A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Monday, February 8, 2010

Poem of the Day: Paul Verlaine

Art poétique 

De la musique avant toute chose, 
Music before everything else,
Et pour cela préfère l'Impair 
and for that matter, prefer the odd,
Plus vague et plus soluble dans l'air, 
more undefined and more soluble in the air,
Sans rien en lui qui pèse ou qui pose.
with nothing in it that's heavy or static.

Il faut aussi que tu n'ailles point 
And you must never set out
Choisir tes mots sans quelque méprise; 
to choose your words without some imprecision;
Rien de plus cher que le chanson grise 
there's nothing dearer than a song that's cloudy,
Où l'Indécis au Précis se joint.
in which the indistinct and the precise are joined.

C'est de beaux yeux derrière des voiles, 
It's beautiful eyes behind veils;
C'est le grand jour tremblant de midi,
it's broad daylight trembling at noon;
C'est par un ciel d'automne attiédi, 
it's, cooled by an autumn sky,
Le bleu fouillis des claires étoiles!
the blue jumble of bright stars!

Car nous voulons la Nuance encor,
For we want nuance,
Pas la couleur, rien que la Nuance!
not color, nothing but nuance!
Oh! la nuance seule fiance 
Oh, only nuance joins together
Le rêve au rêve et la flûte au cor! 
Dream to dream and flute to horn!


Fuis du plus loin la Pointe assassine, 
Stay far away from the murderous barb, 
L'Esprit cruel et le Rire impur, 
cruel wit and impure laughter --
Qui font pleurer les yeux de l'Azur, 
which bring tears to heaven's eyes --
Et tout cet ail de basse cuisine!
and all that other garlic of bad cuisine!



Prends l'éloquence et tords-lui son cou! 
Take eloquence and wring its neck!
Tu feras bien, en train d'énergie, 
You'll do well, while you've got the strength, 
De rendre en peu la Rime assagie.
to make rhyme a little smarter. 
Si l'on n'y veille, elle ira jusqu'ou?
If you don't pay attention to it, where will it wind up? 


O qui dira les torts de la rime!
O who can tell the wrongs done by rhyme!
Quel enfant sourd ou quel nègre fou 
What dull child or mad Negro
Nous a forgé ce bijou d'un sou
created for us this worthless jewel
Que sonne creux et faux sous la lime?
that sounds hollow and fake when put to the test?


De la musique encore et toujours! 
Music again and forever!
Que ton vers soit la chose envolée
Let your verse be a thing that flies
Qu'on sent qui fuit d'une âme en allée
so it feels like a soul traveling
Vers d'autres cieux à d'autres amours.
to other skies and other loves.


Que ton vers soit la bonne aventure
May your verse be a fine adventure
Éparse au vent crispé du matin
scattered to the blustery morning wind 
Qui va fleurant la menthe et le thym ... 
that smells of mint and thyme ... 
Et tout le reste est littérature.
Everything else is literature.
--Paul Verlaine


Traduttore, traditore.That's an Italian pun which means "translator, traitor." Nice that the joke is lost in translation, because that's the point. 

I used to want to be a professional translator, and for my senior thesis in college (I had a double major in English and German), I translated a previously untranslated (so far as my professor knew) novella by Adalbert Stifter called Die drei Schmiede ihres Schicksals. I was in trouble right from the start because of the title, which means, literally, "The Three Smiths of Their Fates." But you can't call it that because it isn't really English. I finally settled on (I think) "Three Who Forged Their Fate." Which still stinks because "forge" means "fake" as well as "create in a foundry," and I was going for the latter meaning. (It occurs to me now that the best translation might have been something like "Three Self-Made Men.")

I'm going on about this (too long) because I wanted to mix things up here a little and post some poems in languages other than English. I used to read enough French, German and Latin to pass reading examinations in those languages, so I've still got some volumes of them around. So I pulled out my old copy of The Oxford Book of French Verse and picked out this famous poetic manifesto by Verlaine figuring I'd find a good translation of it on the Web. But the translations I found were all struggling to follow Verlaine's meter and rhyme scheme. When they hit on a rhyme, they had to wrench the meaning out of shape. (O qui dira les torts de la rime! indeed.) 

Finally, I decided to do a prose translation myself, which is what you see up there, interlineated with Verlaine. It's cobbled together using some of the online translations as a cheat sheet, plus I looked up a lot of words in the invaluable Google Dictionary. I've tried not to lose much in translation, but even in prose I had to cheat -- just as with the Stifter novella, there are some phrases that just don't sound like English if you translate them literally.  Pardonnez-moi, M. Verlaine!

4 comments:

Budd said...

Brother, are you ever wrong about Traduttore and traditore. The first comes from a back-formation of transferre (trans+latum)which means to transfer or convey; the second comes from tradere meaning to hand over. And why at the end of a French poem are you bringing in Italian nouns?

Charles Matthews said...

To answer the question first: Because I was commenting on the difficult of translation, from whatever language, to which the Italian adage refers. So I think you missed the point. The etymology of the Italian is irrelevant. For further comment on the subject, and the phrase, go to the Wikipedia article "untranslatability" or this entry on the translators' blog Trusted Translations: http://translation-blog.trustedtranslations.com/traduttore-traditore-2008-09-03.html .
Thanks for commenting.

Anonymous said...

"it's, cooled by an autumn sky"

I am enjoying this poem and your translation very much--can you comment on the comma you put in the line above? I'm not sure you intended it?

Charles Matthews said...

Good question. I take "cooled by the autumn sky" to be an adjectival phrase, and not the complement of "it's." Verlaine, I think, intends three parallel complements: It is "beautiful eyes," "broad daylight," and "the blue jumble etc." I set off the phrase "cooled by an autumn sky" with commas to emphasize its adjectival role as a modifier of "jumble (of bright stars)." But Verlaine sometimes defies grammar, and the commas may be unnecessary.

C'est de beaux yeux derrière des voiles,
It's beautiful eyes behind veils;
C'est le grand jour tremblant de midi,
it's broad daylight trembling at noon;
C'est par un ciel d'automne attiédi,
it's, cooled by an autumn sky,
Le bleu fouillis des claires étoiles!
the blue jumble of bright stars!