Double Talk by Chris Edwards

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Double Talk

November 1, 2006
In this essay, Sydney poet Chris Edwards discusses his 'mistranslation' of Mallarmé’s 'Un coup de dés', A Fluke, published in 2005 by Monogene in print and on-line in 2006 by Jacket. Ranging through biology, translation theory, cosmology, Edwards gives close insights into the convergences, serendipity and strange attractors at play in his work, displaying the good humour and intelligence that make him one of the most engaging and fascinating of contemporary Australian poets.

A Fluke was prompted by a chance misreading. I was adrift in the space between Anthony Hartley’s prose translation of ‘Un coup de dés’ and Mallarmé’s French, which hovers above it in the Penguin edition, when instead of “eternal circumstances” or “circonstances éternelles”, what I saw were “intestinal spasms” — ‘hellish’ if I remember rightly, though I later dropped that adjective in favour of others more pertinent and specific. I wondered about these intestinal spasms — where they’d come from, whose they were — and the first thought that occurred to me was that they might have been caused by some sort of parasite, possibly a fluke. A fluke is a kind of trematode worm, meaning that it belongs to a class of platyhelminths or flatworms that have one or more suckers and live as ectoparasites or endoparasites on or in various animals. Flukes, I later learned from the Oxford English Dictionary, are particularly fond of the livers of sheep, where they probably don’t cause intestinal spasms, but I didn’t know that at the time, and though I entertained other options — food poisoning, indigestion — I kept coming back to a fluke, which is other things too besides a parasite. It’s a name given to various kinds of flat fish, especially the common flounder, but also to a variety of kidney potato and to “the broad triangular plates of iron on each arm of [an] anchor, which enter the ground and hold the ship.” It’s also anything resembling these in shape, such as the barbs on a harpoon or “the two parts which constitute the large triangular tail of a whale.” I’d love to ramble on about every one of these meanings at length, but I’ve decided to focus on the word’s commonest meaning, derived from its use in billiards: an unexpected success or piece of good luck.

My particular piece of luck was that although “a fluke” doesn’t translate the literal meaning of Mallarmé’s opening phrase, “un coup de dés”, it shares at least one of its facets with the Idea (with a capital I) behind his poem. Every line of ‘Un Coup de dés’, Mallarmé claims in his prefatory note, is a “prismatic subdivision” of this Idea, the idea being, of course, that “un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard”  — a dice-throw [n]ever abolishes chance. A lot’s been written about this Idea, and it’s sometimes pointed out that the French word “jamais”, though it usually means “never” and is always translated that way in the case of Mallarmé’s poem, can mean “ever” too — thus suggesting, to my mind at least, that a dice-throw always abolishes chance. That’s what the poem’s penultimate lines also seem to me to imply — that the dice roll “avant de s’arrêter / à quelque point dernier qui le sacre”, that is, before coming to rest at a point that in retrospect sanctifies the rolling — and a similar suggestion seems implicit in the way Mallarmé organises his key phrase. As Henry Weinfield, who has translated the poem, points out, Mallarmé has reversed the normal word order, so that “jamais” comes before “n’abolira”, and because the two words are pages apart, what Weinfield calls a “wavering effect” is set up between what I’d call positives and negatives. The Idea, as I understand it, is that a dice-throw never does or does not abolish chance, or that a dice-throw ever does or does not abolish chance. Weinfield says that “English is unable to capture” this “wavering effect”, “since it is obliged to indicate the negative immediately”, but in A Fluke, I’ve shown this isn’t so. I’ve captured the ambiguity and transported it into Australian using grappling hooks in the form of square brackets around the “N” in “[N]EVER” — a brutal solution, I acknowledge, but one that indicates clearly, I think, that Mallarmé’s Idea, though it looks like a statement and is certainly expressed in the form of one, is really a state of oscillation — a hovering, if you like, between alternative propositions. According to Wallace Fowlie, ‘Un coup de dés’ is “about a thought in its genesis and life” and the question the poem asks is: can the human mind overcome contingency and chaos, such that order and ideality emerge triumphant? Its answer, he says, is definitive: No on page 221 of his exegesis (Mallarmé), Yes on page 226. I’d go along with him on this.

The parenthesised “N” in “[N]EVER” is not the only example in A Fluke of a more or less accurate rendition of Mallarmé’s meaning, as I understand it, in a particular word or phrase. But the instances are relatively few. There was never any chance that I’d produce what’s usually called a ‘translation’ of ‘Un Coup de dés’, since I don’t speak or read French beyond the remains of what I learned at high school. But I didn’t feel that the world urgently needed a new translation, and in any case it seemed to me that mistranslation was a more authentic way to go, not only because that’s what all translation tends toward anyway — take “[n]ever” for example — but also because I was genuinely interested in where my chance misreadings might lead. Were my “intestinal spasms” really a fluke? In other words, were they happy accidents? They didn’t sound very happy, but if (metaphorically speaking) they were the outcome of some sort of psychological or linguistic dice-throw, and if dice-throws always abolish chance, they had to be happy, I decided. Maybe they’d been preordained by some alternative volition in Mallarmé’s words that it was up to me alone to figure out.

This kind of thinking could, I guess, easily lead to disaster. Perhaps that’s why, initially, I wrote nothing down. I did, however, from time to time, glance through ‘Un Coup de dés’ looking for more flukes, and if I remember the sequence correctly, it was “a lost cause” I discovered next. This was momentarily discouraging, but then I realised that sad accidents, just as much as happy ones, were essential to Mallarmé’s double proposition that a dice throw, to quote John Howard, “never ever” abolishes chance. Why not apply this Idea, I thought, to a rendering of Mallarmé’s poem in English? Because the result would be a shipwreck, I responded. But this only led me deeper in. Mallarmé’s poem describes, amongst other things, a shipwreck, and the dice thrown in its opening line seem to spring from the hand of the “LE MAITRE”, the captain of the vessel who, whether cursing his fate or seizing his destiny, is shaking his fist at the constellations, or maybe the dark they’re set in, as he goes down with the ship. This shaking, oscillating, undecided fist is one of many representatives of Mallarmé’s Idea encountered in the poem. Others include the lurching from side to side of the ship, the rolling of the dice between possible outcomes, the superimposition of these two images and, perhaps most strikingly, the typographic innovations for which ‘Un coup de dés’ is famous.

At the heart of things, at the heart of the poem, at the heart of the Idea with its double proposition, is division, according to Mallarmé: the gap, the fold, or, more famously, the Abyss. This is the archaic meaning of ‘chaos’, before it came to signify disorder. The unit of composition in ‘Un Coup de dés’ is not the line or even the page, but the double-page spread, and the Abyss is physically embodied in the fold or gutter dead centre. It’s a place the eye can’t quite see into, full of stapling, stitching and gluing. We normally put this fold to one side while reading, but we can’t do that with “Un coup de dés” because here we have to read across it. Though everything hinges on it, however, the Abyss, in effect, is Nothing — the same Nothing that materialises in the otherwise blank paper on which the poem “takes place”. Mallarmé hoped for an unusually large page size — a double-page spread made to his specifications would have measured roughly two feet wide by fifteen inches high, though the type wouldn’t have been much larger, if at all, than it is in A Fluke (10-point for the most part). No publication of his poem, to my knowledge, has granted him this wish, but even without large blanks around it, the poem is full of internal blanks that can also seem vast as they surround, intrude on, seperate and interpret the interspersed constellations of type, two of which approximate the shape of the Big Dipper. When Paul Valéry first saw the poem, he felt that Mallarmé had, and I quote, “raised a printed page to the power of the midnight sky.” He felt that he was “looking at the form and pattern of a thought, placed for the first time in finite space. Here space itself truly spoke, dreamed, and gave birth to temporal forms.”

I can understand this reaction. I’ve always loved the typography of ‘Un Coup de dés’. It drew me to the poem even more powerfully than its subject matter when I first encountered it. But as Valéry is careful to point out, form and pattern are only visible thanks to “the blanks” which present them to view. These “blanks”, as Mallarmé says in his preface, “assume importance” in the poem. This is not only true pictorially. I agree with Malcolm Bowie that although ‘Un Coup de dés’ gestures in the direction of a language that “will be at the same time alphabetic and hieroglyphic,” it quickly sides with the alphabet given that the real importance of the blanks lies in their syntactic and semantic function: they replace conventional punctuation, an ideally unambiguous set of signs and conventions, with a system of deliberately ambiguous folds and hinges. In this system, one sign fits all. As Bowie says, “every space in the poem is equivocal”, since it indicates “either a ‘stop’ or a ‘go’: the sentence, clause or phrase you are reading either finishes here or continues.” Bowie reads these spaces, and I quote, as “two positive indications in one. They invite us not only to pause in our forwards reading but to develop another, concurrent reading method,” one in which the various “fragments” of the poem — even its “freaks and outliers” — become “available to us in new ways.”

I hadn’t read Bowie’s comments at the time, but I too felt invited, whilst pondering my “intestinal spasms”, to develop a “concurrent reading”. As I mentioned earlier, however, I didn’t at first transcribe mine — perhaps because it seemed to me that a mistranslation, any mistranslation of the kind I had in mind, would almost certainly result in a poem doomed to an audience of one, its author. Also, there were other projects claiming my interest and attention at the time. One of them was Robert Adamson’s autobiography Inside Out, which I helped edit. Bob, as I guess you know, is an admirer of Mallarmé and a devotee of the Abyss, as is evident in Inside Out. One day late in 2001, maybe early 2002, I tried explaining to him the nature of my renewed interest in ‘Un Coup de dés’, and when he told me, only half pulling my leg, that Mallarmé had already been mistranslated, many times, and began producing the evidence, I realised that the only way I could show him what I had in mind — the only way I could demonstrate to him that mine really would be a mistranslation, an authentic mistranslation —was to sit down at his computer and actually typeset a few pages, the first two and part of the third. This involved thinking up words, of course, to fill in the spaces between the blanks, and I was pleased to discover they came with a rush. I also found direct engagement with the layout very liberating and was heartened by Bob’s response to that draft — though a lot, as he pointed out, depended on how the rest unfolded. The challenge must have appealed to me, however, because that was the moment I started in earnest on a mistranslation I was now convinced would have a readership of at least two.

I mentioned just a moment ago that I accepted an invitation that seemed implicit in ‘Un Coup de dés’. I also accepted the fact that Mallarmé’s poem, though it can be conveyed between languages and might even retain the gist of its appearance in the process, will never arrive entirely intact. Henry Weinfield does a fine job and Brian Coffey does his best, but translation, even in the hands of a master, never abolishes shipwreck. I decided to go with the flow. I decided to celebrate shipwreck, and found myself embarking on a mish-mash of approaches, or, to put it in pseudo-technical terms, engaging in a variety of transformational logics. Early in the writing of A Fluke — maybe even slightly before it, while I was still thinking about it — I began re-reading Celia and Louis Zukofsky’s Catullus, in which they attempt, as they explain in their introduction, to “breathe the ‘literal’ meaning” of Catullus by conveying the “sound, rhythm and syntax” rather than the sense of his poems from Latin into English. This book was something of an example to me, and I did try to let the aural properties of Mallarmé’s words guide me, but only to a certain extent. How those words sounded when spoken was sometimes a bit of a mystery to me, mangled as they were by the way I heard them, and in any case I wanted to take as ‘accidental’ an approach as I could, so I mingled aural with visual prompts and wandered wherever they led me. I tried to respond sensitively to the chance suggestions, frequently perverse, put to me by the French, but given my ignorance of the language, every word or letter I looked at was suggestive, and it wasn’t always easy to remain faithful to all of them at once. I did my best, it goes without saying, but I also felt constrained to respect Mallarmé’s carefully adjusted folds, the patterning of his poem. It was easy to see why he attached such importance to the look of his words, their appearance on the page. I found that if I let myself drift through them, willy-nilly so to speak, letters and letter-clusters would detach themselves from ‘Un Coup de dés’ and reconstellate before me in English. Sight and sound transmogrifications often happened simultaneously. Thus “étale” became “anyone at all”, “ayant” became “ahoy there”, “Fiançailles” became “Financial”.

A Fluke doesn’t offer a counterpart to Mallarmé’s key phrase, if by a counterpart what one means is a grammatically coherent proposition. Instead, it bets double or nothing that Mallarmé was right about dice-throws. Every thought emits one, he says. His thought, however, is expressed in a grammatically correct, albeit ambiguous, sentence that’s all about the idea of the dice-throw, the idea of the shipwreck, whereas it might be said that by contrast, these things really take place in A Fluke. I’ve already explained how its opening line came about and why I bracketed the “N” in “[N]EVER”, and from what I said a moment ago I think you’ll see why “N’ABOLIRA” became “NOBLE LIAR” while “LE HAZARD” became “BIO-HAZARD”. But what do these words amount to once you piece them back together? They might be read as the ruins of a single syntactical unit from which the key connectors are missing (“A FLUKE / [N]EVER / NOBLE LIAR / BIO-HAZARD”), but assuming they’re a full and faithful transcript of something, it’s more likely to be an exchange between at least two speakers — a heated exchange, judging by the typeface. I’ve decided, having thought about this, to describe these fragments, not as flotsam, but as the remains of a quarrel.

This quarrel starts fairly early in the piece, and its ‘forwards’ movement, to use Malcolm Bowie’s word, was as one with my “concurrent reading”. Sight and sound were significant prompts, but there were other logics at work too. For example, in so far as A Fluke has a narrative — which is not very far, since I followed Mallarmé’s example and dispensed with narrative completely — it begins at the top left of folio three, with the introduction of a gap (the Abyss) into the centre of the French word “SOIT”, so as to produce two English words, “SO IT”. In the space where Mallarmé’s Abyss once was, but according to a different logic, a Bistro comes to pass — a Bistro that may or may not be harbouring the likely cause of “intestinal spasms”. Let it be me, let it not be me, the words screamed as I scanned “l’Abîme”, but I wanted my poem to be realistic, so the Bistro denies culpability. A quarrel breaks out and, though it may sound odd to say so, I identified with this quarrel — it reminded me of the quarrel that broke out in me between various possible mistranslations at every turn of phrase. It must have been louder than the latter, however, because from the moment the Bistro began “blaming / anyone at all but their own / furious / sous-chef threatening endless litigation”, I worked my way through the poem fairly quickly, over a period of three or four weeks I think, following many a false lead along with those too true to resist and guided mainly by what I call in the Preface “the latent conductor unreasoning verisimilitude imposes on the text.” Mallarmé calls it a “fils conducteur”, meaning “guiding thread” according to Henry Weinfield and Mary Ann Caws, “conductor wire” according to Anthony Hartley. Another way to describe it might be to call it a strange attractor, a term from chaos theory first coined by David Ruelle. According to a primer I was reading recently, an attractor is the state into which a system will eventually settle. The black holes around which galaxies cluster are examples of attractors; cultural attractors include chiefs, tribes, states and anything that gives us identity, like religion, class and world view. Strange attractors are a special class. They live in phase space, a multidimensional imaginary space in which numbers can be turned into pictures. Fractal objects, they consist of infinite numbers of curves, surfaces or manifolds, and as their name suggests, they draw things toward them. Not everybody believes they exist. Some theorists postulate that they only look strange to strangers. According to my primer, however, “researchers now look everywhere for strange attractors — in any system that appears to be acting randomly.” How true, I thought as I read this.

If I were a researcher looking for a strange attractor in A Fluke, I think I’d probably find it in “el hombré’s phooey appropos the alternative volition”. El hombré is one of the nameless ones involved in, or evolving from, the quarrel in the Bistro; he’s hovering in the wings as the page turns and the scene shifts to what might be some kind of bar or nightclub. When the line first occurred to me, I was convinced “el hombré’s phooey”, notwithstanding its resemblance to and invocation of Elohim, was the ghost of Mallarmé’s comment on my poem. But this phooey ‘resumes’ immediately — “trés internally” according to A Fluke — in other words it begins again inside the mistranslation, such that a mutual phooey passes back and forth between it and its pretext, crisscrossing the fold. A phooey is not necessarily a sign of disrespect, in fact it’s closely related to “ahoy there”. For example, although the occasional snide remark about Mallarmé’s thinking may have passed my lips, I also, sometimes in the same breath, found myself apostrophising someone or something in A Fluke — “oh velleity of chiffon scoffing sorbet beneath a sombrero,” “oh irresistible make-over / parsed by rational virility”, and so on — and half suspected it may be Monsieur. I was bothered at first by these apostrophes. They were parodies I suppose, but they implied an attitude of prayer too, and that’s not something I’m used to. Then it dawned on me: what else would you be doing as the dice rolled, the ship lurched, and your life hung in the balance? I guess you’d clutch at any old straw, even a guiding thread or conductor wire. Or illusory strange attractor.

The word “fluke”, as you may have noticed earlier, is often applied to its referents — whether they’re whales’ tails, the barbs on harpoons and anchors, or certain types of fish — because of their shape, so it’s perhaps only fitting that I’ve tried, as I explain in the Preface, to imitate the ‘Pose’ of Mallarmé’s poem, adjusting it only in minor ways in order to suit myself. ‘Un Coup de dés’ was never printed in his lifetime exactly as Mallarmé intended — my Preface, for example, is a mistranslation of the prefatory note he provided for the poem’s publication in Cosmopolis in 1897, and in that note, he explains to the journal’s international, polyglot, interdisciplinary readers that this version is a ‘state’ of the poem, not its final form. In this state, it ran down single pages rather than double-page spreads and was typeset in fonts Mallarmé seems to have had second thoughts about, but a deluxe edition (with engravings by Odilon Redon) was being prepared when he died, and although it never eventuated, the final set of proofs is marked up in scrupulous detail, giving clear indications as to where each word should be placed, in what font style and at what size. On these matters Mallarmé wanted chance abolished completely. I’ve followed his directions as best I could, one noteable exception being his specification of a didone font. I recently came across a magnificent setting of ‘Un Coup de dés’ in Linotype Didot, and it does, I think, thanks to the skill of the designer Thierry Bouche, complement the poem’s “prismatic subdivisions”, but didone didn’t suit my poem — in fact, it made it look dowdy — so I’ve used a modern version of Garamond instead. I’ve taken other liberties too. In my book, as distinct from my poem, I’ve extended the theme of doubling to include a replication of the layout, not of the stand-alone masterpiece Mallarmé had in mind, but of the hybrid bilingual edition of his poems published by the University of California Press, which presents the French on the right or recto pages, Henry Weinfield’s English translation on the left or verso. I’ve reversed that positioning, along with any prioritisations it may imply, and thanks to James Taylor at Monogene, I’ve also had a wider page to work on, as well as whiter paper. But like Henry Weinfield, I’ve had to make one key compromise: I’ve been obliged to dummy up the Abyss at the centre of the poem. Where Mallarmé intended a fold disappearing into the spine of the book, I’ve had to settle for a plain white gutter, forty millimetres wide as specified, to indicate the absence. The true Abyss in A Fluke runs between Mallarmé’s poem and my own.

I had a bit more to say about Christopher Brennan’s imitation-cum-parody of ‘Un Coup de dés’, Musicopoematographoscope (1897), and about Mallarmé’s involvement in the world of fashion, but I’m just about out of time now, so I’ll finish with a short footnote. I’ve known for some months that there were a number of mistakes in A Fluke — four to be exact — but of such a minor and in most cases subjective or arguable kind that it was possible no one but me would ever notice. The other day, however, Irina Dunn drew my attention to a fifth. Despite years of familiarity with the poem and numerous proofing opportunities, it seems I still go haywire in between “eternal circumstances” and “circonstances éternelles”. I’ve ended up with “circumstantantial intestinal spasms” instead of “circumstantial”. Which just goes to show, I suppose, that it is sometimes possible, in this relativist-infested world, to make unambiguous statements. Earlier on I mentioned a question that Wallace Fowlie, in his quaint way, claims is posed in ‘Un Coup de dés’ — can order and ideality overcome contingency and chaos? The circumstantial evidence suggests that the answer’s a definite No.

Chris Edwards

To view A Fluke (A mistranslation of Stéphane Mallarmé’s ‘Un coup de dés...’ by Chris Edwards) see:


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