A friend of mine has persuaded me to try translating some French poetry, and I thought I'd try Bonnefoy as I've been a bit of a fan for some time. What I like about his work is the way he manages to combine the abstraction and philosophical concerns so typical of French poetry, with the personal and with a connection to landscape and a sense of place, as typified in his 1987 collection 'Ce Qui Fut sans Lumière' which centres around the country house in Provence where he lived at that time. The result is a poetry quite unlike English-language poetry. Of course, translating it into English risks losing those distinguishing features, and it's hard not to let the two strands work against each other, in fact, probably impossible.
Here's a little sample from 'Ce Qui Fut Sans Lumière:
Come, let me tell you
About a small boy I remember;
See him, stock-still, as he kept
His distance from the other lives.
He didn't join in, that morning,
With those who played in the trees
To multiply the universe,
Nor did he run across the beach
Towards yet more light.
But look, he has continued
On his path at the bottom of the dune -
Footprints prove it, threading
Between thistles and sea.
And close to them, you can make out
the broader tracks
Of an unknown companion,
Her prints filling with water
That doubles the sky.
Translation copyright © Alan Baker, 2007