IT WAS PERHAPS the greatest literary gamble of its time — the 1897 publication of Stéphane Mallarmé’s revolutionary poem, Un Coup de dés (usually called A Throw of the Dice in English) in the pages of the international literary magazine Cosmopolis. After soliciting Mallarmé’s contribution for an issue devoted to new currents in French poetry, the publisher got cold feet. “He is afraid,” the magazine’s secretary wrote to Mallarmé in March 1897 (as recounted in Gordon Millan’s biography of Mallarmé), “that our public, which is a little conservative in artistic matters and for the most part totally uninitiated into the harmony and aesthetics of modern French poetry, might be somewhat disconcerted by your experiment.”  The “experiment” consisted of a long, gnomic poem, full of esoteric symbolism and disjointed syntax, in free verse — so free, in fact, that the text broke from typographical conventions such as flush-left alignment and uniform type, cascading across 11 open-face pages; some words and phrases were emphasized through a larger font size and by switching from Roman to italic type and back. After some deliberation, the editorial board decided to publish the poem — with the stipulation that it be accompanied by a prefatory note to explain the peculiar form of the work. Since then, generations of readers, scholars, and translators have also tried their luck at this most modern of Modernist poems. The latest iteration of Mallarmé’s masterpiece, from Wave Books, is a stunning presentation of the poem in French with a new English translation by Robert Bononno and Jeff Clark: a rendering that aspires, in Bononno’s words, “to be as bold and original as Mallarmé’s French.”

Clark, an accomplished poet and designer, began working on the translation more than a decade ago. “In about 2004,” he told me in an email exchange, “I read somewhere that [Un Coup de dés] had never appeared according to Mallarmé’s wishes.” He set himself the task not only of translating the words but also of rendering the exacting visual characteristics that constitute the poem’s primary innovation. Later, he decided to find a translator who could help revise his draft of the poem “with a fine-toothed comb,” so he enlisted the help of Robert Bononno, whose work Clark was already familiar with. Bononno’s previous translations included a selection of Foucault’s lectures on literature, a biography of Guy Debord, and a brilliant but dense study of Proust by Henri Raczymow — proving him no stranger to challenging texts.[1] Bononno and Clark worked on the translation for more than a year, drafting and redrafting until, in Bononno’s words, they’d “found a voice.” After that, the challenge was to revisit words and phrases “that had been resistant to translation” — and in Mallarmé, those are many. 

So what makes Un Coup de dés so challenging and so groundbreaking? If 21st-century readers have trouble seeing the poem’s shape on the page as risky or radical, it’s largely because this work paved the way for so much of the 20th century’s experimentation. Its unprecedented use of white space to configure the reader’s visual experience resulted in what Mallarmé, in his Preface — though he cheekily tells us not to read it, or to forget if we did — called “prismatic subdivisions of the Idea.” Lines of text, read from the upper left, across the book’s seam, to the lower right, “sometimes accelerate and slow the movement, articulating it, even intimating it through a simultaneous vision of the Page.” Those capitalized words — Idea and Page, as well as the grand Work or Book that occupied and eluded Mallarmé his entire life — represent important archetypes for the father of Symbolism. What that “Idea” is — not to mention its inextricable relationship to the “Page” and the unrealizable nature of the “Book” — has occupied and eluded readers for over a century. The notorious obscurity of even Mallarmé’s short lyrics (epitomized by the famously impenetrable “Sonnet in –yx,” where a key term on which comprehension might hinge is the nonce word ptyx) baffled Mallarmé’s publishers and continues to challenge contemporary critics.

Any attempt to reduce the poem to a plot (a captain at the helm of a ship making a last-ditch attempt to survive an unrelenting storm at sea, as some have suggested) is ultimately as futile as the captain’s “roll of the dice,” but that hasn’t deterred readers from trying their hand at interpretation. Claude Roulet’s 1943 Elucidation seems to have been the first scholarly attempt at a comprehensive reading. “But what happens in this shipwreck?” asked Maurice Blanchot in 1955. “Can the supreme conjunction, the game which in the fact of dying is played not against or with chance, but in its intimacy, in that region where nothing can be grasped — can this relation to impossibility still prolong itself?” (“To this no answer is offered,” he concludes, “no other certainty than the concentration of chance, its stellar glorification, its elevation to the point where its rupture ‘rains down absence.’”) For Jacques Derrida, the ship’s sails came to represent not only the white space on the pages (“the ‘blanks’ that assume importance”) but also an aporia in meaning: “a blank open on all four sides, a blank that is written, blackens itself of its own accord, a false true blank sense (sens blanc), without a blank (sans blanc), no longer countable or totalizable.” And Philippe Sollers described the sentence of Mallarmé’s title as being “[s]ubjected to an atomic disintegration and dissemination,” where what remains is “no longer the transcription of a meaning, but the virtually spontaneous upheaval of the written surface.”

French critics are not alone in attempting to articulate the inarticulable conundrum of this poem. Wallace Fowlie’s in-depth 1953 study, Mallarmé, devotes an entire chapter to Un Coup de dés, and despite his helpful page-by-page breakdown, he notes, “The most careful reading leaves in the reader only a vague approximation to the poem as a whole.” The most influential analysis of the poem in English remains Robert Greer Cohn’s 1946 Yale dissertation, Un Coup de dés: An exegesis, which is cited by most of the critics who followed him, including Fowlie and Derrida. And though it continues to inform Mallarmé scholarship on both sides of the Atlantic, even Cohn’s indispensable work cannot illuminate all the poem’s dark corners. Barbara Johnson has argued that “Mallarmé’s famous obscurity lies not in his devious befogging of the obvious but in his radical transformation of intelligibility itself through the ceaseless production of seemingly mutually exclusive readings of the same piece of language.” Hans-Jost Frey believes Mallarmé’s work “cannot be read for a specific meaning, something it refuses to represent from the beginning”; and that “[w]e should try to sense how, in their constant uncertainty, [his poems] come to be something undecidable and how they maintain their insight into the doubtfulness of their own status.” Nevertheless, as Paul de Man insisted, Mallarmé’s themes are, on some level, representational. “The natural image of the cloud covering a star,” he argues, “is an indispensable element in the development of the dramatic action that takes place in the poem.” Perhaps even more importantly, “[t]he image of the poetic work as a star implies that poetic understanding is still, for Mallarmé, analogous to an act of seeing.”

Seeing the poem as Mallarmé intended it to be seen is especially important. The poet left specific instructions about the design and layout of Un coup de dés — instructions he didn’t live to see fully executed — and over the years those instructions have sometimes been ignored, as though they were of secondary importance to the words themselves. “My first challenge,” Clark said, “was to match — and at the same time, quietly improve/correct — the design of the [Ambroise] Vollard edition Mallarmé was preparing at the time of his death.” A number of critics — and the poet himself, in letters as well as in the poem’s famous Preface, have insisted that the poem’s meaning is inextricable from its “look” on the page. (Leo Bersani, for example, has argued that the poem’s meaning is “visible on the pages of the poem” and that signification takes place not so much in “the untraceable mobility of mental time” as in the poem’s physical presence on the page.) While this notion doesn’t seem terribly controversial or perhaps even noteworthy in the 21st century, it actually took quite some time to be realized.

Though Mallarmé had given part of the poem to the editors of Cosmopolis, his plan was to print the entire poem on its own, to exact specifications of varying typeface and size. He wanted the shape of the words on the page not only to “list from the top of one page to the bottom of the next” like the ship itself, but also to “assume, according to precise laws and in so far as it’s possible in a printed text, the form of a constellation.”[2]  By May of 1897, Mallarmé had arranged to publish a luxury edition of the poem that was to include four lithographs by his friend, the Symbolist artist Odilon Redon. He saw and corrected a number of proofs that summer, but he was exhausted and in poor health.[3] He died on September 8, 1898 without having realized his vision, and it wasn’t until 1914 that a stand-alone version of the poem, slightly modified and without the illustrations, was finally published in a limited edition.[4] Over the next century, a number of important translations appeared, many of which paid lip service to the overall layout of the poem as Mallarmé conceived it without necessarily adhering strictly to his wishes.

Bononno and Clark aren’t the first translators who felt compelled to complete the original project, which was abandoned at the poet’s death. Many before them have purported to be the first to reproduce Mallarmé’s exact typographic instructions, although more important than the question of who was first or who comes closest to fulfilling Mallarmé’s wishes is the fact that there is so much interest in getting the vision right. After all, “[t]he page layout,” as Mallarmé wrote to André Gide in 1897, “is where all the effect is to be found.”[5] Daisy Aldan claimed that her 1956 translation from Tiber Press “follows faithfully the typographical arrangement designed by Mallarmé.” D.J. Waldie, however, insisted that his version, first published in 1990 by Greenhouse Review Press, was the first to get it right. “For the first time,” he wrote in 2001 in Parnassus, which reprinted his translation with an accompanying essay, “the spreads of pages were as broad and tall as Mallarme specified, [with] all his typographic arrangements respected.” Henry Weinfield based his 1994 version on “an edition of Un Coup de dés prepared by French poet Mitsou Ronat and published in 1980, which comes closer than other modern editions to the specifications that Mallarmé designated.” Another French edition, from Michel Pierson & Ptyx in 2002, specifies that it incorporates the poet’s final handwritten corrections and matches the “physical appearance desired by the author.” And E. H. and A. M. Blackmore boast that their 2006 version “managed to reproduce the layout of Mallarmé’s corrected proofs more closely (especially on the fourth page) than even the new Pléiade edition was able to do.”

Glancing even at just the work’s title in these or a few of the other prominent translations of the past 60 years demonstrates the range of nuance and complexity inherent in the poem. The first English translation that attempted to respect the poet’s general typographical instructions seems to have been Aldan’s, and her straightforward take on Un Coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard — “A THROW OF THE DICE / NEVER / WILL ABOLISH/ CHANCE” — became practically the standard English title for the work. In 1965, Dolmen Press published a very different version by Brian Coffey, titled “DICE THROWN / NEVER / WILL ANNUL / CHANCE” — the most awkward and least sonorous of the English translations, though it has the advantage of breaking from Aldan’s literal version and striking out on its own. Three decades later, Weinfield tweaked Aldan’s title, giving it a slightly more natural cadence: “A THROW OF THE DICE / WILL NEVER / ABOLISH / CHANCE” — but his handsome edition of the collected poems from the University of California Press is marred by the clunky formatting: two pages of the poem’s text, originally meant to be read across the book’s seam, are squeezed onto one page, with the corresponding French text on the facing page. (This arrangement is convenient for those who wish to compare the texts, but the doubling distracts from the intended effect.) And then there’s the Blackmores’ rather sloppy “A DICE THROW / AT ANY TIME / NEVER WILL ABOLISH / CHANCE,” published by Oxford World’s Classics in 2006. Although their versions of Mallarme’s sonnets are often highly effective, the addition here of a whole phrase (“AT ANY TIME”) is inexplicable, and the squishing together of “NEVER WILL ABOLISH” is not only unsightly but also at odds with the poet’s careful parsing of those key words, which Aldan identified as “an important part of the pattern which unifies the poem.”

Bononno and Clark’s choice of title signals a crucial departure from their predecessors, replacing the word “THROW” (used, it appears, by almost every previous English translation [6]) with “ROLL.” A ROLL OF THE DICE wraps around the cover in giant capitals, superimposed on an image of Mallarmé’s corrected proof of the title page. It’s a small change with a huge effect — at once defamiliarizing and Americanizing the title. English-speaking readers are familiar with the French “coup” from phrases like coup d’état — a political overthrow — but “in the States,” Clark argues, “we’re more familiar with the rolling than throwing of dice.” The change could also have the effect of altering, however slightly, our interpretation of the poem, if we concede that “roll” implies a greater perception of control over the outcome than “throw.” (After all, we don’t “roll fate to the wind” — unless, perhaps, we’re Sisyphus.) To carry such interpretations too far would be absurd, of course, and anyone used to the poem’s final line in Aldan’s or Weinfield’s translation — “All Thought emits a Throw of the Dice”— might object that Bononno and Clark’s “All Thought is a Roll of the Dice” is reductive or over-determined. But “emits” doesn’t make much sense of the line, even if it is a literal translation of Mallarmé’s “émet,” which could also mean “broadcasts” or “issues.” (There may be something satisfyingly surreal about Coffey’s version of the last line, “All Thought utters Dice Thrown,” but he seems to be trying too hard to make it strange. The poem is strange enough as it is).

Ultimately, Bononno and Clark felt that most of the existing translations didn’t go far enough: “They were too cautious. They didn’t sound much like poetry, in spite of their formal qualities, and seemed to have capitulated to the difficulty and complexity of the work without trying to interpret it in any way.” Translation, of course, is always a form of interpretation, and while Clark insisted on radicalizing the original, he also wanted to produce a version “that anyone could deal with.” Pages eight and nine offer a snapshot of some of the exegetical difficulties faced by translators of Un Coup de dés. The Master — a trope not just for Mallarmé, or for the idea of the poet, but for all of modern mankind, tossed about on the stormy seas of chance — seems to hold the horizon in his hand like dice, “shak[ing]” his fist (and “mix[ing]” the metaphorical dice) “as one threatens / a fate and the winds.” Bononno and Clark’s choice of words makes infinitely more sense than Aldan’s “tosses and merges” or the Blackmores’ “tossed and blended” or, worse, Coffey’s “works itself up and mingles,” which loses the image of the fist-shaking gesture altogether. To those who may object that such an approach might make the poem too accessible, there’s little danger of that. Cohn himself called it “one of the most indecipherable pieces of writing in any literature,” so a little clarity can’t hurt.

The Master hopes his roll of the dice will turn up “the unique Number” — the secret that, if only he could “toss it / into the storm,” would enable him to “reopen the seam and pass proudly” through the tempest to safety. Instead, he must “play / like a gray-haired maniac / the game” that he seems destined to lose. The recurring image of the shipwreck — on this page depicted as emanating “straight from the man” — might, in hindsight, seem to stand in for the disastrous century Mallarmé never lived to see, or at the very least for the “Oeuvre” he so desperately sought in vain. Fortunately, Bononno and Clark don’t resort to such heavy-handed maneuvers — and occasionally they resist the reading that other translators seem to take for granted. For example, where the Blackmores interpret “cadavre par le bras / écarté de secret quil détient” as “a corpse cut off / by its arm from the secret it withholds,” Bononno and Clark opt for the less readable — but more credible — “corpse by the arm / detached from the secret it holds.” Likewise, where nearly all other versions translate the non-sequitur lines “au nom des flots / un / envahit le chef” in a way that creates narrative sense and continuity (assuming that “un” represents “one” wave that “invades the head” of the captain [Weinfield] or “surges over his head” [the Blackmores]), Bononno and Clark decide to forego semantics; their version (“in the name of the waves / a / breaks over the captain”) makes less sense and — in its refusal to do so — reminds us that senselessness is an integral part of Mallarmé’s project, and of lyric poetry in general.

Bononno and Clark’s handsome, hardcover book — an aesthetic object in itself — not only gets Mallarmé’s “effect” right, it outdoes its predecessors by casting two different versions (or visions) of the poem. The French original that follows the translation appears to follow closely Mallarmé’s intentions — at least to an eye that, though untrained in the finer points of typography, has examined facsimiles of the poet’s corrected proofs.  Clark’s French version recreates the typography Mallarmé was looking at in those proofs, though a purist might balk at the book’s smaller trim size or the 21st-century digitization of the typeface Didot.[7] But part of Clark’s idea for the design of this book was to use today’s capabilities not just to reproduce but essentially to remodernize the work. “For the English translation of the poem,” Clark writes, “I tried to channel what might have been Mallarmé’s desires regarding type as if he were here now. My feeling is that he’d want it to be modern, maybe even radically so.”  (Clark isn’t the only advocate of this idea: Waldie had defended his own subtle alterations by arguing, “It’s important not to fetishize these physical properties of Un Coup de Dés, but more important not to etherealize them.”)

Another innovation in this Wave Books edition is the use of illustrations. Bononno and Clark decided against using Redon’s lithographs (three of which survive). As Bononno writes, “They’re not Redon’s best work and are weak as images and as a reflection of the text, which requires something deeper, darker, and more complex.” But their existence, Clark says, “gave me permission to illustrate the book, [though] I’ve done so less directly — more as a way of adding graphic breaks between parts.” These breaks consist of several groupings of full-page black-and-white photography, the first of which is carefully placed in the title sequence. The title occupies nine open-faced pages, with one word or phrase on each spread: “A / ROLL / OF / THE DICE / WILL / NEVER / ABOLISH / [image] / CHANCE.” The image of white-capped waves that dramatically interrupts the title is a stroke of genius, referencing the roiling seascape of the poem’s setting while also honoring the book’s publisher. Another set of full-page black-and-white images of swirling water and choppy waves separates the title pages and author’s name from the English version of Mallarmé’s Preface. (There is no other introduction or translators’ note; the poem must be accepted on its own terms. Besides, as the poet wrote of his own Preface, “it will teach the skilled Reader little that falls outside his comprehension.”) Between the translation and the original comes a set of otherworldly images of the sea floor pulsing with strange, anemone-like creatures, as though we’ve been abandoned at the bottom of the ocean. At the end of the book, though, a series of images like starry skies (some of them negatives, with black stars against whitish backgrounds) evoke the great “CONSTELLATION” of the poem’s ending — “the successive shock / starlike / of a complete accounting still unformed” — as if the poem has lifted us into the empyrean.

Mallarmé was incomparably original, and the ideal translators, as Richard Howard argued in his translator’s note to his iconoclastic translation of The Immoralist, “[confront] the often radical outrage of what the author, in his incomparable originality, ventures.”) This translation may not deliver the ultimate coup de grâce to all other versions, but it ranks among the most effective — and affecting — for its ability to show us a new face on an old work. Part of his and Clark’s challenge, Bononno stresses, was “to create a ‘modern’ poem, one that was as radical and contemporary as Mallarmé’s French for its time” — and that’s exactly what they’ve done. Mallarmé had written to Gide, shortly after the poem was first published, that “the rhythm of a sentence about an act or even an object has meaning only if it imitates them.”) But great translations must do more than imitate: they must take great risks, as this gorgeous and important book clearly does.

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Jeremy Glazier’s poems have appeared in Kenyon ReviewQuarter After Eight, and The Beloit Poetry Journal, among others.

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 NOTES:

[1] Nevertheless, Bononno claims he probably wouldn’t have translated Un Coup de dés without Clark’s invitation. “I’m drawn more to 19th-century novelists, 20th-century essayists, and contemporary literature generally,” he writes. Interestingly, though, several of his translations (including the three referenced above) reveal tantalizing connections to Mallarmé. Proust, for example, had described “the alarm and exhaustion” Marcel’s grandmother feels toward “Mallarmé’s late poetry” in The Guermantes Way. Vincent Kaufmann, in his biography of Debord, discusses the relationship between the work of Mallarmé and the leader of the Situationist International. And Foucault believed that “The great task to which Mallarmé dedicated himself, right up to his death, is the one that dominates us now.”

[2] Stéphane Mallarmé, Letter to André Gide. May 14, 1897. Selected Letters of Stéphane Mallarmé, ed. and trans. Rosemary Lloyd (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1988) 223.

[3] The corrected proofs with Redon’s illustrations can be viewed here: http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b8625644w/f1.image

[4] The 1914 version can be viewed here: http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k71351c/f1.image

[5] Quoted in Gordon Millan, A Throw of the Dice: The Life of Stéphane Mallarmé.

[6] There is at least one exception. Christopher Mulrooney, for example, has published a version online entitled “One Toss of the Dice will never abolish Chance”: http://cmulrooney.tripod.com/ut/dice.html

[7] Firmin-Didot was the printing firm that Mallarmé had contracted to produce the luxury edition that was left unfinished at his death.

 

WORKS CITED:

Gordon Millan, A Throw of the Dice: The Life of Stéphane Mallarmé (New York: FSG, 1994)

 Claude Roulet, Elucidation du poème de Stéphane Mallarmé: Un Coup de dés, Aux Ides et Calendes (Paris: Neuchatel, 1943).

Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature, trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982).

Jacques Derrida, Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).

Philippe Sollers, “Literature and Totality,” in Writing and the Experience of Limits, ed. David Hayman, trans. Philip Barnard with David Hayman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983).

Wallace Fowlie, Mallarmé (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1953).

Barbara Johnson, “Poetry and Performative Language: Mallarmé and Austin,” in The Critical Difference: Essays in the Contemporary Rhetoric of Reading (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980).

Hans-Jost Frey, “Mallarmé,” in Studies in Poetic Discourse: Mallarmé, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Hölderlin, trans. William Whobrey (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996).

Paul de Man, “Lyric and Modernity,” in Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Routledge, 1983).

Leo Bersani, The Death of Stéphane Mallarmé (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982).

Daisy Aldan, translator’s note to “A Throw of the Dice,” in An Anthology of French Poetry From Nerval to Valéry in English Translation, ed. Angel Flores (New York: Doubleday, 1962).

J. Waldie, “The Ghost of an Obsession: Translating Mallarmé’s A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance,” Parnassus: Poetry in Review 26.1 (2001): 180-185.

Henry Weinfield, commentary on Collected Poems, by Stéphane Mallarmé, trans. Henry Weinfeld (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 264.

Stéphane Mallarmé, Collected Poems and Other Verse, trans. E.H. and A.M. Blackmore (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), xxxi.

Stéphane Mallarmé, A Throw of the Dice Never Will Abolish Chance, trans. Daisy Aldan (New York: Tiber, 1956).

Stéphane Mallarmé, Dice Thrown Never Will Annul Chance, trans. Brian Coffey (Dublin: Dolmen, 1965).

Stéphane Mallarmé, Collected Poems, trans. Henry Weinfield (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).

Robert Greer Cohn, Mallarmé’s Un Coup de dés: An exegesis (New York: AMS Press, 1949).

Richard Howard, translator’s note in The Immoralist, by André Gide (New York: Vintage, 1970).

Selected Letters of Stéphane Mallarmé, ed. and trans. Rosemary Lloyd (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988).