Category Archives: Michel Onfray

Before Silence, a year’s haiku: on translating Michel Onfray

The High Window Press

At the start of spring 2013, the French public intellectual and philosopher, Michel Onfray, started to write haiku. Before Silence draws on his childhood fascination with classical haiku and contains many elements found in that tradition: the seasons, natural images, a minimalist encounter with the specificity of concrete reality. Through a microscopic attention to detail, he draws on personal memories and experiences, reaching through them to universal topics. Employing the pared-down speech of the common man, Onfray’s haiku enact an exercise in immediacy, focusing on and notating fleeting events as they occur. In so doing, he considers widely-shared, significant issues, evokes apposite philosophical insights and expresses deep emotional intelligence. When his partner of twenty-seven years, Marie-Claude, dies of cancer, Onfray finds in his haiku journaling a way to notate his sense of loss, and to record his stark sense of being and nothingness pertinent to us all. Normally a fluent and prolific author, here Onfray chooses a poetic utterance a heart-beat away from silence. As a philosopher, Michel Onfray has argued that philosophical discourse is always personal and autobiographical. Usually so prolix with words, now as a poet he explores and expresses his individual human sensibility in the minimalist form of westernised haiku.

I believe that Onfray sees his haiku as personal in nature, revealing the private emotional life of a public intellectual. (In an email exchange, he described his poetry as ‘un jardin secret,’ a secret garden.) In the world of Facebook, Twitter and the blogosphere, there is no longer anything unusual in individuals expressing deeply personal feelings to a public audience. But, arguably since the inception of lyric poetry, that is precisely what poets working in both the oriental and the occidental tradition have been doing. As poetic utterance, these haiku enter the house of literature and of necessity leave the rules of philosophy at the front door. From now on, the rules of literature become relevant; including the caveat regarding the intentional fallacy. These haiku don’t necessarily ‘mean’ what Onfray thought they meant or intended them to mean as he composed them; published for the world to read, their meanings depend on each reader’s act of interpretation.

I translated these haiku because I felt compelled to; the clarity and integrity of Onfray’s poetic voice demanded that I attend to them in a considered fashion. And since French is not my first language, the best means of attention I could bring to them was the act of translation. Inevitably, translation involves interpretation; even from a source text whose language, French, is so closely related to the English target text. However, my endeavour was to stay as ‘true’ to the original haiku as I could manage. Sometimes a simple literal translation produced a poem in English that bore the same resonances and gravitas as the French that Onfray wrote. For example:


Brin d’herbe

Jamais plus que lui

Jamais moins que lui.

Jeudi 4 avril, 8.50

Dans le train


Blade of grass

Never more than itself

Never less than itself.

Thursday, 4th April, 8.50 a.m.

In the train

Sometimes, French word play — or poetic devices of repetition etc. — was essential to the meaning of Onfray’s poem, and a literal translation would have destroyed the essence of the poem rather than faithfully reproduced it. In those cases, I searched for an English equivalent, again trying not to introduce any extraneous poetic devices or effects that built on the original rather than expressed the original’s meaning and sensibility. For example:


Blanc sans iris

Comme un œil




Bloodless white

Translucence incarnate


Onfray is well-read in the French and European philosophical tradition. ‘Nul en anglais’, his work still resonates with the British philosophical tradition in terms of returning to a bedrock of common sense to counter European idealism. He treats his own experiences of bereavement and grief with honesty and lucidity; he can be razor-sharp about his own grief. And yet by digging deep into the intensely personal he transmutes individual suffering into a compelling meditation on how twenty-first century man lives one of the quintessential life experiences.

Traditionally, haiku should contain a reference to nature and to the seasons. We know what time of day and of year it is through these concrete images. Onfray introduces the precisions of clock time to register the same. Some readers may find this notation of time and place after each haiku a disruption that interrupts the flow of the lyric voice. Yet, these notations constitute part of the poem’s effect. The private man may be having nightmares, lying awake through grief, recalling his childhood or wondering what the future might bring within the confines of the ‘secret garden’ of his soul, but he is still functioning as an efficient man of letters , almost always remembering to note down date, time and place — unless he is exceptionally distressed and distracted. The notation of time and place reminds us of the omnipresence of clock time within which we undertake our contemporary, existential journey. Basho travelled around Japan on foot; Onfray travels the world by train, car and plane. The book begins with a train journey from Caen to Paris, on the early morning commuter train, in a state of heightened sensibility. This beginning could well be fortuitous in terms of the genesis of the volume, but it establishes a context that mirrors the lives of many western readers.

Onfray defines himself as a man of the people, but he is also a prominent public intellectual. His haiku record his experiences of, for example, jetting in to San Francisco to deliver a public lecture then returning home again to catch up on the gardening. The sequence of haiku constructs a larger series of rhythms that chart his movements to and fro: from France to California, from Caen to Paris, from his paternal family home to Marie-Clare’s house, from her house to the hospital and back. They illustrate the restlessness of contemporary existence, even for someone grounded in a tradition of rural Normandy life.

Most of Onfray’s haiku are less than 17 syllables long. At one stage, English translators believed that haiku in English should always be 5 / 7 / 5 syllables in form, mimicking the structure of the Japanese ideogram. Now it is recognised that 11 or 12 syllables in English or French might correspond more closely to the length and weight of a typical Japanese haiku. Onfray’s are mostly closer to this model; the notation of time and place then adds a further dimension to the pure poetic utterance of the haiku that, in my experience, sends the reader back to contemplate the haiku again. The effect is to restrain the foreword moving rush, without entirely stopping the impetus of the larger drama that unfolds. Haiku purists may want to question whether these are haiku at all. Onfray’s haiku follow the contemporary approach of composing compressed, three-line poems. In my translation, I have employed a similar, minimalist form of westernised haiku.

Many other themes emerge here including: the counterpoint between memories of childhood, still embedded in the world of his father, and the present realities of post-modernity; between the pure registration of natural image and the well-nigh simultaneous correspondences and associations drawn from the world of philosophical thought; and between solitude and society.

These are not necessarily themes and preoccupations that Onfray intended to describe when he commenced writing, but they are the themes that the writing encapsulates. Least of all did he expect this project to become a record of the last illness and death of his partner, Marie-Claire, and subsequently a journal of grief, mourning and meditation on death, dying and ephemerality and transience. What is fleeting, what is perdurable? What is the relation between the two? Haiku traditionally have explored this territory; the art of the haiku lies is expressing the perdurable through the most fleeting of momentary impressions. Onfray writes this poetic tradition anew in twenty-first century Normandy with translucent agony.

Michel Onfray translated by Helen May Williams. Before Silence: a year’s haiku. The High Window. April 2020. (Paperback, 84pp, £10. ISBN 9781913201197.)

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