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.