Translating André Chénier: an interview with David McCallam
Radical Translations is not only interested in how translation functioned during the revolution to spread radical ideas, but also how translation continues to engage with and reimagine those revolutionary materials in the present. Team members Sanja Perovic and Jacob McGuinn talked with David McCallam, Reader in French Eighteenth-Century Studies at the University of Sheffield, about the poet André Chénier, whose writing and life were both deeply entangled with the revolution. David's translations of Chénier's poetry show us how questions of form continue to shape writing, interpretation, and translation in our engagement with the politics of the period. The interview is followed by David's rendition of one of Chénier's poems.
David's book, André Chénier: Poetry and Revolution, 1792-1794 – A Bilingual Edition of the Last Poems with New Translations, can be found here.
Which poems did you choose to translate and why?
In a sense, I chose the poems that I had lived with longest, those I’d taught for about 15 years to undergraduates and postgraduates on courses relating to the French Revolution. So the translations started in part from my teaching experience and the role of translation as a heuristic in French culture modules. They were a sustained attempt to see what translation, as both a critical and a creative practice, could reveal about Chénier’s engagement with the Revolution, specifically from ‘Le Hymne aux Suisses de Châteauvieux’ (April 1792) – published as a satirical poetic attack on the Jacobins, and the second of only two poems published in his lifetime – to his death two years later (July 1794). At the same time, translation seemed an inclusive interpretative approach to introduce Chénier to 21st-century readers, anglophone or otherwise.
Would it have made a difference, translation-wise, if you had decided to translate not the poetry of André, but that of his brother, Marie-Joseph, who was considered something akin to the Revolution’s ‘national’ poet at the time?
It would have made a significant difference. Translating Marie-Joseph’s poetry from the revolutionary period would give us novel perspectives on his radical, anti-clerical Jacobinism, that was, for a time at least, espoused by the revolutionary State and for which he became an important mouthpiece. This translation work should definitely be undertaken. But whatever political affinities I might have felt for Marie-Joseph’s engagement in the Revolution or any reservations I might have had regarding André’s more moderate, reformist monarchism, I was drawn to André Chénier’s poetic voice. Therein lies his radicalism. It is also more intriguing and challenging to translate poems that express a belief in a Revolution that nonetheless compels the poet to resist the Revolution as it unfolded. In an implicit way, the poems translated here chart the political estrangement of the brothers, starting with their public schism over the rehabilitation of the Suisses de Châteauvieux in 1792, an estrangement made irreparable by André’s involvement in the defence of Louis XVI at his trial at the same time that Marie-Joseph was voting for the king’s death. The ideological stakes of brotherhood as the concept of republican ‘fraternity’ or as the practice of Franco-French fratricide play out in miniature and in real life in these poems too. The best example being the almost schizophrenic ode ‘Mon frère, que jamais la tristesse importune’/’I Wish My Brother to Flourish Forever’.
Do you think the events of the revolution altered Chénier's poetry in formal terms, and not only in the terms of what it represents? Do the poems register a change in language with the revolution?
Yes, I think so, although the ‘forme/fond’ or form/content divide is a fallacious one for Chénier. The form is always a significant and signifying part of the poem’s expression. The clearest formal innovation in the poems of the revolutionary period here is the adoption of the ‘ïambe’ or iambics on the classical satirical model of the 7th-century BCE Greek poet Archilochus. The alternating line-lengths of iambics, rocking backwards and forwards between 8 and 12 syllables, offer Chénier a lot of scope for shifting the percussive clout of the verse and so stressing some terms, verbs or proper names more than others. They have a swelling, choral, tidal power too. In their short/long switches, they can also be interpreted as representing the power asymmetry between the lone poet and the Jacobin State or, as James Petterson has it, the slow rise and swift descent of the guillotine blade. And yes, I’d say the poems register a change in language too with the Revolution. As is widely recognized, Chénier appropriates the Jacobins’ own nominative and performative speech acts to turn them against Jacobin orators and authors in particular (Barère and Marat stand out here). Chénier also introduces at strategic points in his last poems colloquial or vulgar expressions – ‘lécher le cul’, ‘roter’ – that I interpret as a way of showing how the notion of ‘oaths’ has degenerated from the solemn Roman-style collective oath-taking of 1789 into the easy profanities that litter the demagogic journalism of the likes of René Hébert’s Père Duchesne in the Terror.
How do you think Chénier's poetry deals with its classical precedents – the Odes and Iambes – in his contemporary context? Does the significance of the classical change in the later work?
Classical precedents are part of a shared idiom for Chénier’s generation. Whether they are revolutionary actors or poet-translators, the classical, or neo-classical, is an aesthetic they share – but that they share in the present as a relevant and urgent form of language. As with Chénier’s own poetic credo of ‘creative imitation’, the idea is not to slavishly imitate classical voices but to reinvent them for oneself; to imitate in order to become original. Classical precedents such as odes and iambics are not so much timeless as timely. They speak to – and through – Chénier’s generation. In this much, their significance doesn’t change in the later poems, except perhaps in intensity, in urgency, in the same way that the revolutionaries themselves live their present as historically significant, as they ‘heroicize the present’, as Foucault puts it.
The ode is sometimes described as the most revolutionary mode; yet poetry, and the ode in particular, remains amongst the least known known aspects of the revolution. How did you go about capturing the revolutionary aspect of this mode? Did you have any difficulties in making it accessible to today’s audiences?
The ode is a direct address to a person, a collective or a thing and so it’s an immediate form of expression that also ‘hails’ the reader at the same time. Chénier’s last poems include odes to individuals (e.g., to his brother, to ‘Fanny’) or places (Versailles, Byzance) or to his contemporaries as a collective (O mon esprit au sein des cieux). So they play on both personal and public registers, always varying their line-length, rhyme-scheme and stanza forms. I tried to be sensitive to these variations and so no single translation strategy was applicable to the ode as a form, each has its own plangent specificity – some were more choral, some more intimate. Each was lyrical in its own way. The key for me was to try and find a way for the poetry in the target text to retain the alternative way of knowing the world that each ode provides, in contrast to reading, say, journalism of the time, or historical accounts of the Revolution. It this meant drawing on anachronisms, as in ‘O mon esprit au sein des cieux’, then so be it.
Some of Chénier’s poems reference contemporary events and even the proper names of his contemporaries. Did you have any difficulties translating this aspect and how did you overcome them?
The practical and prosaic answer to this question is that I appended a fairly exhaustive glossary to the translations. So the book is self-contained insofar as any oblique or abstruse reference to a contemporary event, person or classical figure is given an accessible explanation there. The book also has a chronology of the Revolution that runs in parallel to Chénier’s potted biography, which was a rather clever idea of my editor to have the Revolution and the poet’s life mirror each other and be in dialogue in the same way that the source texts and target texts are presented on facing pages. In terms of the proper names of Chénier’s contemporaries, for the most part, I kept them in the translations. As I’ve already mentioned, this is partly because Chénier arrogates to himself the Jacobins’ own politics of naming to turn it against them; but also because they are meant as a specific poetic device, as though Chénier, the reader of Latin and Greek, is trying to provide eighteenth-century French with a vocative case. Elsewhere, the names are used as rhyming figures (Robespierre/la pierre, Marat/Garat), almost as nonsense rhymes, to empty them of meaning in the same way that the individuals referred to are seen by Chénier as ridiculous and vacuous in equal measure.
Do you think your translations might foster a rethinking of the revolution as a mode of communication that goes beyond pamphlets, posters, and other kind of print media?
I hope so, although I don’t think it’s a question of going beyond the other types of print media more a question of enriching, nuancing and problematizing them insofar as they all offer us different modes of access to the lived experience of the Revolution. As your own ‘Radical Translations’ project does so well, my translations attempt to show how prosody, in the work of Chénier in particular, offers another perspective on the Revolution; one that draws attention to the very materiality of the language at work at the time, that draws on different literary practices at the time while also showing that the belated imposition of categories such as ‘first Romantic’ or ‘last neo-classicist’ don’t do justice to the poet’s lived experience of the Revolution, effacing it by an inscription in a literary tradition that, until recently at least, played down poetry qua revolutionary discourse.
Do you have any message for today’s readers of Chénier that you wish to share?
As I mention in the Introduction to the translations, it’s vital to read Chénier in order to apprehend (comprehension is impossible) what it means to be in a death cell in the Terror – how universal and how unique this experience is. His last poems are an unvarnished expression of how one confronts one’s own mortality, even when this isn’t the subject of the verse. They remind me of Apollo’s question, or lesson, cited somewhere in Maurice Blanchot, where the god reminds his human interlocutor that, being mortal, every human thought is always also a reflection on mortality. Apart from that, I’d be interested to know whether any of the ‘classroom activities’ proposed in an appendix for the poems work or are workable. Finally, I think there are interesting possibilities opened up by working backwards from these last poems towards Chénier’s ‘Bucoliques’, as their pantheism seems intriguingly apposite in a 21st-century renegotiating human and non-human relations in the context of ecological crisis.
David shares an example of his translations, the poem 'Un vulgaire assassin va chercher les ténèbres'.
The poem, such as it has come down to us, is in fragmentary form – hence the title – with a number of abbreviations and ellipses, signalled in the Gallimard edition of the Œuvres complètes by square brackets. They are retained in my book but I’ve removed them here for greater ease of reading the source text. For context, the poem is a witheringly contemptuous depiction of the Jacobin-inspired ‘Fête de l’unité et de l’indivisibilité’ held on 10 August 1793 to celebrate the first anniversary of the overthrow of the French monarchy. The festival was based around five public installations organized by Jacques-Louis David celebrating distinct stages of revolutionary history. They included a rather bizarre Egyptian-inspired ‘Fountain of Regeneration’ and a restaging of the October Days of 1789 with actresses astride cannons. The constructions were made of plaster, wood, paste and coloured glass and didn’t survive much beyond the festival. Chénier saw the whole thing as the tasteless acme of the Jacobin glorification of mob violence.
Fragment: Un vulgaire assassin va chercher les ténèbres
Un vulgaire assassin va chercher les ténèbres;
Il nie, il jure sur l’autel.
Mais nous, grands, libres, fiers, à nos exploits funèbres,
A nos turpitudes célèbres,
Nous voulons attacher un éclat immortel.
De l’oubli taciturne et de son onde noire
Nous savons détourner le cours.
Nous appelons sur nous l’éternelle mémoire.
Nos forfaits, notre unique histoire,
Parent de nos cités les brillants carrefours.
O gardes de Louis sous les voûtes royales
Par nos ménades déchirés,
Vos têtes sur un fer ont pour nos Bacchanales
Orné nos portes triomphales.
A ces bronzes hideux, nos monuments sacrés,
Tout ce peuple hébété que nul remords ne touche,
Cruel même dans son repos,
Vient sourire aux succès de sa rage farouche
Et, la soif encore à la bouche,
Ruminer tout le sang dont il a bu les flots.
Arts dignes de nos yeux! pompe et magnificence
Digne de notre liberté,
Digne des vils tyrans qui dévastent la France,
Digne de l’atroce démence
Du stupide David qu’autrefois j’ai chanté.
Your Common Murderer Goes to Ground
Your common murderer goes to ground,
Swears blind it wasn’t him.
Not us, though, the Great, the Free, the Proud
Whose dismal public vices stand
As our most glorious claim to fame.
Even when rightful obscurity knocks,
We just slip out the back door,
Back into the limelight and the history books
Where our crimes light up like fireworks
Our garish triumphs in city squares.
Royal guardsmen had their heads hacked off
Under antique porticos
By wild party-girls now come to laugh
At their livid trophies stuck on staffs
In lieu of more tasteful statues.
Not that this dazed rabble would flinch
From further acts of lazy cruelty.
How they paint the town red! but binge
On blood not wine. It dribbles down their chins
From smiles cracked recalling some brutality.
Street art worthy of our gaze, gold-plate and chintz
Fit to adorn our freedoms,
Fit for the tin-pot tyrants who ravage France,
Fit too for the power-crazed rants
Of stupid David whose praise I once sung.