lost in translation

Here’s something I’ve never tried before: translation.  This is a new and exciting poetic frontier for me.  I recently came across the work of Renée Vivien, a lesbian poet writing in Paris at the turn of the century.  I wasn’t able to find many translations of her work, and obviously Google translate doesn’t really do a good job of translating “normal” prose, let alone poetry.  So here is one of her poems, in the original French and followed by my (admittedly amateur) translation.  In the French, there is an abab rhyme scheme, which I did not even remotely try to conserve in the translation.  There is also a hendecasyllabic meter (meaning that there are 11 syllables per line) in the original, which I also did not make an attempt at in English.  And lastly, the line that gave me the most trouble just in terms of preserving the meaning and the sense of it was “Toi qui ressembles aux royales amoureuses.”  If anyone with a greater fluency in French has a better translation than what I have rendered, please feel free to correct me!

Où donc irai-je ?…

Nul flot ne bouge, nul rameau ne se balance…
Le gris se fait plus gris, le noir se fait plus noir,
Et le chant des oiseaux ne vaut pas le silence…
Où donc irai-je, avec mon cœur, par ce beau soir ?

Dans le ciel du couchant triomphal, les nuages
Roulent, lourds et dorés comme des chariots…
Je suis lasse des jours, des voix et des visages
Et des pleurs refoulés et des muets sanglots…

Toi qui ressembles aux royales amoureuses,
Revis auprès de moi les bonheurs effacés…
A l’avenir chargé de ses roses fiévreuses
Je préfère la pourpre et l’or des temps passés…

Soyons lentes, parmi les choses trop hâtives…
Il ne faut rien chercher… Il ne faut rien vouloir…
Allons en pleine mer, sans aborder aux rives…
Me suivras-tu, vers l’infini, par ce beau soir ?…

So where will I go?…

No stream flows, no branch falls…
The grays become grayer, the blacks become blacker,
And the song of birds does not break the silence…
Where, then, will I go with my heart in this beautiful night?

Above the triumphant setting sun, the clouds
Roll, heavy and golden like chariots…
I am tired of the days, the voices and the faces
And the stifled tears and the silent cries…

Seeming to be royal love itself,
You, next to me, saw all happiness snuffed out…
I prefer the crimson and gold of times passed
To the future heavy with its feverish pink hues…

Let’s be slow amidst too-hurried things…
We need not search…we need not want…
Let’s sail the high seas, never reaching the shore…
Will you follow me to the infinite in this beautiful night?

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6 Responses

  1. Nice find, had heard of her but even when living in france – finding her work in print or in translation was difficult … 🙂

  2. So nice to see someone else interested in Vivien! I am in the middle of a multi-volume research project devoted to the life and work of Renée Vivien, which includes selected works in translation. This poem is from “A l’heure des mains jointes,” right?

    • Thanks for reading! According to the French website where I found the poem, it is from that collection. (Here’s the link: http://www.reneevivien.com/titrrecueils.html) I’d love to read professional translations of her work. What sources are you using?

      • I’m actually translating her work myself, along with her journals, correspondence, and other private papers that I gathered at the Bibliothèque Nationale, after Vivien’s papers were unsealed there in the year 2000. (I just had access to them myself a couple of years ago.) There are a few other people who are working on various translations. Since 2000, she has re-emerged as a figure of interest for researchers. The more people working on her, the better! She is worthy of our interest!

        I’m curious, if you care to share, about why you chose this particular poem to translate. What strikes you about it?

  3. I was browsing through her work without any rhyme or reason, and this one happened to catch my eye as something I could translate simply because I didn’t have as much difficulty understanding the French. I’m not completely fluent (I lived in Paris a year and a half ago, but I haven’t spoken French consistently since then), so the language in some of her poems is a challenge for me. I’m planning to study French again next year, and I hope that at some point I’ll be able to work on more complete translations of a few of her poems, ones that would include the rhyme scheme and meter as a part of the translation.

    But beyond that, one of the things I was really drawn to in this poem was the line “Il ne faut rien chercher…Il ne faut rien vouloir…” I have become obsessed with poetic repetition lately, so this line stood out for me.

    • Wonderful that you’re planning to study French again next year. Being a poet yourself gives you an advantage as a translator, and the desire to translate will provide fantastic inspiration for language study. Good luck with your work! I’ve really enjoyed exploring your page and reading some of your other poems.

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