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II. Traduire le(s) sens : exacerber le silence et les sons

Translating Sound and Resonance in Experimental Poetry from the UK: a Cross-Channel Perspective

Carole Birkan-Berz et Zoë Skoulding
p. 97-116


Cet article, fondé sur la notion introduite par Charles Bernstein d’auralité comme résonance du poème, s’intéresse à la traduction en français de la poésie expérimentale britannique. Nous nous penchons sur trois approches de la sonorité : tout d’abord le jeu entre parole et perception dans la poésie de Carol Watts (traduite collectivement par les étudiants de master de l’université Paris Diderot), puis la question du poème lyrique polyphonique et de l’inarticulation dans le contexte du deuil dans la poésie de Denise Riley (traduite par Martine Chardoux), et enfin la question des échos et résonances linguistiques dans la poésie de Jeff Hilson (traduite par Carole Birkan-Berz, avec la collaboration d’Auxeméry). Conjointement à l’étude des traductions au sens strict, nous examinons les stratégies apparentées à la traduction qui ont cours dans ces poèmes et qui attirent l’attention du lecteur sur l’auralité. Par ce biais est étudiée la question de l’écoute dans les deux langues, à travers les pratiques imbriquées de la poésie et de la traduction.

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  • 1 . The term “experimental” will be used here to denote the broad area of non-mainstream UK poetry, (...)
  • 2 . Tom Raworth’s translated work includes, 1996, Jazz, trans. P. Alferi, Format Américain, Un Burea (...)

1The backdrop to this study is the relative lack of French translations of experimental poetry from the UK as opposed to the abundance of experimental work translated from the USA1. A cursory look at exchanges between French and anglophone poetics reveals that the institutional avenues for translation of anglophone poetry into French are mainly devoted to American poetry. From the organisation and publisher Un Bureau sur l’Atlantique fronted by Emmanuel Hocquard, with its translation project at the Abbaye de Royaumont, to Double Change, the Parisian organiser of bilingual readings, or the READ translation seminar organised by Cole Swensen, all these projects focus mainly on translating American work. When British poets have been translated—as in the case of Tom Raworth2—, this appears to be an exception to the rule and not part of an institutional structure, although one should bear in mind Jacques Darras’s translations of Basil Bunting and David Jones, as well as his publication of the important anthology by Pierre Joris and Paul Buck, Matières d’Angleterre (1984).

  • 3 . See Jean-Michel Maulpoix’s overview of French poetry since the 1950s on his website http://www.m (...)
  • 4 . See V. Forrest-Thomson, 1978, Poetic Artifice: A Theory of Twentieth-Century Poetry, Manchester, (...)
  • 5 . A phrase coined by Nathalie Sarraute in her landmark critique of the founding principles of the (...)

2The invisibility of British experimental poetics in the French intellectual landscape parallels its status in the UK, where the mainstream has more institutional support in general. Still, the relative absence of British experimental poetry in French translation is paradoxical. While the UK and US mainstreams have been founded on an empiricist linking of perception and expression, what they have tended to exclude has been closer to French poetry. Indeed, according to some critics, contemporary French poetry has retained some of the more difficult features of symbolisme, among which “Baudelaire’s stark and disjunctive images, the splitting of the subject in Rimbaud, the acute problematising of reference in Mallarmé” (Perloff, 1990: 64). Furthermore, having left behind surrealism and poésie engagée (committed poetry), French poetry from the 1950s onwards exhibits a distrust of poetic artifice, which then turns into a more general mistrust of language3. In Britain as in France, much experimental poetry has been influenced by philosophical traditions that problematise language and perception. One key figure in this respect is Veronica Forrest-Thomson, who drew on Wittgenstein to highlight the impossibility of expressing, or even of experiencing, a non-linguistic reality4. Forrest-Thomson was also active in translating the poetry of the Tel Quel review, which responded to social sciences, psychoanalysis and deconstruction and furthered the post-war “era of suspicion”5, calling language into question with regards to all the foundations of culture. These similarities and connections make it all the more surprising that British experimental poetry is not well known in France.

3This paper aims to discover what is at stake in specific instances of translation from English to French. It will consider what is being listened to and what may be going unheard, bearing in mind that hearing and listening have been differently interpreted. Jean-Luc Nancy comments:

To listen is tendre l’oreille—literally, to stretch the ear—an expression that evokes a singular mobility, among the sensory apparatuses, of the pinna of the ear—it is an intensification and a concern, a curiosity and an anxiety. […] If “to hear” is to understand the sense […] to listen is to be straining toward a possible meaning, and consequently one that is not immediately accessible. (Nancy, 2007 [2002]: 5-6)

4While straining towards a possible meaning is an important aspect of translation, poetry’s relationship between the sound and sense of language means that the activities of hearing and listening are closely entwined. Drawing on Reuven Tsur and Roman Jakobson, Charles Bernstein uses the terms in a different but related sense, suggesting that “poetry creates something of the conditions of hearing (not just listening to) a foreign language—we hear it as language, not music, or noise; yet we cannot immediately process its meaning” (Bernstein, 1998: 18). The following discussion is located within these tensions. It will also make use of Bernstein’s term “audiotext” (ibid.: 12), which draws attention to the material sounding of the poem, and to his distinction between orality and aurality:

By aurality I mean to emphasize the sounding of the writing, and to make a sharp contrast with orality and its emphasis on breath, voice, and speech—an emphasis that tends to valorize speech over writing, voice over sound, listening over hearing, and indeed, orality over aurality. (Ibid.: 13)

  • 6 . Henri Meschonnic’s insistence on Mallarmé’s “le poème, énonciateur” (S. Mallarmé, 1945, “Crise d (...)

5The value of this term for Bernstein is that it stresses the poem and its acoustic performance rather than the poet. American poetry has appealed to many French translators, but its aurality is difficult to translate into French6. Although strategies have been offered to overcome these difficulties in relation to American poetry, the lack of institutional support for translation of UK poetry means that its more experimental areas, which often draw on American-influenced aurality, have presented translators with considerable challenges.

Methodology and choice of translated texts

  • 7 . While Folkart’s work is often devoted to metrical poetry, and what transpositions of meter may b (...)

6In translating and analysing translations of experimental poetry, we start from the viewpoint that the unit of translation is the poem, and therefore must be translated into another poem, albeit one that may not be understood at first reading. Therefore we propose singular analyses of poems upon which translation analyses or new translations are then grounded. When analysing translations or suggesting new ones, we draw on the work of Barbara Folkart, for whom a translation must be “writerly” in order to be “poetically competent” (Folkart, 2007: 13-14). This means that the translator creates a poem that not only makes up a unit of form and content but also—and crucially for experimental poetics—is able to surprise the reader with what she calls “second finding[s]” (ibid.: 122)7. In assessing the difficulties of transposing the poem from English into French on the micro-level, we propose using contrastive linguistics to analyse how the phonic mechanics of the work may or may not be transposed. Moreover, we also need to bear in mind issues of poetic tradition which pose obstacles to rendering the phonic or aural dimension of the text.

7As far as language is concerned, the Germanic component in the English language makes onomatopoeic, monosyllabic words predominant in some of the sound-based poetry under discussion here, and although “four fifths” of English words are actually of Romance or Classical origin (Crystal, 2004: 43), monosyllabic lines are difficult to match in French. Moreover, sound-driven poetry is more liable to develop in English because of its flexibility of flexion. Partly because of its numerous etymological strands, English also benefits from a wide-ranging vocabulary, which promotes paronomasia and intra-linguistic echoing. In terms of words associated with the senses, French often has a generic hyperonym (say “sifflement”), while English will favour the specific, monosyllabic hyponym (“whistle”, “whiz”, “hiss”, etc) (Vinay & Darbelnet, 1977 [1958]: 60-61). Finally, there is the added obstacle of the rift between the spoken and the written language in French.

8This last consideration leads us to consider a problem in the French poetic tradition: while avant-garde poets in the 1960s and 70s revered American poetry for its “spoken” otherness, this was not something French poets wanted to echo in their own language. Serge Gavronsky argues that “avant-garde poetics in France has no place for the inscription of a spoken text” (Gavronsky, 1994: 42). This may be due to the gap between spoken and literary registers or to the emphasis that French poets tend to place on the written-ness of poetry, on the idea and practice of poetry as écriture, or visual trace. We therefore ask whether it is possible to retain an aural trace in French, as is the case in English. Translating for sound implies that sound has a crucial importance in the source text—that the poems may have been sound-driven in their creation. However, much of avant-garde French poetry—especially the literalist, minimalist tradition—outwardly rejects such a search for sound effects (in the same way as it rejects other artifices of poetic diction and narrative).

9We wish to look at three categories in the translation of sound. First we wish consider the play between speech and perception in the poetry of Carol Watts, translated collectively by the graduate students of Paris Diderot University. We then would like to examine multivocal lyric and inarticulacy in the context of mourning (Denise Riley, translated by Martine Chardoux), and finally focus on linguistic soundings and echoes as present in the poetry of Jeff Hilson (translated by Carole Birkan-Berz and Auxeméry). By examining, alongside the translations, the translation-like strategies at work in the source texts that focus attention on aurality, we attempt to investigate listening across the overlapping practices of poetry and translation in both languages.

Carol Watts, When blue light falls8

  • 8 . References to this pamphlet are to sections as the pages are unnumbered.

10ZS: When blue light falls is the first in a series of pamphlets described in the introductory note as “cyanometric”, that is, concerned with the measurement of the blueness of the sky. In this sequence of sixteen poems—the sparse even-numbered ones all appearing before the denser odd-numbered ones—, the numerical construction underlines the reference to scientific method. Yet, despite the focus on empirical observation, there is a degree of abstraction in Watts’s work that is similar to certain kinds of painterly abstraction; it is rich in sense description but draws our attention back to its own materials, the visual scoring of sound in the space of the page.

11The intense focus on blue makes the signifier fragment sonically into its etymological history:

in name opening on to
exhalation at root
a burning
(Watts, 2008: section 14)

  • 9 . Here we might note the interesting appearance in the French text of “blême”, connotating pallor (...)

12The historical indeterminacy of colour description is also played out through sound. The PIE root bhel, meaning “flash” or “burn” provides not only black and blue but also “bleach” in English and “blanc” in French9. What might appear to be black and white is in fact not so; the only constant is sound as the exhalation of a word passes nomadically through different languages.

13In Bernstein’s terms, we hear language as foreign at this point, rather than “just” listening to its meaning, and it is revealed as already containing translation within it. In Nancy’s frame of thought, however, the poem also invites us to listen, straining for meaning because the blue is not resolved by semantic relationships and seems to hover just out of reach. Although Nancy places listening and seeing in opposition, they may here coincide, as in Roland Barthes’ statement that: “to listen is to adopt an attitude of decoding what is obscure, blurred, or mute, in order to make available to consciousness the ‘underside’ of meaning” (Barthes, 1985 [1976]: 249).

14Listening as an attitude of decoding is present in the exploratory nature of Watts’s work, which does not reach a point of resolution but continually opens fields of enquiry, for example “yet it is uncertain // if there is this habitat of blue // to speak of” (Watts, 2008: section 8). The poise and tone of these doubts are difficult to translate because they also depend on Watts’s ability to hear language as foreign, as she describes:

I’d always picked up on American cadences alongside English traditions, the directness of sound and speech. Growing up in Britain in the sixties, a kind of American timbre came through in music, film, and especially on TV. […] There are frequencies I look for. I’ve found that travelling in the US has allowed me to hear them, the everyday differences and attachments.10

15A journey across North Dakota was the backdrop for the writing of When Blue Light Falls, and the directness of sound and speech is evident on the page, not only in sometimes specifically American word choices, like “skeeters of the floor” (ibid.: section 13) or “spread to the teller’s” (ibid.: section 11), but also in very concise lines recalling the objectivist legacy, particularly that of Lorine Niedecker, whom Watts notes as a key influence.

16The audiotext marks the tension between the listening of conceptual enquiry and the hearing of language as sound, since the spaces halt and estrange the speech-like qualities of the text. Section 2, which begins the pamphlet, turns on questions of absence and presence. A speaker and a relationship are established through “your skin // and mine” but the paradox of light as both physical and intangible is suspended in the short lines that draw attention to durée, light as time “gaping for // the next” (ibid.: section 2). A focus on aurality reveals the poem’s relationship with time. “The new prosody”, writes Bernstein, “requires an engagement not with abstract time but with duration and its microtones, discontinuities, striations, and disfluencies” (Bernstein, 1998: 14). In the dialogue between inner speech and writing, sound becomes the concrete element. In poetry that might seem relatively abstract, like section 14, which continues the exploration of absence in the lines “since blue is its // extinguishing”, there is a speech-like idiom in the repetition from the previous page of “take a chance” (Watts, 2008: sections 12/14), which in both cases is part of a longer phrase but syntactically foregrounded by a line break that directs attention to the audiotext.

17CBB: Watts’s directness of sound and speech presents a difficulty for French. Translators may wish to compensate for this by increasing the musicality of the passage, increasing the reliance on alliteration and assonance. Thus, a passage like “cold sting of // hail flung // out” (ibid.: 3) is aptly rendered as “piqûre froide // de la grêle battante” (Collaborative Translation), with its alliteration in /r/ and /t/ especially as used in rough-sounding consonant clusters. Such sound effects have also been translated intersemiotically into effects of écriture, with the translator choosing two words bearing a circumflex, as if to stress the prickling effect of the hail. Hence, directness of sound and speech may be rendered via musical or visual effects.

  • 11 . CT replaces Collaborative Translation throughout the article; this translation is to be publishe (...)

18One further aspect of the sparseness of the lines is the overwhelming use of the zero article—the indefinite article—as well as the reliance on flexibility of flexion. This produces abstraction and instability, making meaning dependent on illocution and performance or on association with other elements in the poem. For example, in the first section, that blue light // opening might point to three different meanings: “an opening of blue light”, “a blue light that opens” or “a blue light that opens onto something”. Since syntax becomes unstable, the silent reader is led to construct it in flux, in the aural movement of the text. As in Nancy’s depiction of “écoute”, the reader is made to strain his/her ear for meaning, to ascertain where meaning might “enter” or be constructed from. This degree of abstraction and fluidity poses difficulties in translation. Here, the translators have chosen qui s’ouvre (CT11) as an interpretative translation. However, the line break and flush-right spacing of the word opening may point toward the polysemy of “ouvrant” (“opening” or “opening onto”) as a less restrictive, more kinaesthetic translation, enabling the reader to follow a movement in the text.

  • 12 . See for example, M. Bishop, 1995, Contemporary French Women Poets, volume II, Amsterdam, Rodopi. (...)

19In this analysis of translations of Watts’s work into French, it may be useful to compare her poetry with that of an avant-garde French poet who has been received as abstract and who is well-known among British experimental poets12. Indeed Anne-Marie Albiach’s overwhelming use of conceptual nouns is concurrent with a pervasive use of the definite article, making for a straightforward, unambiguous syntax. In translating When blue light falls, the choice of the definite article to render Watts’s zero articles in most cases seems to bring the English poem closer to a French littéral poetics. But Albiach and other 1970s French poets’ littéralité is not the equivalent of the grammatically derived aural instability of a UK experimental poem. For example, “when it came down” (Watts, 2008: section 2) is much more open to interpretation than “quand elle est descendue” (CT), in which the gendered pronoun automatically pinpoints to cette lumière (ibid.), while the English “it” could point to light or opening. So, while the English text favours movement and instability within syntax, eliciting a straining of the ear on the part of the reader, the French poem sometimes points to an instability of meaning outside the text, especially when definite articles do not seem to refer to shared references outside the text: “morning” / “le matin” (Watts, 2008: section 2); “reticence” / “la réticence”, (ibid.: section 4 etc). Interestingly, while Albiach tends to use extremely flat—though unpunctuated—syntax, her sounding out of the poems during her readings reintroduces aural instability as she has recourse to non-standard intonation. In other words, translation here displaces not only meaning but the very way in which it may or may not be construed. This process is also at work in Riley’s text.

Denise Riley—“A Part Song”

  • 13 . See also Z. Skoulding, 2013, “Misremembered Lyric and Orphaned Music”, in Peter Robinson (ed.), (...)

20ZS: Denise Riley’s “A Part Song” returns to the orphic roots of lyric poetry as the poem calls out to the poet’s dead son13. The autobiographical aspect of the poem is documented in Riley’s prose text Time Lived, Without Its Flow, where, in describing the suspension of time in bereavement, she writes:

[Y]ou find yourself camped on a threshold between inside and out. The slight contact of your senses with the outer world, and your interior only thinly separated from it, like a membrane resonating on the verge between silence and noise. […] If it were to tear through, there’s so little behind your skin that you would fall out towards the side of sheer exteriority. Far from taking refuge deeply inside yourself, there is no longer any inside, and you have become only outwardness. (Riley, 2012b: 19)

21This is a development from ideas explored in several of Riley’s earlier poems, particularly “Outside from the Start” (Riley, 2000: 47), which draws on Merleau-Ponty’s statement in The Phenomenology of Perception, “Nothing determines me from outside, not because nothing acts upon me, but on the contrary because I am from the start outside myself and open to the world” (Merleau-Ponty, 1962 [1945]: 406). In Time Lived, Riley explores new tensions in her thinking. She recounts the physical difficulty of saying “disposal of his ashes” when in her head the thought had been “clearly if silently voiced” (Riley, 2012b: 39). She goes on to comment, significantly in the context of translation, “Previously I hadn’t believed that speech is simply the translation of something already formulated in thought. Now I was faced with the evidence that sometimes it is, but that the translation can fail” (ibid.: 39).

22This does not mean that interior thought is experienced more strongly in grief, but, on the contrary, that the complete disappearance of interiority changes the body’s relationship with speech. In the inarticulacy of grief, the body and its attempted utterance are equally estranged: “‘Ah-aassh-aashhes’, came a dry stammer.” (ibid.: 38)

23Drawing attention to language’s exteriority, and its failures of transmission, Riley’s poetry similarly foregrounds the role of aurality as a phonic property of writing. From the emphasis in the first line, “You principle of song, what are you for now” (Riley, 2012a: section i), or the syncopation of “Neither my note nor my critique of it/Will save us one iota. I know it. And” (ibid.: section ii), to the quotation of “Not so hard/To imagine what her mother had gone through” (ibid.: section viii), the polyrhythmic effects of performance are marked in the written text to create the “maximum inflexion of different, possibly dissonant, voices” (Bernstein, 1998: 15).

24The influence of more than one generation of the New York School is an element in Riley’s handling of voice, in which, as in the case of Frank O’Hara or Alice Notley, speech rhythms form the malleable substance from which the poem is made. “A Part Song” is not so much a process of expressing grief as of articulating it, that is, separating it into distinct audible elements. This resonates with Riley’s view of affect as already audible, in the inner ear, as the external action of language through which emotion becomes intelligible. In interrogating the principle of song, Riley sets fragmented verse, sometimes hymn-like or mythological, alongside speech-like idioms to create a dense aural patterning. The replay of heard or imagined voices is a central theme of her prose work on the coercive and harmful internalising of speech (Riley, 2005: passim). These voices surface in this poem as the background noise of guilt:

What is the first duty of a mother to a child?
At least to keep the wretched thing alive—Band
Of fierce cicadas, stop this shrilling.
(Riley, 2012a: section 

25Song may be an effort to replace that persistent and uninvited noise with a more willed and deliberate shaping of sound, yet it cannot be expressive freedom. “She do the bereaved in different voices” (ibid.: section xix), itself a half-quotation of Eliot quoting Dickens, signals the extent to which the poem presents enunciation as integral to the writing process. There is also a link with performance, in the sense of part as a role:

   Yet might there still be some part for me
To play upon this lovely earth? Say. Or
No, earth at my inner ear.
Ibid.: section v)

26Earth here suggests both the Shakespearean image of world-as-stage and, in its second occurrence, the material substance to which death returns us. The resistance of earth at my inner ear places the process of listening within that context of separation, the material fact of the body’s finality, a noisy interruption to the redemptive possibilities of song, which will never offer the pure transmission between living and dead for which it reaches

27The voice of the dead son, “echoey” and “tuned out by the noise”, is “not like hearing you live was” (ibid.: section xii). In this case, live could be a verb—as chosen in the translation—, or an adjective, though the second possibility—Riley’s own choice in her reading of the text—, implying live versus recorded music, would heighten the sense of the lyric mechanism through which the voice is now heard. If not live, the voice is mediated through the recording of memory. Nancy writes that “Sound is also made of referrals: it spreads in space, where it resounds while still resounding ‘in me,’ as we say […]” (Nancy, 2007 [2002]: 9). The echoing calls of the lost son draw the lyric subject into a heightened sense of listening, but also reveal that subjectivity itself as a space of referrals, expanding on Merleau-Ponty’s view of the subject’s exteriority. Translation of the poem becomes a further step in the process of listening and referral.

28CBB: Martine Chardoux’s translation of “A Part Song” as “Chœur d’adieux” for the poetry journal Inuits dans la jungle is published with an introduction to the poem, presumably authored by its translator (Riley, 2014: 111-120). As not all poems in the journal are prefaced with such an introduction, it seems relevant to look at this liminal text as introducing elements from the source text, which may or may not be conveyed in translation. The short preface introduces the reader to Riley’s work by underlining the jeopardising of lyric by thought or emotion as poetry buckles under the weight of language. It sets the stage for a poem in multiple, decentred voices. “A Part Song” is then introduced as a “série” (series) of twenty poems—though the appropriate word here should be sequence or the French “suite”—, whose title suggests choral music, role play and separation. It is also presented as an elegy, a quest for a resurrection song. The introduction quotes Riley’s Time Lived on the atemporality of grief and presents the sections as “stylistic variations on the theme of death” (ibid.: 112), while giving the reader a clue about embedded allusions or quotations in the texts, from Shakespeare and Wordsworth to Emily Dickinson. Chardoux’s translation by and large seems to stem from the tradition of version or versioning, which aims to transpose English into elegant French, while striving for the utmost lexical accuracy. However, the translator also evinces a desire to make the lines sonorous.

29In “A Part Song”, the strongest feature of Riley’s poem is indeed the concatenation of voices, which is typical of the elegy, but performed with a twist. Indeed, Riley’s chorus is almost entirely the speaker’s own, as she sounds out the ways that society or culture deal with death. In this respect, the title “Chœur d’adieux”, with its implicit pun on “cœur” (heart) is extremely apt as it not only translates the main trope of the poem but also makes the reader alert to the social character of the elegy. As for the variations in tone and registers, the tradition of version or versioning seems to have made the translator more at ease in formal registers, as in the very lyrical and visual sections in xvii, xx or in the beautifully translated quotation from section x. The translation is also sometimes very successful in introducing lively, sometimes resonant colloquialisms in the text “Maman fait grise mine” (ibid.: 114) for “This is one glum mum” (Riley, 2012a: section vii) or “espèce de sans-cœur” (Riley, 2014: 115) for “you indifferent lad” (Riley, 2012a: section vii) or still the French psychobabble for “slow to ‘take it in’” (ibid.: section ix) (lente à “l’intégrer”), (Riley, 2014: 115). At other times though, the translation shifts from the original colloquialism to a register that is much lower. Indeed, it is unlikely a grieving mother would call her dead son “espèce de petit con” (ibid.: 114)—though an affectionate “p’tit con, va” might render the affectionate “you daft bugger” in section vii. This phenomenon however is attributable to the wide chasm that exists in French between the spoken and written language, and needs to be negotiated carefully to replicate the finer discrepancies or striations heard in Riley’s work.

  • 14 . W. Shakespeare, 1991 [1611], La Tempête, trans. P. Leyris and E. Holland, Paris, Flammarion.

30It is also in the sounding of language and lyric through poetry that a mode of translation which favours accuracy faces certain issues. How is it possible to render the densely allusive texture of Riley’s text? One attitude might be to point the reader towards the sources of the text in an introduction but not attempt to render the allusions themselves. One might argue however that certain Shakespearean allusions are close to a shared European culture and might have benefited from a reworking from an existing translation of the quoted text. Hence, the last section, a reworking of Ariel’s Song heralded by references to The Tempest in the previous sections (“O let me be” (Riley, 2012a: section xx), a rewriting of “Let your indulgence set me free” might have been translated with the help of Pierre Leyris’ version of “Full Fathom Five”, which places the key-word corail at the end of a line to chime with “sommeil”14. Thus we might suggest an alternative translation of Riley’s last lines:

Ô mère, laisse-moi reposer
Dans une tombe calme
La poussière de mes os est frêle corail
Sous la lourde vague.

31In a less lexically faithful, more adaptive translation of the poem, Riley’s quotations and allusions to famous British national elegies might also have been reworked as quotations from well-known French elegies (Lamartine’s “Le Lac” or Apollinaire’s “Le Pont Mirabeau”). Clearly, the desire for accuracy and elegance may sometimes have led the translator to eschew words which could have been more resonant. Instead of translating hearing you live as “t’entendre vivant” (Riley, 2014: 115-116), one might have opted for a retaining of the English live, which, though very informal, is transparent in French. Conversely, the word “chinos” (Riley, 2012a: section xviii) might have been translated as the borrowed word “dockers”, which might have suggested docks, or the waters of the Lethe…

32Although Riley’s distance from traditional lyricism may be what could appeal to a French reader, it is striking that it is the very distancing from or negotiating with lyric, in irony, quotation, allusion and lyric sounding that seems to have been most difficult to translate, while the lyrical passages seems to have been rendered seamlessly.

Jeff Hilson—In The Assarts15

33ZS: Jeff Hilson writes of his sonnet sequence In the Assarts that it is “my most explicit attempt to grapple with, as a British poet, my debt to US poetry”16. The sense of voice as simultaneously intimate and multiple is reminiscent of Bernadette Mayer, while the cut-up sonnets of Ted Berrigan are also detectable as an influence. However, the techniques of the second-generation New York School are fully relocated in a British context, and the written aurality of the text reveals that spoken language is inseparable from the power relations that shape place. In their magazine publication in onedit, the poems are titled “naïve sonnets”. In what sense are they naïve, and why? Some answers emerge in a reading of the first sonnet:

And with my “whoso” list
as if we are walking in a Norman forest.

Sometimes I think we all need a little
forest glossary
so that game might be driven towards us.
They fled with my dole hey
that’s my share of the countryside!
Give them thy finger in the forêt de Nancy.
Into the countryside
with my dole!

Or let them roam on lonely moats.

A vast moat beautifies
where she is going.
Is where she is going far?

34The performance here is of a voice mishearing language and, through a finely-tuned comic irony, revealing the political conditions that create the speaker’s lostness. Thomas Wyatt’s 16th century “Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind” turns into the “Who’s Who” list of the landowning classes; the textual forest evoked by Wyatt’s sonnet, with its conflation of woman and deer is one in which both humans and animals are prey for those in power. The diminutive mock-innocence of little // forest glossary highlights the extent to which mishearing and misunderstanding an alien language can exclude the powerless, with reference to John Langton’s glossary from his Forests and Chases in England and Wales, c. 1000 to c. 185017. The word forest itself, from the Latin foris (outside), derives from the Norman kings’ exercise of hunting rights in certain areas owned by the crown and outside the law of the land. In this context, to assart (from French essarter), or to make a clearing for arable land, was a dangerous act of trespass. The historical relationship in Britain between English and the French spoken by a landowning élite makes French a difficult target language for the translation of Hilson’s critique of class power, since a form of translation already takes place within Assarts where its punning turns on the linguistic history of class division within English. Dole in its Latinate sense related to the English word dolour sounds through numerous sonnets, but dole is also cognate through a Germanic origin with “deal”—Langton’s glossary lists it as ‘hurdle stake—and related to the theme of dividing and ownership of land. Unemployment benefit may be a recent version of this share of the countryside but it is just as vulnerable to theft by those in power. The subversive gesture, Give them thy finger, clashes with the forêt de Nancy not just because it is in a different language but because the “naïve” speaker refuses, according to the tactics of the poem, to acknowledge the temporal gap between the benefit claimant and the landscape controlled by medieval aristocracy18.

35The sonorousness of lines 11 and 12 is sharply undercut by the awkward syntax of the lines which follow, as if they are quotations that cannot be assimilated into the voice of the “naïve” speaker. The sonnet is used not to embody a “little song” but to juxtapose song, speech, formality and colloquialism, in violent terms that disrupt the power relations inherent in this aristocratic form. Hilson’s deliberately dispossessed English, sounded against antique francophone legal terminology, Renaissance form and the techniques of American experimentation, foregrounds listening as a located activity in which translation is always taking place.

Et me voilà parti sur ces brisées
comme en forêt normande pour aller chasser.
Parfois je me dis qu’il nous faudrait à tous
un petit glossaire forestier
pour nous guider jusqu’au gibier.
Ils ont fui, avec mon chaumage, hé
mais, c’est à moi ce bout de la campagne
J’ai l’honneur de vous envoyer promener en Forêt de Nancy.
Allez ! dans la cambrousse
avec mon chaumage
Ou allez donc arpenter de vastes douves à chagrin…
Une vaste douve rend plus beau
ce chemin qu’elle arpente.
Et ce chemin, la mène-t-il loin ?

36In this last section, I want to delve self-critically into a translative enterprise that involved rendering poetic sound and linguistic resonance, as well as attempting to provide a “writerly” (Folkart, 2007: 13-14) translation of an experimental text. My translation of Jeff Hilson’s work was not requested by the author nor by the publisher but was prompted by a desire to give the French reader a sense of a kind of poetry which was at once immediate and highly referential, at once full of comic, bathetic effects but not devoid of emotion, and highly modern in its non-standard syntax and grammar.

37The immediacy of Assarts is what first struck me—especially as I first became acquainted with these poems in performance rather than in print. I wanted to capture some of the sonic power that these poems had in my aural recollection of them. In order to recapture this, I attempted to use as much of the vernacular language as possible and also did so in a bid to escape French as the language of the “civilised” coloniser. The second step was to use Clive Scott’s method of tabular translation to sharpen the rhythmic edges of the poem, thrown into relief in the original by the Berrigan-inspired cut and paste technique (Scott, 2011: 12). I adhered to the 14 lines of the sonnet but was very flexible with lineation within that framework. In order to heighten certain rhythmic effects, I sometimes used rhyming—sometimes consonantal, as in section 5—as well as assonance and alliteration. Retrospectively, I felt this might take some of the pathos/bathos tone away from the poem and, with the help of Auxeméry, decided to make some of these edges smoother by sometimes elevating language register or sacrificing some rhythmic effects for increased verbal accuracy.

  • 19 . P. Muldoon, 2011, “Contemporary Poets and the Sonnet: a Trialogue”, in A.D. Cousins and P. Howar (...)

38Another immediate feature of Assarts is the literary and linguistic echoing which pervades the text. How was it possible to render such soundings for a French audience? These make up a weft of past and modern-day references—often somewhat nostalgic—bringing together many of the poems in the sequence. My strategy here was one of adaptation. It was not long before I located similar, archaic idioms for aspects of forestry, which were, not surprisingly, close to the English (verderer for instance translates as verdier or Maître des eaux et forêts). Using a French forest glossary, I was able to use some of the words in order to re-create punning effects in French such as mon chaumage, pronounced like “mon chômage” (my unemployment benefit) in order to translate the polysemic dole. With this word I hinted at commoners’ pre-enclosure rights to glean hay from fields, a connotation which was in keeping with the original poem. A few adapted cultural references worked their way into the text by way of felicitous accidents. Within an adaptive framework, I felt free to add references which could be part of the poet’s and/or the poem’s larger frame of reference, even if they were not used in the text. Some of the references I added were from Revolutionary song (section 5) and calendar idiom (section 7), to render the strong sense of social justice, albeit tinged with irony. In that sense, what Hilson says of poetry is also true of translation: when working in an experimental vein, references “feed unconsciously into the poem, […] sometimes in unexpected, exhilarating ways”19. It might be possible for instance for a French reader to read “oh Barbara” (section 7) as a line from Jacques Prévert’s “Quelle connerie la guerre”, or to hear in the first poem’s douve an echo of Yves Bonnefoy’s seminal sonnets…

39Finally, having adapted certain English references into French ones, it was important to reassert the Englishness of the text. I resorted to what Jean Szlamowicz has termed “residual translation”, the injection of understandable English content into a French text (Szlamowicz: 2011): hence the use of “Bye bye” to translate “So long” (Hilson, 2010: section 12) and the appearance of “la Miss” or the recreated pun on “galettes anglaises”. Retrospectively, I would have liked American dimension of the text to be rendered more forcefully in this translation.


40What is evident overall through these samples, although they cannot represent the full range of British experimental poetry, is a relationship with American aurality that is on the one hand familiar to the context of French translation because of existing contacts with the USA, but, on the other, challenging because of the relative scarcity of speech-based tendencies in French poetry that would provide equivalent poetic modes. We have shown how issues of perception, lyric expression and political critique are nuanced not only by translation into French but also through interlingual and cross-cultural echoes in the source texts that bypass national boundaries. While the length of this paper has limited us to considering translation in one direction only, fuller mutual exchange in a cross-channel écoute would reveal both the relevance of American poetics and the distinctive relationships between these two neighbouring European traditions in France and the UK.

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Corpus texts

Hilson, Jeff, 2010, In The Assarts, London, Veer Books,

Dans les Essarts, trans. Carole Birkan-Berz, Double Change No. 6, forthcoming.

Riley, Denise, 2000, Selected Poems, London, Reality Street Editions.

, 2005, Impersonal Passion: Language as Affect, London, Duke University Press.

, 2012a, “A Part Song”, London Review of Books, vol. 34, No. 4, p. 14.

, 2012b, Time Lived, Without its Flow, London, Capsule Editions.

, 2014, “Chœur d’adieux”, trans. Martine Chardoux, Inuits dans la jungle, no. 5, p. 111-120

Watts, Carol, 2008, When Blue Light Falls, Hunstanton, Oystercatcher Press.

, “Quand tombe la lumière bleue”, collaborative translation by the Literary Translation Master’s students, université Paris Diderot, Double Change, No. 6, forthcoming.

Works cited

Barthes, Roland, 1985 [1976], “Listening”, The Responsibility of Forms, trans. Richard Howard, New York, Hill and Wang.

Bernstein, Charles, 1998, Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word, New York, Oxford University Press.

Crystal, David, 2004. The Language Revolution, Cambridge, Polity Press.

Folkart, Barbara, 2007, Second Finding: A Poetics of Translation, Ottawa, University of Ottawa Press.

Game, Jérôme (éd.), 2005, Action poétique, No. 179: “Angleterre: 7 poètes”, Paris, Les Belles Lettres.

Gavronsky, Serge, 1994, Toward a New Poetics: Contemporary Writing in France, Berkeley, University of California Press.

Joris, Pierre and Buck, Paul (eds), 1984, Matières d’Angleterre : anthologie bilingue de la nouvelle poésie anglaise, Amiens, In’hui / Trois Cailloux.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, 1962 [1945], Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith, New York, Humanities Press.

Nancy, Jean-Luc, 2007 [2002], Listening, trans. Charlotte Mandell, New York, Fordham University Press.

Perloff, Marjorie, 1990, “Traduit de l’américain: French Representations of the ‘New American Poetry’”, in Poetic License: Essays on Modernist and Postmodernist Lyric, Evanston, University of Illinois Press, p. 53-70.

Scott, Clive, 2011, “Free verse and the Translation of Rhythm”, Thinking Verse, No. I, p. 67-101.

Szlamowicz, Jean, 2011, “L’écart et l’entre-deux : traduire la culture”, Sillages critiques, No. 12,

Vinay, J.-P. and, Darbelnet, J., 1977 [1958], Stylistique comparée du français et de l’anglais, Paris, Didier.

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1 . The term “experimental” will be used here to denote the broad area of non-mainstream UK poetry, usually from small presses. It is, furthermore, a definition that is relative rather than absolute, emerging from complex histories of affiliation and resistance. The examples discussed here may not consistently exhibit a high level of linguistic disruption, but their identification as “experimental” comes as much from a political stance against the grain of language as from purely formal considerations.

2 . Tom Raworth’s translated work includes, 1996, Jazz, trans. P. Alferi, Format Américain, Un Bureau sur l’Atlantique. Also worth noting is the special issue of Action poétique entitled “Angleterre 7 poètes” (Game, 2005).

3 . See Jean-Michel Maulpoix’s overview of French poetry since the 1950s on his website

4 . See V. Forrest-Thomson, 1978, Poetic Artifice: A Theory of Twentieth-Century Poetry, Manchester, Manchester University Press, p. 66, and for a French reception of the author A. Mounic, 2002, Les tribulations de Perséphone : poésie, autre, au-delà : Kathleen Raine, Stevie Smith, Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Paris, L’Harmattan.

5 . A phrase coined by Nathalie Sarraute in her landmark critique of the founding principles of the novel. N. Sarraute, 1956, L’ère du soupçon : essais sur le roman, Paris, Gallimard.

6 . Henri Meschonnic’s insistence on Mallarmé’s “le poème, énonciateur” (S. Mallarmé, 1945, “Crise de vers”, in Œuvres complètes, Paris, Gallimard, coll. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, p. 365) may nevertheless provide an avenue for further exploration of this theme in French poetry (H. Meschonnic, 2001, Célébration de la poésie, Paris, Verdier, p. 86).

7 . While Folkart’s work is often devoted to metrical poetry, and what transpositions of meter may be possible, we suggest that an attention to form and proportion is possible in free verse as well. See C. Birkan-Berz, 2014, “Traduire le rythme non iambique”, in Palimpsestes 27, Traduire le rythme, p. 81-99.

8 . References to this pamphlet are to sections as the pages are unnumbered.

9 . Here we might note the interesting appearance in the French text of “blême”, connotating pallor and fear, to translate black.

10 .

11 . CT replaces Collaborative Translation throughout the article; this translation is to be published in a forthcoming issue of Double Change no 6.

12 . See for example, M. Bishop, 1995, Contemporary French Women Poets, volume II, Amsterdam, Rodopi. Bishop mentions that Albiach’s first volume of poetry was published in London and describes her poetry as having some “syntactical continuity” but also many “ellipses […] generating a more nominal mode and defying the inevitable discursive, narrative impulse” (p. 134).

13 . See also Z. Skoulding, 2013, “Misremembered Lyric and Orphaned Music”, in Peter Robinson (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary British and Irish Poetry, Oxford, Oxford University Press, p. 266-285.

14 . W. Shakespeare, 1991 [1611], La Tempête, trans. P. Leyris and E. Holland, Paris, Flammarion.

15 . The poems are referred to in terms of sections or sonnets and can be found on the following website:

16 .

17 .

18 . Keith Tuma also links the forest here to Jean-Luc Nancy, who appears in a later poem

19 . P. Muldoon, 2011, “Contemporary Poets and the Sonnet: a Trialogue”, in A.D. Cousins and P. Howarth (eds), The Cambridge Companion to the Sonnet, Cambridge, Mass., Cambridge University Press, p. 6-24.

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Carole Birkan-Berz et Zoë Skoulding, « Translating Sound and Resonance in Experimental Poetry from the UK: a Cross-Channel Perspective », Palimpsestes, 28 | 2015, 97-116.

Référence électronique

Carole Birkan-Berz et Zoë Skoulding, « Translating Sound and Resonance in Experimental Poetry from the UK: a Cross-Channel Perspective », Palimpsestes [En ligne], 28 | 2015, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2015, consulté le 18 février 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/palimpsestes.2193

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Carole Birkan-Berz

Carole Birkan-Berz est maître de conférences à l’université Paris 3 – Sorbonne Nouvelle. Elle est l’auteure d’une thèse sur l’œuvre de Geoffrey Hill et de plusieurs articles sur la poésie contemporaine et la traduction.

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Zoë Skoulding

Zoë Skoulding est l’auteure de Experimental Cities: Contemporary Women’s Writing and Urban Space (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) et la traductrice de In Reality: Selected Poems de Jean Portante (Seren, 2013). Son dernier livre de poésie, The Museum of Disappearing Sounds, a été publié par Seren en 2013, après Remains of a Future City, en 2008. Elle travaille comme professeur à Bangor University.

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