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Learning by teaching: ASU professors awarded Academy of American Poets honor

“Fortino Sámano (The Overflowing of the Poem)”
September 18, 2013

A book of experimental poetry translated from French by two Arizona State University professors has won the 2013 Harold Morton Landon Translation Award presented by the Academy of American Poets. The $1,000 prize is given annually for a work in any language translated into English.

Poet Cynthia Hogue, a professor of English who also holds the Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry, and Sylvain Gallais, a clinical professor with joint appointments in French and economics, spent four years translating “Fortino Sámano (The Overflowing of the Poem)” by Virginie Lalucq and Jean-Luc Nancy.

Published in translation in 2012 by Omnidawn Press, the book is a conversation between a poet and philosopher. The poet, Virginie Lalucq, is a librarian at Fondation nationale des sciences politiques (National Foundation of the Political Sciences) in Paris. The philosopher, Jean-Luc Nancy, is a professor of political philosophy and media aesthetics at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland.

Lalucq wrote the poetry as a meditation on a 1916 photograph of the Mexican Revolution by Agustín Víctor Casasola. The photo’s subject is a man named Fortino Sámano, a Zapatista lieutenant and counterfeiter; he is smoking a cigar. What is compelling about the image is that it was reportedly snapped seconds before Sámano’s execution by firing squad, and yet in the photograph Sámano appears casual, unconcerned and … could he be smiling?

Hogue had dabbled in translation since her undergraduate training – at one time she was fluent in French, Danish and Icelandic – and worked with collaborators translating Scandinavian poetry during several years of international study and a Fulbright Fellowship. Circumstances eventually brought Hogue back to the United States, and away from translation work, for the next 25 years.

Eight years ago, a colleague who knew of her interest and facility in literary translation invited Hogue to develop an ASU course on its theory and practice. She team-taught the course several times with Paul Morris (director of ASU’s master of liberal studies program). All the while, Hogue doubted her own competence in the literary form. Could she adequately teach something she had not done herself for several decades?

“I thought I should put my skills to the test,” she said.

On a summer trip to Europe, Hogue picked up several volumes of French poetry not available in English and brought them home for her class to practice. When doling out the books to the enthusiastic students, “they took everything but ‘Fortino Sámano.’” Hogue assigned herself the book, which was well-regarded but not well-known outside of France. “The people who knew this work loved this work,” Hogue explained.

This was fortuitous, as the volume turned out to be “both formally exciting and conceptually brilliant,” according to Hogue. She describes it as a “French prose poem, in the tradition of Arthur Rimbaud's 'Illuminations.'" As a poet and critic both, Hogue had unique insight into a writer’s process and final product, and relished the challenge of, as she has said, “bringing languages into relationship, putting them in communication with each other and cultures in dialogue."

Being conversant in French, but having not worked in it for some years, Hogue looked around for a collaborator. Luckily, she didn’t need to look far; Hogue’s co-translator, Sylvain Gallais, is her husband. Gallais did the first, literal drafts of the Lalucq/Nancy book. Hogue would divine poetic sense from the rough translation and Gallais would look at it again. The pair went on like this for several years, in constant communication with Lalucq, who made suggestions and provided commentary on their drafts. “I never, ever tired of this work,” said Hogue of the process. “I felt like I was working from inside it.”

While the book is a poetic and philosophical meditation on a photograph, the actual image does not appear in the book. “It was intentional not to reproduce the photo,” Hogue said, believing that the poem itself “transfers the visual” to the reader. The work, focused on Sámano the man, “is not his biography,” she said. “It is a poem about art. Its purpose is to ask the question: ‘What does art do?’”

Hogue looks back at this translation journey with a kind of wonder at how it unfolded. She is delighted that she could participate in “the dialogue between philosophy and art that is a 2,000-year-old subject of rumination.” She tells the story in poetic sound bites. “I love to plow in and ‘learn by going where I have to go,’ as the poet said,” referring to a poem by Theodore Roethke. In truth, she came to the project first as a teacher wanting to do right by her students. “I was just being dutiful. I was just doing it so I could better teach.”