I was in high-school when I bought a copy of A Season in Hell & The Drunken Boat at Martindale’s Bookstore in Santa Monica. It was the New Directions edition translated by Louise Varèse. I still have it. Shortly afterwards I picked up a copy of Illuminations, also published by New Directions & translated by Louise Varèse. This was the beginning of a long association with Rimbaud. Over the years I’ve sought out every translation of Rimbaud that I could, since my French is pitiful. I really needed to understand what he was doing & why it worked & kept working for me. That has yet to be adequately answered, so I continue to read & re-read Rimbaud. Relentlessly. I’ve kept the Etienne Carjat 1871 photo of Rimbaud (clipped from a book) on the wall in every room I wrote in since 1974. It is on the wall above the desk where I’m typing this right now.
A few years ago Duncan McNaughton visited me here in Santa Cruz. We sat outside drinking beer & shooting the shit. I told him that I felt Rimbaud is more & more important to me the older I get. I wish I had immediately written down Duncan’s response. It was brilliant. All I can recall is that he said “Of course…” & went on eloquently about the passage in a May 15, 1871 letter to Paul Demeny where Rimbaud famously wrote “Romanticism has never been properly judged”.
Last February when the poet Simon Pettet told me that John Ashbery had done a translation of Illuminations that would be released in the spring I was cautiously stoked. Now that I’ve had a chance to read it, I say it’s a good, solid translation, but I still prefer the Varèse.
Here’s Ashbery’s translation of section 3 of Rimbaud’s poem Childhood —
In the wood there is a bird, his song stops you and makes you blush.
There is a clock that doesn’t strike.
There is a pit with a nest of white creatures.
There is a cathedral that sinks and a lake that rises.
There is a little carriage abandoned in the thicket, or that hurtles down the path, trimmed with ribbons.
There is a troop of child actors in costume, seen on the highway through the edge of the forest.
Finally, when you are hungry or thirsty, there is someone who chases you away
Compare it to the Varèse translation—
In the woods there is a bird; his song stops you and makes you blush.
There is a clock which never strikes.
There is a hollow with a nest of white beasts.
There is a cathedral that goes down and a lake that goes up.
There is a little carriage abandoned in the copse or that goes running down the road beribboned.
There is a troupe of little actors in costume, glimpsed on the road through the border of the woods.
And then, when you are hungry and thirsty, there is someone who drives you away.
To my ear the Varèse translation just scans better. Her version of the last line has always hit me hard. No other translator has nailed it the way she did.
This is the poem Departure—
Enough seen. The vision has been encountered in all skies.
Enough had. Sounds of cities, in the evening, and in the sunlight, and always.
Enough known. The stations of life.—O Sounds and Visions!
Departure amid new noise and affection!
Seen enough. The vision was met with in every air.
Had enough. Sounds of cities, in the evening, and in the sun and always.
Known enough. Life’s halts.—O Sounds and Visions!
Departure in new affection and new noise.
Varèse captures the urgency & speed of Rimbaud. “The vision was met with in every air” is direct & fluid, where “The vision has been encountered in all skies” just stumbles over the troublesome use of the word “encountered”.
I could go on & on, & I often do, & will. Just my personal take on it, but I’d say if you only read one translation of Illuminations make it the Varèse. If then you compulsively need to read (like me) other translations, I’d say check out Oliver Bernard’s literal translations first, then Ashbery, Wallace Fowlie, and Wyatt Mason. That’s a start. There is no real end.