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Cet article présente et analyse certaines raisons pour lesquelles l’œuvre de H.D. n’a pas encore trouvé sa place dans l’édition française, alors même qu’une quantité substantielle de sa poésie et de sa prose a déjà été traduite. Un bref état des lieux de la publication des œuvres de H.D. en français montre tout d’abord comment la dispersion éditoriale empêche une perception cohérente du rôle qu’a joué l’écrivain dans la construction du modernisme anglo-américain. L’hypothèse est ensuite avancée du rôle central d’un “paradigme traductif ” déjà présent dans l’écriture même de H.D., paradigme qui lui permet notamment de s’approprier un éthos grec par une “transmutation déviante” renforçant la position liminale de l’écrivain au sein du modernisme. C’est précisément cette transmutation que l’on voit à l’œuvre dans Notes on Thought and Vision, et il est ici suggéré que la traduction en français de cet essai permettrait de replacer la question de la liminalité au cœur même de l’esthétique propre à H.D.

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H.D. in French. A brief overview

  • 1 So far, only one French doctoral dissertation has been written solely on her work (Kerblat-Houghton (...)

1Although H.D. is still perceived in France as a marginal figure of Anglo-American Modernism,1 she is certainly not unknown to French readers today. Tribute to Freud was the first of her books to be translated as Visage de Freud (Portrait of Freud, in back translation) in 1977. Published by Denoël in a milestone series called “Freud et son temps” (“Freud and His Times”), it was clearly placed and perceived in the context of psychoanalysis rather than as H.D.’s specific oeuvre. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a number of translations came out, in two sets. On the one hand, the Editions Des Femmes brought out prose works with a view to emphasizing H.D.’s importance as a woman writer—Hermione, Bid Me To Live, and The Gift (the latter translated from its then incomplete version published by New Directions); on the other hand, the Editions La Différence published three books by H.D. in their poetry series—Sea Garden, Helen in Egypt and End to Torment—, all three in a bilingual format and translated by Jean-Paul Auxeméry, who is also the translator of (among others) Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems. To these books, one should add the publication of Hermetic Definition, which appeared in three installments in three different literary journals between 1987 and 1992—In’Hui, La Main de Singe and La Quinzaine Littéraire—, each time in the translation of Bernard Hoepffner.

2Then for quite some time—oddly corresponding to the strong revival of interest in H.D.’s work in the United States, with the publication of influential studies by Susan Stanford Friedman, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Adalaide Morris and many others—no new French translation was published. The tide changed very recently, however. In 2010, Editions Des Femmes published a new translation of Tribute to Freud, this time under the interestingly ambiguous title of Pour l’amour de Freud (For the Love of Freud), with a substantial preface by Elisabeth Roudinesco, the French historian of psychoanalysis and biographer of Jacques Lacan, who retraces H.D.’s writing career in detail and insists on the biographical and literary importance of Ezra Pound for her. Then in 2011, a translation of Trilogy by Bernard Hoepffner was published (in a bilingual edition) under the imprint of José Corti, in their influential and highly original American Poetry series.

  • 2 To give a measure of how caricaturally marginal H.D. still is in France, I cannot resist translatin (...)
  • 3 I am adapting here the terminology used by Pascale Casanova in her 1999 book La République mondiale (...)

3Both books are a sign of H.D.’s increasingly palpable presence on the French scene—although she is still a long way from being perceived as a central Modernist writer outside academic circles, in spite of the fact that Shari Benstock’s 1986 Women of the Left Bank was translated into French as early as 1987 and published by Des Femmes.2 Each was hailed by numerous and consistently positive reviews, not least because they were the work of “consecrating mediators.”3 As indicated above, Roudinesco is a leading authority on psychoanalysis, and her preface sanctions H.D.’s original and uniquely creative contribution to the history of the field; the translator of Tribute, Nicole Casanova, is interestingly among the leading French translators from German, translating only occasionally from English into French. As for Bernard Hoepffner, he is one of the most prolific translators from English currently working in France: his work includes a complete translation of no less than Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and an equally impressive one of Sir Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica; he has also taken part in a collective re-translation of James Joyce’s Ulysses in which each chapter has a different translator, and has given an entirely new translation of Twain’s oeuvre (in particular Adventures of Huckleberry Finn). Finally, José Corti is a small but historically important publishing house, notably associated with the French Surrealists; they also are the publishers of Julien Gracq, arguably one of the most influential French prose writers in the second half of 20th century. Most crucially, by being published in their American poetry series, H.D.’s Trilogy appears in a more historically coherent writing environment than ever before, since other books in the series include a volume of selected poems by E. E. Cummings, the complete poems of Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens’ Harmonium as well as the complete poems of George Oppen. Corti has also published substantial portions of Emily Dickinson’s poems and letters, a translation of Jerome Rothenberg’s anthology Technicians of the Sacred, and very recently Robert Duncan’s The Opening of the Field, Lorine Niedecker’s Paean to Place, and several collections by contemporary poets such as Peter Gizzi or Cole Swensen.

  • 4 Indeed, since its creation in 1973 by feminist activist Antoinette Fouque on political more than li (...)

4In spite of this recent effort, therefore, H.D.’s oeuvre in French is scattered across a publishing spectrum (as is often, and perhaps inevitably, the case with works in translation) that tends to overemphasize the split between the imagist poet and the prose writer—the latter being strongly, almost exclusively, associated with écriture féminine.4 This editorial split does not help French readers perceive H.D.’s groundbreaking role in Anglo-American Modernism clearly: reconfigured in a variety of contexts, the highly subversive nature of her work is somewhat toned down. It appears to be quite significant that her more experimental or problematic texts—for instance, Palimpsest in prose, or Red Roses for Bronze in poetry—should remain untranslated in French. Such editorial discontinuity also obscures H.D.’s persistent interest in the occult—the fact that Hermetic Definition was never published in book format, although it was translated in its entirety by the same translator, is quite revealing in this respect. Together with the American writer’s passion for ancient Greece, this is the aspect of her work that has virtually disappeared by being not translated. Such an erasure is all the more striking since it shows to what unfortunate extent the French reception of H.D. is out of pace with recent American scholarship, and American editorial concerns about her oeuvre. Quite characteristic in this respect is the fact that the short yet crucial essay written by H.D. in 1919, Notes on Thought and Vision, never caught the attention of any French translator or publisher; yet, a translation of this essay, published for the first time in 1982 by City Lights—a text in which H.D. suggests the essential aesthetic and psychological link between the occult and Greece—would be a good starting point to make the subversive dimension of her work more palpable for French readers.

5It should be emphasized that the unique combination of these two dimensions (Greece and the occult/the spiritual) in H.D.’s writing is itself related with an aesthetics of translation that permeates her writing as a whole, and which provides an indirect approach to crucial gender issues as well. In what follows, I would like to suggest that translation itself, as an essential mode of writing and even thinking for H.D., might be seen as formally embodying the multiple transgressions that take place simultaneously in her work—her Hellenism, her occultism, her lesbianism. In turn, as will then be briefly indicated, this translational ethos has potentially strong implications for the translation of her own writing into a foreign language, and particularly French with regards to the key terms one repeatedly finds at the core of Notes on Thought and Vision.

The Translation Paradigm in H.D.

  • 5 I borrow the verb “transmute” from Gregory, who discusses H.D.’s essay “The Wise Sappho” in the fol (...)

6One might say that by embracing classical Greek culture so intimately and making it a central feature not only of her thematic material but also of her writing process itself—as shown by Eileen Gregory in her study, H.D. and Hellenism: Classic Lines (Gregory 1987, passim)—, H.D. embarked upon a gigantic translation venture, both literally and culturally speaking. The shift in kind from translating/adapting Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis, Hyppolitus Temporizes and Ion in 1916, 1919 and 1937 respectively, to fully re-creating the myth of Helen in Helen in Egypt (published in 1961), bears witness to how comprehensively H.D. managed to re-appropriate the poetic language and cultural style of the Greeks for her own purposes. This appears even more clearly if one bears in mind H.D.’s many texts inspired by the ancient world, such as Hedylus, parts of Palimpsest, or some short stories like “Hesperia” and “Aegina.” Obviously, “translation” was for her subsumed under the more comprehensive category of “rewriting”, and thus absorbed in the huge palimpsestic task she set out to perform, culminating in the multiple levels of translation evidenced in Trilogy. As Susan Stanford Friedman summarizes, not only was “H.D.’s intent […] to remind us that ancient Greece is a palimpsest of modern Europe” (Friedman 1990a, 382), but she further attempted to transmute Greek culture—and in particular Sappho’s lyric style—into a Modernist poetics through which her own spiritual yearnings and concerns might be reflected, as well as inextricably mixed with her exploration of the borders of gender.5

  • 6 I take this opposition from the “polysystem theory” developed for the study of translation by Itama (...)

7Borders”, and more largely the concept of “liminality”, are indeed key terms to assess H.D.’s conception and practice of translation, and how these interacted with her creative poetics. Less than in a strict and linear process of faithful transcription of any Greek original, H.D. was interested in translation insofar as it helped her create an intermediary zone, or nexus, of texts characterized by a high degree of hybridism in both genre and gender. Bret L. Keeling argues that H.D. “saw translation as a means of bringing new life to ancient texts, extending rather than fixing meaning” (Keeling 195, emphasis added): one might suggest that this extension into willfully “illicit” meaning—or “unfaithful” meaning, to use an evaluative term translation critics like to wield—led her to practice translation as an oblique way to explore the related transgressions of lesbianism and occultism. Concerning the first of these two, while one might agree with Keeling’s and Gregory’s contention that H.D. did not actually translate any of Sappho’s fragments partly because she perceived (quite rightly) translation—of the classics in particular—as a male-dominated field of activity (Keeling 194; Gregory 1997, 38), one wishes to take their interpretation one step further. It may be argued, indeed, that H.D.’s alternative, “deviant” model of creative transmutation was an active strategy that helped her destabilize identities by blurring notions of authorship and authority, by challenging the distinction between primary and secondary forms of writing (Even-Zohar 298 sq.)6 and, most keenly, by conflating questions of literary genre with issues of gender. A good example of this strategy would be the meditative elaborations on fragments by Sappho which H.D. wrote around 1916-17 and later included in Heliodora (1924). As analyzed by Louis Martz in his Introduction to H.D.’s Collected Poems: 1912-1944, these transformative re-creations of the Greek poetess are masks for H.D. to describe her conflict-ridden relationship with her husband Richard Aldington (Martz, xiv-xviii). While this interpretation certainly narrows down the powerful nature of these re-creations to mere epiphenomena of their author’s biography, it allows us to perceive how, by equivocating on the identity of the lovers as she rewrites Sappho’s original, H.D. suggests a passage (a literal trans-lation) into a lesbian universe. In the process, her creative approach to translation opens up an androgynous writing space: as one of H.D.’s major styles, this reversible, transgressive form may be called a powerful “mask” indeed, if one remembers the Greek origin of this theatrical implement, used to amplify the actor’s voice and project the character’s identity or emotions more forcefully toward the public. Translation enacts the liminal persona (i.e., mask) of H.D., in which the bilingual becomes a textual incarnation of the bisexual.

8As Eileen Gregory reminds us, this liminal, or “borderline” dimension is already an essential ingredient in Sappho’s own poetics:

Perhaps the most remarkable quality of Sappho’s imagined Lesbos is the ‘liminality,’ the threshold quality, of its central mysteries, all of which reflect the goddess Aphrodite whom Sappho both serves and embodies in song. Aphrodite’s theophany occurs within mood, in the state of aphrodite, an interiorized quality of feeling indistinguishable from the numinous presence of the goddess herself. Aphrodite dissolves boundaries between inner and outer, between self and other. In the same way, the central values of Sappho’s world are at once deeply subjective and radically impersonal (god-given); they represent a deep interiority infusing an outward shape or motion, making it vibrant and golden. […] Aphrodite stands within and between seer and seen, speaker and spoken, giver and given. And the poet through the liminal rite of the poem makes the moment of her theophany a communal event. (Gregory 1990, 133)

9Emphasizing the communion of spirits at work in the theophany of love, this quote helps us see how strong the link is between H.D.’s (reinvented) Sapphics and her sense of the occult, or more largely speaking, her spiritualism. Such a link is particularly obvious in Notes on Thought and Vision, which is basically an attempt at exploring the numinous connections between mind and body established through love. Simultaneously, the fragmentary nature of these notes written in 1919—precisely at the time when H.D. was beginning her partnership with Bryher—may be seen as a textual equivalent to “Aphrodite’s theophany”: in this respect, the notes ultimately derive from H.D.’s translational attitude regarding the Greek material she had confronted all along the 1910s, and whose ethos she had fully integrated into her mode of thinking. The disconcerting nature of this text may be partly ascribed to this peculiar kind of foreignness: although not a “translation” in the strict sense of the term, Notes is rooted in a translational approach to writing. Hence its ceaseless struggle to invent a terminology that might describe the essentially liminal experience of a double vision: “Vision is of two kinds—vision of the womb and vision of the brain.” (H.D. 1982, 20)—a double language capable of accounting for the androgynous dimension she idealizes.

Translating a Hybrid Text

  • 7 One remembers of course Freud’s pronouncement about H.D. as being the “perfect bisexual”.

10Thus, the reciprocal transmutation of body into mind and vice versa, characterizing what H.D. calls “the jelly-fish states of consciousness” (H.D. 1982, 20), may be seen as an example of what might be called the “translational drive” characterizing H.D.: a complex system of multiple displacements and transgressions by which she attempts to come to terms with her liminal self.7

11In his introduction to the City Lights edition of Notes, Albert Gelpi underlines the fact that this text “is filled with dualisms that seem to split experience at all levels… But the impulse behind Notes”, he adds, “is to account for those mysterious moments in which the polarities seemed to fall away, or—more accurately—to find their contradictions lifted and subsumed into a gestalt that illuminated the crosspatch of the past and released her to the chances of the future” (H.D. 1982, 12). This characteristic is embodied textually by H.D.’s combination of binary and ternary structures in the opening section of her notes, thus giving a key to the poetics of liminality by which she attempts to preserve a “balance” between two sides—the mind/brain side and the body side—even as she introduces a third, relational, term between the two, encapsulating and superseding them both in its transparent “cap”—the “over-mind”:

Three states or manifestations of life: body, mind, over-mind.

Aim of men and women of highest development is equilibrium, balance, growth of the three at once: brain without physical strength is a manifestation of weakness, a disease comparable to cancerous growth or tumor; body without reasonable amount of intellect is an empty fibrous bundle of glands as ugly and little to be desired as body of a victim of some form of elephantiasis or fatty-degeneracy; over-mind without the balance of the other two is madness and a person so developed should have as much respect as a reasonable maniac and no more. (H.D. 1982, 17)

12Although there are three lexical items in the sequence “equilibrium, balance, growth”, one promptly realizes there are only two semantic notions, since the first two terms are synonymous. The “development” of the meaning seems to be from the more Latinate to the more Germanic term, with “balance” as a kind of performatively poised middle term. It is this term that will recur in the last sentence of the extract quoted above, but this time in a potentially “unbalanced” position: for the meaning is unclear, as we may understand either that “over-mind is madness if the other two (mind & body) are not balanced”, or “over-mind is madness if not balanced by the other two.” This ambivalence (bivalence, androgyny) is the very essence of the over-mind, of which the “translational drive” is a trace. Thus throughout Notes on Thought and Vision, the concern for a body/mind balance is woven into lexical choices and syntactic structures: prime examples would be the play on “feelers” and “feelings”, or the repeated use of the compound word “love-region” to designate both a sexual and an emotional zone occurring at once and indissolubly in the mind and the body; not to mention the triad brain, mind, intellect—from the most to the least embodied term, and from the Greek (Gk bregma: forehead) to the Latin (L intelligere: to perceive) through the hybrid of Greek/Latin (L mens: mind < Gk menos: spirit)—whose subtle counterpoint H.D. weaves in her notes.

13The translator of such a delicately crafted text must therefore proceed with extreme care not to break its underlying logic. This is particularly the case for the French translator, whose task is made difficult by the fact that—due to one of the odd tricks the evolution of sibling languages likes to play—French has no noun to express the notion of mind, even as it does have the corresponding adjective, mental in both languages! Indeed, the single French word esprit is used to mean both “mind” and “spirit.” In a text primarily concerned with defining the notion of “over-mind” and its spiritual as well as mental impact on both intellect and body, this an almost insurmountable obstacle.

14However tricky it may be, the translator should endeavor to account in his/her translation for the very “translational drive” which is the rationale, not to say the raison d’être, of H.D.’s Notes on Thought and Vision. Such a challenge shows to what extent a translation of this text into French could serve as a starting point to reorient and unify the perception of H.D.’s oeuvre in this language.

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Benstock, Shari, Women of the Left Bank, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986.

Casanova, Pascale, La République mondiale des lettres, Paris: Le Seuil, 1999.

Doolittle, Hilda, Visage de Freud (Tribute to Freud), trans. Françoise de Gruson, Paris: Denoël, coll. “Freud et son temps”, 1977.

-----, Notes on Thought and Vision & The Wise Sappho [1919], San Francisco: City Light Books, 1982.

-----, Collected Poems, 1912-1944, intro. Louis L. Martz, New York: New Directions, 1986.

-----, Hermione (HERmione), trans. Claire Malroux, Paris: Editions Des Femmes, 1986.

-----, Dis-moi de vivre (Bid Me to Live), trans. Claire Malroux, Paris: Editions Des Femmes, 1987(a).

-----, Définition hermétique, I : 1-4 (Hermetic Definition), trans. Bernard Hoepffner, In’hui 26, 1987(b).

-----, Le Don (The Gift), trans. Claire Malroux, Paris: Editions Des Femmes, 1988.

-----, Définition hermétique, II : 1-4 (Hermetic Definition), trans. Bernard Hoepffner, La Main de Singe 1, 1991.

-----, Le Jardin près de la mer (Sea Garden), trans. Jean-Paul Auxeméry, Paris: La Différence, 1992(a).

-----, Fin du tourment (End to Torment), trans. Jean-Paul Auxeméry Paris: La Différence, 1992(b).

-----, Hélène en Egypte (Helen in Egypt), trans. Jean-Paul Auxeméry. Paris: La Différence, 1992(c).

-----, Définition hermétique, II : 7-8 (Hermetic Definition), trans. Bernard Hoepffner, La Quinzaine Littéraire, 613, 1992(d).

-----, Pour l’amour de Freud (Tribute to Freud), trans. Nicole Casanova, pref. Elisabeth Roudinesco, Paris: Editions Des Femmes, 2010.

-----, Trilogie (Trilogy), trans. Bernard Hoepffner, Paris: José Corti, coll. “Série Américaine”, 2011.

Even-Zohar, Itamar, “Polysystem Theory”, Poetics Today 1 (1-2, Autumn), 1979, 287-310.

Friedman, Susan Stanford, “Creating a Women’s Mythology: H.D.’s Helen in Egypt”, Friedman, Susan Stanford & Rachel Blau DuPlessis ed., Signets. Reading H.D., Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1990(a), 373-405.

-----, Penelope’s Web. Gender, Modernity: H.D.’s Fiction, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990(b).

Gregory, Eileen, “Rose Cut in Rock: Sappho and H.D.’s Sea Garden”, Friedman, Susan Stanford & Rachel Blau DuPlessis ed., Signets. Reading H.D., Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1990, 129-154.

-----, H.D. and Hellenism: Classic Lines, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Keeling, Bret L., “H.D. and ‘The Context’: Archeology of a Sapphic Gaze”, Twentieth-Century Literature 44.2 (Summer), 1998, 176-203.

Kerblat-Houghton, Jeanne. La Création poétique dans l’œuvre de H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), Lille: Atelier National de Reproduction des Thèses, 1989.

Morris, Adalaide, How To Live/What To Do. H.D.’s Cultural Poetics, Urbana & Chicago: The University of Illinois Press, 2003.

Oudart, Clément, Les Métamorphoses du modernisme, de H.D. à Robert Duncan, Paris: Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2010.

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1 So far, only one French doctoral dissertation has been written solely on her work (Kerblat-Houghton 1989), while some comparative studies have been carried out. Thus, for instance, Clément Oudart studied the relation between H.D. and Robert Duncan as laying the foundations for an alternative history of 20th-century American poetry, based on the concept of fluid “relation” rather than influence and “schools.” (Oudart passim)

2 To give a measure of how caricaturally marginal H.D. still is in France, I cannot resist translating here a short extract from a review posted on the website of the leading French daily Le Monde, dated April 14, 2010, and commenting upon the then recent publication of Pour l’amour de Freud:
Hilda Doolittle was a rich neurotic American lesbian. An occasional poet and a novelist whose work is still read by a few initiates, she became at 47 an analysand of Freud, who was then 77. I do take an interest in Freud, but frankly I doubt I would have read Pour l’amour de Freud, had it not been for the friendly insistence of Guilaine Depis, the press attaché at Editions des Femmes. … Doolittle? Never heard of her! But Freud, yes. … H.D. was a fragile creature, longing for protection, who is said to have enjoyed being submissive. This rich scatterbrain brought up in the Moravian Church tradition found in the old patriarch a kind of Old-Testament God who comforted her without judging her.

3 I am adapting here the terminology used by Pascale Casanova in her 1999 book La République mondiale des lettres (English translation The World Republic of Letters, trans. M.B. DeBevoise, Harvard UP 2007), in which she analyzes the worldwide circulation of translated works in terms of Pierre Bourdieu’s cultural sociology.

4 Indeed, since its creation in 1973 by feminist activist Antoinette Fouque on political more than literary grounds, the Editions Des Femmes has been playing a leading role in establishing the importance of women’s writing in France.

5 I borrow the verb “transmute” from Gregory, who discusses H.D.’s essay “The Wise Sappho” in the following terms: “But H.D. in this essay seems also to identify herself with Sappho—like the ancient poet she fashions roses with stubborn endurance in time. In that transmission/transmutation of Sappho into a new time, H.D. would not choose roses as the sign of Sapphic power and beauty (Gregory 1990, 137).

6 I take this opposition from the “polysystem theory” developed for the study of translation by Itamar Even-Zohar from the late 1970s onward. In his terminology, “primary” systems are essentially dynamic and innovative (“the precondition for their functioning is the discontinuity of established models”) whereas secondary systems—to which translations by and large belong—are conservative and favor canonic practices (“Every individual product of the system will be highly predictable, and any deviation will be considered outrageous.”).

7 One remembers of course Freud’s pronouncement about H.D. as being the “perfect bisexual”.

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Bibliographical reference

Antoine Cazé, « The Translation Paradigm in H.D.’s Writing », Caliban, 35 | 2014, 23-34.

Electronic reference

Antoine Cazé, « The Translation Paradigm in H.D.’s Writing », Caliban [Online], 35 | 2014, Online since 13 December 2013, connection on 18 September 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Antoine Cazé

Université Paris Diderot.

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Licence Creative Commons
Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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