“There is a big secret about sex,” wrote Leo Bersani in 1987. “Most people don’t like it.” The same might be said of translation, which many readers secretly consider a necessary evil. Even the very best produces a lingering frustration, an irritable awareness that we didn’t get what we came for. If translation is like sex, it often leaves us with a case of epididymal hypertension, or, in the vernacular, blue balls.
One of the worst things about a bad translation is that it’s unforgettable. The Pre-Raphaelite artist, designer, and utopian socialist William Morris took a run at Homer in 1887 and hit the wall hard. “Tell me, O Muse, of the Shifty,” his translation of the Odyssey begins, “the man who wandered afar,/After the Holy Burg, Troy-town, he had wasted with war.” When I e-mailed a friend to ask if he had any bathetic examples, he instantly replied with the last stanza of J.B. Leishman’s translation of Rilke’s “Autumn Day”:
He’ll not build now, who has no house awaiting.
Who’s now alone, for long will so remain:
sit late, read, write long letters, and again
return to restlessly perambulating
the avenues of parks when leaves downrain.
The consequences of infelicity can be serious, though not as serious as they once were. In a brief against William Tyndale, who published his translation of the New Testament from Greek to English in 1525, Thomas More complained that Tyndale “hath mistranslated three words of great weight,” tweaking the language to serve his own egalitarian ends: for presbyteros he wrote “senior” (not “priest”), for ekklesia “congregation” (not “church”), for agapē “love” (not “charity”). “Now do these names in our English tongue neither express the things that [Tyndale] meant by them,” wrote More, “and also there appeareth…that he had a mischievous mind in the change.” Tyndale was executed for heresy in 1536.
Antonella Anedda has referred to Sardinian, the language she grew up hearing and speaking, as a “pre-scholastic language, thick with consonants and shorn of adjectives.” In a new translation of her book Historiae by Patrizio Ceccagnoli and Susan Stewart, some of the original texts appear only in Italian, some in Italian and Sardinian, a linguistic and tonal contrast that sounds the distance between island and mainland, home and nation, domestic and public life.
Anedda is especially attuned to how dialect signifies expulsion as well as attachment, and to how every translation is also an accident report, or a record of casualties. The poems in Historiae negotiate between two different forms of exile. The first is Anedda’s psychic dislocation following the death of her mother; the second is the refugee crisis in Europe. Without collapsing the world-historical into the intimate, Anedda offers an unsentimental portrait of the sort of mind that never forgets the one while thinking about the other. “At the radio,” she writes, “hell buzzes.”
Historiae takes its title from Tacitus’s chronicle of the same name. Written roughly between AD 100 and 110, his Historiae was intended as an inquiry—the Greek word historía means “research”—into the recent history of the Roman Empire, from roughly AD 69 to 96. All that remains of the work, however, stops at the beginning of the reign of Vespasian, who is credited with restoring stability to the empire after a year of civil war. The epigraph to Anedda’s poem “Exiles” comes from Tacitus’s description of that turbulent period: “plenum exiliis mare, infecti caedibus scopuli,” or, in the English that takes twice as many words, “the sea swarmed with exiles and the sea cliffs were stained with murder.” That was then, and “today,” Anedda reports,
I think of two, out of the many who drowned
just a few meters from these sunny coasts,
found under the hull, in a tight embrace.
I wonder if coral will grow on their bones
and what salt does to the blood.
Anedda’s Italian rhymes; mercifully the translation does not. Still, Ceccagnoli and Stewart have preserved the terseness of her idiom, which aspires, as she says in “Annales,” to the austerity of Latin: “The naked facts,/the near absence of adjectives,/the gerund that avoids useless turns of phrase.” Much of the prosodic force of Anedda’s writing comes from the tension that builds between her rhetorical economy and what she calls the “dripping” of modern Italian, a word that, in its benign sense, suggests the viscous, hypersaturated sound of the language and, more darkly, the water and blood that hug its history and coastline. “I search,” Anedda writes, “in my father’s/old books of forensic medicine” and learn
that the precise term is livor mortis.
Blood gathers in the lower body and coagulates
first red then livid finally turning to dust
it might—yes—melt into the brine.
Anedda was born in Rome in 1955 but her family’s roots were in Corsica and Sardinia, and her poetry often confronts the long history of Sardinia’s subordination. Sardinia’s reputation as a land of “bandits clad in sheepskins,” to quote Cicero, goes back to the Roman Empire, as does its legacy as a place of exile: in AD 19 the emperor Tiberius deported four thousand Jews from Rome along with members of an Egyptian Isis cult and sent them to Sardinia, “to quell,” as Tacitus put it, “the brigandage of the place.” As late as 1921 D.H. Lawrence was locating Sardinia “outside the circuit of civilization,” a place that “has no history, no date, no race, no offering.” “It lies within the net of…European civilization,” Lawrence writes, “but it isn’t landed yet.”
In “Contra Scauro,” a short poem in Sardinian, Anedda tells of an incident in which a man named Scaurus, proconsul of Sardinia in 54 BC, was accused of raping a local woman who later died by suicide. Some Sards traveled to Rome to testify against him, and Anedda imagines them encountering the city as a “glut of beauty, taste and linen tunics,” in Jamie McKendrick’s translation. Cicero was Scaurus’s lawyer, and he impugned the Sards as “powerless in resources [and] treacherous by descent,” not to mention polluted by “an admixture of African blood.” Anedda quotes Cicero—“A truthless people…[a] land where even the honey is gall”—and then dazzlingly annuls him:
But his name, now,
tiny and rapid, flits among the stones, and just as
then, witnesses die, the bee labours on.
Honey endures—a tongue of salt, arbutus, thistle.
The word for “tongue” here is limba, and the first poem in Historiae is called “Limbas,” or “Languages.” It too is about the endurance of a culture inseparable from the past that has forged or, to use Anedda’s more rustic metaphor, kneaded it:
Once in a while I use a language of mine
I invent it, kneading it with the past
I don’t hand it over except in translation.
Even to a nonnative speaker, the acoustic differences between Sardinian and Italian are striking: the hard and heavy d of the former is sounded as a neat and percussive t in the latter (tandu/tanto, passado/passato), and in the last line of the poem the two languages pull almost entirely away from each other only to fall together fittingly on the final words, “in traduzione,” which is the same in both non-English texts. You can see what Anedda means by calling Sardinian profound, for each word seems to beat against its sense, something like the voices “of the Germani” that, in another poem, she describes as “screen[ed]…with shields,” “darkened” to intimidate “their enemies.”
The keyword of Historiae is suffering, or, as Anedda says, male, dolore, pena. These words have different connotations, and Ceccagnoli and Stewart are bold to translate them all as “pain,” a choice that might have flattened the book’s descriptive textures and thus its ethical complexity. In this case the effect is productive, highlighting the economy of Anedda’s language and making sure that those who read only the English translations won’t neglect her preoccupations. More importantly, the reduction of pain’s varieties to a monosyllable captures its stupefying surplus, the certainty that every day, like every century, will only offer more of the same. In “August 2017, Chronicles,” an elderly couple rescued from a fire are indistinguishable from the charred bodies of Pompeii:
two just like them found at the front door
saved but with their old skulls half burned.
Too old to run away,
borne in arms toward healing,
crying out incredulously when they are touched.
“Saved,” the word that carries the most crucial information, is tossed off the cliff by an enjambment and buried by the arresting image of “old skulls half burned,” so that you might read this poem several times before realizing that the couple did not, in fact, die.
When it comes to describing her mother’s old age, illness, and death, she does not flinch. “She suddenly vanished/into a television tunnel,” she writes in “Stars,” and “beneath, putrefaction began”:
When I opened the window she complained,
the air wasn’t obliged to disperse the pain
and the pain did not have to be shared.
When I’d lie next to her to hold her hand she’d sheer away.
Once she was dead—instructed by a French funeral website—
I tidied her face
by inserting a wad of cotton in her throat: it worked,
suddenly she was young again,
the mother that she would be.
Unlike the bodies under the sea, the body of Anedda’s mother is seen up close, available to the tenderness that it nonetheless refuses; in another poem that describes her mother unconscious and sedated in a hospital bed, “her breath digging into her lungs,” Anedda is almost triumphant “to hold that hand/that cannot” squeeze hers back. Later, her mother is present only as a “vapor,” a “nothingness” grasped in vain: “‘She wasn’t there’—I said to myself—‘it was a sickle of cloud/curving up the side of the moon.’”
Like cleaning out a dead person’s closet, “uncertain about what to donate, keep, toss,” or “clean[ing] fish in the sink,” poetry turns out to be a quotidian labor that is a way of “not thinking about time, yet thinking about it.” It’s also women’s work—recall Anedda’s description of translation as “kneading.” The idea, admirably understated, is that domestic drudgery is an alternative form of history, one that tells the stories and marks the graves of those who are mown over by empire. It is not heroic, merely consistent, and it lives in the languages that are “mixed with thorns and brambles,” spoken in remote or disregarded places: in the home, by a deathbed, on the road from one inhospitable place to another, between a ruin and an unimaginable future.
Common Life, Lindsay Turner’s English rendition of Stéphane Bouquet’s La Vie commune (published in France in 2016), achieves something rare: an alignment between text and translation so seamless it seems to create a whole new object, neither original nor variant but a lustrous synthesis of sensibilities. To some extent, this might be because Turner and Bouquet are an unusually sympathetic match: Bouquet, in addition to being a poet and a choreographer, is also a screenwriter, and Turner has a master’s degree in cinema studies. But I suspect it also has a lot to do with Bouquet’s influences, which are as much American as European, perhaps even more so.
The most prominent of those influences are James Schuyler and Frank O’Hara, whose urbane melancholy and reflections on queer life are not so much echoed as elongated by Bouquet’s poetic Polaroids of a twenty-first-century vie bohème. For all its contemporary references—climate change, dating apps, wink emojis—Common Life radiates the same intelligent loneliness as The Crystal Lithium or Lunch Poems, and gazes out upon a shared landscape of sidewalks and city parks, cramped but livable apartments and empty coffee cups. The third poem, “Elegy Again,” squarely situates itself and by extension Bouquet in a gay literary and intellectual tradition that has been disproportionately defined by mourning on levels both intimate and collective, while also grounding that tradition in the present tense of capitalism, with its “agonies of brand-name kisses and of/luxury caresses/and expensive blowjobs” and spasmodic episodes of resistance:
And now in Brussels, Place de la Bourse,
gray at 9am
and on strike so there’s much less traffic, someone
already boozy rooster red
apologizes, “Everybody has to eat,” well, ok go ahead and
in the next streets
persist promises of utopian socialism, promises I know
how to make last
You don’t need to look at the French to appreciate the thoughtfulness of Turner’s translation, but consider the way she has captured the acoustic farce of Bouquet’s “rouge de coq alcool,” transposing its jaunty plosives into the alliteration of “rooster red” and retaining the dribbling vowels of “rouge” and “alcool” in her “boozy” and “rooster.” The shift is both shrewd and unobtrusive, allowing the poem to stay in Bouquet’s refined colloquial register, which combines phrases like “alors allez vas-y” (“well, ok go ahead”) and “C’est le merveilleux/matin à cause/de la vibrante épaisseur à nous reconfiée de la lumière” (“It’s morning and it’s marvelous due to/the vibrant thickness once again entrusted to us by the light”) modestly and with ease.
The largest part of Common Life is a poetic drama called Monsters, a “play for eleven actors or more, or fewer.” Monsters is bookended by three gorgeous lyric poems, which introduce the volume, and three texts in prose, which conclude it. The first of those lyrics, “As an Excuse,” is painfully romantic, and this sets the tone for everything that follows. Even if Monsters seems at times to channel a contempt for the bourgeoisie worthy of Godard (whose 1963 film Contempt is mentioned by one of the characters), its perspective remains essentially compassionate:
I’m thinking of a little poem about the one who wondered
what pills I was taking
at night. Pills against absence. He’s sitting
so close oh I’d love
to write one more sadness on the inaccessible shelter
of his shoulders.
Bouquet suggests that these lines are “salvos/from the interior troubadours”; they’re also dragged forward into a very modern world where seagulls follow
the rivers from landfill to landfill, because
they’re good examples
of adjectives: avid, famished, starving, and the whole
that means simply, I miss you.
The poem ends with a grim image of being “suffocated by polluted dust,” a casualty of “a hostile environment” in which the persistence of love does not necessarily mean its survival or ours.
These themes are animated by the interlocking plots of Monsters, at whose center lies a commune with eleven members, “a group of sweetly elated young people [who] have taken over a house and are planning a major action,” even if they “don’t yet know what.” Other events, set in office buildings, apartments, and unnamed vacation spots, take the place of this deferred rebellion. A wealthy couple disappears on holiday; two women debate whether “the world can change”; a sex worker gets paid just to sleep; three people exchange messages on “a sex site” (the more candid French is un site du cul, which literally means “ass site”); a housekeeper steals a wallet left behind in a hotel room. Conversations ricochet from the banal to the revelatory, as between this “intellectual couple, driving or pretending to be driving”:
HE: We had kids because life was so peaceful it was getting dangerous.
SHE: You really remember that or you’d like to remember that?
HE: You mean that, in fact, we were afraid of failing the exams and we didn’t know how to survive. Our parents were bugging us. Mark was an accident. Probably. But that’s the only reason to get older. You can drown everything in the lukewarm water of memory.
SHE: Everything. Almost everything, yes.
Later, the couple share a fantasy that they are about to drown—“I’ve still got a square of salted chocolate in my left pants pocket. What irony!” cries the man—and then “make love with unusual ardor,” supercharged by the thrill of rehearsing finitude in each other’s arms.
One of the men from the site du cul winds up in a jail cell, from which he directs a confession offstage or, perhaps, to the audience, a lyric apostrophe set in Bouquet’s dreamlike but earthy theater. “Listen, I’m sorry,” he begins, “I love you,” even if
I only saw you once. It’s a little crazy. But I remember that we stayed huddled together for seven hours, like barnacles against their rocks. Your back was full of light, you would’ve thought there were electric lightbulbs inside. You covered me methodically in your saliva, like a snail. We listened to our respective pulses beating at the ends of our fingertips. I exploded with happiness. I felt complete proximity, for once nowhere else except in proximity…. Please release me back out of the world where it’s possible to go everywhere.
This is about desire, yes, but it is also a theory of la vie commune, of the notion that we might live with other beings “in proximity” without collapsing into complete identification with them. Monsters refers regularly to political crises—to French fascist paranoia about refugees, to the exorbitant cost of living, to strikes, to the surveillance state, to protests “against the waste of perishable food”—and it is set in a time when people go everywhere but get nowhere, orbiting the world with and like commodities, cut off from the possibility of a truly social existence. Perhaps, Bouquet suggests, if we called that sort of existence “love,” we might long for it as ardently and explicitly as we long for the limited satisfactions of conventional romance.
Common Life is threaded with literary references—to Wordsworth, Seneca, Cicero, Inger Christensen, Takuboku Ishikawa, and, in the first lines of “As an Excuse,” Sappho’s Fragment 31. In his Latin riff on that very famous poem, which figures proximity not as communal utopia but as private torture, Catullus writes, “Ille mi par esse deo videtur/…qui sedens adversus identidem te/spectat et audit,” or “He seems to me to be like a god…he who sits opposite watching and hearing you again and again.” Bouquet too longs for a lover who is “sitting/so close,” perhaps to him or, more excruciatingly, to another, and he too describes that lover as someone who “makes the world/vibrate faster,” as Sappho’s did when longing made her ears buzz and her limbs tremble. It’s the sort of sensuous disturbance Louis Zukofsky registers in his eccentric rendition of Catullus’s lines, based as much on the sound of the Latin as on its content:
linked tongue set torpid, tenuous support a-
flame a day mown down, sound tone supped up in its
tinkling, in ears humming, twin eyes tug under
Allusions are also translations, insofar as they export language from one context to another in a way that invariably alters the original meaning. And like translation, they can suggest an essentially lateral, even democratic, relationship among literary texts, along with the notion of a culture that is communal. That, of course, is a highly idealistic proposition: culture is not held in common, and the world of literature is no more egalitarian than the world of its readers. Still, a good translation—which might be conscientious, playful, tentative, scholarly, or any other number of things, in any number of combinations—allows us to access that ideal, to act as if poems were vitally available resources for thought instead of treasures behind plate glass. It’s no accident that Bouquet’s band of subversives steals books as well as electricity.