Do birds hide to die?

Est-ce que les oiseaux se cachent pour mourir ?

Le soir, au coin du feu, j’ai pensé bien des fois
À la mort d’un oiseau, quelque part, dans les bois.
Pendant les tristes jours de l’hiver monotone,
Les pauvres nids déserts, les nids qu’on abandonne,
Se balancent au vent sur un ciel gris de fer.
Oh ! comme les oiseaux doivent mourir l’hiver !
Pourtant, lorsque viendra le temps des violettes,
Nous ne trouverons pas leurs délicats squelettes
Dans le gazon d’avril, où nous irons courir.
Est-ce que les oiseaux se cachent pour mourir ?

 

I heard this short poem on the radio the other day during a bird-themed segment. It’s by the French 19th century poet and novelist François Copée, who was known as “the poet of the humble”. The poem is indeed humble, almost child-like in its sentiment and expression, but it was somehow endearing, and I wondered if I would bring that across in an English translation.

So first here’s the literal, non-rhymed, clunky version:

 

Do birds hide to die?

At night, by the fire, I’ve many times thought
About a bird dying in the forest somewhere.
During the sad, monotonous winter days,
The poor, abandoned nests
Sway in the winds of an icy grey sky.
Oh! How the birds must die in winter!
Yet when the time of violets comes,
We don’t find their delicate skeletons
In the April grasses through which we run.
Do birds hide to die?

 

Even in this simple version I had to change a few things, namely swapping the future for the present tense when talking about the arrival of Spring. Translating the poem in this literal manner skews the length of the lines and breaks the poem’s rhythm; however, even in the French the lines vary between 10 and 12 syllables, with no clear pattern. Reading this English translation also highlights certain flaws in the original, like the phrase “through which we run” which comes across as a little odd, probably just used just to rhyme “courir” (run) with “mourir” (die). Similarly, “fer” (iron) in “le ciel gris de fer” (literally “the iron grey sky”), is used in order to rhyme with “hiver” (winter). In my version, this image becomes “an icy grey sky”. As I said, not a hugely complex poem this one.

So then I went on to write a couple of rhyming versions in which I get to play around a lot more with the sound and meaning so as to bring across the same tone and imitate the AABBCC rhyme scheme. Like in the French, I stuck to simple rhymes, doing away with vocabulary like “monotonous” and “skeletons” (which, again, mainly seemed to be used to accommodate the rhyme scheme) in favour of the more straight-forward “long” and “bones”.

TRANSLATION CHALLENGES

I had a few options to consider. In lines 1-2, do I ponder by the fire about the birds over yonder, or do I think by the fire at night about the birds dying out of sight? In lines 5-6, do many birds die in the icy grey sky, or is their fate foretold as they die in the cold? I chose the second option in both cases. First, because I prefer to keep the image of the forest/woods, rather than just having the birds dying “out there over yonder” (plus this is a bit of a clichéd expression). Secondly, because I have to rhyme with “die” in the last line, so I’d rather not rhyme with it twice in a 10-line poem.

The rhythm was not always easy to get right. I hesitated over the second line: “Of a bird dead, in the woods, out of sight” / “Of a woodland bird dying, out there, out of sight” / “Of a bird dying, out there, out of sight”. I wanted to keep the image of a wood/forest in there somehow and have the bird dying rather than already dead (RIP, bird).

To give the right rhythm and length to the 4th line, I used the adverb “abandonedly” to describe the swaying of the nest, rather than calling the nest itself “abandoned”. The meaning is not quite the same, I had to check – “abandonedly” can mean “unrestrainedly”, but it’s also a synonym for “helplessly”, which fits the image quite well.

The last line is much longer in the French version (“Est-ce que les oiseaux se cachent pour mourir ?” compared to “Do birds hide to die?”), so I had to pad it out in the English, meaning that the last line no longer reflects the title exactly.

I’m pretty happy with this final version and its run-on lines despite the changes I had to make to the sentence structure. And I’m quite fond of this very simple poem with its somewhat cheerless theme…

 

Do birds hide to die?

Many times have I thought, by the fire at night,
Of a woodland bird dying, out there, out of sight.
During those sorrowful, long winter days,
The small, empty nest abandonedly sways
In the harsh icy winds – their fate is foretold,
Oh, how many birds must die in the cold!
Yet when the season of Spring comes around,
Their fragile bones are not to be found
In the long April grasses –  I ask myself why?
Is it perhaps that birds hide to die?

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