Saturday, June 23, 2018


Pierre de Ronsard wrote this sonnet in his youth, when he was in love with Cassandre Salviati: perhaps a comment on obsession.  Life was good then and he was blithe; his poems remind one of the Cavalier poets.  As with my other translations from French poetry – reckless exercise, as I have said before, for a mere novice in the language – this one is meant to convey the tone and trend, not to be exactly faithful to length of line, scansion, or pattern of rhymes; not trying to match the poetic qualities of the great Ronsard.

Je veux lire en trois jours l'Iliade d'Homere,
Et pour ce, Corydon, ferme bien l'huis sur moy:
Si rien me vient troubler, je t'assure ma foy
Tu sentiras combien pesante est ma colere.

Je ne veux seulement que notre chambriere
Vienne faire mon lit, ton compagnon ni toy,
Je veux trois jours entiers demeurer a requoy,
Pour follastrer apres une semaine entiere.

Mais, si quelqu'un venait de la part de Cassandre,
Ouvre-luy tost la porte, et ne le fais attendre,
Soudain entre en ma chambre et me viens accoustrer.

Je veux tant seulement a luy seul me monstrer:
Au reste, si un dieu voulait pour moi descendre
Du Ciel, ferme la porte et ne le laisse entrer.


I mean to read the Iliad in three days,
So Corydon, make fast my chamber door:
If any disturb me, you may be sure
My wrath you will feel in most painful ways!

Not chambermaid alone, who comes to make
My bed keep out, but you are barrèd too.
I need three days entire – or four, look you:
And after – a week of pleasure I shall take.

But from Cassandre if one comes to the gate,
Quickly open the door, don’t make him wait.
Haste back and dress me that I may look fine:

Word from my lady will I gladly hear.
None else will I see, let a god appear
Shut the door firmly though he be divine!

Ruth Heredia is the originator and holds the copyright to all material on this blog unless credited to some source. Please do not use it or pass it off as your own work. That is theft. If you wish to link it, quote it, or reprint in whole or in part, please be courteous enough to seek my permission.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

On Translating Pierre de Ronsard’s Most Famous Poem

In his lovely and very well known poem, When you are old, W.B. Yeats made no effort to translate another lovely and famous poem, a sonnet by Pierre de Ronsard that begins: “Quand vous serez bien vieille.”  Yeats was indubitably inspired by Ronsard’s sonnet, but he wrote a very different poem.

Traduttore, traditore” is an Italian saying reflecting a common view of translation, especially of translating poetry: a translator is a traitor.  For me this attempt seems very midsummer madness, yet here is my halting homage to both those beautiful poems.


Translated from Ronsard’s “Quand vous serez bien vieille”

When you are very old, in a candle-lit eve
As, seated by the fire, some yarns you sort and weave,
You will recite my verses marvelling: Such praise
Of my beauty Ronsard spoke, in those long lost days.

Never a maid of yours, nodding at her labour,
But will waken with a start to hear you murmur
My name, whose verse on yours this blessing did bestow
My words gave to your beauty an immortal glow.

Buried in the earth, a boneless ghost I will be,
Taking my repose shaded by a myrtle tree:
Beside a hearth you will crouch, old and bent, and grey,

My love you will then miss, your proud disdain regret.
Live now, do believe me; and tomorrow forget;
Haste to gather roses life offers you today.

Ruth Heredia is the originator and holds the copyright to all material on this blog unless credited to some source. Please do not use it or pass it off as your own work. That is theft. If you wish to link it, quote it, or reprint in whole or in part, please be courteous enough to seek my permission.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Adventures in Translation

Basic French lessons learned out of Dondo, Bertenshaw and Otto Siepmann, and a slightly higher level achieved in the first two years of college were not nearly good enough to attempt the translation of French poetry!

How that came about is recounted here:
Another adventure in translation began at University with Birje (Dr Jaysinh Birjepatil) who inscribed a French poem in my Commonplace Book as recounted in:

Gerald Bullett’s notes for students in Methuen’s Anthology of Modern Verse were read in youth but made no lasting impression or I should never have dared to try translation, because this is what he wrote (in which I note an element of contradiction):
“The translation of poems is always a desperate enterprise.  It is none the less an enterprise well worth while, for it may result in the production of excellent new poems.  A perfect lyric cannot be translated, because so much of its poetic content resides in the colour and perfume of the words, so little (though something) in their plain-sense meaning.  And, though not every poem is a lyric, nor every lyric perfect, only the presence of some lyrical quality can justify our use of the term ‘poetry’. . . .
“. . . of a translated poem the best one can ever say is that it is a new poem inspired by the original, the old light seen through the prism of a new personality.”

By the time I re-read this passage it was far too late to retreat!  But I recalled what Birje – whose whereabouts I learned only in early 2010, whereupon I contacted him and enjoyed his friendship for a brief five years until his death – Birje wrote this to me:
“George Steiner says every translation is a site of mourning, something of the original dies in it. But your translation of Mallarmé's Sainte is also where something vital is reborn. I should really not worry about the authenticity of your translation as long as it re-enacts the creative epiphany you had while being engaged in its magical moment.”

My translations in mid-2016 of
José Maria de Heredia were possible only because all that Birje taught me guides me still.  There were a few sonnets that I almost did work on then, but they are not Heredia’s best work and his sonnets do begin to pall after a while.  Recently I had reason to wish for mental exercise and returned to those sonnets.  It was not the cleverest thing to do, but a streak of stubbornness drove me.

Although two years ago it seemed that they were not worth the attempt, I picked up one that was conversational and fairly informal, rather like Villula, and the reference to old age breaking one’s knees had a poignant appeal.  However, this one was far less easily interpreted.  Gallus in Villula stood for a man of Gaulish descent in a line long Romanised.  Who is Sextius?  Apparently this sonnet is of the carpe diem type but the details are random and odd.  First a look at the sonnet:

À Sextius

Le ciel est clair. La barque a glissé sur les sables.
Les vergers sont fleuris, et le givre argentin
N'irise plus les prés au soleil du matin.
Les boeufs et le bouvier désertent les étables.

Tout tenait. Mais la Mort et ses funèbres fables
Nous pressent, et, pour toi, seul le jour est certain
Où les dés renversés en un libre festin
Ne t'assigneront plus la royauté des tables.

La vie, ô Sextius, est brève. Hâtons-nous
De vivre. Déjà l'âge a rompu nos genoux.
Il n'est pas de printemps au froid pays des Ombres.

Viens donc. Les bois sont verts, et voici la saison
D'immoler à Faunus, en ses retraites sombres,
Un bouc noir ou l'agnelle à la blanche toison.

The literal translation:
The sky is clear.  The boat has glided on the sands.  The orchards bloom, and the silver frost no longer makes the fields iridescent under the morning sun.  The oxen and their herders leave the stables.
Everything holds on.  But Death with its funereal fables oppresses us, and as for yourself, only that day is sure when the dice that are cast at a liberal (?) banquet will not assign to you anymore the lordship of the tables.
Life, O Sextius, is short.  Let us hasten to live.  Already age has broken our knees.  It is not springtime in the cold land of Shadows.  Come then.  The woods are green and this is the season to sacrifice to Faunus in his dark retreats a black billy goat or a female lamb with a white fleece.

This is altogether an odd concoction and to my mind seems vaguely sinister at the end.  Orchards in bloom, fields clear of frost, oxen and herdsmen off to the fields, clear skies, all make sense as signs of spring.  But what has a boat “gliding” over the sands to do with anything?
That life goes on in the natural world is a given.  It may well be that Death is near; certainly near enough if the knees have already given way.  Equally certain is it that the dice will not always fall Sextius’ way to make him master of the revels.
And what is the choice the speaker offers him?  Since it is spring and the woods are green, let them seek out Faunus (an early Roman deity later merged with the Greek Pan) in his dark hiding places (what a comforting thought, and in spring!) and sacrifice to him a black billy-goat or a white-fleeced female lamb.  What is the significance?  Goats (colour unspecified) are associated with the worship of Faunus, and it was believed that sleeping in his precincts on sheep fleeces brought visions revealing the future – but why is the poet choosing a female lamb?  To me that sounds unpleasant.

Whatever arcane significance these lines have escapes my Philistine non-French mind and the sonnet is what I call empty.  Edward R. Taylor painstakingly measured out his alexandrines and reproduced Heredia’s rhyme scheme.  The result does not impress me.  My relatively free translation was probably a waste of time, but I believe it is less dull than that by the correct Mr Taylor.

To Sextius
Under clear skies the boat glides swift ashore;
Orchards are in bloom; fields shimmer no more
As silv’ry frost melts under the morning sun.
Oxen and herdsmen out of stables run.

Life goes on.  But Death’s funereal fables
Oppress us.  For you at festive tables
Surely the fall of dice will fail some day
Over the revels to allot you sway.

Life’s short, O Sextius.  Let’s hasten to seize
The moment.  Even now age wrecks our knees.
There is no springtime in the Land of Shades.

Come then.  In this season of fair green glades,
Let’s offer Faunus in his haunts remote
A white-fleeced female lamb or a black goat.

My second choice for translation was about a battle won by a person I admire: Hannibal, the Carthaginian general, to whom General Napoleon Bonaparte acknowledged his debt.

As usual, I began to look up the historical references. What I discovered provoked me to write what is not a strict translation, is not in sonnet form, does not adhere strictly to any forms or rules, is not even very good verse, but does some little justice to one of Hannibal's typical victories. First the original sonnet:

La Trebbia

L'aube d'un jour sinistre a blanchi les hauteurs.
Le camp s'éveille. En bas roule et gronde le fleuve
Où l'escadron léger des Numides s'abreuve.
Partout sonne l'appel clair des buccinateurs.

Car malgré Scipion, les augures menteurs,
La Trebbia débordée, et qu'il vente et qu'il pleuve,
Sempronius Consul, fier de sa gloire neuve,
A fait lever la hache et marcher les licteurs.

Rougissant le ciel noir de flamboîments lugubres,
À l'horizon, brûlaient les villages Insubres;
On entendait au loin barrir un éléphant.

Et là-bas, sous le pont, adossé contre une arche,
Hannibal écoutait, pensif et triomphant,
Le piétinement sourd des légions en marche.

The literal translation:
Dawn of an ominous day has whitened the heights.  The camp awakens.  Below rolls and rumbles the river where the squadron of Numidian light [cavalry] drink.  Everywhere the clear calls of the buccina players sounds.
For in spite of Scipio, and the lying augurs, the overflowing Trebbia, and the fact that it is blowing and raining, the Consul Sempronius, proud of his new glory, has caused the axe to be raised and the lictors to march.
The villages of the Insubres burn, their lugubrious blazes reddening the black sky on the horizon; from a distance is heard the trumpeting of an elephant.
And below, on the bridge, leaning back against an arch [odd sort of bridge on a minor stream] Hannibal hears, thoughtful and triumphant, the dull sound of the legions on the march.

If the heights are whitened by dawn, how is the black sky reddened by “lugubrious” blazes?  Is “lugubres” there to rhyme with “Insubres” or the other way round?  The Insubres were punished by Scipio in November; this is happening around the winter solstice; can those insubordinate Insubres still be trying to douse the blazes?  Augurs were consulted before a battle.  In what way did these augurs lie?  Was it from the historian’s point of view?  That would have been ‘because of’ not ‘in spite of’.  From Sempronius’ point of view?  If he was assuming – on no foundation – that they lied, Heredia should explain that.  No account mentions a bridge over the river at the point of conflict, else the Roman soldiers – most probably the Italic auxiliaries – would not have had to wade through the usually shallow and now freezing Trebbia, getting too wet and cold to fight well.  Lictors marched ahead of the Consul on special ceremonial occasions; centurions could qualify to become lictors – but only after retirement.  Never have I read of an axe being raised to signal the start of a battle.  The lictors sometimes carried a ceremonial axe tied up in the fasces as a sign that the man in charge (Consul or Dictator) had the power of life and death; what use would that be in a battle?  Like the bridge and the Insubres’ dwellings aflame, Heredia’s lictors are a piece of poetic licence, but can poetic licence justify so much falsifying of an historical event?


À J. M. de Heredia

Monsieur, votre sonnet
En forme peut
être parfait
Mais à son sujet
Pas justice fait.

Freezing, dawn breaks on both camps by Trebbia river,
Mid-winter flood makes shallow waters rise the while,
Threatening they roll and rumble through a steep defile;
Snow peaks frown darkly where Gaulish dwellings smoulder.

His men have risen early, oiling themselves well,
Numidian cavalry drink where the waters swell;
Hannibal’s deep in thought as elephants respond
When they hear across the camps trumpet calls resound.

For over the river, Romans are stirring too,
As Sempronius Longus, proud of his laurels new,
Winner of his own battle, Scipio disdains,
Who’ll have no part when he another victory gains.

Consul’s order given, the men begin to march;
Hannibal, sensing victory, continues to watch
As through an icy flood the Roman army goes –
They will have no chance at all when the trap’s jaws close.

Ruth Heredia is the originator and holds the copyright to all material on this blog unless credited to some source. Please do not use it or pass it off as your own work. That is theft. If you wish to link it, quote it, or reprint in whole or in part, please be courteous enough to seek my permission.