Fortino Sámano (The Overflowing of the Poem)

Omnidawn, 2012

Fortino Sámano (The overflowing of the poem).  Trans. from the French of Virginie Lalucq and Jean-Luc Nancy, with Sylvain Gallais (Omnidawn, 2012). 

Winner of the 2013 Harold Morton Landon Translation Award from the Academy of American Poets
One of The Volta‘s Best Books of 2013
One of The Volta‘s Best Books of 2014

Overview

Generating an exciting poetic dialogue that is as insightful as it is eloquent and creative, this combined poem and complementary philosophical analysis is an astute rendering of the intersection of intellect and language as an art form. With the original French preserved on the facing pages, this collaborative work by an emerging French poet, Virginie Lalucq, and the distinguished philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy presents a startlingly robust poetic experience. The serial poem “Fortino Sámano” is a meditation on a photo of the eponymous subject, taken by Mexican photographer Agustín Víctor Casasola during the Mexican Revolution.

In the image Sámano, a Zapatista lieutenant and counterfeiter, appears to stare death nonchalantly in the face moments before his execution by firing squad. The poem makes no attempt to craft a biography or history of the man, but instead treats the image itself—reflecting on the fact that the camera caught the image of life just prior to its end. Jean-Luc Nancy contributes a series of commentaries on the poem, creating a philosophical contemplation of “Fortino Sámano” but also a poetic investigation of the lyric genre that works hand-in-hand with the poem itself. The inspiring union becomes an altogether unique poetic experience with an unmatchable depth and plenty to ruminate on during each subsequent re-reading of this delightful and impressive project.

Reviews

“We all know that the reader collaborates in the text. Here, a reader was given the chance to articulate his reading, which in turn changed the poem. The roles of poet and philosopher seem almost reversed: the poem’s language is plain, stripped down, and engages philosophical questions, whereas Nancy attends to words rather in a poet’s way, playing with sound, punning . . . what we have here is extraordinary: a collaboration that throws light on processes of thinking, poetic or philosophical.”

Rosmarie Waldrop, author, Driven to Abstraction

“Sylvain Gallais and Cynthia Hogue, simply by bringing attention to this dialogue between two powerful French minds, have performed a remarkable service. That they imbued the English version with a bright vitality, with linguistic energy and intellectual rigor, is even more remarkable. Jean-Luc Nancy’s observation that “A poem is always, at each moment, a last word with no conclusion” applies as well to a translation as to an “original,” and this translation is an examination of the power and danger behind powerful images and engaging paradoxes. This is one of the necessary new books.”

Bin Ramke, author of Aerial

A brief interview with Cynthia Hogue (conducted by Rusty Morrison)

Fortino Sámano (the overflowing of the poem) is such an unusual text, since it is comprised of poems and poetic meditations by a philosopher that are a form of response to each poem. How did it come about?

Virginie Lalucq wrote Fortino Sámano after seeing an exhibit of photographs on the Mexican Revolution by Agustin Victor Casasola. She is an emerging poet in France who has never before been translated into English. Her series is a meditation on the single, extant photograph of Sámano, a Zapatista lieutenant and counterfeiter, which Casasola snapped as Sámano, smoking a last cigar, appeared to stare death nonchalantly in the face moments before his execution by firing squad (it was reported that he himself gave the order to fire). This photograph is not reproduced for the book, but is, rather, “transmitted” into poetic images over the course of forty poems. Little is known about Sámano, and Lalucq’s poem makes no attempt to be biographical or historical. Rather, she treats the image itself, the fact that the camera caught the moment of life just prior to its end: what, then, does the image represent? is among the questions Lalucq poses.

Jean-Luc Nancy, of course, has a long history of writing philosophical inquiries in dialogue with aesthetics, and while he has been regularly translated into English, this work has had no translators because of the specific demands of translating the poetry with which it is in dialogue. Although Nancy trained as a metaphysical philosopher, he was influenced by poststructuralist philosophies of language function (Derrida, for example, was on his examining committee, and Paul Ricoeur directed his dissertation). Surely, part of his attraction to deconstruction is its attentiveness to language’s flow and overflow (with the process of thinking as well as with emotion). Nancy’s section, Les débordements du poème (The overflowing of the poem), comprises a series of poetics commentaries on each of the poems in Lalucq’s section. It is both a philosophical contemplation of the specific poem, Fortino Sámano, and also of the poetic image: what does it do and how does it do it? Fascinating, full of punning wordplays, with exquisite attention to the lyric qualities of Lalucq’s language, Nancy’s section is itself a poetic investigation of the lyric genre, which works hand-in-hand with Lalucq’s poems.

Nancy was impressed by Lalucq’s debut collection, Couper les tiges (Compac’t, 2001), and invited her to participate in a colloquium on the lyric at the Centre d’études poétiques (ENS) in Lyons—an exchange that led directly to their collaborative project. As André Velter in La Revue des Ressources (2004, http://www.larevuedesressources.org) observed, this long exchange that became the book echoes Wittgenstein (“philosophy can only be written as poetry”), although as Nancy himself remarked, with infinite modesty, “Poetry is always untranslatable: philosophy must attest to that” (n.b. translations mine). Emmanuel Laugier noted (in Le matricule des anges, #57, October 2004) that Fortino Sámano represented a poetic “advance” on Lalucq’s part over her first volume (http://www.lmda.net/din/tit_lmda.php?Id=20728). Other reviews (an anonymous review in ADPF – Vient de paraître, Hors Série #7, March 2006, and a measured review by Ginette Michaud in Spirale, Numéro 199, novembre-décembre 2004, p. 30-32) were generally laudative (Michaud called it a “a very beautiful book”), offering conceptual overviews of this ambitious work. ENS describes Fortino Sámano (Les débordements du poème) most comprehensively as a work in three parts, “the poem, its duplication, and its overflowing,” and its formal variations as transcending the division between poetry and philosophy: “There’s no schism between the two sections, but interaction. It’s about a trans-mission, a trans-position or an exchange of knowledges.” Fortino Sámano is a collaboration between a brilliant emerging poet at the onset of her career, and as Stevens would say, “the old philosopher” near the end of his, who nevertheless revels in a delicious rumination on what poetic language does, glorying linguistically in “the overflowing of the poem.”

How did you come to this project of translation, why were you drawn to it?

This collaborative dialogue and multigeneric inquiry are what interested me so much about this work, and why I decided to take up the challenge of its translation. Intellectually as well as poetically, I was inspired (and indeed, there is evidence of that inspiration in some of my own recent poetry). I strongly believe, moreover, that Fortino Sámano is an exciting dialogue between poetry and philosophy, and a significant collaborative work to bring into English (and the fact of the publications of its excerpts confirms that my interest is shared by editors around the country).

Teaching translation theory now for several years, I am drawn to those theorists and practitioners of translation who boldly take liberties with the original in the service of Art in the target language. Examples include Pound’s well-known “The River Merchant’s Wife” (a conventional, unremarkable court poem in the original, a masterpiece in English) and Celan’s translations of Shakespeare into German (as analyzed by Szondi). It is the Benjaminian notion that what is left behind in translation is the art of the original, and thus, one must create that in the target language. I began the work of this translation with that sense of the art, but the project itself would not allow me to pursue that practice. Indeed, I have taken so few liberties that Nabokov himself would approve. How so? you might ask. The two sections are distinct and fundamentally linked, and one of the major challenges of translating this work is addressing the issue of the relationship of the two parts. Nancy’s commentary is so alive to the lyric aspects of Lalucq’s language that I have found that drafts of the poetry had to be revised toward the literal meaning, yet with an utterly precise attention to the language’s lyric qualities—this despite the poem’s dense textuality. This practice is, serendipitously, what Lalucq insisted upon when we have had the opportunity to consult her in person.

I imagine that any act of translation will be complicated and enhanced by sharing the work with a co-translator. Can you discuss the process of working with Sylvain Gallais?

First and foremost, Sylvain Gallais did the first rough translations from French into English. Then I would begin to work with the trots (the literal translations). Then he would go over my drafts for accuracy, and so we would proceed until the poem began to work in English. Early on, before Lalucq had her first child, she was incredibly engaged in discussing the drafts at this stage, too, but after having her son, she did not have time to be as involved as she would have liked. Sylvain and I would repeat the initial process—over three years, probably ten times or more—and as we neared a working version, we would send it to Virginie with questions. Then, for the last three revisions, Sylvain and I sat down together and reviewed every word. Then, I would review for the poetry. Sylvain never claimed the creative side, in the sense that he is by training an economist, but he received one of those classical educations in France, reading widely and deeply into literary tradition and writing with exquisite style, so his erudition was the kind of foundation for our work on which I could build in English. And I had studied the French language and literature for eight years, so I had that second language training as well. Because we had no access to Jean-Luc Nancy (because of his health) and less access to Lalucq over time, we tried our utmost to be impeccable in this translation (even if, in the end, one can never be perfect in a work of translation).

What, specifically, were some of the most interesting surprises you encountered as you worked through the translation of this text? What were some of the unique challenges or opportunities that presented themselves and how did respond to them?

One of the biggest issues for translating this work is that the original is so conceptual, that aesthetic and philosophical contemplation inspired the two authors so much—Lalucq was thinking about a rare photograph and Nancy was analyzing her poetry and also Poetry—that I was really challenged to bring the poetry of the text into English. Such abstraction is very difficult to translate with all the linguistic vividness of the original, the sheer, brilliant attention that Nancy lavished on Lalucq’s poems, for example. Her poems are poetically spare, but his analyses are playfully deconstructive, getting at and inside Lalucq’s understated lyricism, revealing its depths (adding his own). It was helpful to know poststructuralist theory in ways I never expected! I “got” what Nancy was doing intuitively, it seemed to me, but even understanding his project was no help, at times, in translating some of the puns, verbally associative riffs, and word plays, because the linguistic playfulness was so bound up in the materiality of the French language. So that was probably my biggest challenge.

But there were moments in which, after much contemplation, much trying of this and that, suddenly—voila!— the line or phrase or poem would just come together. One small illustration will suffice: at one point, Lalucq used an idiom from Bretagne (disac’her), which was in no dictionary, and no one I consulted could tell me what it meant. I had, unfortunately, forgotten that one small question the last time we had the chance to consult Lalucq herself! This verb was paired with a French verb (barbeyer) but for the longest time, I could not arrive at an adequate translation. Then something just clicked—I think I was even napping, thinking about it—and I woke up and said to Sylvain, Why didn’t I see it before? They’re synonyms! Barbeyer is a translation of disac’her. It was that simple, obvious even, but the meaning had eluded me until I suddenly figured it out. The Bretagne language is Celtic in origin, not a Romance language, and I gestured toward that by using an obsolete British idiom in the translation, to give the English a slightly archaic tonal turn. There were numerous occasions of sudden insight after much work and thought, but this was the most dramatic.

Would you tell me a bit about yourself?

I was born on August 26, 1951 in the Midwest, and raised in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. As an undergraduate, I studied the art of literary translation, taking classes at Oberlin College in which I worked from trots (translating classical Japanese poetry in combination with the study of Ezra Pound’s translation work), as well as taking courses in German and French literature. At the time, although fluent in French, I was drawn to the German poetry that I studied with my advisor, the poet and translator Stuart Friebert. After a junior year in Denmark and a Fulbright-Hayes Fellowship to Iceland (1978-1979), however, during which time I became fluent in both Scandinavian languages, I remained in Iceland for three years in all, translating poetry from both countries.

After the tragic suicide of my Danish collaborative translator, however, I returned to the States, pursued a Ph.D. in English, and set translation work aside for twenty-five years. I took it back up after being invited to develop a course on literary translation for the MFA program at Arizona State University. The class was a great success, but I felt like a fake, teaching the art but not practicing it any longer. By 2008, however, I was spending each summer in France (having by then married Sylvain Gallais), returning to my once-fluent but now-rusty French. Among the books I procured, at the suggestion of an expatriate American poet and translator in Paris, were Virginie Lalucq’s two untranslated collections, the second of which, her collaborative project with the philosopher, Jean-Luc Nancy, I realized was both formally exciting and conceptually brilliant.

Who are the authors or translators with whom you feel a kinship? Who are you reading currently?

I do not know if I can claim kinship with such brilliant poets and translators as the Waldrops, John Ashbery, Cole Swensen, or Donald Revell, but these are some of the authors I have been reading. An incredible translation that I just discovered (thanks to Martha Collins) is Lisa Bradford’s translation of the Argentinian writer, Juan Gelman: Between Words: Juan Gelman’s Public Letter, which I am going to teach this fall. These poems are poetic elegies written to Gelman’s son, who was “disappeared” along with his pregnant wife during the Argentinian junta. Also, because Tomas Tranströmer won the Nobel Prize this past year and I had met him in Iceland, I have been rereading Robert Bly’s beautiful translations, ones which I’ve known and loved for decades. Finally, I have begun to read Nathalie Quintaine, and Sylvain has started work on a new book-length translation of Quintaine. It’s too early to say I feel a kinship with Quintaine, a very different poet than Lalucq, but I am interested in the new project.

You chose the artist’s work, Morgan O’Hara, who created the image that is used in the cover design for this book—can you talk a bit about that choice and/or working with the artist?

The artist Morgan O’Hara was at the MacDowell Colony when I was there some years ago, and we thought to collaborate on something, in that way that artists’ colonies foster synergies of work. She did an “artist’s book” of a long poem that I wrote while at MacDowell, so we had been corresponding for some time. She had lived in Italy for a long time, grew up in Japan, and so would write me while travelling of the method she developed in drawing, which she terms “live transmissions.” O’Hara’s method of drawing tracks in real time “the vital movements of living beings.” The coincidence of Lalucq’s and Nancy’s collaboration being termed a “trans-mission” and O’Hara’s “live transmissions” was too uncanny to ignore. I loved her drawings in that way that I loved this poem—not really quite utterly understanding but fully responding. O’Hara has in the last year or so moved back to New York, and I had stopped by her studio to see what she was up to a time or two. When Omnidawn queried me about the cover art, I asked her if we might use a drawing. The answer was an immediate, full-throated yes! We are actually hoping to return to MacDowell together so we can finish the artist’s book next year. Fingers crossed.

Reviews

Fortino Sámano is not merely a brilliant rendering into English of a French text, but a meditation on the art of translation itself: it loops and dives around the question of how one art form can be rendered into another. Together, poet Virginie Lalucq and philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy ask how image is transmuted into language, and what the ethics of such an ekphrasis might be. Coupled in this volume, Lalucq’s poem and Nancy’s philosophical explication of it provide a poignant meditation on the places where words fail us.”

Amaranth Borsuk, American Letters & Commentary

“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.”

Erin Moure, Jacket2

“Both Lalucq and Nancy, in very different ways, address the issue of ekphrasis in unusually demanding terms, circumventing the familiar issues of translation to address more fundamental anxieties about the (im)possibility of representation and the slippery nature of all imagery. Hogue and Gallais have done a masterful job of translating this difficult text, catching the nuances that give the original a radiant ambiguity, and making the English radiate in turn.”

Cole Swensen, Lana Turner

“In his meditation Nancy writes “I must understand that, in effect, the poem—and this is why it overflows—makes us speak more than it says.” There is much to be admired in Gallais’ and Hogue’s thoughtful and well-crafted translation. If Nancy’s commentary on the poem is one response, Gallais and Hogue’s translation is another, highly compelling one that has much to say about the elusiveness of meaning and the generative power of the poet’s language.”

Poetry International

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