January’s translation challenge: Apollinaire Part II

The second of Apollinaire’s poems which I chose to look at this month is ‘Hôtels’. In many ways it poses more translation challenges than ‘Nuit Rhénane’ although it appears to be a simpler poem to analyse. Nevertheless, Apollinaire remains inventive with his language and at times obscure in his references. ‘Je tourne en route’ for example, seems to be a play on the expression ‘Je tourne en rond’ (‘I’m going round in circles’), and one has to wonder what its significance is if not simply to provide a rhyme for ‘doute’. Then there’s ‘La Vallière’, a mysterious character sharing this hotel, who happens to share a name with King Louis XIV’s mistress. Coincidence? I doubt it. But maybe there’s another reference there I’m missing.

The overall atmosphere in this little poem is one of loneliness in proximity to others. Apollinaire’s hotel is not one of luxury. People come and go, they smoke, drink and sometimes don’t pay the bill. It’s a dingy and drab place, everyone forming a sort of unity in their loneliness, everyone speaking the same language of despair. The last two lines are weighted and more ambiguous than the rest of the poem – ‘Chacun apporte / Son seul amour’. The men in this poem are alone, they close their doors and I don’t think Apollinaire envisaged them bringing a local street girl into their beds that night. But then who is ‘their only love’? Once again a reference to loneliness (‘seul’ means both ‘only’ and ‘alone’), or rather to a memory of a distant someone?

I started by translating this poem literally, keeping the short line lengths and as much of the original vocabulary as possible. Then I did a second version where I introduced a rhyming scheme (although simpler than in the French with only the 2nd and 4th lines rhyming) and played around with the meaning a little more. So ‘monthly rent’ turned into ‘pay by the day’ and ‘spinning top’ became ‘spinning cup’ for a rhyme to work. As often happens, I’m happier with this second version which retains a similar sense of rhythm and atmosphere as the original.



La chambre est veuve
Chacun pour soi
Présence neuve
On paye au mois

Le patron doute
Je tourne en route
Comme un toton

Le bruit des fiacres
Mon voisin laid
Qui fume un âcre
Tabac anglais

Ô La Vallière
Qui boite et rit
De mes prières
Table de nuit

Et tous ensemble
Dans cet hôtel
Savons la langue
Comme à Babel

Fermons nos portes
À double tour
Chacun apporte
Son seul amour

The room is empty
Each to his own
A new presence
Monthly rent

The owner wonders
If we’ll pay
I turn in circles
Like a spinning top

Sounds of carriages
My ugly neighbour
Smokes a pungent
English tobacco

Oh La Vallière
Who limps and laughs
At my prayers
Bedside table

And all together
In this hotel
Speak the language
Like at Babel

We close our doors
Turn twice the lock
And each with him
His only love


The widowed room
A brand new stay
Each to his own
Pay by the day

The landlord doubts
If we’ll pay up
I turn in cirlces
Like a spinning cup

Sounds of traffic
The ugly man next door
Smokes English tobacco
Pungent and poor

Oh La Vallière
Who limps and jests
When I say my prayers
By the bedside chests

In this hotel
All at this hour
Speak the tongue
Of Babel’s tower

We close our doors
Turn twice the key
And each loves one



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