Tomorrow, at dawn…

It’s been a while, but I recently read this poem by Victor Hugo and thought I’d give it a shot. Hugo wrote this piece about visiting his daughter’s grave after she drowned in the Seine river aged 19. It’s full of weighted melancholy and portrays his walk to her tombstone as a metaphor (in my mind) for his long walk through life towards his own grave, the only place where they may finally be reunited.

Demain, dès l’aube…

Demain, dès l’aube, à l’heure où blanchit la campagne,
Je partirai. Vois-tu, je sais que tu m’attends.
J’irai par la forêt, j’irai par la montagne.
Je ne puis demeurer loin de toi plus longtemps.

Je marcherai les yeux fixés sur mes pensées,
Sans rien voir au dehors, sans entendre aucun bruit,
Seul, inconnu, le dos courbé, les mains croisées,
Triste, et le jour pour moi sera comme la nuit.

Je ne regarderai ni l’or du soir qui tombe,
Ni les voiles au loin descendant vers Harfleur,
Et quand j’arriverai, je mettrai sur ta tombe
Un bouquet de houx vert et de bruyère en fleur.


The flow of this poem is so natural that it took me multiple readings, during which I was just absorbed by the atmosphere and story, before I realised that there was actually a rhyming scheme. So I started by doing a quick translation of the poem, then another one just after without looking at the first, to see what variations I came up with, without thinking it through too much. Comparing these results left me with some interesting decisions to make:

Ln1.  when the first light whitewashes the fields, /  when the fields are white with dew,

Ln2-3. I’ll set off / I’ll leave / I’ll go

Ln4. I cannot stay far from you much longer. / No longer can I stay away from you.

Ln. 7 Alone, unknown, with bent back and crossed arms, / Lonesome, a stranger, crouched over with crossed arms,

Ln.8 Woeful, and the day for me will be as night. /  Filled with sadness, in day as in night.

Ln.9 I will see neither the gold of falling night, / I’ll not see the golden night descending,

Ln.10 Nor the far-off sails moving to the harbour, / Nor the distant sails glide towards Harfleur,


The differences I got seem quite striking considering the few minutes that separated the writing of each.

Some of Hugo’s images are also ambiguous. What did he mean, for example, by “à l’heure où blanchit la campagne”? Is the countryside white with dew, with frost, with a morning fog? I kept trying to interpret this in my translations – “at the white hour of dawn”/ “when the fields are silver-white”, none of that was very satisfying. I ended up using “frosted white” here, but that’s just the image his words painted in my mind.

After merging the two to get an initial translation I liked, I tried out at a rhyming version, keeping the ABAB, CDCD rhyme scheme that Hugo has. This implied a little more liberty with the meaning and some added imagery, but not a whole lot in the end. Hugo rhymes “tombe/tombe” (“tomb/fall”) in the last verse, so I replicated the homonym with “grave/grave”. The other rhymes aren’t perfect, I’ve got a couple of “still/hills”, “feathers/heather” in there, and it feels more forced than in the French, but nevertheless I think I actually prefer my rhymed version. Here are both with the rhyming one on the right.



Tomorrow, at dawn
Tomorrow, at dawn, when the fields are frosted white,
I’ll set off. You see, I know that you await.
I’ll set off across the forest, I’ll set off across the mountain.
From you no longer can I stay away.

I’ll walk, my sight set upon my thoughts,
Seeing nothing, hearing nothing,
Lonesome and unknown, with bent back and crossed arms,
Woeful, and the day for me will be as night.

I’ll not see the golden light of evening,
Nor the distant sails glide towards Harfleur,
And when I get there, on your grave I’ll place
A bouquet of holly an heather in bloom.

At dawn tomorrow
At dawn tomorrow, when the fields are white and still,
I’ll go. I know that you await, you see.
I’ll go across the forests and the hills.
So long, so far from you I cannot be.

My eyes fixed upon my thoughts, I’ll roam,
Seeing nothing, hearing nothing, all empty and endless.
With curved back and crossed arms, unknown and alone,
My day as my night, filled with sorrow and sadness.

I’ll not look to the golden dusk so grave,
Nor to distant sails which float like feathers,
And when I get there, I’ll place upon your grave
A bunch of green holly and flowering heather.





February’s translation challenge: Part II

For the second instalment of my February translation challenge, themed “Dreams of Friendship”, I have chosen an amusing text by Jean de la Fontaine, who wrote his fables, or morality poems as I think of them, in the 17th century. They quickly became classics of French literature and are read to children and played out at the Comédie Française to this day. Most of them involved some sort of metaphoric relationship between animals, but this particular poem which I came across recently is very much about humans.

In “Les deux amis”, we have a brief story about one friend running to check up on another because of a bad dream he had, and the second friend trying to appease the first by offers of money and slave girls. Whether this type of behaviour was a suggestion of the ideal friendship among noblemen or a satiric depiction of one is uncertain, but I’m putting my money on the second option.

La Fontaine is generally prone to irony and gentle mockery and this is something I also sense in the somewhat ludicrous scene depicted in this poem. Nevertheless, it has been suggested that the fable (set in a far-off, exotic African land) was an example to be admired and a critique of the lack of friendly behaviour in high-society France.
« Les deux amis » de La Fontaine
Deux vrais amis vivaient au Monomotapa;
L’un ne possédait rien qui n’appartînt à l’autre.
Les amis de ce pays-là
Valent bien, dit-on, ceux du nôtre.

Une nuit que chacun s’occupait au sommeil,
Et mettait à profit l’absence de soleil,
Un de nos deux amis sort du lit en alarme ;
Il court chez son intime, éveille les valets :
Morphée avait touché le seuil de ce palais.
L’ami couché s’étonne; il prend sa bourse, il s’arme,
Vient trouver l’autre et dit : «Il vous arrive peu
De courir quand on dort ; vous me paraissez homme
A mieux user du temps destiné pour le somme :
N’auriez-vous point perdu tout votre argent au jeu ?
En voici. S’il vous est venu quelque querelle,
J’ai mon épée ; allons. Vous ennuyez-vous point
De coucher toujours seul? Une esclave assez belle
Était à mes côtés ; voulez-vous qu’on l’appelle ?
– Non, dit l’ami, ce n’est ni l’un ni l’autre point:
Je vous rends grâce de ce zèle.
Vous m’êtes, en dormant, un peu triste apparu ;
J’ai craint qu’il ne fut vrai; je suis vite accouru.
Ce maudit songe en est la cause.»

Qui d’eux aimait le mieux ? Que t’en semble, lecteur ?
Cette difficulté vaut bien qu’on la propose.
Qu’un ami véritable est une douce chose!
Il cherche vos besoins au fond de votre cœur;
Il vous épargne la pudeur
De les lui découvrir lui même :
Un songe, un rien, tout lui fait peur
Quand il s’agit de ce qu’il aime.


The hardest thing about translating La Fontaine is getting the rhythm and tone right. He was writing in the 17th century, and so the language comes across as such, but do we translate it into some sort of Shakespearean verse or stick to more modern vocabulary?

La Fontaine’s tone is also light and almost playful here, and the rhyme scheme is important in carrying the poem along. Yet it is a distinctly odd rhyming scheme. I’m not sure if there’s a name for an ABAB CCDEE DFGGF HIHHIH JJK LKK LLMLM rhyme scheme, but I doubt it. It almost feels like he rhymed whatever lines came in handy, so in translating it we also have to question how much freedom we should take with it.

My first attempt at the translation was to stick quite close to the original rhyme scheme even if it meant occasionally slightly deviating from the strict meaning as the French.

The Two Friends

Two true friends lived in Mutapa;
Everything that one owned belonged to the other.
They say that friends in that far-off land
Are as close as you and your brother.

One night when each was busy sleeping,
In the dark before the sun came peeping,
One of our two friends jumps up in alarm;
Runs to his friend, wakes the servants and screams:
Through these palace walls has come the God of dreams.
The waking friend, astonished, raises up his arm,
Comes to the other and says: “You are not one to ramble
Whilst everyone slumbers, you seem like a man
Who knows to sleep when he can:
Have you perhaps lost your coin in a gamble?
Have some. If you’ve been in a fight,
Let’s go, here’s my sword. Are you perhaps bored
To sleep on your own? Here to my right
Was a pretty young slave; shall we call her this night?”
“No,” said the friend, “none of this do I feel
But I give thanks for your zeal.
In my sleep you were sad, so you appeared to me,
In fear of its truth I came running to see.
It was all because of that cursed dream.”

Which loved more? What do you think for your part?
This complex matter we must bring to the fore.
A true friend is indeed a thing to adore!
He seeks your needs in the depths of your heart;
Respecting your modesty he hears your plight
So that you need not reveal more
A dream, a mere nothing, all gives him fright
When it concerns such a friend whom he cares for.

Some of the rhymes here feel a little forced, so I gave it a second go, allowing myself more freedom with the rhyme scheme. It meant that I could play with more poetic words like slumber/demise/arise/encumber, rather than the more simplistic previous choices sleeping/peeping/alarm/screams.

I also deviated in this second version from the description in the present tense which dominates the original version, but which today principally makes me think of the American-English tendency to recount past events in the present tense (i.e. with the narrative present/historic present – “So, I see him in the bar, and he says to me…”). This choice to stick to the past tense also helped me with some rhymes I was trying to achieve. I’m still not completely happy with some of the (half) rhymes I ended up with (e.g. servant/gallivant) but here’s my final version:

The Two Friends
Two true friends lived in Mutapa;
Everything they had belonged to both.
The friendships in that far-off land
Are, so they say, sacred as an oath.

One night when each was lost in slumber,
Making the most of the sun’s demise,
One of our friends in alarm did arise;
Ran to his friend, did the servants encumber:
Morpheus had touched those palace walls
The wakened friend grabbed his purse and his sword,
Found the other and said: “Why do you run the halls
When others sleep? You appear in discord
And are seldom a man to waste the night
Have you not perhaps lost money betting?
Here’s some. If you have been in a fight,
I have my weapon, let’s go. Do you need petting
Under your sheets? Take my young servant
Shall we call her to gallivant?”
“No”, said the friend, “your thoughts do digress
But your ardour I bless.
In my sleep you appeared quite saddened to me;
For fear of its truth, I ran over to see.
The cursed dream caused all my distress.”

Who loved more? What’s your resolve?
This puzzle we should consider if not solve.
How precious a thing is a true friend indeed!
He searches your heart for your every desire;
He spares you the need
To avow, on his own he’ll inquire,
And every dream, every sign he will fear
When it concerns his friend so close and so dear.

February’s translation challenge: Part I

For February I have picked not a single poet but a theme: Dreams of Friendship. It nicely ties in a few poems I’ve been considering lately, and I’ll start with ‘C’était un bon copain’, by Robert Desnos, one of the more famous French Surrealist poets.

C’était un bon copain
Il avait le cœur sur la main
Et la cervelle dans la lune
C’était un bon copain
Il avait l’estomac dans les talons
Et les yeux dans nos yeux
C’était un triste copain
Il avait la tête à l’envers
Et le feu là où vous pensez
Mais non quoi il avait le feu au derrière
C’était un drôle de copain
Quand il prenait les jambes à son cou
Il mettait son nez partout
C’était un charmant copain
Il avait une dent contre Etienne
A la tienne Etienne à la tienne mon vieux
C’était un amour de copain
Il n’avait pas la langue dans sa poche
Ni la main dans la poche du voisin
Il ne pleurait jamais dans mon gilet
C’était un copain
C’était un bon copain.

I really enjoy tackling Surrealist poetry as it generally presents a multitude of challenges from all fronts (wordplay, syntax, ambiguity in word choice, multi-layered interpretations, contextual issues), so it sometimes feels hugely rewarding to get one’s head around, and is at other times utterly baffling and unsatisfying.

The Surrealists of course placed a great importance on dreams, their interpretation and use as inspiration in art of every sort. Dreams offered a unique access to the unconscious which was of fundamental importance to the Surrealists, and many of their artistic processes aimed at gaining direct access to the unconscious.

This often produced strange, perplexing, and often incomprehensible results, but at times it also created something beautiful and unique, and this includes much of the poetry which they published and which really was unlike anything seen before.

The Surrealists were also fascinated by language, and they played with it, pushed it to its limits, bounced it around like a yoyo, moulded it into bizarre variations and re-appropriated it to make the familiar strange.

This first poem by Desnos, from the collection ‘Corps et biens’, is an example of such a work. In it, he takes a bunch of idiomatic expressions and uses them in a would-be literal description of a departed friend. Expectations are turned on their heads as common expressions all of a sudden become clear visualisations, gain substance, leave their purely imaginary realm to take on a new life.

The result is odd, strange, bizarre, basically everything we have come to expect from the Surrealists. Desnos paints a portrait of his friend, but it is a dislocated image, the parts are all wondrous but don’t quite fit together. It becomes a literary equivalent of an exquisite corpse. His friend’s body and his mental state (‘head in the clouds’, ‘heart in his hand’ etc.) are picked apart and never quite produce a whole.


Translation Challenges

Clearly, for this poem, the main challenge was to come up with corresponding English expressions. These in principle needed to: a) be a play on words on body parts, b) describe a human being, and c) reflect as closely as possible the states described by the French idiom.

Coming up with solutions which integrated all three of these points was not always evident. ‘Avoir l’estomac dans les talons’ for example means to be starving (literally ‘to have one’s stomach in one’s heels’). I couldn’t quite come up with an adequate English version for this – ‘to have an empty stomach’ (too literal), ‘to have your stomach in a twist’?

So I tried to find other idioms which at least use the word ‘stomach’: ‘to have butterflies in the stomach’, ‘to not be able to stomach something’, ‘to feel it in your gut/in the pit of your stomach’, ‘to be sick to the stomach’, ‘to have eyes bigger than your stomach’…

Then there are the confusing lines: ‘Et le feu là où vous pensez /Mais non quoi il avait le feu au derrière’. ‘Avoir le feu au cul/au derrière’ can mean either to be in a rush or to be horny. ‘Mais non quoi il avait’ is also a strange conctruction.

So what expressions involve heat, rushing and/or the backside? How about ‘hot to the trot’, ‘hold his feet to the fire’, ‘get off your arse’, ‘pain in the arse’, ‘smart arse’, ‘not know your arse from your elbow’ and I even discovered ‘(busier than) a one-legged ass-kicker’. I’d also like to place ‘sex on fire’, but then I think that’s just an expression the Kings of Leon made up…

Sometimes the English expressions correspond more or less to the French body parts: ‘prendre les jambes à son cou’ (literally ‘to take one’s legs to one’s neck’) means to run off, so ‘take to one’s heels’ works pretty well. An expression like ‘mettre son nez partout’ (stick one’s nose in everywhere) can also be rendered differently, but more imaginatively as ‘have a finger in every pie’; in this case we have to make a decision about how closely we should stick to the French.

‘Avoir une dent contre’ means to bear a grudge (against Etienne in this case), so in English we have to find some other mouth-based metaphor. I think I’m settling on ‘to bite one’s tongue’, since it also keeps the sense of holding something back that one should not say, i.e. not being happy with someone.

Then I couldn’t quite find a way to keep the sound repetition in the line “A la tienne Etienne à la tienne mon vieux”, but I did find a way to fit in another body metaphor in there, so that instead of ‘here’s to you Etienne’ or ‘Cheers!’, we can have ‘bottom’s up’! Isn’t it just wonderful when this kind of thing works out?

The last few lines however I had to deviate from the strict sense of the French phrases and lose the nice repetition of the word ‘poche’ (pocket) for example. There’s the expression ‘to put one’s hands in one’s pocket’ (give money to charity), but for ‘avoir la langue dans la poche’ I hesitated between ‘keep your mouth shut/closed’ and ‘be tongue-tied’ which are of course not quite the same idea.

For the line ‘Il ne pleurait jamais dans mon gilet’ (‘pleurer dans le gilet de quelqu’un’ is a way of saying ‘sharing secrets/keeping confidences’), I hesitated with ‘cry on the shoulder of a friend’, only this expression is a little too literal, and also has a different meaning to the French, so I went with something a bit more original – ‘to have a chip on one’s shoulder’. I’m sure the Surrealists wouldn’t mind.

He was a good friend of mine

He had his heart in his hand
And his head in the clouds
He was a good friend of mine
His eyes were bigger than his stomach
And he would look at you face to face
He was a sad friend of mine
He had his head screwed on backwards
And was hot to trot
But would not hold his feet to the fire
He was a strange friend of mine
When he took to his heels
He stuck his nose in everywhere
He was a charming friend of mine
He would bite his tongue when he saw Etienne
Bottoms up Etienne bottoms up old friend
He was a lovely friend of mine
He was not one to be tongue-tied
And put his hand in his pocket
He never had a chip on his shoulder
He was a friend of mine
He was a good friend of mine.

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

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


January’s translation challenge: Apollinaire Part 1

I thought I would tackle one of France’s great modernist poets this month, a true precursor to Surrealism, Guillaume Apollinaire. This innovative soul broke boundaries with his words before dying all too young of the Spanish flu in 1918. His earliest collection of poems ‘Alcools’ had been sitting on my shelf since my student days when I first analysed his poetry. So this month I brought it out again with fresh eyes and an aim to translating a few pieces, and this process brought out more new insights into his language and poetry.

The first poem I tackled is ‘Nuit Rhénane’. At first it looks like quite a classic poem, structured with Alexandrine quatrains and crossed rhymes and opening with a simple use of simile. Soon however we start to note the lack of punctuation, the surreal qualities of his images and his innovation with words. Apollinaire paints a picture of himself, drunkenly sailing down the Rhine, the sights and sounds, both real and imagined, overwhelming his senses. He speaks of green-haired fairies (perhaps an absinthe-induced hallucination?) and incantations, talking to (imaginary?) fellow passengers as he describes these experiences.

The lines, with their lack of punctuation, flow like the steady waters of the Rhine, and the poet’s words conjure up the reflections and movements of the river which carries him on his trip (in every sense of the word). The last line, in which his wine glass shatters, brings the poem to an unexpected and abrupt end, as we, like him, are suddenly awoken from our daydream. There’s also an interesting use of homophones in this poem with the words ‘verre’ and ‘vert‘ (glass and green), without forgetting the ‘vers’ (line of verse) of the poem itself. So perhaps in this last line, it is not only the glass (verre) but also the verse (vers) which is intentionally shattered.

I enjoyed translating this poem’s images and sense of flow whilst keeping the abab cdcd rhyme scheme. To do this I had to change things round a bit in the last stanza, perhaps obscuring the meaning a little as I did. There’s not much I could do about the homophone play, but nevertheless here’s my first attempt at translating Apollinaire.

Nuit Rhénane   by Guillaume Apollinaire

Mon verre est plein d’un vin trembleur comme une flamme
Ecoutez la chanson lente d’un batelier
Qui raconte avoir vu sous la lune sept femmes
Tordre leurs cheveux verts et longs jusqu’à leurs pieds

Debout chantez plus haut en dansant une ronde
Que je n’entende plus le chant du batelier
Et mettez près de moi toutes les filles blondes
Au regard immobile aux nattes repliées

Le Rhin le Rhin est ivre où les vignes se mirent
Tout l’or des nuits tombe en tremblant s’y refléter
La voix chante toujours à en râle-mourir
Ces fées aux cheveux verts qui incantent l’été

Mon verre s’est brisé comme un éclat de rire


Night on the Rhine
My glass is full of wine trembling like flames
Listen to the boatman’s slow tuneful sound
Singing of the moon and below seven dames
Wringing out their long green hair to the ground

Get up sing louder and dance in circles
So that I no longer hear that boatman’s sound
And bring me close those golden-haired girls
With their steady stares and hair tightly bound

The Rhine the drunken Rhine where vines I spy
And that voice forever singing its death-chant
While trembling gold falls and reflects from the sky
Of green-haired fairies which summer incant

My glass shattered like a burst of laughter

Word of the Week: Anomie

ANOMIE: social instability resulting from a breakdown of standards and values; also :  personal unrest, alienation, and uncertainty that comes from a lack of purpose or ideals (

I read this word for the first time in a French article this week responding to the recent tragedy in Paris, and it is not only my word of the week, but my word of the month, the year, perhaps the era. I read it in French but it exists just the same in English. The writer referred to ‘anomie’ as being a possible route to civil war, so I looked it up and here’s what I found.

Anomie is a “condition in which society provides little moral guidance to individuals”. It is the breakdown of social bonds between an individual and the community e.g. if under unruly scenarios resulting in fragmentation of social identity and rejection of self-regulatory values. Originally a philosophical concept, it was popularized by French sociologist Émile Durkheim in his influential book ‘Suicide’ (1897). Durkheim never uses the term normlessness; rather, he describes anomie as “derangement”, and “an insatiable will”.’

‘Deranged’ and ‘insatiable will’ are certainly two terms that are easily applied to the lunatics who, under the premise of acting on some divine will, commit atrocities and terrorise society. Durkheim may have developed his theory in the aftermath of the industrial revolution and in relation to the new position of man in a rapidly-changing, mechanised society, but its implication is wider.

He describes the social context of ‘anomie’ as one characterised by a rapid change of the standards or values of societies (resulting from an economic shift, whether positive or negative) and an associated feeling of alienation and purposelessness. For Durkheim, anomie arises from a divergence between the expectations imposed on individuals by society, and the reality of their position within it. This then would result in a lack of moral grounding and an absence of legitimate aspirations.

A big concept for such a small word.

Change of economic fortune, feelings of alienation from society, an inability to find one’s place and form conceivable aspirations, a discrepancy between institutional ideology and the reality of everyday life for the majority – sound familiar? Durkheim may have been writing in the 19th century but he could have been describing 2015.

Anomie is a state which Durkheim links to suicide. The ultimate loss of hope, the ultimate act of desperation. He blames society for these ‘anomic suicides’. The idea was further developed into a concept called ‘strain theory’ which posited that individuals suffering from anomie would seek to attain the ideals advanced by their society, yet would be unable to attain them legitimately because of structural limitations within that same society. This would result in the exhibition of ‘deviant behaviour’.

‘Anomie’ is a powerful word, a big concept, one everyone should be aware of in this age of billionaires and bin-scroungers, of Wall Street banks and food banks, of suicide-bombers and school-shooters, in an era which has unbelievably at times been named ‘post-racial’ but in which the colour of your skin still largely predicts your income. In our general state of anomie, nothing that has happened this week should come as a surprise.

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.

Baudelaire’s Autumn Song

Winter is upon us, and it brought to mind Baudelaire’s poem ‘Chant d’automne’ in which he sadly waves goodbye to glorious summer days, and with morbid thoughts of death and gloom, awaits the winter months.

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.

                                                     Charles Baudelaire

I came across a site with a number of English translations of the poem and as usual I found all the differences in them fascinating, so I picked out just the first verse above (which pretty much outlines what the whole thing is about – old Charles having a good moan about the cold, and death) to have a closer look at. Most of the translations respect the ABAB rhyming scheme (apart from Aggeler’s, that rebel), but they all find different ways to do it with more or less precision and success.

soon shall we plunge ‘neath winter’s icy pall;
farewell, bright fires of too-brief July!
even now I hear the knell funereal
of falling fire-logs in the court close by.

Lewis Piaget Shanks, 1931

Soon into frozen shades, like leaves, we’ll tumble.
Adieu, short summer’s blaze, that shone to mock.
I hear already the funereal rumble
Of logs, as on the paving-stones they shock.

Roy Campbell, 1952

Soon we shall plunge into the cold darkness;
Farewell, vivid brightness of our short-lived summers!
Already I hear the dismal sound of firewood
Falling with a clatter on the courtyard pavements.

William Aggeler, 1954

Soon we will plunge ourselves into cold shadows,
And all of summer’s stunning afternoons will be gone.
I already hear the dead thuds of logs below
Falling on the cobblestones and the lawn.

Steven Monte

Shortly we will plunge within the frigid gloom,
Farewell swift summer brightness; all too short–
I hear already sounding with a death-like boom
The wood that falls upon the pavement of the court.

From 1909 (?)

‘Icy pall / July / funereal / close by’ I’m not too keen on as a rhyme, nor ‘shadows / be gone / below / the lawn’ for that matter. ‘gloom / short / boom / court’ is much snappier, as is ‘tumble / mock / rumble / shock’, but then I don’t think Baudelaire was really going for ‘snappy’ with this poem. So let’s see what the imagery offers us.

I love the image that the poet uses in the first line: ‘Bientôt nous plongerons dans les froides ténèbres’, and the translations have kept this idea of ‘plunging’ or ‘tumbling’ into the darkness of winter, the involuntary, frightening action of it. Other options for ‘plongerons’ might be ‘plummet’, ‘fall’, ‘stumble’… And as for ‘ténèbres’ we can choose from: darkness, obscurity, gloom, black, shadows, shades, murkiness, night, tenebrocity…

In the second line he speaks directly to summer, bidding her ‘Adieu’, and I like the idea of keeping this direct speech here, with a ‘farewell’, or really just keeping the French ‘Adieu’ as a little reminder of the poem’s origin. Then there’s the question of whether to keep that exclamation point or not… sometimes I feel they work better in French than in English for some reason, but let’s see…

In the third line he gets really gloomy: ‘J’entends déjà tomber avec des chocs funèbres’. I don’t think it’s enough to just talk about ‘loud thuds’ or ‘dismal sound’, there has to be that introduction of the idea of death in there, although I’m not convinced that a ‘funeral knell’ is the right sound to compare to falling logs either…

There’s a last and hugely important element to consider when translating Baudelaire’s poetry, and it’s also a hard-to-define quality. His poems have a certain rhythm and balance to them which feel, when you read them out loud, as if you are being softly rocked by the words. In this verse, he paints a very dreary picture, but all the while lulling you gently with all those vowels. It’s a feeling that none of the translations I have come across have been able to reproduce in me.
So here it is again, Baudelaire’s version, take it all in before considering my offerings below.

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.

Soon we shall plunge into coldness and night
Adieu to the summer, the brief warmth of its glow.
I hear those loud thumpings as death now takes flight
Of firewood falling on the stone down below.

And here’s another version which I quite like but with an AABB rhyming scheme. Who knows, maybe over the Xmas holidays I’ll even tackle the whole poem in this unorthodox style!

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.