Blake Bronson-Bartlett & Robert Fernandez, trans.
Wesleyan University Press
232 Pages; Print, $17.95
Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898), the great French symbolist, may have been the most modernist of the Modernist poets; his work explored the elaborate complexities of his time through radical innovations in poetic language and often startling experiments in form. Often thought to simultaneously resist and demand interpretation, Mallarmé’s work increasingly pushed past traditional artistic boundaries, transcending the real toward what he envisioned as the ideal in ways that even his equally original contemporaries—Verlaine and Rimbaud, and Baudelaire before them—did not. So it is not surprising that Mallarmé’s work poses enormous challenges for translators. And while there are many highly lauded translations of Mallarmé into English, post-doctoral teaching fellow and editor Blake Bronson-Bartlett and poet Robert Fernandez have broken boundaries themselves and triumphed in their new translation Azure: Poems and Selections from the “Livre.”
Azure begins with the translations from Poesies (1899), which includes some of Mallarmé’s most well known poems, such as “Tomb of Edgar Poe,” “Tomb of Baudelaire,” “Funeral Toast,” and “The Afternoon of a Faun;” these are followed by the new translation of Un Coup de Des (“A Cast of Dice”) and, for the first time in English, selections of notes from the “Livre,” Mallarmé’s massive work—what he called his grand oeuvre—that remained unfinished at the poet’s death.
In their comprehensive, enlightening and—at least for this reader—necessary “Translators’s Note,” Bronson-Bartlett and Fernandez discuss what motivated them to take on this project, what obstacles they encountered, and what inspirations they celebrated and then employed to produce new English versions that they hope will launch a revitalized interest in Mallarmé and his poems.
There have been a lot of English translations of Mallarmé’s work and many of them have received sparkling praise. Bronson-Bartlett and Fernandez pay due respect to these efforts, particularly to the translations of Henry Weinfield (1994) and E. H. and A. M. Blackmore (2006). In the “Translators’s Note,” they demonstrate how their own work acknowledges that of these predecessors’s but then moves beyond in order to, “carry over from Mallarmé’s verse some of what Weinfield and the Blackmores did not while taking some of the same liberties.” They explain their own goals, to “create translations that worked as contemporary poems and that linked translation to the reading and writing of poetry.” To that end, the work in Azure is the product not only of considering French and its English “equivalents” in terms of connotative, associative, symbolic and metaphorical meanings, but also of meticulous attention to the ways both languages present in sound—syllables and meter, inflection, internal and external rhyme (full and slant)—and many other poetic concerns and techniques to achieve what these translators call “a certain music—a striking music—that is integral to Mallarmé’s poetics and that has not surfaced in previous translations.”
Bronson-Bartlett and Fernandez “sought to maintain an ethos of fearlessness, respecting Mallarmé’s own wild gambles” in order ”to make poetry that exceeds both poet and translator to become the very name of intervention.” To demonstrate how they did this, they provide as example the first four lines of the second stanza of Mallarmé’s poem, Funeral Toast—presenting first the original in French, then Weinfield’s translation, then the Blackmore’s and then their own. The comparisons reveal evidence of the theories and approaches that precede them in these “Translators’s Note;” some of the choices may seem startling but at the same time bring forth both a more powerful vision—one that is in keeping with Mallarmé’s ideas and contemporary at the same time—and a more lyrical musical version than previous translations, some of which have been described as too academic. As Fernandez himself said, “Our translation was not done out of survival or responsibility (who needs another Mallarmé?), but excitement and fascination and a sense of adventure. I believe that because we had nothing to lose, we...