Translation's lucky hand

A review of 'Fortino Sámano'

Fortino Sámano (The Overflowing of the Poem)

Fortino Sámano (The Overflowing of the Poem)

Virginie Lalucq and Jean-Luc Nancy

Omnidawn 2012, 200 pages, $21.95, ISBN 978-1890650674

To grasp this amazing book — this doubled and redoubled book — is indeed to hold a lucky hand. To read the words of Hogue and Gallais translating Virginie Lalucq and Jean-Luc Nancy is not just to devour a long poem. It is also to receive a device for reading poetry and for exploring the possibilities of lyric address, for opening spaces in and between two languages, French and English.

We are first confronted with the book’s title, two words that mean nothing in French or English, Fortino Sámano. Latinate, they could point to a name, index an individual life, though at first I am not sure it is a name I am reading. In English, the words seem to go beyond language.

Impossible to translate, they arrest me.

Inside the book, the poems of Virginie Lalucq offer us multiplied, shorn, angulated words: a trenchant and repeated déclic that is at once the image of a man about to be executed, the images of a poem in the process of its own summary execution, and images of us reading the image-poem. In Fortino Sámano, there is no photo shown, no “representation,” no passport provided. Here, execution is also creation, and the executory process suspends the sinews of the poem between writer and reader in a productive space beyond that of mere expression.

Poet Virginie Lalucq does not execute alone. Just as the translation of her work into English is doubled, by two translators, the book itself is doubled, has two authors. We even read the poems twice before the book ends: once, as Lalucq, and again when philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy executes his lyric reading of her poems, a beautiful and nuanced reading of work that, paradoxically, refuses what we often consider to be lyric values.

The name Fortino evokes luck and power, and Lalucq’s and Jean-Luc’s names also, funnily, echo luck. Fortino Sámano, man and name, offers us su mano, pointing to the fortunate power of the hand at work in creating the unspeakably aphasic parts of poetry, using what is at hand. In the poems, the image of the man smiles, exchanges pronouns with us, puts us in his spot against the wall of execution and makes us own the “I” that the poem is speaking.

Lalucq’s work contains great défis — challenges defying translation — in lineation, rhythm, in the transpositions, say, of adjective-noun (English) and noun-adjective (French) that underpin each language’s structure and conveyance of power. Then, Gallais and Hogue confront a redoubled challenge: to translate the lyric overflow of Nancy’s reading of Lalucq’s poem, to make Nancy’s text work alongside Lalucq’s in English, as well as in French.           

Translators know that translating quotations (and here Nancy quotes the entire poem!) inside the work of another author is not easy. You can’t always use a previous English version of the quotation, because what was important in it to the one who quotes may have been stripped away in the standard English version. To translate it again means creating a foreignness that insists on the provisionality of all translation, context, readings, executions. Out of this, somehow, Gallais and Hogue create a version of the poem that works in both its roles.

Fortino Sámano is poetry in translation that pushes my own relationship with English into a new place of questioning, and that refuses the process of legitimation that so often goes hand in hand with translation, a process that often unwittingly seeks poetry from other languages that reflects, or can be translated as reflecting, values already embedded in American poetry. Fortino Sámano brings something new into North American poetries, not just in the line or in the stanza, not just in the image or its refusal, but in the structure, tension, and extension of the poems as book as well.

Words, says Nancy on the last page of his piece, are always démesurés — “unmeasurable,” but also beyond measure, disproportionate, excessive, unruly. And in the mouth, they do run backward to aphasia, as the book’s epigraph (Jacques Roubaud via Rosemarie Waldrop) advises us before we begin.

How then can we read at all? A face, an image, a memory, a poem? Lalucq’s creation insists on this question, on its cut and fracture. Nancy addresses the question as well, by reminding us what poetry can do: “The poem gives words a common measure, which reading recalculates each time.” He ends by insisting we read the poem aloud, starting with its title: For-tin-o Sá-ma-no. The poem overflows now into our own vocal apparatus; we execute it out loud.



PS: Three wee remarks (no translator can repress a few remarks) that don’t diminish my love of this book. 1) There is a second photo of Sámano, at the execution wall, also taken by Agustín Victor Casasola on January 12, 1917, seen on this site just below the photo that Lalucq saw. 2) The Breton verb “disac’her” is in dictionaries: here we are told that disac’her means dépanner, in the sense of faire avancer, débloquer, to get something going again, get over a breakdown or obstacle. As well: [x] Disac’her : vb. (de disac’han) vider un sac, sortir d’un bourbier, débloquer, finir par dire sa pensée. It’s in the Vocabulaire du breton d’aujourd’hui, by H. J. Gouélian, Editions Jean-paul Gisserot, 2002. And here: disac’hañ: (v) s’ébouler; débloquer, dépanner, décoincer. 3) To write a poem, or to read an image, concludes Lalucq, is a difficult harvest from steep terrain using a faucille, which is a sickle, a one-handed instrument that lets you cut while leaving one hand free to grasp what’s cut. With a “scythe” (as Hogue and Gallais have it), a faux, both hands must grasp the tool; the swinging would be precarious on a slope and the cut stems, the harvest, would cascade out of reach.