Jena Whitaker

Jena Whitaker

Ph.D Candidate at the Johns Hopkins University

Ceding the Initiative to Words : Translations of Mallarmé’s “Sonnet en ‘yx’”

The primary goal of my NEH final project was to sensitize students to the formal elements of the source poem (or text), such as assonance, alliteration, anagram, rhythm, and the frequency of certain vowels or consonants. Although students may have a limited knowledge of the source language, I argue that this should not prevent them from experientially engaging with the original poem. Through an audible as well as visual experience of the source poem and its translation(s), I think much can be gained from translation in both language and literary pedagogy.

To demonstrate how one might sensitize students to a poem’s formal elements, my presentation focused on the French symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé, a translator of Edgar Allan Poe, who is especially well known for his musical and incantatory poetry. The handout for my project included Mallarmé’s “Sonnet en ‘yx’ and three different translations of this source poem: Roger Fry’s, Henry Weinfield’s, and a co-translation by Patricia Terry and Maurice Z. Shroder. In the first half of my presentation, I discussed each of these translators’ reactions to Mallarmé’s obscure poetry. In the second half of my presentation, I provided a concrete example of how Mallarmé plays with the materiality of words, creating what the scholar Malcolm Bowie refers to as “phonic continuums”. Afterwards, I then asked participants to closely listen to and look at Mallarmé’s “Sonnet en ‘yx’”. Do they see or hear assonances, alliterations, frequent soundings of certain vowels and consonants?

By sensitizing students to the formal aspects of the source poem, my intention was not to privilege the original as opposed to the translation(s). Instead, my goal was to show how a heightened awareness of the visual and aural experience of the source poem reveals the extent to which translation is an intricate decision making process, one which opens several different poetic choices. These choices cannot always be judged in clear-cut terms such as good versus bad or faithful versus unfaithful.  

View my presentation here.

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