January’s translation challenge: Apollinaire Part III

For the third and final instalment of this month’s translation challenge, I picked Apollinaire’s ‘Claire de Lune’, once again from the ‘Alcools’ collection of poems published in 1913. It wasn’t until I started reading some analysis of the poem after translating it that I realised that this poem could just as well (but perhaps too self-evidently) be called ‘Lune de Miel’ or ‘Honeymoon’. Happily for us, the wordplay works in English too. Throughout the poem Apollinaire is drawing parallels between the moon and honey, so perhaps this graceful, sweet little poem is really about the blossoming love that a newly-married couple discover under the night stars. The poet is here painting himself as a hidden observer, but his clear implication in the event is shown through his fear of being stung by the Arcturus bee, which can therefore be read as a metaphor for the stings of love, and its sometime sadly deceitful and ephemeral nature, represented by the melancholic tone onwhich the poem ends.

Clair de Lune   by Guillaume Apollinaire
Lune mellifluente aux lèvres des déments
Les vergers et les bourgs cette nuit sont gourmands
Les astres assez bien figurent les abeilles
De ce miel lumineux qui dégoutte des treilles
Car voici que tout doux et leur tombant du ciel
Chaque rayon de lune est un rayon de miel
Or caché je conçois la très douce aventure
J’ai peur du dard de feu de cette abeille Arcture
Qui posa dans mes mains des rayons décevants
Et prit son miel lunaire à la rose des vents


Translation challenges:

Rhyme: I had a think about finding rhyming pairs for this poem in English to reflect the French AABBCC rhyme scheme (could I get flight/night, bee/see, plays/rays in there somehow?), but decided against it. It felt too forced, the rhymes too evident compared to Apollinaire’s elegant déments/gourmands, abeilles/treilles, aventure/Arcture… In the end the soft tones and imagery of the poem felt more important so I decided to focus on those in the translation.

Vocabulary: I admit having to look up a number of words here – ‘mellifluente’, ‘dard’, ‘Arcture’… and then what exactly was ‘un rayon de miel’ or ‘la rose des vents’? As I found out, these things refer to a honeycomb and a compass (or compass rose) respectively. There is such a thing as a ‘wind rose’ in English although it is a technical graphic used by meteorologists; however, the alternative terms ‘windrose’, or ‘Rose of the Winds’ seem to correspond more closely to the French. Oh and ‘Arcture’ is ‘Arcturus’, which is apparently the brightest star in the Northern hemisphere; learn something new every day.

Punctuation: None I could see so nothing to worry about there.

Imagery: Well this was a fun one to play with. Throughout the poem Apollinaire draws all sorts of parallels between honey and the moon’s rays: the bees are stars, the fields and towns the eager flowers – it’s initially a sweet night that the poet is describing. Only at the end of the poem does he seem to realise the ephemeral nature of his astral honey, with a certain measure of poetic melancholia. From the very first line this imagery posed a challenge: the moon with its ‘lèvres des déments’ – did it have delirious or deceitful lips? ‘Déments’ as a noun is literally a crazy person, but ‘démentir’ means to deny, deceive or disappoint. This second term ties in nicely to the ‘rayons décevants’ (deceptive rays) at the end of the poem too, even though it is not the most obvious choice.

Wordplay: I had to find a way around the wordplay on the 6th line of the poem: “Chaque rayon de lune est un rayon de miel”, since, as discussed earlier, we’re talking about a honeycomb here and not a ray of honey. I wanted to keep the idea of honey dripping from its comb, falling down like a golden ray from the sky, but I couldn’t use the same word twice as in the French. So the thesaurus came into play as it often does, and I tried to at least find something to alliterate, two words which would be rebounding off each other and balancing each other out as the two ‘rayons’ do in the French. And I ended up with ‘twinkle’ (more often associated with stars than the moon, I know) and ‘trickle’ for the honeycomb metaphor. I like this result with the initial ‘t’s and final ‘kle’s responding to the original word repetition in this line, albeit with more hard-edged sounds than I’d ideally like.

Word choice: There were o-so-many options to play with here. First of all I desperately wanted to keep ‘Mad-mouthed mellifluous moon’ as my first line because I’m a little obsessed with alliteration, but since this in no way reflected what Apollinaire was trying to do I had to sigh and let it go. Then do I choose the word boroughs or villages, hamlets or townships in the 2nd line; luminous, lustrous, radiant or shimmering in the 4th; soft, graceful, delicate or gentle in the 7th? Choices, Oh so many choices! But I always delight in the profuse synonyms of the English language which give me so much to work with, so I really can’t complain.


Mellifluous moon with deceptive lips
The orchards and boroughs are avid this night
The stars play quite well the part of the bees
Whose lustrous honey drips down the vines
And look oh how softly they fall from the skies
The moon’s every twinkle is a honeycomb trickle
I hide as I watch this graceful adventure
Fearing the fiery sting of the Arcturus bee
Which placed deceitful rays into my hands
And swept its moonlight honey to the rose of the winds


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