Saturday, August 30, 2014

"Pensées" in Recours au Poème

UPDATE: Daily Telegraph art critic Alistair Sooke writes on the August 28, 2014 site about Yves Klein's successful development of the ultramarine pigment that cemented his fame: "Yves Klein: The Man Who Invented a Color."

One of the chief reasons I translate writing by non-Anglophone writers is to make their work available to readers who would otherwise have no access to it. However imperfect and faulty my translations I always do hope they offer a glimpse into the work of the translated writers and the worlds from which they come. As a writer myself I always appreciate the opportunity to be translated; it has happened several times, and the most recent instance is one of the best, because the translator is one of the best, a poet in all senses of that word, with a philosophically inclined mind such that she is able to convey multiple layers in every text she carries across languages, including her own. I am speaking with tremendous gratitude about Nathanaël, whom I was incredibly fortunate to have translate one of my very recent poems, "Pensées (After Yves Klein)," a tribute in part to the great, problematic French conceptual artist whose work has haunted me since I first saw it years ago.

Years ago through my job at NYU's Faculty Resource Network I met an artist-scientist, Dr. Adrienne Klein, also a fan of Yves Klein's, and our shared moments of Kleinophilia led in part to the poem "Klein Bottle," which references yet another Klein, the German mathematician Christian Felix Klein (1849-1925), whose non-orientable surface, a staple of topology, the poem invokes. That was an oblique reference to Klein (Yves)--and of course Adrienne and Felix Klein, and mathematics and science--but "Pensées (After Yves Klein)" is more direct. Klein also was one of the intellectual spurs behind one of the most enjoyable classes I ever taught, "Topics in Creative Writing: Conceptual Writing/Art," in 2010. (I fantasize about teaching an updated version of that course at Rutgers-Newark!) I want to say that until that same year, as a result of a mini-exhibit of Klein's work at the Art Institute of Chicago I had never seen any of his paintings or sculptures in person, but this is not correct; a little retrospection reminds me that I certainly did see Klein's work in other museums, including the Guggenheim Museum, which owns several of his works, and MoMA. Encountering Klein's "Blue Sponge Relief" (pictured above) and other images at the Art Institute back in 2010 laid a deep anchor, though, and recently, as I was writing poems about artists and artworks, the "Pensées" emerged.

Since they were about a French artist I sent them to Recours au poème's founding editor, poet and critic Matthieu Baumier, with whom I'd exchanged some emails around the time the online site first began publishing, and did not hear anything back, so it was a surprise and pleasure to learn that Nathanaël would be the translator (she had previously translated some of the poems from Seismosis and succeeded in bringing into French the English rhythms yet also creating a similar, novel music in French), and that she also was preparing a short introductory essay, "Arraisonner le vide" (roughly "Investigating the Void") which manages to encapsulate in a paragraph much of the conceptual richness I was seeking to convey. She also discusses some challenges in translating between the two languages that English in particular produces. I had not thought about it when writing these "Pensées," which are haiku-like in their brevity, but Nathanaël astutely identifies in so many words English's parallel vocabularies, which I drew on. "White" (from English's Germanic roots) and "blank" (from its Norman-Latin ones) are the same word in French, blanc; the same is true with "emptiness" (from Old English) and "void" (from Norman and Latin), which translates as vide. In addition, Nathanaël finds not just an equivalent, but a convincing French music for the English, even as she stays very close to the English syntax. That is quite an accomplishment.

You can find the essay and the entire poem in translation at the Recours au poème site, which if you read French is a bonanza of contemporary Francophone poetry, and I highly recommend it. My former colleague Reginald Gibbons has a series of poems, also beautifully translated by Nathanaël, on the site. Below is a snippet of my poem. Now I just need to find a place to publish the English original!


From "Pensées (After Yves Klein)"

une couleur,


un accord, puis silence:
une symphonie.


Je signe le ciel
J’assigne au ciel
un sens nouveau.

Copyright © John Keene, translation by Nathanaël, 2014. All rights reserved.

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