Ivo Andric’s Morning


(Dan jedan praznih očiju i zamagljena čela.)

Toga je jutra crna ptica pjevala u srcu mom:
bila je – bila! Tvoja mladost
i sve je prošlo s njom;
ne pohodi nas dvaput radost:
Crvljivo voće brzo zre;
a sužanj ne zna sunca ni neba
već brzo stari i brzo mre. –
Toga je jutra zlatna žica prepukla u srcu mom.


Ivo Andrić was one of Yugoslavia’s most famed writers and a Nobel Prize winner best known for his novel “The bridge on the Drina”; he also wrote poetry throughout his life. Born in 1892, Andrić spent most of WWI in prison or under house-arrest, which was when he drafted this particular poem. It’s odd to think that he was only 23 when he wrote it, in that he talks about a past youth; perhaps it was more a feeling of losing out on his youth during formative period in his life and in his country’s history.

His strong emotions are described as physical presences in his chest – the black bird singing and golden wire snapping in his heart. He also uses two images to compare to this sense of bygone youth and happiness. Firstly, by saying that worm-filled fruit ripens fast, and I’m not sure I follow this: is it that once the worm has had his share, there’s not much left of the fruit (as if happiness and youth could be used up the same way)? Is he suggesting that an eventful youth makes one grow up faster, grow wiser like a ripened fruit? Is the worm a symbol of the external forces which ate away at his youthful innocence?

Secondly, he says that a prisoner with no access to the outside quickly grows old and dies. This seems more straight-forward and is clearly an undisguised comparison with his own situation. There is something of a lack of subtlety in this poem, although the last line about a golden wire snapping in his heart is more ambiguous and suggestive. In any case, this is just a first, brief introduction to his early writing.

The first scene-setting line, which appears in parenthesis, seems to be a suggestion of his gloomy state of mind when writing the lines that follow.



In the poem, the black bird (not a blackbird) sings “bila je – bila!” (literally, “it was, it was!”) in reference to the poet’s youth. I had to find a word or two that worked in English (“once! / bygone! / passed!” etc.) and settled on “gone!” which comes across as slightly onomatopoeic, it somehow reminds me of Poe’s Raven squawking “Nevermore!”.

If we ignore the first line in parenthesis, then the poem has an ABABCDCA rhyme scheme. It helps that in Serbo-Croat, “youth” rhymes with “happiness” (“mladost/radost”) – not so in English… I tried out a rhymed translation but came up with pretty overused, unsatisfying rhymes (sky/die, youth/truth, heart/part). I preferred the freedom of the second, non-rhymed version (on the right).

Here I altered the punctuation and inverted the line about worms and ripe fruits so that from “Worm-filled fruits ripen fast” it becomes “As ripened fruits are home to worms”. Since, as mentioned above, I’m a little unsure as to the idea behind this line, it’s possible that this inversion goes a bit too far in altering the intended meaning of the image.

And what about that golden wire (thread/chain?) snapping in his heart? Why is it gold? In the Serbo-Croat there’s a nice balance between the repetition of sounds in “crna ptica pjevala” (“the black bird sang”) and “zlatna žica prepukla” (“golden wire snapped”). The first and last lines echo each other both in their structure and in this mirroring of sounds and rhythm. It leads me to imagine the black bird perched on the imaginary golden wire in his chest.

I couldn’t imitate this effect exactly in the English version, but a similar effect is created through the repetition of ‘b’s, ‘w’s and ‘s’s in “the black bird’s song rang in my soul”, and later, “golden wire…snapped within my soul”.




(A day of empty eyes and blurry mind.)That morn a black bird sang inside my heart:
gone – gone! – your youth
and with all else you must part;
we are happy only once, ‘tis truth:
Worm-filled fruits ripen fast;
and captives know no sun nor sky
so fast grow old and quickly die.

That morn the golden wire snapped inside my heart.


(A day of empty eyes and blurred mind.)

At break of day the black bird’s song rang in my soul:
gone – gone! – your youthful days
and all else with it too,
for happiness does come but once.
As ripened fruits are home to worms,
so captives know no sun nor sky
but quickly age and quickly die.

The golden wire that morning snapped within my soul.



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”.


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?

Poetry on the side of love

From an unknown Bosnian poet last week, I’ve taken on a poem by one of the great Sarajevo poets: Izet Sarajlić. He passed away in 2002 having lived through two great wars, and I’m mostly drawn to the pieces he wrote in the 90s towards the end of his life. There’s an interesting interview in English with him here from 1998, in which the sadness and pessimism of his last years comes through: https://articulosparapensar.wordpress.com/2014/01/25/izet-sarajlic-poetry-is-on-the-side-of-love/

Much of his poetry is about love and home. He spent most of his years with his wife and wrote about their love until the end of his life, which came a few years after the end of hers. She seems to appear in one delicate form or another in most of his poems, in this one she is just suggested by the “loving you” in one line, by the “we” in another.

In the poem I chose to translate, I can almost see the old man wandering through a Sarajevo in ruins, recalling the “city of his youth”, in search of a street which represents him, which might one day carry his name. It seems that although a petition was launched after his death in 2009 to make this happen, as of today I can’t find a street with his name in the city.

The poetry of Izet Sarajlić is the opposite of pompous. His words are simple. He doesn’t seek complexity in his portrayal of the human experience. A street is a street, not an avenue, or boulevard, or promenade; love is love; death is death. No metaphor, no euphemisms, no synonyms.



Šetam gradom naše mladosti
i tražim ulicu za svoje ime.

Velike, bučne ulice –
njih prepuštam velikanima istorije.

Šta sam radio dok je trajala istorija?
Prosto tebe volio.

Malu ulicu tražim, običnu, svakodnevnu,
kojom se, neopaženi od svijeta,
možemo i prošetati poslije smrti.

U početku ona ne mora imati mnogo zelenila,
čak ni svoje ptice.
Važno je da u njoj, bježeći pred hajkom,
uvijek mognu da se sklone i covjek i pas.

Bilo bi lijepo da bude popločana,
ali, na kraju, ni to nije ono najvažnije.

Najvažnije je to
da u ulici s mojim imenom
nikada nikog ne zadesi nesreća.


I walk through the city of our youth
searching for a street to bear my name.

The wide, noisy streets –
I leave to the titans of history.

What was I doing while history marched on?
Simply loving you.

I’m searching for a small, modest, everyday street,
through which, quite unseen,
we can wander after death.

At first it needn’t be too green,
nor even have its own birds.
What matters is that in it
every fleeing man or dog may find shelter.

It would be nice if it were paved,
but in the end, that’s not what matters most.

What matters is
that in the street that bears my name
no one ever comes to any harm.

One Sunday Afternoon

This is a new challenge in that I’m switching translation language and looking at a poem written in Serbo-Croat. I don’t know who it’s by, I think I found it hanging in a gallery in Sarajevo years ago. It stayed with me and I’ve tried translating it before, but it is deceptive in its simplicity. The title introduces the poem, so a direct translation would be “What the City is Composed of One Sunday Afternoon”, which is a little awkward, but then it allows the form of the poem to follow as in the original “Of…. / Of…. /Of ….”. Otherwise if the title is translated as something like “What Makes up the City on a Sunday Afternoon”, the following lines can’t start with “Of”, rather it ends up being a list of elements. I’ve left both versions at the bottom so you’ll see what I mean.


Od čega se sve sastoji grad
Jednog Nedeljnog Popodneva…

Od kiše
Od golubova
Od ljudi bez posla
I metafore skrivene
Medju njima i golubovima
Od nedeljnog popodneva
Od tvog grudnjaka
Preko stolice
Od pranje kose
I dlaka
U začepljenom slivniku
Od mog i tvog djela grada
Od kolportera koji viču vijesti
U koje se nemože vjerovati
Od zvona sa katedrale
Od tvoje ljubavi i moje
Od otvorenog prozora
I napuhane zavjese
Od tihe čežnje za nečim
Što će još malo
Pa zauvijek da nestane.




If this poem made me realise anything, it’s that the sound of a word can render it utterly poetic in one language, and completely frumpy in another. A “pigeon” is a much uglier bird than its Serbo-Croat equivalent “golub”, so in my final translation it was changed to “birds”. A “bra/brazier” just doesn’t have the same tenderness as “grudnjak”, but then neither does “underwear”; “corset” seems antiquated, “nightware” is nicer but not quite the same… “clothes/clothing” was the best alternative I could come up with that didn’t jar in terms of the sounds.


The original poem talks of “ljudi bez posla”, literally “people without work”, and I was trying to figure out whether this meant unemployed people, or just people loafing about “idle/rambling/lazing/drifting”. Many times the latter is a result of the former, but knowing the local culture where people spend their days walking up and down the main promenade, I’m banking on the latter.

Interestingly, Serbo-Croat makes a distinction between hair when it is attached to your head “kosa”, and “dlake” which are either hairs on your body, or detached from your head, as when clogging a sink. The lack of this distinction in English makes my translation one line shorter.


The tone of this poem is the hardest thing to translate. The original exudes this peace and stillness, this warmth and final sadness brought on by the realisation that this perfect moment will have to end. You’re not sure if it’s ending because the lovers have to wistfully part, or because they have to go back to work on Monday morning, but at this point both options appear equally tragic. The lack of punctuation somehow adds to this sense of a single moment, the elements listed are not really individual, they form part of a whole, and your heart sinks a little with that final full stop which comes as a reminder that the moment cannot last.


I found this poem in Sarajevo, and partly I wonder if there isn’t a heavier weight to the melancholy which drifts through its lines. The poet talks of “my part of the city and yours”, of “news which you cannot believe”, and what exactly are those “hidden metaphors” on the streets? When I situate this poem in my mind, it takes place in a pre-war city, when regardless of “which part of town” you came from, you could love each other. And this moment for me is also the poet’s realisation that this is a time which is not only coming to an end, but which will literally “disappear forever”.


What I love about it is how the poet captures the simplicity of pure, tranquil happiness, a moment when even clogged drains and loud newspaper salesmen cannot put a dent in the perfection of this moment, one Sunday afternoon.

Here are both versions, the second is more polished and also more faithful to the original despite the somewhat awkward title it implies.


What Makes up the City
On a Sunday Afternoon

The rain
The pigeons
The out-of-work people
And metaphors hidden
Between them and the birds
The Sunday afternoon
And your clothing
Thrown over a chair
Washed hair
A clogged sink
Your city and mine
The paper boy shouting
Some impossible news
The cathedral’s bell
Your love and mine
An open window
Curtains blowing
And the soft yearning
For that which will soon
Be gone for good.


What the City is Composed of
One Sunday Afternoon…

Of the rain
Of birds
Of idling people
And metaphors hidden
Among them and the birds
Of a Sunday afternoon
Of your clothes
Draped across the chair
Of freshly washed hair
Clogging the sink
Of my part of town and yours
Of the paper men bellowing
Improbable news
Of cathedral bells
Of your love and mine
Of the open window
And fluttering curtains
Of the soft yearning
For that which soon
Will be lost for good.








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