Thursday, June 21, 2018

Interview | Michèle Betty in conversation with Joan Hambidge on The Coroner’s Wife (2018)

MB: The Coroner’s Wife is a selection of your poems in translation. I would like to start by discussing language and translation theory.  Talk to us about translation and the difficulties of transporting a text into another language – in particular, the notion expressed in your afterword that what is lost from the original in the translation of the text is gained in the new translated poem.

JH: In 2016 I attended the ICLA conference in Vienna on translation and my proposal was as follows:

In her discerning study on Emily Dickinson entitled The Gardens of Emily Dickinson (2005) Judith Farr analyses the meaning of horticulture in the poetry of Emily Dickinson and the relationship with 19th century symbolism. The author paid a visit to her house in Amherst, Massachusetts in 1999 and has written many poems on ED. What this paper sets out do is to establish the complex relationship between translation and "retracing" the unique symbolism of an American poet to the South African and more specific an Afrikaans (language) landscape. This will be a stereoscopic reading of the relationship between two poets and the appropriation of tropes.

The paper will reflect on the impossibility of a correct translation of a poem and the creative-discursive response, namely a new poem in a different language as the only possibility of understanding the original poetics of Emily Dickinson. The paper will reflect on vraisemblance versus poetics. Translation theories and the so-called “contact zones of interpretive powers” (Pratt) will be analysed.

What do we “translate” when we read and write poetry?


My paper was entitled: Lost in Translation and I referred to theorists in the field, for instance, Hokenson & Manson on the bilingual text and Venuti’s famous work on the translator’s invisibility. 

The idea is from Robert Frost’s notion that the real poem is what lies between the original and the translated version. The theoretical idea of a stereoscopic reading is apt.

In Emily Dickinson’s Garden– translation by Douglas Reid Skinner

Every day, Emily D believed
she heard the sounds of birds
in her tree-filled, lush, green garden.
It was here, in her garden of happiness,
as Judith Farr explained,
that she experienced the widest link
between poetry and gardening: from love to hate;
envy against virtue; death and eternity
dug into flowerbeds.
Planted wild fig marigolds, jasmines
and daisies. And picked a bouquet
each day for herself. And each flower
– even the gardenia –
looked up in flower encyclopaedias
– Campanula, Columbine, Aquilegia –
and therafter explored Webster's fields
as a traveller keeps track of her itinerary
in a strange country. Every
symbol precise, exactly understood.
O enigmatic woman in your white dress,
I visited your garden in the spring:
stood there and wondered
if you ever talk in the Garden of Eternity 
with the other gardener of Amherst,
with her, Sylvia, whose death
keeps on blooming like a black arum lily?

MB: You have written over 25 poetry collections from your first, Hartskrif in 1985 to your most recent, Indeks in 2016.  Many of your poems contain work written on foreign shores, in particular in America.  For example, your debut collection, Hartskrif was written in a freezing winter in New Haven when you were doing research at Yale.  The poems are strongly influenced by this American oeuvre and especially by East Coast American poets like Robert Pinsky/Wallace Stevens/Elizabeth Bishop/Adrienne Rich/Plath –  all referenced in your work.  One of the things that I noticed when reading and compiling the translations was that this referencing and these themes come across more powerfully in the English versions.  It is more obvious and carries greater nuance.  Why do you think this is?

JH: I think America has produced fabulous poets – also Robert Lowell, Frank Bidart, to name two other influences. I paid a visit to Yale after completing my first doctorate. I was a theory junkie then and I wanted to meet Harold Bloom and the Yale deconstructionists. J. Hillis Miller was there and Barbara Johnson taught in De Man’s stead. I was fortunate to meet them and attend seminars. But in that cold winter I started writing poetry. Wallace Stevens wrote “An ordinary evening in New Haven”, a famous ars poetica and I am deeply influenced by his work.

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night
Was like the conscious being of the book. 
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

MB: Talk to us a little about your title The Coroner’s Wife.  How did you choose it and what is the meaning for you?

JH: Dissection, autopsy – as a young child in matric our biology teacher forced us to attend an autopsy (1974, old South Africa). This has made an indelible mark on my psyche to see a doctor exposing the lungs and brain of a man. In standard seven, I witnessed the death of a child in a car accident and our first house in Aliwal North was near the graveyard.

It should also be read as a title of displacement: as a child I attended different schools due to my father's work: Aliwal North, Witbank, Pretoria, Standerton ...

Always the new kid on the block. Maybe this is the key to my writing of poetry in foreign spaces? To trace that sense of loneliness, displacement, Verfremdung ...

The coroner’s wife – a sort of Mrs Maigret in Simenon’s novels – is always aware of the impact of death on her partner’s life.

(To write poetry you have to be prepared to die. - Theodore Roethke)

The poet stands closely to the translator. I’ve read these translations in many versions and gave feedback to the translator of exact meanings or subtext.

MB: Your poems across the decades have returned to several regular and repeating themes.  For this reason, we decided to order the poems, not chronologically but rather into the four sections: travellogues/family/ars poetica and death and eternity.  Talk to us about these repeating and circular themes in your work.

JH: The poet returns to the scene of the crime. I think we all have certain obsessions that we repeat of visit to understand our demons or drives. My Jungian therapist has assisted me in my poetic journey. She is also a well-read person.

MB: Over the years, your poems have been translated by many different poets.  When a poem is translated, the translated poem belongs to the translator and is no longer considered to be that of the original poet.  Copyright in the translation rests with the translator.  This entails a level of trust and letting go. How did you settle on your selection of the four poets who translated the poems in this selection?  

JH: All the translators are dear and trusted friends. Charl JF Cilliers, Johann de Lange and Douglas Reid Skinner are also fabulous poets – Johann has been my poetic mentor since 1984. Jo Nel is a renowned translator and intellectual.

Who does the poem belong to? Yes, it does belong to the translator, but also to the poet in a marriage of heaven and earth. In the garden of …

MB: Talk to us about this aspect of having poems in a volume that are now the work of the translator and no longer Joan Hambidge poems.  Is there a freedom in letting go of your work in this manner?

JH: They are also my poems. I have given input and if you read theories of translation you will see what translation entails: Venuti’s notion of sending the reader (poem) abroad. I regard my translators as guides in foreign cities. But the guide needs the visitor or traveller to survive!

MB: The travelogue poems are poems that are covered in most of your 25 volumes of poetry.  Discuss with us your fascination with cities, going back to cities and then immortalising cities in your poems.  

JH: Maybe a different love affair? A city becomes a representation of the inner self, a postcard from the edge. Visiting a foreign city reminds me of the Russian Formalist Sklovsky’s notion of ostranenie (making strange), a primary principle of poetic language.

The different poems on New York since my debut reflects not only a change in my perspective but also a transformation of the city.

MB: I know that you have been contemplating the publication of a selection of your work in translation for some time now.  What does it mean to be an Afrikaans poet publishing in English? Why did you feel that time was right to release the translations now?

Photograph by Ron Irwin

JH: I’ve been thinking of this project since 1999 after a brief visit to Cambridge, Mass. I was doing research for a second doctorate on gender and met Barbara Johnson again. In Harvard’s many libraries I found my volumes of poetry in Afrikaans – and wondered: who would be able to read and understand my work?
I met Robert Pinsky at a poetry reading on Harvard sq. and sent him some of my poems. He reacted positively, which fuelled the project.

I work in an English environment (albeit as an Afrikaans professor) in the School of Languages and would like to show my work to my colleagues from Italy and Colombia. I do not share the paranoia on the death of Afrikaans and my English volume does not mean that I am leaving the Afrikaans literature. I am currently working on Astrak en Op die keper beskou. The first volume deals with the death of my mother and the late professor Henning Snyman, one of the finest readers of poetry. The second volume is a selection of ekphrastic poems: Magritte, Lucian Freud, Manet, Picasso …

The Coroner’s Wife was completed as a testament. Maybe as a looking back on my poetic career? Afrikaans has a lovely word for this process: ‘n bestekopname.


A bibliography of my paper.

Bhabha, H.K. 1993. Culture’s in Between. Artforum International, September, ble. 167–8, 211–3.
—. 1994. The Location of Culture. Londen: Routledge.
Farr, Judith. 2005. The Gardens of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Hassan, W. 2006. Agency and Translational Literature: Ahdaf Soueif’s The Map of Love. PMLA, 121(3):753–68.
Hokenson, J.W. en M. Munson. 2007. The Bilingual Text. History and Theory of Literary Self-Translation. Manchester: St. Jerome.
Lecercle, J.J. 1990. The Violence of Language. Londen: Routledge.
Pratt, M.L. 1987. Linguistic utopias. In Fabb e.a. (reds.) 1987.
—. 1991. Profession 91. New York: MLA.
—. 1992. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. Londen en New York: Routledge.
—. 1996. Apocalypse in the Andes: Contact Zones and the Struggle for Interpretive Power. Encuentros, 15:1–17.
Rutherford, J. 1990. The Third Space. Interview with Homi Bhabha. In Rutherford (red.) 1990.
—. 2009. Translated People, Translated Texts: Language and Migration in Contemporary African literature. Manchester: St. Jerome.
Venuti, L. 1995. The Translator’s Invisibility. Londen: Routledge.
—. 2000. Translation, Community, Utopia. In Venuti (ed.) 2004.
—. 2002. The Difference that Translation Makes: The Translator’s Unconscious. In Riccardi (red.) 2002.
Venuti, L. (ed.). 2004. The Translation Studies Reader. Londen: Routledge.
Žižek, Slavoj (ed). 1992. Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock). London: Verso.