Once Works Well was pure technology. Now it seeks merely to divert.
Pansy subjects - Verse! Opera! Domestic trivia! - are now commonplace.
The 300-word limit for posts is retained. The ego is enlarged

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Do poetry translations help?

This is an expansion of a subject I posted a few weeks ago. It's here because I need to put it in an addressable storage location on the Web. Something on motorbikes and/or frying pans is just over the horizon.

Shakespeare into French – some problems
Plus a DIY experiment

In a French translation of Romeo and Juliet I came upon this line from the Queen Mab speech

Athwart men's noses as they lie asleep

rendered as:

Se poser sur le nez des hommes quand ils dorment

Even those with minimal French will recognise there has been no attempt to tackle the tricky but worthwhile athwart. Nor is lying asleep distinguished from the bare French: they sleep, they are sleeping. This is a crib to get the reader through the play. The poetry, it seems, may wait.

The same book includes Le Marchand de Venise. Portia’s most famous speech turns out to be rather better:

La vertu du clémence est de n'etre forcée,
Elle descend comme la douce pluie du ciel
Sur ce bas monde; elle est double bénédiction
Elle bénit qui la donne et qui la recoit,
Elle est la plus forte chez les plus forts, et sied,
Mieux que la couronne au monarque sur son trone


A different translator? Perhaps. But then the original is more direct and less concerned with imagery than Queen Mab. Despite the awkwardness of est de n'etre forcée (vs. is not strained) and the unadorned la plus forte (a weak equivalent of mightiest), one might conclude one was reading poetry.

The translations appear in a Les Livres du Poche paperback. Surprising for a French publication the preface writer, Jean-Louis Curtis, has no academic links. The contents appeared first in a bilingual edition of the complete works by the Club Francais du Livre, an established purveyor of popular classics in various languages.

Who might buy this book? A schoolboy needing to know the plotlines or a monoglot intellectual French person who understands poetry and who is bound to be disappointed? It’s worth including a little of Curtis’s preface to establish its French view of things. He sees the play as a tragedy of adolescent tenderness at odds with the stupidity of the adult world. It has no moral or religious core, is purely external and driven by chance. Unlike Phèdre, Tristan and Isolde (sinners against divine order or against Mammon) the star-crossed lovers are complete innocents. Which, he says, is rather marvellous.

He adds: Romeo is a work of superb craftsmanship with the exception of several hors d’oeuvres, which I take to mean bits and pieces. One such bit is in fact Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech which he condemns as “too long.” Here are two of the speech’s other lines.

O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you
Alors je vois que la reine Mab vous a visité

Drawn with a team of little atomies
Trainé par un attelage de petits atomes

The former sounds more like Jane Austen, as if she had left a card. The English - been with you - hints at a gracious attendance. In the second, atomies is an obsolete word and thus the qualifier is forgivable. However the translator opts for the modern word, atoms, which surely makes petits tautological.

Confirmation that these are literal translations with poetry taking a back seat, often a distant back seat.

But might a greater play spur the translator towards something more sublime? Gallimard’s Folio Theatre series Hamlet is translated by the Maitre de Conférences at the University of Paris and a 25-page annotated preface is supplied by by an Emeritus Professor at Sorbonne Nouvelle. One of the preface’s sub-sections, entitled Des Mots, Des Mots et Des Mots, reveals a more knotty, academic - essentially French academic - approach. Shakespeare, we are told, is not writing a metaphysical treatise but has chosen the theatre “the genre par excellence for the inaccessible subjectivity of the author”. Followed by much polysyllablism which I would find obscure in English.

Fortunately I can look at the translation. I apologise for ignoring the obvious passage; its celebrated first line is too easy and translates literally, adopting virtually the same sequence of words. Instead:

Oh! Si cette trop, trop solide chair pouvait fondre,
Se liquéfier and se résoudre en rosée,
Ou si l’Eternel n’avait pas édicté
Sa loi contre le suicide! O Dieu, Dieu!
Comme me semblent fastidieux, défraichis, plat, et stériles
Tous les usages de ce monde.


Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! Oh God, God,
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world

This is much more satisfying. As Portia’s speech, despite its defects, was superior to Queen Mab. Of course it is narrative rather than imagery but there are some hurdles to cross. Here the translator is far more confident. Faced with adjacent melt, thaw, he employs the exact fondre for the former and then, tactically, ignores the latter with its icy implications. Instead he substitutes se liquéfier which conveys the idea of dissolving flesh far better.

And - dare I say it? – his simpler, more obvious, le suicide improves on Shakespeare’s somewhat overwrought self-slaughter, included to eke out the line.

I think the above passage proves that it is possible, in French, to move closer to Shakespeare’s meaning even though the outer reaches of poetic invention may prove intractable. But here’s something different: Gertrude identifying the place where Ophelia died:

Un saule pousse en travers du ruisseau
Qui montre ses feuilles blanches dans le miroir de l’eau.
C’est là qu’elle tressa d’ingénieuses guirlandes
De boutons d’or, d’orties, de paquerettes, et de longues fleurs pourpres
Que les bergers hardis nomment d’un nom grossier
Mais que nos froides vierges appellent doigts-d’hommes morts

There is a willow grows aslant the brook
That shows his hoary leaves in the glassy stream
Therewith fantastic garlands did she make
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies and long purples,
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name
But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them.


Nature proves tougher than solid flesh. WS’s aslant willow doesn’t just cross the brook it does it at an angle and that’s a detail too far. Conflating pousser with en travers would give traverser providing more elbow-room for solving the angle problem but this would be at the expense of losing grows. Flirting dangerously with the Little Learning Sword that hangs over all translators I found myself considering combler which can mean bridging a gap. But not really. Rather filling in as with a gap in one’s knowledge.

Another apparent solecism occurs when those shepherds nomment a nom. Naming a name? Plus a potential red herring in that nom can also mean noun. I take it this ugly repetition is apparently justified by the need to use appeller (to call, ie, identify) on the following line. On the other hand the translator knows full well that WS’s maids were virgins. Also that shepherds who are liberal is likely to be an Elizabethan anachronism and hardi (bold, daring, barefaced) better fills the bill.

Finally, twenty-first century poets who feel unable to rearrange word order as a stress repair tool will sympathise with this translator who cannot match the admirably compact Therewith fantastic garlands did she make and resorts to a predictable subject, verb, object.

Despite these limitations, a mind sympathetic to poetry is at work. As when glassy stream becomes a water mirror. Languages differ and the French have fewer words to play with than Anglophones. Some limitations cannot be overcome except via inventive leaps which may well betray the poet. But suppose the person who wrote the stuff is doing the translation. What are the restraints on inventive leaps?

To avoid copyright concerns I have chosen one of my own (Shakespearean format) sonnets. The date relates to our fifty-year marriage.

St Mary and St Eanswythe, rain and wind.
October 1 1960.
A golden day but let’s forsake fool’s gold
And go in search of useful tolerance.
For there’s no credit, dear, in growing old
And worshipping a doubtful permanence.
Instead we’ll build a fire of cliché sticks,
Burn cards of happiness and humdrum verse,
Distrust old facile “love” since reason mocks
An easy word to hide a lie or curse.
Let’s dwell on anger - pardoned on the wing,
A hand outstretched to aid a swollen knee
A joke that shares more than a wedding ring
A glass of wine that seals complicity.
Spare symbols, mantras, ill-used sentiment
Just say, do, listen, to our hearts’ content

Un jour doré, mais à bas l’or mondaine,
Et allons chercher pour l’amour pratique.
En vieillissant, ca manque du bon ma chère,
Meme chose tes prières pour la certitude.
Et à la place, un feu de nos banalités:
Les cartes joyeuses et tous les poèmes crasse.
N’aimes pas “aimer” – ce masque expert,
Qui cache les mensonges, les paroles maudites.
Acceuilles le colère, pardonnè en clin d’oeil,
Un main tendu pour soigner tes blessures,
Une blague qui vaut mieux qu’une alliance,
Un verre de vin, le preuve d’un bon accord.
Partez symboles, mantras, et pensées fausses,
Dire, faire, écouter du fond du coeur

I have not tried to match French cadences since I do not truly understand them. One irony is that several French lines (the third and fourth, for instance) have willy-nilly appeared as iambic pentameter, however irrelevant this is, no doubt, in French prosody. And, since there wouldn’t be any point otherwise, I cheat. Fool’s gold requires wordplay and becomes worldly gold. Useful tolerance is now pragmatic love. Cliché sticks are possibly improved as banalities. The last line, which again depended on wordplay, is I fear rather feeble.

The rigorous answer is, I suppose, to ignore the English original and strike out on the same theme in French. A parallel piece of verse, if you like. Failing this counsel of perfection (which I am not for a moment suggesting I’ve adhered to) translation is obviously a vital activity since it crosses that initial frontier. I know some French and a tiny bit of German but a ten-year-old’s rendering of even a limerick in Finnish would be more than welcome.

And there is one further advantage, although it concerns the writer rather than the reader. There is no sterner test of relevance than turning something that seemed to have its values into another language.

9 comments:

marja-leena said...

Awesome, BB! I loved my university studies of English Literature and the plays of Shakespeare, the Greeks, Russia, Scandinavia but analyzing and writing about them were a challenge! Impossible now. And I'm sorry that my Finnish is too rusty to do a good job as a translator. (See, I did read the whole post to the end!)

Plutarch said...

I enjoyed this essay and your poem and translation of it even more after reading them again. It raises as well as answers many questions about trnslation. But what comes across most of all is how good Shaksepeare sounds in French, at any rate to my unpracticed ear. Racine rarely sound good in English translation, as far as I can tell. I agree that "banalities" is an improvement on "cliche sticks" despite the extra syllable. Clearly a benefit of the exercise. I note with interest that the French version of your sonnet has no rhyming scheme - I wonder how much it matters.I think perhaps, a little. I think of the words of a song spoken rather than sung.

Rouchswalwe said...

Oh, I wish I had paid more attention in French class when I was young. Recently, I stumbled across a fascinating website, which I am just beginning to explore: http://wordswithoutborders.org/

Barrett Bonden said...

M-L: If analyzing and writing about this stuff was a challenge you should have stood up and told your prof: "I'm into plastic arts; I'll paint you an answer." (Making sure the paint was thickly applied - thus, hehe, three-dimensional - and thereby qualifying as "plastic arts" - which I have just looked up in Wiki and find I have misused for 30-40 years.) Congratulations on reaching the word Finnish, assuming you didn't use Search.

Plutarch: Rhymes! They would have been a task too far. And yes I like the sound of individual Shakespeare lines in French, eg,

...O Dieu, Dieu!
Comme me semblent fastidieux, défraichis, plat, et stériles


even if joined-up lines are more of a problem. On my own behalf I was moderately proud of:

Une blague qui vaut mieux qu’une alliance

mainly because it carried the smallest danger of misunderstanding. But in the end, only poets should translate poetry.

RW (sZ): Don't apologise. I suspect you were paying more attention to your Japanese class. And - with great distinction - to your English class.

Lucy said...

Oh I'm glad you posted it here in the end!

Barrett Bonden said...

Lucy: But is it merely Tesco's London or the real Tanqueray?

Diana said...

Sounds like you might enjoy Douglas Hofstadter's marvelous exploration of translating poetry, Le Ton Beau de Marot. In which he describes teaching himself Russian in order to be able to translate Eugene Onegin!

http://www.amazon.com/Ton-Beau-Marot-Praise-Language/dp/0465086454

Anonymous said...

French translation of Shakespeare seems so interesting! Does anyone know a place in London where one could hear Shakespeare being recited in French?

Barrett Bonden said...

Anonymous: Interesting in the problems they bring up: that is, simply to tell the story or to try and grasp the poetic nettle. I suggest you Google Le Cercle Francais, there are branches all over the UK. Have a look at some of the websites and guess which one looks the most linguistically adventurous. Otherwise try the Grant and Cutler website and check out what Shakespeare translations they’re carrying.

One problem when acquiring translations from English into French is to ensure you don’t end up with the original English since, often, the titles are not translated. That’s why I use the online French bookseller Le Chapitre (eg, for the copy of Hamlet I mention in the article). But be warned. Le Chapitre will spam you to death thereafter,