Emily Dickinson’s a Pisser: Talking to Poet-Translator Paul Legault

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09/04/2012 10:40 AM |

When did the photos—or rather, the repetition of the same photo, of a poker-faced Emily Dickinson with a Kuleshovian variety of captions—become a part of the book? How central to the conception are they?
They’re central in the sense that they’re in the center of the book, Easter-egged throughout. But they actually came last—like the indexes—as a collaborative bonus of working with the brilliant editors at McSweeney’s.

That said, it was her austere, indecipherable gaze that held me throughout the project. As Dickinson put it:

1774. Some people look like they want to beat you to death with their face.

And those are the most interesting kinds of people.

With these poems, it seems like you’re dealing with time, and an individual sensibility, something similar to what Telephone journal, which you edit, does with language, by publishing a number of different, intentionally eclectic translations of the same poems by foreign authors. Is meaning entirely malleable as the text changes hands among eras, languages and even individual readers? In your view, is translation necessarily entirely subjective?
‘Tis a leading question, but: Yes.

Despite my interest in literary translation—from one language to another—I’m much more interested in the term as applied to forms of ‘translation’ between media. It means something different when applied by multimedia artists in general, crossing platforms, feeding all these original texts into the new aesthetic: translation as a means of generating an original work.

Though The Emily Dickinson Reader is presented as a humor book, I also wanted to engage/invite a new translation of sorts—one that’s simultaneously reverent of the source, and defiant; one that uses the original (subjectively) as a starting point, not as the (objective) end-goal.

That said, I also wanted to make lazy high school students’ lives easier. I like lazy high school students. I was one. And they are / will be the future, i.e.:

638. The future does what it wants.