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Intact at Last!—William Carlos Williams’s Translation of Nicolas Calas’s “To Voyage beyond the Past”

By Jonathan Cohen

There must be a new formalism, invention.
—William Carlos Williams to Nicolas Calas (1940)


Translation for William Carlos Williams was an especially rewarding way to experiment with poetics. He translated foreign poets he felt should be read in the United States and whose work offered him an opportunity to advance his own poetry. Despite his commitment to the prosody of the American language and his general disdain for imported European aesthetics, Williams translated a good deal of modern French and Spanish poetry during the course of his career. He was, in fact, as cosmopolitan as he was true-blue American. The French avant-garde literary scene appealed to him ever since the 1920s and his visits to Paris. There he met writers like Valery Larbaud and Philippe Soupault, whose novel Les dernières nuits de Paris (1928; Last Nights of Paris) he translated with his mother and published in 1929. He knew French well enough to read it with help from a dictionary. For most of his translations, Williams relied on varying degrees of help from someone fluent in the source language. As for surrealism, his interest in surrealist art and verse was pre-dated by his attraction to the work of French Dadaist painters appearing in New York around the years of the First World War. Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia, to name a couple, were part of his circle of friends then.

Williams was attracted to the poetics of renewal he found in surrealism: “In surrealism the distortion of the emotion, the object, the condition, makes the words (the true material of writing) real again” (The Embodiment of Knowledge). The close observation of the dream state resulting in formless poetic forays into the unconscious, though, did not interest him. His poem “The Descent of Winter,” written after his 1927 trip to Paris, was an experiment with automatic writing that opened him temporarily to this surrealist technique. Earlier, he had experimented with Dadaism in the prose-poem improvisations of his Kora in Hell. It was Greek-born French-writing surrealist Nicolas Calas (1907–1988)—author of “Voyager en dehors du passé”—who engaged Williams more than any other advocate and practitioner of surrealism, despite his reservations about its poetics and the distance he had kept from it.

Calas’s writing first came to Williams’s attention in 1939, initially through their correspondence related to Calas’s book of art criticism, Foyers d’incendie (Paris, 1938; “Hearths of Arson”), in which Calas argues brilliantly for surrealism and its intellectual content. Calas, who in the mid-1930s split his time between Athens and Paris, had become a member of the surrealist group attached to André Breton. Fleeing war-torn Europe, he arrived in New York as one of the first émigré surrealists in 1940. (He ended up living there until his death forty-eight years later, working mainly as an art critic for several leading art journals, including the surrealist magazine View, Arts Magazine, and Artforum.) Once in New York, Calas set about to spearhead an American surrealist movement. He published his “Surrealist Pocket Dictionary” in the 1940 edition of New Directions in Prose and Poetry, James Laughlin’s annual anthology. The previous year, Calas had sent Williams a copy of Foyers d’incendie. Williams liked the book so much that in response to a Books Abroad poll for “the most distinguished book or group of books from one writer that has appeared anywhere in the world . . . since November 1918,” Williams cast his vote for Calas.

(Image at left: Manuscript page of first draft of Williams’s translation of Calas’s “To Voyage beyond the Past.” Beinecke Library, Yale.)

Williams’s admiration for Calas’s criticism extended to his poetry written in French. Calas had already published five collections of poetry, and in the fall of 1940 he sent Williams a group of his poems in typescript, all composed between 1937 and 1940. Williams was enticed by them. In November, he told Calas, “I’d like to translate one of the poems and then look at it more carefully in English—that is to say American!—when I may be able to formulate what I perceive more ably” (letter, Lilly Library, Indiana University Bloomington). One translation led to another. By December, Williams was planning to submit a group to a new little magazine called Tandem, which seems to have never gotten off the ground. “Wrested from Mirrors,” originally intended for that magazine, eventually came out the next year in a limited edition folio printed by the Nierendorf Gallery in New York; this folio included a stunning surrealist etching by Kurt Seligmann to accompany the poem. Two other translations by Williams, “The Agony among the Crowd” and “Narcissus in the Desert,” were published in Klaus Mann’s Decision in February 1941. (Decision was one of the most important, if short-lived, literary journals of the 1940s, attracting émigré authors as well as well-known British and American writers.) Williams’s translation of “To Voyage beyond the Past” formed part of his effort to translate a group of poems, and was planned to accompany the two in Decision. He also translated a couple of other poems that he himself did not publish, “The Storm at Dawn” and “The Blue of the Dream” (these were published for the first time by Christopher MacGowan in 1996 in the William Carlos Williams Review).

While translating Calas’s poetry, Williams told him: “It is a fascinating problem to try to put [the] exact meaning into an equivalent English. I enjoy such work” (letter, Lilly). The second letter Williams sent Calas later the same day is even more revealing of Williams’s attitude toward poetry translation: “All this fits well into my scheme. I don’t care how I say what I must say. If I do original work all well and good. But if I can say it (the matter of form I mean) by translating the work of others that also is valuable. What difference does it make?” (letter, Lilly). Williams’s Calas translations, while fairly literal, are distinguished by his creative liberties to ensure the accuracy and poetic quality of the poems, together with his “American idiom” and its distinctive measure of speech. One striking liberty in his translation of “To Voyage beyond the Past” is his use of the archaic thou, thy, and thine to convey the idea implied by Calas’s use of the French familiar second-person pronoun forms in addressing his “shadow” self: “I am haunted by the idea of mirrors and shadows,” he told Williams (letter, Beinecke Library, Yale).

Translation for Williams was, above all, an act of poetry. His engagement with Calas’s poetry—as with his engagement earlier in 1940 as translator of another French surrealist poet, Yvan Goll (his autobiographical sequence, Jean sans terre)—took place when he was searching for a workable form to advance his own verse, in particular Paterson. Williams’s translation of “To Voyage beyond the Past” has not been published until now; that is, not in its entirety. The first nine lines appeared in a 1962 article by John Thirlwall in the Massachusetts Review, and subsequently in the 1988 volume of Christopher MacGowan’s edition of The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams (1939–1962), under the title “To Regain the Day Again.” There and in the Massachusetts Review, these lines are presented as the entire poem. The opening line which MacGowan used for the title is flawed by Thirlwall’s insertion of “the” which does not appear in Williams’s typescript. MacGowan later presented the remaining lines of the typed translation in the William Carlos Williams Review (1992) after he found it in Thirlwall’s papers at Yale, but without the first nine lines. He failed, though, to include the translation of line 20 (“When fate lays down its most ill-omened cards”); its omission by Williams in the typescript was an obvious error.

Here, after three quarters of a century since its composition, is Williams’s translation intact, along with the original French. It is a totally modern poem, very different in its vision from the limited known fragment. It has a fierceness that resonates today. His own famous voice can be heard in it as much as the voice of another “I” uttered by the poet from Athens, by way of Paris. Reading the first draft of Williams’s translation against the final version, which follows it here, shows the transformations he made him in crafting the poem, as he arrived at a clearer understanding of it and re-created it in English—“that is to say American!”

To Voyage beyond the Past*
By Nicolas Calas, translated by William Carlos Williams

To regain day again
Give it the image and the surprised dream
Love unfolds itself
Let us return forward toward the burst of new faces
And the words which carry efficacious gestures far beyond all commandment

Let us fix with a new precision the dramatic movement
Of boats without prow or sail
Vanquished or victor to bind it fast within flaming love

I have need of thy tears and to be unjust!

Day is no more than an accident wherein thine eyes appear
Monstrous hour without acts great with overthrown remembrances
Like this me of myself that another has seen
They have given it to me
Stranger to my shadow it remains chained to my steps
Like the pearly moon to the sea
And the veil to mourning
When the waiting shall be past
The light will raise itself to your eyes
Such as I am thou shalt see me no more not even in words
When fate lays down its most ill-omened cards

The rest is cruel!

Conquered or victor by love put to death
Ripped apart
By water, blood the thousand bursts of broken voices
That painful violence which has seized upon our hands
Shall sprinkle the hair of serpents
And of all ink of words cast toward the rear.

(Athens 1937–Lisbon 1940)

Voyager en dehors du passé
By Nicolas Calas

Reprendre le jour
Lui donner l’image et le rêve surpris
L’amour se dédouble
Retournons en avant vers l’éclat des visages neufs
Et les paroles qui portent les gestes efficaces loin de tout commandement

Fixons avec une précision nouvelle le dramatique mouvement
Des bateaux sans proue ni voile
Vaincu ou vainqueur le fixer dans l’amour enflammé

J’ai besoin de tes larmes et d’être injuste!

Le jour n’est plus qu’un hasard où tes yeux apparaissent
Heure monstrueuse sans actes grosse de souvenances bouleversées
Comme ce moi de moi-même qu’un autre a vu
On me l’a donné
Étranger à mon ombre il reste enchaîné à mes pas
Comme la lune nacrée à la marée
Et le voile au deuil
Lorsque l’attente sera dépassée
La lumière s’élèvera jusqu’à tes yeux
Tel que je suis tu ne me verras plus ni même en paroles
Quand le sort abat ses plus néfastes cartes

Le reste est atroce!
Vaincu ou vainqueur par un amour mis à mort
Par l’eau le sang les mille éclats de voix brisées
Cette pénible violence qui s’empara de nos mains
Arrosera les cheveux de serpents
Et de tout l’encre des mots lancés en arrière

(Athènes 1937–Lisbonne 1940)

Wager beyond the Past*
(Williams’s first draft translation of Nicolas Calas’s poem)

Recover the day
Give it the image and the surprised dream
Love unfolds itself
Let us return ahead forward toward the burst of new faces
And the words which carry the efficacious gestures far from all orders commands

Let us fix with a new precision the dramatic movement
Of boats without prow or sail
Vanquished or victor to enclose it in flaming love

I have need of your tears and to be unjust!

Day is no more than an accident where your eyes appear
Monstrous hour without crude acts great with overturnedthrown remembrances
Like this me of my self that another has seen
They have given it to me
Stranger to my shadow it remains chained to my steps
Like the pearly moon to the sea
And the veil to mourning
When the waiting shall be past
The light shall lift up to your eyes
Such as I am you shall see me no more not even in words
That fate (lot) When fate lays down its most ill omened cards

The rest is cruel (grievous)

Conquered or victor by a love put to death
Torn up Lacerated Ripped/Torn apart
By water, blood, the thousand bursts of broken voices
That painful violence which seizes upon (takes possession of) our hands
Will water the locks full of serpents
And of all ink of words cast backward

 * Translation Copyright 2017 The Estates of Paul H. Williams and William Eric Williams.

Published Apr 21, 2017   Copyright 2017 Jonathan Cohen

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