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