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Richard Kutner
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Portrait of Charles Baudelaire in Profile by Édouard Manet This is my last post as Author of the Week. It’s been an exciting experience. Since this is the Best American Poetry website, I’ve decided to end the week with three poems I translated by Charles Baudelaire, my favorite French poet. This is my first attempt to translate poetry, and I hope that you’ll enjoy them. Please listen as you read. Sincere thanks to all of you have read and responded to these posts. Connections Nature is a temple, where living pillars Sometimes utter indistinct words. We wander through it amidst forests of symbols That observe us with familiar looks. Like long echoes blending from afar, In a deep, dark unity As vast as darkness or light, Smells, colors, and sounds speak to one another. There are smells as fresh as children’s flesh, As sweet as oboes, green as prairies --And others, corrupt, rich, and triumphant, That spread without end: Amber, musk, benzoin, and incense, Which sing of the rapture of the mind and the senses. Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du mal, 1857 Translation by Richard Kutner © 2017 Autumn Song I. Soon we will be plunged into icy darkness. Farewell, bright glow of our too-short summers! I can already hear the echo in the courtyards As logs fall to the pavement with a funereal thump. All of winter will penetrate my soul: anger, Hate; chills; horror; drudgery, And, like the sun in its polar hell, My heart will be only a frozen block of red. Trembling, I listen to the crash of every log; There is nothing to mute the sound of the mounting gallows. My mind is like a tower, collapsing Beneath the blows of a relentless battering ram. Rocked by this monotonous pounding, I seem to hear A coffin being hastily nailed shut. For whom?—Only yesterday it was summer; now autumn is here! This mysterious sound rings like a departure. II. I love the greenish light of your long eyes, My lovely, yet today all is bitter to me. Nothing--not your love, not your bed, nor the hearth-- Can compare with the sun glistening on the sea. And yet, love me, tender heart! Be a mother, Even for one so ungrateful--for one so bad; Mistress or sister, be the fleeting sweetness Of a glorious autumn or a setting sun. So quick a task! The tomb awaits, its appetite so huge! Ah! While my head rests on your knees As I mourn the white, torrid summer, let me taste The sweet, yellow rays of this late fall. Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du mal, 1861 edition Translation by Richard Kutner © 2017 Spleen LXVIII When the sky, heavy and low, weighs down like a lid On the moaning soul, prey to long bouts of ennui, And, embracing the arc of the horizon, Spills upon us a black light sadder than the night, When all the earth is transformed into a damp dungeon Where Hope, like a bat, Beats its timid... Continue reading
Posted Jul 21, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
Last December, while searching for some volunteer translation work, I found this description from the Morgan Library and Museum, in New York, on This is a wonderful opportunity for an individual with a serious interest in 19th-century art and literature and a high proficiency in French translation to assist the Cataloguer of the Morgan’s Gordon Ray Collection. Duties include deciphering and translating handwritten letters of luminaries from the worlds of art and literature, conducting research where necessary or appropriate, and preparing concise summaries of the letters for inclusion in CORSAIR, the Morgan’s online collections catalog. I thought, “This is for me,” applied, underwent a six-part background check, and was accepted. Since January, I have been translating and summarizing mostly nineteenth-century French letters by noted authors, artists, scientists, politicians, and other public figures—Balzac, Baudelaire, Dumas (father and son), Condorcet (eighteenth century), George Sand, Renoir, counts, kings, and queens: the list goes on and on. Some of the letters are fairly mundane: “Thank you for your gracious dinner invitation. I will see you at 6:00 on Thursday.” Others involve intrigue about entry into the Académie Française, letters on various subjects from authors to their publishers, requests by generals for troops, lawsuits (many), and complex political, philosophical, or artistic discussions. I have learned a great deal about people I knew about and others I had never heard of. It’s difficult to describe the constant thrill of reviewing documents in the handwriting of someone I’ve read or studied and realizing that I may be only the sixth person ever to have set eyes on them: the author, the recipient, the dealer, the collector, the cataloguer, and me. Writing a summary is sometimes complicated, especially when the handwriting is difficult to read (either illegible or very small), when I’m dealing with a fragment or unsigned document, or there is little or no information about either the author or the recipient. I end up doing a lot of detective work. Is the person who wrote the letter really who the file label says it is? Sometimes it’s a relative, often with the same first and last name. Occasionally, the document turns out to be about the subject, not written by him or her. And at times the author is known by various names. Often I need to research dates and addresses, check to see if the author’s correspondence has already been published (which makes it much easier to read), and look for postmarks. When I suspected that a letter was from Balzac, writing about the woman he would later marry, I went online to see if he had indeed been in Karlsrühe at the time the letter was written. (I was right.) Sometimes there is little or no punctuation, even when it’s a letter from a famous author, and often words are run together. There are people, like George Sand, whose handwriting changed dramatically during their lifetime. And once in a while, French is not the writer’s mother tongue, and there are many errors (for... Continue reading
Posted Jul 20, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
What was it like to translate the memoir of a boy who escaped from a French-Nazi internment camp in 1942? One of my biggest challenges was recreating the exuberant, authentic voice of a scrappy eleven-year-old Paris street kid. I kept asking myself, particularly when translating dialogue, “Does this sound like a child?” I think that being an elementary school teacher for so many years helped me to understand how children think and talk. But kids today do not talk they way they did 75 years ago. I had to learn the street slang of 1940s Paris and put it into English that was appropriate for that period. Paris street slang is particularly spicy, and I needed to make sure that I kept its zing. Sometimes it took many tries to capture the vitality of the language. How, for example, was I going to say, “Je dévale l’escalier à tout berzingue”? I worked on it for a long time and finally came up with “I zoom down the stairs full speed ahead,” which I think captures the energy of the French and keeps the important buzzing “z” sound. Joseph Weismann, the author of After the Roundup, is unusually clearheaded, and his style is extraordinarily lively and direct. It is this very clearheadedness (and his out-of-the-box thinking) that saved his life. It was therefore of the greatest importance to me to use clear, direct language. Like him, I used vivid verbs and sentences that were short and uncomplicated (yet never choppy) to create a strong sense of immediacy. I avoided any language that sounded stuffy or slowed down the pace and force of his words. The greatest challenge perhaps was dealing with overwhelming waves of emotion that I knew I’d have to face once again with every rereading. I have never experienced anything like what Joseph went through beginning in July 1942, when he was rounded up, put in an internment camp, brutally separated from his parents--and then decided to make a daring and difficult escape. In order to cope with this intense emotion, rather than shutting it out, I decided to try to imagine myself in Joseph’s situation, to feel his emotions as much as I possibly could, like an actor preparing a role, so that I could convey them in their full depth. Despite its dark moments, After the Roundup is an uplifting and hopeful book. Joseph wrote it when he was 80, having kept his experiences locked away for 69 years, yet he was able to recall every detail of his ordeal. While some might not consider his style highly intellectual or literary, it clearly reflects his positive outlook and amazing life force. His book makes for compelling reading because of his intelligence, frankness, and energy, not to mention his one-of-a-kind, sometimes hair-raising experiences. It is a lesson for the world of today about what can happen when people are viewed as “others.” After the Roundup is the true memoir of eleven-year-old Joseph Weismann, who was rounded up in... Continue reading
Posted Jul 19, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
Translating Fear of Paradise Like any translation, Fear of Paradise was an artistic endeavor and an act of creation. As always, I needed to maintain the author's tone and voice and make the book sound as though it were written in English rather than translated. But Fear of Paradise involved some extra challenges. Most of the novel is set in Puglia, the heel of Italy, a rugged, sunbaked, glorious region of olive trees and fishermen, of deep blue sky and golden cliffs overhanging the green Adriatic. It was important to keep the setting in mind at all times, because in this book it plays a key role in defining the characters’ personalities and directing their thoughts and actions. Furthermore, Belgian novelist Vincent Engel is a master at describing setting. I therefore had to be very careful in choosing words that evoked the landscape just the way he wanted. Vincent’s style is both realistic and poetic, and I worked hard to bring out both these aspects of it, fundamental to understanding the book. European authors tend to write in long sentences and paragraphs (sometimes very long). We avoid doing this in English, so I had to find where I could divide things while still maintaining the beautiful flow of the text. French authors also tend to repeat words, even in close proximity, something we discourage in English. That meant finding just the right synonym with the appropriate nuance to express Vincent’s meaning. In many cases I changed the verb tenses, since they are not used the same way nor have the same implications in English and French. Sometimes I changed words altogether, because what sounded right in French sounded wrong in English. Most of Vincent Engel’s books take place in Tuscany, where the characters are worldly and well educated. In Fear of Paradise, however, they are poor, uneducated, superstitious, and uncommunicative. They hardly speak at all, so whatever dialogue there is must sound realistic and fit each character and situation with no wrong notes. I needed to penetrate the characters’ thinking so that I could use the correct language to express their thoughts and feelings even though they couldn’t. This was a particular challenge. Luigi does not talk like Valentina, and Basilio doesn’t think like Forza, so each person’s way of speaking had to capture his or her character perfectly even if they’re all taciturn. Moreover, the action begins during the rise of Mussolini in the 1920s, continues to the 1940s, and jumps to the 1960s. I had to make sure that the dialogue was always in sync with the times and that it reflected the changes in the characters’ ages and ways of thinking. Fear of Paradise is a haunting book. It stays with you for a long time after you finish reading it. That was one of the reasons I wanted to translate it. Because of the nature of his characters and setting, Vincent used language to create a special music for this book. It was very important to... Continue reading
Posted Jul 18, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
It is a great honor to have been invited by The Best American Poetry to be their author of the week. Translators do not get much respect. In Italian, they even say, “Traduttore, traditore,” which means “The translator is a traitor.” Hmm. I am going to spend the week trying to disprove this dictum. Of course, the work we do is transformational, but we are artists and poets, too, and, while we try our hardest to be faithful to the author’s style and intent, we have our own concerns. I hope that you’ll enjoy this week’s posts and that you’ll gain insight into what a literary translator does and the challenges he or she faces. What does a translator do? What we don’t do is just change one language to another, word by word, like a machine. We have to get into the author’s mind, internalize his emotions and language patterns, and set down his ideas in flowing language that sounds as though it was originally written in English. At the same time we need to make sure every word has the correct nuance, deal with untranslatable expressions, capture the music and spirit of the author’s words, and, most of all, be faithful to his style and tone. Yet the language cannot be self-conscious, calling attention to itself. The translator’s words are there to be the invisible vehicle for conveying the author’s ideas and concerns. However, in the end, the translation is still something different from the original. But that’s just the beginning. Every author has his or her own music—a personal rhythm, cadence, and sound—and the translator must capture it even when the language he or she is translating into may have a different structure and sound profile. The music conveys the ideas in varying ways. Short sentences with hard consonants and long vowels are useful for portraying quick action or strong, even violent emotion. Longer sentences with soft consonants and short vowel sounds are more successful at portraying lyrical scenes or tender moments. How many syllables should a word have? Words of one syllable have a different effect from multisyllabic words. What kind of ending do you want the sentence to have—one that ends with a thud or one that floats off into the air? And what about words that seem to mean the same thing in two languages but have the slightest shade of difference? Every word a translator uses involves a choice, and it is essential to read a translation aloud to make sure that it sounds right. It is important as well to keep the time period in which the work one is translating takes place. People in the 1920s or the 1940s did not talk the way people do now. Just watch an old film and listen closely. And there are more subtle gradations between the formality and informality of other languages and English, in terms of vocabulary, usage, and structure. For example, in 1850s Italy, people did not say, “Yo, dude, what’s up?”... Continue reading
Posted Jul 17, 2017 at The Best American Poetry