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Rimbaud’s mad boat: Some thoughts on translating poetry.

By Martin Sorrell.

Sadly lost in translation.

TRANSLATORS, ESPECIALLY LITERARY translators, and more especially, in my experience, translators of poetry, often get asked what drew them into the practice, whether it’s possible at all to translate poetry, and how “faithful” they are to the original. These are all good, pertinent questions. The first is easy to answer, the others less so.

For my part, I can remember the moment not when I started doing literary translation (f you study languages at school and university, you’re having to do it all the time) but when I found the translation that set me – I was about to write “going” but really I mean “set me free’”as a literary translator (three decades of it now, principally of French, poetry and drama in the main, and this has to be the perspective – limited – of these thoughts ). The translation was Samuel Beckett’s of Rimbaud’s  “Le Bateau ivre”. To be precise, it was just two words in one line of the fourth stanza. There, Beckett showed that the translator must be alive to what is going on behind the words the poet has chosen.  Here’s the whole stanza:

La tempête a béni mes éveils maritimes.
Plus léger qu’un bouchon j’ai dansé sur les flots
Qu’on appelle rouleurs éternels de victimes,
Dix nuits, sans regretter l’oeil niais des falots!

Sometimes I set this stanza as a test for my students on the Exeter University MA Translation course. I hint that there’s one detail of particular interest for the translator, a couple of words. Initially they don’t see it, as I didn’t either, years ago. They get worried about “rouleurs”, “niais”, “falots”. But by a process of elimination, we tend to get there. The penny drops once I’ve placed Beckett’s version before them. The issue is the noun-adjective combination, “Dix nuits”.

Has Rimbaud, or his mad boat, really been keeping count of the nights? Ten, rather than six or seven or twelve or twenty? The answer, in terms of poetic language, is yes, it has to be “dix”, and that’s not because of the number, but the sound. The high front unrounded vowel [dis] is replicated in the noun [nųi]. It must surely be there as the shrill correlative of the boat’s distress, hurled about on crazed seas. (And is there a pre-echo here of the anguished last line of “Aube”, one of the Illuminations: “Au réveil il était midi”?). Beckett’s solution is “Nine nights”, and it’s a wonderful one. A shrill sound it may not be, but the rich rhyme [nain naits] recognises Rimbaud’s real meaning.

My enthusiasm for this piece of translation may say more about me than the poem, and others may not attach to those two words the importance I do. For example, one of Rimbaud’s most recent translators, Jeremy Harding, has “ten nights”, no nonsense. And others, such as Wyatt Mason and Alan Jenkins, steer clear of numbers altogether. But I include Beckett’s trouvaille here because it’s that which set me firmly on the path of imaginative translation.

Another eye-opener was Derek Mahon’s versions of Philippe Jaccottet for Penguin.  I’d tried my hand at some of Jaccottet’s sculpted, formal poetry, weighty as French furniture, and I’d got bogged down trying to reproduce the density of his language. I used long lines to keep pace with his. And then I found that Mahon lightened things up, thinning out the lines. At first I found this irreverent, casual and unfaithful, and was reminded of the celebrated dictum “traduttore tradittore”.  But then I got it, I saw that Mahon was extracting the poetic essence of Jaccottet’s French, lifting the poetic core and recasting it according to the usages of English (itself no doubt flavoured by Mahon’s Irishness).

WHAT MIGHT BE CALLED  this lateral approach to the translation of poetry worries a lot of people. It’s presumptuous or lazy. Ten is ten and can’t be nine. What about that virtue called fidelity? Some even say that poetry can’t be translated and shouldn’t be attempted. (I’ve heard that some years ago a judge of an important translation prize threw out every book of poetry submitted without so much as opening them).

But why is poetry sacrosanct? Shouldn’t “heightened” prose be included? If so, who decides the correct altitude? It seems to be the case that to alter syntax in a prose translation is acceptable whereas in poetry it isn’t. Why? I know I’m generalising, and there are plenty of examples where fidelity is vindicated. But too often one detects in a translation an over-reverence for what might be called the outside of a poem, the technical apparatus which bolts it together – rhythm (metre) and rhyme, as though these were sufficient synonyms for poetry.

Derek Mahon: faithful equivalency.

Mahon’s Jaccottet shows triumphantly that this isn’t so. He makes his translations poems while seeming to ignore the rules of fidelity. But the results remain Jaccottet. Mahon gives English poetic versions of the poems Jaccottet has written. As a poet, Mahon has the ability to find and render Jaccottet’s poetic core. He’s not shackled by the technical specificities of the French. What he recognises is the importance of – the concept of – equivalence. He knows that an equivalent translation can be more faithful than a supposedly literal one. Indeed, “literal” is less than a watertight notion. Very little in the apparatus of poetry is fixed.

If metre is troublesome for some translators, rhyme is even more so for those who consider it an absolute. But patterns of rhyme are not, of course, a pre-condition of poetry, nor indeed fixed metres. But there have been an awful lot of translated poems in which rhyme, particularly, becomes the tail that wags the dog. To translate as it were “backwards” from rhyme to line runs the big risk of sacrificing the poem’s core, especially if lines are being shoe-horned into a fixed metre. And there can be another unintended consequence of clumsy rhyme – comedy. Rhyme, rhyming couplets especially, can have comic effects. I remember Ranjit Bolt making this point at a conference. Asked why he didn’t translate Racine and Corneille, but stuck to Molière, he said that his talent for rhyme enhanced comedy but would cheapen tragedy. (That said, I have to add that I remember hearing on the radio, years ago, a wonderful rhymed version of Le Cid, translated by Jeffrey Wainwright, which maintained dignity and gravitas all the way through.)

Working with new and rather inhibited translation students, I’ve found that once they’ve been persuaded to forget about rhyming, they liberate their powers of expression, and they fashion a language which “gets” the original and is more poetic than if they’d stuck to a rhyme scheme.

I WONDER IF PURISTS work on the principle, which may or may not be unconscious, that there is one ideal translation for every poem, which, once attained, will put paid to the need for all others. On the other hand, is it that the translator who goes for versions is a relativist who can live with imperfection? Fabulous things have come out of the latter position. Wasn’t the King James Bible translated by a committee of relativists? Some purists say that if you want the truth, you’ll have to go back further, to the Hebrew and Greek.

For my money, I’d like to see more books of comparative translation on the market. Alongside the originals should be printed a decent number of versions by different translators, preferably done at different periods and in varied cultural circumstances. Shouldn’t good and great poems be translated afresh each generation or so? Recent literary theory would back this up, with its emphasis on the instability of text and reader. Translation perhaps is even more unstable. I’d suggest too that these honest books of translation give a prominent place to a “plain” prose translation of each poem, and should this sound the antithesis of all that is deemed to be poetry, I’d point to the prose versions Keith Waldrop has made of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal. For some commentators, it’s the account that gets most closely to the poetry behind the words.

So far. The translation of a poem only approximates to what might be said – as does this article.


Martin Sorrell is a BBC radio playwright and Emeritus Professor of French at Exeter University, where he teaches an MA course on Literary Translation. Among his publications are Paul Verlaine: Selected Poems,  Arthur Rimbaud: Collected Poems, Federico Garcia Lorca: Selected Poems (all OUP), Elles: A Bilingual Anthology of Modern French Poetry By Women (University of Exeter Press), and Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen (Oneworld Classics). In June, his two new translations of Verlaine appeared in the Fortnightly Review‘s New Series.

The complete text of “Le bateau ivre” is here.

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One Comment

  1. Padraic J. Cohee wrote:

    I burned the French Toast while reading your lovely article on translating Le Bateau Ivre.

    Wednesday, 28 November 2012 at 20:49 | Permalink

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