Filling the Pool

Hélène and Ann read at USC

In grad school, my advisor wanted me to read widely to “fill the pool,” a nice way of saying “enlarge my vocabulary.” Maybe I could get away using the same words over and over in individual poems, but in a book — the reader would certainly despair.

Translating work by French poet Hélène Sanguinetti drenches me in waterfalls of words. The verb ramasser offers a choice of collect, gather, scrape together, pick up or take up. My French-English dictionary has now replaced my Thesaurus — whose spare offerings never helped anyway.

Ann signs her first book of translation

Translation drills writers in nuance and context. Of ramasser’s five options, which fits the context? Is closest to the poet’s meaning? Sounds best? Ferreting out the right word feels like detective work and this is translation’s most addictive hook.

I know an artist who uses bulky oil sticks to ensure she will “lose control” drawing. Translating has freed me in a similar way. As the un-poet, I can casually rearrange words. Writing feels less emotionally loaded: For once I am comfortably invisible.

Translating also lets me step inside the poet’s mind: Hélène favors local images cherished by Cézanne — Mount St. Victoire and cypress trees. What else intrigues her? Love amidst extremes such as hunger, old age and bursting volcanoes.

For all these marvelous discoveries, translation ought to be required at every writing program.

At a Dodge Festival panel on translation, I asked Robert Bly (left) when he knows a translated poem is finished. He works with a linguist who indicates when more work is needed—news he usually greets with a few expletives. The poet, in turn, asked me what language I was working on.

“French,” I said. “Oh, impossible!” he erupted. I smiled at this assessment.

It confirmed what I had to do.