I've been having an interesting problem translating Yves Bonnefoy. There's a word he uses, "safre," which I couldn't find in any French-English, or French dictionaries, although I could see from the context that it was a kind of stone, probably found in the Mediterranean areas of France: garrigue, oak trees that kept their butcher papery brown leaves in winter, all things I am familiar with from my walks in the Vaucluse, where part of my husband's family lives.
A crumbly stone--I could see from the poems--you can kick it in anger or despair, and it falls apart. A stone that had intense meaning for YB, not just the thing in itself but the word for the thing. It began to have a similar meaning for me, what with all my rooting for its meaning. Because you can't translated something you don't understand, don't hold in head and hands. "What is in your head must first have been in your hands," Holub says in a poem, or words to the effect.
I saw YB in the fall and he told me it was "sandstone," but "sandstone" doesn't fit (emotionally, viscerally, sonically) into the poems I am translating (though Auden, for one, I know felt an attachment of the same sort for the object and probably the vocables of sandstone). So for the time being I just called it stone. I am one of those people who come home from walks with their pockets full of stones, preferably worn. I put them on a windowsill or I use them as paperweights. If they are big enough ("rocks") and I am in the Vaucluse I put them on the tiles of the roof so the tiles won't fly off in the next mistral. I like lichen too.
Then, one evening at supper last autumn with my brother-in-law who lives not far from the Mont Ventoux, he used the word safre in conversation--I jumped. He told me it was what the troglodyte dwellings of Beaumes ( "cave") de Venise are made of. Immediately I saw. When you are driving along the road from Caromb to Beaumes, you go past yellow stone formations so smooth you can hardly keep yourself from jumping out to run your hand over them. Skin on skin. Water-worn, fine-grained.
And I began to find the word, a regional word, used in English, on the internet in descriptions of the soils, the terroir, of certain vineyards, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, for instance. It seems to occur wherever the Durance once flowed. Yellow Helvetian sand, they sometimes say. It is scorned by masons, because if you build with it, even the basement foundations, over time your house will sink. Soon--in about a million years--much faster?--you will have no basement, then no first floor, then...