Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

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Some of you will remember that I have been mentioning the Swiss writer Clarisse Francillon (1899 -1976) for a few years now. She is the writer I discovered by finding myself in a small back room at my local library; unbeknownst to me I had stumbled into her archives.

I’m very excited to share a first translation of her work into English. This is “Saturday Evening”, first published in 1944 as a novella by the Swiss Schiller Foundation, from whom Francillon had won a special prize the year before. Francillon wrote about women, their sexuality and their lives, and although it may seem quite mild for today’s standards, there is quite a lot simmering under the surface in this story. Later she would get ever more daring, and I look forward to placing some of those pieces!

Much of her later work is set in Paris, (and I am always calling her the Mavis Gallant of Switzerland) and so it’s a treat to have this story come out first, which is set here in Switzerland, in Lausanne and in the small lakeside village of Cully. It’s the story of an ordinary evening, a village party and dance, and a young woman named Rita who is ready for her life to change…

Stoll said, “A man gets rather lonely in a city in the evening, you see. Spending the whole day on business, you see, but the evening… so if there’s a chance to meet a nice lady…”

To Rita’s ears the words “nice lady” sounded rather disagreeable. Like an old woman, walking slowly, with a black purse, and not a young woman of twenty who was sometimes positively thrilled to be alive, and sometimes so sad. She glanced again at the package of earrings.

“I wanted to thank you,” she said. “You shouldn’t have, you know,” she continued, shy. Even if it wasn’t so long ago her friend Evelyn was telling her that one needed to know how make men pay. A habit just like another.

“If you like them, then I’m happy,” said Stoll.

He took a sip of his vermouth. Sounds of voices, of dishes, and on the palm-tree decorated stage, the stand of a silent double bass. Was she going to the ball in Cully tonight in a wrinkled dress? She felt a certain regret. Not because of Jean-Pierre, no. Jean-Pierre wouldn’t even notice. He said, and this was the last word on it, not before we’re married and that’s it. That was how he was. But Rita liked her clothing carefully ironed, pressed.

You can read the entire story here.

Thinking back over my reading in 2017, it is inextricably connected to feelings of concern and panic, even despair. Many people have expressed this, so I know I’m not alone. My reading has been both guided by and in reaction to the world’s events and the continued ugliness of politics. Luckily reading is a comfort and a refuge, and luckily, I have discovered excellent comforts and distractions for an unsettled mind.

Something I did this year—at first unintentionally—was read much more in French. Without making this an essay on the angst of an emigrant/immigrant and how much I have struggled to be engaged with the political horrors of contemporary US politics while consciously telling myself to step back and focus on where I live now (Swiss passport in hand since 2016), I found myself wanting to avoid English, wanting the coccoon of my new home in language and books. Doing this I read more Michele Lesbre, whose work I have consistently loved. Her Le Canapé Rouge is stunning (and available in translation from Seagull Books), and I read her Ecoute La Pluie and was just as enchanted. I have her Chemins waiting for me to read this year.

I read Anne Brécart’s La Femme Provisoire which is a delicate and dark little book, and I loved it, reminding me that 15 years ago I loved her Les Années de Verre, so I reread that and my memory of its complicated elegance was confirmed.

Perhaps the best “discovery” of 2017 was Elsa Triolet, whom I add to my bulging basket of undertranslated French modernists. I wrote about her here, so I won’t say more than I have a stack of her books waiting for me to move slowly through this year, and I cannot wait. The other writer I will continue to champion is Clarisse Francillon, an almost exact contemporary to Triolet, and the two must have crossed paths in Paris at some point—which, if I can prove once I spend more time with both of their writing, will make me very happy. Both women writing about war, both women writing about women and power.

I read a short story by Francillon the other day, “L’harmonica” from her collection La Belle Orange, and it just quite blew me away. It’s a dark and horrible story, part of a collection published in 1944, and its content shocked me for its frank dissection of a brief but intense moment between a man and a woman, following the death of the woman’s lover. Each page is a concise study of power dynamics. So much of her writing is like this.

Finally, I did read in English this year but my reading was all over the place. I read Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore and was surprised to find I couldn’t put it down. I spent two days devouring Helen Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching. I discovered that Graham Greene is utterly wonderful, even if I imagine everyone else knew this before me. I read two more Ali Smith, Autumn and How to be Both, confirming her as one of my favorite contemporary writers. I had the distinct pleasure of reading Helen McClory’s début novel, Flesh of the Peach, which is a book with sharp edges (I mean this in the best way) and extremely interesting, both in terms of story and style. It’s a book that bleeds. Along the same vein, Kate Zambreno’s Book of Mutter held me captive for several weeks, and continues to resonate long after I’ve finished. I really like Zambreno’s sideways curating, and this no matter the subject she’s working around.

I read more poetry this year than I have in past years—poetry is the ultimate comfort reading for me as it circles around the logical instead of dealing with it straight on—and I’m so glad that I did, returning again and again to Jan Zwicky’s marvelous collection Chamber Music. I am still reading through her Lyric Philosophy, so it doesn’t yet count for 2017, but it’s an enormous work and I can get lost in it or stuck on one or two of its pages for days. I read Brenda Shaughnessy’s Interior With Sudden Joy, loving so many of the poems I will read them twice or three times a day. I came across a copy of Nzotake Shange’s performance poem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide while visiting my family in the US, and read it over and over. It’s such a beautiful and frightening work of art, and doesn’t feel dated even if it’s now over 40 years old. I received Anne Carson’s Float for my birthday and have been thrilling over its chapbooks, each one like a special gift. I’ve also really enjoyed Antonio Rodriguez’s Big Bang Europa, which is intense and contemporary (and in French).

What has stuck with me the most this year? This year there isn’t just one author. So I suppose it is that I always wish I could read more, that there is always more to read. But also that reading is the best passion (just don’t even try to argue that one with me), and that as readers we’re so lucky to have these marvelous worlds at our fingertips. It’s endless, it’s so incredible.

Happy New Year bookish people, see you in 2018 with more books.


My review of Kate Zambreno’s Book of Mutter came out yesterday at Necessary Fiction – it begins like this:

A quarter of a way into Kate Zambreno’s Book of Mutter the following stand-out line surfaces amidst a collage of anecdotes related to memorializing, burial practices, and grief writing:

What does it mean to write what is not there. To write absence.

The line sits on its own, separated out from a preceding block of text commenting on Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary, and it feels, at first, like a standard academic question. A way to frame Zambreno’s thirteen-year project to write about the death of her mother. And it certainly does do this. But its tone and position—that missing question mark, the clarified repetition of the idea of absence, and the white page that engulfs the reader as they finish the weighted word—give these simple sentences all the power of a lament and an entreaty. This isn’t a curious professor posing a rhetorical question to a dispassionate audience, this is the fierce howl of a desire for sense-making.

Grief memoirs are interested in burdened negotiations of this sort because grief is always a plea bargain, an attempt to wring sense from this most senseless of experiences. But here’s the trick: death is senseless in only one definition of that word, meaningless, but it engages the five senses relentlessly. So what does it mean to write what is not there? That missing question mark in Zambreno’s line places her sentence somewhere between a defeated query and a brave gesture to the impossible. And she doesn’t mention writing about what is not there, she is interested in the verb, the act of writing and what that very act might mean. In this way, the question is also about the asker. She could be saying_, what does it mean that I am writing what is not there_. And in this, immediately and cleverly, Zambreno embraces the conflicted dichotomy of absence versus presence.

You can read the entire review here.


**Below is the post I wrote when my first novel, Fog Island Mountains, was published in November 2014. Everything you need to know about the book is here.**


With so much traveling last week, I didn’t get a chance to properly mention the actual publication day of Fog Island Mountains. Officially, on November 4th—while I was somewhere 30,000 feet up between Geneva and NYC and reading several wonderful novels—the book came out. It is extremely exciting to note the publication of my first novel. This is something I’ve waited and hoped for, and I’m extremely grateful in terms of the book’s road to publication with Tantor and Audible through the Christopher Doheny Award from Audible and The Center for Fiction. I had the chance to learn more about this remarkable young man while I was in New York and I’m really touched that the judges thought he would have enjoyed my book, but also that they felt it was a suitable tribute to his life.

I read from the book last Thursday at The Center for Fiction. And there are some photos of that event. The Center for Fiction is a beautiful gem of bookish goodness right in the middle of Manhattan. If I lived anywhere near New York, I’d be spending as much time as possible here. That night was also special because I finally got to meet Rebecca from Of Books and Bikes. We’ve been blogging friends for years and it was such a treat to finally meet her. (She is as smart and kind as we’ve all suspected all these years.)

And on Friday evening, there was a reception at Audible with Christopher Doheny’s family and friends. It was so wonderful to hear stories about him—my favorite being that he set up a program at Audible to curate books from the small/independent presses to be made into audio books. He was an early champion of Paul Harding’s Tinkers, an exceptional book and one of my all-time favorites. I left that evening wishing I’d had a chance to meet him, I think we would have had much in common.

Beth Anderson at Audible conducted a small reading and interview with me that evening, but one that is also a wonderful tribute to Christopher Doheny and the award that will continue on in his name.

The book is out in the world now, and there are reviews popping up here and there. I’ll be sure to link to them for anyone who is interested. On Thursday morning I spent about six hours talking to twelve different radio stations. This was a fascinating experience – to hear how people are approaching the book and to get the chance to discuss it and answer questions. I have been stunned at the kindness and curiosity of so many people. Some of my favorite questions were about the book’s structure, about how the book dealt with cultural issues, and just simply about the setting in rural southern Japan.

One of the best parts of this experience with the radio was three hosts who read out parts of the book, passages they had marked. It is a little strange (in a good way) to hear my own words read back to me, and it was neat to see which parts they really enjoyed. I’ll finish up here with one of those passages:

Now the floor trembles without his taking angry steps; this is how the mountain releases its own tension, little earthquakes, shudders of rock against earth against rock, mild displacements—all reminders of the steam and heat beneath the rocks, beneath our feet.


In the last two weeks, I’ve spent many hours on trains, and I had the luck to read on one of those trips a particularly suitable train narrative called De second classe by Janine Massard. It’s really two essays put together—one about an eastward journey, and the other about a westward journey. The essays were originally published in the late 1960s, and although they definitely felt rooted in their time period (crossing borders during the Cold War), they also felt delightfully contemporary.

In the eastward journey, the narrator is riding from Belgrade to Baghdad, sleeping in the overhead rack when he can, drinking vodka at 9am, smoking with his fellow passengers… the smoking provides an interesting passage from this first essay when the narrator offers an American cigarette to his seat mate (after receiving a gift of food to share, despite the neighbor’s evident poverty). The man smokes his cigarette with appreciation and asks the neighbor if he’s American. The narrator then waffles—What to do? Admit that he isn’t and ruin the authenticity of this American cigarette (perceived as higher quality than an Eastern European variety), or lie to smooth the moment over? The narrator finally admits he is Swiss, but the other man doesn’t understand at first because the narrator has said, “niet, svetsi” a word he concedes he’s probably invented in an attempt to say “Swiss” in Serbian. He tries Italian “Swizzera”, he tries French, “Suisse”, neither work, and eventually:

…tu essaies : Switzerland à cause du fameux made in Switzerland, produit d’exportation de haute qualité, mais il ne connait pas made in Switzerland, lui, l’homme à la bouche édentée, il ne la possède pas sa montre suisse, cet homme aux joues creuses. Et à cet instant, tu réalises que, parce que tu appartiens à un pays riche, tu viens, avec ton Switzerland, de dire quelque chose dont les prolongations débouchent sur l’impossibilité du dialogue.

… you try: Switzerland because of the famous Made in Switzerland, high-quality export goods, but this man with his toothless mouth doesn’t know Made in Switzerland, this man with his sunken cheeks doesn’t have his own Swiss watch. And just then you realize that because you come from a rich country, you’ve just said something, with your Switzerland, that can only lead to the impossibility of dialogue.

(Excuse the hasty translation, could fiddle with those commas and that last sentence for a while…)

They finally find a language to speak together, German. And the encounter gathers a different kind of depth. Massard is really skilled at playing with this tension, how language filters culture and how strangers find ways to inhabit their shared space for the length of a journey.

The Westward journey is much longer, and the narrator plays a pivotal role in translating for different groups of strangers. In this essay, the narrator occupies a privileged position as the person who can speak English, French, German, and Italian (and possibly more languages – I’d have to go back and check). There are several stories swirling around the train compartment. My favorite was of an older Italian woman who has left her island (which now belongs to Yugoslavia) for the very first time to travel by train all the way to Helsinki to help her son because the latter sent her a simple telegram: NEED YOU IMMEDIATELY. And so she is on her way, without any idea how to actually get to Finland. The multiple conversations to help her are touching, many different passengers pitch in. There is also the lazy American who receives money from the desperate Russian violinist obviously trying to escape his country, and the British couple on their sweepstakes holiday… and many more.

Massard’s language is rhythmic as well – suitably rolling to mimic the movement of the train, but also the coming and going of different passengers and the image of a long twisty train, one compartment after another. I loved reading it. I imagined translating some of it and got quickly stumped on small choices of syntax and imagery. Take this sample sentence for example.

When the train finally arrives in Lausanne, in the early pre-dawn, the narrator has been speaking with a migrant worker from Calabria, returning to Switzerland after a holiday at home, and he writes a sentence I’ve been trying to translate for the last thirty minutes and am now giving up:

Et pendant un long moment vous regardez, tous les deux, défiler les maisons silencieuses où restent suspendues, presque sans force, les lumières de la nuit.

I can begin this with: And for a long moment the two of you watch a parade of silent houses…

But what exactly are “lumières de la nuit”? Streetlamps? Lights inside the dark houses? Small lights outside the darkened houses? I’m not sure…

And why or how are these lights “hanging”? And what does Massard mean by “presque sans force” – are they dim? Are they feeble or flickering? Is the darkness too dark for the lights to stand out against? I can make some guesses, or eventually just decide to make the image more concrete in a coherent way – giving my own interpretation.

And for a long moment the two of you watch a parade of silent houses, their lights, nearly extinguished, poised in the darkness.

(I know, I know, that’s a bit much… I don’t like extinguished… and I’ve kept the weird French syntax, but ending with darkness is just too tempting…)

In French, though, the image is fleeting and vague – appropriate for its moment as the train is moving more slowly as it pulls into the city. I don’t mind that I just have an illusory sense of darkness punctuated by small lights. The syntax works well, too, with those four commas and the lovely four beats before the sssss of “sans force” and the uplift of “les lumières”.

I secretly love this, though. It’s one sentence of a 100 page book, and I could play with various solutions for quite some time… any ideas?







I had thought about ice during the cold months too. How it is movement betrayed, water seized in the moment of falling.

Gretel Ehrlich’s essay “Spring”—published in 1986 in the now defunct literary quarterly, Antaeus—is one of those gloriously meandering pieces of writing. On a micro level, the prose is precise and detailed, a collage of descriptions of the author’s physical world, her landscape as she writes: snow, rocks, wind, water, sky, the animals that cross the topography. Fitting, of course, for an essay on a season. It’s a fine example of nature writing. At the same time, in a more general and overlapping way, there’s a deeply metaphysical line of questioning. The essayist is circling human nature, an emotional spring.

She threads the movement from early spring to mid-spring with science, especially with physics. Conversations she’s had with scientist friends. Geological observations. Early in the essay she describes spring as a restless time, and the essay reflects a psychological restlessness, a movement from one state (winter) to another (spring). But the state could also be illness to health, raw grief to healing, closed to open. When I’ve written it this way it sounds nearly new-agey, and it isn’t at all. It’s inquisitive, intelligent, scientific, emotional.

Ehrlich is also dealing with the landscape of my childhood—the American West with its unreal vistas and deep wilderness. A wilderness in which “wild” should be written in bold. I returned to the US a few years ago and drove in one day across the Sawtooth Mountains and the Cascade Mountains. I’d been living in Europe nearly eight years at this point and I’d forgotten the size of those spaces. The incredible breadth, the vastness of it. Ehrlich brought me right back into that and I experienced an aching nostalgia.

Space is an arena in which the rowdy particles that are the building blocks of life perform their antics. All spring, things fall: the general law of increasing disorder is on the take.

And there’s a surprise in her narrative. Where she begins and where she ends aren’t signaled in the usual ways (although the quote just above could be taken as such signaling), and thank goodness. This is what I mean by gloriously meandering. She takes us from one personal space to another that is quite different, and I could not have predicted that movement but when she finishes it is like that is the only way we could have gone. It’s delightful.

Continuing along with how I set up my December reading (since it lead me to some unexpected places) here are the essays and short stories I plan to read in January. It won’t be one a day, but three a week.

Suggestions are always welcome; I discovered several writers and pieces last month that way so if anyone has a recommendation, I’d love it.

Week 1 Margaret Atwood – “Significant Moments in the Life of my Mother” (from Bluebeard’s Egg)
Clarice Lispector – “Daydream and Drunkenness of a Young Lady” (from Complete Stories)
Gretel Ehrlich – “Spring” (essay, from Antaeus, 1986)
Week 2 Valerie Trueblood – “Finding” (from Search Party)
Jane Hirschfield – “The Myriad Leaves of Words” (from Nine Gates)
Guy Davenport – “The Geography of the Imagination” (from the same)
Week 3 Isak Dinesen – “Sorrow-acre” (from Winter’s Tales)
Joan Didion – “On Keeping a Notebook” (from Slouching Toward Bethlehem)
Lucia Berlin – “Emergency Room Notebook” (from A Manual for Cleaning Women)
Week 4 Phillip Lopate – “Against Joie de Vivre” (From Ploughshares, 1987
Jamaica Kincaid – “The Circling Hand” (From Annie John)
Jean Stafford – “In the zoo” (From Bad Characters)
Week 5  Clarice Lispector – “Love” (from Complete Stories)
 Eudora Welty – “Petrified Man” (from A Curtain of Green)
 Jane Hirshfield – “Poetry & the Mind of Indirection” (from Nine Gates)

Reading makes me feel alive. Earlier today I looked over the books I’ve read this year and while it was nice to mentally revisit many of them, what I noticed most was how few there actually were and that since November, I hadn’t actually finished a single book. Ali Smith’s Artful is the last book I read start to finish. (It’s excellent, by the way—delicate, clever, surprising.) Overall, I read far fewer books in 2016 compared to other recent years and wish that weren’t so. But there it is.

Luckily, my list of essays and short stories this month has done what I’d hoped it would do—I’m reading again. Indiscriminately, messily, chaotically. All kinds of writers, essays and stories from different decades, even centuries. It’s marvelous and has my brain moving in all sorts of directions. A welcome relief from the news cycle.

I mentioned Anne Carson’s “Kinds of Water” in my last post and I doubt anything else I read this month will compare, but several of the essays/stories have been excellent. Katherine Anne Porter (1890 to 1980) is a discovery. How have I never read her before? Her essay “St. Augustine and the Bullfight” made me laugh out loud (her descriptions of people are a delight) but it also had me cringing (her honesty about the human thrill for violence); I will be looking for more of her work. And “Miss Grief” by Constance Fenimore Woolson (1840 – 1894) was fascinating—two writers, one male, one female, and the dynamic between them. Writerly ambitions, public reception, poverty, etc. It definitely made me curious to read more of her work, of which there is plenty. I found this last story in a collection called Daughters of Decadence: Women Writers of the Fin-de-Siècle. An inspiring secondhand bookshop find.

Yesterday I read James Baldwin’s essay “Fifth Avenue Uptown: A Letter from Harlem.” This comes from his collection published in the early 1960s, and while the essay is devastatingly good, it’s also depressing. I don’t want to be melodramatic, but it feels as though only the specific details he uses to make his point have changed. America is still a deeply divided country and the same tools are used to maintain the affluence of a few at the expense of the many. Reading Baldwin is a pure pleasure, though. His non-fiction is as vibrant and animated as his fiction.

I’m also now reading three different books: Mark Vanhoenacker’s Skyfaring, Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book (Ivan Morris translation) and Gillian Rose’s Love’s Work. I’m surprised to be reading so much non-fiction as I don’t usually gravitate in this direction, but these three books are wonderful to dip in and out of, and they couldn’t be more different. An example of three books most decidedly NOT speaking to each other, which suits me fine right now.

Skyfaring is a distraction, but an intriguing and entertaining one. A way to look at the world from a different perspective, and one I will never personally experience. Vanhoenacker is a commercial airline pilot with an unmistakable passion for flying. He writes about what it’s like to crisscross the world at such a great height, and he writes gracefully.

The Pillow Book is a brilliant piece of writing. It feels quaint and archaic, because it is, but it is also fragmented and eccentric in a very modern way. Shonagon is wickedly funny in terms of telling stories and relating “court” life, but she’s also quietly attentive to nature, to people, to life. Her lists are a delight:


30. Things That Arouse a Fond Memory of the Past


Dried hollyhock. the objects used during the Display of the Dolls. To find a piece of deep violet or grape-coloured material that has been pressed between the pages of a notebook.

It is a rainy day and one is feeling bored. To pass the time, one starts looking through some old papers. And then one comes across the letters of a man one used to love.

Last year’s paper fan. A night with a clear moon.

Her lists of Hateful Things or Depressing Things are genuinely funny. But she also writes about events or meetings, conversations and anecdotes. There is something silly and superficial about her book—in its discussions of court life and good manners and the like—but it has a serious heart and she is wonderfully sharp in her observations, poetic in her approach.

Finally, I will finish Gillian Rose’s collection of essays Love’s Work this evening and write more about it later. It is fierce. I love it.


Well, a pilgrim is like a Nō play. Each one has the same structure, a question mark.

The other day when I was looking through the books of short stories and essay collections—some half-unread, some completely un-read—on my shelves, I found, in a Best American Essays 1988, an essay by Anne Carson entitled, “Kinds of Water.”

It obviously went on my list.

This essay was scheduled for my reading on the 6th of December; I only finished it this morning five days later. And I read it again a second time—moving, without realizing until after I sat down, into the quietest, most private space in my home. I read the essay again, confirming to myself that here was a piece of writing I would have to read again and again. And again.

“Kinds of Water” is about a man and a woman walking La Compostela. It begins on June 20th in St. Jean Pied de Port and ends, 35 magnificent pages later, on July 26th, in Finisterre. It’s about pilgrims of all kinds, about wolves, about water, about photographs and poetry, it’s about longing and power relations and hard walking, it’s about bread and rocks. About journeys.

It is probably the single most interesting piece of writing I have read all year.

I feel unable to write properly about it until I’ve read it several more times, so I won’t say much here and hope that in a few months, when I’ll read it again, or maybe next year, when I’ll read it a fourth time and a fifth time, I’ll find some way to describe its movement and content.

There is no question I covet that conversation. There is no question I am someone starving. There is no question I am making this journey to find out what the appetite is.

Or maybe I won’t, because maybe this is the kind of essay I can only keep for myself. And the only way to do that is not to talk about it.

Today, I’ll just leave a hint of it for you:


Gorge after gorge, turning, turning. Caverns of sunset, falling, falling away—just a single vast gold air breathed out by beings — they must have been marvelous beings, those gold-breathers. Down. Purple and green islands. Cleft and groined and gigantically pocked like something left behind after all the oceans vanished one huge night: the mountains. Their hills fold and fold again, fold away, down. Folded into the dens and rocks of the hills are ghost towns. Broken streets end in them, like a sound, nowhere. Shadow is inside. We walk (oh quietly) even so — breaking lines of force, someone’s. Houses stand in their stones. Each house an empty socket. Some streaked with red inside. Words once went on in there — no. I don’t believe that. Words never went on there.



Over the last few months I have been very lazily reading Jane Hirshfield’s book Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. (And I think I owe a big thank you to Marina Sofia for recommending this book to me, it’s splendid.). For Day 2 of my advent reading, I read the third chapter, “The World is Loud and Full of Noises,” which, serendipitously, is about translation.

The chapter begins with the idea of how uncomfortable people can be with translation, and where this comes from in terms of prohibitions about translations in sacred texts. I’ve never made the explicit connection, but now it seems glaringly obvious—if words have any whiff of the sacred, it would be sacrilegious to altar them in any way. Move that idea forward a few millennia and there is this, exquisitely expressed:

Further, by asserting that things worth knowing exist outside the home culture’s boundaries, translation challenges society as a whole.

When you look at it this way, translation isn’t just a superfluous extracurricular that’s nice to have around if you can, it’s a vital component of a society with an ability to look outward.

And Hirshfield talks about this from a political perspective, but also a literary one, mentioning the ways in which translation of “foreign” poetry has enlivened and rejuvenated English language poetry in important ways.

She moves then to talk about the act of translating and what it involves, how it actually feels. I love her description of translation as erotic:

…the translator enters into an erotic engagement with the chosen text, reading the poem again and again for its meaning, its resonance, its kinetic and musical bodies, its ambiguities, rhetoric, grammar, images, and tropes—for all the rustling of its many leaves and for the silences at its roots as well. The translator reads in the desire to join with what she reads, placing the life of the poem thoroughly within her own, discovering how each entering word modifies that life.

Her point, and I’d agree with it, is that both the text and the translator are altered by the experience. The two are no longer separate when all is said and done and a translation appears, wholly unique but still connected, deeply although somehow inexplicably, with the original text.

The rest of the chapter gets quite technical—in the best way—with Hirshfield writing about her experience translating the famous Japanese poets Izumi Shikibu and Ono no Komachi. She gives examples and details her process. It’s fascinating, and quite inspiring.

I’ve been terrified to attempt any translation involving actual poetry, probably because I don’t trust my own poetic instincts, and I’m afraid of the constraints involved. But Hirshfield makes me want to try, she presents the translation of poetry as more of a liberating experience than one marked by rules and limitations. That seems much less scary.

She ends the chapter by citing a short poem by the Japanese monk Kūkai, who is credited with developing the kana system, which is used in combination with Chinese characters, to write Japanese. Knowing that about him, and seeing the poem, and thinking about the sacred nature of words, and how any language is “translated” from thought to expression when articulated, I could get lost inside this poem for years:

Singing Image of Fire

A hand moves, and the fire’s whirling takes different shapes,

Triangles, squares: all things change when we do.

The first word, “Ah,” blossomed into all others.

Each of them is true.