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.