You should’ve asked

I came across a French cartoon about the division of household chores, made by a wonderful feminist cartoonist called Emma. Not much of her work had been translated previously so I got in touch and asked if I could translate her “Fallait demander” cartoon for my English friends to read.

It was a quick-fire translation and I didn’t imagine it would get quite so much traction, but it turns out that it’s such a universal theme that it became just as popular in the UK, US and Australia as it was in France, where it got picked up by multiple media sources.

Emma’s book is coming out in France soon, and I hope an English version will be available too, it’s certainly worth a read!

My translation of the cartoon, “You should’ve asked”, is on the English page of her website, here:


Certainly food for thought. Enjoy!




Things I learned (military acronyms)

When translating a somewhat specialised text, even when it’s intended for a wide audience, you can come across a whole lot of mind-boggling acronyms, and military jargon is no exception. So here are some things I learned while translating a policy report about European and French security…

EUFOR stands for European Union Force (Force de l’Union européenne), and it is a generic name for certain temporary military operations led by the EU in the context of its common foreign policy. The name of each operation, which follows the term ‘EUFOR’, either references Greek mythology or the deployment site (e.g. EUFOR Althea). But EUFOR is not to be confused with…

EUROFOR (European Rapid Operational Force, or Force d’intervention rapide européenne), which was a multinational rapid reaction force made up of personnel from four EU Member States (Italy, France, Portugal and Spain) and mainly charged with humanitarian, peacekeeping and peace enforcement missions. It was created in 1995 and lasted until 2012, since it was transformed into…

An EU Battlegroup, known as EUBG (in French: Groupements tactiques de l’Union européenne (GTUE) or Groupement tactiques interarmées de réaction rapide (GTIRR)): a military unit with a battalion-sized force (1,500 troops), considered to be the smallest self-sufficient military unit that can be deployed and sustained in a theatre of operation. The  Council of the European Union controls 18 of these multinational Battlegroups in the context of its Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) (Politique de sécurité et de défense commune (PSDC)).

And then there’s OPEX. Careful with this one, since while it often stands for Operational Expenditure in English (“dépenses de fonctionnement“), in French it designates external military operations – Opérations Extérieures – in which around 6,500 French soldiers took part in 2015.

So what kind of apparatus is used during such mission, you ask? Well another whole load of acronyms: VBCI (véhicule blindé de combat d’infanterie) and VAB (véhicule de l’avant blindé) are two French examples. In English we have the AVF (armoured fighting vehicle), sometimes also referred to as “armour”, IVF (infantry fighting vehicle) and MICV (mechanised infantry combat vehicle).

These are also distinct from APCs (armoured personnel carriers), which are transport vehicles armed only for self-defense and not specifically engineered to fight on their own. In French, APCs are known as véhicule de transport de troupes (VTT), not to be confused with the more common VTT (vélo tout terrain, or mountainbikes) which are somewhat less useful on the battlefield…







Things I learned (about lipsticks)

As a translator I get to work from home, which means I rarely directly see my clients and generally don’t have to worry about wearing make-up. But when I’m translating corporate communication for the beauty industry, this is the kind of terminology that I need to research, and sometimes it can take me down some bizarre rabbit holes…

I thought lipstick (“rouge à lèvres“) was a relatively straightforward affair. Not so. Apparently there’s also something called a “lip stain” or “lip tint” (the French call it “encre à lèvres“, literally “lip ink”)  which is made with a water or gel base – unlike lipstick which uses wax or oil – and uses dyes to stain your lips for up to 18 hours. As far as I can tell, lip tints are a type of lip stain with a matt finish. They do not appear to be the same thing as “tinted lip balms” (“baume colorée pour les lèvres“) which are mainly used to moisturise and protect the lips. Lip tints can be applied as a first layer under your lipstick, and some also double as a creamy blush.

Alternatively, you can apply “lip gloss” (“le brillant à lèvres” or “le gloss“) over you lip tint to make it look more like a lip stain. And a “lip shimmer” is like a very shiny and/or sparkly lipstick, but less glossy than lip gloss. Still following? There are also “lip liquids” or “lip laquers” (I have seen these called both “encre à lèvre” and “laque de lèvre” in French) which have the pigment of a lipstick with sheen of a gloss, but less sparkly. This is basically the same as a matt lip gloss, which is also a term some brands use. As for “lip oils” or “lip-tint oils” (“huile à lèvres“), these are a type of slick, tinted lip moisturiser that also claim to minimise fine lines around your mouth.

Since this wasn’t confusing enough already, a French brand recently launched a “vernis à lèvres” (literally “lip varnish”, but they have chosen to call it “glossy lip stain” in English). It is a combination of “laque à lèvres” (a liquid lipstick), lip gloss (for the shine), and with the lasting effect of traditional lipsticks.

Feeling a bit befuddled? So am I. In truth, there often seems to be so little difference between these products and in what they seek (or claim) to offer that the descriptions also vary from one brand to another. Since these descriptions are more marketing terms than anything else, I’m not sure whether a good beauty terminology list would even include them. But if you know of one, or have better definitions, let me know!



Things I learned (tech stuff)

I’ve recently been translating a guide aimed at tech professionals who want to set up their startup in the south of France, in a region which is turning into France’s very own Silicon Valley. In the process, I learned a lot about what industries are thriving there, what the economy is based on, and what cities like Nice are providing for these tech entrepreneurs. So here are some new terms I learned along the way…

Embedded software (“logiciels enfouis/embarqués“) is computer software, written to control machines or devices that are not typically thought of as computers, and that generally interact directly with the external environment. Manufacturers ‘build in’ embedded software in the electronics of cars, telephones, modems, robots, appliances, toys, security systems, pacemakers, televisions and set-top boxes, and digital watches, for example.

Firmware (usually also referred to as “firmware” in French, but also known as micrologiciel/microcode/logiciel interne/microprogramme) is sometimes used interchangeably with embedded software, although firmware can also be applied to code on a computer, on top of which the OS runs, whereas embedded software is typically the only software on the device in question. The term “firmware” plays with the idea of an intermediary state between “software” and “hardware”. Nice play on words…

Trust-based technologies (“technologies de la confiance”) cover the payment, identification and digital security sectors.

NFC stands for Near Field Communication (“la communication en champ proche” (CCP)), which is a technology used in contactless payment. NFC is a set of communication protocols that enable two electronic devices to establish communication by bringing them within 4 cm (1.57 in) of each other. In 2010 Nice launched the “Nice City of contactless mobile” project, providing inhabitants with NFC mobile phones and bank cards, and a “bouquet of services” covering transportation, tourism and student services.

FinTech (also used in French) is a portmanteau for “financial technology” that describes an emerging financial services sector in the 21st century, composed of companies that use new technology and innovation to leverage available resources in order to compete in the marketplace of traditional financial institutions.

Things I learned (military vocab)

Part of what I love about translating is the diverse documents and themes that I get to read and learn about. There are so many things that would probably never have crossed my path were it not for the little bits of research I need to do when translating complex (or not-so-complex) documents.

So here is a selection of interesting military facts I learned while translating this past week:

Uti possidetis (Latin for “as you possess”) is a principle in international law that territory and other property remains with its possessor at the end of a conflict, unless otherwise provided for by treaty. In French, this is often referred to as “le principe de l’intangibilité des frontières“, although in the Helsinki accords, the term used is “inviolability” in English and “inviolabilité” in French. There seems to be a slight difference in these meanings that often goes unnoticed. While a border is always “inviolable” under international law, its “intangibility” is relative, since borders can be modified under a peaceful agreement.

A2/AD (Anti Access/Area Denial) is a device used to prevent an adversary from occupying or traversing an area of land, sea or air. The specific method used does not have to be totally effective in preventing passage (and sometimes is not) as long as it is sufficient to severely restrict, slow down, or endanger the opponent. The French call this “les stratégies de déni d’accès“. This covers everything from stakes being planted in ditches in Medieval warfare to modern anti-ship missiles currently being brandied about in the South China Sea.

A Theatre of Operations (TO – “théâtre d’opérations” in French) is a sub-area within a “theatre of war”, which is itself an area or place in which important military events occur or are progressing. The boundary of a TO is defined by the commander who is orchestrating or providing support for specific combat operations within the TO. But TOs even exist in peace time. In this case, they are divided into “strategic directions” rather than military regions.

Asymmetric warfare (or asymmetric engagement – une guerre asymmétrique”) is war between belligerents whose relative military power differs significantly, or whose strategy or tactics are very different. This is typically a war between a standing, professional army and an insurgency or resistance movement. Such struggles often involve strategies and tactics of unconventional warfare, the weaker combatants attempting to use strategy to offset deficiencies in quantity or quality.

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