The Beginning and End of the Snow by Yves Bonnefoy, Trans. by Alan Baker
(Leafe Press / Bamboo Books, Nottingham U.K. / Culver City, CA, 2007)
A thousand considerations of snow, nothing unsystematic, a fuller compilation in its way than the expert René Char, this survey of a mopping-up operation.
The French texts are not here, U. of Chicago Press has them, which explains a discursive tendency among the translations, toward explanation. “Noli me tangere” has this,
Mais même dire non serait de lumière.
which becomes this,
But even to say “no” would be a gift of light.
instead of this,
But even saying no would be from light.
Infelicities of translation are wrested by the poems away from significance except as interstices. Baker has the benefit of having seen other translators at work, he makes this less a dull exercise in piled-up English phrases.
The compressed language suitably breaks apart in conscious effects to give the results desired, sky or snowfall, a precise map of a range of metaphors that can encompass a literary critique or a memoir or a weather report.
Baker’s translation slips past preciosity and garble to consistently hit the notes Bonnefoy has largely set. Most translations are inaccurate, this one follows Bonnefoy as a matter of preference, rather than setting him on the mantelpiece.
“The Great Snow” is a suite of short poems culminating in,
The chipmunk. our simple neighbour,
Or is he already roaming in the crunching snow and the cold?
I see tiny footprints by the door.
which is very picturesque and gets, by the very least considerable of means, an acclimatization.
“The Torches” rubs two sticks or words together in an Albers-study. “Hopkins Forest” ponders a sort of dead end,
Page after page:
It was nothing but indecipherable signs,
Mixed shapes without sense,
And underneath a whiteness of the abyss
As if what we call mind fell there, soundlessly,
Like a snowfall.
Yet I turned the pages.
“Everything and Nothing” in three parts has the end of winter as “almond blossom, another snow.” Lastly, ”The Only Rose” in four parts concludes with the famous prescription,
The trampled snow is the only rose.
Errors in the translation are pardonable for the thrust of the work towards and not away from the original, some readily available French texts counsel the advisability of a revision.
Christopher Mulrooney has written criticism in Small Press Review, Elimae, The Film Journal, Tadeeb and Parameter, poems and translations in Beeswax, Vanitas, Guernica and New Translations.