The Puzzle of "Mimic Language"

Eponine Howarth and Yara Bazzoun

The image above is Dessin Mescalinien (1958), painted by Michaux.

***Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault, Sexual Violence and Rape***


Rencontre dans la Forêt

 by Henri Michaux

D’abord il l’épie à travers les branches.
De loin, il la humine, en saligorons, en nalais.
Elle : une blonde rêveuse un peu vatte.
Ça le soursouille, ça le salave,
Ça le prend partout, en bas, en haut, en han, en hahan.
Il pâtemine. Il n’en peut plus.
Donc, il s’approche en subcul,
L’arrape et, par violence et par terreur la renverse
sur les feuilles sales et froides de la forêt silencieuse.
Il la déjupe ; puis à l’aise il la troulache,
la ziliche, la bourbouse et l’arronvesse,
(lui gridote sa trilite, la dilèche).
Ivre d’immonde, fou de son corps doux,
il l’envanule et la majalecte.
Ahanant éperdu à gouille et à gnouille
— gonilles et vogonilles —
il ranoule et l’embonchonne,
l’assalive, la bouzète, l’embrumanne et la goliphatte.
Enfin ! triomphant, il l’engangre !
Immense cuve d’un instant !
Forêt, femme, ciel animal des grands fonds !
Il bourbiote béatement.
Elle se redresse hagarde. Sale rêve et pis qu’un rêve !
« Mais plus de peur, voyons, il est parti maintenant le vagabond…
et léger comme une plume, Madame. »


Encounter in the Forest

First he peeps through the branches.
From afar, he sniffines her, saligoring, breadging.
She: a dreamy blond, a bit pomply.
It titiles him, it salaves him.
He feels it all over, up top, down below, down behaw, hee haw.
He wamples. He can’t take it anymore.
So, he approaches suddembling,
He ritches her and, through violence and terror knocks her over
on the cold, dirty leaves of the silent forest.
He unskirts her, then comfortably pierches her,
liguishes her, dodungs her, and knacks her,
(scriddles her trilit, dilicks her).
Drunk with filth, mad about her soft body,
he intucks her, and malights her.
Puffing and panting frantically agouch and agnouch
— agonils and vogonils —
he racooes and emborks her,
assalivates, bussies, enfogs and pulics her.
Finally, triumphant, he engrenes her!
Huge vat of a moment!
Forest, woman, deep sea animal sky!
He blissfully buzzumbles.
She stands up haggardly. Filthy dream and worse than a dream!
“But no more fear, come on, he's gone now the wanderer…
and light as a feather, Madam.”


Who is Henri Michaux?


Henri Michaux was a Franco-Belgian poet, writer and painter. He travelled widely and experimented with psychedelic drugs, notably mescaline and LSD, which allowed for one of his most important works “Miserable Miracle” (1956). He rejected belonging to a proclaimed literary current, or group, and conducted his poetics alone. In search of a new poetical language, Michaux explored the idea of “mimic language” (“langue mimique”), presented here in his poem “Rencontre dans la forêt”, “Encounter in the forest” (1935). 

Painting by Michaux.

The Puzzle of “Mimic Language”


In the original version of “Encounter in the forest”, the French-speaking reader manages to understand that a horrible rape is taking place, despite the poem being almost exclusively built on invented words. The scene is so ghastly that existing words do not suffice. Michaux, the poet, has to invent new words to convey the bestiality of the action that is taking place. The verses are a succession of neologisms, newly coined terms, very much highlighting various onomatopoeias. Because the neologisms manage to report the immense horror of the situation in a direct and powerful way, the poem is utterly disturbing.

In our English version of the poem, we try to meet the challenge of translating non-existing words, while retaining the overall meaning of the poem and the unsettling impact for the reader. Thus, we put ourselves in the shoes of the author and strive to find the existing words on which the neologisms are based. We have also been careful to keep certain alliterations and assonances, so as not to alter the onomatopoeic effect that plays a crucial role. 

While some of his “mimic” words are obvious — “unskirt” (“déjupe”) — others are more difficult to translate, as they evoke a combination of different existing words. For instance, we translate “humine”, from the first part of the poem, as a combination of the words “humer” (“to sniff”) and “examine” (“examines”) which gives us the word “sniffines”. Another example:

                                                              In French: “gridote” = “gratte” + “tripote”,
                                                   translates in English as: “scriddles” = “scratch” + fiddle”.

We also translate, “Ça le prend partout, en bas, en haute, en han, en hahan” as “He feels it all over, up top, down below, down behaw, hee haw”. “En han, en hahan”, two phrases coined by Henri Michaux himself, evoke the sound made by the donkey in French “i-han i-han” [i-ɑ̃ i-ɑ̃]. Hence, we use the braying of the donkey in English: “hee haw”. Overall, we understand the process of animalisation of the rapist by the poet, echoed again a few verses later with the “Puffing and panting frantically” (“Ahanant éperdu").

The invented terms have an evocative power as they mimic actions without saying them, creating a violent and terribly suggestive whole. This “mimic language” developed by Michaux renders the task of the translator all the more difficult. As a result, our English version of “Encounter in the forest” is only one of the many potential translations of Michaux’s verses.

Eponine Howarth and Yara Bazzoun

Eponine Howarth is the editor of The Thread. She also regularly comes up with new crazy ideas for columns, print editions, and short film festivals to keep Konstantinos and Vasiliki very busy. In the past, she has suggested getting t-shirts with "I heart LPB" or "LPB is life". Unforunately, the idea didn't make it to the board meeting. Yara Bazzoun was born in Casablanca and studied medicine in Geneva. She is a Swiss-Lebanese-Moroccan newly qualified doctor. Jealous of her sister Joude's success in La Piccioletta Barca, she decided to start writting again using the few English words that she learned while playing Bananagrams with The Thread editor, Eponine.

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