A Tender Dissolution: On Translating Brigitte Gyr

In the past century, Switzerland has been recognized—–in regards to its contributions to international literature—–as a haven of peace, a physical space for artists to inhabit when their home worlds were collapsing. But what of the people who live and write there? The writers of Romandie, in particular, a French-speaking region of Switzerland (roughly 20-25% of the Swiss population), are often contextualized within the French canon or, alternatively, remain relatively unknown on an international level.

In the Introduction to Marion Graf and José-Flore Tappy’s La Poésie en Suisse Romande Depuis Blaise Cendrars (Seghers, 2005), French poet and editor Bruno Doucey writes, ‘For a long time, the French have held a romanticized view of Switzerland […] sparked by the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Senancour, Benjamin Constant, Madame de Staël, or Henri-Frédéric Amiel […] We must recognize that France lays a claim to [literary] capital it finds appealing (the cases of Rousseau, Constant, Cendrars, or Jaccottet are glaring), but discards those voices which seem more prodding or figures that are too radically distinctive […] Our closest neighbors are those we know the least.’ A Swiss literary canon does exist however. And, as part of it, Brigitte Gyr’s work has been quietly gaining appeal and growing in the hearts of readers and critics alike, leaving its mark on the contemporary poetic landscape of Romandie.

I discovered Gyr’s work, ironically, on a French poetry blog (her work happens to be one of those contextualized within the French canon). In late 2011, I was searching for French-speaking Swiss poets to present at a Festival de la Francophonie event at the Swiss Embassy in D.C, and although male writers were easy to come by—–I’d heard some names mentioned in my high school French classes and had come across others in my more recent readings—–uncovering female writers was quite an ordeal. Were they hiding? Were there none? Had they been omitted from the literature I knew? (Perhaps no valiant effort had been made to bring them to the fore.) Only five of the thirty-four poets anthologized in La Poésie en Suisse Romande Depuis Blaise Cendrars were women. Or did I simply not know where to look? I finally stumbled upon Gyr while rummaging about Florence Trocmé’s blog, she discusses Gyr here, after some weeks of careful searching.

One of the main difficulties in translating Gyr lies in replicating the simplicity and austerity of her language without making choices that would tip her work into the realm of the simplistic. Her lines, in French, breathe intelligence and intensity. They are unassuming, yet artful. The type of language everyone can understand, but not necessarily speak. It is familiar enough to want to nestle there, yet foreign and refined enough that her reader can learn from it. Her word choices are, in a fellow poet’s words, ‘perfect yet inevitable.’ Brigitte Gyr knows le mot juste. At every turn. The translator’s task of mining and striking, word after word, that perfect word, is monumental and anxiety-producing for her translator.

Take this short passage:

une naissance
les témoins disparus
le manque

A transliteration would produce something of this sort:

a birth
the missing/departed witnesses
(the) lack

The enumerative quality and matter-of-factness present in the original word choice is key to Gyr’s gut-punch ending—–how those heart-wrenching things are just part of a list of the things life hands us. How casually she states them. How familiar the words sound. How the speaker takes note of them in the same way she would take note of the temperature or the smell of coconuts, as she does earlier in the poem. The words needed to be short so as to be enumerated easily. They also needed to be common words, but not overused—–and to be void of any melodramatic undertones:

a birth
lost witnesses

Brigitte Gyr writes about coming apart, about a beautiful dissolution. This is formally replicated in her lines, which are very sparse—–almost as though the poems themselves were enduring fragments, small ruins. Her lexicon is soft, simple, smooth, but she moves through the poem with surgical precision, making her work both vulnerable and cutting. Ashes, sand, and water are the raw materials she uses to portray our inevitable collapse. Gyr writes of memory, the epitome of disintegration, and also of our fault lines, of the division within beings, of the multiplicity of our desires, impulses, and sorrows. And of their paradoxical nature. Gyr is acutely aware of her status as a changing, morphing entity; to be living and breathing—–those virtues condemn us to eternal transformation. And to transform is to always leave something behind, and to make a choice is to necessarily close another door. All of this, compounded by our self-awareness, makes us the perfect animals of loss.

Some years back, my friend Liz gave me a poem by Hans Magnus Enzensberger. I carry it in my wallet. The poem, ‘My Wife,’ is translated by the brilliant Esther Kinsky, and has a passage that goes like this:

Her breaths, too,
are numerous, not to mention
the manifold souls in her breast

The manifold souls in our breasts, the multiplicity of our selves: those are Gyr’s stomping grounds. And her reader is a lover whose face is nestled in the crease of her neck, and to whom she whispers, Remember with me.