Observations on Translating a Poem from the French

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To Rhyme or not to Rhyme : Reflections on Translating a poem from the French


A couple of days ago I decided, I’m not quite sure why, to translate a little poem by the forgotten poet, Paul-Jean Toulet, a Parisian fin de siècle dandy and poète maudit. His poetry, like Verlaine’s, is all mood and stance and musicality with no message to speak of. He interests me mainly because of the combination of tight  form and lyrical  fluency : he is like a man dressed in a tight suit with old-fashioned starched collars who turns out to be an excellent tango dancer. Actually, the contrast is more apparent than real : ‘free verse’ encourages looseness and superfluity rather than fluency and, for that matter, tango is a very stylized dance.


            The poem is untitled.



Puisque tes jours ne t’ont laissé

Qu’un peu de cendre dans la bouche,

Avant qu’on ne tende la couche

Où ton cœur dorme, enfin glacé,

Retourne, comme au temps passé,

Cueillir, près de la dune instable,

Le lys qu’y courbe un souffle amer,

—Et grave ces mots sur le sable :

Le rêve de l’homme est semblable

Aux illusions de la mer.



            I give my own way of proceeding which may, of course, not suit everybody.


0. I print out the poem in bold type and large pointsize and paste or Sellotape the page to an A4 size sheet of board. 


In this way I can carry around the poem with me in a compact size, can prop it up against the wall in the kitchen &c. &c.  (I buy up large sheets of board in a Stationer’s, or Art Supplier’s, and have them guillotined as it’s much less expensive that way. There are various thicknesses available.)      


1. I have a close look at the piece I’m about to translate.  


In this case, the rhyme scheme is the unusual abba acdc cd  and, as is customary with Toulet, he uses a short line —  I make the syllable count  8-8-7-8  7-9-8-8 8-7.  Rees, in his  Introduction to French Poetry 1820 1950 (whence I culled this bloom) makes the important point that French poetry depends much more on syllable count than on stress : there is no equivalent in French poetry to (of?)  the typical English blank verse pentameter. But even this does not quite go far enough; French poetry, of a certain type at any rate, proceeds by flows and bursts rather than by feet or syllable count. Toulet may have had some reason for the variation around the 8 syllable count, but, more likely, he simply had enough sense to use an approximate line length, not a fixed one — despite being in other respects a very finicky writer. The rhymes themselves are an odd mixture : there is the so-called weak rhyme (rime faible) ‘laissé glacé’  followed immediately by the true rhyme ‘glacé passé’.  ‘Instable sable semblable’  do not quite make a true rhyme trio since the able’  in the first two words is a shade longer and more emphatic than in ‘semblable’. And, finally, it is not clear whether one should consider ’soufflle amer la mer’ as straight repetition of ‘lamer’, or as a sort of rime riche manqué.  [A rime riche is where the rhyming syllable is repeated exactly with an extra syllable in front e.g. verte ouverte.] This sort of ambivalence with respect to rhyme is typical of Toulet and probably deliberate.      


2. I decide, at any rate provisionally, how closely I am going to imitate the   form of the original.


It is by no means obvious that a poem that is rhymed in the original comes off better as a rhymed poem in English, or even as verse at all : I have seen  French prose translations of Cavafy (by Yourcenar I think) that do more justice to the Greek poet than many English verse translations. However, in this case, there is only one answer : the poem is scarcely worth translating at all if you don’t keep rhyme and probably also stanza form, since the ‘message’ is commonplace. This is where the standard maxim of “not sacrificing sense to sound” becomes useless, since in such a poem, the sound makes up a large percentage of the sense — “the form is the message” if you like.


3. Get something down on paper without bothering too much about accuracy or rhyme.


If you are lucky, you may find one or two rhymes pop up.

            I found myself automatically falling  into something approaching a pentameter, and started off merrily


                        “Now that the days have left you nothing more

                        Than taste of (?) and  ashes on your lips”


            But, on reflection, I thought the pentameter had too much Anglo-Saxon forward drive, was more Shakespeare than Toulet. I thus had to make the unwelcome decision to rein back into the uncustomary (in English) octosyllabic line, and thus exclude from consideration a whole lot of words that would be too long. For an 8 line you find yourself in practice restricted to one three-syllable word per line at most, and in the original there is only one such word —  ‘illusions’ which Toulet saves for the final line.      


4. Once you’ve got a line or two, go straight to the end of the poem and work backwards.


In strict verse forms, the last line, or last couplet or triplet, has a resounding finality and if you miss this, you won’t make a successful translation.

            Keeping close to the final line of the French meant that the English had to end with ‘sea’ and I originally wrote

                                    “…than the scintillations of the sea”

but had to change this when I decided on a basic octosyllabic line throughout.

            ‘…semblable’  suggested  ‘…resemble’ which I quite fancied. However, consulting Stillman’s The Poet’s Manual and Rhyming Dictionary (an indispensable work for the poetry translator) I found that the only rhymes for ‘resemble’ were ‘assemble’ and ‘dissemble’. Since the poem ends cdccd in the original, I needed a rhyming triplet so this was out.      


5. Allow yourself to be guided by rhymes for key words


In a poem with a dense rhyme scheme — the traditional ballade is ababbccdcD repeated three times, and an envoi ccdcD (!!!) — you’ve had it if you don’t select rhymes for which you can find plenty of words. In practice, I find even getting three or four words to a rhyme is tough.

            Here, it seemed almost inevitable to have the third line from the end  concluding with ‘…..sand’, say, ‘Engrave these words upon the sand’  and, luckily, there are quite a few words ending in ‘–and’. Nothing had much of a sense of ‘resemblance’ though, which was required for the end of the penultimate line and, indeed, in my final version I tacitly dropped the idea.


6. Decide which images in the poem are the most important.


If you’ve opted for strict rhyme and metre, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to include all the images, so one or two will have to go.

            An image I above all did not want to lose was that of the lily buffeted by the wind in a terrain vague behind the dunes. Laying someone on a bed to be frozen (lines 3 and 4) was less important and ended up by being partly sacrificed.


7. Fill in the middle of the poem, make a readable version and polish it up.


8. Go back and check for accuracy.


If you’re too concerned with fidelity to the original, you might end up like the ludicrous character in Camus’ La Peste (a much overrated book in my opinion) who never gets beyond the first paragraph of the great novel he aims to write because he’s so concerned with getting off to a perfect start. However, before delivering to the public or publisher, it’s essential to check for wild inaccuracies (and even getting someone else to look at the version you’ve made).

            The last change I made to my version was, very reluctantly, to go back to Toulet’s ‘illusions de la mer’ and conclude “…than the illusions of the sea” — in previous versions I had written ‘scintillations’, and then ‘reflections’. To me, speaking of ‘illusions’ is actually a defect in the original : the word is too obvious and, if you think about it, inaccurate as well. The sea does not give back mirror images as a pool of still water does, and the surface aspect of sea-water does not seduce us by its resemblance to real-life scenes but by its jewel-like sparkle. Still, if Toulet wrote ‘illusions’, I felt I had to fall into line — though I might yet go back on this decision.

            It is arguable to what extent it is legitimate to improve on the original, or try to, since you are bound to lose something anyway and might as well try to give something back. Pound does this all the time, of course, and on the whole gets away with it — but perhaps only because the poets he translated were long dead and writing in little known languages such as  Provençal, Anglo-Saxon and Mandarin Chinese. If he were alive today and translating contemporary authors, I suspect he’d be in danger of prosecution or worse at the hands of the irate authors.


            My final, or nearly final version is  :


now that the days have taken all

But taste of ashes on your lips,

Before your tired body slips

Into a frozen sleep, recall

The times that were, gather once more

The lily from the windswept land

Where shifting dunes stretch to the sea,

—Then trace these letters on the sand :

Man’s dreams can no more time withstand

Than the illusions of the sea.



                                                                                    Sebastian Hayes  



1 Comment

  1. Sylvia said,

    July 24, 2009 at 11:38 am

    This is fascinating, I’ve never come across a detailed explanation of how a translator works. Not that I woiuld ever be able to attempt such a thing myself! It’s obvious the translator not only has to have an excellent command of the language, but also to know a lot about the literary background of the country in question.

    I like the sound of the poem both in the original and in translation – I’m often prepared to sacrifice sense to sound. But I think its a weakness of Jean-Paul Toulet to have ‘la mer’ at the end of a line twice in the last 4 lines – I think the ending would have been more effective if he’d used something different in the 4th line from the end. But I love ‘gather once more/ the lilies from the windswept land’.

    To me, ‘illusion’ doesn’t suggest ‘mirror-image’, but is something deceptive, as with the sea which is ever-changing in colour and form.

    A very good translation, and glad to be introduced to a poet previously unknown to me.


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