There is a certain thrill unlocking the message from a poem written in another language other than one’s own.

The Rag Tree

I cut my translator’s teeth in High School reading French novels with fairly sophisticated vocabulary (actually, the one I recall was science fiction). Leaving Paris after graduation, I had little time to continue my education in French literature–learning America was challenge enough. But recently I bought a book of 19th Century French verse with the original French texts in the back. So in the last couple of weeks Stephane Mallarme’s work has caught my attention.

Mallarme’s work is about as different from Gilgamesh as you can get. Whereas Gilgamesh tends to be precise and economical, wedded to the concrete, Mallarme was a poet of the emotions dedicated to the concept of pure poetry. His work is deliberately ambiguous and so challenges the translator to read more closely and consider unusual approaches to bringing a poem over into his own language. In particular, Mallarme’s minimal grammar and complex, multilayered images are both…

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