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Mallarmé in Arabic - Nomadics, 18 janvier 2008

The image above represents two pages from Stéphane Mallarmé's Un Coup de Dés jamais n'abolira le hasard, the iconic poem of European modernism, in that book's first Arabic translation, masterfully done by the Moroccan poet Mohammed Bennis, and published last month by Ypsilon Editeur in Paris. (Remember that Arabic is read from right to left, both in terms of the text on a given page and in terms of the book as a whole, if you want to compare the pages above to the English versions, such as the one reprinted in the Rothenberg /Joris Poems for the Millennium, Vol. 1).

It is pure poetic justice (or maybe hasard aboli or hasard objectif?) that the first French edition of Un Coup de Dés true to the poet' exact and exacting intentions should accompany the publication of it's first Arabic translation, at this historical juncture so often and so falsely described, or rather descried, by conservatives of all stripes, as the clash of civilizations between the Islamo-Arabic world and the Christian/modern West. But Mallarmé's connections to the world of the Orient are multiple, from the fact that much of his life coincided with the historical period of the French colonization of North Africa, to one of his dying words which was an Arab word. Indeed, connections between Mallarmé's poetry and the structure of Arabic were brought to light by Louis Massignon in his monumental biography of the mystic poet Mansur Al-Hallaj.

When Mallarmé died nearly 110 years ago, he had been working for months on the definitive edition of the Coup de dés to be published by Ambroise Vollard. The project was well advanced at his death, as the surviving sets of proofs show in their precise annotations concerning format, font (Mallarmé insisted on Didot), size & proportions, and the inclusion of lithographs by his friend Odilon Redon. That edition was never published.

This means that despite Mallarmé's precise indications there is no original edition of the poem that corresponds to the poet's vision – a vision in which the poem's textual meaning is closely related to the exact layout proposed by the poet. The first edition of the poem, by Gallimard in 1914, does not correspond to Mallarmé's instruction: the page size is wrong and the font used is Elzevir, a font Mallarmé loathed. But it is this version that has become standard and that is also the basis for most translated versions, such as the available English ones.

There is only one version that tries to explicitly respect Mallarmé's vision: it was created in 1980 by Mitsou Ronat and Tibor Papp for Change (the literary group and publishing venture headed by the poet and theorist Jean-Pierre Faye). It is indeed a beautiful edition, and I love to show off my copy to friends or students because it instantly shows the poem under a different light — yes, now I can see the poem is the instant reaction — than the cramped reprints in standard-sized books and fonts. But even that edition is imperfect: it is published as a loose quire inserted in a bottom-folded stiff paper pocket folder, when Mallarmé had wanted it published as a livre, a book, the bound object so central to his poetics.

Because of French (and now U.S. and beyond) critical insistence on a Mallarmean poetics of abstraction and textual purity, there are also no editions (including the Ronat/Papp) that follow the poet's explicit demand for the inclusion of Redon's lithographies. This edition remedies that lack, using reproductions of the three Redon lithographs foreseen for the original edition, though even now their exact placement remains something of a problem, which the publishers resolved by taking as a model other Vollard covers and by their knowledge that Mallarmé didn't want the Redons to break up the text itself.

This limited luxury edition (selling for 300 Euros, i.e. about $ 440) comes as a box that contains, besides the French and Arabic volumes of the poem, three other volumes: Mohammed Bennis' homage in the form of a Journal of a Translation, Isabelle Checcaglini's A short history of the Vollard edition of the Dés, and the poet Bernard Noël's text Divagations. At a later date Ypsilon Editeur will bring out the Un Coup de dés as a single volume, while Toubkal, the Moroccan publisher, will publish an edition of the Arabic translation.

Pierre Joris