Yves Bonnefoy

Translator’s Note on Yves Bonnefoy’s Work:

I began translating Yves Bonnefoy’s work when I was a teenager, so long ago that I no longer remember how I came across his poems or had the chutzpah to think I could do an adequate job of translating them into English. He was very patient with me, as I lived within his world for the time it took to translate Pierre écrite (Words in Stone) and L’Origine du langage (The Origin of Language). It is a very different world than my own. It’s not just the distance from Paris to the small college town where I was working, or from one language to another; he has a different vision, a different approach to language than my own, more focused on the essential than the particular. Different as it was and as it remains, his vision and his words have shaped me as a human being and as a poet, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to re-enter his poems after so many years. It is like an oasis, this border between the known and the unknown where so many of his poems pause and consider. This one in particular is moving to me, presenting the image of an artist reaching the end of his life’s work. Yves Bonnefoy was born in 1923. Of course, he is thinking about the end of his road, with the same clarity and grace that he has thought about every step along the way.


Photo credit to Mathilde Bonnefoy
Photo credit to Mathilde Bonnefoy

Yves Bonnefoy, born on June 24, 1923, is perhaps the most important French poet of the latter half of the 20th century. He has also been a respected critic, scholar, and translator, having translated works by Shakespeare, John Donne, and William Butler Yeats into French. After studying mathematics at the University of Poitiers, Bonnefoy moved to Paris where he came under the influence of the Surrealists. His first poetry collection, Du movement et de l’immobilité de Douve (1953; On the Motion and Immobiity of Douve), explored the relation of poetry to life, a theme that has continued through the 20 books of poetry published in succeeding decades. He explored the visual arts as well as literature in studies of Giacometti and Goya. In 2007 he was awarded the Franz Kafka Prize in recognition of his contributions to literature. 


Susanna Lang Susanna Lang’s (translator) most recent collection of poems, Tracing the Lines, was published in 2013 by the Brick Road Poetry Press. Her first collection, Even Now, was published in 2008 by The Backwaters Press, and a chapbook, Two by Two, was released in October 2011 from Finishing Line Press. She has published original poems and essays, and translations from the French, in such journals as Little Star, New Letters, The Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, The Green Mountains Review, The Baltimore Review, Kalliope, Southern Poetry Review, World Literature Today, Chicago Review, New Directions, and Jubilat. Book publications include translations of Words in Stone and The Origin of Language, both by Yves Bonnefoy. She lives in Chicago, where she teaches in the Chicago Public Schools.


He Is Leaving

In this wash drawing, sketch of a landscape,
You could see him leave. Hesitant at first,
Taking one road and then another,
And more, still more, till he reaches his night.                                   

Soon those who loved him
Could see only a clear remnant
Of his color, a red, beneath this sky
With its unknown waves along our shore.

Tall trees from over there, pathless, dense;
He goes forward, immobile, we do not know
If he wants to risk himself in their other world.

Or perhaps like the sun that has achieved its task,
He puts aside his brushes and lies down
In peace, on the flagstone of the evening sky.


Il s’éloigne

Dans ce lavis, ébauche d’un paysage,
On le vit s’éloigner. Hésitant, d’abord,
Puis prenant ce chemin après quoi cet autre
Et d’autres, d’autres encore, jusqu’à sa nuit.

Ceux qui l’aimaient
N’aperçurent bientôt qu’un reste clair
De sa couleur, un rouge, sous ce ciel
Qui ourle d’inconnu notre rivage.

Grands arbres de là-bas, serrés, impénétrables,
Il avance, immobile, nous ne savons
Sil veut s’aventurer dans leur autre monde.

Ou comme le soleil qui achève sa tâche
S’il pose ses pinceaux, et va s’étendre
En paix, sur la dalle de pierre du ciel du soir.

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