11-11: Poetry (modern French)

I opted to pick up some French poetry mostly to brush up on my French. Turns out, I’m not quite as rusty as I thought I was, at least in terms of my reading skills, because I still retain enough of my French to not only get some of the subtle in-jokes and layered allusions in the original French but also to catch what I feel are some weak translations in this volume.

For the most part, the translation is fairly solid, a bit pedestrian perhaps but certainly serviceable. But the kind of poetry in this collection — French symbolist poetry that explores dreams, the subconscious, and surreality — isn’t really meant to be merely “serviceable,” which is one reason I feel the translations are sometimes a bit weak. In a Max Jacob prose poem early in the collection, Fowlie translates:

Yes, it fell from the nipple of my breast and I did not see it. As a boat comes out from the rock cave with the sailors without the sea quivering in the least, a new poem fell from my breast of Cybèle and I did not see it.

Yet the original lines in the middle of this piece read

Comme un bateau sort de l’antre du rocher avec les marins sans que la mer en frémisse davantage, sans que la terre sente cette aventure nouvelle, il est tombé de mon sein….

That phrase following the second “sans,” which translates as “without the earth feeling this new adventure,” is utterly absent from Fowlie’s version. And I wonder why. The line ungrounds the poem, literally, setting the sailors asea without any notice of the earth they’re leaving behind. It’s a line of freedom but also of loss, a stark prefiguring of the poet’s own failure to notice the poetry leaving his breast. Cutting the line mars the poem, I think.

In a later poem, “Prophétie” by Jules Supervielle, Fowlie rearranges the grammar of a stanza in ways that don’t exactly ruin the poem but that do, for me, upset the rhythms in the original. In the French, the poem’s final stanza reads

A la place de la forêt
Un chant d’oiseau s’élèvera
Que nul ne pourra situer,
Ni préférer, ni même entendre,
Sauf Dieu qui, lui, l’écoutera
Disant: “C’est un chardonneret.”

Fowlie translates this passage as

Where the forest was
A bird’s song will rise up
Which no one will place,
Nor prefer, nor even hear,
Except God. When He listens,
He’ll say: “It’s a goldfinch!”

This is a fine translation that gets across the gist of the stanza. But the grammar of those last two lines bothers me, because in the French, the verb tenses and the line structure are slightly different. I would translate those last two lines like this:

Except God, he will listen,
Saying: “It’s a goldfinch!”

The meaning of Fowlie’s translation is essentially the same as mine or as the original French, but swapping the present progressive and the future tenses changes the way I read the lines. In the French, God is going to listen, some day, and then — simultaneous to the listening — will be be saying “It’s a goldfinch!” Fowlie’s translation moves the action to a conditional present (“When he listens”) and then supposes a future reply (He’ll say: “It’s a goldfinch!”) In the original, we anticipate God’s response and then enjoy the immediacy of it; Fowlie moves the anticipation to the end, and thereby throws an emotional drag on the whole poem. It ends on a downbeat, rather than the upbeat I read in the original.

Fowlie does some similar things to lines breaks, too. In Jean-Cocteau’s “Plain-Chant” (“Plain Song”), Cocteau writes:

J’ai, pour tromper du temps la mal-sonnante horloge,
Chanté de vingt façons

Fowlie translates this as:

I have sung, to deceive the evil-sounding clock of time,
In twenty ways.

There is nothing particularly wrong with this translation, but I pay a lot of attention to line breaks in poetry, because I love what line breaks do to language, and while the French version breaks apart the verb phrase “I have sung,” I can’t help but wonder if it was on purpose, since it renders the second line as “Sung in twenty ways.” In the French version, the second line contains a verb, some sense of action. In Fowlie’s version, the second line is just a number, an accounting. It’s dead, flat, unconnected to the line before it.

I quite enjoyed reading the French poetry in this collection, and having Fowlie’s translations to check my understanding was tremendously useful, but ultimately, I think the translations are flawed. Still, it’s nice to know I can understand these things on my own, despite how out of practice I am with my French, because now I can consider tackling some French poetry without translations and just letting my sense of the poems unfold more naturally.

For more about my 11-11 project, check out my initial post on the challenge or all the posts in my 11-11 category.

For more on what I’m currently reading, check out my Bookshelf.

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

3 thoughts on “11-11: Poetry (modern French)

  1. Translation is an area which is fraught with controversy. For a too-brief period before her death, I worked with Vera Rich, who was the world’s foremost translator of poetry from Slavic languages (mainly Belorussian and Ukrainian) into English. Her approach was to get as close to everything that was there in the poem – meaning, vocabulary, metre, rhyme, metaphor, assonance, alliteration – and to end up with something that was arguably as poetic in the target language as in the original. Let me give you a small example of the principle at work, from my own notebook:

    The motto of the Royal Air Force is ‘Per Ardua ad Astra’. This can be translated very simply ‘Through obstacles to the stars’. However, that translation lacks the rhythm and assonance of the original, so I render it as ‘We Strive for the Stars’. The latter is closer to the prosody of the original, and uses alliteration as a device instead of assonance, but the sense of the original is still expressed.

    This principle, which I learned from Vera, has worked for me in the very limited translation that I have done from French into English, most especially in my attempt at the sonnet ‘El Desdichado’ (Je suis le Ténébreux) by Gérard de Nerval. But it doesn’t work for everything. Having said that, I can appreciate your doubts about WF’s work, based on the examples quoted and commented on. I have a book of translations of the haiku of Basho, and I have similarly shaken my head at the translator, Lucien Stryk, who has an international reputation besides which my own is infinitesimal.


    1. What a fascinating response! Thank you!

      I doubt I’d make a good translator, because I get so wrapped up in the nuances of language that I feel any attempt I made to recreate meaning from one language to another would ultimately diminish (or in some cases artificially enhance) the original. I’d probably ether wind up being too literal or too poetic.

      I’m reading a couple of different translations of Omar Kayyam right now and comparing the differences, which is actually how I’d prefer to read most translations. I do this with religious texts, too, especially my Buddhist texts. It can sometimes take forever, because I’m constantly evaluating the decisions translators have made along the way (I’m a sucker for footnotes!), but it’s more rewarding for me, I think, and when I read material in French, I wind up doing the same thing in my head, running through a whole series of mental “footnotes” on all the possible meanings. It’s why I get more out of French poetry and, to some extent, short fiction than anything else, because the layering in meaning and the brevity of form make the most out of how I read in another language. 🙂

      1. “I doubt I’d make a good translator, because I get so wrapped up in the nuances of language that I feel any attempt I made to recreate meaning from one language to another would ultimately diminish (or in some cases artificially enhance) the original. I’d probably ether wind up being too literal or too poetic.” Translating takes courage and self-confidence, certainly. You have those.

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