November’s translation challenge

I’ve been reading some French children’s poetry and playing around with English translations. My current fixation is this little poem called ‘Chez Moi’ (‘At mine’) by René de Obaldia, a member of the very prestigious Académie française. It’s a fun piece tracing a show-off dialogue between a little girl and boy, each imagining greater wonders that happen at their house.

Chez moi

Chez moi, dit la petite fille
On élève un éléphant.
Le dimanche son oeil brille
Quand Papa le peint en blanc.

Chez moi, dit le petit garçon
On élève une tortue.
Elle chante des chansons
En latin et en laitue.

Chez moi, dit la petite fille
Notre vaisselle est en or,
Quand on mange des lentilles
On croit manger un trésor.

Chez moi, dit le petit garçon
Vit un empereur chinois.
Il dort sur le paillasson
Aussi bien qu’un Iroquois.

Iroquois! dit la petite fille.
Tu veux te moquer de moi.
Si je trouve mon aiguille,
Je vais te piquer le doigt!

So here are some things I had to consider when translating:
1. Whether to keep the strong rhythm with 7 syllables to each line and an accent on the last syllable.
2. Whether to stick to the rhyming pattern ABAB structure throughout.
3. Whether to stick to the same images and inventions or rather to use the basic idea and do some imaginings of my own whilst sticking to the same rhythm as the French.

I soon realised that the French language has a particular capacity to make words fit into different numbers of syllables. So the word ‘une’ will be 1 syllable when spoken in normal conversation, but most often pronounced as 2 syllables ‘u-ne’ in poetry. ‘Petite’ will similarly be either 2 or three syllables long. In general, the silent ‘e’ at the end of words will become an audible schwa if followed by a word starting with a consonant, thereby adding a syllable to the line. At least that was a solid rule in Classic French poetry which has since lost its absolute nature to become more of an option than a necessity.

The first line in this poem, ‘Chez moi, dit la petite fille’, can be pronounced with 7, 8 or 9 syllables depending on whether we sound the last ‘e’ on the last two words. My instinct was to consider it a 7-syllable line as are all the others. The exception being the 1st line of the last verse: ‘Iroquois! dit la petite fille‘, which becomes an 8-syllable line if the same sound conventions are used, or which can become a 7-syllable line if the word ‘petite’ is pronounced in a truncated way as it very often is in everyday speech, rendering a 1-syllable ‘p’tite’. This is also what needs to happen to the ‘petit’ in ‘petit garçon’ if it is to stick to the 7-syllable/line rule. In essence, you can read this poem in French as either a 7-7-7-7 or 8-7-7-7 syllable poem.

Another tricky aspect when translating into English is that whereas in French the accent is always on the last syllable, in English this is not the case. If we want to stick to the regular rhythm of the poem and accent the last syllable of each line, we can’t finish the line with a word like ‘elephant’ or ‘turtle’ which have a stressed first syllable in English. So we either have to invert the lines and say ‘An elephant we’ve raised’ instead of ‘We’ve raised an elephant’ or simply use another animal – e.g. ‘We’ve raised a big fat hog’.

The ABAB rhyming structure provides less of a challenge since it simply requires finding enough words to rhyme with ‘girl’ and ‘boy’. Poetry translation being a free art form, we can of course choose to abandon the rhyming structure altogether and go with a free verse style if we want to be more faithful to the content of the poem. However, this would seem to me a greater loss in this children’s poem where the rhyme and rhythm really carry the whole thing nicely along.

Finally there’s the question of the title. ‘Chez moi’ can be translated as ‘at mine’, ‘at my place’, ‘at my house’, ‘where I live’ etc. The longer options might require a change in structure of the first lines – e.g. ‘At my house, the boy did say’ (if we want to stick to 7 syllables); ‘At my place, said the little boy’ (if we’re flexible with the syllable count). In the end I went with ‘At mine’ since I also like the fact that it mimics the simple, 2-syllable structure of the French ‘Chez moi’.

So first off here’s the most literal version keeping the ABAB rhyming structure, where I kept as many original terms and ideas as I could with a few exceptions, like ‘laitue’ (lettuce) becoming ‘purple’ (both completely illogical in their context), ‘trésor‘ (treasure) replaced by ‘pearl’, and the addition of a cowboy in the fourth verse. The rhythm is a little weird though, with a 7-6-8-7 syllable structure (with the exception of the last line which is 6 syllables), I’ve highlighted in bold the words which need to be stressed for the rhythm to work

At mine

At mine, said the little girl
We’ve got an elephant
His eyes shine and his lids unfurl
When Dad paints him white for Lent.

At mine, sid the little boy
We have raised a turtle.
She sings to us and brings us joy
In Latin and in purple.

At mine, said the little girl,
All the crockery is gold
You’d think that we were eating pearl
When we’re eating lentils cold.

At mine, said the little boy,
Sleeps a Chinese Emperor
Faced with Indians like a cowboy,
He will never surrender.

Indians ! – said the little girl
You really think I’m thick.
My piercing needle I will hurl
And your finger it will prick!

I played around with a few other variations and different syllable-lengths, but ended up feeling that the 7-7-7-7 structure best reproduced the feel of the French, with a stress on the last syllable in each line, despite the change in imagery it created in my version. As in the French, the first line of the last verse is 8 rather than 7 syllables long. Here then the elephant becomes a big fat hog, the turtle is a turtle-dove, the Chinese Emperor is an Oriental King, and the Iroquois… becomes a Ruby Ring. I’m still not 100% satisfied with this version for various reasons but it is what it is, maybe there are other translations of this little poem out there that I’ve yet to find…

At Mine

At mine, said the little girl
We have raised a big fat hog,
His eyes shine, he starts to twirl
When Dad takes him to the bog.

At mine, said the little boy,
We have raised a turtle-dove,
She sings songs that we enjoy
In Latin from high above.

At mine, said the little girl
All the plates are made of gold.
You’d think we were eating pearl
When we’re eating lentils cold.

At mine, said the little boy
There’s an Oriental King
All the rugs he does destroy
With his magic ruby ring.

Ruby ring! Said the little girl
Now you really think I’m dumb!
My fierce needle I will hurl
And prick your little thumb!


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