There's no more left at the deep of our smiles

Aujourd'hui aura lieu. La surface invisible
Délimitant dans l'air nos êtres de souffrance
Se forme et se durcit à une vitesse terrible ;
Le corps, le corps pourtant, est une appartenance.

—from "Le jour monte et grandit, retombe sur la ville" by Michel Houellebecq in Unsplendid 3.2

Translation of the above poem from the volume "Le sens du combat" ("The art of combat") is also featured in Unsplendid, written by Delphine Grass and Timothy Mathews, a team that's put forth translation of several Houellebecq poems lately, in at least Unsplendid and Salt that I've noticed.

Today will happen. Invisible surfaces
Separate our suffering selves in the air
Then form and harden at a terrible pace;
But the body, still our pact with the body.


I'm glad to see they had the courage to tackle Houellebecq.  He is of course subject of almost constant controversy.  I've always felt that his methods convey mischief rather than malice.  He's more a clever provocateur than a vulgar, racist chauvanist, in my impression, though I'll admit I've never really studied him closely.  I'm not sure I'd actually read any poems from "Le sens du combat," and the Grass & Mathews selections in Unsplendid ("Quand elle m'apercevait, elle tendait son bassin" and "So Long") are just lovely little poems.  I can't say I'm completely enamored of the translation, which strips away much lyrical power from the original.  Just to grab one example from what I've already quoted: "But the body, still our pact with the body" doesn't do justice to "Le corps, le corps pourtant, est une appartenance."  Here is a case where the most literal is much better.  Something more like "The body, yet the body, is but a member," or: "The body, the body yet, is but a member."  Or maybe use "an accessory" in place of "a member."

There are other places where I'd have made much different choices.  But the translators did accomplish their most important work, which is to bring broader attention to fine poems.  I'm now very interested in reading more from that volume myself, and probably offering some of my own translations.  In the title of this post you'll find my own translation of "Il n'y a plus grand-chose au fond de nos sourires".  For now, though, a bit more from Unsplendid:

Il y a toujours une ville, des traces de poètes
Qui ont croisé leur destinée entre ses murs
L’eau coule un peu partout, la mémoire murmure
Des noms de villes, des noms de gens, trous dans la tête.

Grass & Mathews translation:

There’s always a city, and traces of poets
Who have met their destiny within its walls,
Water is leaking, and memory whispers
Names of cities, people, holes in your head.


(Picture credit: "Without a Face, a portrait of the Soul" by Sergeant Pablo Piedra)