Haiti, Césaire, Translation, & The New Yorker

The New Yorker, as we well know, has a house style and is proud of it. That this may be a natural thing to aspire to for such a venerable old publication isn’t too problematic as long as it applies to its journalistic pieces, from “Talk of the Town” to the various in depth investigative pieces The New Yorker is justly famous for. But this gets problematic when the same stylistic gauge is applied to its choice of literary artifacts, the translations of poems, for example. Now, we also know that in its stance for ethical correctness and good liberal relevancy, the magazine will speak its mind on current problems & disasters, natural or manmade. These two preoccupations came together in the recent issue that speaks to the earthquake in Haiti: the editors must have decided that the traditional light fare of its poetry department, which has usually been intellectually somewhat less demanding than its cartoons, needed to be upgraded for the occasion.

Thus they printed a poem by Aimé Césaire entitled “Earthquake,”  translated (for the occasion, and therefore all too hurriedly?) by Paul Muldoon, the current poetry editor. Césaire is of course from Martinique, but I guess that is close enough to Haiti, or could even be the same speck somewhere off to the left of the page, if checked on that old map of America as seen from Manhattan looking out across the Hudson once published as a cover by The New Yorker. And given the poem’s title, “Earthquake,” it is possible to assume that it has something to do with a natural disaster in the Caribbean. Of course if one checks closer, one realizes that Césaire’s poem was first published in his book Ferraments in 1960, and may refer to some temblor in the Caribbean, though who knows? Well, if we go to the little Seghers Poètes d’aujourdui: Aimé Césaire volume, its editor, Lilyan Kesteloot, a Belgian scholar close to the poet from early on, makes it clear (cf, pp. 74-75) that the temblor in question is symbolic and that Césaire is referring to the political situation in Martinique during the fifties and describes — as Gregson Davis, another Césaire translator, writes — “events that culminated in Césaire’s disenchantment with and resignation from the French Communist Party.” So, using this poem to make a point about the current natural disaster in Haiti is sloppy literary adequatio, and disingenuous at best.

Worse than that, however, is the translation: Paul Muldoon must obviously have done this one rapidly to get the poem in under deadline and in basic New Yorker style, for it is a flat, bland, workshoppy version that loses all the power of Césaire’s language. Muldoon should have stayed with another of his magazine’s time-honored policies, namely never to print a poem that has been translated and published before — or, if willing to breach such a time-honored if somewhat non-sensical habit, he should have used one of the two extant translations of the poem that are way better than his quickie version (he may of course invoke the excuse of the deadline). The poem was  first published in English in Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith’s version in Aimé Césaire: The Collected Poetry (U of Cal Press, 1983) as well as by Gregson Davis’ translation, in Non-Vicious Circle /Twenty Poems of Aimé Césaire (Stanford U Press, 1984).

I don’t have the time or the inclination here to go over Muldoon’s version (which you can consult here) line by line, or to do a detailed comparison with the other two versions, but let me quickly point out a few inaccuracies, using the Eshleman/Smith version which I have at hand: in the first line, Muldoon translates the French word “pans,” which refers to sections or surfaces of walls, as “stretches,” which is abstract and forces him to add “scapes” to “dream,” which scapes are not there in French. Line two is even more puzzling: what E/S give as “parts of intimate homelands” (an accurate and literal version), PM renders incomprehensibly as “lines of all too familiar lines.” Line 4 is indeed difficult because the French is so assonance-charged, and thus the E/S version, “fallen empty and the soiled sonorous slipstream of the idea,” rich in assonance and accurate in semantic meaning, is much superior to PM’s boringly flat “caved in so the filthy wake resounds with the motion.” In line 7, Muldoon wrongly puts “serpent” for “couleuvre” (a grass-snake,) but maybe he wanted us to “avaler une couleuvre” in the French expression meaning “to have to do or accept something that one doesn’t want?” I could go down the poem line by line, but it would become an exercise in triviality. So let’s just go to the final lines, which in Césaire read “jusqu’ici dans la réserve d’un oubli / gitant” translated by E/S as “until now in the reserve of a supine / oblivion” is turned by PM into “that had hitherto been consigned to a realm of forgetfulness / itself quite tumbledown.”  An awful rendering apparently meant to remind the reader than an earthquake is under discussion.

Clearly, it is a disgrace both to the enormity of what happened in Haiti and to the art of translating poetry to do such sloppy work, even if well-meant — and get away with it because it appears in The New Yorker and because the perp is that mag’s poetry editor.

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Pierre Joris

Pierre Joris is a poet, translator, essayist & anthologist who has published more than 50 books, most recently, Meditations on the Stations of Mansur al-Hallaj (poems) from Chax Press and The University of California Book of North African Literature (volume 4 in the Poems for the Millennium series), coedited with Habib Tengour. Exile is My Trade: A Habib Tengour Reader edited & translated by Joris, and Pierre Joris: Cartographies of the In-between, essays on Joris’ work edited by Peter Cockelbergh, came out in 2012. Forthcoming are Barzakh — Poems 2000-2012 (Black Widow Press) & Breathturn Into Timestead:The Collected Later Poems of Paul Celan (FSG).

9 opinions on “Haiti, Césaire, Translation, & The New Yorker”

  1. Generous of you to track down the provenance of the Césaire, Pierre. I was initially pleased to find the poem in there, then perplexed by the rather oafish version Muldoon offers. Rush job or Muldoon attempting to work freely? In either case, an unfortunate result.

  2. Hey, it’s Paul Muldoon. The literary world bows at his feet. His poetry isn’t worth two snots but he’s beloved by all the powerful ones, so there you go. As for Haiti and its remarkable poets, perhaps the New Yorker will figure out that they exist, though I doubt it.

  3. The complexities of communist or any political temblors in the Caribbean require exactitudes of expression from both poet and tranlator. Good of you to point out Muldoon’s failings here.

  4. Pierre, thanks so much — this is why I read your blog.

    I’d like to hear from Paul Muldoon. Clearly he’s not doing bad translations b/c he wishes to do bad translations. It would be nice, at any rate, were he to surface hereabouts either to disqualify his own work, or to qualify it. Everyone makes mistakes, everyone takes liberties. Which is it?

  5. Thank you for this. I saw the Muldoon version this morning and it immediately rang false. I looked up the original and began spotting the discrepancies. It took some research even for this fluent, native French speaker to consider some of Césaire’s original words – the brother was so erudite. But it became clear that Muldoon’s version was not only “oafish,” as someone said above, but simply wrong in so many respects – simple stuff, like falling into the faux-ami of “conjurer,” or the complete misinterpretation of the last line that you point out. Anyway, I was all proud of my literary detective work, but am happy to see that greater minds were already on the case. Merci à vous.

  6. Thank you, Pierre, for your incisive remarks on Muldoon’s self-serving publication of his own inept translation when he had a chance to print finer and more accurate versions. Thanks for defending the art, and thank you, too, for the excellent Kelly pieces on growing up in Brooklyn.
    Both items the best in your blog recently.–George

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