Tag Archives: The Passion According to Renée Vivien

Interview with Helena Buffery, translator of The Passion According to Renée Vivien

Last week I reviewed María-Mercè Marçal’s The Passion According to Renée Vivien; I’m delighted to bring you today some intimate insights into the translation of this novel from Helena Buffery, who co-translated it with Kathleen McNerney.

How did you discover this novel, and what made you want to translate it?

Helena Buffery: The novel was one of the earliest contemporary Catalan texts I read when it first came out in the 1990s and really impressed me at the time for the audacity of the writing: this is a novel that takes on the Republic of Letters and explores it from the margins, creating a rich, polyphonic, and spatially and temporally diverse world from the fragments and traces of a (meticulously researched) life. It reads beautifully; culminating with the breathtaking final chapter, which I could not quite believe was constructed entirely from fragments of Vivien’s poetry (but I can now promise you that this is the case). Back then, when I had the time to travel quite regularly to Paris and Barcelona, I was fascinated by the different perspectives the novel offered on quite familiar spaces.  I remember being transported into a richly nuanced, complex and believable world.

I returned to the novel more recently as someone with a great deal of interest in the way minority literatures (and particularly Catalan literature) travel, and having written on these issues from the perspective of cultural (in)visibility and (un)translatability. Given the recent increase in translations of Catalan literature and also of Iberian and Latin American women’s writing, I was very interested in exploring why a figure as important María-Mercè Marçal – a supremely charismatic and openly lesbian poet, translator, feminist thinker, essayist and activist to whom numerous Iberian writers profess their debt – had such a limited presence in English (beyond poetry magazines and anthologies).

Why do you think such an important and recognised piece of work hasn’t been published in English before now?

I think a significant factor is the subject matter, the fact that it is by a Catalan author but not explicitly about Catalan culture (no Barcelona, no Civil War, little reference to any Catalan landscapes). Another factor, I believe, is that it is written against English (understood, as in the sense of Vivien’s own process of self-translation, as a form of resistance and rebellion against the normative, the hegemonic, the neo-colonial). Having looked more closely at the German, Italian and Spanish translations, I began to consider the possibility of translating elements of the novel (as I think many of the chapters work as stand-alone pieces, in the manner of sketches or even short stories), and it was then that I bumped into Kathleen McNerney at a conference on Marçal in Cambridge and learned that she had begun translating the novel many years before, but had been unable to find a publisher. Kathleen is widely recognised as a pioneer translator of Spanish and Catalan women’s writing – she began translating Marçal back in the 1980s (selected poems from Bruixa de dol/Witch in morning appeared in the Catalan Review in 1986), and collaborated with her in events on feminist writing in Barcelona. We corresponded for a while before agreeing to co-translate; Kathleen was in touch with the Maria-Mercè Marçal Foundation to enquire about rights and permissions, and then was able to secure a series of writing retreats to work on the novel.

Once you had made the decision to embark on this project, how did you and Kathleen McNerney approach the co-translation?

We agreed to split translation – with one of us (me in the end) focusing initially on Sara T.’s narrative and the other (Kathleen) translating the other voices. We then swapped and revised each other’s work, as well as meeting together in Barcelona and Cork to discuss overarching issues (how to translate certain key terms, what to do about the intertextual references, the translations of the poems, and so on). Once all the pieces were together, I took responsibility for editing and correcting the whole text and ensuring cohesion. This was very much helped by the fact that I am very familiar with the Maria-Mercè Marçal archive in Barcelona, so I have read all of the notes, readings and drafts that are preserved as traces of her creative process, and I also undertook further research on the different voices included in the novel. In some cases, such as the prologue and first chapter, for instance, this led to quite extensive adjustment, in order to bring out the subtle irony that pervades the Catalan original (Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway was the key inspiration here). In other cases, such as the exquisite Kerimée chapter, the writing is pretty much entirely Kathleen’s.

This is a translation from Catalan, but about a French context. How did the multi-lingual features influence your translation?

We agreed to deliberately interventionist translations in parts. On the one hand, we opted to preserve fragments which appeared in other languages (including fragments of Dante). On the other hand, we compensated for the disappearance of Catalan in translation by augmenting the plurilingualism of the text in parts. The decision to source the French originals for certain fragments and quotations in the Sara T. narrative, for instance, was a decision taken jointly in order to make it clear that Sara T. is translating, and often reflecting consciously on the process of translating, from French – hence, for instance, the indecision between “sorrowful” and “painful” to render “douloureux”, when in Catalan that hesitation is simply expressed using a comma the first time it appears. In some ways, the inclusion of fragments in French that Sara T. is trying to translate allows us to remind everyone that she is not French herself, but Catalan. This was important to us, given the impossibility of keeping Marçal’s exquisitely creative translations of Vivien’s poems – it would have added too much to the length of our version. Even so, it would be great to be able to publish all of the different versions in parallel one day! You’ll also have noticed that there are numerous places where we have gone for words with Old French etymology in order to keep the sense of a process of writing against English I mentioned before. Words like blame, regret, verse, vanquished, damsel, coquetries, insouciance etc… and even the more unusual “badinage” which I use in the prologue to translate the Catalan “asteisme” (asteism). I decided that “asteisme” was sufficiently marked in Catalan to warrant an equally marked choice in English.

Another significant intervention was my introduction of recurrent references to trial and error with each use of the word choose (“triar” in the original Catalan). These are intended to prepare for the word-play on “triar”-“trair” (“to choose” versus “to betray” – or as I have it, “trial” and “betrayal”) in Sara T.’s meditations on the nature and (im)possibility of desire. But they also fit in with the constant reference to trials and betrayals in Vivien’s hagiography of martyred queens, and with meta-reflection on the (im)possibility of translation and representation: traduttore, traditore, the translator as traitor. I also quietly corrected incorrect references to dates (such as Barney’s birthday), place-names and so on, where I thought the error was just a slip. In some cases, the errors aren’t so much errors as a reflection of the sources available on Vivien in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Francis Boutle Publishers focus on books from minority or minoritized languages; was this why it was important to you to publish The Passion According to Renée Vivien with them?

We approached Clive Boutle primarily for the really obvious reason that he is the first publisher to have brought out a book by Marçal in English – her posthumous The Body’s Reason. I also really liked the edition of Josafat that he did with Peter Bush, a text which I don’t think many publishers would have taken the risk to publish. It felt right to take the novel to him, even though in many ways Marçal deserves to be included alongside other great twentieth-century feminist authors. I myself sourced the image for the cover, in the Smithsonian archives, inspired by the exploration of the limits and possibilities of visual representations that threads through the novel. It was painted – more properly sketched in pastels – by Natalie Clifford Barney’s mother. Clive Boutle is responsible for the rest of the design and formatting, and for helping me to be brave enough to re-paragraph the novel in order to introduce more breaths when reading. Incidentally, we were very conscious of the poetry all the way through; this is a novel that can and deserves to be read aloud. I was very attentive to breaths and cadences; partly, I suppose, because I generally work on theatre and performance. There is a strongly performative, carnivalesque side to this novel too: ultimately, it is all about bringing words to life, about putting flesh on Vivien’s words. We hope that The Passion of Renée Vivien will travel to the many different readers it deserves.

Review: Maria-Mercè Marçal, The Passion According to Renée Vivien

Translated from Catalan by Kathleen McNerney and Helena Buffery (Francis Boutle Publishers, 2020)

This is a very different kind of novel from those I normally read for Translating Women, and will be a treat for anyone who enjoys creative biographies. The Passion According to Renée Vivien represents a literary project to uncover the hidden life of Renée Vivien (the literary pseudonym of Pauline Tarn).  Renée Vivien was an English-born poet who wrote in French in the early twentieth century, whose poems are particularly notable for their explicit revelations about her amorous relationships with women, who lived in a “palace of pain” and longed to escape from life, and whose legacy has been “demolished by the victorious blows of mediocrity and stupidity.” Originally published almost thirty years ago, The Passion According to Renée Vivien is a ground-breaking work in Catalan literature, taking on the traditional “academy” from the marginalised perspective of a woman writer – and not just a woman, but a woman who openly proclaims her love for other women, a poet whose name “shines … with its own light amid a tradition that certainly existed but only underground, the victim of invisibility and silence.”

Herself an openly feminist and lesbian author and activist, Maria-Mercè Marçal became obsessed with the idea of lifting Renée Vivien out of the exile which is “the common lot of poets” – an obsession that she transfers to one of the main active voices of the text, Sara T. The decision to create fictional biographers is a clever one: this is no dry, objective account of Vivien’s life, but rather a vivid, impassioned quest to uncover her mystery and her legacy. The Passion According to Renée Vivien is full of beautiful aphorisms (“After all, perhaps glory is just a posthumous form of love: the only form with the capacity to raise the dead”), and Marçal sets out to give voice to an overlooked figure from recent literary history by writing a book about “women who, like me, yearned for deep-rooted changes in the world.”

This polyphonic text is part documentary, part biography and part love song to its subject. We discover much of Pauline’s life through the eyes of Sara T., a 1980s Catalan documentary maker who becomes obsessed with giving voice to Pauline, and in particular Sara reveals the difficulties of piecing together all the details of Pauline’s life to make a coherent whole. The other main source of information is Salomon R., a museum curator, and we also have letters from Pauline’s lovers, as well as a more objective and omniscient third-person narrator from Pauline’s own era, through whom we gain insight into her personal circumstances through observations of her entourage and conversations between courtesans. Though in some ways contemporary readers might find the main narrative’s milieu less recognisable because of the relatively privileged lifestyle it details (for example, one character’s great dilemma regards her “unresolved doubts” about an ivory statue in a museum, and Renée herself “had the fortune to be able to torment herself with only metaphysical problems”), the timeless and universal qualities of love, loss, desire, jealousy, sorrow and despair prevent the text from feeling dated or unrelatable.

My over-riding impression of the translation was that much time, energy and (if I may borrow from the title) passion has gone into making this work available to English-speaking audiences: it’s clear just how much both translators care about this project. The writing is lyrical and eloquent, almost old-fashioned in its language choices, but not dated. It evokes a time of formality in turn-of-the-century Paris, and manages to sustain a formal and authentically period-appropriate narrative style throughout its 350 pages. This formality is also partly owing to a delicate attention on the part of the translators to favour terms that have French etymology, reflecting through this choice Pauline’s own writing “against” English. In the whole book there were only a couple of instances when I thought something more modern might have crept in, but this may well be my own ignorance of when expressions became current in English – or it may reflect potential anachronisms in the original Catalan. Overall, there was something very nostalgic for me about reading this book: its turn-of-the-century style and references to 19th-century writers and culture took me back to my years studying French literature, and locating much of the narrative in Paris is always a way to tug at the nostalgia for me. All it takes is the street names and in my mind I’m already there – so my only regret in that sense was the anglicisation of some of the street names – a number of the more recognisable ones remain in French, but elsewhere there are references to, for example, “Vendôme Square” and “the boulevard of Paix”, which for me snapped the nostalgic connection. But that’s an entirely personal reaction, and for readers who don’t know French – or don’t know Paris – then this might, conversely, bring them closer to the text, particularly given the strategies of writing “against” English that I mentioned earlier.

I’ll leave you with a little scoop that for me was the most fascinating thing about this novel: thanks to an interview with translator Helena Buffery (which you can read here in full next week), I discovered that the final chapter of The Passion According to Renée Vivien is made up entirely of fragments of Renée Vivien’s poetry. This section is breathtakingly beautiful, and the book is worth reading for this alone – not only its beauty, but also the skill of weaving together the (French) fragments to make a narrative (in Catalan) that is now translated into English. Within the fictional biographer’s task, we are told that “her verses were the autobiography of her soul”, and so it feels appropriate to give the last word to Renée Vivien, via Marçal, in a rendering by Buffery and McNerney:

“I am of those laid low by light. Under the implacable face of day, memories devour me like abject vermin. And at dusk when I hear the groaning of the unfortunate land, I have felt in excess the horror of having been born. Who, then, will bring me the hemlock in their hands? Night slithers, slowly and subtly, toward the opal of the hill. The soul resuscitates in the tenebrous shadows.

… I will hurl myself into your eyes, where sadness rhapsodizes.

… Here, words do not hurt, Let us keep the doors closed. Souls without hope have the solitary pride of islands.”

Review copy of The Passion According to Renée Vivien provided by Francis Boutle Publishers