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Translated specifically for an American readership, Shakespeare and the French Poet also features a new interview with Bonnefoy. For Shakespeare scholars, Bonnefoy enthusiasts, and students of literary translation, Shakespeare and the French Poet is a celebration of the global language of poetry and the art of "making someone else's voice live again in one's own."
Yves Bonnefoy: I can remember my first encounter since it was one of those moments that are not experienced in an especially powerful way at the time but that later come to dominate your thinking and to influence your choices. I was in school, and in the book of readings we were using to study English there was the most famous scene in Julius Caesar: "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears," and that whole speech in which Mark Antony captivates his listeners, winning them over with cynical skill but at the same time speaking with such nobility and emotion about Caesar's remains. It's a great moment, not just of rhetoric but also of the lyrical essence of poetry. "'Twas on a summer's evening in his tent"-that whole passage that causes the "gracious drops" to flow.
Why did I find this scene so striking, more striking at the time than any other passage of English poetry, with the exception of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner? It was certainly because of the beauty and intensity I've mentioned, but today I think it was also because that superb English harbored a great deal of our own approach to poetry: the grand words of Latin origin, but also, and even more important, something of that resonant space that French poetry often maintains between words to allow their range of meaning a wider scope. In this case, the connection was somewhat closer than usual, and it allowed me to measure all the more fully the distance between these two paths of poetry, English and French.
I think I was also struck, though of course somewhat subconsciously, or, at least, in a not yet fully informed way, by the manner in which Shakespeare seems to consciously and deliberately bring together in this scene the aims and methods of rhetoric on the one hand, and poetry on the other. In a word, Antony's speech shows poetry in various kinds of relation to something other than itself. And this can help us to understand that poetry doesn't spring forth in a single bound from the depths of one's mind and spirit, but must free itself from various obstacles that are a function of the particular nature of language or cultural tradition. For someone like me, who wanted very much to devote himself to poetry, it was obviously important to understand this. I could almost convince myself that poetry is born in a more ordinary way in our lives and in our poems than I would have thought from reading Latin poets like Virgil, whose words seemed suggestive of an absolute; these poets were mysterious and seemed almost from another world because I understood Latin rather poorly, and there's no better way to find its words and phrases unsettling!
Need I add that these thoughts I had about Shakespeare were in an embryonic form? I had no particular capacity or knowledge or points of reference to develop them more fully. Let's just say that I thought a great deal about those speeches of Brutus and of Mark Antony; I wanted to translate them and, in fact, did many years later. Julius Caesar was the first play I translated, along with Hamlet, which I undertook at the same time-with the feeling of a very important rendez-vous with myself.
Naughton: When exactly did you begin to translate Shakespeare? What were the circumstances?
Bonnefoy: It was much later. I was in my thirties. And I hadn't been pursuing the idea. It was one of those chance occurrences that we marvel at later, since they seem to bring about what we've always wanted. In 1953 I published my first book of poems, which I sent to Pierre Jean Jouve, whom I had been admiring from afar. He asked me to come see him, which I did, and we found we had a great many common interests and tastes, especially in poetry. We talked about Shakespeare; Jouve had translated Romeo and Juliet before the war.
As it happened, Pierre Leyris, who had been friends with Jouve for many years, was planning to publish an edition of Shakespeare's complete works with the original English and translations by various French writers, his whole idea being to involve writers and poets rather than English language specialists. Leyris was the great translator whose work helped introduce French readers to Melville and Hopkins, as well as Djuna Barnes. Later on he also published a French edition of the complete works of William Blake. Leyris had contacted Jouve, since he knew of his translation of Romeo and Juliet, and had asked him to do the sonnets, an invitation that Jouve accepted enthusiastically. Then, without even consulting me, Jouve suggested to Leyris that he should offer me something to translate, which Leyris did. I didn't hesitate for a second; I felt I was ready, though my knowledge of Elizabethan English was still rather minimal.
Pierre Leyris asked me to do Julius Caesar, on condition that I first submit a sample, which was to be the first scene of the play. And so I did a translation of "Hence! home, you idle creatures, get you home!" and did it with such fervor and passion that Leyris immediately gave me Hamlet to translate as well. After these, I translated other plays, as well as Shakespeare's poems, for the volumes that appeared over the following years. The project made those happy years for me. I liked and respected Pierre Leyris, and he became and remained one of my dearest friends until his death, just recently, at the age of ninety-three, when he was at work on a new translation of Shakespeare's sonnets. Pierre read my work and gave me advice about specific details. But most of all, he gave me confidence. It was hard work, in fact. I was not in the least interested in producing, as many others did, a variation on previously existing translations without taking into account the difficulties of the text, and so I surrounded myself with critical editions and armed myself with dictionaries. I discovered Alexander Schmidt's superb lexicon and began to read various critical studies of Shakespeare that I happened to find.
Naughton: What were the first difficulties you ran into?
Bonnefoy: First of all, there were, of course, difficulties with the language, for I had a lot to learn, in particular about Elizabethan culture, and I spent much more time then than I do now with words and expressions that were unfamiliar to me. And then there was the fact that each new play brought its own problems: obscure patches in a sometimes unreliable text; passages, often famous ones, that the various editors interpret in quite different ways, all too often without coming to a decision. But those scholars and historians of the language certainly enable a non-native speaker like me to better understand Shakespeare, and without the editors of the New Arden Shakespeare, or the New Oxford and the New Cambridge editions, or, later, the Riverside edition, I couldn't have done a thing.
But what is especially interesting is a difficulty of a more fundamental nature, presented not by the vocabulary but by the prosody. This difficulty is a consequence of the difference between the two forms of poetry: Shakespeare's on the one hand, and our French traditions and experimentations on the other. Needless to say, I would never have imagined that translating works as essentially and profoundly poetic as Julius Caesar or Hamlet or The Winter's Tale could be anything other than a personal act of poetry, not merely restoring the meaning as fully as possible, but simultaneously reinventing a meaning and a form in the French version, a rhythm-form and rhythm being a part of the meaning in their own way, an irreplaceable part. Verse, real verse, emerging as such, is the only medium that can suggest Shakespeare's verse in my translation.
Yet the job is far from simple, for in the original act of writing poetry, form and meaning come into being at the same time, whereas for the translator the meaning has already been decided in the work to be translated. So you can't give yourself fully to the simultaneity of the two sides of poetic creation and receive its benefits. And there is also the fact-more important than you might think-that English verse, at its very inception, is an extension of the tonic stress that is the soul of each English word; it begins with the very first word in a line. It can move forward without thinking too much about the form it will assume. To become a form, it doesn't have to separate itself from existence as it is ordinarily experienced, and particularly from the experience of time, whereas form in French, where there is no stress of that kind, has for centuries been established in verse mainly by the number of syllables, which means that you have to make your way through twelve syllables to see that you're dealing with an alexandrine, for example. That's why the creation of form remains at a distance from the life situations of people who want to express themselves in a poem. Form is something spatial, something unaware of the temporal nature of hope or suffering or finitude. In short, a quite different way of approaching the world through speech, a quite different way of arriving at an experience of unity, which is the universal aim and intuition of poetry. It's another prosodic tradition, other customs and usages, all of which makes it problematic, or at least difficult, to articulate in French what is so immediate and spontaneous in the bursts of meaning in Shakespeare's pentameter, which often has no rhyme.
But this is hardly the place to dwell on such problems, and so I shall simply say, in answer to your question, that these difficulties are also golden opportunities for a translator because they force you to become more conscious of the specific nature of your own poetic traditions and prejudices, while the daily practice of translation helps you to see in your own work-in which the lack of tonic stresses is counterbalanced, when you wish, by the silent e-possibilities of shaking off the yoke of a prosody that is too abstract. From the moment I first read Rimbaud, who went very far in this direction, I became fascinated by the poetic potential of lines of verse with an uneven number of syllables, our vers impairs, especially eleven-syllable lines, which break up the symmetrical form of the old alexandrine and so open to a more immediate awareness of time. For me, the uneven line was one way of transgressing the burdensome rigidity of our classic prosody. And with this goal in mind, when I encountered Shakespeare I obviously received a great deal. I've mentioned the first scene of Julius Caesar and recalled my enthusiasm translating it. Think of these lines:
Wherefore rejoice? What conquests brings he home? What tributaries follow him to Rome To grace in captive bonds his chariot wheels. You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things.
Or of the beginning of Henry IV, part one:
So shaken as we are, so wan with care, Find we a time for fighted peace to pant.
Then think of the verse of Racine, or even Victor Hugo working the alexandrine like a caged squirrel on a wheel! English pentameter is perfect for making one forget the inner symmetries, the secret motionlessness, of the alexandrine. One of the reasons for my enthusiasm, for my wanting to stay close to Julius Caesar and Hamlet, was Shakespeare's verse, this surging of life in an utterance, his striking way of revealing what I would call the genius of the iamb.
Naughton: So it wasn't totally by chance that you began to translate Shakespeare. There was also an element of personal vocation?
Bonnefoy: Chance obviously played a role. When I began to translate, I was already in my thirties, as I've said. I wasn't prepared and had done nothing to prepare myself. But this is where chance can be invaluable, since it forces us to look into ourselves and to discover what may be lying dormant there. Chance offered me a translation; I could have refused. Or I might have done one out of curiosity or because I felt the need to at the time, but then stopped. On the contrary, I accepted the invitation and later did all that I could to prolong the experience, to explore what was occurring in the depths of the work I had taken on. Translating a writer means reading that writer. It means having the opportunity to truly read him or her, in a way that you would normally not read an author, since you have to pause at every word and even slide below a lot of them, which an ordinary reader wouldn't-and shouldn't-usually do. So translating Shakespeare meant getting as close to him as possible, really being with him. It even meant being hounded by him, obsessing over some passage that resisted translation. And when the poet is Shakespeare-Shakespeare quite specifically-it can be something of paramount importance. In my case, chance brought me into contact with a body of work that had an immediate and profound significance for me, and answered a need.
Naughton: Did you know right away what this need was? Can you try to describe it?
Bonnefoy: I'll try, because it will help me to explain the way I see Shakespeare. The need I felt at the time, a need that hasn't changed, was to understand what poetry is, and what act of consciousness allows us to recognize it and to free it from ordinary speech. What are the means by which we can help it to exist, both in our words and in our lives? And why, along with the instinctive practice of poetry, is there this need to understand its nature? It's because this understanding may contribute to an activity that seems to me almost as important as the writing of poetry itself, that is, the thinking we devote to other poets (or painters or any form of artistic creation as it relates to poetry). This kind of thinking allows us to bring together the experiments of many poets and thus to create a kind of poetical brotherhood, which today appears in danger of fragmentation, if not of complete disappearance from the concerns of society. That would be a catastrophic loss.
Now what can answer this need if not works that fully and boldly embrace the question of what poetry is? Works of that kind are fairly rare. But Shakespeare's plays and poems offer an example. We become aware of it when we see Hamlet mindful of something within him that his words can't express, or when we notice how Shakespeare's key plays, from Romeo and Juliet to The Winter's Tale and The Tempest, construct their fictions-with such discernment and diversity-as critiques of that idealistic transfiguration of the world and of other people, which is the original sin of lyric poetry.
Excerpted from Shakespeare and the French Poet Copyright © 2004 by University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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