Monday, February 8, 2010

Scaramouche and Pulchinella making evil plans together - Paul Verlaine's Fêtes Galantes

The poems in Paul Verlaine's Fêtes Galantes (1869) are about commedia dell'arte characters prancing in the forest, chasing each other, playing music, frolicking.  It's inspired by Watteau, I am told.  Sounds great, I know.  By "sounds great," I mean, "who cares."

I was trying to describe the book to ma femme, who knew all about it already.  Finally, she said:  "Yes, a great book can be about anything."  Even prancing Italian clowns.

Weird as Puppets

Scaramouche and Pulchinella
Making evil plans together
Wave their arms, moon-silhouettes.

But the excellent Bolognese
Doctor's picking some of these
Special herbs among the grass.

His daughter with the pretty eyes,
In the arbour, on the sly's
Looking - semi-naked - for

Her handsome Spanish buccaneer
Whose sad affliction she can hear
Well noted by a nightingale.

That's translated by Martin Sorrell in the Oxford World's Classics Selected Poems (1999).  In One Hundred and One Poems by Paul Verlaine (also 1999), Norman Shapiro has:


Polichinelle and his colleague
Sly Scaramouche, in some intrigue,
Dark-silhouetted, rave and rant.

Where did the moon go?  I have so many problems with both translations, and also like them both.  Verlaine himself begins:

Scaramouche et Pulcinella
Qu'un mauvais dessein rassembla
Gesticulent, noirs sur la lune.

Verlaine always rhymes - "lune" goes with "l'herbe brune," brown (or perhaps dry) grass, a short and simple word which both translators omit from their English.  Sorrell's nightingale is right, but it should not be "well not[ing]" the sailor's distress, but rather screaming its head off - "Clame la détresse à tue-tête."  Shapiro replaces the nightingale with a squakwing parrot.

These must be brutally hard to translate.  Reading the books together was immensely helpful, or so I hope.  I'm spending the week with Verlaine.  It's not all clowns and Spanish buccaneers.

The painting is Antoine Watteau's The Italian Comedians (c. 1720), owned by the National Gallery, but not on display.  So you can't go see it even if you trudge through the snow.


  1. Personally, I think commedia dell'arte characters frolicking through a forest sounds like a pretty fantastic conceit for a poem.

    And man, yeah, translating poetry must be tremendously difficult. One could argue "impossible."

  2. Emily, a poem, sure. But it's the whole book. Twenty-two poems, all about dancing Italian clowns. A little marvel, even in translation.

    I know enough really successful translations of poetry that I want to stay away from "impossible." But for a tricky lyricist like Verlaine, impossible might be just the word.

  3. Oh wow, I missed that it's the entire BOOK. That does put a crazier edge on things...yet somehow, I'm even more intrigued.

  4. Hmmm. This is why I've always been wary of translated poetry, much as I love translated prose works. But I loved those two snippets you posted. (Prancing Italian clowns! How weirdly cute!) I'm still not sure how I would approach a translated poem, but having the access to the original would definitely help, as it did here.

  5. Don't be wary! What other choice do you have - do I have? Not every poet has met his ideal translator - but some have, oh yes, some have.

    Even the most trivial understanding of the original language helps me move my understanding of a poem to a different place. But there are so many languages where I do not even know the writing system, much less any words. That doesn't stop me. Great translators know what they're doing.

    You have planted the germ of a Wuthering Expectations special - "Great Poems in Great Translations" or something. The question is how to make it something more than a list.