Is it possible for the original text to be reborn through the
These are playfully phrased questions that raise, as of course
you know, difficult and important issues. I hope I can respond to them
with a corresponding sense of play, even as I try to define what is
complicated about their implications and how they personally affect me.
To the first question, then. So much depends on what is meant by
“reborn.” In one sense the obvious answer is “Yes, translation is
always rebirthing the original.” It is why certain works get translated
over and over again. How many English-ings of Dante’s Inferno
have we had in just the past few decades? Or of The Iliad
most recent by the incomparable Classics scholar Peter Green after I
thought Stanley Lombardo had made a wonderfully colloquial and musical
version. The American Poetry Review
alone has offered so many versions of Neruda, especially “Macchu Picchu,” I’ve lost count.
“Reborn,” though, also suggests that a work has somehow died. When
construed in this way, the question invites this kind of response from
contemporary poets: “It should surely, by now, be axiomatic that poetry
cannot be translated in a way that will preserve anything of the flavor
of the original.” Well, it surely is not
axiomatic, and the best theoretical refutation of this slightly daft statement is Poetry and Translation: The Art of the Impossible
by Peter Robinson, which should be required reading for anyone who
practices or writes about translation. What’s important, though, is
what follows from the premise quoted above—namely, that the only
remedy for the failure of translation is to write “versions” of the
original—not translations, not even imitations, but something “between”
them, whatever that may be.
(The person I have cited above is Don Paterson as he tries to justify his own versions of Antonio Machado, The Eyes
Paterson goes on to say that his “versions” have occasionally
appropriated without credit some lines from a non-poetic translation by
the scholar Alan Trueblood “because they seemed pretty much
unimprovable.” Doesn’t this tend to contradict his own operating
premise? I suppose Paterson would counter that Trueblood only gets a
few lines right, not the whole poem. But still.)
Paterson is correct, though, if he is implying that translations breed
more translations and if that is what “reborn” can mean. Translations
“breed” in this way, however, not because they are false but precisely
because they do catch some
of the flavor or the original: subsequent translators strive to catch some more
In submitting “To Rimbaud” to us, you remarked that you “have
never found a translation [of this poem] that is idiomatic in English
but still ‘gets’ Verlaine’s musical and complicated tone.” Can you play
French music on an English instrument?
To the second question and again to quote Paterson: “a poem can no more
be translated than a piece of music.” What does this mean, exactly? Any
piece of music that is scored is translated every time it is performed.
We could say the same about the text of any poem when it is voiced
aloud. Perhaps Paterson means that a piece scored for harpsichord
cannot be adequately voiced on a piano. He is right about this . . . in
a sort of pedantic way. I suppose he would call a transcription of
cello music to guitar a “version” rather than a “translation.” What
would one call, then, the cellist or guitarist, neither of whom are the
originator of the music they play?
The composer Charles Wilfred Orr observed that the kind of verse
easiest to set to music must be 1) beautiful, 2) scanned, 3) rhymed,
and d) make sense. This certainly applies to Verlaine (and Heine and
Housman), whose verse has been often given musical settings. This
particular poem, “To Rimbaud,” has been set by Claude Debussy and many
others (see Green
, a CD
collection of Verlaine poems set to music, sung by Philippe Jaroussky);
it is also an interesting challenge to a poetic translator because it
is a rare example where French is more succinct than English.
That is, it takes more English words to translate even the sense of the
French and that is even ignoring the word-play that confronts one
immediately in, say, “pleure” and “pleut.”
There is actually a truly wonderful, almost miraculous translation of this poem by Louis Simpson (see his Modern Poets of France
1997) in which he is not only entirely accurate as to semantics but he
gets the end-rhymes, often merely repetitions of the same word but used
in a slightly different sense (called in French rimes riches
in the same places in the stanza where they occur in Verlaine. It is
masterful. Incredibly difficult to attain. My only quarrel with Simpson
is that the staccato sentences in English, accurately tracking the
staccato sentences in the French, sound slightly stilted and a tad
archaic, whereas the French idiom is more choked up (as with emotion)
than stilted, colloquial rather than old-fashioned.
Here is the penultimate stanza according to Simpson: “I am sad for no
reason / And sickened at heart. / Why? What have I done? / This grief
has no reason.” Simpson brilliantly gets the repeated word “reason” in
the same place where it occupies in French, although his last line is
not really idiomatic, is it? Can one imagine an English speaker
actually saying that line. And the second line, “sickened at heart,”
while idiomatic enough, misses the excruciating word-play of “ce coeur
It is true we can’t do everything in translation but, contra
Paterson, we can do some things. Donald Revell (see his Songs Without Words
2013) tries to render the abruptness of the French, here in that same
penultimate stanza: “Useless tears, / Heartsick still. / Fantastic
betrayals / Today like rain.” This may be a good example of making an
English horn sound like a French horn. Although I have no idea where
the word “fantastic” came from or how it works in the same verbal
register as “heartsick,” I understand and admire what Revell is trying
to do by choosing a concise diction that energizes the lamentation.
Simpson’s simple line “Why? What have I done?” is plain yet emotional.
And that is more like the tonal flavor of Verlaine who is not
fragmented or jerky the way Revell’s English is.
I am pretty sure that all of our translated versions of this Verlaine
poem would fail to satisfy the four criteria composer Orr calls for, if
a poem is to be set to music. And maybe, in deference to Paterson, one
should admit, “How many translations have ever been set to music?” I
can’t think of any, off-hand.