December’s translation challenge

Well here it is, Baudelaire’s Chant d’automne in full. I had a long train ride and this occupied me quite well. You can look at my last post for some ideas about the challenges faced in translating this poem. In the end I decided to do the whole thing with an AABB rhyming scheme, diverging from Baudelaire’s original ABAB.

Why? Well because I often preferred the overall results I could get, and I felt that being faithful to the original always falls short somewhere, so here my focus was on rhythm, flow and meaning, and altering the rhyme scheme seemed a lesser issue. Also, I haven’t found any other English translation of this poem which does this – other translators have either kept the original ABAB rhyme scheme or have dropped the rhyme altogether, so this gave me the chance to do something a little different.

So here is the original in French, followed by my translation into English. Although seasonal, it’s not the happiest of poems, but then again if we survive this winter it surely gives us all the more hope for spring!

Chant d’automne


Bientôt nous plongerons dans les froides ténèbres;
Adieu, vive clarté de nos étés trop courts!
J’entends déjà tomber avec des chocs funèbres
Le bois retentissant sur le pavé des cours.

Tout l’hiver va rentrer dans mon être: colère,
Haine, frissons, horreur, labeur dur et forcé,
Et, comme le soleil dans son enfer polaire,
Mon coeur ne sera plus qu’un bloc rouge et glacé.

J’écoute en frémissant chaque bûche qui tombe
L’échafaud qu’on bâtit n’a pas d’écho plus sourd.
Mon esprit est pareil à la tour qui succombe
Sous les coups du bélier infatigable et lourd.

II me semble, bercé par ce choc monotone,
Qu’on cloue en grande hâte un cercueil quelque part.
Pour qui? — C’était hier l’été; voici l’automne!
Ce bruit mystérieux sonne comme un départ.


J’aime de vos longs yeux la lumière verdâtre,
Douce beauté, mais tout aujourd’hui m’est amer,
Et rien, ni votre amour, ni le boudoir, ni l’âtre,
Ne me vaut le soleil rayonnant sur la mer.

Et pourtant aimez-moi, tendre coeur! soyez mère,
Même pour un ingrat, même pour un méchant;
Amante ou soeur, soyez la douceur éphémère
D’un glorieux automne ou d’un soleil couchant.

Courte tâche! La tombe attend; elle est avide!
Ah! laissez-moi, mon front posé sur vos genoux,
Goûter, en regrettant l’été blanc et torride,
De l’arrière-saison le rayon jaune et doux!

Charles Baudelaire

Autumn Song


Soon we will stumble into coldness and night,
Adieu, the short summer; farewell, the bright light!
Already the sound of the death-knell I hear
As fire-logs crash on the pavements so near.

All winter takes over my soul: hate,
Rage, fear, horror, labour hard and irate,
And, like the sun, that cold, hellish rock,
My heart soon no more than a frozen red block.

Trembling I listen to each falling log,
Duller sounds than rising gallows in fog.
Like a crumbling tower, my soul they do shatter,
With heavy blows that pound and batter.

As I’m rocked by the shocks echoing in the air,
It seems that a coffin is being nailed down out there.
But for whom? Summer was yesterday, now autumn is here,
And all these strange drummings bring farewells I fear.
I love in your long eyes that green-tinted glitter,
Sweet beauty, yet today all to me seems so bitter,
And not your love, nor the bedchamber or the fire’s strong blaze,
Can replace the summer sea, reflecting the sun’s rays.

Yet love me tender heart, and a mother be,
Even for a wretch, a wicked man like me;
As lover or sister, be that sweet, furtive flight
Of a glorious autumn or the summer’s last light.

Brief moment! The waiting tomb agrees!
Oh, let me, with my head upon your knees,
Taste the fleeting autumn’s soft yellow rays,
All the while mourning those hot white summer days.


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