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11 Questions for Marilyn Hacker

PUBLISHED: August 19, 2010

Marilyn Hacker is the author of twelve books of poems, including Names, Essays on Departure, and Desesperanto. Her ten volumes of translations from the French include Vénus Khoury-Ghata’s Nettles and Marie Etienne’s King of a Hundred Horsemen, which received the 2009 American PEN Award for Poetry in Translation. She lives in New York and Paris. She translated Habib Tengour’s narrative poem, “This Particular Tartar,” for VQR’s Summer 2010 issue.

1. How did you choose “This Particular Tartar” to be translated? Are you working on translations of other works by Habib Tengour?
The humor combined with a certain pathos of the “Tartar” sequence appealed to me (and of course the way it’s also a satire on the situation of Maghrebin Arabs in France). I’ve now translated four quite different sequences by Habib Tengour (sections from one are in the Yale Anthology of 20th Century French Poetry), showing both his wry, demotic side often approaching social satire obliquely, and his more lyrical and—as well—surreal poetry, which is also syntactically challenging.

2. In the process of translating “This Particular Tartar,” were you in discussion with Tengour or with others who’ve translated him, such as Pierre Joris?
No—though Habib has seen all the translations I’ve done, and had run them by at least one bilingual friend—who may or may not have been Pierre, whom I know and admire as well. I tried to take care to choose poems of Habib Tengour’s that Pierre Joris had not translated.

3. “This Particular Tartar” is an epic poem with many voices and many moods. What is your routine for approaching such a large-scale work? For example, do you concentrate on the same section over a period of time, or do you work on many sections at once?
I tend to translate one section at a time, then reread it on its own, to see how it stands up as a text in English, then again beside the French—and once again when the sequence is complete, reading the entire piece in English alone and then in both languages.

4. To follow up on that, do you have a set routine for balancing translating with your own writing, e.g. to do one in the morning and the other in the afternoon?
Not necessarily, though that’s not a bad idea. When there is a project under way, my own work or translation, I tend to give it priority.

5. Like Vénus Khoury-Ghata, another author whom you’ve translated, Habib Tengour knew Arabic yet chose to write in French. I imagine that there must be undercurrents of Arabic in their poetry—do you feel that there are, and if so, how does that affect the translation process?

This is an interesting and complex question—both poets are, indeed, bilingual (and translate poetry themselves from Arabic into French). But their own poems, however non-conformist to any “school” of contemporary French writing, are written in French, not in any way “accented” or syntactically heterodox in a way that would be specifically coherent with Arabic. They are not writing, as is the case with some writers of Haitian, Antillean, or indeed Acadien-Quebecois background, in or with reference to any kind of “creole.”  So as a translator, I try to receive the French as a French reader would, one who has some background knowledge of the Algerian or (in Khoury-Ghata’s case) Lebanese background and references of the texts themselves, but not reading them as if they were themselves some kind of translation—which they aren’t.

Since you’ve brought up Khoury-Ghata’s work, readers might be interested in a few selections available here and here.

6. You’ve lived in both Paris and Manhattan for many years, and most of the poets you’ve translated have been contemporary Francophone authors. Did living in Paris catalyze your interest in them, or vice versa?
Living in Paris—which I do more or less full time now—has increasingly catalyzed my interest in French and Francophone poetry, and in translating it.

7. In your interview with Annie Finch (1996), you stated that “Ninety percent of contemporary French poetry—that is, poetry written by French nationals in France—is so abstract, so pared down and, often, self-referential, that hardly anyone reads it, or refers to it.” How do you feel that the state of French poetry has changed since then?
I don’t know if the state of French poetry has changed—it is certain that I have discovered at least a dozen poets writing in French and in France whose work is neither abstract nor self-referential in a rebarbative way—and that, not only among poets I have translated myself (among those I haven’t, I’d mention Jacques Roubaud, Valerie Rouzeau, and Franck Venaille).

In no way do the poets I’ve translated globally represent French and still less all of Francophone poetry today, nor do they represent a particular school or tendency—of which there are many. They are all authors of multiple volumes, many of them also known as novelists, memoirists, or critics. But I do not claim, or believe, that these are the most emblematic poets currently writing and publishing in France—only that, disparate as they are, each of their work has interested me to the extent that I have with joy committed time to, and experienced a writer’s pleasure in translating it.

A more representative selection of French poets publishing today would be preponderantly male, would—I think—have many fewer geographical or historical specifics and hints (or more than hints) of narrative than the poems I’ve translated to this date.

There are no French anthologies of women poets (though there are Canadian anthologies of Francophone women poets) , there are also, as far as I know, no anthologies of French poets of North African, Middle Eastern, or sub-Saharan African origin, of French Jewish poets, or of Belgian-born poets, for that matter, although the work of such writers of both sexes, like that of French women of varied origins, continues to enrich the literature.

It only occurred to me after looking at my own poet/translator’s production that eight of the poets whose work I’d chosen were born outside France (I am including the one born just on the other side of the Belgian border), and another spent almost two decades in Southeast Asia and Africa. Six of them are themselves also noted translators, variously from English, Arabic, Hebrew, German, and Yiddish. Yet only two, as far as I know, are habitually included in the peculiar category of “Francophone” rather than simply “French” poets—a categorization which the poets question but would hesitate to reject. So much of the richness of contemporary writing in French is done by just such emigrants, exiles, border-crossers, and cosmopolitans.

8. Your new collection, Names, is in dialogue with many writers, such as Mahmoud Darwish and Hayden Carruth. Its poems are often directed outward, focusing on the names of other people and addressing current events such as the Israeli invasion of Gaza. Is this a direction you see yourself to be heading towards in your next books?
It’s not a focus that was absent from earlier books, I’d want to say first, with writers like June Jordan, Joseph Roth, Hayden Carruth, and Muriel Rukeyser among their interlocutors . . . but it is always difficult to say where a book not yet written will turn.

9. It seems to me that letters have always been an important part of your poetry—“Against Elegies,” for instance, compares dying to being a “letter taken from the envelope.” Names is still epistolary and elegiac, but I wonder if your relationship to letters has changed with the proliferation of e-mail and Twitter, the constant accessibility of global news and multimedia?
At least e-mail has the potential of remaining letter-like (as well as being telegraphic). E-mail has at least got the potential to facilitate various kinds of collaborative work (I have been working on a series of two-voiced renga with the Palestinan-American poet Deema Shehabi, really made possible by the swiftness of e-mail)—not to mention the possibility for a writer to comment on translations in progress.

10. What translation and writing projects are you considering for the future?
I have been learning Arabic for the past two years, and who knows where that will lead!

11. What are you currently reading?
Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul, Nicole Brossard’s Picture Theory (an older book of hers, but one that I had missed) , a 1985 collection of Hayden Carruth’s selected poems—for the fiftieth time—, Blind Spots, by the British poet Carol Rumens, James Baldwin’s No Name in the Street. I just finished Amin Malouf’s Les Croisades vues pars les Arabes, Mavis Gallant’s new volume of previously uncollected stories, The Cost of Living, and Hilary Mantel’s doorstopper of a novel about Tudor England, Wolf Hall. Le Diwan de la poesie arabe classique (edited by the Syro-Lebanese poet Adonis and translated by Houria Abdelouahed) has been a frequent companion, as has been Heidi Toelle’s (French) translation of the Muallaq’at, and Fady Joudah’s two (English) translations of the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, The Butterfly’s Burden and If I Were Another.

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