Sense and Serendipity: The Masochistic Art of Translating Surrealism

By Mark Polizzotti

Featured Art: Flower Clouds by Odilon Redon

Surrealism was an art of serendipity. Its aesthetic and philosophy revolve around such elements as surprise, chance, marvel, and what the French call la trouvaille, the discovery, the treasure happened upon. André Breton argued repeatedly that the point of automatic writing—Surrealism’s first and most celebrated tool— was to provide Surrealism not with an exciting new literary technique but with a method of research, a doorway into unexploited mental processes that were within everyone’s reach. As he rather cheekily put it in the first Manifesto, “Language has been given to man so that he may make Surrealist use of it.”

The thing about serendipity, of course, is that it implies a fair amount of spontaneity and blind luck. You can’t plan chance occurrences. It’s one thing if you’re sitting at your favorite café table, paper at the ready and pen poised to take flight. It’s quite another if you’re trying to recreate, in another language, someone else’s experience of that flight, and this is where translation and automatic writing begin speaking at cross-purposes. The trick here, in other words, is that we’re dealing with a text composed (supposedly, at least) in a trance-like flow, in which one word or phrase begets the next, begets the next. The first challenge is to make the translation sound as if it was composed in the same way, but there’s more to it than that: there’s also a psychological element. The mental process that might generate a flux of words in French is rarely the same as the process in English.

And while we’re at it, let me throw another wrench into the works: the French language usually puts its modifiers after the noun, using the conjunctive prepositions de (of, from) or à (at, with, for). An everyday example might be moulin à vent, literally “mill for wind,” or windmill. Or brosse à dents: “brush for teeth,” or toothbrush. You can immediately see what a candy store this kind of construction can be for the poetic mind at play, and how if you’re merrily rolling along, automatically poeticizing, that moulin à vent could easily morph into a moulin à vache (cowmill), or a moulin à verbe (wordmill); or that brosse à dents could veer off into a brosse à danse (dancebrush) or a brosse à danger (dangerbrush—brush with danger?). The problem, of course, is that in English you need to put the cow before the mill, and anticipate the surprise transformation before it’s even a surprise.

So what’s the poor translator to do? One solution is simply to forget about how the original was created and say that while it might obey different rules of genesis and internal logic, an automatic text is ultimately similar to any other piece of writing. I might even say that, degrees of nuance and delicacy aside, it makes little difference whether one is translating an automatic poem, a commercial novel, or a how-to manual. Sure, the automatic poem sounds different, and it probably won’t help you fix your lawn mower. But, like any piece of writing, it tries to create and transmit an effect to the reader—a cluster of meanings,   of sensations, of information taken in the broadest sense. And whether that information happens to concern the care and feeding of ocelots, the globetrotting escapades of James Bond, or the intimate and intricate thought processes of André Breton, the translator’s goal remains the same: to leave the English-speaking reader with the same impressions, feelings, and/or knowledge as his or her French counterpart.

Is this even possible, you ask? Here’s a firm answer for you: yes and no. Clearly, the Parisian reader in the age of the pneumatic telegram, for whom all these automatic poems were new, shocking, threateningly modern, and even  (if the Surrealists did their job right) downright offensive—that reader did not experience these poems in the same way as readers do in the age of the iPhone, who have behind them nearly a century of extra history, filled with things far more shocking, modern, and offensive—including, incidentally, the transformation of Surrealism from snarling avant-garde into art-historical artifact. If anything, we might today tend to read these once threatening automatic poems as rather quaint. And yet, and yet . . .

And yet poetry persists, and in the best of these venerable Surrealist texts —once you’ve stripped away the layers of historical context and accident—the thrill of them, the electric charge of them, remains just as potent for us as for the original readers—and, I’d venture to say, as it will for readers one-hundred years from now, assuming there still are any. That electric charge comes from the reaction between words, between bits of language, as if between positive and negative particles.

Let me give you an example—not the most thrilling in the Surrealist canon, but it has the advantage of being very economical, and it’s also one of those rare cases when serendipity actually comes to the translator’s aid. This is from Breton’s poem “Sunflower,” one of his best-known works and one of the most frequently translated. First the French:

. . . Une ferme prospérait en plein Paris
Et ses fenêtres donnaient sur la voie lactée
Mais personne ne l’habitait encore à cause des survenants
Des survenants qu’on sait plus dévoués que les revenants . . .

You can hear the wordplay between survenant, literally a person who arrives unexpectedly, and revenant, a spirit. The entire mechanism of these lines—as with much of automatic writing—turns on the transition from one to the other. In fact, you can almost reconstruct Breton’s mental process as he wrote this poem, with one word very naturally suggesting its near-homonym as his pen traced the line of verse. What is one to do with this in English? In this case, for once, the answer is so simple it nearly falls into the translator’s lap—and in fact several translators have independently resorted to it:

. . . A farm prospered in the heart of Paris
And its windows looked out on the Milky Way
But no one lived there because of the guests
Guests who are known to be more faithful than ghosts . . .

Needless to say, not every such instance is that easy—far from it—and Surrealist writing in particular abounds with such challenges. For instance, Breton ends one of his poems with the lines:

Après une dictée où Le coeur m’en dit
S’écrivait peut-être Le cœur mendie

After a dictation where My heart’s desire
Might be written My heart begs

As a quick solution, let me propose My heart’s urges / My heart surges— not perfect but you get the idea.

Finally, Paul Eluard once composed a four-line ditty that visually “rhymes” the words COUVent and couVENT—which are spelled exactly the same way, and which mean respectively “to hatch” and “convent,” and also the words PARent and parENT, also spelled identically, and meaning “to adorn” and “parent.” Good luck with that.

Sometimes even small variations in tone can yield very different results in how well the text comes through, and fidelity requires a bit of, let’s call it “poetic license.” Here’s an example I’m particularly fond of: Samuel Beckett, early in his career, published a number of translations, including several Surrealist works. Among his most beautiful are several passages from The Immaculate Conception by Breton and Eluard, which simulate the discourse of mental illness. The Immaculate Conception grew directly out of Breton’s own experiences as a medical intern during the First World War. Part of his service was spent in the army psychiatric wards, where his job was to interview soldiers exhibiting signs of mental disorder. What particularly struck him was the literary quality of his patients’ verbal outpourings, and his letters to his friends at the time excitedly described the “astonishing imagery” these patients seemed able to conjure out of thin air—which among other things suggests that Breton made the right career choice in becoming a poet and not a doctor. It was Breton’s experience in the psych wards that inspired his early experiments with automatic writing, and in 1930 it led him and Eluard to try out the simulated deliria of The Immaculate Conception.

I want to try a small side-by-side comparison—a kind of translation bake-off, if you will—between two different versions of the same excerpt from this book, one by Beckett and a later one by Richard Howard. First, here’s a taste of the original:

Ma grande adorée belle comme tout sur la terre et dans les plus belles étoiles de la terre que j’adore ma grande femme adorée par toutes les puissances des étoiles belle avec la beauté des milliards de reines qui parent la terre l’adoration que j’ai pour ta beauté me met à genoux pour te supplier de penser à moi je me mets à tes genoux j’adore ta beauté.

You can hear that ardent, almost prayer-like tone. This passage is by Eluard, and it’s characteristic of his poetry and his love letters—and in fact, this particular text is written as a love letter, albeit a slightly worrisome one for the woman receiving it. Here’s how it sounds from Richard Howard:

My great big adorable girl, beautiful as everything upon earth and in the most beautiful stars of the earth I adore, my great big girl adored by all the powers of the stars, lovely with the beauty of the billions of queens that adorn the earth, my adoration for your beauty brings me to my knees to beg you to think of me, I throw myself at your knees, I adore your beauty . . .

and it’s signed “Yours in a torch.” Which is fine as far as it goes, though I have to admit that to me it sounds a bit like Paul Eluard as interpreted by Cary Grant. Now here’s Beckett:

Thou my great one whom I adore beautiful as the whole earth and in the most beautiful stars of the earth that I adore thou my great woman adored by all the powers of the stars beautiful with the beauty of the thousands of millions of queens who adorn the earth the adoration that I have for thy beauty brings me to my knees to beg thee to think of me I am brought to my knees I adore thy beauty . . .

signed “Thine in flames.” Without belaboring the issue, I’ll simply note that  by transposing the discourse of a general paralytic from 1930 into the heraldic idiom of courtly love lyrics, Beckett has come much closer to preserving the essence of Eluard’s feverish entreaty than Howard, even though Howard actually hews closer to the strict meaning of the original.

Which brings me to my final point. Writing is ultimately a performance. Like a song or a play, it seeks to convey a knot—sometimes a very twisted and complex knot—of experiences, emotions, and meanings through any number of linguistic means. Some of this is conveyed directly, by the words themselves, but much of it takes place in the gaps between words and phrases, the sounds they suggest and the memories they evoke. And like any art of performance, writing needs to be interpreted, whether by the reader or the translator. The best comparison I can think of is to a good cover of a favorite song, one of those versions that might not sound like the original, but that manage to find the essence of the song and recreate it differently. And that make the listener hear the song in a way that both preserves it and revivifies it. For that mix of fidelity and new, original life is the best of what translation can offer—the moment when serendipity and craft harmoniously, creatively coincide.

Mark Polizzotti’s books include Revolution of the Mind: The Life of André Breton, monographs on Luis Buñuel and Bob Dylan, and Sympathy for the Traitor: A Translation Manifesto. A Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and the recipient of a 2016 American Academy of Arts & Letters Award for Literature, he has translated more than fifty books from the French, including works by Gustave Flaubert, Patrick Modiano, Marguerite Duras, and André Breton.

Originally appeared in NOR 14.

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