Getting the right bridge

Ollie Brock

This week’s Granta blog is by Ollie Brock. Read last week’s post by John Freeman, about his visit to Lahore promoting the magazine, here.

Guillaume Apollinaire

Daniyal Mueenuddin told us in an interview yesterday that ‘Translation is impossible, in a strict sense’. And in a strict sense, he’s right – but if a translation is a bold rewriting, there are some worthwhile ones out there. Poet, activist and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti has offered one in the The Paris Magazine (which I wrote about in my last post). It’s his version of Guillaume Apollinaire’s ‘Le Pont Mirabeau’, a musical lament about both love and time passing below a bridge in Paris. Words are awkward things to reproduce, but if you start you have to finish (there’s a daring change of meaning of the refrain in this version). It reminded me of a freer response I once saw – a ‘visual’ translation of Apollinaire’s ‘Zone’. The compositor had arranged cropped images associated with the ideas of the poem – which is a sort of hymn to the ordinary things of a weekday morning – and which corresponded roughly to line length, speed and rhythm. The effect depended on knowing the poem, of course, but it was quite dazzling in the combination of both rigorous care and creativity that had gone into it. Which is, of course, what made it a good translation.*

(Incidentally, any version of the poem will be more beautiful than the bridge itself. My pilgrimage finally to see the thing ended accidentally one day when a suburban train I was on broke down. I got out and found myself looking right at the Mirabeau – a steely sea-green, this is a decidedly functional bridge by Parisian standards. Forget the majestic buttresses of the Pont Neuf, the Pont des Arts’ picnicking students. Traffic shuffled sadly over the rather monosyllabic structure, leaking between suburban office blocks. Believe me – it really would take a poet.)

What I’m reading

Another poet, this one fictional, in Nicholson Baker’s new novel The Anthologist. Editors beware: he knows about you. Paul Chowder, the hapless narrator, procrastinates on a scale that is truly painful to observe while on deadline to write the introduction of a poetry anthology. He cuts his finger on a breadknife and wishes that his ex-girlfriend would move back in. He almost overflows with modesty and ambition. At one point, with utter resignation, he emails some poems to Paul Muldoon, the poetry editor of the New Yorker (his real name). A short while later, Chowder runs into Muldoon at a party. The influential and busy editor greets Chowder with enthusiasm, and tells him earnestly, ‘Hey, you should send me some of your new work.’

The book’s other pokes at the literary world include a lament for people making podcasts. ‘You have to hand it to those poor podcasters. They keep on going week after week, even though nobody listens to them. Then eventually they puff up and die.’ To listen to Granta’s podcasts, which include readings and interviews with our authors, click


Nicholson Baker wrote about the hotel where Debussy composed his symphony ‘La Mer’ in Granta 76: Music. To read his article online, buy a subscription to our digital archive.

The Anthologist also makes mention of Troy Jollimore, whose poem ‘Remembered Summer’ was recently published exclusively on

In other blogs… John Freeman on his day in Lahore promoting Granta’s Pakistan issue, and Ollie Brock on translated fiction and the Paris Magazine.


*Update Tues 2 Nov
I’ve now traced the visual poet-translator. He is Clive Scott, Professor Emeritus of European Literature at the University of East Anglia. Picking up from where Apollinaire’s famed ‘Calligrammes’ stop, Professor Scott’s work includes ‘phototextual translations’: experimental interpretations of the poetry which use typography, musical staves, text, photographs and even paint. He is currently putting together a book which will collect his work on Apollinaire – part of it has been published recently in the journal
Art in Translation
, which exists to bring into English ‘the most interesting articles on visual culture presently available only in their source language’. The first issue of the journal, published in March 2009, is free to read
. Art in Translation is published by the
Visual Arts Research Institute, Edinburgh

With Professor Scott’s kind permission, here is his phototextual translation of Apollinaire’s poem, ‘Marizibill’:


Interview: Daniyal Mueenuddin