minor literature[s]

Untranslated: Le septiesme livre contenant vingt & quatre chansons a cincq et a six parties — James Wilkes

A work I am untranslating – that is to say a work I hesitate to say I’m translating, not having the requisite expertise, training or knowledge of the canon, or friendships or personal standing within the community-of-practice to call myself a translator or what I’m doing translation – a work, as I say, that I’ve recently involved myself in untranslating is a book published in Antwerp in 1545 by Tylman or Tielman Susato. The Septiesme Livre is a collection of secular songs (chansons) composed by Josquin des Prez, dead for 24 years when the book came out. A book of scores, in different parts for different voices. Popular, vulgar, printed scores. Unreliable scores, worrisome for musicologists because print was, in Kate van Orden’s words, a technology by which “authors lost control of their works”. You can download the book yourself from Early Music Online or find hundreds of recordings of the songs on YouTube.

Someone asked me how I got into Josquin and I found it hard to remember. I had an album by Radio Tarifa in the early 2000s with an instrumental version of ‘Si j’ay perdu mon amy’ on it; a friend made me a mixtape CD a few years later with ‘El grillo’, and I think that was the tune that hooked me. It was literally a hook: the repeated refrain of ‘El grillo, el grillo è buon cantore’ followed by the rhythmic plunk of voices in rapid counterpoint.

Now it’s January 2017, and now it’s February 2017, and this untranslation project (that has guttered on and off for two-three years) seems out of kilter with the times: what is engagée, I ask myself, about writing with and through some rusty chansons, a mixture of courtly and folk lyrics in Middle French, one or two in Italian, mostly anonymous and fragmentary, set to music by Josquin, a composer who moved from an unknown birthplace probably near Tournai across the centres of Renaissance patronage (so the musicologists guess) – the French court, Milan, Rome, Ferrara. Call him a European migrant, which is true if we are happy with anachronisms (we are). The lyrics are ‘bawdy’ (sexist) or maudlin (excessively weepy. I mean that I don’t fully believe their grief. Or rather, I can’t feel it in the words. In the music it’s different.) The world of those voices is cold and remote, old icebergs beached on the hot shores of the Med. Go up to one and hug it. The ice is not the pristine green you might imagine but full of oxidised coins, lice, rotted almond flowers, primitive surgical instruments, alder cones, flesh.

If what I do with these cold songs is not translation, perhaps it is something else, an intensive writing-in-relation, or as I said before an untranslation or ultratranslation in the sense that the US language-justice collective Antena mean it. They write: “moments of untranslatability lead directly to untranslation, undertranslation, overtranslation, an excess, extranslation, a lack, a limit, an excrescence, an impropriety, distranslation, retranslation, multitranslation, a mistake, a conflict, dystranslation. An understanding of the potential in not understanding. An ultratranslation.”

Writing in relation involves an intense focus on something that barely coheres, on the ghost of the chanson. Or more solid than that: on bones dispersed in a rotting iceberg. Sometimes there’s a score. Sometimes there’s a wiki. Sometimes there’s a scholarly apparatus. Sometimes there’s a lyric. Sometimes there’s already a translation. Sometimes it’s wrong. Sometimes it’s dale beve, sometimes it’s dale breve. Sometimes it’s give him to drink. Sometimes it’s from the breve. Sometimes it’s nothing more than a title.

Writing in relation feels like a form of desire, in its desperate tuning towards another body, another state of the world, a counter-factual. Writing out of this state of plangency into a time of dire politics.

So I hoard and shuffle materials around Susato’s partbook. Recordings, modern musical scores I struggle to read, a notebook with a soft red cover that I fill longhand with quotes from Google books. Postcards of frescoes and paintings. Enea Silvio incoronato poeta. Allegoria del Cattivo Governo. Giovane con il libro verde. The image of a limestone cave in Malta, posted to Zakopane, Poland, on 17 October 1961. Some of these materials work their way into the writing, others just provide the heat, like elements in a compost (Donna Haraway) or what Caroline Bergvall calls the midden. Melting down the iceberg and adding its rotted material to the heap.

“Ultratranslation nudges dominant languages away from dominance, toward the space between original and translation” write Antena. Any little thing to vex the self-congratulatory self-sufficient island mentality. What did Rebecca Tamás write last week (back in January)? “I belong to the continent where my friends sing to me in languages that I don’t understand, the one in which I am not hemmed in by an ocean, by a wire fence. I belong to the continent that owes every single person the chance to climb over that fence, to cut it down. England is not enough for me, and should not be enough for anyone.”

Of what do the lyrics consist? Of the depths of the sea. Of never getting paid in full. Of bread offered, crust and crumb, for sex. Of hearts that languish, groan and sigh, until relieved by beautiful mistresses. Of love that harms, of pain that batters. Of continual martyrdom, of the hour of death, of the fullness of mourning. Of a thousand regrets, of profound regrets (deep as the sea), of regrets without end. Of lack of money. Of wood nymphs and water nymphs. Of shepherdesses. Of a body waiting to rot (her lover has left).

Sophie Mayer has written that the contemporary (November 2016) political moment feels like “looking up man in the dictionary and finding out that a penis is considered a weapon at the root of the language in which I try to make myself understood – in which I try to make myself exist.” She frames the problem succinctly: patriarchy then, patriarchy now, structuring language and the world at large. Clearly this is not something that can be fixed from within a poem, though poems can exert their torque towards its undoing. I have been struggling over what to do with some of the ‘bawdy’ (sexist) chanson material and maybe the first responsibility is to deface it. As the eyes, genitals and arses of torturers and devils are scratched out in religious paintings as an act of crude and necessary devotion (e.g. Guido de Graziano’s Dossale di San Pietro). Or maybe we can articulate a different relationship altogether – one that doesn’t involve hammering, scratching, incising, chiselling – but instead values the ductile, gets swoony over filaments, fishing wire, solder, copper, lines to wrap and string with, superconducive to the public good (this shadows a poem I haven’t finished, that makes an argument with Josquin’s lickspittle chanson Vive le roy.)

Two things one can make with strings: lyres and bolas. Tuned sympathetically, or thrown to trip the feet. Clive Scott advocates an intermedial, “centrifugal” practice of translation, understanding the re-production of a text as a way to imaginatively multiply the excessive possibilities of reading (or listening). “Through time,” he writes, “through processes of translation, the text fans out into multiple versions of itself, not just interpretations of its meaning, but performances of the experience of reading it.” Although I’m not a translator, this is an idea that takes hold. So reading, listening, rewriting, living with these chansons becomes about two movements in tension: moving in sympathetically, moving out as a swung weight. Tripping and falling both ways. Tidal movements. Beach dross.


Josquin des Prez (d.1521) was a composer and singer, born somewhere near Tournai around 1455. He created masses, motets and secular works for patrons including Cardinal Ascanio Sforza, Pope Innocent VIII and Ercole d’Este. His reputation meant that his work circulated both through hand-copied manuscripts and chansonniers and, from the 16th century, through popular printed editions published in Italy, Germany, France and Belgium.

James Wilkes writes poetry, prose and texts for performance, and has been published in Datableed, The Wire, Gorse, The White Review, Torque #2, Litmus and Poetry Wales. His work on Josquin’s chansons forms part of his contribution to Hubbub, a collective of researchers and artists exploring rest and its opposites as the first recipients of The Hub Award at Wellcome Collection. @wilkesjames  / renscombepress.co.uk

Le septiesme livre contenant vingt & quatre chansons a cincq et a six parties was published in Antwerp and printed by Tielman Susato in 1545.