Andy Fitch with Nathanaël on Édouard Glissant

After publishing my Sixty Morning Talks interview collection, I have begun work on a more focused, single-press interview series, offering a comprehensive oral history (a cinéma vérité, in prose) of Nightboat Books’ diverse and ambitious output over its first decade of publication. For this newer project, it particularly interests me to track interpersonal and intertextual constellations that have helped to shape the work done by Nightboat’s authors, publishers and designers. This interview focuses on Nathanaël’s translation of Poetic Intention, by Édouard Glissant.–Andy Fitch

Andy Fitch: Since Poetic Intention offers quite little introductory context, would you like to provide some by outlining the historical trajectory of this book’s international reception (perhaps alongside Poetics of Relation), or the personal impetus behind this particular translation project (which your brief concluding note perhaps suggests that Glissant himself entrusted to you), or this book’s place alongside pressing concerns prevalent across the Nightboat catalog? Or, if it still seems more appropriate not to provide such context, could you begin to address why such an approach fits best for this collection? I could, for instance, envision approaching Poetic Intention as, in Glissant’s terms, a milestone project, ultimately teaching me something about myself amid the particularities of my own present moment. I could approach it as a relay project, as an excursion towards Glissant’s embodied moment of writing (amid a mid-century Caribbean cyclone by this book’s close, let’s say), and encounter such historical/cultural otherness (from my own present vantage) as an experience unto itself. I could glimpse Glissant’s enduring appeal to an Antilles that do not yet speak, do not yet live, and speculate upon post-colonial possibilities past and present. But if I most wish to engage in some sort of mutually enhancing reciprocity with this text, can you help point me in that direction, and/or can no contextual pointing help me to get there?

AF: Given that this book largely consists of essays on other writers and artists (primarily, though not exclusively, French and/or Caribbean), could you place its modes of address, its method, alongside some key concepts often associated with Glissant’s work, such as: creolization, archipelagoization, one world, relation, opacity, other? In what ways does this particular collection exemplify broader concerns present across Glissant’s corpus? And again, Glissant’s approach here calls to mind personal points of reference for me (Nietzsche’s mode of critical history, Brecht’s recommendation to think in other people’s heads and have other people think in our head), but I’d love to hear what you consider most distinct to Glissant’s particular critical approach—one which Glissant, in response to the faux Sacré-Coeur encountered on Martinican mountain heights, describes as operating “diagonally” (applying “other seas…other shores, other darknesses”).

AF: Certainly the idiosyncratic-seeming form of this collection (at the level of the book: with its departure from and ultimate closure upon dog-inflected allegorical scenes; at the level of the essay: with invocational pivots, hybridized structures, polyphonic echoes, all culminating in coda-like essays-within-the-essays given their own separate titles; at the level of the incremental utterance: with paragraphs morphing into strophes, into verses, and with sentence punctuation sometimes disappearing or reshaping our sense of syntactical possibility) reinforces the fact that a strict instrumental reading of Poetic Intention for textual/cultural/historical analysis seems bound to contradict Glissant’s recognitions that writing always offers, at best, the shadow of what one should write. Could you describe some of the most intriguing shadows lurking within this text, perhaps only apparent to you as you sought to translate/transcribe/inscribe them into the English-language edition?

Nathanaël: Let me take a perhaps unorthodox approach to your questions here, and allow myself an entangled foray, which is to say to enter into this particular fray, not barking, nor even mute, but silent at its verge, collapsed into histories that demand a certain simultaneity, while falling backwards into its depths: “Avec elle je sors de l’indécis pour être porté jusqu’à l’extrême contraire de mon ordre.”[i]

If there is a way to Glissant, you are right: it isn’t in the ordering of his thought, despite even his own later efforts to enshrine some of his concepts for the sake of posterity. It is as a writer that I have read Glissant, from the beginning, and this distinction is worth underscoring. I have sat and listened to many a scholarly homage to Édouard Glissant that all but put the author to sleep! And with good reason. In the midst of a fistful of academics, all of whom had made claims through their work to the author’s intellectual domain, with great emphasis on the relation, the author remained all but unaddressed. Which is to say that the combinatory of a philosophical poetics has proven intractably elusive to the stalwart structures that seek to host it, leaving the author himself to disappear into slumber, even amidst some of his most committed readers. A crushing disappointment, I should think, to be thus recognized with such analytic remove.

It isn’t clear to me now whether I arrived at Glissant through Jeanne Hyvrard’s madness (Mère la mort, La meurtritude), or whether the inverse was true. And despite my aversion to anecdotalism, it may bear mentioning that this record extends back for me a good quarter-century, when I was steeped primarily in Guadeloupean literature, and studying Créole. I was also associated with a small francophone press that published the first edition of Fastes in 1991. Because I read primarily in French, I have very little reason to be aware of English translations, unless I am looking for something specific, which was the case when I discovered that the early portion of Glissant’s oeuvre had been elided in favour of later, seemingly more readily parsable efforts, such as Philosophie de la relation and the regrettably morcellated translation of Le discours antillais. And yet, Glissant’s later essays are, in a sense, careful exfoliations of the densely furled early work. One could argue that everything is contained in L’intention poétique, and therein is its necessity. How it coheres with Nightboat’s mandate is not for me to conjecture, but the press encouragingly received my proposal to translate, and it was with Édouard and Sylvie Glissant’s approval that work proceeded. I make no claims to having exhaustively read Glissant’s work, and my first personal encounter with Édouard was initiated by the translation of this book. The work demanded to be translated, not as a philosophical programme, nor to further an academic aim, but as a poetic work (you mention Nietzsche, whose work poses similar problems which are more or less ignored by a desire repeatedly to systematize his thinking as though it were separable from the writing), with every attention granted not only to Glissant’s exceedingly intricate, sometimes impenetrable French, but also to the substrata of Créole inflecting the French language. This is much harder to account for in the transposition to English; but it seemed obvious, even recognizing the impossibility of a right decision, that one couldn’t simply resort to substitution (i.e., Ebonics or Patois—it would be as misguided and falsified a decision as it was to translate Duras’ Un barrage contre le Pacifique in a Southern US dialect when the work is situated in French Indochina).

I can provide as an example the French word errance, which is deployed throughout L’intention poétique and is transposed into later works as well. My initial intention had been to follow the guides set by other translators, but this proved impracticable. Errance had been translated elsewhere as “errantry,” a term of chivalry, and this seemed at cross-purposes with Glissant’s text and its contexts. With Anne Malena, who was a very generous reader and advisor throughout the work on this translation, I resorted to retaining the French errance with its connotation of both waywardness and mistakenness, more fitting to a work that addressed an occidental problematic without either rejecting it outright nor accommodating it. In this sense, Glissant is very much a writer of the Americas, with affinities reaching into South America—including and especially, I would argue, Brazilian anthropophagism. In this vein, it is important, I think, to recognize the unity of L’intention poétique despite its initial dispersal. It is intended as a work and not a collection. Even the recourse to other poets and artists is a kind of diversion, in that it seeks not to exemplify, whether it be the language of René Char or the artwork of Matta, but to requisition these corpuses to the task of Glissant’s thinking. In the relay between Glissant’s voice and the quoted passages there is also a form of appropriation that takes place; this in itself made it necessary to recast almost all of the quoted (and not always identified) passages into an English that allows for the uses Glissant makes of this French: something altogether his own, with its specific geography, its archipelagic organism, its creolized medium: “De quel prix, face à l’Ailleurs, ne faut-il pas payer ce métissage des rives?”[ii]

Of course recognizing the difficulties one is beset with before a text does not result necessarily in addressing them effectively; translation is almost always approximation, and agreeing to various degrees of failure. As I wrote in an initial letter to Glissant, the translation of this work would arrive at a text which, despite the inevitable distances it would have to overcome, would be an echo of L’intention poétique.

If there is a lack of explicative apparatus to accompany this text, it is out of a desire to allow the work, even at this degree of displacement, to be met by its reader. To unlearn habits of language in order to receive the unfamiliar form of the Acoma, to recast oneself as overseas, and to learn the morne glossaries of the Antilles, out of unencountered dictionaries, and unwept tears. It is perhaps not irrelevant to remember here that Glissant had intended to subtitle this work Notes pour un paysage (Notes toward a landscape): “Ne te sers pas du réel pour justifier tes manques. Réalise plutôt tes rêves pour mériter ta réalité.”[iii]

[i] With it I emerge from the undecided to be ported unto the extreme opposite of my order. (Tr. N.)

[ii] In the face of Elsewhere, what price will the métissage of these shores not have to pay? (Tr. N.)

[iii] Do not make use of the real to justify your lack. Realize instead your dreams in order to earn your reality. (Tr. N.)-

Nathanaël is the author of more than a score of books written in English or in French, including The Middle Notebookes (2015), Asclepias: The Milkweeds (2015) and Sotto l’immagine (2014). She lives in Chicago.

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