Poet prevents French poet from being lost in translation
Nancy Naomi Carlson believes having access to poetry not written in your native tongue fosters intellectual growth.
"Some of the greatest works are not being written in English," the Wheaton resident observes.
Although a poet in her own right, Carlson recently published "Stone Lyre," her translation of a collection of works by the late French poet René Char (1907-1988). The volume contains some of Char's easier-to-understand pieces.
"He's exceedingly mysterious," Carlson says.
Although Char may seem obscure to Americans outside of literary circles, his commanding personality was familiar to his countrymen. He was known not only for his poetry, but also for his involvement in the underground resistance to the Nazis in Southern France and his opposition to nuclear proliferation.
Char's poems are often dark, as are Carlson's own, which made his work appealing to her. She classifies him as "part of the school of the human condition."
The poems in "Stone Lyre" often illustrate opposing realities of life and nature.
"The images stick in your mind," Carlson says.
Each translated poem is printed opposite the poem in French.
There are three basic schools of thought about translation, according to Carlson. One believes that exact translations are paramount, and another places context as most important. Carlson is part of the third, which seeks to maintain the integrity of the poem's sounds.
French has particular sounds that permeate the language, says Carlson, and she focused on recreating the assonance, or repetition of similar vowels in stressed syllables, in her translations. If this meant choosing a word that didn't have the exact meaning in English, but had the correct sound, Carlson made the sacrifice.
Carlson worked as a school counselor at both Wheaton and Bethesda-Chevy Chase high schools before moving into her current position as a counselor specialist for Montgomery County Public Schools. In this capacity, she supervises other counselors.
She majored in French in college, and one of her two doctorates is in foreign language methodology. She first read Char at Queens College, but didn't think about translating his poems until a friend suggested it.
Carlson began dabbling in writing poetry 12 years after her son, Matthew, died at birth. A book she was reading about coping with grief suggested finding a creative outlet, so she took a poetry course at The Writer's Center in Bethesda, where she now teaches two classes.
She published "Kings Highway," a full-length book of poetry, in 1997, followed by two chapbooks, "Complications of the Heart" in 2003 and "Imperfect Seal of Lips" in 2005. She also is an editor for a small press.
"Translating, in some ways, is much, much easier [than writing poetry]," Carlson says, noting that starting with a blank page can be intimidating.
Carlson's battle plan for translations involves three dictionaries: French to English, French and English. She researches the nuances of word usage and then chooses words with the required sounds.
In contrast, she notes, "With my own poems, I never know if they're going somewhere until they go somewhere."
Carlson realized there was interest in her Char translations when she sent them out to literary journals, and, much to her surprise, most were accepted.
"There seems to be a big audience out there at least in the literary world," she says.
"Stone Lyre" is available at major online booksellers.