Amusing anecdotes offer wisdom on the topics of poetry, translation, and even ballet; a lunch hour presentation by American poet and translator Richard Howard leaves this reporter reminiscing of a 1970s Paris. BY ERIC CHIANG
A presentation by Richard Howard, American poet and translator of such French authors as Roland Barthes, Simone de Beauvoir, Michel Foucault and Alain Robbe-Grillet, brought back memories of the Paris I knew in the 1970s. These illustrious French authors, now all deceased, were very much alive when I was a student in France in 1973. My sister and I were there on separate study abroad programs. I went to the University of Nancy in Lorraine while she studied at Reid Hall, a veritable chateau on Rue de Chevreuse in the sixth arrondissement of Paris. I went to Paris as often as I could and slept in the men’s dormitory at the chateau for free. The sixth arrondissement wasn’t the most chic and expensive district of Paris that it is now; those fancy shops didn’t start to move in until the late 1970s. There was a quartier chinois that consisted of a small grocery store of unknown Asian origin and a couple of Vietnamese restaurants on Rue Monsieur-le-Prince. From her memoirs, I knew that Simone de Beauvoir lived in an apartment on Boulevard Raspail.
Wit and wisdom
So what would Richard Howard talk about at this gathering during lunch hour at a location that is a five-minute walk from where I work in San Francisco? Would he spill the beans on the authors he translated? What was the translation industry like when he was working? Did he have to convince publishers of translation that he could jump from poetry to semiotics, as we now have to convince the translation agencies of our abilities to do legal and medical documents?
Richard Howard is 82 years old. He looked healthy and spoke with a low raspy voice. About thirty people came to hear him talk at 111 Minna Gallery. If some were translators, they didn’t look as if they had struggled with PDF files at home. Howard started by talking about his childhood and some incidents that led him to his distinguished and varied vocations. To wit: He came from a wealthy family in Cleveland. His parents went to Europe often. The family owned a bookstore that his uncle managed. One day, a lady came in asking to buy a Bible. Howard was struck by the persuasive authority with which his uncle told the woman that the Bible was all sold out. It was brilliant that his uncle knew the content of the bookstore like the back of his hand. After the woman left, the aunt came out and asked his uncle, “Why did you say the Bible was sold out? We have many copies in the back.” “I know,” the uncle replied, “but there are days when one simply doesn’t feel like selling the Bible.”
Prelude and postlude
Howard talked at length about Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, a poem that he translated, and the ballet that was subsequently based on it. He described in graphic detail what the dancer Nijinsky did with a handkerchief during his performances that kept the Parisian spectators coming back for more. The names he mentioned were: Sergei Diaghilev, Claude Debussy, and Stéphane Mallarmé (these were people of the arts who lived well before his time, of course). At one point, he recited a portion of a script he had translated for a new theatrical production of Prelude. This touching rendition of the “soliloquy of the faun” lasted a good ten minutes while we sat in respectful silence.
Howard talked about the first time he was asked to do translation. From what I can recall, a very well known publishing house asked him to translate a book of French poems for about $20,000. Howard refused, but the publishing house kept coming back with increasing levels of compensation. When the figure hit $35,000, he consented. I don’t know whether Howard meant to imply that this was typical…
In the Q & A section, a woman wanted to discuss his ideas on translating poems. When he said something to the effect that it was sometimes hard for him to know what the original poem meant and that he had to keep going in spite of it, a man in the audience asked whether he had departed the realm of the translator and entered into that of the author. Howard smiled and said, “That I leave to you to think about.” Apparently he was not amused.
At this point my lunch hour ended and I left. EC