Translating Rhyming Verse
Translation is far more than a matter of having a good dictionary – mine currently is simply a Collins Pocket French dictionary – but is rather an exercise in transforming text in one language into equivalent text in another.
I have, in an earlier blog, published translations of a number of Tardieu poems, making no attempt to reproduce the rhyme schemes, on the grounds that the demands of rhyme in the French language are very different from the demands of rhyme in English.
Probably that’s a cop-out, so here’s what happens when we take two of those poems and move from literal translation (I’ll skip that step) to rhymed poems in English.
See what you think.
Par Jean Tardieu
Comment ça va sur la terre?
- Ça va ça va, ça va bien.
Les petits chiens sont-ils prospères ?
- Mon Dieu oui merci bien.
Et les nuages ?
- Ça flotte.
Et les volcans ?
- Ça mijote.
Et les fleuves ?
- Ça s’écoule.
Et le temps
- Ça se déroule.
Et votre âme ?
- Elle est malade
Le printemps était trop vert
elle a mangé trop de salade.
by Jean Tardieu
How are things going down below?
_ They’re going well.
And the puppy dogs, how do they go?
- Oh God yes, swell.
And the clouds?
- They’re floating by.
The volcanoes too?
- They’re all on fire.
And the rivers?
- Flowing nicely.
And the times?
- Passing precisely.
And your soul?
- Ah now, that’s ill
Spring brought too much green
My soul ate more than its fill.
“On fire” for “mijoter” loses the idea of cooking (simmering, cooking gently) and therefore some of its joke quality. Maybe I’ll keep looking for some way of keeping the idea? Nor do I know why the answer to the clouds and the volcanoes is couched in the singular – that floats, that simmers. Later: obviously because that’s how “ça” works in French – it can refer to almost anything, animate or inanimate, singular or plural, so I’m right.
The last line highlights the problem created by the fact that nouns in French are either masculine or feminine. In the original, the “elle” in the last line clearly refers to the soul, but in English “it” would be ambiguous – so I repeated the word “soul” to make it clear.
I also chose not to put in the word “salad”, hoping that the “green” in the previous line gives the idea.
I’ll leave this as my final version and move on to one more Jean Tardieu poem, another comic, absurdist dialogue.
Par Jean Tardieu
(La première voix est posée, polie, maniérée et prétentieuse; l’autre est rauque, méchante et dure.)
Je suis ravi de vous voir
bel enfant vêtu de noir.
__ Je ne suis pas un enfant
je suis un gros éléphant.
Quelle est cette femme exquise
qui savoure des cerises?
__ C’est un marchand de charbon
qui s’achète du savon.
Ah! que j’aime entendre à l’aube
roucouler cette colombe!
__ C’est un ivrogne qui boit
dans sa chambre sous le toit.
Mets ta main dans ma main tendre
je t’aime ô ma fiancée!
__ Je n’suis point vot’ fiancée
je suis vieille et j’suis pressée
(A posh voice and a rough voice.)
Pretty lady, how are you
I love to see you dressed in blue.
_ Pretty lady, that I ain’t
I’m a great big ugly elephant.
Who is this exquisite dame
Eating cherries down the lane?
_ I’m a black-faced coalman, dope,
Heading out to buy some soap.
Ah! How I love to hear at dawn
This sweetest dove singing along.
_ It’s only an old drunk on the booze
In his garret under the roofs.
Put your hand in mine and let me say
You will be my fiancée.
_ Your fiancée? I call that sass
Just stand aside and let me pass
I’m old and busy – so up your arse!
Why did I change “black” to “blue”? To get an easier rhyme. Does it matter? I’m not sure, perhaps there’s a subtlety I’m missing out on by having the lady dressed in blue rather than black. Old ladies do dress in black, but then again the pompous interlocutor (love that word) might be too stupid to tell the difference.
Half rhymes like ain’t/elephant, booze/roofs (I was tempted to put “rooves”) are there for comic purposes and I’m quite happy with them. Introducing the epithet “dope” does not depart from the tone of the lady, though “up your arse” might be stretching it a bit (no pun intended).
As I said at the start, this has been just a run through of two examples of translating rhyming absurdist poetry in vernacular mode into rhyming absurdist poetry in vernacular mode in English.
A better linguist than I am, that is, one with greater familiarity with the vernacular, would probably take me to task over any number of decisions. Great – that way I’d learn more.
Cheers – Barry Breen