Volume 5, No. 2 
April 2001

  G. Summerfield





Another Milestone
by Gabe Bokor
Index 1997-2001
  Translator Profiles
The Translator Is a Writer
by Eileen Brockbank
  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant & Worker Bee
Marketing Your Translation Services: Test Translations—To Do or Not to Do?
by Andrei Gerasimov
The Changing World of Japanese Patent Translators
by Steve Vlasta Vitek
Sounding the Language-Elephant's Trumpet (a guide for intelligent buyers of translation services)
by Paul Sutton
  Translator Education
Toward a Model Approach to Translation Curriculum Development
by Moustafa Gabr
Translators or Instructors or Both
by Carol Ann Goff-Kfouri, Ph.D.
World Translation Contest
by Danilo Nogueira
  Literary Translation
Three Translations of La Chanson du mal-aimé by Guillaume Apollinaire
by Giovanna Summerfield
Translating The Sisters and Happy Endings: a proposal of a model of translation and a discussion on women's language and translation
by María Calzada Perez
  Financial Translation
Problématique de la traduction économique et financière
by Frédéric Houbert
The Check is not in the Mail—Banking in Brazil
by Danilo Nogueira
  Science & Technology
A Translator’s Guide to Organic Chemical Nomenclature XXIII
by Chester E. Claff, Jr., Ph.D.
  Dictionary Reviews
Emotions, Taboos and Profane Language
by Zsuzsanna Ardó
  Caught in the Web
Web Surfing for Fun and Profit
by Cathy Flick, Ph.D.
Translators’ On-Line Resources
by Gabe Bokor
  Translators’ Tools
Translators’ Emporium
Letters to the Editor
Translators’ Events
Call for Papers and Editorial Policies
  Translation Journal

Literary Translations
G. Apollinaire


Three Translations of La Chanson du mal-aimé
by Guillaume Apollinaire

by Giovanna Summerfield

ne cannot help but be charmed and emotionally stirred by the work of Apollinaire, an influential innovator in the realm of poetry, who blended modern and traditional verse technique. It is to him that critics and art lovers have ascribed the introduction of cubism and symbolism into literature. It is to him that I myself, as a "minor" poet, would like to ascribe the expression of music through poetry. Several artists have remarked on this quality in his work. The French singer Léo Ferré, for example, has set to music the poems of many French poets such as Villon, Baudelaire, and Rimbaud, and has dedicated a large portion of his recordings to Apollinaire himself. In 1945, he recorded an oratorio inspired by La Chanson du mal-aimé, which was later revised in 1957.

Bad, lazy translators are the ones who, since the music of a poem cannot be replicated in translation, insist on having to focus on the meaning, and the perfect choice of vocabulary
This wonderful literary piece has also captured the interest of three accomplished scholars who have attempted to achieve a translation of Apollinaire's poetry. My analysis of their works in turn aspires to be a commendation of attempts to render into English the above-mentioned musicality and verbal thematic straying typical of Apollinaire. These three scholarly translations are to be evaluated first and foremost from a historical perspective: Meredith's translation was published in 1964, and was the first English translation of the original to be done in America; Revell's is the most recent one, extensively advertised and praised; finally, Hartley's is the British counterpart, published in the late 1960's, but revised in the early 1970's.

These three English translations have stylistic differences, displaying various merits, as well as flaws here and there; therefore they appear to me to support to a certain extent Robert Frost's view: "Poetry is what is lost in translation" (Translation Review 1998).

Apollinaire's masterpiece, composed of 59 quintils of octosyllables, subdivided into seven sections of unequal length, opens with an explanatory, summarizing stanza, which is of the utmost importance in elucidating the reasoning of the poem. Hartley and Revell have come close enough to the original to give the readers a taste of the autobiographical nature of these verses. Yet Meredith exhibits his skill as a specialist by his translation of "romance" as "song" (remember the musical overtones of Apollinaire's work!) and by his happy rendering of the succeeding line as "before my love was clear to me," which leads us straight to the very beginning of the poem, "un soir de demi-brume à Londres."

Interestingly enough it is Hartley who, with his personal experience of London's weather, comes up with the perfect "one foggy evening in London." The connection between "clear" and "foggy" could not be more obvious. Free from all confusion, from the fog which overwhelmed his mind, the French poet was finally able to see. See what? Apparently Apollinaire had a love affair with (or a crush on) a Londoner (Annie) during his stay in Germany, at the time when he was a tutor and she a nanny. He followed her to London, blinded by love, but soon found out there that his love was unrequited.

In the publication of all three translations, the original poem is included. We are thus following in Apollinaire's footsteps, having on one side the original French, and on the other, the English version. All three translators understand that this is crucial to allow the reader a direct comparison of the works in both languages, though Hartley's mistake is unpardonable: he places his translation below the original and renders it into plain English prose. It seems that the sense of parallelism, of equality, thereby eludes us, due to his architectural decision. His translation of "voyou" as "rascal" represents another flaw. True, he wants to denote that the boy Apollinaire meets is mischievous, but how much better the picture of this "enfant" is rendered by Meredith, when he opts for "hoodlum" ("ruffian" is also an excellent choice of words to describe the boy, for we are dealing with love).

Unfortunately, in Revell's translation, the whole first stanza is unconvincing, mainly due to the use of "hustler" in place of "voyou"; worse yet he compares the boy openly to Apollinaire's "beloved," revealing this unique match, this odd fusion of the two characters, the boy and Annie, with their twin identities. The suspense dissipates at the outset, in Revell's version. In contrast, his colleagues have judiciously opted for the "boy resembles my love," which faithfully maintains the sense of mystery until the end. If Revell succeeds in maintaining the tone and the flow of this overtly soft and melodious work with a translation which is indeed light, spontaneous, and which parallels the straying of the original French verse while remaining intelligible in English, he does not display sufficient care as to his choice of words.

The second stanza is wonderfully mastered by all three translators, though Hartley's choice of maintaining the physical order of the Jews first, and the Pharaoh second, is sublime. Let us remember that Pharaoh was following Moses and his people, and not vice versa as the other translations would have their readers believe. Like Pharaoh, Apollinaire is following the boy, Love itself. Hartley also succeeds in his translation of the third stanza, sharing the victory with Meredith. I have yet to appreciate the work of Revell ("If I loved you less than only.") The translation of this last line of the third stanza does not make much sense, to me, in Revell's English, yet the translator justifies his odd renditions as "deliberate choices to distort certain moments of syntax to reproduce Apollinaire's [errer]" (p. ix). He continues, asserting that his translation is "an attempt of one [poet and reader of poetry] who feels lonely for joy and the spur of joy" (p. ix).

I can understand this concept and Revell's aspiration, but as O. Paz teaches us, "one needs to move away from the poem only to follow it more closely," and I do not think that Revell has scrutinized this poem sufficiently closely. Thus the first place, according to my ranking criteria, goes to Meredith, especially after the reading of his translation of the fourth stanza. In it, he translates "une femme lui ressemblant" as "I met a woman who looked like him." This differs from the choice of the other two translators, who have replaced "him" with "her."

In French the indirect object pronoun is invariable when it concerns the third person singular (lui regardless of gender). But if one watches closely, one sees that Apollinaire wants to convey to us that this woman (second representation of Love) resembles the boy (first representation of Love), and consequently Love itself. "Love" and "boy" can be represented by the masculine gender in both English and French. Thus Meredith's use of "him" reveals his full comprehension of the text, the total understanding of the intentions of the author. Meredith has evidently overcome the "translator's difficulty in preserving the symbolism of genders" (Jakobson, Theories of Translation 150).

Nonetheless, Meredith is unsuccessful when he attempts to achieve a cultural transposition, describing the woman as "lurching out of a bar." Let the British be British. Hartley in fact simply retains the use of the word "tavern," conveying the British atmosphere of a London public house with all the "chiaroscuro" of foaming mugs and thick smoke. Though French, Apollinaire was in London while trailing his Annie; let us not distort reality. Hartley is also successful in his translation of the whole fifth and last stanza, where he remains faithful to the original intent of unveiling "the falsity of love itself," rather than the falsity of the air, oddly compared to love, as erroneously expressed by Meredith.

At this point, I should be better able to explain and rephrase Frost's dictum to read: "Poetry is what is lost in bad translation." Bad, lazy translators are the ones who, since the music of a poem cannot be replicated in translation, insist on having to focus on the meaning, and the perfect choice of vocabulary. Yet they seem to be unaware or uncaring of the problem this creates: words cannot be read individually, loosely; they must be read within a context, an historical and cultural past, and they must have a structural and grammatical role in a given sentence. Though Hartley unveils some aspects of art, with occasional well-focused terminology, in my opinion he is guilty of the sin of lazy translation. His work is in fact, at times, a mere literal (word-by-word) translation, which demonstrates a linguistic ability and a knowledge of literature perhaps, but also a lack of thorough knowledge of Apollinaire and his poetics.

Bad, lazy translators also include those rather innovative translators who think that they can create "analogous effects with different implements" as Valéry says when referring to poetic translation and the present carelessness toward the actual sense of the original. Revell is a professor of English at the University of Utah and winner of two national Endowment for the Arts fellowships. Undoubtedly, he is a master in his own language; unfortunately he does not grasp (or care to grasp) the subtle nuances of the French language, so as to be able to render them successfully in his native tongue. His translation is a well-balanced reflection of Apollinaire's intentionally aimless poetry. Yet the point is now: is Apollinaire 's language being submitted to the "surgeon's tool?" Is Revell inflicting a Cesarean section to deliver this new creature? Could not Revell perform this through natural delivery? Is he afraid of the pains of labor?

Meredith's translation does not fall into this "bad" category, because he is an attentive, intelligent, and sensitive reader, who has also made a wise choice in pairing with Francis Steegmuller, a French scholar, who is the author of several biographies of Flaubert, Maupassant, and our Apollinaire. (Steegmuller is also a professional translator of nineteenth-century French into English.) Meredith has found the perfect equilibrium, with precise wording and an elegant flow of verses, aided by some punctuation, which proves to be essential in English. He has not lost any nuances of meaning or any musical elements; he has instead shed light on some realms which might have originally appeared obscure to the "uneducated" reader, and has succeeded in making Apollinaire's work even more approachable and appreciated. He has, thus, accomplished the "burdensome" task of achieving a "decent" literary translation. Congratulations!


Texts Examined:

Hartley, Anthony. "The Song of the Ill-Beloved." Penguin Book of French Verse (19th and 20th Century). Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1974.

Meredith, William. "Song of the Poorly Loved." Alcools - Poems 1898-1913. New York: Anchor Books, 1964.

Revell, Donald. "The Song of the Poorly Loved." Alcools. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan UP, 1995.