Rules for Translators: Pierre Joris (French-English)

by  and M. Lynx Qualey  /  January 2, 2014  / 4 Comments

In Rules for Translators, Sampsonia Way presents selections from a series originally published by Arabic Literature (in English), a blog based in Cairo, Egypt. In the series, ArabLit queried 20 celebrated and award-winning literary translators about their “rules” for translation. See the full series here.

Translator Pierre Joris

Pierre Joris is a poet, translator, and author of the blog Nomadics, which is where I first encountered him. He teaches poetry & poetics at SUNY-Albany. He has recently published Paul Celan: The Meridian, (Stanford University Press), along with Exile is my Trade: The Habib Tengour Reader, (Black Widow Press) and Meditations on the Stations of Mansur al-Hallaj (Chax Press). He has published more than 40 books of poetry, essays, and translations. He didn’t want to do rules. So he gave us:


The text that opens my recent volume of poems, Aljibar II, starts with a line that came to me unbidden, out of the blue. It reads: “My father was a healer and a hunter; is it any surprise that I became a poet and translator?”

The algebraic ratio the sentence proposes would equate healer with poet and hunter with translator. This may seem a bit too pat, too linear, and maybe it is more useful to imagine the terms as occupying the four corners of an X, crossed sticks, a chiasmatic figure that creates movement and connections between all four terms.

And indeed, I can easily see the poet as both healer and hunter, and the translator as both hunter and healer. But the details of that discussion will have to wait for another time — today I want to briefly address the question of translation. Let me try to do it in a kind of list, i.e. a kind of list poem, perhaps.

Why do I translate?

Because it pleases me.

Because it beats watching television, except when the Mets are on, but they play so lousily much of the time that I avert my eyes & continue to translate looking up only to check the score.

Because, to be frank, I want to know what the poets in Ghana are up to.
Because I am foolish enough to believe the 16th C philosopher & poet Giordano Bruno who said that all science has its origin in translation, and was burned at the stake for that and a few other peccadilloes in 1600 on the Campo Fioro in Rome. Bruno is of course the patron saint of translators.

Because by accident of birth I was blessed or damned with a batch of different languages and a perverse pleasure of pitting them and their different musics against each other.

Because I can.

Because I love doing it.

Because I have to because if I and everybody else don’t translate the world will be a way shittier place than it already is.

Because when I can’t write poems I can still do so by translating other poets’ poems.

Because once upon a time in a far away country in this galaxy I was foolish enough to believe that I could, as an impecunious (translate that word!) young poet possibly pay the rent with translation gigs, which never worked as I found out that I hated translating those books — novels, non-fiction treatises, how-to-do manuals etc. — that would have generated enough money to pay the rent.
Because I speak with many-forked tongue and always wanted to be a Mescalero Apache healer.

Because the congealed mass of anglo-‘merican ugliness, greed & basic Christian fascism will continue to blow up the people & libraries & homes & museums of a hundred Baghdads unless we can make enough American citizens realize the beauty of the other, of the poetry of the other, of the speech of all the others.
Because I have never been able to convince my department (at the University, that is, not the store where most everything is indeed made in China, Mexico, Korea & elsewhere) to impose the learning of (at least) two foreign languages, one which should be a non-Indo-European language, on the graduate program as a conditio sine qua non (translate that) for being admitted to a Ph.D. in literature.

Because outside of writing and cooking it is the only practical thing I have the skills and knowhow to do.

Because I love to steal lines & images & sounds from all the foreign poets I read & incorporate them into my own poems (that’s the poet-as-hunter).

Because it is the best excuse I’ve found to buy many books & travel to many countries to hang out with poets & other alien deviants.

Because the best way to learn how to read poems is to translate them.

Because the best way to learn how to write poems is to translate other poets’ great works.

Because in order to think new thoughts we have to renew the language & the best way I’ve found to do that is to spindle, mutilate & mutate it by writing with the language of the foreign poet in English (cf. Hölderlin’s working of Greek language into German).

Because it permits you to have intense love affairs with people far away or long dead.

Because I have this weird ethical sense that because I can do it, I have to do it so as to help out my linguistically challenged concitoyens (untranslatable due to inevitable loss of pun).

Because translation & its social counterpart, miscegenation, are the only things that can possibly make this world a safer & more viable place.

Because, although I gave up translating into French a number of years ago, last year I could not resist saying yes to translating 25 pages of Allen Ginsberg poems for a French version of Philip Glass’ opera Hydrogen Jukebox, because the last time I saw Allen in Paris he had asked me to be involved with translating his work, something I had neglected until now when the occasion to pay back my dues to him presented itself out of the blue.

Because 40 years later I still have not translated all of Paul Celan’s work & for some crazy un-reason I feel that I should do so.

Because most of my US poet friends are on good terms with their franco-French compadres & translate each other with fierce intensity which gives me the space to concentrate on translating the North African poets who would otherwise go untranslated in the main; there are thus books forthcoming by Habib Tengour, Abdallah Zrika & an anthology gathering 2000 years of North African writing & called Diwan Ifrikiya.

Because the Mets are losing again.

4 Comments on "Rules for Translators: Pierre Joris (French-English)"

  1. John Cha January 2, 2014 at 6:17 pm ·

    Dear Pierre,

    Thanks for “Because I have to because if I and everybody else don’t translate the world will be a way shittier place than it already is.”

    Happy 2014

    Your friend and fan,
    John Cha

  2. Judy Doyle January 2, 2014 at 6:35 pm ·

    I do enjoy your descriptions & comments. A long-time admirer of, reader of, publisher of lit in translation, I appreciate good honest and tongue-in-cheek comments about translation. Most folks have little to no awareness of this talent, no matter how many translations they’ve read. Happy New Year.

  3. Gold_N_Silk January 2, 2014 at 8:52 pm ·

    I translated from Arabic into English and from English into Arabic …
    The answer to the question “why do you translate” is difficult to answer, but the most convincing answer I find it to be: “Because I can!”

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