Jean Portante at the Scottish Poetry Festival Stanza in St Andrews

Translating: Ever so simple?

Jean Portante, Stanza St Andrews
d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 10.03.2017

What does it take to translate a poem? This question was recently raised at the Scottish Poetry Festival Stanza in St Andrews. While the small town on the Scottish coast is normally crowded with golfers, it is peopled by artists and poets for one week every year. This year, Luxembourg author Jean Portante was among those who read from and spoke about their works of poetry.
Not only did Portante read some of his poetry alongside former Scottish poet of the year Aonghas MacNeacail during a Border Crossings session. Jean Portante also participated in the discussion Across Language dedicated to the question of how to translate poetry, together with French/Occitan poet Aurélia Lassaque, prix-Apollinaire-laureate Jacques Darras and English writer Zoë Skoulding.
Like the Lung of a Whale At the discussion, Jean Portante was given a platform to talk about his relation to language, a theme omnipresent in the work of the Paris-based author. Indeed, Portante made it quite clear that there is more to translation than simply switching languages. “I already write in translation”, he told the public, since he writes in French, while Italian is his mother tongue. The Italian language is always present in his texts, in the rhythm, the structure, and the metaphors like a Trojan horse hidden inside the French language. Or to use Portante’s favourite analogy: like the lung of a whale. The whale came from the earth to the sea and has adapted to life underwater, however his lung hasn’t changed, forcing it to come to the surface of the sea to breathe. “This is how I feel”, conveyed Portante.
“It changed my English” How can one translate such a polymorph language? This is a challenge, poet Zoë Skoulding set out to meet. She translated a selection of Jean Portante’s poetry (In Reality, 2013). For her, looking at the Luxembourg author’s poetry was as if seeing two different languages at work, competing with each other. “His French is an un-French, the Italian rhythm breathes inside of it.” The challenge then, was to transpose the Italian breath into the English language. The results were poems, which, according to Skoulding, one would normally not write in English in such a way.
    “Of what does or doesn’t come to pass the shadow is
it seems to me the least experienced ghost. Not
that between the two the double witness like
someone deciding to incline one ear or freeze his
breath would remember what had happened. “
“My language has changed by looking at Jean Portante’s work”, Skoulding told the public. Often, she was confronted with subtle choices, such the question if she would translate “oubli” by “oblivion” or rather “forgetting”. (She opted for “forgetting”). As Jean Portante put it, it was not about translating French at all, it was about translating “Jean Portante”, since each author has his own language, and no two authors express themselves in the same way.
What is even more interesting is that Zoë Skoulding’s own writing has been touched by Jean Portante’s poetry. As Skoulding described it, “by translating Jean, I came to think about my own poems in a different way.” And indeed, in her most recent work Teint, a series of poems on the lost Parisian river Bièvre, her poems  “bounce off the French language.”
From Occitan to French While Jean Portante has a very singular take on how language works and while his theory of the whale was being welcomed by the St Andrews public as “a new way to think about language”, his ideas nevertheless resonated with the other poets present. As it turned out, French poet Aurélia Lassaque has a very similar approach to writing. While today, she expresses herself in both Occitan and French, she started by writing her poems exclusively in Occitan – a language that she has, similar to Portante’s Italian, never been taught at school but that she learnt from her father. The author of Pour que chantent les salamandres chose Occitan over French as the language felt purer to her, exactly because it was her mother (in this case father) tongue, rather than her “School tongue”. It was, for her, a virgin language free from associations as well as from the large literary background of the French language, and hence easier to access as a poetic language. Only later did Lassaque write in French. “Occitan gave me the possibility to tame my French to write poetry.” However Lassaque’s process of writing is a bilingual one in which she writes her poems simultaneously in two languages. Yet, both languages influence each other, very much the same as Portante’s Italian and French do. Whale languages all over again.
Translating this language is very similar to translating Portante, Lassaque noted. It is not about switching languages, but about finding the author’s voice. As Jacques Darras put it, “poetry is the most rootal thing to write in” and the translator’s task is to echo these roots. In this sense, a translation is always a child of two artists, marked by a plurality of voices and languages, all interconnected.
With this said, Portante’s concept of a whale language found its way to the small Scottish town and gave the audience something new to think about, while the author himself is back on his plane, ready for new festivals.

Charlotte Wirth
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