his review is not about French women poets. It is about a man who loves women. It is about Norman Shapiro, the translator of this anthology of French women poets. The foreword by Rosanna Warren and the introductions to each section by Roberta L. Krueger, Catherine Lafarge, and Catherine Perry provide a well documented analysis of the significance of these often neglected but wonderful poets of the French and indeed world literature. We will concentrate here on the role of the translator.
Over the years, I've come to the conclusion that the translator is a tracker2, somebody who follows in the tracks of an author, always careful not to be noticed, leaving as little signs of having been there as possible. A discreet person. This involves a certain amount of identification. The translator/tracker has to match his or her own gait to the "animal" being followed. If you want to walk in the footsteps of somebody else, you have to adjust your way of moving your weight around. Some women poets tread softly and delicately, as if tiptoeing, while others advance in long strides, encompassing realities outside the scope of men, like childbirth for instance.
Dreaming amid the woods, I watch as two
Love is the feeling the translator managed to communicate in this anthology.
Turtledoves coo and kiss, whom, lovingly,
Love himself has called hither, and I see
Their tender pleasures, endless, spring anew.
writes the Renaissance poet Madeleine de l'Aubespine in "Sonnets d'amour," II. While in her "Épistre," Marguerite de Navarre complains:
Dear heart, my heavy belly will not let
Me satisfy your wishto my regret
her pregnancy preventing her from writing and being as active as she would like to be. Norman Shapiro gives an English voice to both these women.
So I've come to see that the translator also needs to be a lover, one who will be attentive to the author, always ready to match her moves, in harmony not only with her words but with her thoughts and feelings. A good translator feels the emotions of the author. In fact, the translator must relive these emotions. In my own experience as a translator of novels, poetry, and films, I can testify that I have laughed when translating funny passages, and I have sniffingly shed tears when working on sections I found particularly moving.
Back to Norman Shapiro and French Women Poets. The first problem encountered here is that these women poets are of all ages and backgrounds. Some are very old, very very old, so old their French could not be understood by a contemporary French speaker without a modern French translation.
Appropriately, this anthology begins with Marie de France, so named to indicate her origins, because she spent most of her writing life in Britain. Her poems are in Old French, so the translator's first hurdle was to choose the right form of English. I'm sure Norman Shapiro could have taken out his copy of Beowulf and dusted his knowledge of Old English in order to translate Marie de France's poems. But it would have been a mistake; first because the translator would have been better to choose Middle English, rather than Old English, since at the time of Marie de France, in the 12th Century, English had evolved from Beowulf to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Even then, it is doubtful that modern readers would have made much of lines like:
Whan zephirus eek wt his sweete breeth,
Inspired hath in euery holt and heeth;
All in all, Shapiro did well to translate the poems, even the old ones, into an English that his contemporaries could read and understand. And that is the main point about this translator's work, he always has the reader in mind. He attempts neither to give a scholarly unreadable version of the poems nor an exact equally unreadable, line by line rendition, but tries to recreate for the contemporary English reader the reading experience of those who once read or now read the poets of this anthology.
Shapiro translates and adapts the poems with great care, always keeping the reader in mind. Which is not to say that he "modernizes" the facts or the elements of the poem. He does not speak of "football games," but of "tournament" and "joust" in translating Marie de France's poem "The Nightingale." Reading the poem, we know that it was written in the Middle Ages, but we can still read it, understand it and appreciate it. And that is the point, isn't it?
The next medieval poet in the book, Na Castelloza, wrote in Occitan, or Langue d'oc, the language of the south of France, distinct from Langue d'oil spoken in the northern half of what was to become France. One of the differences being that in the South, the word "yes" was "oc", while in the North it was "oil", which evolved to the modern "oui." So technically, Lady Castelloza is not a French poet, since she did not write in the French language, but she is included in the anthology, along with 20th century Louisa Paulin who wrote both in French and in modern day Occitan, because both Lady Castelloza and Louisa Paulin lived geographically within the borders of what we now know as France.
In "Melanconia," "Melancholy" in English, Louisa Paulin writes:
M'aimeras totjorn! Pòd ester...
Te remembras, al campèstre,
La ròsa que florissiá
Dins lo randa, ufanosa,
Sens saberla tant urosa!
Que l'autan la passiriá?
You'll always love me!... So it goes...
Do you recall that country rose
That we saw blooming fair that day
Under the hedge, disdainfully,
With no ideaoh! happy she!
That autumn would bear her away?
Here, Ronsard's theme of the brevity of a rose is developed from the perspective of a woman who, instead of stating that a woman's beauty will not last, observes that it is the man's love which will be short-lived, even if he claims otherwise.
In "Canso," the medieval Occitan poet Na Castelloza sings:
Friend, if I found you gracious, fair,
Candid and humble, full of virtuousness,
How I would love you! But, alas, far less
I find you now: so fell, so cruel to me.
Yet do I sing, to let the wide world know
How virtuous you could be; for I would show
That praised would be your virtue everywhere,
Though you bestow me naught but pain and care.
The translator manages to give us a sensation of the age of this poem in the use of words like the adjective "fell", meaning "fierce, cruel, terrible, sinister, malevolent," which have an ancient ring to them, though they are still in use today.
Another element of diversity among these women poets is their social class. Many of the early poets translated, were understandably members of the nobility. They would need to have belonged to the aristocracy to have had an education. Christine de Pizan was the daughter of the physician and astrologer of Charles V of France, Marie de Clèves was comtesse d'Orléans, Marguerite de Navarre was the daughter of the comte d'Angoulème, and so forth. Marguerite's daughter, Jeanne d'Albret, was also a poet and is present in this anthology. Another duo mother/daughter is included in this anthology; Madeleine and Christine des Roches were both members, if not of the high nobility of 16th century France, at least of the ruling aristocracy. All these women poets are translated in a flowing, elegant and sensitive style suitable to their status. Here is Marie-Emilie Maryon de Montanclos:
O wood cool-shadowed, formed by Nature's art
And beautified by Love, soon will you see
Tircis and me come set ourselves apart...
And at the other end of the social scale, there's Albertine Sarazin, a convicted felon whose direct style, reminds me of François Villon, another felon who was once on death row:
Bed's what they always offer you
When you come back into their lives
The landladies the owner's wives
The doctors and the lovers too
From cradle with flowers wreathing it
To final funerary bier
Of all our furniture my dear
The fleabag is the favorite
This same directness or even bluntness in the introduction, or lack of an introduction, also recalls John Donne and some of the English metaphysical poets. "Mark but this flee," wrote Donne. Here again, the translator finds the right tone for this particular voice. Note how he uses the contracted form in the first word "Bed's" copying the conversational style of the poet.
Another major difference between the various voices of these women poets is related not only to the century in which they lived but also to their physical age. Some of the poems in this anthology were written by widows who had raised their families. Marie-Amable de La Férandière gives a cynical "Portrait of Husbands" in words steeped in experience:
Once the sacred marriage bond
Binds him ever and beyond,
Gone the vows, the tributes fond.
Or one of my preferred poets, Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, who writes "For My Children":
I blame the past for nothing, long forgot;
I ask naught of the future, dark and drear:
My life is in your eyes, and my sad lot
Goes flying heavenward when you draw near.
Now these voices of maturity and experience are to be contrasted with Sabine Sicaud, the child prodigy who died at 15:
So many countries, travels, pleasure-rife,
Dreams only dreamt, that soon I will fulfil
Once I've been cured...
Although Sabine's youth does not signify a lack of poetic maturity, quite the contrary. It's just that a girl of 12 naturally writes about her reality, her dreams, her travels, her parents, her doctor, and her sickness. Norman Shapiro's art as a translator allows him to mimic this apparent simplicity with love for his subject.
Love is the feeling the translator managed to communicate in this anthology, his love and admiration for the diverse talents of all the women poets he translated, across centuries, across social barriers, across generational gaps and, most importantly, across the cultural chasm of language. No matter if this book is not a word for word or even line for line translation. No matter if some purists might object that the rhymes are sometimes borne by "light" functional words like a pronoun or a preposition, instead of by a meaning-carrying word like a noun, an adjective or a verb. The purpose of this book is to allow the English reader to experience the pleasures of reading these French women poets, and to experience rhyme. It aims at translating the poetry and the deeper meaning found in the music and the rhythm of the words. Thus the reader is introduced to a rich world of poetic talent often underrated through ignorance.
In her Foreword, Rosanna Warren talks of the "vast prison, and of the liberties individual women managed to craft for themselves within it." Paradoxically, rules, restraints, constraints and even censorship often give rise to great creative art precisely because of the tension generated by the obstruction to artistic expression. I believe tension is necessary to art. I'm not saying that repression is desirable, and perhaps there would be more poets if there were no obstruction to the expression of talent, but it is a fact that true genius manages to shine through in spite of and often by reason of the confinement sometimes imposed on it. Norman Shapiro allows light to shine on a host of neglected talent in this book. And he does so, lovingly. With 1182 pages in this anthology, there is a lot to love. So if you happen to know somebody who loves women or, better still, if you happen to know somebody who loves poetry, this is a great gift.
Editor's Post-script: As announced after the publication of this article, Norman Shapiro's French Women Poets anthology won the American Literary Translators Association's National Translation Prize for 2009. Our congratulations for this well-deserved award!
1 The Distaff & the Pen-French Women Poets of Nine Centuries, selected and translated by Norman R. Shapiro, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008, 1183 p.