drove an icicle through my chest:  the teenage boy described in the poem was the spitting image of a 17-year-old boy I had met, and fallen miserably in love with, just a few days prior!  It was the uncanniest moment of my life.

Today, over a decade later, I’m still intrigued by Rimbaud’s versatility, his ability to wear so many different masks.  In “Le dormeur du val,” he wears the mask of a cautionary fabulist; in “Roman,” he is self-indulgently romantic and coldly self-mocking at the same time; in “Venus Anadyomene,” he delights in being shockingly scatological, ripping down all of society’s carefully maintained illusions about the supposedly attractive purity of womanhood; etc.  Ashbery, interestingly, manifests a similar versatility in his work, which may partly explain why he was drawn to him.

Sycamore Review:   What made you want to translate this poem? Did you sit with other English versions while working on it?

Jenna Le:  “Rêvé pour l’hiver” is one of a few poems in which Rimbaud’s defenses seem to come down, and he speaks simply and straightforwardly about sexual desire, without hiding behind the defense mechanisms of scatology or grotesquerie.  The poem has a refreshingly modern feel, precisely because it’s sexually frank without being self-conscious about its sexual frankness.  In this poem, Rimbaud neither embraces nor violently rejects conventional notions of romance; he simply circumvents them.

Although I had previously read several other English versions of this poem, I deliberately chose not to look at any of them while I was working on my own translation, because I wanted to be faithful to my own relationship with the poem.

Sycamore Review:  I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that your translation departs somewhat from a so-called “surface translation” of Rimbaud’s vocabulary, but maintains the poem’s vigor of language and music.  When it came time to “depart”–so to speak–how did you arrive at that decision?  What was your approach?

Jenna Le:  From the very first line, I wanted to do justice to Rimbaud’s snazzy, colloquial voice by using slightly slangy modern English.  And I wanted to use vivid, dynamic word choices that would resurrect Rimbaud’s beautiful winter fantasy, rather than merely make a pale mimeograph of it.  I’m audacious enough to believe that Rimbaud would appreciate the phrasing I use in the second line—”our asses afloat on soft blue cushions”—because Rimbaud wasn’t shy about vulgarity, and he seemed to like the jarring juxtaposition of earthy words (“asses”) with ethereal ones (“afloat”).

I recently tried to verbalize my philosophy on poetic translation on my Goodreads blog, here: http://www.goodreads.com/author_blog_posts/1509989-what-are-your-views-on-poetry-in-translation

Jenna Le works as a physician in New York City. Her first book of poetry, Six Rivers, is forthcoming from New York Quarterly Books in fall 2011. Her poems and translations have appeared in Barrow Street, The Brooklyn Rail, Gargoyle, Many Mountains Moving, Margie, New York Quarterly, Post Road, Rhino, Salamander, and other journals. She won the 2011 Minnetonka Review Editor’s Prize and was nominated for the 2011 PEN Emerging Writers Award.