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Verse Translation: A Call for Harder Work and Greater Care

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Too much verse translation is much too free and loose. We must take the time and effort to preserve both meaning AND form (including meter and rhyme where they exist) without sacrificing one for the other. Though we can never fully translate verse from one language to another, we can come close if we're willing to work hard enough. To illustrate this, I want to give some French to English examples of my own. I don't claim they are perfect by any means but I think they make my point. I ask the reader to pull the original French texts and compare them with what I have done. I break my examples into seven parts (I-VII).

I. For my first example, MacIntyre claimed: "No one has ever translated, or can or will translate, this poem properly; yet it offers the supreme challenge, the shifting lure of the bright impossible." I suggest MacIntyre didn't try hard enough.

Fall's Song
(Chanson d'automne)
By Paul Verlaine

The long sobbings
Of fiddle strings
Of Fall wound
My heart by
Of dull sound.

Suffocating, pale,
Hearing clocks wale
As chimes keep
The hours, I'm cast
To years long past
And I weep;

And then I go
With winds that blow
Ill, that hurl
Me here and there
And everywhere
Dead leaves swirl.

II. These next three poems are examples where insufficient effort has not only involved lack of inventive effort. It has also involved lack of another sort of effort: simply pulling the necessary older French dictionaries to discern period meaning where it differs from current French.

Du Bellay's Regrets, Number 1

In nature's bosom I've no wish to pry,
No wish to find what cosmos truly is,
No wish to sound dark depths of the abyss,
Or sketch grand architectures of the sky.

The ink I use has not so rich a dye,
Nor does my verse explore such loftiness:
Down here I merely write about what is--
Though good or bad--by chance I versify.

My lines hear my complaints if I've regret,
I laugh with them, my secrets, too, they get
As trusted secretaries of my heart.

I do not wish to comb or curl them, though,
Or hide them under gallant names as though
They're more than merely jottings on my part.

Du Bellay's Regrets, Number 38

O happy is the man whose life is spent
With others like himself! He need not feign,
Fear, strive or envy. He can peacefully reign
In his poor home ambitionless, content.

The miserable cares of more accomplishment
Can't tyrannize or otherwise restrain
Him when all wealth he wishes to attain
Is heritage that comes from his descent.

He's not preoccupied with others' rank.
For his great hopes he has himself to thank.
His court, king, patron, and his boss he is.

He never risks his wealth in foreign states,
Nor risks his life for other men's estates,
Nor wishes greater wealth than now is his.

Du Bellay's Regrets, Number 51 (To Mauny)

Let's look for pleasure in adversity.
We have no good of which we are assured;
Yet, in misfortune we can hope, assured
That ill luck like all luck shifts constantly.

Wise sailors flinch at Neptune's charity
Since sunny days have never long endured,
And random storms of course must be preferred
To constant fear of what might lurk at sea.

Thus, virtues are enhanced by storms we bear.
Whenever fortune dims our virtue, we
Find strength and light in our adversity;

When good luck tricks us with its lying face,
Ill fortune culls out flatterers we face
And helps to make our own self-knowledge clear.

III. A symbolist poem such as the following might seem daunting but I believe that it too can be sufficiently conquered.

Gilded Verses
(Vers dorés)
By Gérard de Nerval

Oh! All is sentient!
-- -Pythagoras

Free-thinking man! You think that only you
Think in a world where life bursts in all things?
Despite the forces that your freedom brings
You, you don't give the universe its due.

Respect the mind that stirs in creatures, too.
Each flower's a soul that Nature has enclosed.
Love's secrets have in metals, too, reposed.
"Oh! All is sentient" and affecting you!

Beware in the blind wall a look that sees
You--even matter has its language. Thus,
Treat nothing in a way that's scandalous!

Gods often hide in obscure entities,
And as babes' eyes beneath their lids begin
Maturing, pure minds grow beneath stones' skin!

IV. Fables, too, are worth the effort!

The Cicada and the Ant
(La cigale et la fourmi)
By Jean de la Fontaine

Cicada having sung her song
All summer long,
Found all her cupboards bare
Once winter's winds were there.
She couldn't even spy
A bit of worm or fly.
She cried of hunger's gnaw
To a neighbor ant she saw,
And begged a bit of grain
To ease her hunger pain
Till spring had come instead.
"I'll pay you back," she said,
By harvest--word of animal--
Both interest and the principal."
The ant was not a lending bug,
Of all her faults it was her least.
"What did you do till summer ceased?"
She asked the beggar with a shrug.
"I sang all night and day
If Madame finds it fine."
"You sang? Why, that's divine.
Now dance instead I'd say!"

The Wolf And The Lamb
(Le loup et l'agneau)
By Jean De La Fontaine

The strongest beast is right we say
As we can show here right away:
A thirsty lamb was drinking where
It found a pure and flowing creek.
A starving wolf then came to seek
His luck--his hunger drew him there.
"What makes you foul my waters here?"
The wolf barked at the fleece's ear.
"You'll pay for your temerity."
The lamb then said, "Your Majesty,
If you'd just hold your anger back
And measure out my careful track
You'd see I've merely come to drink
In waters which I'd surely think
Are twenty paces down from you,
So I could not in any way
Be doing harm as you would say."
The beast responded: "Yes, you do,
Mean lamb who slandered me last year."
"How so? I was not born, I fear,"
He bleated, "I am nursing yet."
"Then was your brother." "I regret
I've none." "Then was your family--
They are the worst group I have met--
Those shepherds, dogs and sheep all three--
I've heard enough; it's vengeance now."
He dragged the lamb into the trees
And had his dinner anyhow
With no more process, no more pleas.

V. If a child can write a masterpiece, I want to believe an adult can capture most of it in English.

(Le mal)
By Arthur Rimbaud

While crimson globs of grapeshot spittle fly
All day across the wide blue firmament;
While green and scarlet troops of soldiers fry
Close by the king who mocks them as they're spent;

While awful madness grinds away until
A hundred thousand men smoke in a mound--
Poor dead that nature made in her goodwill
With joy, in summer, in the grass and ground!

There is a God who laughs at altars laid
With damask, incense and their cups of gold;
Who falls asleep in sweet Hosannah's fold,

And wakes again when mothers come arrayed
In anguish weeping in their black old caps
To give him one whole penny each unwraps!

VI. As an interlude, I give a nod to a French Canadian. We should not forget their art!

The Gold Ship
(Le vaisseau d'or)
By Émile Nelligan

It was a massive ship, a gold-carved one
Whose masts touched azure upon seas unknown;
Love's Venus, naked skin, hair sparsely strewn,
Sprawled on the prow in the excessive sun.

One night she struck a large and perilous
Reef in that lying sea where sirens lull
And the horrific wreck inclined its hull
Toward the abyss, changeless sarcophagus.

It was a gold ship whose translucency
Revealed some treasures profane hands at sea
(disgust, hate and neurosis) could contest.

How much is left in a brief storm like this?
Where does my heart, deserted vessel, rest?
Alas! It sank into the dream's abyss!

VII. Finally, the length of verse drama may especially tempt a lazy approach. However, again, the reader deserves better. Setting out a whole play would be too long for a blog and I hope a selection can make my point.

Racine's Phedre (a Selection)
(Theseus's prayers for his son's death were unfortunately answered)


My son's no more? When I would give my arm
To him, the gods are quick to do him harm?
What blow has stricken him? What thunder blast?


Through Trozene's outer gates we just had passed.
He rode his chariot. His guards were sad.
In silence, too, they circled round the lad.
Pensive, he took the Mycenaean[1] road.
He barely held the reins taut as he rode,
And his great horses that we used to see
Obey their master's voice so eagerly
Now walked downcast. They seemed to imitate
A master's sadness in their mournful gait.
From deep beneath the waves a frightful cry
Disturbed the peaceful airs that filled the sky.
A fearsome voice then deep beneath the ground
Groaned in response to that first awful sound.
Deep down within our hearts our blood froze and
We saw the manes on all the horses stand
Up straight. The watery plain then arched its back
Into a foaming mountain. The attack
Was on: the waves spewed out and we could see
An awful monster rising from the sea.
His face was huge and armed with horns. The grim
Beast had foul yellow scales all over him.
Untamable, that beast, that dragon next
Heaved up and coiled its awful parts. It flexed
As endless bellows caused the shores to quake.
The sky was horrified to see it snake
And move the earth as it fouled, too, the air.
In fear, the waves that brought it drew back. There
Then followed flight--no point in being brave--
All sought some shelter that some temple gave--
Except Hippolytus. The hero's son
Just stopped his horses, grabbed his spears, hurled one
With his sure hand right at the monster. He
Then hit and wounded it most grievously.
The monster bounding in fierce rage and pain
Fell roaring at the horses' feet. Again,
It rolled. It bared a burning mouth that spoke
With blood and fire. All covered up in smoke,
The frightened horses had forgotten all.
They didn't know their reins or master's call.
He tried in vain to take control. They bled.
They gnashed their bits. Their mouths were foamy red.
Next in this horrid spectacle some say
A god was seen, too, spurring them away.
In fear they dashed across the rocks from us.
The axles screamed and broke. Hippolytus
Then saw his chariot flying, crashing. He
Fell tangled in the reins most pitifully.
Oh, what a horrid scene! I am afraid
I'll cry forever at the sight he made.
Dragged by the very horses he had fed,
I saw your brave son struggle as they fled.
He tried to call them back. That scared them more.
They ran. His body was one wound, one sore.
Our sad cries echoed all around the plain.
At last their stamina began to wane.
They stopped close by the ancient tombs that hold
His family's relics, bones that now lie cold.
I ran there sighing. His guards followed me
Upon a trail of blood there off the sea--
The rocks were painted crimson where he bled.
There thorns held red locks ripped out of his head.
When I arrived, I called him, offered my
Hand. He just cracked then quickly closed one eye.
"The gods have killed a guiltless man," he said.
"Look after Aricia when I'm dead.
My friend, if Father learns the truth one day
And pities how they treated me you may
Appease my blood and ghost if you will tell
Our Theseus to treat his captive well,
To give her...." At that word the hero died.
I held his tattered body by my side,
The work of angry gods, his sad corpse you
Would never recognize as one you knew.


My son! My dearest hope! I erred! You fell!
Inexorable gods, you served me much too well!
I'm cursed with everlasting grief and blame!

Again, please pull out the original French and compare. Tell me what you think. Tell me how and where any of this can be improved--I'm sure it all can be improved or other versions would work at least as well. Part of the fun and enlightenment of verse translation is seeing that verse translation is not merely a matter of substituting one word for another. Capturing both meaning and form requires creativity well beyond that. I think it also teaches valuable lessons to those who think that any text has only one meaning across language (including any single language itself). This lesson goes beyond art to fundamentalism of other sorts as well.

This and other posts can also be read on my person blog here and here.

© Harold Anthony Lloyd 2016