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