06/23/2016 11:49 am ET Updated Jun 24, 2017

Cole Swensen Talks About Translation As A Continual Opening

Cole Swensen is a poet with fifteen books out, most based in research and many ekphrastic. She also translates contemporary French poetry, experimental prose, and art criticism. She co-edited the 2009 Norton anthology American Hybrid and is the founding editor of La Presse, which publishes French work in translation. She divides her time between Paris and Providence, R.I., where she teaches at Brown University.

Loren Kleinman (LK): Your translation of Lazy Suzie by Suzanne Doppelt (Litmus Press, 2015) was nominated for the Best Translated Book Award and your translation of Island of the Dead by Jean Frémon (Green Integer, 2002) won the PEN USA Award for Literary Translation. Can you tell us about your process of selecting a work to translate as well as your translation process?

Cole Swensen (CS): Translating can be a mode of deep reading, and the books I translate are ones that I want to read very deeply and from several perspectives. They're also books that I want to write, and by that I don't mean that they're books that I wish I'd written, but literally books I want to write--because, of course, if I translate them, I also write them; so I choose books that will give me great pleasure in writing those particular sentences and phrases. Your examples--Doppelt and Frémon--are interesting ones in that their works are so different, and in each case, I've translated at least three of their books, so I've come to know their voices, and when I write the translations, I'm always conscious of writing in their tones and attitudes as much as I can, and this is true of everyone I translate, and I tend to stick with authors for a few books to come to inhabit their voice. In a sense, the question becomes how to write, really write, but to write someone else's work.

LK: Discuss the intersection between translation, poetry, and imagery?

CS: I think they come together at the point of absence--and here, I'm thinking particularly of Suzanne Doppelt's work, which includes photographs. As discussed in the work of several people--particularly Barthes--photography is always pointing to the absence of the very thing it represents, just as writing is always proof of the absence of the speaker, and they're both guarantors of the lost past, the moment that each records and was recorded in. Translation emphasizes this by presenting a doubled and layered absence, suggesting absence as a mise-en-abyme.

I've been amused when translating Doppelt's work that I can't translate the photographs--it feels to me that they should be translated because, just like the words, they too are being brought into a new cultural context that they should adjust to meet. In addition, their immediate context--the book--has also been completely altered, thus altering them as well. I feel that I should account for that alteration and reestablish their original relationship. After all, it seems that all art is basically about and always based in relationships, and that a large part of translating is changing everything while maintaining all the relationships exactly.

LK: In a review of Lazy Suzie in the Constant Critic, Martha Ronk writes, "Lazy Susie raises a central question of all ekphrastic poetry: how to find words for visual images, and how to address its given failure to bridge the gap between them." Is this a central question of translation, too?

CS: It is. And I think it's not a matter of bridging the gap, but of presenting it. It's the gap that's important in both ekphrastic poetry and translation, and the challenge is to bring the reader to the reality of incommensurability. It's linked to the mental habit of metaphor--our compulsive, lazy, but comforting habit of seeing one thing as another. The gap highlighted by translation and ekphrasis forces us to acknowledge the false ground of metaphorical thinking. It's the gap that gives the sense of vertigo, of being suspended over a void in which we recognize a crucial physical truth that defies logic and is yet nevertheless insistent.

LK: What's excited you most about poetry in the last five years? What poet has excited you about poetry in the last five years?

CS: A continual opening out of modes of experimentalism--and this is something that I think has been going on for more than five years--more like fifteen or twenty, but it has been very marked during this time, and it continues very strongly. There's less of a sense of dominant trends and more dispersal, based on the incorporation of widely diverse influences, everything from popular music to digital development. I feel like I see less imitation and more invention in work today--particularly in that of young poets--and I think this is caused in part by the explosion of publishing possibilities both online and in print. The means of production are in many, many more hands, and that's really exciting.

LK: Is translation, like poetry, an act of invention? Why or why not?

CS: I'd say it's an act of invention, but not one like poetry. It's a different kind of inventing, one so full of constraints that they become the driving force whereas with poetry--many people's at least--it's the sheer wide-openness of possibility that drives the creation of the work. So one invention is focused inward and the other outward. The invention also takes place at a different level. While that in poetry happens simultaneously on several levels--from overall concept and form to the fine details of sound and word choices--a translator is restricted to the word choices and sound relationships. There's a great pleasure in that restriction--you don't have to say anything; you just get to play with sound.