Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Oh! At least, take care of yourself, I implore you! - singing and translating Jules Laforgue

Much of the fun of writing about Jules Laforgue’s Derniers Vers just comes from leafing through the book, chancing upon fine, or peculiar, phrases and images.  The text itself is not even thirty pages, but each page has its flavor.  So one more day of indulgence.

The poems in Last Verses are among the founding texts of vers libre.  That is vague and passive enough, isn’t it, “are among”?  Like I know the history of free verse.  The rules of classical French prosody are, as I understand them, strict and peculiar, but the authority of the rules had been eroding for decades by the time Laforgue was writing, since the Romantic poetry of the 1820s, at least, and I do not know exactly which strictures Baudelaire and Rimbaud had left intact for Laforgue to violate.

Where I am going is:  what a surprise how often Laforgue rhymes and uses more or less standard, musical lyric forms.  He sounds like Walt Whitman in patches, but more often sounds like this (“VII.  Honeymoon Solo”):

Où est-elle à cette heure?  (Where is she now?)
Peut-être qu’elle pleure….  (Maybe she’s crying…)
Où est-elle à cette heure?  (Where is she now?)
Oh! Du moins, soigne-toi, je t’en conjure!  (Baby, take care!)

The long last line is sufficient to show that Laforgue’s form is loose, but not only are the rhymes clear enough, the internal music of “Du moins, soigne-toi” is spectacular.  The music of the entire stanza is pleasing.

An interruption:  however much I enjoyed Donald Revell’s English, I most strongly recommend his book, and Laforgue more generally, and 19th century French verse even more generally, to anyone with any French at all, even French as sparse and bad as mine.

Even someone with no French at all might well guess that whatever the last line might mean it does not translate as the not-particularly-musical “Baby, take care!”  No.  A nearly identical line, without the “Du moins,” appears later in the poem; Revell translates it as “Honey, take care of yourself, I’m begging you,” which is close.

I picked this stanza not just because I enjoy singing it, but because that last line demonstrates Revell’s method.  He is not trying to recreate the French but rather to move the book into a current American poetic idiom, as if it were 1990, the poem is not a translation, and Laforgue is familiar with Robert Creeley and John Ashbery.  The translation is the poem Laforgue would have written if all of the above were true.  Prof. Mayhew just posted a couple of paragraphs describing translation “as the place where two poetic traditions meet up.”  Revell is following Mayhew’s principles.

So Revell uses Laforgue’s slangy “Oh!” as license to be slangy himself.  “Baby” and “honey” are not from Laforgue’s French, but Revell finds them hidden behind the second-person pronouns and the “Oh!”  And these are hardly the largest liberties of the translator.

In the best of all possible worlds, I would like collections of translated poems to have the French on one page,  a pedantically footnoted, awkwardly literal English in the middle, and the translator’s best attempt at a good English poem on the right.  The world as it exists is not so bad, though.  Two out of three.


  1. When I read that "Baby take care" I almost lept out of my chair. Then I read the rest of your post.

    It's a totally different level of language, it erases the 19thC feeling and it's totally American.

    Just the other day I tried (and failed) to explain to my daughter who was listening to an American song that "baby" means Bébé but has nothing to do with an actual infant. She thought it was weird and that's where I failed to find a satisfactory French word for it.

    I agree with you, foreign poetry should always be sold in bilingual editions. Even if you don't know the language, it's interesting to see how it was in the original.

  2. It drives me nuts not to have the original poem next to the translation, no matter what language. I don't even care if it's character-based like Chinese - I want to see the poem, and, if it's in a language I can sound out, to mumble along so that I can approximate hearing it.

    I love the idea of the three-facing-pages translation. Engineering it might be a challenge, but digitally you could do it in columns (and for French poetry, perhaps in red, white & blue like the finale of Napoleon).

  3. No, not a fan of that translation - but then having to decipher foreign languages through the distorting veil of American English is one of my pet hates anyway...

  4. Just tell your daughter that "baby" is American for "my little cabbage."

    Very interesting to hear the different responses to this translation. I am interested in reading more by Revell - he has also translated Rimbaud and Apollinaire. But the bounds or method he sets for himself has its limitations.

    In reality, I do not just want the original, the literal, and the poetic, but multiple versions of the poetic, many approaches. Perhaps someday there will be hypertext editions that allow this sort of crazy thing. Color-coded, exactly.

    1. Tom, we don't say "my little cabbage" anymore, at least not to adults. (although in my head I hear more the "chou" of "mon petit chou" as "chou" or "cream puff" than as "cabbage")

      I wonder what a translation of Calligrammes by Appolinaire sounds and looks like.

    2. You don't? C'est dommage!

      The translations of Apollinaire's Calligrammes that I have seen look just like they do in French. Once you have picked your words your typographer can arrange them into whatever form you want. The poetic sound is lost, gone, vanished.

  5. What a great idea. I'm in a seminar at the moment on digital pedagogies, and I can see students putting together just such a thing as a resource on a given poet or author, as a final product for a class on translation.

  6. Oh, and sorry, I meant to comment on the translation. Taking these comments alongside the very different ones you got on Antigonick is interesting. There, people said how much the modern, "meta" translation helped them understand the text better and get a more visceral feel for the text. Here, they seem to dislike it. Wonder if it's the language? Or the difference in time span? Or the perceived awkwardness in Revell's translation as opposed to Carson's?

  7. Time span, yes, but also the idiom. Revell is putting Laforgue into a well-established, specific American poetic tradition. Knowing that tradition has to help. Carson is turning a Sophocles play into an Anne Carson poem - i.e., moving it into an entirely different American poetic tradition.

    Both moves seem like good fits to me, but they are far from the only possibilities.