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There’s plenty of books and articles, usually geared to university courses, which tell you how you ought to translate a poem from a foreign language, but rather few where experienced translators tell you how they actually go about it. To fill this gap and hopefully generate some discussion and diverse views, I wrote the following piece.

Some months ago, I decided, I’m not quite sure why, to translate a little poem by the forgotten writer, Paul-Jean Toulet, a Parisian fin de siècle essayist, journalist and dilettante. Léon Daudet described him thus :
Mince et moqueur, penché sur son verre de whisky and soda avec un étincelant œil de biais, observant l’existence, tripotant sa barbiche et crispant ses mains fines comme s’il allait s’étirer.(…) Il s’exprime par phrases courtes, sèches, péremptoires, luisantes et qui coupent.

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 unusual combination of tight form and lyrical  fluency : he is  a man dressed in a dark suit somewhat too small for him and a shirt with old-fashioned starched collars who turns out to be an excellent tango dancer. [The contrast is more apparent than real since  ‘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.

My own way of proceeding is somewhat as follows :

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

In this way I have the poem available to work on without having to lug around the book itself, can prop the poem up against the wall in the kitchen &c. &c.  (I purchase 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 form of the piece I’m about to translate.

The rhyme scheme here 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 (where I came across the poem) makes the important point that French poetry depends more on syllable count than on stress and  typically  proceeds by flows and bursts. (There is  in fact no equivalent in French poetry of  the typical English blank verse pentameter, as the seasoned translator Timothy Adès rightly pointed out in his recent reading at the Poetry Café.)

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 most likely done on purpose.  

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 Marguerite Yourcenar that do more justice to the modern Greek poet than certain English verse translations. However, in this case, I felt there was only one answer : the poem seemed  scarcely worth translating at all if the translator didn’t make some attempt to retain rhyme and probably stanza form as well, since the ‘message’ is commonplace. This is where the standard maxim of “never sacrifice sense to sound” is more of a hindrance than a help, since in such a poem, the sound makes up a large percentage of the sense — “the form is the message” if you like.

3. I get something down on paper at once without bothering too much about accuracy or rhyme.

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

In this case, I found myself falling ‘naturally’ 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 felt the pentameter had too much Anglo-Saxon forward drive, was more Shakespeare than Toulet. I thus forced myself to make the unwelcome decision to rein back into the uncustomary (in English) octosyllabic line, which meant I had to exclude from consideration a whole lot of English words that would simply 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 I’ve got a line or two down on paper, I go straight to the end of the poem and work backwards.

In strict verse forms, the last line, or last couplet or triplet, usually 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 found I had to jettison 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 aid  for the poetry translator) I found that the only rhymes for ‘resemble’ were ‘assemble’ and ‘dissemble’. Since the poem ended cdccd in the original, I needed a rhyming triplet, so this was out.

5. I allow myself 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 choose 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 English words ending in ‘–and’. Nothing had much to do with  ‘resemblance’ though, which was required for the end of the penultimate line and, indeed, in my final version I tacitly dropped the idea.

6. I 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 more or less  sacrificed.

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

8. I 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 incidentally) 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 advisable 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 : one could claim that, since you are bound to lose something anyway, you might as well try to give something back. Pound does this all the time 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 was  :

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.

P.S. Maybe someone else would like to try their hand at translating this poem?

Sebastian Hayes