Because of “you”, this French Verlaine’s poem can not be translated in English.

1 Tu or Vous?

You know that in France we have two different “YOU”.

  • It’s “VOUS” for the people you don’t know very well, your teacher, strangers, etc.
  • And we say “TU” to siblings, lovers, parents and good friends.

I know, it’s a bit complicated when you speak English. Your “How are you?” becomes “Comment vas-tu?” to my brother and my friends, and “Comment allez-vous?” to my neighbors, my mother-in-law, etc.

Sooo…  How are vous? or How are tu? See?

Of course you get that it’s very important in France, because vous is more polite, creates a safe distance, etc. As a French, we are easily offended by the wrong or too early “tu”. Some web pages targeting teenagers use the “tu” communication (in emails, for example), which can be tricky and over-familiar to many.

 

2 Verlaine

There’s an classic poem in France, named Colloque Sentimental, which begins like that :

Dans le vieux parc solitaire et glacé
Deux formes ont tout à l’heure passé.

In the lonely old park’s frozen glass
Two shadows lately passed.

Ha! You see the mood! These two were lovers, and they now talk about the past. Of course it becomes a cruel game between the wax lyrical guy and his cold ex.
So here is a part of their dialog :

– Te souvient-il de notre extase ancienne ?
– Pourquoi voulez-vous donc qu’il m’en souvienne ?

– Ton coeur bat-il toujours à mon seul nom ?
Toujours vois-tu mon âme en rêve ? – Non.

Ah ! les beaux jours de bonheur indicible
Où nous joignions nos bouches ! – C’est possible.

‘Do you recall our former ecstasies?’
‘Why do you want me to remember that?’
 
‘Does your heart still beat at my name alone?’
‘Is it always my soul you see in dream?’ – ‘No’.
 
‘Oh the lovely days of unspeakable mystery,
When our mouths met!’ – ‘Maybe.’

 

3 Translating the You?

Look closer at this one (you see me coming). The man asks :

– Te souvient-il de notre extase ancienne ? ‘Do you recall our former ecstasies?’

“Te souvient-il” is a formal way to say “Tu te souviens”. It’s the TU form of a close relation.

The woman’s answer is :

– Pourquoi voulez-vous donc qu’il m’en souvienne ?

She uses the VOUS form, speaking to him as a stranger. Putting a distance between them, saying “I don’t know vous very well”. So, the real answer is more like :

Why the fuck do you want me to remember that?

…but this is not poetry, right?

On the web I found :

  • “Why should I remember it at all?”
  • “Why would you have me rake up memories?”
  • “Why ever should you wish me to remember?”

All are correct, and we get her point, right?

BUT there’s no way, in a translation, you can feel the distance she puts using VOUS, instead of the TU she used to say in his arms, in older times.

Now, do you feel the guy tightening heart?

Aaawweeee!

Thanks for reading!

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Joseph+Lorusso+-+17.jpg

Paintings : Joseph Lorusso

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