The complicated history of literature and philosophy can be as hard to navigate as a vast metropolis, but there's no better guide to this Babylonian mess than Robert Baker. A professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Montana, Baker's first book of criticism, The Extravagant, is a whirlwind exploration of the crossings between modern literature and philosophy, while his second, In Dark Again in Wonder (published in early 2012), is a deeply harnessed study on two poets who gave, as he puts it, "the burgeoning excitement of international Modernism a deeper, more philosophical orientation." One of those poets, René Char, is the author of a fiery, incandescent collection, The Word As Archipelago, that Baker translated from French and recently made available in English for the first time.
Char is a poet who invokes both the radiant expanses and the dark, furious corners of the world and mind. Initially rising out of the French Surrealism of the 1930s, his images are surprising and acrobatic ("The waters were speaking into the ear of the sky"), while his tone takes on a deeper, more philosophical tenor. Originally published in 1962, The Word As Archipelago is a book propelled by oppositional tension. Eros and absence, fury and mystery, death and renewal are all important, and Char relishes their generative energy. This is even apparent in the form of The Word As Archipelago, which is an archipelago of poetic methods. It's a wide-ranging, emanating, enthusiastic collection. Its "density, élan, and reach," Baker says, is most fully realized in its prose poems and aphoristic sequences, while its verse poems are "a kind of lightening, a stepping back and breathing before he goes back into his denser sequences."
Baker began translating Char and The Word As Archipelago seriously in summer 2009 and finished the poems by that fall. "Even further back I translated him now and then, because I just translate poems I love," Baker says. "It's something I've always done. If there's a poet I'm reading deeply, or a poet I'm writing about, I'll often memorize their poems by heart because I want to carry them around with me and hear them differently."
The process of translation, Baker says, "took me into a kind of joy. I was on a kind of high from having translated this poet I've loved for so long when I entered the space of criticism with such intensity." Later the next spring, he finished In Dark Again in Wonder, his book of criticism on Char.
"The translation had a very good effect on the criticism," says Baker, "especially Char, for whom compression is the way, incisiveness, quickness. I would say it was definitely symbiotic."
Overall, Baker's translation feels tight and uncluttered, precise but not rigid. Admittedly, I don't read French, but nothing ever feels particularly "lost in translation" as these things can go, nor does anything feel stodgy or collared or overly correct. They're not loose translations, but between semantic correctness and genuine feel, I think Baker phrases it well when he says "that whole circumference has to be constantly renewed in your experience of translating." The poems feel, if anything, overwhelmingly cared fora trove of furious love poems intensely loved. While translating, Baker would dissolve into the work. "I just needed to be totally in that space," he says, "just humming Char poems in my head, humming the lines, to get in that space that's humming." His translation of The Word As Archipelago hums with fury and mystery. It's one, I think, that should satisfy even the most notoriously unyielding of critics, Char himself.