Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Two translators, two Paul Verlaines.

I have been reading two different translations of Paul Verlaine's poems.  They're oddly similar, and quite different.  Selected Poems, tr. Martin Sorrell, Oxford World's Classics, and One Hundred and One Poems by Paul Verlaine, tr. Norman Shapiro, University of Chicago Press.

Both books provide an overview of Verlaine's poems.  Verlaine published something like twenty books of poetry in thirty years.  No complete Verlaine exists in English, and neither translator thinks that such an edition is a high priority.  Plenty of bad Verlaine poems, it seems.  Neither editor includes a single example of Verlaine's forthrightly pornographic poems, although they both include some fairly smutty stuff, like the 1893 "And now, buttocks!":  "They're oval, almost, \ Almost round. Opal, \ Amber and pink tints" and so on.  That was Sorrell.

But both translators argue that previous collections are too hard on Verlaine's late poems, even if they only rescue one or two from any given book.  Shapiro includes handy little descriptions of each volume, along with increasingly dissolute portraits or drawings of Verlaine.  The biography is tied right up against the poetry.

Both books were, oddly, published in 1999.  Were the two men rivals?  Do they secretly hate each other?   I'll bet the simultaneity helped them get reviewed - both books could be covered in a single piece, like this one.

The translators operate on different principles, which is why I read both books.  Sorrell is more literal and more likely to abandon poetic form.  As a result his versions sound more Modernist.  Shapiro keeps the rhyme, always, and the form, as much as possible, but bends the sense of the poem any which way.  Neither, though, is dogmatic.  They're following guidelines, not rules, and both include facing-page French.  I liked both books, a lot.

I'm still in Fêtes Galantes (1869).  The last stanza of "Les Ingénus":

Evening would fall, the autumn day would draw
To its uncertain close: our belles would cling
Dreamingly to us, cooing, whispering
Lies that still set our souls trembling with awe.  (Shapiro)

Evening fell, autumnal, indeterminate.
The lovely girls in a dream on our arms
Murmured such empty words so low
That ever since we've trembled with delight.  (Sorrell)

One can reassemble the pieces.  Both translators have most of the pieces, although literal Sorrell somehow loses "our soul" ("notre âme") - the "we" seem to have a single soul.  That soul "tremble et s'étonne" - "trembles and is surprised,"  which is not quite English.  So Sorrell swerves one way, with a more playful, sexy choice ("delight"), while Shapiro tries a different, perhaps more spiritual tone ("awe").  Neither is exactly Verlaine; both are part of Verlaine.

So that's why I read both books.


  1. What an interesting comparison between the two translations. I think I like Shapiro just a tiny bit better. And I must say, "and now buttocks!" made me laugh.

  2. I honestly don't know which of the two fragments I like best; perhaps the second. But I like them both very much.

    I would like to say I'll soon read Verlaine but I still feel allergic to poetry. Damned grad school!

  3. I feel like this is the way to go with translated poetry: one version that's more literal and one that tries to stick to the poetic form. You're lucky to have had those two books.

    That is kind of weird that they both came out at the same time, though. Did those two translators hate/rival each other?

  4. Stefanie, that is an attention getting title. That's the literal translation, too.

    Ah, Colleen, this stuff is different. I had heard rumors, but I am now beginning to see for myself. The pool of French poetry, 19th century, 2nd half, is deep, deep, deep. The talent is unbelievable. The weirdness is awfully weird. Expect more here, much more.

    E. L. - exactly, exactly. I wish this were easier to do, available for more poets. The coincidence of publication is strange, especially since each editor makes nearly identical arguments about the problems with earlier translations.

  5. Hi AR,

    Sent you a direct email...wondering if you received it?

    Hope all is well.