Interviste/Poesia e traduzione

Translating French and Italian Poetry: An Interview with John Taylor

a cura di Teresa Caligiure


John Taylor is a writer, translator, and literary critic. In 2013 he won a prestigious grant from the Academy of American Poets for his project to translate a selection of Lorenzo Calogero’s poetry. These precious translations have now been gathered in the volume Lorenzo Calogero, An Orchid Shining in the Hand: Selected Poems 1932-1960 (Chelsea Editoins, 2015). Taylor has long regularly written for the Times Literary Supplement, in London, and also writes the “Poetry Today” column in the Antioch Review. As a critic, he is specialized in contemporary French literature as well as modern and contemporary European poetry. As a poet and writer, his books been translated into French and Italian. By means of this dialogue, we reflect with John Taylor on the interpretations, the difficulties, the responsibilities, and the possible solutions that translation involves.


T.C.: The translation of a text presupposes the knowledge of the author, his poetics, the places and the contexts in which he wrote. What are your thoughts in this respect?

John Taylor: For some poets, such knowledge can be very helpful, indeed essential. For example, I had already translated many poems by Lorenzo Calogero before being able to make a trip to Calabria. Seeing the landscapes that Calogero saw every day, while he was living in the village of Melicuccà, influenced my ways of thinking about how I was using English words such as “hill” and “mountain,” “slope” and “plain,” and so on, even if the poet usually avoids place names and descriptions of specific localities. For poetry that is based on experience and realistic observation (however transformed or “purified” symbolically), the translator must make sure that he is not applying his own mental imagery to the poet’s. The Alps that I know well in France are not the same kind of mountains that one spots in the distance from the village of Melicuccà. When I was translating the poetic prose of Pierre-Albert Jourdan, the poet’s son, Gilles, sent me several photographs so that I would better understand what his father meant by a “simple” French word such as “terres” in the landscape surrounding the village of Caromb in the south of France. He also explained the very particular local, rural, meaning of “fumées” in the title of Jourdan’s book, La langue des fumées.

T.C.: How is it possible to reproduce the original rhythm of a poetic text in another language?

John Taylor: I think about the problem, I sense how imitations might be possible, I experiment, but in the final Jaccottet-covreckoning, I almost always give priority to semantics when there is a sort of “conflict” between rhythm (or rhyme) and meaning, that is, when one of these two basic poetic elements must give way to the other. Nearly always, I prefer not to sacrifice meaning. When meanings are multiple, I try to recover as many of them as possible. I try to think, to translate, as deeply as possible into what the poet means. Yet the problem is delicate, for rhythm—music—participates in the construction of meaning, especially in some kinds of poetry. All told, the poetry of most of the poets whom I have translated—Philippe Jaccottet, Pierre-Albert Jourdan, Jacques Dupin, Pierre Chappuis, José-Flore Tappy, and others—mostly, but not entirely, favors music less, as it were, than semantic richness. And I must include Lorenzo Calogero in this group. A poet like Philippe Jaccottet has even expressed his skepticism about “poetic beauty,” declaring that it can be an obstacle to the quest for poetic “truth.” This skepticism explains in great part, I think, his shift­—with relatively few counterexamples—from verse to prose in his writing since the 1990s.

T.C.: In your opinion, does there exist an objective criterion enabling the translator to preserve the original and interfere as little as possible with the original?

John Taylor: I don’t think that any objective criteria, or general rules, are possible, and even less so any “translation theory,” even if my goal, my guideline—which is a sort of “rule,” after all—is always to interfere as little as possible with the original text; and even, as I have just pointed out, I remain oriented towards the rendering of meaning, as a priority, where choices must be made. The French writer Julien Gracq states in one of his essays that there are no rules in literature, only models. In translation, the situation is similar. Every oeuvre, every text, establishes a sort of “model,” a sort of “logic,” and the translator must perceive it. Let me correct myself immediately by adding a nuance. By “logic,” which actually suggests a kind of rigidity that is rarely the case in literature—a literary text is not a mathematical proof—, I more specifically mean a “direction,” or perhaps one could more accurately say a loose “organization” or “network” of priorities. This network involves, indeed gives respective “weights” to, semantics, syntax, prosody, fixed form, and so on—and thus creates a “poetics” that the translator must respect and try to render. Ultimately, for me, translation is a craft, an artisanal activity. The decisions that the translator makes are “stylistic” in the most practical sense of the term. A comma here, or there, or not at all. There might well be a lot of thought behind that comma (or suppressed comma), even as there can be a lot of thought behind a recipe for baking bread, but it cannot be emphasized often enough that the translator’s hands are in the dough, constantly, amid all the ingredients of language.

T.C.: Does being a writer help you when you translate?

boireJohn Taylor: I hope so, at least in the sense that I work consciously and creatively with the English language every day, for my own writing. And as a writer who has been translated into French and Italian, I also participate in the translations of my own work. But I don’t believe in, nor ever attempt, so-called “creative interpretations” of the original. The “style” that I attempt to recover in foreign poets is theirs, not mine. Ideally, I want them to speak as if they had chosen to write in English, that is, speak in English, but not necessarily without a slight foreign accent, for a slight “foreignness” is sometimes also welcome and, paradoxically, can help the open-minded reader to penetrate more deeply into the sense of the foreign text.

T.C.: You have translated living poets such as Jaccottet, Calaferte, Chappuis, Tappy. Did you work directly with them? Is this important to your work as a translator?

John Taylor: Louis Calaferte died in 1994, long before I began translating his unclassifiable book of prose, poetic prose, poetry, diary entries, and quotations, Le Sang violet de l’améthyste. But I met him twice before he died; we corresponded and talked on the telephone; he indeed greatly encouraged me in my own writing. So I deeply sensed his presence when I was working on that project in 2011-2013, and all the more so in that his widow, Guillemette Calaferte, was of inestimable help while I was seeking to comprehend some of the more obscure “alchemical” passages of the book or to track down some of the allusions. No one knows her husband’s writing better than she does. She even provided me with a copy of the original manuscript, which is housed in the Lyons Municipal Library, and at that point we noticed that the 1998 Gallimard edition of the original included two or three errors, one of them substantial, which I corrected in my bilingual edition at Chelsea Editions. Similarly, with living poets, I actively seek out a dialogue, show them my versions, ask them specific questions about tricky words and lines, explain my options (where some of the polysemy in a given word or line cannot be rendered), and listen very carefully to their responses. Layout 1I make the final decisions, but whenever possible, this kind of dialogue can only enhance the process of translation. Let me give two examples. Before he fell ill and was no longer able to communicate with me, I was able to discuss with Jacques Dupin the impossibilities of rendering his punning, polysemic use of the word “éclat”; and the same kinds of problems arose with other key words, like “feuille,” which almost always simultaneously means “leaf” (of a tree) and “manuscript page” or “piece of paper” in the very same passage. My second example is that of Pierre Chappuis. My e-mail conversations with him greatly helped me to render into English the syntactic intricacy of some of his poetic prose. In my initial drafts of some of his texts, I tended to smooth out the syntactic arabesques—by which he seeks to imitate the swirling, lingering, then rushing forward movements of water in streams—of the original. I had grasped the meaning of such texts, but I had not yet found an entirely satisfactory solution for some of the poet’s bolder stylistic effects. Discussing this issue with Chappuis, who was a marvelously close reader of my versions, enabled me to preserve the meanings during the revision process, while pushing the English language, syntactically, in a direction that better suggested that swirling water. What I am saying here goes back to my earlier remark about the network of priorities or “weights” in a literary text. In Chappuis’s poetic prose, syntax vies with semantics and maintains somewhat more “weight” than one might initially expect with respect to meaning per se. This is in fact why his prose is “poetic.” Once again, as I have already emphasized, translation, for me, ideally means enabling the Other to remain the Other (but in English), not to transform the Other into me.

T.C.: Your recent translation of Lorenzo Calogero’s poetry has been widely acknowledged by critics. What is the responsibility of a translator in regard to a complex author whose work has not yet been wholly explored by scholarship?

John Taylor: The task of removing such an unusual and fascinating oeuvre from the shadows and bringing it into the light implies the great responsibility of not appropriating the work for one’s own purposes, and of translating the poetry as exactly as possible. Even more exactly, one could say. Not just as a translator, but also as a literary critic I have long explored the margins of European literature, seeking to discover treasures forgotten there. Another Italian poet whom I have translated, Alfredo de Palchi, is a prime example. He has lived in the United States since the mid-1950s and has not yet been fully acknowledged in his homeland. When I translate such authors, I also write extensive critical introductions, hoping to stimulate scholars to discover the neglected oeuvre and even more deeply examine it.

T.C.: As far as publishing is concerned, are you involved in the choices of books to translate?     fliesmonkeylg

John Taylor: For nearly all my translations, I am the person who conceived the project and made the selection, later submitting the translation manuscript to a publisher in the hopes that the project would be accepted. My translation of three books by Jacques Dupin, which resulted in the volume Of Flies and Monkeys at the Bitter Oleander Press, is an exception in that my publisher, the poet Paul B. Roth, had a keen interest in Dupin’s poetry and asked me if I could take on the project. I’ve ended up translating poets—Calogero is a salient example—whom other translators and publishers have overlooked. Even Philippe Jaccottet, whose first books of poetry were rather extensively translated into English, began to be neglected when he turned to poetic prose in the 1990s. I took over the job from my predecessors at that point. I still wonder why no English-language press had ever published a novel by the great Swiss novelist Catherine Colomb, until Seagull Books accepted my translation of her novel The Spirits of the Earth. The book will appear next month.

T.C.: Is there an author who has been particularly difficult for you to translate?

John Taylor: 
Lorenzo Calogero, of course! Because of the semantic ambiguity, indeed indeterminate nature, of certain lines in his poems. For several poems, I ended up asking two or three or four different Italian poet-friends shedscoverlgwhat they thought about my interpretations. In some cases, I would receive two or three or four different opinions! Generally speaking, I’ve translated “difficult poets.” Even José-Flore Tappy’s intense poetry, which can seem “simple” on the stylistic surface, is difficult to render. For several of her poems, some of the meaning, and thus the emotional impact on the reader, depend on subtle phonetic play. If the translator overlooks her haunting “music,” his versions will remain flat. I attempted to give an equivalent of her assonance in French by employing some assonance but also and especially some alliteration in English, which is a natural way to increase the presence, the “weight”—to recall my earlier term—of music in an English poem. While working on that project, Tappy encouraged me to listen to, as much as think about, her poems, inviting me to modify the meaning, if necessary, but to persevere the sound-play. I think that I was able to preserve the meaning, but I sometimes, while revising, added more phonetic interconnections to a given poem. Among the books that I have translated, I wish I could remember a relatively easy translation, but I cannot!


Recent translations:

—Pierre-Albert Jourdan, The Straw Sandals: Selected Prose and Poetry, New York: Chelsea Editions, 2011 (

—Philippe Jaccottet, And, Nonetheless: Selected Prose and Poetry 1990-2009, New York: Chelsea Editions, 2011 (

—Jacques Dupin, Of Flies and Monkeys, Fayetteville, New York: Bitter Oleander Press, 2011 (

—Alfredo de Palchi, Paradigm: New and Selected Poems 1947-2009, Chelsea Editions, 2013 (

—Louis Calaferte, The Violet Blood of the Amethyst, New York: Chelsea Editions, 2013 (

—José-Flore Tappy, Sheds: Collected Poems 1983-2013, Fayetteville, New York: Bitter Oleander Press, 2015 (

—Philippe Jaccottet, The Pilgrim’s Bowl (Giorgio Morandi), Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2015 (

—Georges Perros, Paper Collage, Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2015 (

—Lorenzo Calogero, An Orchid Shining in the Hand: Selected Poems 1932-1960, Chelsea Editions, 2015 (

—Pierre Chappuis, Like Bits of Wind: Selected Poetry and Prose 1974-2014, Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2016 (

—Catherine Colomb, The Spirits of the Earth, Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2016 (


unnamedNato nel 1952 a Des Moines (Stati Uniti), John Taylor vive in Francia del 1977. È autore di sette opere di racconti, di prose brevi e di poesie. La sua raccolta di poesie The Apocalypse Tapestriesè stata pubblicata in italiano con il titolo Gli Arazzi dell’Apocalisse (Hebenon) et la sua raccolta di prose brevi, If Night is Falling, con il titolo Se cade la notte (Joker). È editor e co-traduttore d’una ampia raccolta dei testi di Alfredo de Palchi,Paradigm: New and Selected Poems (Chelsea Editions, 2013). Ha ottenuto nel 2013 una borsa notevole dell’Academy of American Poets per il suo progetto di tradurre la poesie di Lorenzo Calogero — libro che è stato pubblicato: An Orchid Shining in the Hand: Selected Poems 1932-1960 (Chelsea Editions).


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