The Drunken Boat: Selected Writings
translated by Mark Polizzotti
Since the late 19th Century, the English and Americans have made a great many attempts to translate Rimbaud’s poems into English. Some, like Arthur Symons or Louise Varese succeeded in bringing across an aesthetic; others, like Wallace Fowlie rendered a fairly literal version. John Ashbery’s Illuminations capture both well, but Ashbery limited his translations to this single work. No one, until Mark Polizzotti, has managed to bring so many of Rimbaud’s poems into vibrant and accurate English, where both sense and sensibility emerge in so striking a fashion.
What makes Rimbaud so difficult to translate is what also makes him so great and enduring: his choice of locutions and startling imagery, word choices often based as much on sound as meaning, a metric as accomplished as many of his prominent predecessors, the ability to say the most complex ideas in the simplest of ways, and the extraordinary linking between the fantastic and the mundane. In other words: “Il faut être absolument moderne.”
Polizzotti understood all of that. I also sense that he knew he needed to meet Rimbaud on his own terms, not with a preconceived Academic notion of who Rimbaud was or should be. I say that because it seems evident to me that Polizzotti got very deep inside Rimbaud’s verse, if not Rimbaud’s head, and then worked his way out from French into English, untangling his syntax, hearing and feeling the music, finding just the right equivalents for sights and sounds, even managing to render the poet’s subtle, yet extensive synesthesia in a nuanced and vital manner.
That Polizzotti should be the one to pull this off is in some ways not a surprise. His 50+ translations of French books have already distinguished him as the foremost English translator of works from French. That said, his Rimbaud is a giant step. At long last we have in English a rendition that reads as if Rimbaud had written these poems in English.