Lea Graham: Could you begin by talking about your interest in translating the work of Louise de Vilmorin? She has been compared to Paul Éluard and Max Jacob. What was it that attracted you to the work?
Timothy Bradford: I can’t remember where I first encountered her work, probably during a French literature course as a grad student. After reading translations of Baudelaire and Rimbaud, I decided that I needed to improve my French so I could read their work in the original. Vilmorin’s more famous as a novelist, but somehow, her Poèmes found its way into my hands, and I was hooked with the first line: “Mon cadavre est doux comme un gant;” (My corpse is soft like a glove). I suspect the elemental, sensual quality of the language, a common element in surrealist poetry, appealed to me. It still does. As a master’s student, I had started an event called Speaking in Tongues that featured poetry from all over the world in the original language and in translation, and I translated three of Vilmorin’s poems for that occasion. I intended to continue and translate the whole book, which I photocopied while on interlibrary loan, but I never got around to it. Perhaps now.
LG: What do you think that translating French specifically requires? If language is a way of perceiving the world, how does French encourage you to see the world differently? Obviously, this will be specific to the poet you translate, but do you think you have a common experience when you work in French?
TB: For me, a good dictionary! And patience. As far as how French changes one’s perception of the world, well, that is trickier. I recall reading in one of those French lit classes a comparison of the language of Racine and his contemporary Shakespeare, and this text pointed out that Racine would use fleur to stand, symbolically, for all flowers while Shakespeare would catalog them. Ophelia’s mad dispensing of flowers and herbs in Hamlet comes to mind. It seems that the poetry of Vilmorin, and of Éluard and Jacob and other surrealists, does something similar to Racine’s fleur—the whole stands for the parts—and perhaps French as a whole does this more than English. It can be very symbolic and philosophical. French is also more formal than American English. As far as a “common experience,” well, not so much since translating someone like François Villon is an exercise in specific parts and earthiness, but overall, I’d say French literature is more marked by symbolism and formal language than American literature. That’s why they love Poe so much.
LG: How has traveling and living in India and then the years spent living in Paris with your family affected your sense of place? I think about the acreage with horses you and your family live on outside Oklahoma City and the way the weather is upon you in a dramatic way because of the flatness of that landscape. How have various landscapes had an affect on you as a writer? Is landscape significant to you and your work or is there something else within place that plays a more important role?
TB: First of all, it has made my sense of place fairly fluid. I’ve spent the largest part of my life in Oklahoma, but I don’t have a strong allegiance to this place and can imagine living in dozens of other places, some hopefully during this lifetime. Second, living in a variety of places has made me more aware of the variety of experiences people have, especially in relation to landscape/geography, economics, and the intersection of these two things. In particular, I’m aware of how comfortably and luxuriously many of us live in the United States in comparison to people in other places, and I’ve come to accept and understand those comforts more now than I did when I was younger. Related to all this, an encounter with a middle-aged Nepalese farmer in the foothills outside Pokhara comes to mind. Despite the hard work, he was happy in his village and deeply appreciated his view of the mountains to the north and the plains to the south. However, his son had left to find work in Kathmandu so he could make enough money to buy a leather jacket like the ones he saw in Bollywood films. His father was incredulous and I understood this; the views were gorgeous. But I also understood why the son had to leave. I had had my teenage material fetishes too. And yes, the diverse geography, culture, and economics I’ve encountered in places including Oklahoma appear in my work as evinced by the title of my first book of poetry, Nomads with Samsonite, and many of the poems within.
LG: Tell us a travel story. What has been one of the more memorable experiences that you’ve had traveling that you think has had an impact on you as a writer?
TB: Right after I finished my undergraduate degree, I taught English in Nitra, Slovakia for a summer and was befriended by a young Hungarian man named Jozef who lived in a nearby village named Búč. We’d often go to his family’s place on the weekends, and I was amazed at their self-sufficiency. They grew all of their own vegetables and fruits, tended chickens for eggs and meat, and made their own wine, which was quite good. We’d spend our time picking vegetables, sampling wine, and walking around the village. The meals ranged from casual affairs in the kitchen, which was always a mess because something was always being made, to more formal meals in the dining room, but the food was always fresh and delicious. Once, we decided to catch an early train to Budapest so Jozef could show me around, and when we got up at 5 a.m. to have some coffee before heading out, Jozef’s mother was frying chicken for us. Our 10 a.m. breakfast of still-warm fried chicken, fresh, fairly spicy peppers, and bread is something I’ll never forget. If I could ever write a poem that good, I’d retire. The whole sensual earthiness of their lives won me over, and those experiences and qualities are important to my work though I’ve never written about this one until now. Then, after several visits, I learned that Jozef’s grandfather lived with them and had fought in World War I. He was a bit senile, so I think they were shy about introducing me to him, but finally they did, and with Jozef acting as the translator, he told some amazing stories about the war and afterward. This layering of geography, small-scale agriculture, and history made an impression, and all of these elements are important to my life and work.
Photo By: Kevin Chu