I don’t often travel by stagecoach, but when I do it’s in a poem by Gérard de Nerval. While working on my latest book, I revisited an out-of-print bilingual edition of his Selected Works. Born in Paris in 1808, Nerval resides on an adventurous avenue of French literature, somewhere just before the tradition changes its name and character from Romanticism to Symbolism, and his aesthetic, one of attentive estrangement, woolgathering, and openness, has long been an inspiration for those looking to chart paths to new possibilities.
The tone of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu is reminiscent of Nerval’s novella Sylvie, and one can feel his influence in Surrealism’s first manifesto, the final sentence of which could serve as a summing-up of Nerval’s own poetics: L’existence est ailleurs. (Existence is elsewhere.) An accomplished translator and wide-eyed traveler, it seems clear that Nerval’s precise but dreamy writing owes much to experiences of pushing beyond limits and borders.
The first book published with my name on the cover was a translation of María Baranda’s Ficticia, and I’ve since included a handful of translations from various languages in several of my own poetry collections. My new book, The Double Lamp of Solitude, begins with three prose elegies, for Friedrich Hölderlin, Federico García Lorca, and Miguel Hernández, and each of these texts also includes a translation of a twelve-line poem by its subject. When I came across a twelve-liner by Nerval, a bell sounded: not only did the poem match the form of the others I’d translated, but it spoke to themes in the collection.
Also, despite the excellent quality of most of the translated poems in Selected Works (which are en face with the originals), the English version of this particular poem wasn’t beyond reproach. I felt compelled to try my hand, especially knowing that when Nerval was twenty and had little knowledge of German, he made an acclaimed translation of Goethe’s Faust. For his effort he was even invited to tea by Victor Hugo!
My modest translation arrived slowly and occasionally. I began with the title: “Le Réveil en voiture.” It seemed so simple. “Réveil” is “awaken” and “voiture” is something that carries someone, a vehicle. But which vehicle to put the reader in? What should carry them through the landscape of the poem? The obvious choices at first were “carriage” and “coach,” but those seemed too distant, too private, too monochrome. “Stagecoach” felt better! It was technicolor.
Following the title, “Waking Up in a Stagecoach,” I decided to lose the rhymes and change the syllabics, from Alexandrines (lines of twelve syllables) to a ten-syllable line, which is much more common in English-language poetry (iambic pentameter is usually decasyllabic). Paying attention to form made me more attentive to my own poems’ formal qualities, and the playful side of translation carried over as well, reviving the weirdness and materiality of language.
More than anything, I benefitted greatly from attempts to think and feel alongside one of my favorite poets, to take a ride in the vehicle of his imagination and to consider his brilliant images. I could go on and on about Nerval, but I’d prefer to trade my words for his own, only a few of which are needed to recommend him.