by Julie Poitras Santos
Thanks to translation, we become aware that our neighbors do not speak and think as we do. On the one hand the world is presented to us as a collection of similarities; on the other hand, as a growing heap of texts each slightly different than the one that came before it: translations of translations of translations.
— Octavio Paz1
We do not know what will capture us, what movement will grasp us from the periphery, will call to our senses by its reflections or symmetry; nor do we know what we will choose to follow. This essay is about shifting territories and the nature of that capture. This essay is about an artist and a story, about falling in love with a book, and the journey of that book and an artist who has been grasped by the text. The text and the work of the text cross-thread media and method, unfold like light patterns, fractal and fractured, spilled from the object chamber of a kaleidoscope focused on the horizon.
In the fall of 2014, I found myself with a group of other interested viewers and readers, listeners, around a table in the cozy Institute for American Art (IfAA) in Portland, Maine, carefully dissecting the lead monotype that had been used to print a limited-run edition of books as we listened to Jimmy Riordan read from his publication. We were asked to sort each letter individually — a challenging task with such small type, holding each small rectilinear block up to the light — and to drop each one in its respective container, to be melted down at the end of the event, producing a lead ingot.
In 2002, Jimmy Riordan fell in love with a book. Riordan nostalgically describes the small book — found in his college library, as a hardcover Seagull Library edition with an embossed gull on the tan cloth cover, a worn binding — and his first reading of the narrative of The Romance of the Rabbit. Who among us readers has not fallen for a book, not just its contents, but too the brisk cloth of the cover, or the rough-cut pages of old cotton paper? Riordan later studied as a bookmaker himself, learning the trade of binding pages together. The book he found in 2002 was a 1920s translation by Gladys Edgerton of Francis Jammes’ 1903 Le Roman de Lièvre. Riordan withdrew the book and forgot to return it, effectively stealing away, story in hand.
Years later, moving on, he couldn’t find the book among his things. The loss inspired an obsessive search; he was unable to track down a copy anywhere, unable to find and return the small, embossed volume. But while living in London in 2007 he discovered the text on the Project Gutenberg website, both Edgerton’s translation and the original French. He says he was, at that time, “looking for content” for his hand-bound books, seeking a story. Turns out he already had one. In the fable by Jammes, a sensitive hare travels with Saint Francis of Assisi to Heaven. On a whim, not knowing any French at all, Riordan decided to translate the first paragraph of the fable for himself.
And in 2008, with the help of dictionaries, an online translator and Edgerton’s “original” translation, Riordan translated the entire text. Le Roman de Lièvre has spawned numerous artworks and projects, both personal and communal, including exhibitions, a mobile library, a road trip, a series of prints, books, comics, pamphlets, a catalogue, a dinner and even an air freshener — all by Riordan.
Marginalia, for example, curated by Riordan and Leslie Rosa in 2009, brought together artwork made in response to the text for an exhibition in Anchorage, Alaska. Riordan and Rosa sent his translation of Le Roman de Lièvre to 50 artists in the US and Europe and asked them to respond to the text in notes and in form. Collected for the exhibition, the responses included artwork, food and music. And in 2010, Riordan drove 13,000 miles throughout the United States for a project titled Return to Me to return the fifty works and meet the artists; the following year he did the same in Europe, returning works to artists in Germany and England.
Jammes’ text inspired this return: in the story, the hare expresses a litany of desires for St Francis to return to the hare what the animal has lost. “Return me to the earth… return me to my furrows full of mud. Return me to the paths of clay. Return me to my native valley… Return to me my fear,” 2 and the cold copper of the snare. Riordan extended the frame of the traditional exhibition, using the journey of the text to inspire new journeys. And on January 1, 2012, Riordan arrived in Orthez in the south of France, at the Maison Chrestia, the very building where Le Roman de Lièvre was written, the writer’s former home and the current home of the Association Francis Jammes.
In 2014, with the help of Zygote Press in Cleveland, Ohio, Riordan’s translation of Le Roman de Lièvre was set in monotype and an edition of 250 volumes was printed. All of these works and nomadic ventures are reflections of that original narrative written at the turn of the last century by a poet from Tournay, France, a small rural town not far from the border with Spain, at the foot of the Pyrenees.
Le Roman de Lièvre is the story of a journey, a fable about a hare, and a story about spiritual desire and revelation. And translation, too, by its nature involves a journey, if not across borders, cultures and idioms, then within the self.
What is a translation? Riordan is quick to deflect attention from his activities as “not real translation,”3 noting that he couldn’t imagine calling himself a translator in the face of the many who study such arts and work tirelessly to bring words from one language into another. He still does not, after all, speak French. Yet what is he doing if not translating — text from one language to another of course, but too, from one country to another, from one material to another, from story to visual art and communal practice and back again, across the United States from Alaska to Maine, from the US to Europe, across time; translations of translations, a kaleidoscopic tail-spin, fractured and multiplying. Each work, each word, inspires a new work, a new adventure.
In writing about Gilles Deleuze’s essay “Nomadic Thought,” Tim Rayner notes that “You can sit still and be a nomad. Nomadism is a way of being. It involves refusing to be tied down by set categories and definitions. It is driven by a desire to experiment and explore, to learn, grow, and boldly venture forth on creative lines of flight.”4 Even as it journeys outwardly, Riordan’s work sits still. In using Le Roman de Lièvre for material, the work navigates both stillness and motion, interiority and exteriority. Riordan experiments and explores, mining this one text to parse pieces into artworks; it multiplies and is shared. Le Roman de Lièvre is the story of a journey, a fable about a hare, and a story about spiritual desire and revelation. And translation, too, by its nature involves a journey, if not across borders, cultures and idioms, then within the self.
Riordan has commented on the difficulties of translating extended French sentences with their innumerable commas; yet his work too lends itself to the run-on, the continuation, the adventure: journey upon journey upon journey. Lynn Hejinian notes that in translation “the original serves as a first proposition, a thesis, and the translator responds with a second, dependent proposition — an alternative to it. This in turn becomes embedded in the synthesis we call translation. But this dialectical process is incomplete; it is a negative dialectics, since between the original and the translation the tension remains unresolved…. The original…will always demand another translation…”5
Saint Francis of Assisi, patron of animals, ecology, and trade, was a devotee of the Troubadors. The Troubadors, like Saint Francis, were traveling storytellers, engaging in a vital deterritorialization of narrative, transporting it, bearing it as news and inspiration to new communities. And much like Deleuze’s philosophy of “embarkment” which, as Mel Ahern notes, “is not a philosophy but a mobile method or form of text, always outward-looking,” Riordan’s work “changes with the (temporary) territory it inhabits.”6 All this to say, the work travels but it also sits still, digs in, holds ground. Its territories are geographical, material, conceptual.
In 2014, in the sorting and melting of lead type, each ingot became the physical representative, in scale and in weight, of the number of times a letter was used in the text; another form of translation, this one conveying a sort of inverse Oulippan challenge to the “reader” of this new variant. In Riordan’s work, translation is a generative space, a mobile space. In Le Roman de Lièvre, after all, the hare leads animals to Heaven and survives, but he is miserable there, he longs to return to the sensual, urgent press of mortality. Riordan’s work doesn’t rest; it roams; it seeks collaborators and dialogue, it pushes the boundaries of the text and the framing of “art”. It must keep moving; each new work demands another, a variant, a new translation, another reflection, more dialogue, more lines of flight.
Riordan returns to the IfAA this October to participate in a series of conversations surrounding ideas explored by the philosophy of new materialism and the ramifications it holds for social practice and art history. Check the IfAA website for further details.
You can see more of Jimmy Riordan’s work at http://www.riordanjimmy.com/.
- Octavio Paz, “Translation: Literature and Letters”, trans. Irene del Corral, in Theories of Translation, ed. Schulte and Biguenet (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press. 1992), 154. ↩
- Jammes, Francis, Le Roman de Lièvre. 1903. Translation, Jimmy Riordan. ↩
- In conversation with Riordan, October 2014. ↩
- https://philosophyforchange.wordpress.com/2013/06/18/lines-of-flight-deleuze-and-nomadic-creativity/ accessed September 12, 2015. ↩
- Lyn Hejinian, The Language of Inquiry (Berkeley, LA, London: University of California Press, 2000), 305. ↩
- Deleuze, Gilles, Nomad Thought, annotation by Mal Ahern (Theories of Media, Winter 2003), http://csmt.uchicago.edu/annotations/deleuzenomad.htm accessed September 12, 2015. ↩