Translating from language to language, and from sense to sense

The absinthe is a highly alcoholic spirit that has been languorously praised for the special pleasures it lavishes, especially erotic and artistic. Both kinds of pleasure were famously combined in the tumultuous, absinthe-soaked relationship ( 1871-73) between French poets Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud, and distilled in the latter’s synaesthetic sybaritic sonnet “Vowels,” the ultimate fusion of language and all five senses.*

Comparable and other pleasures may be derived from enjoying Absinthe: A Journal of World Literature in Translation, the ten-year-old literary magazine, now published twice a year by the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan, which is highly respected for its emphasis on Translation Studies. Appropriately enough, co-editor of the magazine is Etienne Charrière, a Ph.D. student specializing in Modern Greek, whose native Switzerland gave absinthe to Le canevas banal de nos piteux destines/”The banal canvas of our pitiable lives” of the Baudelairian ennui.**

Charrière selected, in collaboration with fellow grad student Emily Goedde, the contents of Absinthe 21 (Winter 2015), an issue titled “Precarious Europe: Writing in Uncertain Times,” which includes pieces from eleven countries and regions, including one from the book Φακός στο στόμα (2012) by Christos Chryssopoulos, translated by Will Stroebel, yet another Michigan Comparative Literature graduate student specializing in Modern Greek.   As the editors’ introductory note puts it, “In the work of the Greek author and photographer, who keeps track of his nightly ramblings through a desolate Athens, the old figure of the flâneur is activated and assigned the task of documenting human survival among ruins old and new.” In addition to co-editing Absinthe, Charrière researches the world republic of fiction; writes a dissertation on the transnational rise of the novel in the long nineteenth century; publishes in scholarly journals; delivers academic papers; translates from Greek, Armenian, and English into French; teaches undergraduate courses; gets coveted scholarships; helps organize events; and in general has a very creative life, typical for an intellectual at the Most Educated City in America (Forbes) and the Most Intelligent College Town in America (Zoomtens).

The Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan has been attracting over the years a younger generation of wonderful  scholars who incorporate modern Greek culture into their study and research, and Charriere is one of them. Among those who have graduated and are distinguishing themselves in the academy are Aslı Iğsız from Turkey, Assistant Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University, and Maria Hadjipolykarpou from Cyprus, Lecturer in Modern Greek in the Department of Classics at Columbia University.


* Arthur Rimbaud



A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu: voyelles

A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue: vowels

Je dirai quelque jour vos naissances latentes:

I shall tell, one day, of your mysterious origins:

A, noir corset velu des mouches éclatantes

A, black velvety jacket of brilliant flies

Qui bombinent autour des puanteurs cruelles,

which buzz around cruel smells,


Golfes d’ombre; E, candeurs des vapeurs et des tentes,

gulfs of shadow; E, whiteness of vapours and of tents,

Lances des glaciers fiers, rois blancs, frissons d’ombelles;

lances of proud glaciers, white kings, shivers of cow-parsley;

I, pourpres, sang craché, rire des lèvres belles

I, purples, spat blood, smile of beautiful lips

Dans la colère ou les ivresses pénitentes;

in anger or in the raptures of penitence;


U, cycles, vibrements divins des mers virides,

U, waves, divine shudderings of viridian seas,

Paix des pâtis semés d’animaux, paix des rides

the peace of pastures dotted with animals, the peace of the furrows

Que l’alchimie imprime aux grands fronts studieux;

which alchemy prints on broad studious foreheads;


O, suprême Clairon plein des strideurs étranges,

O, sublime Trumpet full of strange piercing sounds,

Silences traversés des Mondes et des Anges:

silences crossed by Angels and by Worlds

— O l’Oméga, rayon violet de Ses Yeux!

— O the Omega, the violet ray of Her Eyes!


L’étoile a pluré rose au coeur de tes oreilles,

The star has wept rose-color in the heart of your ears,

L’infini roulé blanc de ta nuque à tes reins;

the infinite rolled white from your nape to the small of your back;

La mer a perlé rousse à tes mammes vermeilles,

the sea has broken russet at your vermilion nipples,

Et l’Homme saigné noir à ton flanc souverain.

and Man bled black at your royal side.

(prose translation by Oliver Bernard)


** Absinthe was known as the “green fairy.”  In Green: Mélodies françaises (2015), their second album of French song from the 19th-20th c., following Opium: Mélodies françaises   (2009), French counter-tenor Philippe Jaroussky and pianist Jérôme Ducros perform 43 settings of poems by Paul Verlaine (1844-96) by many French composers, from his contemporaries (Massenet, Debussy, Faure) through the next generation (Honegger) to songwriters from the 1940s-1970s (Brassens, Trenet).

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