Meeting on Paris street leads to friendship, national award for Baldridge

9:20:23 AM CDT - Thursday, May 25, 2006

By Amy Geiszler-Jones

Wilson Baldridge’s chance meeting with one of France’s most influential living poets on a street in Paris more than two decades ago has culminated in a prestigious national award that involves Michel Deguy’s works and Baldridge’s passion for translation.

Earlier this week, Baldridge, an associate professor of French at WSU, accepted the 2006 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation for his translation of Deguy’s collection of poems, “Recumbents.” The book, which includes both Deguy’s original works and Baldridge’s translations, is the first book-length English translation of Deguy’s work. Deguy’s French volume of these poems has been his most critically acclaimed work, having won one of France’s highest literary prizes.

Deguy (pronounced da-Ghee) is such a revered French poet that an entire conference on him and his work in honor of his 76th birthday is going on this week in Normandy. Baldridge, as one might expect, is taking part in that conference, having flown to France following the PEN awards ceremony in New York City.

For Baldridge, winning the award is a culmination of what he calls apprenticeship and friendship. He looks at his 30-some years of studying and teaching the French language as an apprenticeship. He sees his study of poetry, particularly French poems, as an apprenticeship, too. And because “Recumbents” includes a translation of a philosophical piece on Deguy’s work by deconstructionist thinker Jacques Derrida, Baldridge said he also had to do an apprenticeship in philosophy.

The national award is also rewarding because of the friendship that has developed between Baldridge and Deguy, following a 1986 meeting on a street in Paris’ Left Bank.

Translating someone’s literary work isn’t as easy as picking the first word in the translation dictionary that has the same meaning. The translator has to render the same meaning of the original poetry, which is highly symbolic, explained Baldridge, who will teach a translation class in the fall.

According to the PEN Award judge, Pierre Joris, Baldridge got it right. “Exquisitely balancing poetic sensibility and philosophical insight, Wilson Baldridge has accomplished this feat through superb craftsmanship, an accurate ear of the complex music of the French original, and the depth of scholarship indispensable for the project. ... This bilingual volume is everything a poetic translation should be,” Joris said in his remarks.

The friendship between Baldridge and Deguy played a key part in helping Baldridge understand what Deguy was trying to express in his poetry, which draws heavily on surrealism and philosophy. The word “recumbent” refers to resting, reclining or idle figures, and has some reference to funereal sculptures.

As Baldridge worked on the translations for “Recumbents” during the past several years, the pair would meet to discuss the work over coffee in a Paris café, at Deguy’s home in France, and even in the back of a taxi on their way to see artwork at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Baldridge found out, for example, that Deguy had been working on a recumbents theme after his mother died. Deguy’s poem for the dead, “Procession,” was written following his father’s suicide.

Baldridge said WSU also played an important role in getting the book published. He was granted a sabbatical in 1998-99 to start work on the translations and given a grant for travel. WSU also helped pay for part of the publishing cost for “Recumbents” because the publisher, Wesleyan University Press, which specializes in poetry and poetry translations, had to pay copyright fees to a French publisher to reprint Deguy’s poetry in the book.

Baldridge first became familiar with Deguy in the 1970s, as a graduate student at the State University of New York-Buffalo, which had a reputation for bringing in European literary types.

“It had lots of cultural, avant-garde kinds of things going on,” said Baldridge. “I remember seeing Deguy in a big old theater there.”

Several years later, in 1986, Baldridge was with a group of WSU French students in an exchange program visiting Paris, when he encountered Deguy parking his motorcycle across from Luxembourg Garden. Baldridge, who was in the publish-or-perish mode of his still-young career at WSU, had just written an article about Deguy’s book “Made in the USA.”

What Baldridge did next set the wheels in motion for a long-lasting friendship and collaboration: He introduced himself and told Deguy about the article.

Over the past two decades, Deguy has visited WSU for four readings, including last spring when he and Baldridge read from “Recumbents,” which had just been released.

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