Translations fROM FRENCH


Gérard macé, l'art sans paroles (THE SILENT ARTS) (Gallimard, 1999)

In this book, the French writer and photographer Gérard Macé, winner in 2008 of the Grande Prix de Poésie of the Académie Française, considers three "silent arts" and their history: mime, silent film, and the circus. This extract is from the section on silent film.

The characters in silent movies seem to belong to a vanished humanity for whom emotion was more important than language. A humanity unable to love without fainting, or cry without wringing its hands; which rolled its wide-open, furious eyes, and died with grand gestures, as if it were a matter of slamming the door again on Hell.

Just as we wonder whether the primitives or ancients believed in their gods, one wonders if the silent movie actors took seriously the things that shook them up so much (the devil and revolution; the eternal promise of a Christmas on earth; the confrontation of good and evil, as starkly contrasted as black and white), or if they only pretended to believe in these old moons lengthening their shadows.


• • •

If a spectator from the turn of the century were to come back today, he’d be surprised by the contrast between the earliest projections (images trembling on linen in a smoky back room, a fairground attraction in which laughter and cries muffled dance-hall music) and the sessions of today, in which the actors speak and it’s the audience that remains silent.

His astonishment would resemble (but would he realize it?) the stupefaction of Saint Augustine in the library, having discovered, in Saint Ambrose, the first man who moved his lips without a sound: the first man reading in silence.

• • •

Perhaps we’re the ones who are deaf. Though a simple idea, it doesn’t occur to one immediately; but sooner or later it strikes one forcefully, in the face of all these actors who speak into the void.

It brings back the days of bright sunshine when we played at being blind, and sombre days when we pretended not to hear a word; those childhood days when we palpated the world with different antennae, sometimes more subtle, at other times more crude, before resigning ourselves to the fate of our five senses; days when we hopped between heaven and hell.

(excerpt from unpublished translation; do not reproduce)


In this short but very moving book, the French poet Philippe Jaccottet describes the burial of another great French poet, and close friend, André du Bouchet. Both poets were contemporaries of Yves Bonnefoy, Jacques Dupin and Bernard Noël. (Jaccottet is still alive, at the age of 91.) All belonged to an extraordinary post-WWII generation of French poets. The sinuous lines of Jaccottet's prose -- punctuated by abruptly shorter lines that pull one up --, and the balancing of light and dark, delicate nuances and trenchant observations, make the act of translating feel like an undulating and sometimes risky flight.

This powdering of snow across all things — this meeting, the first or the last, at the opening or the closing of the season — came as a surprise: the prairies and the snow, leafy branches and snow: to discover how everything about us seemed refreshed by a kind of weightless plumage — this surprise: indeed, as if a great bird had touched the earth with its wing, such lightness of touch, cool, and all but immaterial — virginal: I believe one can, one must describe it so (“The virgin, bright and beautiful today”). The boulders, ravines, prairies, hedges, stands of trees, the rare stone farmhouses, substantial as ever, at the same time being, how to say it? alleviated ...

The presence, weight, density of this scrap of the world: impossible to doubt; and on the other hand, the event itself of the burial in the earth, made, strangely, more “true” -- true as these stones and this mud -- by the complete absence of ceremony and what I’ve even called the appearance of disorder, disarray, a kind of clumsiness in the face of death.


Wildness: being that’s all depth, unsupported, the recovered fundament, ground on which one doesn’t waver — the very thing that’s always so present in André du Bouchet’s books: in the very place where, one night, several years earlier, having lost my way and fallen from one level of a terrace to the next, I had broken a heel-bone — quite the opposite of a dream; while up above, the light snow was like feathers let fall in a late migration.

(excerpt from unpublished translation; do not reproduce)