A hybrid translation by Sue Walker


Civilization begins with distillation (William Faulkner)

What “Was” isn’t necessarily true to form, but is something else—this personal rendering of William Faulkner’s short story, “Was”—which might mean Faulkner was in his cups. Or was he writing a story of seduction, a history, a comedy, a trickster story or abolitionist tale−or was it all of the above? And might this foray into Willie be called a translation, transmogrification, transmutation, essence or Heaven Hill bourbon  to the rescue.1

And yes, Faulkner told his French translator, Maurice Edgar Coindreau: “You see, I usually write at night. I always keep my whiskey within reach; so many ideas that I can’t remember in the morning pop into my head”2

And, indeed, in “Was,”

              there was

                         a whole lot of imbibing going on . . . and on . . . and on . . . .   

And considering the art, the craft, the indulgence of such a translation, potation, distillation, Octavio Paz, by way of his translator, Helen Lane, says:

               “ . . . translation  . . . the history of all peoples is a repetition of the child’s experience . . . ” 3

               Mr. Hubert and Uncle Buck had a toddy, then . . . he and Uncle Buck had another toddy4

               And Miss. Sophonsiba was a fine looking woman.. . . .5

And this    then    was     what is called the very spirit of transfiguration  . . .

then . . .

…Miss Sophonsiba came out the door, a spinster, maybe a bit pretentious, a woman her brother wanted to marry off, woman with great designs—who fancied herself the mistress of “Warwick,” the place she said her brother was probably from even though he never established his just rights, and she wore jangling earrings and roached her hair—which translates as combing the hair so that it stays fixed, i.e. combing it back from front, smooth and straight 6

and she was

carrying in her arms a tray with another toddy on it. “ Damnit, Sibbey,” Mr. Hubert said. “He’s just et. He don’t want to drink that now.”  But Miss Sophonsiba didn’t seem to hear him at all. She stood there, the roan tooth not flicking now but fixed because she wasn’t talking now, handing the toddy to Uncle Buck until after a while she said how her papa always said nothing sweetened a Missippi toddy like the hand of a Missippi lady. . . . She lifted the toddy and took a sip of it and handed it again to Uncle Buck and this time Uncle Buck took it 7. . . .

And yes, reader, a little nip, a little sip, and Uncle Buck, a would-be confirmed bachelor, age 60, found himself in bed with Miss Sophonsiba−and yes, reader, he married her−for as it was said by a slave (for who was, indeed, who is ever a slave to love? And race has nothing to do with it except that said race is related to the heart):  “I gonter tell you something to remember: anytime you wants go git something done, from hoeing out a crop to getting married. Just get the women folks to working at it. Then all you needs to do is set down and wait. You member that.”8

Dialect and spelling,  syntax, adaptation; for certainly text is liquid and must flow . . .

and so . . .

what Faulkner said at the University of Virginia, May 8, 1957 when talking to some Engineering School Students:

               Unidentified participant:   Sir, what is a roan tooth?

               William Faulkner:   Oh, it was a—probably a dead tooth that had turned a bluish color, which  . . .                   was the color of roan horse . . .  a dead tooth in this lady’s mouth here that had a bluish cast or                         purplish cast to it . . .

and so

there was, there is, no slip between the cup and the lip . . .

Such language as this, was ever understood−never mind the dialect and who translates what to

whom,    NEVER MIND   the body speaks–and the mouth,


she had on her Sunday dress and beads and a red ribbon around her throat . . . and her lips  . . . opened . . .9  


Faulkner tells

what was


and how

a roan tooth

in the flick

and glint

of a sweetened distillation


a way

of understanding

an author,

William Faulkner,

isn’t dead


but linguistically lives

even though he is dead

and was ever

fond of horsing around with language,


though the past is

what was

and Pappy always decided


a hot toddy was needed

and thus

administered it,

this distillation,

with the finesse

of the finest doctor,

administered it

with a fail-proof bedside manner




  2. This site also includes Pappy’s toddy recipe.  Hmmmm . . . good.
  3. Paz Convergences: Essays On Art And Literature 184.
  4. Malcolm Cowley, ed.  The Portable Faulkner  (New York: The Viking Press, 1967) 80. Subsequent references to this volume will be noted as Cowley followed by the page number.  “And bringing Miss Sophonsiba” (77). Yes, bring her on−” all that stored sweetness  . . . (81).
  5. Cowley 81. Fine, fine− a Sophonsiba intoxicant.
  6. Cowley 82.  “Just rights,”  subject to definition.
  7. Cowley 82.  But just for the record and without going out on a limb here, what might be added to the toddy is honey, cloves, and even cayenne pepper. Take note.
  8. Cowley 83.  And Sibbey . . . she said: “Success!” (85).
  9. Cowley    81  and “Being was stored up against the advent of a queen.”
  10. Conjugation as hybrid translation.

Sue Walker was Poet Laureate of Alabama from 2003-2012.  She is a retired professor of English and Creative Writing from the University of South Alabama.  She has published numerous poetry books and a critical book on James Dickey as well as critical articles, nonfiction, and drama. She is currently the President of the Alabama Writers’ Conclave and is on the Board of the Alabama Writers Forum and Blakeley State Park.

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