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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Paintings : Joseph Lorusso

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Verlaine & Impossibility to Translate Poetry

This poem from Verlaine is called “Nevermore”. Here it is in French, then in English. Verlaine is a master, but he is not the most complicated poet (like Rimbaud, who is more like a Wizard). He shows you things. Nevertheless, to translate his work in English is, as usual, struggling with words…

And it begins with the first word : in English you seem to use “memory” for our both words “mémoire”, and “souvenir”. A souvenir is more a recollection, a remembrance.

If the air is colorless, our “atone” is different : it’s colourless but also “without a voice”, atonic.

The sun casts a glare, it’s correct, but the french verb “darder” is more bitter. Dard means “a sting” like from a wasp, “the sun casts its monotonous glare” could be also “firing a sting of monotonous ray”.

The “north winds”, at the end of the first verse tries to say “la bise”. Bise (pronounce “bizz”) is a great word for chill wind,”icy calm wind”. It’s great because “une bise” means also a “little innocent kiss”. North wind can not explain the chill you feel when you hear “La bise”, a word who resonates with this bouquet of senses in France “Quiet icy silent wind which sounds like a delicate kiss too”. Yesss.

Poetry is made of words, these gold nuggets used by poets with the whole set of radioactivity and colors. It’s not possible to translate, but it is possible to try, thought. You got the idea of the poem. Then you HAVE to try to read the original, for two reasons : for the music of it, and to “dig” into this gold if you want to. Thirdly, the words used by the translator can trigger something, though, something… different. Another poetry, in fact. Why not. Subtleties.

At the end, I found another translation. To compare.

Thanks for reading!

(colors or colours, tell me?)

Nevermore

Souvenir, souvenir, que me veux-tu ? L’automne
Faisait voler la grive à travers l’air atone,
Et le soleil dardait un rayon monotone
Sur le bois jaunissant où la bise détonne.

Nous étions seul à seule et marchions en rêvant,
Elle et moi, les cheveux et la pensée au vent.
Soudain, tournant vers moi son regard émouvant
“Quel fut ton plus beau jour ? ” fit sa voix d’or vivant,

Sa voix douce et sonore, au frais timbre angélique.
Un sourire discret/ lui donna la réplique,
Et je baisai sa main blanche, dévotement

– Ah ! les premières fleurs, qu’elles sont parfumées !
Et qu’il bruit avec un murmure charmant
Le premier oui qui sort de lèvres bien-aimées !

Nevermore

Memory, memory, what do you want of me? Autumn
Makes the thrush fly through colourless air,
And the sun casts its monotonous glare
On the yellowing woods where the north winds hum.

We were alone, and walking in dream,
She and I, hair and thoughts wind-blown.
Then, turning her troubling gaze on me,
‘Your loveliest day?’ in her voice of fine gold,

Her voice, with its angel’s tone, fresh, vibrant, sweet.
I gave her my answer, a smile so discreet,
And kissed her white hand with devotion.

– Ah! The first flowers, what a fragrance they have!
And how charming the murmured emotion
Of a first ‘yes’ let slip from lips that we love!

Nevermore

Souvenirs, souvenirs, what do you want of me ? Autumn
Invites the thrush to fly through the air lifeless sans tone,
And the sun beats its rays down : relentless monotone
Over the yellowing wood where claps the North wind’s thunder tone.

We were walking all by ourselves as if in a dream,
She and I, haïr and thoughts buffeted by the wind’s non-esteem.
All of a sudden, she turned towards me her looks agleam
« Which was your most beautiful day ? » did her lively golden voice beam.

Her voice soft and sonorous, a fresh timbre angelic.
A discreet smile she did redeem as a reaction cyclic,
And her blanched hand I kissed with devoutness.

Oh ! the first flowers, how their scent liberates perfumes !
And the first sounds they emit akin to charming murmur
The first « yes » that escapes the lips of virgin dames consumes !

#peanuts #charliebrown #melancholy