Mal De Vers
FREDERICK PACKARD has traveled widely and written several articles on the peculiarities of various languages. He is a member of the NEW YORKER’S staff.
I read recently, I cannot remember where, about a man who tried to translate “Break, break, break,/ On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!” into French, and upon getting “Cassez, cassez, cassez,/Sur vos froids gris cailloux, O Mer!” gave up the whole project. Thinking of this, I decided to see how I would make out with some other classics. I have no idea if there are any French translations of these verses; certainly I never read any, but the professionals must get a lot of the sort of dumfounding stuff that I got before they work out an adequate, publishable translation — though it is surprising how often the stanzas rhyme accidentally, or fall just grimly short of it. I chose something simple but flamboyant to start with: “O Captain! My Captain!”
I went no further. I was afraid I might be getting into something subversive. Next I tried “Xanadu.”
Un majestueux dôme de plaisir décrété:
Où Alph, le fleuve sacré, coulait
À travers cavernes immésurables à l’homme
En bas vers une mer sans soleil.
This was so horrible that I didn’t feel like continuing. Note the accidental and dissonant triple rhyme. After trying to render Wordsworth’s famous sonnet (Le monde est trop avec nous; tard et tôt) I had to go and lie down for a while. It produced lines such as
sur cette jachère plaisante,
Avoir des visions momentanées qui
pourraient me rendre moins morne.
Byron’s “The Isles of Greece” buoyed me up a little. It had a certain élan to it in spite of some dreadful internal rhymes. Again, a fortuitous triple rhyme.
Où brulante Sappho aimait et chantait,
Où poussaient les arts de guerre et paix.
Où Délos surgit et Phébus bondit.
Éternal été les dore encore
Mais tout, à part leur soleil, est couché.
Reckless with irresponsibility I tried the opening stanza of Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” and came near tears when I realized what I had done to it:
Feeling that I should at least make an attempt to get away from outright desecration, I next worked on “The Night Before Christmas”:
Pas une créature remuait, pas même une souris.
(Don’t ask me why all mice, regardless of sex, are feminine.)
I am including “Hail to thee, blithe spirit” because it contains a zany unintentional rhyme — the finest example of what happens to our language under these circumstances so far:
Oiseau tu ne fus jamais
Qui de paradis ou de tout près
Verses ton coeur plein
En refrains prodigues d’art imprémédités.
But enough, enough. Here I decided I was not accomplishing my purpose, whatever that might be. So I shall revert to Coleridge for my envoi; this almost atones for the other barbarities, but is an equally fortuitous translation:
Qui arrête un de trois.
“Par ta longue barbe grise
Et ton oeil étincelant,
Pourquoi arrêtes-tu moi?”
Rather jaunty, isn’t it? And a real rhyme, accidental or not.