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.