THE BARK OF THE LANGUAGE FOREST: Peter Manson’s ‘English in Mallarmé’

Peter Manson English in Mallarmé (BLART Books, 2014)

By Rebecca Varley–Winter

English in Mallarme (cover)In ‘The Music of Poetry’ (1942), T. S. Eliot writes of the “most obscure” French poet Stéphane Mallarmé: “the French sometimes say that his language is so peculiar that it can only be understood by foreigners.”[i] “Obscure” is not quite right, as Mallarmé’s language is not hard to see – his symbols are visually evocative, albeit constantly shifting – but his poetry is stubbornly plural in sound and sense, posing an inviting challenge to translators. For example, due to the similarity of cygne (swan) to signe (sign), Mallarmé’s swans are both physical and metaphysical, mimicking writing itself (a swan’s neck even looks like an “s”, a signe): the wordplay of cygne/signe has no English equivalent. In a particularly knotted stanza of ‘Hérodiade’, the voice of the poet interacts rhythmically with “les dentelles pures / du suaire” (the pure lace / of the shroud)[ii] so closely that it is hard to judge which dominates: the poetic voix, or the material it is woven into and out of. Due to this persistent resistance of singular readings, Paul Valéry described Mallarmé’s mind-bending poems as prismatic crystals:

Ils n’ont point la transparence du verre, sans doute; mais rompant en quelque sorte les habitudes de l’esprit sur leurs facettes et dans leur dense structure, ce qu’on nomme leur obscurité n’est, en vérité, que leur réfringence. (They have not the transparency of glass, no doubt; but breaking in some way the habits of mind on their facets and in their dense structure, what is called their obscurity is only, in truth, their refraction).

Reading Mallarmé in his native tongue, Valéry felt like a translator, incorporated into the processes of writing, retracing ‘les chemins et les travaux de la pensée de leur auteur’ (the ways and workings of the author’s thought), a ‘monde préparatoire’ (preparatory world). A reader without French fluency, working through poems slowly with a dictionary, is already attuned to this preparatory world; reading between languages, meanings become less firmly anchored to words, which take on sensuous power through the preliterate, childlike engagement with them as verbal textures. Should Mallarmé’s translators attempt a smooth transition into a new tongue, or remain faithful to the foreignness of this first encounter?

Peter Manson’s English in Mallarmé bends Mallarmé’s Poésies out of shape, into this realm of playful foreignisation. Having laboriously translated the Poésies for The Poems In Verse (2012), now he scrapes a sequence of shipwrecked English verses out of Mallarmé’s French. Rather than feeling “English”, these poems read as a new half-language, frustrated and stuttering. Manson keeps almost all of the punctuation and elements of Mallarmé’s French that can read as (semi)English words in black. The rest of the lines are made to disappear into the page: the words still there, but written in white ink. Here are the first two stanzas of Mallarmé’s ‘Salut’ in its original French (from The Poems In Verse), transformed to warped English:

Rien, cette écume, vierge vers                       Rien, cette écume, vierge vers
À ne désigner que la coupe;               À ne signer que la coupe;
Telle loin se noie une troupe             Telle loin se noie une troupe
De sirènes mainte à l’envers             De sirènes mainte à l’envers

Nous naviguons, ô mes divers                      Nous naviguons, ô mes divers
Amis, moi déjà sur la poupe              Amis, moi déjà sur la poupe
Vous l’avant fastueux qui coupe                  Vous l’avant fastueux qui coupe
Le flot de foudres et d’hivers;                        Le flot de foudres et d’hivers;

*[Note: To see the text in white ink, highlight the fragmented English text]

The “English” version looks like a dot-to-dot image, and I begin to read the opening line as an antagonising challenge – come vie [with me] – while “Nous naviguons, ô mes divers” becomes an exhortation to continue: the reader dives in the poem’s wreck. These moments of sense are swamped by non-sense, as the poem resists imposed narrative, the final stanza containing both “toil” and “notre toil”. Is it better to toil to make these words fit together, or not? There is some choice within the translation game – Manson does not keep the word “la”, which could be English, perhaps because persistent “la”-ing would keep too much of the original French – but it would be a stretch to claim a complete story from his debris. This is more like material for improvisation.

In ‘The Task of the Translator’ (1923), Walter Benjamin argues that the test of a translator’s work lies in “the element that does not lend itself to translation”:

Unlike a work of literature, translation does not find itself in the centre of the language forest but on the outside facing the wooded ridge; it calls into it without entering, aiming at a single spot there the echo is able to give, in its own language, the reverberation of the work in the alien one.[iii]

In English in Mallarmé, Manson performs an anti-translation, as if, rather than aiming a voice into the centre of the “language forest” – towards the open space of communication – he articulates the bark of the trees. Poems become static, thing-like, as erasure turns them into negatives and confrontations (“no”, “vie” and “toil” feature frequently). In Mallarmé and the Art of Being Difficult, Malcolm Bowie writes that Mallarmé’s poetry creates an “argumentative texture”:[iv] these poems act out more of a brawl, French words actively fighting their transposition into an English that doesn’t correspond to their semantic/syntactic positioning. I often see linguistically double: is vie pronounced “vye” (English) – vying for attention – or is it still pronounced “vee” (French), meaning life? At times I am only able to focus on single words, like “hive” and “bell”, hubs of sound, noisy if struck. Words become isolated resonant containers. Rather than existing socially with other words they feel individualised, like nouns, regardless of their original grammar.   

         Then there is the emergence of “cum” out of écume (froth or foam), lusty obscenity, as in the opening of ‘PLACET FUTILE’ (originally ‘Placet Futile’):

Princesse! à jalouser le destin d’une Hébé
Qui poind sur cette tasse au baiser de vos lèvres,
J’use mes feux mais n’ai rang discret que d’abbé
Et ne figurerai me nu sur le Sèvres.

“Princesse!”, “poind sur cette tasse”, “use mes”, “figurerai me”  makes this sound like a drunk attempt at seduction: an idea of the Princess extracting a “jalouser le destin” from the speaker’s “ass” is also funny. English bastardisation could be read as tongue-in-cheek commentary on Mallarmé’s original French poem – a Placet Futile, or ‘Futile Petition’ – but I’m reminded more of Hugh MacDiarmid’s ‘A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle’ than I am of Manson’s source text: “The stars like thistle’s roses floo’er / The sterile growth o’ Space ootour, / That clad in bitter blasts spreids oot  / Frae me, the sustenance o’ its root.” Reading English in Mallarmé also feels, at times, like having a conversation with Father Jack of Craggy Island:

Mrs Doyle: Who’s for tea?
Father Jack: Tea?! Feck!
Mrs Doyle: Now… (pouring Jack a cup of tea) … and what do you say to a cup?
Father Jack: Feck off, cup!

‘Salut’ begins with Rien, cette écume, vierge vers (Nothing, this foam/froth, virgin verse): Mallarmé’s poetry hovers on the brink between presence and absence. By making this Rien, this “nothing” or “anything” or “no thing”, more overt, English in Mallarmé can become comic, borne on a wave of frustration.

In ‘SCENE.’ – originally the ‘Scene’ of Mallarmé’s long poem ‘Hérodiade’ – an intelligible framework of dialogue creates something akin to Tom Stoppard’s play Dogg’s Hamlet, in which nonsensical characters converse among themselves.

Tu vis! ou vois-je ici l’ombre d’une princesse?
À mes lèvres tes doigts et leurs bagues, et cesse
De marcher dans un âge igno

Le blond torrent de mes cheveux immaculés,
Quand il baigne mon corps solitaire le glace
D’horreur, et mes cheveux que la lumière enlace
Sont immortels. O femme, un baiser me tûrait
Si la beauté n’était la mort…

Hérodiade (“H”) speaks as a semi-silent voice, a cipher. In Manson’s use of white ink, I can’t help thinking of écriture féminine – the writing of femininity in literary theory – a language beyond language, reliant on articulately-inarticulate gasps, the use of voice, going beyond the printed word. Hélène Cixous argues that women should “write in white ink” to counteract what she views as the masculine phallocentrism of writing, and Julia Kristeva gives Mallarmé as one example of écriture féminine – despite his sex – due to his use of gaps, “blanks” and white space. In Manson’s rendering of this ‘Scene’, the “princess” is figured through glimpses, as a “blond torrent”, with an eroticism akin to that in Sapphic fragments, between scraps of lace. The emergence of “mes cheveux” – “me Eve” – coincides with Hérodiade’s actual role as a femme fatale (Hérodiade being another name for Salome). I begin to read Manson’s absent Hérodiade as a desired and silenced muse hiding in Mallarmé’s text. I construct a story out of serendipity: something that this book makes me do, and think about myself doing.

         In ‘The Task of the Translator’, Benjamin describes a “yearning for that language which manifests itself in translations”, imagining the possibility of translation as a third voice, neither the reader nor the original writer, but a glimpsed intermediary between the two. He quotes Mallarmé:

Les langues imparfaites en cela que plusieurs, manque le suprême: penser étant écrire sans accessoires, ni chuchotement mais tacite encore l’immortelle parole, la diversité, sur terre, des idiomes empêche personne de proférer les mots qui, sinon se trouveraient, par une frappe unique, elle-même matériellement la vérité.[v]

This translates as: “The imperfection of languages consists in their plurality, which misses the supreme: thinking is writing without accessories, not whispering, but still silent immortal speech. The diversity, on earth, of idioms prevents anyone/no one from uttering the words which would otherwise be found, with a single stroke, in itself the material truth”. In English in Mallarmé, Peter Manson creates a clownish, slapstick pastiche of translation’s “third voice”, like the gesticulations of an enamoured mime. I would recommend going to The Poems in Verse first for a more “straight” rendering of Mallarmé’s beautiful Poésies, as this can only offer a deliberately gutted version.[vi] However, English in Mallarmé is a great addition, especially for those interested in translation as a way of entering into foreignness, rather than drawing other languages safely inside our own. In meeting English halfway, Peter Manson defamiliarises English and French at the same time, as a foreigner in Mallarmé’s text, forcing me to exist out-of-place, between languages, even more so than when approaching Mallarmé in French. Rich and very strange.


[i] T. S. Eliot, On Poetry and Poets (London: Faber, 1957), 26–38 (30).

[ii] My translation. Unless otherwise indicated, translations are my own.

[iii] ‘The Task of the Translator’, in Illuminations, trans. by Harry Zohn (London: Pimlico, 1999), 77.

[iv] Mallarmé and the Art of Being Difficult (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), 3.

[v] Illuminations, 77–78.

[vi] Stéphane Mallarmé, The Poems in Verse, translated by Peter Manson (Oxford, OH: Miami University Press, 2012).

2 responses to “THE BARK OF THE LANGUAGE FOREST: Peter Manson’s ‘English in Mallarmé’”

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  2. […] review by Rebecca Varley-Winter of my book English in Mallarmé at the Glasgow Review of Books […]

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