translation as meditation

Pierre L’Abbé



what does the translator do?
wait on the unknown face of the poet
wait for it to shine
like Ramana Maharshi,1 wait and become
as he waited on Shiva in a cave until he died,
wait, and through self-inquiry, empty and “become,”
silently sitting together
to identify with the poet as author of the poem

what happens to what is left when a word translates to another,
all the mislaid bits, where do they go?

do they hope that one day an eager translator will come          
and release them in a new translation
or, do they wait and begin to whisper from their hiding places –
that is one reason why translators may be called poets –

the missing bits talk to them about their hidden selves,
they demand their identities be revealed

1 Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950) was a guru and sannyasin (a renunciate) from south India. A favourite of Gandhi’s, he spent much of his adult life living in a cave dependent upon the goodwill of followers. He espoused a personal variety of Advaita Vedanta emphasizing self-enquiry. See Arvind Sharma, Ramana Maharshi: the sage of Arunachala. New Delhi; New York: Penguin Viking, 2006.



The features of shifting light

Pierced in the reflection of false fronts

And you [a shadow] went and it went

You never moved so fast

I call to mind your shape

Much smaller then

And when I looked away

Only to find you again

In the day’s echoes passing in my mind


(from “The Rainbow,” P. Reverdy)2

Les traits de lumière mouvante

Transparente au reflet des fausses devantures

Et elle allait et elle allait

Jamais tu n’as marché si vite

Je me rappelais ta figure

Mais elle était beaucoup moins grande

Et puis j’ai regardé ailleurs

Mais pour te retrouver encore

Dans les échos de jour roulant dans ma mémoire


(from « ARC-EN-CIEL », P. Reverdy)

2 Pierre Reverdy, from Plein verre (1940), in Main d’œuvres, Paris: Gallimard, 2000, p. 381-2; translations by Pierre L’Abbé.
Born in Narbonne in 1889, Pierre Reverdy founded the magazine Nord-Sud, an influential precursor to surrealism. In 1926, he retired to the country near the Abbey of Solesmes where he remained until his death in 1960. Having anticipated many avant-garde trends, his distancing himself was foundational for his life and later work.



As a translator of poetry my experience draws on traditions of meditation. Finding the words, phrases and collection of lines that I think of as the elements of a translation is a first step. And this first step is a preliminary and relatively minor step on the way to a more complete translation. For me, the bulk of the work of a translation is the waiting.

Ramana Maharshi would encourage silently sitting together. The coming together of devotees to wait on g-d. I would suggest that the common ground with an Indian ascetic tradition of meditation that is as important to a translator’s meditative process as is waiting, emptying and becoming.

Silently sitting together in an Indian setting would normally involve devotees with a guru sitting with their personal g-d or with Brahma (their source or wellspring). In a poetic setting, if I can use that term here to stand for a broad environment of artistic creativity, silently sitting together or in a stance of waiting would involve the translator, the poem and the poet.

The translator, like the devotee, would take a stance of waiting or openness, to empty themselves. The poem together with its narrative voice and content is like the guru acting as a guide to the creative source of the poetic. And the poet is like a source or wellspring of poetic creativity.

I would not say that the poet is like g-d, because the role of a poetic creator is a limited one, though the poet does have a real role as a source of creative originality. It is difficult to know poets through their work, just as it is difficult for a devotee to know g­d. Nevertheless, poems do not create themselves, they all have a creative origin, the poet.

Waiting may take several forms. There are obvious ones and these I think would be familiar to most writers who have worked at translation: revisiting drafts, allowing the translated poem to ruminate, allowing alternative words and phrases and lines an opportunity to mature. Other forms of waiting might be more akin to what some religious traditions call grace. Attaining a state of grace or opening up to grace implies that one is receptive, unimpeded to hearing what the creative wellspring has to say or offer.

Being receptive according to most meditative traditions is not something easily achieved. It is not a facile or passive activity. For Ramana Maharshi it is a process of emptying through self-inquiry whereby one comes to know oneself through asking questions in order to negate the “I” and become empty of self.

at the moment the translated word appears on the screen,
what is left untranslated is not there,
what can be done?

The knowledge the heart leaves me

A naked shadow on the sidewalk

The naked unknown and faceless

A man hastens toward the evening

And the dreams go round and round


(from “Morning Twilight,” P. Reverdy)3

La raison que le cœur me donne

Une ombre nue sur le trottoir

Des nus inconnus sans figure

L’homme se hâte vers le soir

Et les rêves tournent en rond


(from « CRÉPUSCULE DU MATIN », P. Reverdy)

it is as though the words are there even though letters are missing

The letters which made up artificial words

And which weighed in the balance


The one that looks down

And does not fall

And the other that looks up


(from “Pair and Timing,” P. Reverdy)4


Les lettres qui formaient des mots artificiels

Et qui pesaient dans la balance


Celui qui ne tombe pas

Et regarde par terre

Et l’autre qui regarde en l’air


(from « COUPLE ET CADENCE » P. Reverdy)


3 Pierre Reverdy, from Plein verre (1940), in Main d’œuvres, Paris: Gallimard, 2000, p. 383-4.

4 Pierre Reverdy, from Source du vent (1929), in Main d’œuvres, Paris: Gallimard, 2000, p. 106.



I think there are many benefits to the translator in understanding this kind of emptying; and I think these benefits are readily available to the translator through being open to, or sympathetic to, the methods of meditation even without the translator going through the rigours of the ascetic practices of a renunciant’s life.

Personally, I approach emptying as a process of focus, and I find it helpful to use the Indian technique of feeling myself to be part of a cosmic (or universal or environmental) force or energy.

For the work of translating, focus for me describes that state or condition of waiting when I am best able to hold at bay my creative prejudices, restrain my aesthetic preferences.

A sustained and increasing focus allows me to be empty as an instigating creator and hold myself open to the poet I am translating. In meditation focus may be centred on the negated self; in translating it can be in the poet as creator, the wellspring, known in the poetic voice, the poem, and on all its elemental parts from words through to lines, and on denotation through to allusion.


wait like Simone Weil,5
like her, offer your attention to the other,
the other poet,
a suspension,
an emptying of self…

Simone Weil, like Ramana Maharshi, described emptying as a central part of the practice of meditation. While for Maharshi, silently sitting together and self-enquiry lead to emptying of self, for Weil, through attention, emptying was furthered by turning one’s gaze to one’s neighbour particularly the poor and afflicted and those who labour. This meditative waiting as a state of attentiveness to the other was for her akin to, or a path to g-d – for her in a real sense g-d resided in the other.

enter into the life of the poem
like it was the life of the poet
no one can know the poet
just as one cannot truly know another person,

knowing facts concerning the life of the poet may help one to know a poem more deeply,
reading other poems by the poet that originate in the same wellspring as the poem might help one to know the poem,

still, it is enough to know the poet as the author of one poem
to wait,
and know the author-poet,
to listen,
to open yourself to the poet,
to hear the missing bits whisper about where they have gone
and give them representation in the translation

a translated poem is a translation of “a poem;” it is not a translation of words
nor of its component letters, sounds, syllables, units of pronunciation, silent and unpronounced sounds and letters,
it is not a translation of lines,
and broken lines,
and graphically placed lines,
or grammatical phrases,
or sentences,
or strings of words that make sense or don’t make sense,
it is not the audible or inaudible or silences or sounds unrelated to words which come in a poem,
it is not any combination of these in stanzas, formal groupings or lines and words,
formed or unformed
because a translation of a poem is a translation of a poem

so I say that to translate a poem one has to be a monist,
someone who believes that the thing is not equal to the sum of its parts

from another point of view the translator must respect the integrity of [the] poem,
the poem is the thing to be translated,
as one whole and integral entity,
the person of the poem,
from its title to its final word, letter, punctuation
– its final element

I find that Weil’s attention offers clarity to what I experience as focus, a state of focus, or a path of increasing focus in meditation. As a translator of a poem I aim to be empty of self in a state of attention and be open to the poem as an other. This is when I find a new or furthered understanding of the elements of the poem, the alternative translations and translating options, the range in the poetic voice, and the poet as source or wellspring.

in a state of attention (with less self) you are open to the con-natural6
ways in which you are one with the poet,
and the poet’s poem will speak to you…
affinity to the poem is felt
when something in the translator is of the same nature as something in the poet,
something connatural with the creative intuition of the poet…

a translator can be a reader, co-creator, and a knower of the poet

in a state of attention
the correspondence between,
the translator,
and the creative intuition of the poet will speak…
listen to the correspondence

5 Simone Weil (1909-1943) was a left-leaning Jewish religious philosopher who was sympathetic to and influenced by Christian mysticism. She spent much of her life advocating for the poor. See Robert Chenavier, Simone Weil: attention to the real, translated by Bernard E. Doering, University of Notre Dame Press, 2012.
6 On connaturality and correspondence, see Jacques Maritain, and Joseph W. Evans. Art and Scholasticism. New York: Scribner, 1962.



To thread the horizon with fingers of sand

Tables set in funneled light

Under threads of blood spun by archangels

Nothing from the lips could express more clearly

Without speaking

Without laughing

Without buckling at the knee


(from “Face,” P. Reverdy)7

Pour filer l’horizon entre les doigts de sable

Les tables des maisons aux feux des entonnoirs

Sous les trames de sang tissées par les archanges

Il n’y a pas de signe plus clair entre les lèvres

Sans parler

Sans rire

Sans plier les genoux


(from « Figure », P. Reverdy)

If a reader is not a passive reader, an inattentive reader, and the poet is deserving of the reader’s attention then a reader open to and respectful of the poet’s art may experience that art: as an integral work, complete in its internal requirements; as a work proportioned or balanced unto itself according to its own needs; and as a work which radiates its own strength of internal vision.

This being the case, I would say that there is a con-natural experience between the reader and poet.

That is to say that what is natural to the reader (or perhaps natural to the intellect, or artistic cognizance of the reader) is found to also be natural to the poet, insofar as the reader experiences the nature of the poet through the poem.

wait and it will come

and now wait
wait with Ramana Maharshi, wait the years
the day will not come without the wait
the fingers will not bend without the day
the ache will not come without the labour
the labour will not sing beside the wind
nothing will bend under the yoke without the flame
so come wild spirit come

speak spirit, I am a waiting empty vessel
long night, the sun stalks the cold side of dawn
can you not tell me, now that we are alone
why you reside there in the vestibule
while I cry into your cellar for saltless tears

wait at the feet of the poem-poet and it will speak to you

it would be so simple, so transparently clean
if you would just step through the dawn
get here while the morning is a thought
let my unsolid fingers greet you
and I would know the backward flowing river
as it courses through my heart
if only between those two pulses
in the moment of violence when liberty beats you free

7 Pierre Reverdy, from Plein verre (1940), in Main d’œuvres, Paris: Gallimard, 2000, p. 385.