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!”

O Capitaine! mon Capitaine! notre effroyant trajet est fini . . .

I went no further. I was afraid I might be getting into something subversive. Next I tried “Xanadu.”

En Xanadu a Kubla Khan
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

Afin que je puisse, restant debout
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.

Les îles de Grèce, les îles de Grèce!
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:

Mon coeur me fait mal, et une torpeur assoupie me fait de la peine . . .

Feeling that I should at least make an attempt to get away from outright desecration, I next worked on “The Night Before Christmas”:

C’était la nuit avant Noël, quand a travers la maison,
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:

Salut àa toi, esprit folâtre!
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:

C’est un ancien marin
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.