Translation

When setting about to explain literary translation, the first thing I reach for is still Weinberger and Paz’s 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, which collects 19 versions of a famous Tang dynasty poem with insightful (and frequently snarky) critiques. Translators know that the comparative reading of divergent translations is a powerful, evergreen shortcut to grasping what’s at stake in our endeavor, but relatively few explicit collections exist. Beyond Wang Wei, there are relatively few academic/critical approaches available, such as Jorge Luis Borges’s famous essay “The Translators of the Thousand and One Nights,” Rainer Schulte's Comparative Perspectives, Douglas Hofstadter’s stabs at “A une Damoyselle malade” in Le Ton beau de Marot, Robert Wechsler’s pile-up of Iliad excerpts in Performing Without a Stage, and the Penguin “Poets in Translation” series. And then there are a handful of more creative takes, such as Spleen (1973), in which English poet Nicholas Moore did thirty-one translations of Baudelaire’s “Je suis comme le roi . . .” himself, but initially submitted the wildly different versions under a variety of pseudonyms. Another is Caroline Bergvall’s 2005 “Via,” in which the artist arranges other translators’ versions of the first three lines of Dante’s Inferno to form a new poem. The most recent such project of which I’m aware is Sharmila Cohen and Paul Legault’s 2012 collection The Sonnets: Translating and Rewriting Shakespeare, wherein poet-translators create English to English versions of Shakespeare’s sonnets—though the fact that they are translating different sonnets limits the comparative umph.

How exciting, then, to enlarge this corpus with new translations, adaptations, and reimaginings of just three stanzas of Rimbaud’s famous poem. Where critical comparison work can be constrained by formality, and personal artistic vision sets Moore and Bergvall’s pieces apart, this flotilla means to be generative, aggressively plurivocal, to make drunken mischief and to go beyond interrogating translation as appropriation to embracing translation as mutation. Here you’ll find Oulipean mutinies, gentle unmoorings, and an associative translator’s note as translation itself.

The project’s irreverence—anthropophagism— is made possible by this journal’s sense of “Le bateau ivre,” of Rimbaud, of French symbolist poetry, even of the French language, as too well-respected, too established to tarnish or appropriate in a problematic way. Working with classic texts, one feels she is at liberty to be a punk. Framing is likewise an enabler: in an envelope-pushing journal and section such as this, introduced by this hedging editorial note, the boats are clearly marked as a kind of risky play, their transgression a testament to the aura of the original.

Still. Rimbaud was not venerated in his life, and might well be appalled at such cavalier treatment. Do we truly evade the concerns about ethical fidelity we might feel owed are to a contemporary or more marginalized poet? And while all of the participants are artistically committed to translation, does including artists who are not translators in the traditional sense not beg the question of an implied privileging of freewheeling authorship over the always-held-to-an-impossible-standard stuff of translation?

One reason I’ve been so enthusiastic about this project is that I’ve long thought of translation as, itself, correspondence between artists across time, space, culture, and language. I take the term from Jack Spicer's After Lorca, which creates a relationship between the dead poet and the (then) living one. Spicer tells “Lorca” in the book’s third letter, “Things do not connect; they correspond,” accurately describing the nonequivalence and connection in any act of translation or adaptation, but also advocating for translation as a poetics of indeterminacy, where “that lemon corresponds to this piece of seaweed” (134).

Where, for Spicer and his Lorca, this is grounded in the relationship between two writers, two texts, this Drunken Flotilla seeks to highlight the way that translation can be a kind of web of correspondences. I think of it as a literary “creative commons” (the 21st century spin on Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent”?) wherein extant and potential versions are forever calling, responding, and multiplying across difference. Indeed, Jack Spicer’s great wish for his own poems is that “some future poet will write something which corresponds to them” (134).

In “Le Bateau ivre,” the boat narrates its own ecstatic story of breaking free from its sailors, becoming “drunk” on the seawater that slowly drags it down, finally throwing off any sense of defined course and spiraling into possibility. It is my hope that Rimbaud, with his own deep-seated irreverences, would enjoy this flotilla as a raucous, joyful, and still not uncritically spiraling into its own possibilities.


A special thanks to Western Humanities Review, which will honor Drunken Boat by republishing much of this project in a special print feature alongside Joe Milutis’s closely related Correspondences project.

Anna Rosenwong is a translator, poet, editor, and educator. She holds an MFA from the University of Iowa and a PhD from UC Irvine. Her book-length publications include Roció Cerón’s Diorama, José Eugenio Sánchez's Suite Prelude a/H1N1, and an original collection of poetry, By Way of Explanation. Her literary and scholarly work has been featured in World Literature Today, The Kenyon Review, Translation Studies, The St Petersburg Review, Pool, and elsewhere.