Trying On Another Voice: Translation as Writing Practice

Susanna Lang

The following is a guest post by Susanna Lang, whose poetry appeared in issue 17 of Typehouse Literary Magazine.

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I first translated French poetry into English as a very young woman working with an older poet. He suggested that we co-translate a poem by René Depestre, a Haitian writer, to give me access to a deeply political language. While I had grown up in a political family, there was a high wall between my writing and my activism. I don’t remember how I started to translate Yves Bonnefoy, one of the greatest French poets of the twentieth century and much closer to surrealism, mythology and visual arts than to politics. My mentor had hoped I would follow in his footsteps as a poet of witness and eventually I did begin to write poems that engaged the world. Meanwhile, translating and then publishing Pierre écrite/Words in Stone was an important experience for me during my college years. I had not yet found a voice of my own, and Yves’ meditative, lyrical evocation of the mysteries of the world did help to shape the poet I was then, as my mentor feared. 

I returned to translation when I shifted from full-time to part-time teaching, and was surprised to find my days very solitary. I needed the stimulus of other voices. I discovered Nohad Salameh in an anthology of French women poets, and was later able to meet her in person and visit French bookstores well-stocked with contemporary poetry. At the Librairie Massena in Nice, the bookseller immediately began pulling books off the shelf, talking about each as if it were a friend. There I found Brouillons amoureux by Souad Labbize, which I have translated as Drafts of Love.

The two poets could not be more different, though both grew up in countries where the culture is both Arabic and French, and both now live and publish in France. Nohad was born in Lebanon and worked as a journalist during the civil war. Her poems are lyrical and allusive, her literary roots in surrealism; I’m sure her poems reminded me of my apprenticeship with Yves Bonnefoy. Souad Labbize, much younger, was born in Algeria. Her poems are dense, brief, focused on feminism and other liberation movements, so more like my poems of witness. Both poets enrich my work, though now that I am comfortable in my own poetic voice, you won’t hear their poems in mine as you could have heard Yves in my earlier writing. It’s more like a way to keep myself flexible as my walking practice keeps my body flexible. When I read the translations aloud to hear whether the metaphor and the music are as strong in English as in French, I exercise muscles that I haven’t yet used in my own poems, and think about questions that I haven’t yet considered. This ongoing apprenticeship gets me through the long days when I don’t have an idea of my own to work with. On those fortunate days when the poems come more easily, translation sends me back into my own writing with new tools to use.

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Susanna Lang’s third collection of poems, Travel Notes from the River Styx, was released in 2017 from Terrapin Books. Her chapbook, Self-Portraits is forthcoming from Blue Lyra Press in October 2020. A two-time Hambidge fellow, her poems and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in such publications as Prairie Schooner, december, New Poetry in Translation, The Literary Review, American Life in Poetry and The Slowdown. Her translations of poetry by Yves Bonnefoy include Words in Stone and The Origin of Language, and she is now working with Nohad Salameh and Souad Labbize to translate their poems. She lives and teaches in Chicago. More information available at www.susannalang.com and @SusannaLang16

  

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