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Nay/Noh

Cahier Series

The remarkable collaboration between the Center for Writers & Translators at the American University of Paris and Sylph Editions continues to put out thoughtful and beautifully-produced publications.  They have just released numbers 21 and 22 in their Cahiers Series, with texts by Anne Carson and Paul Griffiths.

In The Tilted Cup: Noh Stories (Cahier 22), Paul Griffiths translates eleven traditional Noh plays and turns them into eloquent, brief stories. In a brilliant bit of pairing, the stories alternate with color photographs by John L. Tran showing mostly empty shopping malls and other indoor public spaces. As the editors of the Cahiers Series put it, Tran’s photographs “explore the relation between theatricality and narrative, while offering hints of a very different vision of infinitude.”

Cahier 22

Anne Carson’s Nay Rather (Cahier 21) deals largely with the act of translation.  It opens with the essay “Variations on the Right to Remain Silent,” in which Carson discusses “where one language cannot be rendered into another,” moving through Homer, Joan of Arc, Friedrich Hölderlin, Paul Celan, and the painter Francis Bacon.

The essay is followed by seven translations of the same fragment by the 6th century BC poet Ibykos, which I found to be the highlight of this Cahier. Here is Carson:

What follows is an exercise, not exactly an exercise in translating, nor even an exercise in untranslating, more like a catastrophizing of translation. I shall take a small fragment of Greek lyric poetry and translate it over and over again using the wrong words. A sort of stammering.

What Carson does is to translate the fragment using different restricted vocabularies. In one example she uses only words found in Bertold Brecht’s FBI file, while in another she draws upon the names of stops and the words found on signs from the London Underground, while in a third she limits herself to the words found in the owner’s manual for her microwave oven. Purists may recoil at the very concept of translating with “the wrong words,” but I found the the results to be immensely intriguing.  Even though the fragments are strikingly different from one another (with the single exception of the line that reads “Nay rather,” which is found in every translation), each version uncannily manages to point back to the original, suggesting that a gifted poet/translator can create linguistic approximations of poems even with an extremely limiting vocabulary.

Finally, Cahier 21 includes a poem by Carson called “By Chance the Cycladic People” (one page of which is shown below) in which the lines have been shuffled by a random number generator. The poem is accompanied by a series of simple, elegant drawings and gouaches by Lanfranco Quadrio.

Cahier 21

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Thanks for this post. I love the Cahier series, and had no idea this one was out. The project of translating by using a restricted vocabulary sounds quite Oulipian, and judging by the sample, Ann Carson achieves interesting results in her application of the principles of chance, on the one hand, and restraint, on the other. The web of connections between the banal and the poetic, between modernity and antiquity etc … is rather promising.

    December 5, 2013

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