Translating Jean Follain

Mary Feeney

William Matthews was a graduate student in the mid-1960s when he discovered Jean Follain’s poetry in the stacks of University of North Carolina library. Far from Chapel Hill, W.S. Merwin met Jean Follain in Paris and became his early translator and champion. Bill Merwin encouraged the young Bill Matthews to continue working on Follain’s prose poems. I became involved in the project as a French Studies graduate and MFA student.

Of the 90-odd prose poems from two Follain collections (Tout Instant, 1957, and Appareil de la terre, 1964) that Bill Matthews and I translated, we came to focus on a group of 44, selected with advice from Madeleine Dinès, Follain’s widow.

The poems appearing in this issue of Waxwing have been reworked from texts not included in the book that William Matthews and I eventually published. I only wish that Bill, one of America’s most distinguished poets of the late 20th century, were here to collaborate once more. At the time of his death in 1997, we’d just begun talking about new versions of Follain. Sebastian Matthews and Curtis Bauer have been generous guides in the revision of these poems.

Jean Follain’s work is profoundly rooted in his native Normandy, in centuries of rural culture shattered by war. Each of his densely worked prose pieces is less a vignette, or even a poem, than a self-contained world full of deft historic and emotional detail, odd encounters and concatenations, explosions of space and time. “Reading Jean Follain’s poetry and prose,” wrote novelist and critic André Dhotel, “it comes as a surprise to be transported so far from the realm of action and find no familiar landmarks of life and society. Has the history of the world suddenly changed?”

Besides W.S. Merwin, Follain has attracted many translators, notably Heather McHugh, Christopher Middleton, and Ciaran Carson. My hope is for these renditions to interest even more readers and future translators.

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