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The Translator Relay: Chet Wiener

By Jessie Chaffee

WWB’s Translator Relay features an interview with a different translator each month. This month’s translator will choose the next interviewee, adding a different, sixth question.

For February’s installment, Samuel Rochery passed the baton to Chet Wiener.


What is your connection to the language(s) you translate from and/or the place(s) where the books you translate are written?

My connection is varied. I live in a particular continuum with the language I translate from, French, in that I like to believe it is the language I prefer writing in, in that it is the language I do a larger percentage of my reading in, in that the translating of different kinds of sources comes to pull me into relation with the language in different ways, in that I traverse San Francisco daily from my home on the Pacific to an office facing San Francisco Bay to work in a field whose satisfactions have nothing to do with French or poetry or French poetry or criticism, the kinds of writing I write or translate, and little to do with the books I may be thinking about or the translation challenges I may be engaged in. So as the translation takes place, one kind of daily life in one place gets to meet another kind of daily life in another place. My nights are sort of filled with the language I translate from, in that I usually have France Culture radio playing live ten hours ahead of me as I fall asleep and sleep and wake.


Can you give us an example of an “untranslatable” word or phrase, and tell us how you brought it into English/French?

Others have answered this question somewhat similarly. Everything is untranslatable. Anything is translatable. While the goal here is to define my current relationship to the language or books (or other things) I translate, I can’t help pointing to a phrase of Montaigne’s—“nous n’avons aucune communication à l’être” (something like “we have no communication with being”)—as, in a sense, it served as part of my background to the language, since much of my time in France was originally structured around research on topics more or less related to this phrase, and this phrase can be understood to encapsulate paradoxes of translation, expression, being. For instance, on the one hand, one can ponder the possible meanings of the statement itself and its context in the particular essay where it appears; on the other hand, one can focus on how it is a restatement in French of something that had recently been translated into French by Jacques Amyot of Plutarch’s writing in Greek in a more or less “Latin” era about the mysteriousness of the inscription on the temple at Delphi. 

As translation might be understood as to translate writing or writing to translate ideas, thoughts, states, and mysteries, thinking about that phrase reminds me of the condition of being in language as we keep trying to express and keep succeeding in expressing and keep expressing evolving versions of thought, reality, representation . . .


Do you have any translating rituals? 

Words without Borders seems a fitting forum for describing my preferred “ritual” as something other than an “admission” on the order of the professor of Shakespeare who lost his job after having revealed that he had never read Hamlet. Even as it is my preference and my pleasure to proceed in the way I am about to describe, I have always had a hard time not feeling that I should feel guilty about it—yet another and otherwise dramatic form, perhaps, of the “malpractice” Samuel Rochery recalls from Steve Savage’s contribution. But nobody is perfect; think of Barthes’s admission of skipping whole sections of works he is writing about.

Would people disagree that translating is a task of discovery, going into another writing while writing it again? For me, the pleasure of this task is bound to the living and discovery and making of layers of relation between the source and the outcome. Therefore, when possible, I prefer not to have previously read what I am translating. (Rochery, last month: “Translating [or trying to translate] is mostly learning about what ‘reading’ means.”) I enjoy how the process of reading and writing and translating lets discovery touch on creation, or at least I let myself feel this way about what I am doing.

When the work I am translating suggests or explicitly references other works, I stop translating and bring them into my purview before continuing on. Depending on the context or genre of the translation—whether it is a book of poetry, for instance, or an essay—I will already be acquainted with the author’s work or subject matter or will enrich myself with these before starting on the writing of the translation. But most important is the fresh perspective of discovering the/a writing process, development, movement as I translate. Of course, along the way and after reaching the last word, many revisions and adjustments take place. Do I make this “more about me” than about the translation—favoring my sensation of translating, as I actively seek to bring together a sensation of the source and of translating and my sensation of writing?


Do you have a metaphor you use to explain the translation process and the role of the translator in bringing a piece from one language into another?

I guess my metaphor is “nous n’avons aucune communication à l’être,” as discussed in my response to the second question. My thought is that the process of considering this phrase, or of finding a way of translating it into some version of  “we have no communication with being” (and in Montaigne, it is already expressed differently with sixteenth-century spelling), releases a related series or tangle of ontological and representational questions along with and in addition to what may be gleaned from comparing the variations in meaning and context among Plutarch’s, Amyot’s, and Montaigne’s translations or versions of it. The phrase itself, I think, asks us to ponder who “we” are; if there is “no communication,” how can there be a “we”; if there is no communication with “being,” then what can there be communication with and of; and then, in considering the metaphysical and theological senses of “being” that Montaigne had in mind, can some kind of communication with any measure of these senses be approached when reading, writing, translating, pondering?


Tell us about a current, or future, translation project that you’re excited about.

I am currently translating Samuel Rochery’s Oxbow-P. The writing continually leans on and into and questions other writing and takes that writing further or elsewhere along with it. So I try to hit the veins of its strata of experience, discovery, questioning, and richly explicit rereading, as it also requires me, to my great satisfaction and enlargement, to take excursions into other works—musical, literary, anthropological—in order to try adequately to continue along with it.


(Samuel’s question for you:) Chet, you have published books of poetry in French and in English. I remember the great Devant l’abondance, published in France, and Walk Don’t Walk, published in the US. How do you choose to write a book in French or in English? Is there something like “self-translation” when you write in French, or in English? Does the choice of writing in English or French correspond to different ways of escaping from a tongue, for example? Or to different ways of thinking/making? 

Thank you! For me, in writing “directly” in one language or another, there is little conscious self-translation involved, in the sense, say, of writing a line or a word in English and then translating it into French or vice versa. For Devant l’abondance, it was all about rhythm, expressing a/my rhythm. For example, writing the book was easier than writing the letter to the late Paul Otchakovsky-Laurens accompanying the submission of the book for his consideration! In writing poetry, whether in French or in English, it issues from me, it expresses how and what I want to express. Whereas with that letter and its particular formal constraints, well, a friend wrote it for/with me. Is translating closer to that book or that letter?

More specifically, in Devant l’abondance I wanted to express a rhythm and flow which I might have connected with or sought to manifest in English. The poems in the book are the product of a simultaneity, which was not a simultaneous translation, of a) a personal American logometric rhythm which I could hear in my head and which I hope the writing reflects, with b) French everything else.

So, above all, rather than seeking an escape, in that case I explicitly hoped to bring something new into French, a new way of moving words and giving form. I firmly believe that a main goal of literary writing is to do something different, for each work of poetry to strive to discover and express a new form, to push literature and open literature along. So Devant l’abondance, as all writing and all translation probably variously do, plays toward a border of making it new and, like translation, does this by bringing the two languages together, bringing different ways of thinking and making together/along.


Born in New York in 1961, Chet Wiener is an American poet, writer, and translator who lives in San Francisco. His most recent publications are More Plays on Please (Assless Chaps, San Diego, 2016) and the translation of Patricia Falguieres’s “Institution, Invention, Possibility” in How Institutions Think: Between Contemporary Art and Curatorial Discourse (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2017). He is also the author of Devant L’abondance(P.O.L, Paris, 2003) and the subject of La vie de Chester Steven Wiener écrit par sa femme (P.O.L, Paris, 1998) and Une année à New York avec Chester (P.O.L, Paris, 2000).

Published Feb 23, 2018   Copyright 2018 Jessie Chaffee

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