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Texas Studies in Literature and Language 45.4 (2003) 337-351



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Elizabeth Bishop's "Brazil, January 1, 1502" and Max Jacob's "Etablissement d'une communauté au Brésil":
A Study of Transformative Interpretation and Influence

Sylvia Henneberg


Elizabeth Bishop's misgivings about free translation are well known to scholars of her work. Fearful of misappropriating creations not her own, her preference was to translate cautiously and literally. 1 In her unpublished Remarks on Translation—(Of poetry, mostly), she enumerates several "complaints about translations," including "inaccuracy—the wrong word" and "using three words—or more—when one would do" (2). She offers the following advice: "When a word is repeated—repeat it! (Just because English has more words than any other language except Russian—doesn't mean we have to use them all. . . .) When a line is repeated—repeat it—and also—stick to the structure." Translations were to be handled, as she wrote in a letter to Anne Stevenson, "with a minimum of bloodletting or seepage" (qtd. in Lombardi, 138). Even Robert Lowell's Imitations (1961), a body of work that, as most critics agree, is best understood as creative personalized reinterpretation of French poems rather than free translation, triggered discomfort in Bishop. Responding to Imitations in several letters that emphasized to Lowell the importance of fidelity to rhyme, meter, and poetic intent, she concluded with the comment: "I just can't decide how 'free' one has the right to be with the poet's intentions" (qtd. in Kalstone, 205). 2

Despite such reservations about writings akin to free translation, Bishop did engage in what might be called transformative interpretation of poems in other languages. Her "Invitation to Marianne Moore," based on Pablo Neruda's elegy "Alberto Rojas Giménez viene volando," is one of the better known examples. The connection between one of Bishop's [End Page 337] most important poems, "Brazil, January 1, 1502" (1960), and the French Modernist poet Max Jacob's "Etablissement d'une communauté au Brésil" ["Foundation of a Religious Community in Brazil"] (1921), however, remains unexplored. It is possible that both poets independently drew on the 1502 map of Brazil that was to be reprinted in Bishop's Time Inc. book Brazil (1962). Perhaps the striking similarities one notices, particularly the depiction of Brazil as garden landscape appearing in the map and in both poems, can be traced back to that coincidence. However, given not only the many affinities between their two poems but also the ways in which Bishop seems to respond and react to Jacob's piece, it seems more likely that "Etablissement" became part of the extensive reading on Brazil Bishop did before writing her poem. A study, therefore, of Bishop's reconfiguration of Jacob's poem serves two important purposes: on the one hand, it calls attention to a frequently overlooked influence on Bishop's poetry. On the other, it broadens our understanding of Bishop's strategies of transformative interpretation as a creative means of interacting with and building on existing foreign poetry without, for as much, engaging in the free translation of which she was so deeply skeptical.

Reading Bishop's published letters and biography, one can easily come away with the impression that the poet was not altogether fond of France and its culture. A tragic car accident in Burgundy, acute attacks of asthma during her sojourns in Paris, and too many visits to the American Hospital in Neuilly led her to exclaim in a letter to Marianne Moore, dated November 24, 1937: "I hope I never see the place again." Bishop, it seems, came to associate many of the traumas of her life—loss, loneliness, illness, injury, the inability to write, and even alcoholism (for she had developed what Brett Millier calls "an unfortunate fondness for Pernod" [93])—with French culture and surroundings. It is telling that after several visits in the mid- and late 1930s, she never returned.

Although she seemed to be at odds with...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-7303
Print ISSN
0040-4691
Pages
pp. 337-351
Launched on MUSE
2003-10-22
Open Access
No
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