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Should one translate a rhymed poem by a rhymed poem?
It is difficult to generalize but it is important to realize that rhyme is not just put in for echo effect, or because it makes the poem much easier to learn off by heart (though these are important considerations) : rhyme and stanza form serve to bind the poem together, they stop the poet’s mind  wandering off into the byways and bushes. And a strict poetic form, sonnet, ballade, villanelle &c. gives a poem finality — because  no further lines are allowed by the form.
The sonnet in particular generally leads up to a resounding last line or couplet which wraps up the whole argument :

For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings”
William Shakespeare, Sonnets          ¶

I do not speak modern Greek and only learned recently that Cavafy wrote quite a number of his poems in rhymed stanzas. When this was pointed out to me, I went back to my edition (which has unrhymed translations but gives the rhyme scheme at the back) to see whether I could guess from the prose translations which poems originally rhymed. With one exception I was uniformly right in my guesses. This is a compliment to Cavafy and also his translators (Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard) : it means that Cavafy used rhyme significantly.    ¶

The following is the most useful single remark concerning French poetry I have ever come across in a book:

“It is important for the inexperienced reader to grasp the essential fact that French scansion is a matter of syllable-counting, and that stress is very intermittent and very much attenuated in French verse. (…) It [French verse] is in a sense more monotonous than English poetry, lacking a thumping regular dynamic, but it achieves tonal variety through subtle action of sound-patterns (mainly assonance) and subtle interplay through pitch, tempo and syntactic position of the subordinate stresses that certainly do exist and do bring into relief other syllables in the line.”
(William Rees Editor, French Poetry 1820-1950)   ¶

There are French poets that one should perhaps not even try to translate into strict rhyme and metre, perhaps not translate at all. I have rarely seen a verse translation of Racine that is other than as flat as a pancake — though Pope could doubtless have carried it off. (Since writing this I have come across the very accomplished translation of Racine’s Esther by Don Hartridge.) French Alexandrines in couplets usually come over as tame and dull. Even translating Alexandrines into English rhymed pentameters, a fortiori hexameters, means you lose the variety and fluidity of the French sound patterning while gaining little in the exchange.
A line in Racine, apparently quite commonplace
“La fille de Minos et de Pasiphaë”
is singled out for praise by Proust in La Prisonnière, my favourite volume of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu.
Strange to relate, it is quite a good line in the French and is a perfectly acceptable Alexandrine. But the metrical equivalent in English
“The son of Minos and Pasiphaë
has nothing special about it, indeed sounds a bit odd. There is a slight acceleration of the rhythm in the French “…et de Pasiphaë” whereas  “…and Pasiphaë” flattens out at the end so perhaps this is the reason.  ¶

There are eras for translation. Although as far as I know English poets of the Restoration period, or the early 18th century, did not much translate French authors such as Molière or Corneille, this is perhaps the only time in English history when this could have been done successfully. During the Restoration and early Eighteenth century, in reaction against the Puritans, poets cultivated poise, neatness and emotional restraint — qualities that we associate with  French neo-classicism. Since the Romantics the world has never been the same again, and the destructive impact of Romanticism has been far greater in this country than in France because our Romantics were so brilliant  — I doubt if there has ever been an era in European history when such a poetic galaxy as Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats and Blake co-existed in the same country at the same time.      ¶

Neatness is the distinctive mark of traditional French verse, and, to a lesser extent, prose.  Even the style of Voltaire, one of the very few philosophers who can really claim to have ‘made a difference’ to ordinary people’s lives, is neat — one feels he prefers elegance to profundity, certainly to obscurity. Strong emotion, especially if it is religious in origin, seems always to have been distrusted in French literature, perhaps because of the wars of religion that nearly ruined the country. Bossuet and even Saint François de Sales are elegant raconteurs, not prophets inspired by God.
The style of French verse suits satire well since too much emotion spoils not only the fun but the effectiveness. Even Pope, probably England’s best satirist,  shows too much personal antipathy and thus makes the reader more inclined to ‘see the other person’s point of view’ which is precisely what is not desired in satire.    ¶

The cliché about “not sacrificing sense to sound” is by no means  self-evident — what if sound is the major part of sense?  That there can be sounds that are eminently meaningful without conveying any information at all is proved by the case of orchestral music. In Verlaine and some others, there is about as little content as is possible without the poem ceasing to be written in language. I do not think a literal prose version of Verlaine’s poetry would interest anyone in the slightest. “The medium is the message” perhaps (Marshall McLuhan’s phrase).
¶In Verlaine the tone and the stance is (deliberately) all there is : lose this and you’ve lost the lot.  ¶

Although, as far as I know, no linguist has said this in so many words, French is what I would call a ‘semi-tonal’ language. Chinese really is a tonal language since the ‘tone’ distinguishes one meaning of a word from a completely different one. (I would be curious to know whether the tones in Mandarin also have an emotional significance, similar to what Plato claimed for the ‘modes’ in ancient Greek music.)

Examples of tone affecting the meaning often given in elementary books on Mandarin Chinese are the differences between :

1. “What’s his name?”  “Jack.”       (Flat, prosaic)
2. “Ja-ack!  Come and have your dinner.”     (Exclamatory, summoning)
3. “He’s been charged with grievous bodily harm.” “What — Jack?”  (Showing disbelief)

I claim that someone who did not know French at all but heard it spoken, especially by a working-class Parisian, could make a reasonable guess at what was being said. It would be much more difficult to do the same for English. A ‘normal’ person in France, particularly in the big urban centres, puts far more variety of expression, pace and timbre into ordinary conversation than we do.  I, as someone who used to live in France and at one time spoke like a native, tend to spontaneously overdo variety of pace and pitch at the beginning of each fresh visit to France, though I quieten down after a day or two.
Whether French, and Italian even more so, is in itself more musical than English I’m not sure — though I rather fancy it is —  but it is remarkable how interestingly and musically quite a lot of ‘ordinary’ people speak in France — provided you completely discount what they are saying. A friend at whose flat I stay in Paris has a woman friend who is an obsessive talker — Jeanne gets so fed up with this she often puts the mobile phone on the window sill (where you can’t hear what’s being said) and carries on washing the dishes. Strange to relate the voice pouring forth from the mobile sounds wonderful : it is like listening to Italian opera!
Which reminds me of a passage in  James Joyce’s Ulysses. A friend of Daedalus goes into ecstasies over the conversation of some Italians in a Dublin street. “They’re haggling about money”, Daedalus says crushingly.     Sebastian Hayes

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