September 10, 2012
by Eleanor Steele
Dan Bellm. Photo by Annie Silverstein
“We owe it to each other to read world literature, to cross borders, to enter other lives and times in the way that only great writing can.” — Dan Bellm
Professor, editor, translator, and poet—2013 NEA Literature Translation Fellow Dan Bellm has some serious Renaissance man bona fides. In addition to translating the work of Pablo Neruda, Manlio Argueta, and César Vallejo, he has been translating French writer Pierre Reverdy’s work for almost a decade. In 1998, Bellm received the Caesura Prize, judged by Mark Doty, for his poem, “Aspens,” and an Artists Fellowship for Literature from the California Arts Council. Bellm’s poems have appeared in such publications as Poetry, Ploughshares, The Threepenny Review, and Word of Mouth: An Anthology of Gay American Poetry. We spoke with Bellm about his writer’s life, his philosophy of literary translation, and why he likes taking apart poems to “see how they tick.”
NEA: What’s your version of the artist’s life?
DAN BELLM: The artist’s life, to me, means doing work I love, which includes continuing to try work that challenges or scares me. I’m not very interested in writing or translating the kind of poem I’ve already written or translated. The work has to pose some kind of question or riddle that I don’t know the answer to; when I’m lucky, I grab a thread and just hold on. Or to take a different metaphor, I think of how pole vaulters keep raising the bar. And although not all writers do, I love giving public readings of my own and others’ poetry. I consider it an essential part of my work. Poems are meant to be read aloud and passed on; once they’re written and spoken, they’re not “mine” any more.
NEA: What do you remember as your earliest engagement with the arts?
BELLM: Since I’m a literary artist, I’d have to say that my most important early memory is of my mother taking me to the public library in my hometown, Springfield, Illinois, starting when I was three or four, to pick out books, bring them home, and read them together—a habit that’s never come to an end. My sister Eileen, two years older than me, brought books home from kindergarten and first grade, too. It’s all traceable back to that time, the amazing experience of words on paper coming to life as I learned to read. And leaping forward, I have to thank my high school English teacher, Jim Burke, for noticing me, and pushing me to read challenging books that weren’t on “the list,” and really wanting to hear what I thought of them.
NEA: Can you tell us about the project your NEA grant will support. How do you choose the works you translate?
BELLM: I’m working on a translation of French poet Pierre Reverdy’s (1889-1960) great postwar work, Le chant des morts (Song of the Dead), a volume of 43 poems written from 1944-1948. Although it’s by far the most important book of Reverdy’s middle and late career—the time after he and his wife fled the very center of the Parisian art and literary world, in order to live a quite secluded life near the monastery of Solesmes in northern France—Le chant des morts has been neglected by English-language translators, who have focused almost entirely on the poems of his Parisian years (1910-1926). Only four of its poems have ever appeared in English, and those are in books that are long out of print.
Le chant des morts is a very unusual [account] of the public and private aftermath of war. It’s not a documentary or a narrative—it’s about troubled states of soul. Reverdy has such a sure command of image, and the emotional atmosphere of life-at-the-edge-of-death in postwar France seems so strangely familiar, that I really believe that this poetry will speak eloquently to our own time.
I have been working with Reverdy’s poems for a decade or more, starting with two collections of his prose poems, and I’ve turned to Le chant des morts because it’s so centrally important in his work.
NEA: When and how did you begin your work as a literary translator?
BELLM: I began to translate long before I had any thought of being a published translator. From the minute I started reading poetry in other languages—Spanish and French, mostly—I started wanting to make the poems that I loved “my own.” It was always a bit like taking a clock apart to see how it ticks, and hoping to put it back together still ticking. I started teaching myself Spanish (my strongest second language, and the one I most frequently translate from) nearly 40 years ago, and well before I had made it through a bilingual edition of Pablo Neruda’s poems, I was quibbling with the English translations, making notes in the margins and thinking, “How hard could it be to improve on this?” That kind of beginner’s arrogance turned out to be useful, because it got me to begin, and it motivated me to continue long enough to appreciate just how difficult the art and craft of translation is.
NEA: What is your process and how does your philosophy regarding translation impact that process?
BELLM: I’m as “slow” a translator as I am a poet. Translations for me, typically, go through many drafts, and have to pass some kind of test of time before they feel complete. To describe my philosophy as a translator, I’d say that I am not an “academic” translator oriented to the kind of work that favors literalism or strict verbal “accuracy” over an engagement with the entirety of a poem’s music. I love, and try to live by, the nineteenth-century poet and translator Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s rather modest advice: “A good poem shall not be turned into a bad one.” My deepest commitment is to translating as faithfully as possible the whole gesture a poem makes—all of its resources of sound and meaning—into a fully realized poem in English.
NEA: How does your work as a poet inform your work as a translator and vice versa?
BELLM: For me, translating has always gone hand in hand with being a reader and a poet. Throughout my decades of writing poetry, I’ve always had a translation project, or several, going on as well, whether or not I’ve had any intention of publishing those. I learn about how poems work, and I pay deep attention to the nuances and music of words; it’s the closest act of “close reading” possible. I’ve been greatly influenced by such poet-translators as Galway Kinnell, Robert Hass, Marilyn Hacker, Chana Bloch, W.S. Merwin, and Robert Bly, all of whom consider the practice of translation deeply connected to their craft as poets. I always urge poetry students to try translating, as part of their craft, too, and for the past couple of years, I’ve been teaching literary translation in the MFA in Creative Writing Program at Antioch University, Los Angeles.
NEA: I understand that you had an opportunity to see some of the original paintings by Pablo Picasso that accompanied the original publication of Le chant des morts. What was that experience like for you?
BELLM: It’s thrilling to see the original publication that these poems first appeared in—a stunningly beautiful, hand-lettered edition, with 125 color lithographs by Picasso, brought out by the French art publisher Tériade in 1948. The Museum of Modern Art in New York owns a copy, and it’s an important work not only in Reverdy’s oeuvre, but in Picasso’s as well. It’s hard to imagine the poems any other way now; I hope that any publication of my translation that occurs will include some of Picasso’s work.
Reverdy is quite a visual poet, and he was deeply connected throughout his life with such painters as Picasso, Braque, Matisse, and Gris, all of whom illustrated one or more of his books of poetry. Although Reverdy himself resisted all such labels, I think of many of his poems in visual terms as a kind of Cubist or Surrealist painting, the way they play with geometry and point of view, and up-end our expectations about narrative coherence or rational sense.
NEA: What does the phrase “Art Works” mean to you?
BELLM: I like this phrase in the sense that it puts “art” and “work” together. Not everyone agrees—including, say, my own Dad!—but it’s a real job. And art itself works, of course—it creates change, it forms and affects lives. It’s an essential part of education, though it’s often the first thing that gets cut. I guess we still need slogans like this because we’re a society that still doesn’t see art as absolutely central.
NEA: Why do you believe it’s important for the NEA to support literary translation?
BELLM: Because we’re all citizens of the world. We owe it to each other to read world literature, to cross borders, to enter other lives and times in the way that only great writing can. Without literary translation, there would have been no Renaissance, for example. Translation keeps a multiplicity of voices alive—and it breathes new life into our own voices, our own English language.