An Interview With Translator Wyatt Mason

Max Winter

Wyatt Mason's Rimbaud Complete, published by Modern Library in March, is a translation of the complete writings of French poet Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891). The book contains all of his poetry—from his earliest juvenilia to his later poems, which Rimbaud wrote in his early twenties, before he stopped writing poems altogether. The volume contains fifty pages of previously untranslated material, including all the poet's earliest verse, a school notebook, and a rough draft of his best known poem A Season In Hell.

Mason has also translated five books by contemporary French author Pierre Michon, and was a finalist for the French American Foundation Translation Prize for his first publication, Michon's Masters and Servants (Mercury House, 1997). Mason's complete translation of Rimbaud's correspondence is forthcoming from Counterpoint in 2003.

Poets & Writers Magazine asked Mason what drew him to the work of Rimbaud, what particular characteristics attracted him to the idea of translating him so thoroughly.

Wyatt Mason: I came to Rimbaud later than many. I remember reading A Season in Hell when I was sixteen and not liking it: It seemed to lurch around a lot, had an odd rhythm. I assumed-disastrously-that meant it wasn't good. I was too young, too inexperienced, or just too stupid to realize that the very quality I disliked was one of its virtues, or, at least, I would later come to appreciate it as such.

P&W: So what changed your mind?

WM: Time, and dumb luck. About ten years ago, when I was living in Italy for the winter, I rented a house in an off-season tourist town. The house had a few books on its shelves. A Bible of course; Moravia, Calvino; and a translation of some Rimbaud, bilingual French/Italian. Initially, I used it as a sort of grammar-Rimbaud as Italian tutor-admittedly, not the most distinguished use of a great poet. That misuse was short-lived though. I soon found I liked the poems a great deal, and devoured everything.

P&W: Do you remember which poem first caught your attention?

WM: Absolutely: "Faim." "Hunger" in English. The images in that poem were entirely his own. The narrator speaks of quenching his hunger with a meal of earth and stone, rock, air, loam. He eats pebbles underfoot, old church stones. And if that weren't voracious enough, we get a wolf devouring a bird, spitting out feathers, the narrator comparing the wolf's hunger to his own, not for a bird, but for himself. It's lyrical and musical, and at the same time raw and unflinching. A balance apparent in Rimbaud's best work. He takes Whitman's grounding in the experiencing of the natural, his interest in self, but digs in his claws, bites.

P&W: Can you say a little more about Whitman and Rimbaud?

WM: There are lots of interesting connections, some meaningful, some just fun. Whitman's first version of Leaves of Grass came out when Rimbaud was a year old, and his final expanded version the year Rimbaud died. Whitman's book took 37 years to write; Rimbaud's life took the same amount to live. Both poets are seen as sensualists of a kind, though that only gets us so far: There has always been the idea of the poet with a capital P. Sappho is as interested in bodies as Whitman; Wordsworth as interested in the natural world as Rimbaud. But the type and depth of engagement is different in each.

What seems new in Whitman is his self-consciousness, his depiction of himself celebrating what the poet traditionally celebrates: Portraiture becomes self-portraiture. The poem is not about a grassy field but about the poet grabbing handfuls of that field. There is a similar force at work in Rimbaud, as in "Hunger," but Rimbaud is grazing that field. Whitman and Rimbaud both use "I" in their poems, but they define them very differently. Yes, Whitman's "Song of Myself" features a celebratory "I" lusting through the landscape; yes, Rimbaud's poem "Sensation" features a solitary "I" in nature, as happy alone, he says, as if with a woman. The difference is the guilelessness of Whitman's "I": It celebrates itself; it contains multitudes. It is democratic, is many in one, e pluribus unum. Rimbaud's "I" is a separatist, is somebody else: "Je est un autre." I see Rimbaud wearing many masks, adopting different personae and shedding them just as Pound would do later. Whitman's "I" is always Whitman. Rimbaud's "I" is a term of art, not a matter of confession.

P&W: So how did you end up translating all of his work?

WM: Well, I started translating a few of his poems when I found that book in Italy. He's irresistible, because he seems so easy, so direct, so personal. Everybody tries to translate Rimbaud, and everybody, at least everybody sensible, gives up: He's really very hard to convey in all his richness. I worked on various of his poems from time to time in my notebooks-in retrospect laying a sort of foundation-before many years later Modern Library asked me to do the complete works.

P&W: What makes translating Rimbaud particularly challenging?

MW: His entire lifetime of composing poetry was compressed into about five years—five years during which his style can been seen evolving from month to month. Like Picasso, he doesn't have a style: He has styles. That changing voice is difficult enough to appreciate in French, and altogether treacherous in translation.

P&W: Given that his style changed often over the course of his life, what quality remains constant or "consistent" throughout?

WM: That's difficult to answer, as it tends to become reductive. Too often Rimbaud is saddled with labels like "visionary," "unsparing," "bloodless," descriptions that have more to do with our misunderstanding of his life than our appreciation of his poetry. A familiarity with all his work brings a reader to Rimbaud's preoccupation with passage. That theme seems undeniable. I could say "departure," but it puts too fine a point on things, leads us stumblingly to the "poem-as-prognostication school" that believes A Season in Hell is some sort of psychic itinerary for Rimbaud's later years. Reading Rimbaud, I think of Joyce's description, evolved from Flaubert, of the artist standing back, paring his fingernails in the face of his creation. Of course, Rimbaud would famously turn his back on his work entirely, but while he was still at it he achieved a distanced poise hinted at all along and perfected in many of the late poems in Illuminations. And yet, contradictorily, his passage to that remove is through experience, often of the dirt beneath the fingernails variety, the rending and devouring of flesh.

One might say Rimbaud's inconsistency is what's most consistent. Ultimately, though, what makes a poet different from another, and what makes his work lasting and essential, is his eye, which some call "voice." Rimbaud's eye roams a world of girls with orange and green lips, talking boats, descriptions of rabbits' visions, children looking out rain-coated windows, all of it seen in passing. The only still points in Rimbaud are the fact of the poems. Perhaps a provisional answer to your question then would be that Rimbaud is always a poet of movement. Even a poem like "Faun," a description of silence and stillness, is disturbed by motion. Rimbaud's poems fidget, wander, won't stay still.

P&W: How would you compare the experience of translating Rimbaud with the other translations you've done-of renowned French prose writer Pierre Michon for instance?

WM: Michon's narratives are short: A novel from him weighs in at around 15,000 words. In place of length, there's density. Sentences go on for pages, are richly musical, full of echoes to earlier passages and dependent on sonorities and rhythms for a great deal of their power. Roger Shattuck says Michon's writing can at any time lift or lower into semi-hallucinatory effects that recall Arthur Rimbaud's assaults on conventional perception. So there's a kinship that isn't accidental: Michon read Rimbaud early and often, and has written a super little book called Rimbaud the Son that I'm doing into English right now. Anyway, I'd say that translating Michon's writing requires the same level of engagement necessary when working with a poet of Rimbaud's complexity and rigor. This isn't always the case. Some writing is more transparent.

While no one sensible would argue that Hemingway didn't put as much thought and craft into his style as Faulkner did, translating Hemingway would be a hell of a lot easier. Translation is basically close reading, and Hemingway is an easier read than Faulkner (which is, of course, not a comment on their relative artistic merits). All translation requires a dedication to meaning, but to get a Michon or Rimbaud right requires an extra engagement to the musical qualities of their language. Not every prose writer is a stylist, though every serious prose writer must at some point engage the question of style in narrative. Every poet, however, is by definition a stylist. "Style" or "voice" or "eye" is how we tell them apart. In order to maintain that telling difference, the translator has to serve often contradictory impulses: to the truth of meaning and the truth of music. Without both, the original gets hopelessly lost.