Hitting the Streets
Courir les Rues

Raymond Queneau
Rachel Galvin, Translator

(Carcanet)
Queneau wrote punishing punningly bad poetry, back a half-century ago, in France. We had one here too, although I think, he was a little fey. His name was Ogden Nash. He was a poet, but one who wrote, back then, caricatures of poetry, which were published in high-class magazines like The New Yorker, The Atlantic or The Saturday Review of Literature. Typical Nash doggerel:

The Cow
The cow is of bovine ilk;
One end is moo, the other is milk.

Or,

The Ant
The ant has made himself illustrious
Through constant industry industrious.
So what?
Would you be calm and placid,
If you were full of formic acid?

Or,

The Canary
The song of canaries
Never varies,
And when they're moulting
They're pretty revolting.


The young Raymond Queneau didn't write as badly as Nash. Didn't look like him either. He looked more like Harold Lloyd, who looked like T. S. Eliot. Queneau wasn't as prim as Eliot thank god so he was certainly one of the stars of the Doggerel School of poetry but with the added elan of being pure Parisian. And a bit more rowdy than than the other two. Viz,

Eros Advertising
This Mother's Day
give her
erotique stockings

people are indignant

but if mothers were no longer sexy
there'd be nothing but only children
alone with their Oedipus Complex

§   §   §

Eros publicité
Fête des mères
offrez
bas exciting

des gens indignés

pourtant si les mères ne devaient plus exciter
il n'y aurait que des enfants uniques
tout seuls avec leur Œdipe

The star in this production is not only Queneau who is obviously a rhyming trickster, but also his translator. In her charming notes to this edition, Galvin says there are times when she hopes he will forgive her for the "linguistic transgressions I have committed in his name."

Example,

The Translatory Tower
The Eiffel Tower is losing its hair
this is a spinster's filamentary issue
Christ is also the filial issue of a spinster
go translate that into French for me!

§   §   §

La tour translatoire
La Tour Eiffel perd ses cheveux
ce sont les fils de la Vierge
le Christ aussi est fils de la Vierge
allez me traduire ça en anglais!

in which she comments, "This is a gnarly, truculent poem to translate. How to convey the pun on les fils de la Vierge and fils de la vierge, in which the "l" is pronounced in one instance and not the other, changing the meaning from cobwebs to the son of the Virgin Mary? "The supple polysemy of spinster did the trick," she continues.

    I considered working with offspring and sprung off, and fibre was very tempting, but ultimately, issue was less clumsy and most suggestive, and the oblique rhyme of filimentary and filial maintained the image of the Eiffel Tower shedding its hair in the form of spider webs.

Whew. Galvin leaves us with the same appreciation of the art of translator as did the wicked Javier Marías in A Heart So White. Juan is translating in an official meeting --- in this case, Margaret Thatcher meeting with King Carlos of Spain. Since Juan doesn't like the turn the conversation is taking, he does some covert modification of a few words to lead to a more benign outcome to it all.

    He said:

    "But naturally if we do something well nobody organizes a demonstration to show us how pleased they are."

    I decided on the contrary to lead him into more personal territory, which seemed to me less dangerous and also more interesting, and I made him say in crystal-clear English:

    "If you don't mind my asking and you don't think I'm being too personal, have you, in your own experience of love, ever obliged anyone to love you?"

In our review, we did some translating ourselves, "Delicious. A translator, interjecting his own words, asking that tough Margaret Thatcher about love." Margaret Thatcher. Love!

Galvin came to love translating at the time of her first encounter with Queneau in Zazie dans le métro, "which I read at the age of eighteen . . . I was hooked from the astonishing first word, Doukipududonktan? ('Howcanaystinksotho,' in Barbara Wright's rendition,)" For the rest of us who speak French from John Gorrie Junior High, not from the 15th Arrondissement, "D'où qu'ils puent donc tant?" must mean "How come they stink so much?"

Galvin then tells us,

    If one can experience devotion to wordplay, then that is certainly what guided me while I spent time in a punnery translating this book . . . Above all, I have tried to recreate Queneau's cavorting tone, which, as Wright wrote, is his translator's most vital task.

And so it is, and so she does, in spades. For this reader, French still hangs over there somewhere near the fifth grade level . . . but with Hitting the Streets one begins to figure out why Queneau was so beloved of the French, and of those who are fond of everything Gallic, especially if it involves circular, untranslatable, snake-bewitching puns.

§   §   §

Poor People
On the bathroom wall
in the Palais-Royal metro station
you can read this statement
to me it seems monumental

utilisation of this stall
is strictly reserved for the
financially underprivileged
and for the infamous poor

Eight feet seven feet
Eight feet seven feet
it's a quatrain
very Verlaine

Les pauvres gens
Dans les toilettes du métro
à la station Palais-Royal
on peut lire ces quelques mots
ça me patait monumental

l'usage de cette cabine
est strictement réservé
aux économiquement faibles
et aux indigents notoires

Huit pieds sept pieds
Huit pieds sept pieds
c'est un quatrain
très verlainien

--- Carlos Amantea
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