Sarah Riggs and Teresa Villa-Ignacio

Sounding Translation episode 2

Photo of Sarah Riggs by Omar Berrada.

Bridget Ryan: Hi, everyone! You’re listening to Sounding Translation, a podcast featuring interviews with translators of contemporary poetry. I’m Bridget Ryan, Stonehill class of 2023, and the producer of this podcast episode. In the following interview, conducted by Teresa Villa-Ignacio, the poet, translator, filmmaker, and activist Sarah Riggs recalls how, upon moving to Paris in the early 2000s, she began translating French poets, including Isabelle Garron, Marie Borel, Etel Adnan, and Ryoko Sekiguchi. Riggs also discusses how this translation work impacted her own poetry, including her books Waterwork and Autobiography of Envelopes, and discusses opportunities for poetic translation exchanges she has facilitated through the organizations Double Change and Tamaas. The interview was recorded on June 8, 2013, in Paris.

Teresa Villa-Ignacio: Can you tell me a little about how you began translating?

Sarah Riggs: It happened fairly quickly after moving to France. I realized that I was meeting various French poets, and I wanted to understand better what they were doing. And I found it very handy to have them right here, so that I could ask them questions about not just particular words, but contexts for the fabric and the texture of what they were reading and thinking and seeing and what was going into the writing. And I found it fairly addictive and a really amazing way for someone like me, who is a bit of a dreamer in a classroom, a daydreamer in a classroom — that it was just so engaging for me to go. And those first drafts, often I would do them in a cafe or on a bench in a park and just without the dictionary, so missing lots of words, but just to kind of get a rhythm going. And then more meticulously at home going through the dictionary. This is back when we were using paper dictionaries ten years ago! [Laughs.]

Villa-Ignacio: I remember that! It was a long time ago, it seems. [Laughs.] So, was your interest in these French poets and their work related to your own work as a poet or as a writer?

Riggs: Mm-hmm.

Villa-Ignacio: And when you said it was nice to have them around to ask them about things, was it — how much of that was asking about what you were translating for them, and how much of that was just asking about how they were working, what their process was, where their inspirations were coming from?

Riggs: Yeah, well, one of the first poets I started to translate was Isabelle Garron, who is roughly my generation, and we had a lot of preoccupations in common in our first books. And it’s important to note that I didn’t have a book at the time when I started translating. It helped me kind of come into my writing as well, to just immerse myself in somebody else’s writing. And she would tell me about, you know, Marguerite Duras here, this reference there. She’d done ballet as a young girl, so there were various ballet references. She developed a very intricate system of punctuation that was part of her poetry. So I wanted to learn how that was working for her. And I think when you’re raised in a particular culture, there are certain books that are taught at school, certain films that are showing in the theaters, and you have a common fabric. So here I was with an unfamiliar fabric and just trying to learn what that was for her. And there was another poet whom I started cotranslating with Omar Berrada, and her name is Marie Borel. And we spent countless afternoons digging into her naval vocabulary, her, you know, all these words for boats and rigging and various sea birds. Just a very dictionary-rich experience. And that, I learned later, actually, that she came to boating midlife; it wasn’t something that she had grown up with, but she’d so immersed herself in it that it was really present, particularly in that book that we were translating, Trompe-Loup.

Villa-Ignacio: Which became Wolftrot in your translation, right?

Riggs: Right, yes.

Villa-Ignacio: And then the one that you translated for Isabelle Garron is Face Before Against?

Riggs: That’s right, yeah.

Villa-Ignacio: Very different texts.

Riggs: Very different, yeah. And that was helpful for me, too, because, as I was saying, my own writing practice was evolving, and I didn’t really know what I was sounding like. And it was really interesting to work with two different women who had really different aesthetics from each other, as well as being immersed in the French language. So, that was good for me, that was very refreshing. So, you can write in this way, and you can write in this way, and you can write in both ways.

Villa-Ignacio: And the fact that they were both women was important to you, you mentioned that. I mean, do you think about that? It does seem like you do a lot of translations of women, right? Like Oscarine Bosquet.

Riggs: Mm-hmm. I’ve also translated Etel Adnan and Ryoko Sekiguchi, so yeah, there have been a lot of women. And that was pretty intentional. I would say at first, it was just an attraction, and then I kind of got very strongheaded about it for a while because I felt that France was about ten years behind the States in terms of integrating women into the reading series and publications. And occasionally now, you’ll still see an anthology which is like twenty-five men and one woman. And the same thing with the reading series; or they might just not have any women. But it definitely has changed in the ten or twelve years that I’ve been active here.

Villa-Ignacio: Are you working on any translations from the French right now, or even not from the French, because I know you’re actually working on some from the Arabic?

Riggs: Yeah, well, Cole Swensen and I have been translating for quite a number of years a book by Stéphane Bouquet, a really beautiful book called Un Peuple, which we’re translating as A People. So, as soon as that finds a publisher, then we’ll just be putting finishing touches on that. And I got the feeling in recent months — this is really a new phenomenon for me — that I wanted to translate people I didn’t know, who are no longer alive. I was a little intimidated, I think, by the idea of trying to translate, you know, Mallarmé or someone who has been translated many times. That relationship to the canon. And that kind of broke open for me last summer when Omar and I were invited to teach in Lagrasse, in a very exciting kind of mobile école de littérature, it’s called. And we had the idea to teach the translation of poems from The Thousand and One Nights, which was actually an idea given to us by the writer and thinker and novelist Marina Warner. We worked with a classroom full of students who had Arabic as well as English, and so that was really fruitful. And my fears about working with something very ancient, where you couldn’t just draw on idioms and contemporary speech to make it feel fresh, that you had to work with this older language or languages. Yeah, that opened the field for me. This is an extraordinary book that’s just come out in the last year; it’s The Thinker, Émile Benveniste, whom I didn’t really know about and was introduced to by my friend Lisa Robertson. And it’s his notes on Baudelaire.

Villa-Ignacio: Oh my goodness.

Riggs: Which were just there in the BNF, in the library.

Villa-Ignacio: And there’s a lot of them! [Laughs.] How many pages is that book? Eight hundred?

Riggs: Well, it’s about 750 pages, but I mean, they’ve taken his original manuscripts, and then they’ve typed them up, so it’s about that.

Villa-Ignacio: Excellent.

Riggs: But this was so beautiful when I started reading this because it’s really — for me, it’s like that mix between poetry and philosophy, which is just so intense. And also, between kind of — also with the casual, everyday journal-writing feeling that I liked. So, I thought, “Oh, I could translate this.” But Lisa had probably already told me that she was translating it, and I called her, and she said in fact that she was translating it, so.

Villa-Ignacio: Right.

Riggs: You have to really, in my experience, fall in love with a text in order to translate it. Because otherwise it’s like going uphill the whole time, you know?

Villa-Ignacio: Well, you spend a lot of time on it, right? And then people will be asking you about it for a long time afterward, so.

Riggs: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. Yeah, it’s a commitment, yeah. I mean, I … Marie Borel was extremely difficult as a first thing to translate. Isabelle Garron was much easier for me because I felt this real compatibility with the way she was writing, almost as if, you know, if I were a French person, I would have written like this. Whereas Marie’s work was just very funny, and philosophical, and doing all these acrobatics. And I admired it, but it was hard to render it poetically. Also, it’s prose, poetic prose. I learned early on, I guess as often translators do, that sometimes it’s — for people who are poets; I think that if you are not a poet, this is not true — but it’s easier when there’s fewer words.

Villa-Ignacio: Well, there are fewer choices.

Riggs: No, there’s something in the density. There’s something in the density! It makes you work in a particular way to find the right — you know, just this right, and wedge it in there, this word. And when there’s lots of words, I mean, it’s kind of like the difference between Dickinson and Whitman, or something. I always had trouble writing on Whitman, whereas Dickinson was easy for me just because it’s so tight and there’s just so much in there. Yeah, I think I should only speak for myself and not generalize about what it feels like. But I work well with density.

Villa-Ignacio: Mm-hmm.

Riggs: And the poems from The Thousand and One Nights that have been the easiest for me to work on are quite tight. And actually, I’ve been finding that I’m using dashes and condensing things and making them a little bit like Dickinson as a way to render the work, because otherwise it’s too loose, it’s too amorous. The old language sounds antiquated, and just to kind of make it pop and sizzle!

Villa-Ignacio: Make it twenty-first century.

Riggs: Yeah, yeah.

Villa-Ignacio: That reminds me a bit about the way you appropriate very dense, textual forms. Like current dense textual forms, like text messages and Post-it notes and envelopes. These are actually in the titles of your last three books. It’s really interesting to take those forms, those other forms, and make us, as readers, read them both as poems and in reference to those other, kind of textual forms.

Riggs: Mm-hmm.

Villa-Ignacio: Is that something that you still feel like you’re doing, or do you feel like you’ve done — is that something you’re kind of done with now? You also have the telegram book, so.

Riggs: Yeah, I love improvisation and freedom so much, and I think that the constraints of working in another language, with another language or with somebody else’s language, as well as the constraints of various technological forms, gives some kind of internal resistance to that improvisatory urge that I have. So, I don’t think I’ll ever be done with that particular combination, but maybe I’m moving a little bit away from the technologies; it just hasn’t been coming up recently. And I’m reaching a little bit more toward some prose, poetic prose, and seeing what that yields. I’ve done some work over the years with sonnets. The new book I have coming out has some kind of fourteen-line poems, which follow basic iambic pentameter a lot of the time. And in my first book, Waterwork, there was a sequence called Méduse,which started out as sapphic stanzas and then they became … they sort of morphed a little bit each time. But I was working with those forms. So that’s a similar dynamic, I would say, as well. So, I think I always try to work toward something that I haven’t mastered yet and that I don’t understand yet. So maybe that’s why I’m drawn toward the prose because there is less resistance. So it’s just an area of growth for me.

Villa-Ignacio: Right. And do you think you’ve been including more and more French? I mean, you also write in French to a certain extent, right?

Riggs: A little bit, yeah.

Villa-Ignacio: How do you think that’s changed since you’ve moved here?

Riggs: Well, it only started happening a few years ago that I could write in French at all, and then very little. And I started rewriting Autobiography of Envelopes, which is the Burning Deck book. Which is pretty different, actually, from the other technology pieces.

Villa-Ignacio: That’s true, that’s true.

Riggs: It’s thicker and denser, and there’s more to it. And that’s, writing, writing — not translating but writing, rewriting something, so just getting the feeling of it but using different references and different content, so to speak, has been a very heady experience. And I think I may want to continue with that. Even though Marie Borel and Françoise Valéry, who — Françoise runs with her husband, Franck Pruja, the press Éditions de l’Attente — they, just a couple days ago, said they’d like to translate it, Autobiography of Envelopes, into French. So, I think that’s great; so that will come out in a couple years with Éditions de l’Attente. And it doesn’t impede my rewriting it and turning it into something else. We’ve spent a couple of autumns in Brooklyn the last few years, and I’ve noticed that when I’m in Brooklyn it’s much harder to write in French.

Villa-Ignacio: Mm-hmm.

Riggs: So, it’s more a function of being mobile in Paris.

Villa-Ignacio: Right.

Riggs: Also, I haven’t been that mobile in recent months, so I haven’t been just hearing the French all around me. So it just hasn’t been coming in that way.

Villa-Ignacio: Yeah.

Riggs: Do you write in French?

Villa-Ignacio: No — Well, first of all, I don’t write any poetry.

Riggs: At the moment. [Laughs.]

Villa-Ignacio: As far as I know [laughs], very occasionally or rarely. I did a master’s here in 2000–2001, and, you know, I did like, double major in French and English. So I had coursework in which I had to write essays in French, and I’ve been thinking that I would like to write essays in French to be published to a French-reading audience eventually. I mean, I have a lot going on right now in English, so I’m trying to think about, you know, what that would be. I do feel like I am a very different person in French, both orally and in my writing. You know, they’re different traditions; they’re different modalities of thinking for me. And I know other people who are fully bilingual — which I am not, but — or, you know, trilingual, and they are like the same person, in all of the languages because they just grew up being that person who just speaks different languages. But I do feel like I had to learn how to be a different kind of person in learning French. Do you feel like that at all?

Riggs: Oh yeah, yeah. That’s actually part of the excitement of being in France is, in the initial years, was that sense of being somebody else.

Villa-Ignacio: Right.

Riggs: And now, I think I’m pretty much a hybrid person, and I probably will stay that way. You know, spending some time here and some time there and just … I don’t know, maybe because I love challenges so much, maybe at some point I’ll want to try living in Morocco. There is this moment, if you’ve lived in France for a decade, and you’ve been working on the language the whole time, that it doesn’t feel unnatural anymore to hear French. Actually, what stands out more is the American tourists — it sounds like a loudspeaker.

Villa-Ignacio: Yeah, well, they’re also volume-wise. [Laughs.] There is this idea of a mobility, right —

Riggs: Mobility.

Villa-Ignacio: — of, you know, enjoying living in different places and being a person who lives in different places and becomes a hybrid person because of that, but I mean, is there also something about being in Paris, too? What’s going on in Paris that makes you want to be here? I mean, it’s somewhat obvious, but just to kind of spell it out a little bit. If you were to compare it to the poetry scene in New York, in Brooklyn, or whatever. I mean, they’re different, and there’s a lot of elements in common, but what’s singular about Paris for you? If there is such a thing.

Riggs: Well, it’s — Paris is a tight form, you know, like a sonnet or something. It’s got narrow streets, I mean except for the big boulevards. And it has this history, which means it’s harder to just up and improvise something completely new because there’s so many centuries that are defining any decisions that are being made, why neighborhoods are the way that they are. Brooklyn is … could hardly be more different, I mean, as a place. Both cities have an active poetry scene. There’s always readings on any given week that you’d want to go to — there’s probably too many readings. I like, in Paris, your average person is quite culturally informed. So, you can talk to taxi drivers about philosophy. Friends, our children’s — parents who we’ve become friends with because our kids are friends, have been to the same experimental dance performance that we went to, that was part of the Festival d’Automne. You know, these kinds of things would be more surprising, I think, in certain American contexts. I don’t want to generalize about them all. It’s also a city that people like to come to, especially the American poets. I mean, a couple years ago it was very trendy to say that [the] Paris art scene was dead. I internalized that for a while. It’s also a very self-confident culture in terms of its history and its pride. So, it’s true that bookstores are closing here just the way they are in other cities, but I’m not fundamentally concerned for literature, dance, art, translation, the libraries — it will remain, just the way French cuisine has remained. It doesn’t mean you’ll get a good meal in any bistro, but there is this tremendous tradition, which is maintained.

Villa-Ignacio: True, well, it’s valorized, right, and it’s taught to generation after generation.

Riggs: Right. But it could have so easily been swallowed by all the tourism, but it doesn’t.

Villa-Ignacio: There is a very local neighborhood culture here where, like, you’ve lived here for your whole life, and your family has lived here, and everybody knows everybody in the same, small neighborhood. And people like having that sense of community. That might be more difficult in, for example, a place in the United States, where maybe there is some kind of history, but people are still moving a lot. I don’t know, I’m just thinking about living in New Orleans. There is also a very great tradition of cuisine, and there is a great music tradition, and a lot of it is kind of pimped out to tourists. And probably more than it is here, actually, or at least on a proportional level. And there, I mean, there is still a New Orleans local culture, but I think there is more mobility. I don’t know. I mean, we’re not sociologists; these are just our impressions, right?

Riggs: Right.

Villa-Ignacio: But speaking of communities, maybe we can talk about your organizations that you’ve founded and have been doing so much work with. So, one is Double Change — or [pronouncing in French] Double Change. Maybe we can start with that one because that was the first one, right?

Riggs: Sure, yeah. I mean, I came to Double Change a couple years after it had been founded. When I first moved here, it was very exciting to be able to go to their readings, and it was like an artery and pumping really strongly. And so of course I wanted to be a part of it. And actually, how Omar and I got involved was, I was living in California for four months, and I came back to Paris, and I wanted to do something with poetry and translation and activism, relating to the war that was starting to brew in Iraq. And Omar responded, and so we created together a multilingual event called Translating Peace with eight poets, I believe, and five or six different languages. And it was really exciting, and Double Change was completely willing to host that, and then they asked me to be a part of the group, and I was thrilled and a very active member for many years. And I initiated the video archive. I had no idea how much work that would be. And then, luckily, Abigail Lang was able to follow through, and she had more connections in the French community, so she was able to kind of get it published as a box set and all that.

Villa-Ignacio: That’s beautiful!

Riggs: Yeah, we’re proud of it.

Villa-Ignacio: That’s great. Are you still kind of involved with getting readings set up for those?

Riggs: I do, I do maybe a reading in the fall and a reading in the spring, something like that. We’re planning on spending more time based in New York, and I’d like to do some Double-Change-related events there. I did one at The Invisible Dog in Brooklyn, with a few poets and a cellist, and it really went over well. And I was surprised because there are so many events in New York, but apparently there aren’t that many bilingual ones. And of course, the French poets love to come to the States — I mean, who wouldn’t? You know, there’s —

Villa-Ignacio: [Laughs.] To New York, yeah.

Riggs: — but there isn’t this stream of French poets to New York as much as there is the other way around, and I think that’s just an economy issue.

Villa-Ignacio: Yeah, I think if they were invited more often, they would definitely come. And then Tamaas started when?

Riggs: Tamaas, yeah. Well that started — I wanted to do some things that were more international, less just along the axis of French and English, so opening up into other languages but also other art forms, so. Tamaas has been ten years in the making, and we’re just now hatching a new big project, which I expect to go on for a long time to come if it works well — a kind of exchange of a Moroccan artist and an American artist doing residencies at Dar al-Ma’mûn near Marrakech and the Headlands Center for the Arts in California, so a pair of artists each year. But our idea is to have these artists communicate with the other artists and over time build a kind of conversation. The project is called Environments. It initially started … my thinking about the environment, which was my first passion before I got into poetry, and before I realized how politicized the environment was. Last year at the other Tamaas project that we’ve been doing now for nine years — it’s this five-year translation seminar where we pair a French poet and an American poet, or anglophone poet, together. And they translate each other, and then we come out with a book of the work called Read, which is a pun on the center where it takes place: Reid Hall, Columbia University’s center in Paris, a beautiful garden setting. And the poets love working together in the garden and in the buildings and having a bistro lunch across the street. And we have a reading in the garden at the end, and you know, half the time people can’t hear what’s being said, but it just seems that people love to be outside. I think literally outside but also kind of outside of the universities and outside of all the regular readings.

Ryan: Thank you for listening to this interview of Sarah Riggs, conducted by Teresa Villa-Ignacio. This is Bridget Ryan, signing off of this episode of Sounding Translation.