When Jesse Browner first met David Rattray, it was because of the absinthe in his bathtub.
The two authors and translators developed their relationship over Browner’s annual tradition of all-night, candlelit readings of René Daumal’s work, a ceremony supplemented by homemade absinthe. They struck up a friendship, and Browner came to consider Rattray as a mentor in his early years as a writer, calling him “an example of how a literary person can live their life.” A few decades later, it is time for Browner to commemorate Rattray as he did Daumal, though in a less unusual manner.
Since 2013 marks the 20th anniversary of Rattray’s unexpected death at 57, his old friend, writer Eileen Myles, has organized a two-day tribute to him at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, and at the Leo Koenig Gallery. St. Mark’s acted as a home base to Myles, Rattray, and their comrades in the ’70s and ’80s, as a place where they could commune and share with each other: Myles eventually became the Project’s artistic director there.
This weekend, some of these old friends, as well as a younger generation of fans, will unite to remember Rattray. The lineup boasts some impressive names, including two Guggenheim Fellowship winners (Myles and George Quasha) and acclaimed authors, to head up the readings and discussions that will populate the events.
“I felt strongly it was time to think and talk in a group way about David and his work,” Myles said. “We went to people who we knew him, we included people who had been influenced and excited by him. It’s a mishmash of relationships, intimate, aesthetic, family—literally—and otherwise.”
Though he hailed from an established East Hampton family, Rattray distanced himself from his roots, and became a mainstay of New York City’s café poetry scene and member of the Warholian gang. When he was 17, Rattray interviewed Ezra Pound for The Nation–shortly after he finished a prison term for working with Italian fascists. Fluent in a number of modern and ancient languages and a concert-level harpsichordist, Rattray also won back-to-back Fulbright scholarships to study at la Sorbonne and did post-graduate work at Harvard. The impact of his writings and translation works are greater than one might realize, given he’s not quite a household name: Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth is among his admirers, and Rattray’s early translations of Antonin Artaud were among the first to engage the author with English, introducing the French writer to an American audience.
Artaud, along with many other writers that both Rattray and Browner translated, was part of the French surrealist movement.
“I think the popular image of surrealism has been excessively shaped by Dali’s visual legacy (the melting watches, etc.), which one can find in the way people use the word ‘surreal’ in English,” Columbia professor Vincent Debaene said in an email. “But surrealism has not much to do with supernatural or imaginary worlds; it is not about creating dreamlike fantasies; it is about making experiments with and on the self.”
Surrealism emphasizes expression without ordinary constraints, the ability to act without normal aesthetic or rational considerations—an avant-garde passion that innervates Rattray’s own writing. By understanding the movement, he was able to take on the challenge of the French Surrealists and helped to preserve their special energy in his translations of Artaud, René Crevel, and Roger Gilbert-Lecomte. These authors’ innovative works are tricky to translate, sometimes requiring readers to consciously “question the very operations of translation” by “pushing the frontiers of language and experimenting around the idea of the untranslatable,” according to Debaene.
Tackling such works that consciously defy translation shows Rattray’s commitment to and love for the material, as well as a poetic sensibility that allows him to convey the author’s intentions in a new language. As a poet in his own right, Rattray was able to address these challenge with a mixture of intimate knowledge of the subject matter and language, as well as a mastery of English.
“I like to think of it as a writing exercise with maximum constraints,” said professor Susan Bernofsky, director of Literary Translation at Columbia. “Most people who don’t think about translation don’t realize how much power the translator has to shape the text.”
With this formative power comes the translator’s responsibility of engaging the reader through the translated text.
“One of the biggest challenges you encounter when you are teaching translation is that no student is going to learn to translate better than that student can write,” Bernofsky said.
Thus, many of the best translators are themselves impressive authors, like Browner and Rattray. Even Artaud, whom Rattray translated, was himself a translator of Lewis Carroll.
Though Artaud and Browner balance the jobs of literary translator and writer, proficiency in a foreign language or talent as a writer are not the only two factors that make a great translator. Translators must find an element so engaging in a text that it begs to be transmitted and felt by a wider audience. Bernofsky’s first translations in college were stories in German that she wanted to share with her family that she had to translate herself, since no English versions existed. Browner, particularly in his early years, did translation for his own pleasure and Rattray, as one of the first translators of Artaud, followed the author’s physical footsteps while living in Paris in order to understand his life as well as his work.
Rattray was not satisfied with authorship or translation as processes isolated from each other or isolated from life. To Rattray, “poetry was a life to be lived,” Browner said. Rattray had his hand in many disciplines, allowing him to accomplish much in a short life, and Myles believes his work left a lasting legacy.
“One can never run through all his references and enthusiasms,” Myles said. “In that sense, he lives.”
“David Rattray: A Recognition” kicks off tonight at 7 p.m. with a limited-seating event at the Leo Koenig Gallery (545 W. 23rd St.) RSVP is required. The second event will be held at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church (131 E. 10th St. at Second Avenue), Saturday at 2 p.m.