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Possessing one’s reflection

A celebration of ambiguity: that could be a definition, amongst many others, of what poetry is. Poetic ambiguity may stem from a desire to exploit the plurality of meanings of individual words or phrases, or from a desire to stage the encounter – or the collision – of different idioms, language levels and registers within one poetic frame, but it always derives from a desire to divert language away from its ordinary uses and usefulness. Whereas clarity of expression may be helpful or even necessary in the social, economic and political spheres, or in the sphere of science and philosophy, within poetry it is often fatal. A poem is a setting for language to flaunt its many-sided, many-splendorded and sometimes treacherous nature. Translating poetry is a commitment to keeping those illusions alive.

In Véronique Pittolo’s sequence of fourteen prose poems called ‘La jeune fille et les utopies’ – which she will read at the Poetry International Festival 2014 – one finds intriguing examples of poetic ambiguity. In the third poem, after exposing the reasons why pretty young girls, even though they are moving on ‘unstable ground’, have an easier time setting themselves free – they are ‘favoured’ because of their ‘independence’ –, Pittolo turns to ‘the charmless masses’, the ‘little sisters at their mirrors’ (I am citing the English translation of my colleague Susan Wicks). Let’s read what Pittolo/Wicks writes about them, the last words of the poem:

It is staggering. In front of her reflected self the little ugly one makes faces. If she wants to be the youngest and fairest of them all, she has to possess her reflection.

Translators in English can make good use, when translating from the French, of the influx in their language of words of a Latin origin. ‘She has to possess her reflection’ is a fairly straightforward rendering of the French Il faut posséder son reflet. Translating that phrase in Dutch is trickier: ‘Je moet je weerschijn bezitten’ suggests that the ‘little ugly one’ should ‘own her reflection’, ‘hold’ it ‘as property’. But that is only one of the possible meanings of posséder, which can also have a more active sense, close to ‘dominate’ or ‘manipulate’, a sense present in the English ‘possess’ but absent from the Dutch ‘bezitten’. Posséder probes even further in the field of semantic ambiguity: it has in French the very specific meaning of ‘misleading, deceiving, duping, cheating, fooling’. In Il faut posséder son reflet, all those meanings intertwine: for a young girl, her appearance is an asset, an instrument, a physical capital that may be used and abused in order to fool others, but also a duplication of oneself that may be or even must be manipulated in order to fool oneself – ‘if she wants to be the youngest and fairest of them all’.

It took many versions, and many e-mails between colleague Kim Andringa and me (let us pay homage to our proof-readers!), before the Dutch translation approached the same density of meaning.

Het is verbijsterend. Voor haar weerschijn grimast het lelijke wicht. Om dat ene mooie meisje te zijn tussen alle andere, moet je bedrog plegen met je spiegelbeeld.

‘Practising deceit with your reflection’, which is the retro-translation of the Dutch, may seem only remotely connected to the original French. And indeed, it emphasizes the nuance of deception above nuances of ownership and manipulation. But one may assume a deceiver to exert some kind of domination upon that which is deceived. More to the point, this peculiar translation is justified by its inherent ambiguity, more precisely by the friction between the idea of (viciously untrue) deception and that of (true and unaltered) reflection. The little ugly one in front of her mirror, who is she really deceiving? Is her image, which she maliciously used to deceive others, truly her own, or is she deceiving herself – by primping her own supposed ugliness?

There’s a fair chance this question will prop up again during the Festival. On Friday the 13th of june, some poems, this one too, will be at stake during a ‘translation slam’ with Martin de Haan. I can’t wait to see how he possesses his reflection.

Deze blogpost is ook verschenen op het blog van Poetry International, Festival 2014

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