Friday, April 25, 2014

A Gautier translation worskhop - Salut, yeux bleus! bonsoir, flots verts!

I am going to look at the end of a Gautier poem from Enamels and Cameos titled “Sadness at Sea,” a combination of sea description and overwrought Romantic sentiment.  The poet, aboard a ship to England, thinks about hopping into the ocean as a cure for despair, but stops when he catches the attention of a potential sexual conquest.

These are the final two stanzas.  The last is actually an exact repetition of the beginning of the poem.

Dans ce regard, à ma détresse
La Sympathie aux bras ouverts
Parle et sourit, soeur ou maîtresse.
Salut, yeux bleus! bonsoir, flots verts!

Les mouettes volent et jouent;
Et les blancs coursiers de la mer,
Cabrés sur les vagues, secouent
Leurs crins échevelés dans l’air.


And in that glance, arms beckoning me,
A Kindred Soul speaks to my plight
And smiles…  Sister?  Or mistress, she?...
Blue eyes, good day!  Green waves, good night!

The seagulls, playing, fly about;
And the white stallions of the sea,
Backs arched over the waves, shake out
Their tousled, windswept manes, blown free.

I like this quite a bit, both in French and in English, but it is also a good passage to see what the translator, Norman Shapiro, is doing.

1.  Shapiro includes everything.  The 1903 translation omits and adds, which to me are great sins.  Shapiro moves the content over with some efficiency.   The entire package of the fine image of the waves is intact.

2.  “And the white stallions of the sea” is an exact translation.

3.  “The seagulls, playing, fly about” is not.  “The seagulls fly and play” is easy enough, and “play” is a promising word for later rhymes, but the line is two syllables short.

4.  Gautier rhymes two strong verbs, “jouent” and “secouent.”  Shapiro rhymes two weak prepositions, neither of which are strictly in the original.  They are there to add syllables and to supply a rhyme.

This is my only real criticism of Shapiro’s method.  He has chosen to rhyme when Gautier rhymes, but to forego slant rhymes, which means that in practice he too often uses conjunctions and prepositions as rhyme words, which Gautier does not do.  At its worst, the practice leads to distracting enjambments.  I will go to “Symphony in White Major” for an example:

Dove’s feathers, white down that appears
To snow on manor rooftops?  Or
The ice stalactite dripping tears
Of white on the dark cavern’s floor?

Gautier ends lines with nouns and verbs and vivid adjectives, so each line of the quatrain, or each pair, works as a unit, and there is never anything like that break in the middle after “Or.”

My preferred solution would be to allow slant rhymes, but Gautier does not use them, so my preference is really just to replace one violation with another.  If we are trying to judge what is truer to the tone of Gautier, it is important to remember that my French is terrible, while Shapiro’s is expert.

5.  Even an easy rhyme guarantees nothing.  I will bet Shapiro had “distress / mistress” (“détresse / maîtresse) in the first and many subsequent drafts before he felt he had to give it up to solve some other problem.

6.  No translation that keeps the sense will capture anything close to the music of “Salut, yeux bleus! bonsoir, flots verts!”  This is the kind of line that caught the attention of later poets like Paul Verlaine and Stéphane Mallarmé.  Would it be possible to compose entire poems with this kind of music?  Yes, it is, but not without a lot more luck or work.


  1. The sibilants in the French only get a half-hearted go in the English - I liked that sea-soundingness of the 's'.

  2. Alas! All translations have to commit some violations. My problems with the Shapiro:

    1. Arms don't beckon.
    2. I don't like the sprung rhythms and false quantities. Not on principle; they just don't seem right for Gautier, not for his enamels and cameos.
    3. "Kindred soul" and "speaks to my plight" are somewhat stilted. Gautier is Romantic, but more direct, and often playful.
    4. The breeziness of "salut" and "bonsoir" is lost; Shapiro introduces a day/night parallel that isn't in the original.
    5. I don't think "stallion" is quite right for "coursier": "courser" or "charger" might be closer; these are racing horses, not stud animals.

    Having said all that, I guess have to come up with something. It has its problems, too. It commits more paraphrase than I'd like, but I think it's closer to Gautier's style and intention.

    And to my rescue, with that glance
    Comes Kindness, open-armed, for me,
    And speaks and smiles. Just friends? Romance?
    Hello, blue eyes! So long, green sea!

    Above, the gulls cavort and whirl;
    Below, the sea's white chargers play,
    And stretched out on the waves, unfurl
    Their wild-haired manes upon the spray.

    I don't like having to add "above" and "below" for the meter, and would rather keep "air" for that last line. "Sympathie" is a tricky word; it means something like "congeniality plus compatibility," but "Kindness" may work in this context. And, in an ideal translation, I would keep the alternating masculine and feminine rhymes. But there are always violations...

  3. It is a shame, Doug, that you have no reason to do the entire poem. "Just friends? Romance?" - does that solve a lot of problems.

    It would be a pleasant luxury to have good competing versions of Gautier, like we do with Baudelaire and most of the Symbolists.

    vicki, it is so true, it just that kind of sonic effect that is only translatable by chance. Shapiro seems to get close to it in one line, "And smiles… Sister? Or mistress, she?..."

  4. I hope my attempt will goad enraged readers to better me. I do prefer "sister or mistress" -- but then, it introduces an obtrusive assonance not in the original, so maybe not.

    This does bring out one of the translator's dilemmas: if a text is written under formal constraints (such as rhyming quatrains), and the words were chosen under those constraints, are the constraints or the choices more important, should a clash arise, as it will? For Gautier, I'd rather keep his tidy versification, even at the expense of paraphrase. For another poet, maybe not.