Andrée Chedid and the contradictions of translation

One is the first positive odd number, an integer not evenly divisible by two. Odd, from the Old Norse oddi, point of land, triangle, the odd point sticking out, not lining up. As Dr. Math explains, the words we use are pictures of the shapes a number makes.[1]

In English, the numeral 1 resembles the letter I. The picture I makes is the shape of first person, singular. When spoken, the shape of the mouth draws apart, one’s two lips separating in what looks to be either the start of a smile or one’s initial pain.

To write what translates as I in French requires two letters: j and e. Placed side by side, these letters compose je, which takes the place of I, but is not quite the same. The transaction is more approximation than equal exchange. If I were a mathematician, I might illustrate with equations:

j + e = je
j + e ≠ I
je
≈ I

If I were a linguist, I might note a difference of phonetics, how je ends with an open silence, a sound some might interpret as that which is possible, an invitation, infinite.

When spoken, the shape of je resembles the start of a kiss. I will not diagram that, not yet.


2

The one who is this American I first met the poet Andrée Chedid in France, a country to which neither of us is native but to where both of us were drawn. Born in 1920 in Egypt and of Lebanese descent, Chedid “was known to many in Paris as La dame des deux rives: the woman who came from the banks of two rivers, the Seine and the Nile. Raised in three languages — Arabic, English, and French —” Chedid lived in France from 1946 to the end of her life in 2011.[2]

Did I say she was alive when we met? If it is true that our work survives our deaths, I suppose Chedid was — and remains — very much alive. In her 1987 book, which was placed into my 2013 hands, Chedid felt to me as vivante as any living friend I made in France.

During those sixty years in which she made Paris her home, Chedid wrote the millions of words that would be published in over twenty collections of poetry, a dozen-odd novels, eight plays, nine children’s books, and seven books of short stories. One of the novels, Le Sixième Jour, was adapted for film.

In 2009, Chedid was appointed a Grand Officier de la Légion d’honneur. Then-president Sarkozy paid tribute to her as one of the “generation of cosmopolitan intellectuals who chose France as their adopted land after the war, helping bring about a literary renaissance in our country.”[3] The literary prizes awarded to Chedid by her adopted country number twenty-one, including the Prix Goncourt — awarded twice, once in 1979 and again in 2002 for her entire works of poetry.

The first of those works, On the Trails of My Fancy, was published in Cairo in 1943, shortly after Chedid completed a degree in journalism at the American University and married her life partner, physician Louis Chedid. This book was published in English under the pen name A. Lake, but when Chedid and I met, I could not yet read the language in which she published after that. Even so, I recognized it. And perhaps it recognized me, even as I was and was not who I was before.


3

« Tu présides à toute naissance » reads the line addressed to a face that might have been translated into English as “the first one,” but is not. All the translations I’ve seen render « Visage premier » as “Primal Face.” Primal, easily confused with primeval, resembles a shortened version of primordial. Webster’s English defines it as original, primitive, first in importance, primary.

In mathematics, a prime number is a positive integer that has exactly two positive integer factors: 1 and itself. Three is the first number that is both odd and prime.

When divided by two, an odd number will result in a fraction. In other words, something other than one of two categories, not either/or, one or the other, but a quality of something else entirely — some third entity, something inter, something both, something merged. “Primal face, you preside at every birth.”[4]


4

In 1965, the year I was born, Chedid published a collection titled Double-Pays — in English, Dual Country. It is in such a place where one branches into change. “When extended to the limit of all our lives / You will disappear on the crest of extreme metamorphosis.”

Chedid’s contemporary, Yves Bonnefoy, might call such a place “L’Arrière-pays,” the title of his 1972 pivotal work, sometimes translated as The Land Beyond (and sometimes not translated at all, as in the 2012 English translation by British poet Stephen Romer).[5]

Paul Ricoeur, another contemporary of Chedid, might liken such singular duality to translation itself, whereby we “approach the mysteries of a language that is full of life, and at the same time [give] an account of the phenomenon of misunderstanding, of misinterpretation.”[6]

Yet a third contemporary, Édouard Glissant, writes of this place as the one in which the dissolution of the self engenders mergence with the Other: “When the poet travels to the ends where there is no country, he opens with the more deserved relation, in that space of an absolute elsewhere in which each can attempt to reach [her].”[7]

For Chedid, such doubleness resides not only in two countries, Egypt and France, but two states of being: inner and outer, oneself and another, quotidian and dream. The dual country represents “the convergence of experience lived simultaneously on earth and in the psychic ailleurs, or elsewhere of the poem.” This is how translator Judy Cochran notes Chedid’s poetry working as it links personal experience with collective memory.[8]

In Chedid’s translated words, “I have felt, from a stable core, determined to pursue a route that flares into multiple paths, branching. From unity to complexity and back … All human adventure seems to me drawn between these two poles.”[9]

In the language of numbers, such a doubling might be drawn like this: [22 >], which is to say two-squared is greater than.


5

In Webster’s English, odd is first defined as being without a corresponding mate, left over after others are paired or grouped.

In Collins French, the first offering for odd is strange: bizarre, curieux (or -euse, if the odd one is female). As a number, odd is impair [which to an American ear sounds less than, <]. Also: left over; not of a set; the odd one out, l’exception, feminine.


6

In 1949, Chedid published her first collection of poetry in French, Textes pour une figure. One translation of figure is picture or diagram. Another is face. A figure de rhétorique is a figure of speech.

If I were a rhetorician, I might be using Roman numerals. Or maybe if I were a philosopher — say, Gaston Bachelard — who uses them in The Poetics of Reverie and lived in Paris during many of the same years as Chedid.[10] I am neither of these, though I do as the Romans do because I am not from here when I am in France. Je ne suis pas d’ici. When I am in France, I am from somewhere else, une étrangerère, a stranger, odd, curieuse. Collins might also translate my state as inconnue, meaning not known.

In France, there is a practice of publishing the photographs of authors on the spines of their books. I noticed this one day when looking for any book by Andrée Chedid and seeing only rows of male faces. Curious stranger, who are you looking for, one who looks like you? On this shelf of books, spines facing the world, where is a face that resembles your own visage premier?


7

I did not find Chedid in a bookshop, but in the library of a man whose face does indeed grace the cover of a book. But it was a woman who introduced us when asked who were among her favorite poets. She was a woman I met in France, a woman who raised children, works a day job, and reads and writes when she can. She spoke as little English as I did French, but she wrote down Chedid’s name in my little notebook/carnet. This interchange might be expressed as P:F, meaning the field P extends the field F.

This may also be written as P ≥ F.

In this case, F might stand for figure or face, or maybe femme. It might stand for foreign. It might be understood as friend. In this case, P is the initial of the woman’s first name.


8

We did not meet in translation. Even our introduction took place in another tongue. But three poems in the book that came to be placed into my hands spoke immediately as belonging to two countries at once: the language in which they were composed and the language of the stranger. The étrangère I was in France recognized these poems at once, even though she could not yet read them. Form was the bridge of recognition.

Valéry might explain its crossing: “What is ‘form’ for anyone else is ‘content’ for me.”[11]


9

In fact, we met by accident. Call it roundabout if you like, or maybe kismet. I had travelled to France in search of a poet who wrote there centuries before either Chedid or I arrived. Like both of us, however, Christine de Pizan was native to another land. Maybe she was waiting for at least one of us to find her.

Born in Venice in 1365, Christine was brought to Paris as a child after her father was summoned by the court to serve as an astrologer for King Charles V. It was in this court that the young Christine was educated at her father’s knee. After his death and that of her husband, Christine put this education to practical use, writing poems commissioned by royal patrons to secure the financial protection of her three small children, elderly mother, and a niece left in her care.

Between 1394 and 1418, Christine produced over forty manuscripts that are still being read and translated today.[12] It was in one of these translations that I first saw the poem that would bring me to Chedid.

In 1418, the violent events of the Armagnac-Burgundian civil war caused Christine to flee Paris and her public writing life for sanctuary at the Dominican abbey of St. Louis at Poissy, where she remained until her death in 1430. It is here that Christine wrote what scholars believe to be the first poem to relay the triumphant victory of Jeanne d’Arc at Orléans: Le Ditié de Jehanne d’Arc.

Le Ditié is one of two known poems in this period of an otherwise twelve-year silence. Its form takes the shape of brief, sequenced prose lyrics linked by Arabic numerals. It is the exact form of the poem I recognized in Chedid’s book, composed over 500 years later. It begins: Je, Christine.

Scholars believe it to be the last poem of Christine’s life. Did I say Christine was dead when we met? The last phrase of section 1 translates as: I begin now for the first time to laugh.


10

In his 1996 address, “Translation as Challenge and Source of Happiness,” Ricoeur linked the complexities of translation to the title of Antoine Berman’s 1984 work, L’Épreuve de l’étranger: “These difficulties are accurately summarized in the term ‘test’ [épreuve], in the double sense of ‘ordeal’ [peine endurée] and ‘probation’: testing period, as we say, of a plan, of a desire or perhaps even of an urge, the urge to translate.”[13]

And so Christine begins to laugh her happiness in section 1, but she does not drop the challenge of happiness’ charge before arriving at its source. The poem must still be written, the effort endured. So too in translation, in which not only the translator is tested, but also the translated.

Chedid claimed épreuve as a “touchstone” word and translated it not as test but as proof, something more elastic, contingent, and enduring. She explains her choice of the word as the title of her 1983 collection Épreuves du vivant: “The resources of the word ‘proofs’ are infinite. How can we not be reminded of photography, of images being inverted? How can we fail to delve into this word so rich in exhortations, risks, pathways to be explored? Poetry reveals itself in our destinies by repeatedly making appeals to life; poetry is all at once the spur, the hope, and the proof of the Living.”[14]


11

As a member of the Living, the étrangère may share the desires, hopes, and tests of the native-born, but she is not to be entirely trusted, nor are any kin under the stranger’s purview. As Jane Hirshfield points out: “Translated works are Trojan horses, carriers of secret invasion. They open the imagination to new images and beliefs, new modes of thought, new sounds. Mistrust of translation is part of the instinctive immune reaction by which every community attempts to preserve its particular heritage and flavor: to control language is to control thought.”[15]

If one were in Rome, Hirshfield notes, she might very well be thus accused: “Traduttore, traditore (translator, traitor).”

For the potential betrayal that resides in translation, Ricoeur proposes linguistic hospitality as a remedy: “I am inclined to favor entry through the foreign door, that is for sure … [W]ithout the test of the foreign, would we be sensitive to the strangeness of our own language? … [W]ithout that test, would we not be in danger of shutting ourselves away in the sourness of a monologue, alone with our books?”[16]

The mathematical symbol that resembles an 11 is used to indicate both parallel relationship and incomparability. It is by way of this symbol that a host might become both parallel to and incomparable with a traitor:

[host∥traitor]

And it is in this very way of seeing oddness doubled that makes possible both the offering of an invitation and its acceptance: “Linguistic hospitality, therefore, is the act of inhabiting the word of the Other paralleled by the act of receiving the word of the Other into one’s own home, one’s own dwelling.”[17]


12

When I was in France, I had a hard time keeping track of the hour. The French use a twenty-four-hour clock, and I’m terrible at math.

Compound a lack of numerical facility with unfamiliar sound combinations, and you might imagine the cacophony of time in which I wandered my host city of Tours. A simple request could toss me into linguistic panic: À quelle heure? Did a correct response involve subtraction or addition? Was I to arrive at dinner at vingt heures quarante-cinq or vingt et un heures moins le quart? And what was a quart of time? Another way of saying quinze minutes, which translated to fifteen minutes and which still required some sort of equation for me to function in a socially acceptable manner?

If the proving grounds of this particular étrangère were to include math tests, perhaps it should be known that during my high school algebra exam, I was the one to faint out of her chair.

Midi kept me upright, centered. Smack dab in the middle of the day — shops closed, cafés open — I could look up in the noon-hour sky to know exactly what time it was. Avant, après, I could count from there. All at once circle cut by radius, midi offered a figure I could read. The words we use are pictures of the shapes a number makes.


13

Little wonder Chedid’s “Au midi des contradictions” seemed to wave to me from its pages in the volume located finally in the library of the man with his photograph on the cover of at least one book. Not only was the structural form of the poem familiar, so too were the shapes of the words in the title: midi and contradiction.

If I were Walter Benjamin, I might designate such qualities as translatability, “which is not to say that … [certain works] be translated; it means rather that a specific significance inherent in the original manifests itself in its translatability.”[18]

If I were Jane Hirshfield, I might consider mystery as an accompaniment to form: “The act of writing is a making but also a following: of the mystery of source as it emerges into form. … Translation asks a similar leap of faith. It becomes possible only if we trust that poetry lives both in its words and beyond them, and that at least some portion of this ur-poem can cross the abyss between one verbal body and another.”[19]

It’s true I possessed the desire to find the poet adored by my new friend P, but that this desire would be realized in this particular form is a mystery that Chedid herself speaks to in explaining the genesis of the name of the book I now held in my hand:

For two collections, which cover forty years (1949–1991), I chose these two titles: Texts for a Poem and Poems for a Text, wanting to say that poetry, which forms one body with our existence, remains — in the same way as life — free, moving, never cordoned off. No key can open the mystery of one or the other.[20]

For several weeks I had been an odd one out, searching for faces I might call friend. Now that I held the first of these collections — Textes pour un poème — in my hand, mystery intermingled with desire to bring the text I could not yet read into a shape I could comprehend. In this case, Chedid’s title would prove absolutely correct: texts for a poem; or, more exactly, the act of constructing a text would bring me to the poem.

Where ⋈ indicates a natural joining:

desire ⋈ mystery ⋈ form ⋈ body ⋈ text ⋈ existence ⋈ poem


14

The form I held in my hand was not its first incarnation. As contextualized by translator Renée Linkhorn, “Au midi des contradictions” first appeared as part of a longer sequence titled Terre et Poésie, published separately in 1956 and later included in the 1972 collection Visage premier. Fifteen years later, it resurfaced in the book I now held, no doubt bearing the mark of its original face.[21]

In revising Terre et Poésie for the 1987 Textes pour un poème, Chedid divided its seventy-eight stanzas into three sections: “La poésie, le poème”; “Les vivants”; and “Au midi des contradictions.” For this last, Chedid settled on twenty-three sections. As Linkhorn explains, Chedid “eliminated a few passages and made minor stylistic changes in others.” What she did not do was change its primal form.


15

Nor did Chedid depart from the poem’s images, intrinsic to form as they find shape in words. In the words of Bachelard: “In their splendor, images effect a very simple communion of souls. Two vocabularies should be organized to study knowledge and poetry. But these vocabularies do not correspond. And it would be useless to compose dictionaries to translate from one language to the other. The language of the poets must be learned directly and very precisely like the language of the souls.”[22]

Even without a dictionary, the splendid images of the poem’s title had already placed me in the brilliant center of contradiction, a country that in its naming offered both the fullness of midday and a wide embrace of opposing forces. The soul who had gathered these images was one whose house I wanted to enter.

The man in whose library the book was found allowed me to take it from his house into my own. And there, in a cozy room in a country other than my own, I undertook a correspondence of language, which is to say: a correspondence of self and other, étrangère and native born, personal and collective. In the words of Chedid: “an inner freedom that defies definition.” She continues:

As the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote, we are “real and unreal,” and if we do not combine the real and the unreal, we are traumatized because we are incomplete. Through writing we bring together our body and our mind. Poetry is an act of love, and love gives you inspiration. This is not just love between two people, but universal love.[23]

This is what I was trying to do. But I did not know that then. Only later. For now, I set to work, constructing Chedid’s text in the language of my stranger’s house.


16

“Au midi des contradictions” resides on page 137 of Textes pour un poème; in her division of the longer sequence of which it was a part, Chedid ordered “Au midi” as the last of three sections. I examined again the title of the whole: “Terre et poésie.” Poésie seemed evident enough: poem or poetry. Terre, too, I thought meant earth, as in terra firma. I thought, too, of the English word, territory, its implications of ownership and invasion. But Collins relayed that terre can also be translated as soil, land, ground, that into which something is planted — in some contexts, a kind of clay.

In “Proofs of the Face,” Chedid asks: 

Quel visage
Viellant par-delà sa vue
Nous restitue
Visage?
Quel visage
Surgi du fond des nôtres
Ancré dans l’argile
S’offre à l’horizon?

What face
Past vision
Stands in vigil
For our face
What face
Of our face
Feet of clay
Beholds the horizon

This particular translation, a beautiful one by Lynne Goodhart and Jon Wagner, was found in a book published in my own land, my own city, in fact — Los Angeles — by Green Integer Press. Introducing her work, the translators note:

Chedid’s uprooting and replanting in herself and her poetry a certain spirit she wishes to carry forward seems to us an excellent model of the translation process we experienced while working with her poems. More broadly, that process itself reflects her consistent realization that dialogue with the Other, that deliberate act of allowing oneself to be called into question, requires continual destruction and recreation of forms.[24]

Later I understood that this particular proof might be translated differently. But for now, wearing this face of the stranger, with the two words terre et poésie, I understood poetry — and by correspondence, translation — required a vigil, vision, risk. It required, too, and at once, a firm stance in the deep clay of one’s being and a generous offering to what lay beyond.


17

In “Au Midi des contradictions,” under the number 1:

Il n’y a pas de vague plus fatale que la mer; pas d’arbre plus illustre que la forêt.

First, there was something that was not, that was sure. Fatale I understood as death; mer recognized from the 1946 chanson, « La mer »; and forêt resembled the English word forest. Illustre — something with pictures, illustrated, or illustrating — an image. Certainly, the splendor of these images offered a risk I was willing to enter. My desire to follow the promise of their vision exceeded any fear of wandering into unknown, possibly unfriendly, territory. Somewhere beyond the sea … Collins lay before me, a friend in what Ricoeur names the “construction of the comparable.”[25]

As I searched the dictionary’s entries, this is the construction that emerged:

There is no wave more fatal than the sea; no tree more illustrious than the forest.

A construction built by comparing that which is at once opposite and of the same family, at once foreign and related. A poem wrought by a comparison of the incomparable, which is to say a poem translates the untranslatable.

Which is to say: “So there remains a final untranslatable that we discover through the construction of the comparable.”[26]

Which is to approach congruence, whose mathematical symbol parallels approximately equal.

≅ ∥ ≈

[See step one of this proof for a prior example: je ≈ I]

Which is to say I am and am not who I was before — the infinite possible, untranslatable.


18

This transformation is, likely, a natural function of inviting poetry into one’s house.

The mystery of it occurs in poems in one’s own language. And it occurs always in those poems that find their way to us across language and across time. That is why they find us. As Antoine Berman notes in Novalis’s 1797 letter to A. W. Schlegel: “One translates out of a love for the beautiful and for the literature of one’s home country. Translation is as much poetry as the creation of one’s own works — and more difficult, more rare. In the final analysis, all poetry is translation.”[27]

Chedid explains the phenomenon in a dialogue conducted in English in 1997:

Poetry is asking questions at the deepest level, an attempt to get to the bottom of things. The act of writing is a moment of purification, deployment, and self-condensation during which the writer is balanced on a thin wire strung between alpha and omega.[28]

In the language of Dr. Math, this might be represented as aleph-0:

{0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, …}

Where appears as an aleph, it represents an infinite cardinality: ℵ–0, which looks like No but means all, yes, everything.


19

In relaying the simultaneity of all and nothing that is poetry, Jane Hirshfield quotes Sung dynasty poet Yang Wan-li, as translated by Jonathan Chaves: “Get rid of words and get rid of meaning, and still there is poetry.”[29]

In “Au midi des contradictions,” Chedid conveys the confluence of disappearance and presence as a function of love: « Ceux qui s’aiment dénouent, en leur saison privilégiée, toutes les amarres » (Those who love each other unknot, in their finest season, all moorings).[30]

It is this sort of unknotting that allows one to set out into the sojourn of the strange: « Étrange et doux espace. S’entremêlant, les fleuves chantent déjà la mer » (Strange & tender space. Intermingled, the rivers already sing the sea).

And it is only in such a remote place where the figure of love, and all she has to offer, can be pictured: « C’est uniquement dans l’arrière-pays qu’elle peut prendre substance; puiser, plus tard, un avenir » (Only in the country beyond can she take shape; draw later, a future).


20

How to track that which has no material being? Cardinal numbers are for counting things, and, in the words of Dr. Math, the finite ones are “also great for ordering.” As anyone who has ever waited in a long line knows, sequencing is all: two plus zero might be understood as two, but if we are talking placement then 2 + 0 might just as well equal 20.

And if we were to extrapolate this concept of sequence to the alphabet, the order of two letters might mean the difference between nonsense and one who is able to venture into the world.

e + j = 0 – 1
j + e = je

Chedid might say this ordering of the world is a search je undertakes with another: « L’eau d’amour donne les mots qui confondent l’impossible; mais il nous faut la trouver ensemble et pour la même durée » (The waters of love yield words that confuse the impossible; but we must find them together & at the same time).

Ricoeur might liken such a search to “the arc of translation [that] epitomizes this journey from self through the other, reminding us of the irreducible finitude and contingency of all language.”[31]

In other words, one ventures as a stranger into the remote world and finds another. This can be oneself or an autre, perhaps a friend one brings back to her house, both strange and familiar.


21

And so it was one afternoon, I met a new friend — let’s call her S — in the land in which I was étrangère. In fact, we met in three places that day: S’s apartment, constructed sometime during the age of Christine de Pizan; my cozy rooms a few blocks away; and a small garden in the middle of a busy intersection of Tours, where we were living at the time. In none of these locations did we speak the same language, and yet the stories we shared proved absolutely otherwise.

We talked of our lives, the ones we had loved, and loved still, what it was to be a woman alone and attached in the world. We shared a table set with chocolate and tiny strawberries and un apératif. I set out also a small dish of pistachios, green flesh protected by white shells. I had found them in a neighborhood grocer and smiled when I read the package: Aux États-unis. Back in California, pistachios were a dime a dozen, but their voyage here cost their compatriot a tiny fortune. No matter — S and I both adored them.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, S and I had been introduced by the man with his photograph on the cover of a book. As afternoon meandered into evening, I showed S the book of Chedid’s he had loaned me. S admitted to not reading much poetry, but when she regarded “Au Midi” she asked if she might borrow the book when I was finished. Somehow Chedid’s was a language we both understood. But this, too, was not surprising: the language was love.

There is a mathematical symbol for such occasions. It consists of three dots arranged as a triangle sometimes used in proofs before logical consequences; for example:

understanding ∴ love

Which is to say, understanding is a logical consequence of love. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Which is to say, the one who faints out of her chair during a high school math test might not be the best candidate to resolve une épreuve de l’étranger. Better to serve as a linguistic pistachio host.


22

I have no photographs of that afternoon, only a clear trace, an impression of the souvenir. It is proof enough, perhaps.

Chedid arranged “Au Midi des contradictions” using Arabic numerals as an ordering system, and how this form translates is as a sequence of related events, not random occurrences, but a series of uncovering. Each passage functions at once with its own integrity and as linked with the others that come before and after — as does each one of us, les vivants (the living), wherever we journey in the world. Each one can be counted and each one counts. And it is in this dual nature of counting that the fullness of the picture is revealed.

Imagine a constellation as dot-to-dot drawing. Or maybe imagine again the word proof, whose resources, Chedid reminds us, “are infinite. How can we not be reminded of photography, of images being inverted?” Imagine an image as it emerges on Polaroid film, snapped by a Land Camera in, say, 1956:

Le dénué d’amour trace partout des cercles dont le centre n’est pas.

It is an image that can be rendered into another form not by “an equivalence of meaning,” but only through a “construction through the comparable,” which is to say the imagination. Le dénué d’amour: equivocally speaking, Collins defines dénué as “lacking in, devoid of.” But, as the man with his photo on a book explains, such choices lack nuance. « Dénué implique quelque perte légère, comme un déshabillage — l’idée de nu, de pauvreté, et aussi de pureté (nudité — dénuement) », which I translate to mean: “Le dénué involves a slight loss, as an undressing — the idea of nakedness, as in poverty, as well as purity (nudity — destitution).”[32] In Collins, the entry just above dénué is dénuder: to bare. Chedid’s construction seems to be one of adjective, noun, and verb.

And so I make my choice to construct this picture:

The baring of love draws circles everywhere whose center is not.

To imagine love revealing us as it is revealed in turn. To imagine its baring and its being born. To imagine it being carried into the world, stripped pure, enduring and endured. Bare love, unadorned. I think these images are not outside the realm of what Chedid might have wanted for us to see. As for the circles, look up. Imagine the widening arc of a compass, radius extending beyond diameter. Imagine circles of les vivants being dawn together by le dénué d’amour. Imagine two lovers kissing in the midday sun —

≫≪

— the brightness confusing dénuement with denouement, defined by Webster’s English as “the outcome of a complex sequence of events.”


23

Did I say I could look up to know the time of day? Did I suggest you do the same? Silly me, or maybe I am simply what the French would call une folle d’amour. One could not look up into the noonday sun, for to do so one would be blinded.

To see anything clearly — circles, lovers, the hour — one might look better to what Chedid names as “this extraordinary mystery” immersed in “all these fleeting moments with others that nourish life, the force without which we would sink into the void”:[33]

« L’amour est toute la vie », il est vain de prétendre qu’il y a d’autres équilibres.

« Love is all of life » it is useless to claim other balances.

I keep French quotation marks because they look like double greater and lesser signs in reverse. They look like the shape of encompass. The words we use are pictures of the shapes a number makes. Such an equation might look like this:

love = life x mystery x ∞

As far as time goes, vingt-trois heures corresponds to eleven o’clock. The hour just before the last, but not. In American time, the eleventh hour is also idiomatic for the last possible moment, which might be taken to mean: the last hour and the fullest. Contradiction. Composed of two together and a third thing entirely — 2 + 3, sequenced one after another.

Imagine looking into the sun for a number such as that! Somewhere I can hear Christine’s je as she begins to laugh. Or maybe Chedid, constructing a bridge in the land beyond:

The heart makes light at the absurdity. Her truth is in the noon of contradictions.

« Le cœur se rit de l’absurde. Sa vérité est au midi des contradictions. »

[which means end of proof; in Latin: QED, or quod erat demonstrandum, originating from the Greek, analogous to hóper édei deîxai (ὅπερ ἔδει δεῖξαι), meaning which had to be demonstrated]

 

 

 

In the Noon of Contradictions

Andrée Chedid
excerpted from Terre et poésie, 1956

Translated from the French by Marci Vogel, 2013

 

1

There is no wave more fatal than the sea; no tree more illustrious than the forest.


2

Neither silt nor star; we take after one & the other, both at once.

Opposites overrun our paths; our way is made by the slow pace of choice.


3

The angels alone are without shadow; their light is nothing to us.


4

Breath short, we walk by stopping places; the gaze impatient, we know not how to stay.

Move forward, recover joy, brave obstacles, perhaps defeat, then begin afresh: such present our possibilities.

Let us love the rays of a threatened sun; precious for us is the pond that retains its share of sky.


5

In our grown children quiver sailboats of impatience; our drawing back for their open passage gifts another birth.

Our place is no longer where their duel begins.


6

Beauty is never as beautiful as its image. By fair measure, ugliness is never as ugly.


7

Old age will come.

May she rise from a fierce earth to secure the living; a land of high grass provides the future.


8

Uncertain of our sources, what will we have to give over to the night?

Perhaps those faint lights that denounced the opaque, perhaps the blue trace of happiness is fleeing.


9

Our unknown realm is composed of thousands of roots, too tangled for the cutting of a single path.

There, the original flower risks its lifetime chance.


10

A feather of hope, and there we are left crop dusters skimming the avarice of time. A spot of shadow, and here we are captives of brambles that rivet the heart.


11

However much — as the tree born wise — we suspect the grimaces of destiny, we have not yet learned to smile at simple injuries of the heart.

The storm lays us down, opens the flesh of happiness.

But new water invents the mornings.


12

Rather the claws of the falcon than the trawl net of the sly.


13

May we shield those who failed us the whole mystery of their face. Injured and at fault, we are thereby judges, donning the bitter mask.

The weaknesses of others, when they scratch our tender skins, press us to deny all past accord. Turned toward possession, we are without vision and without pardon.


14

Sometimes absent — the other side of notice — , we leave as guaranteed bonds our ancestral features, reassuring as habits.

But the journey is not measured by distances; and the look back barters neither uncultivated regions nor impassioned lands.


15

The unreasonable is our fundamental flower. The reasons are our keys.


16

« Love is all of life » it is useless to claim other balances.

The baring of love draws circles everywhere whose center is not.


17

If love’s passion is like the wandering foam, nothing but born — swallowed by the sands — here she dies soon.

Only in the country beyond can she take shape; draw later, a future.


18

Those who love each other unknot, in their finest season, all moorings.

Strange & tender space. Intermingled, the rivers already sing the sea.


19

In spite of the numerous, loneliness reigns, & so perhaps are men calling without ever consenting — with green hearts — to listen.


20

The heart makes light at the absurdity. Her truth is in the noon of contradictions.


21

Without a companion who speaks our language, the spring is without mercy, the road unenchanted.

The waters of love yield words that confuse the impossible; but we must find them together & at the same time.


22

To look, to listen, they are a bit the same: passionate attention to the translucence of a friend.


23

Love is like death — that sails out of time — smoothing our brows, refining our faces.

At the edge of what is vast, the gaze no longer wanders; & the breath, accomplice of anguish and of days, finds at last her peace.

 

 

 

Au midi des contradictions

Andrée Chedid
[extrait de Terre et poésie, 1956]

 

1

Il n’y a pas de vague plus fatale que la mer; pas d’arbre plus illustre que la forêt.


2

Ni du limon, ni de l’étoile; nous tenons de l’un et l’autre à la fois.

Les contraires embroussaillent nos chemins; notre avance se réalise à la lente cadence du choix.


3

Seuls les anges sont privés d’ombre; leur lumière ne nous est rien.


4

Le souffle court, nous ne marchons que par étapes; le regard impatient, nous ne savons pas séjourner.

Avancer, reprendre joie, défier l’obstacle, peut-être le vaincre, puis aller de nouveau : tels sont nos possibles.

Aimons les rayons d’un soleil menacé; qu’il nous soit cher l’étang qui retient sa part de ciel.


5

En nos enfants grandis tressaillent les voiliers d’impatience. Nous écarter pour leur ouvrir passage, c’est leur faire don d’une autre naissance.

Notre place n’est plus où commence leur combat singulier.


6

Le beau n’est jamais aussi beau que son image. Par un juste rachat, le laid n’est jamais aussi laid.


7

Viendra la vieillesse.

Qu’elle surgisse d’une terre acharnée à se garder vivante; une terre d’herbe forte qui crédite le futur.


8

Incertains de nos sources, qu’aurons-nous à livrer à la nuit?

Peut-être ces lueurs qui dénoncèrent l’opaque, peut-être la trace bleue d’un bonheur qui fuit.


9

Notre domaine inconnu se compose de milliers de racines, trop enchevêtrées pour le coupant d’une seule route.

La fleur originelle y court chance de vie.


10

Un duvet d’espoir, et nous voilà parties à rase-mottes effleurant l’avarice du temps. Un grain d’ombre, et nous voici captifs des ronces qui rivent le cœur.


11

Nous avons beau — comme l’arbre qui est né sage — soupçonner les grimaces du destin, nous n’avons pas encore appris à sourire des simples blessures du cœur.

L’orage nous terrasse, entame la chair du bonheur.

Mais l’eau nouvelle s’invente des matins.


12

Plutôt les serres du faucon à la nasse des roués.


13

Sauvegardons à ceux qui nous ont failli le mystère entier de leur visage. Blessés et en cause, nous voici juges, les affublant du masque odieux.

Les faiblesses d’autrui, quand elles égratignent notre susceptible peau, nous poussent à renier tout un passé d’entente. Tournés vers la possession, nous sommes sans perspective et sans recours.


14

Parfois, absents — de l’autre côté du regard — , nous laissons en gage d’alliance nos traits de chair, rassurants comme l’habitude.

Mais le voyage ne se mesure pas aux distances; l’arrière-regard ne marchande ni ses régions incultes, ni sa lande passionnée.


15

La déraison est notre fleur capitale. Les raisons sont nos clefs.


16

« L’amour est toute la vie », il est vain de prétendre qu’il y a d’autres équilibres.

Le dénué d’amour trace partout des cercles dont le centre n’est pas.


17

Si la passion d’amour est semblable à l’errante écume, rien que de naître — engloutie par les sables — la voilà morte bientôt.

C’est uniquement dans l’arrière-pays qu’elle peut prendre substance; puiser, plus tard, un avenir.


18

Ceux qui s’aiment dénouent, en leur saison privilégiée, toutes les amarres.

Étrange et doux espace. S’entremêlant, les fleuves chantent déjà la mer.


19

Puisqu’en dépit du nombre la solitude règne, c’est peut-être que les hommes appellent sans jamais consentir — d’un cœur naissant — à écouter.


20

Le cœur se rit de l’absurde. Sa vérité est au midi des contradictions.


21

Dépourvu du compagnon qui parle notre langage, le printemps est sans clémence, la route décharmée.

L’eau d’amour donne les mots qui confondent l’impossible; mais il nous faut la trouver ensemble et pour la même durée.


22

Regarder, écouter, c’est un peu la même chose : une attention passionnée à la transparence de l’ami.


23

L’amour comme la mort — qui naviguent hors du temps — lissent nos fronts, affinent nos visages.

Au bord de ce qui est vaste, le regard n’erre plus; et le souffle, complice de l’angoisse et des jours, trouve enfin sa paix.


Andrée Chedid, “Au midi des contradictions,” in “Terre et poésie,”
Textes pour un poème (1949–1970), © Flammarion, reproduced here with permission.

 


 

1. The Math Forum @ Drexel/“Ask Dr. Math” is an online source hosted by Drexel University. Additional information about mathematical symbols found at Wikipedia’s “List of Mathematical Symbols.”

2. Marco Werman and Lisa Mullins, “Franco-Egyptian Poet Andrée Chedid Dies in Paris,” Public Radio International, February 8, 2011.

3. Ibid.

4.Andrée Chedid, Fugitive Suns: Selected Poetry of Andrée Chedid, trans. Lynne Goodhart and Jon Wagner (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 1999), 59.

5. Yves Bonnefoy, The Arrière-Pays, trans. Stephen Romer (London: Seagull Books, 2012).

6. Paul Ricoeur, On Translation, trans. Eileen Brennan, introduction by Richard Kearney (London: Routledge, 2006), 24.

7. Édouard Glissant, Poetic Intention, trans. Nathalie Stephens (Paris: Gallimard, 1997), 17.

8.Andrée Chedid, Selected Poems of Andrée Chedid, ed. Judy Cochran (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1995), viii.

9.Andrée Chedid, qtd. in Bettina Knapp, Andrée Chedid: Collection Monographique Rodopi en Littérature Française Contemporaine (Amsterdam: Rophie, 1984), epigraph.

10. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos, trans. Daniel Russell (Boston: Beacon Press, 1960).

11. Paul Valéry, “A Poet’s Notebook,” in The Art of Poetry, ed. Jackson Matthews, trans. Denise Folliot (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1958), 183.

12. See for example Nadia Margolis’s An Introduction to Christine de Pizan (Gainsville: University Press of Florida, 2011). Scholar Karen Green recently makes an excellent case for Christine taking refuge not at Poissy but in another region of France. Wherever she remained secluded in the years after 1418, Christine did not return to Paris or her public writing life before her death. See “Was Christine de Pizan at Poissy? 1418–1429?,” Medium Aevum 83, no. 1 (2014): 93–103. For an English translation of Le Dité de Jehanne d’Arc, see The Selected Writings of Christine de Pizan, trans. Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski and Kevin Brownlee (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997), 252–262.

13. Ricoeur, On Translation, 3. The work to which Ricoeur refers is Antoine Berman’s L’épreuve de l’étranger, translated into English by S. Heyvaert as The Experience of the Foreign: Culture and Translation in Romantic Germany (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992).

14. “Proofs of the Title,” in The Prose and Poetry of Andrée Chedid, trans. Renée Linkhorn (Birmingham: Summa Publications, 1990), 92.

15. Jane Hirshfield, “The World Is Large and Full of Noises: Thoughts on Translation,” in Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (New York: Harper Collins, 1997), 55.

16. Ricoeur, On Translation, 20.

17. Ibid., xvi.

18. Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1955), 71.

19. Hirshfield, “The World Is Large,” 57.

20. Andrée Chedid, qtd. in Elles: A Bilingual Anthology of Modern French Poetry by Women, ed. and trans. Martin Sorrell (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1995), 64–65.

21. Andrée Chedid, Textes pour un poème: 1949–1970 (Paris: Flammarion, 1987).

22. Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie, 15.

23. Chedid, interviewed by Martine Leca in “An Inner Freedom,” The UNESCO Courier 50, no. 11 (November 1977): 48–50.

24. Goodhart and Wagner, Fugitive Suns, 24–25.

25. Ricoeur, On Translation, 38.

26. Ibid.

27. Berman, The Experience of the Foreign, 105.

28. Chedid, “An Inner Freedom.”

29. Hirshfield, “The World Is Large,” 57.

30. Unless otherwise noted, all translations of “Au midi des contradictions” in this essay are by the author.

31. Ricoeur, On Translation, xix.

32. Email communication with Alain Borer, whose face appears on the cover of the novel Koba (Paris: Seuil, 2002).

33. Chedid, “An Inner Freedom.”