The Center was joined by legendary translator Richard Howard on February 16, 2012 to discuss his work with some of the greatest French writers of the 19th and 20th centuries. In this audio event he focuses on Stéphane Mallarmé's most famous—and likely most challenging—poem, "Afternoon of a Faun," which encompasses seven pages and includes several challenges of syntax, typography, and form. He characterizes the work as "for the spoken word only," and it can be heard as Howard intends in the audio in his dramatic reading.
Here, Howard truly embraces translation in all its forms, discussing the translation of Mallarmé's poem into Claude Debussy's symphonic piece Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun and Nijinsky's ballet "Afternoon of a Faun." He recounts the exceptional performance of Nijinsky and Sergei Diaghilev's production of the ballet where a dancer masturbates into a scarf in a church, causing just the sensation that the men wished to create.
Howard also notes that when he translated Mallarmé's "Afternoon of a Faun" it had been previously translated 13 times—notably by Aldous Huxley—as well as recounting some of the metrical, syntactical, and typographical challenges of the seven-page work. As Howard notes, "there are many qualities of the poem that seem to be leading to some sort of ultimate break-up of formal French verse and poetry." He also places it into the context of some of Mallarmé's most ambitious work, including his other two long poems, "Herodias" and "A Cast of the Dice Will Never Eliminate Chance," the latter of which Howard said was so difficult that "I will not even try to read or describe to you." Howard revealed that his editor at the prestigious and translation-friendly press W.W. Norton has offered him as much as $30,000 to finally step up to the challenge of translating "A Cast of the Dice . . ."
In the question and answer session that follows the reading, Howard talks about Baudelaire's rhyming verse making his poems sound "foolish" in English, and his own choice not to rhyme them as the end of the line in his translations. Howard speculates on French-language authors he might like to translate but hasn't yet. He also returns to the $30,000 figure for the translation of "A Cast of the Dice Will Never Eliminate Chance," other translations of the poem, what a translation of that poem would incur, and the poem's meaning, if any.