TRANSLATING VICTOR HUGO

translating victor hugoPoints Illustrated

1. Stratagems for rhyming.

2. English pentameter and French hexameter compared.

3. Understanding the effect intended.

4. Pleasure in the work.

Boöz Endormi

Boöz Endormi is a much-celebrated poem from Victor Hugo's Légends des Siècles (1859). We look at the last 3 of its 22 stanzas. The French is simple, lyrical and majestic:

20. Ruth songeait et Boöz dormait, l'herbe était noire ;
Les grelots des troupeaux palpitaient vaguement ;
Une immense bonté tombait du firmament ;
C'était l'heure tranquille où les lions vont boire.

21. Tout reposait dans Ur et dans Jérimadeth ;
Les astres émaillaient le ciel profond et sombre ;
Le croissant fin et clair parmi ces fleurs de l'ombre
Brillait à l'occident, et Ruth se demandait,

22. Immobile, ouvrant l'œil à moitié sous ses voiles,
Quel dieu, quel moissonneur de l'éternel été
Avait, en s'en allant, négligemment jeté
Cette faucille d'or dans le champ Des étoiles. {1}

Literal Translation

And a literal translation is equally straightforward: {2}

Ruth mused/thought over and Boaz slept, the grass was black;
The little bells of the flocks beat vaguely
An immense kindness fell from the sky/firmament;
It was the quiet hour where lions go to drink.

All rested in Ur and in Jérimadeth;
The stars enameled the deep and somber sky:
The crescent, fine/slim and clear, among the flowers of shade
Shone in the west, and Ruth asked herself

Immobile, opening the eye a half under its veils,
What god, what harvester of eternal summer
Had, in going away, negligently thrown
This/that golden sickle in the field of stars

Other Translations

Only a little is available on the Internet: the Blackmores' translation:

The flocks' bells tinkled faintly as they went;
Ruth pondered, Boaz slept; the grass was dank.
Blessings descended from the firmament.
It was the peaceful hour when lions drank.

Ur and Jerimadeth were all at rest;
The stars enameled heaven's sombre deep;
A slender crescent sparkled in the west
Among those flowers of darkness; half-asleep

Lay Ruth, wondering, her veiled eyes half-parted,
What god, cropping the timeless summer yield,
Had dropped so carelessly as he departed
That golden sickle in the starry field. {3} {4} {5}

An unattributed translation:

The stars were glittering in the heaven's dusk meadows,
Far west, among those flowers of the shadows,
The thin, clear crescent lustrous over her,
Made Ruth raise question, looking through the bars
Of heaven, with eyes half-oped, what God, what comer
Unto the harvest of the eternal summer,
Had flung his golden hook down on the field of stars. {6}

When the Blackmores' version is so good {7} — their Collected Poems of Victor Hugo won the 2002 International Translation Award {8} — why should anyone want to write another? Well, apart from the challenge, I'd like to see if Hugo's powers can be even more convincingly displayed in English.

That Last Stanza

We start with the last verse, for which a workmanlike rendering can be sketched in a few minutes. To get around the paucity of rhymes for stars, we could write:

Unmoving, staring through her half-veiled eyes,
What god, what reaper of eternal summer,
So carelessly in leaving her had thrown
That sickle where now among the stars it lies.

but it's clumsy, leaves out the important golden, and is not what everyone remembers. Let's try pararhyme:

Unmoving, staring through her half-veiled eyes,
What god, what reaper of eternal summer,
So carelessly in leaving her had thrown
That golden sickle in the field of stars.

But that has important consequences, discussed more below. In fact, we'll probably have to change the first line:

What god, her eyes gazed through their half-veiled bars,
What harvester of summers yet unsown,
So carelessly in leaving her had thrown
That golden sickle into the field of stars.

Bars? Hugo wrote veils, emphasizing that Ruth could but dimly see God's purposes, but the general meaning is preserved. {9}

Last Three Stanzas

Let's modify a little and complete the translation of stanzas 20-22:

Ruth now mused and Boaz slept. The grass
was black: the sheepbells tinkled as they went.
An immense kindness fell from the firmament:
The peaceful hour where thirsty lions pass.

Rest in Ur and Jerimadeth. The flowers
Of darkness gleamed in deep and somber rest
And a crescent, thin and clear, lit up the west
As Ruth still lay there wondering through the hours,

What god, her eyes gazed through their half-veiled bars,
What summer harvester through times unsown,
So carelessly in leaving her had thrown
That golden sickle into the field of stars.

Now we have to ask these questions:

  1. is the English pentameter appropriate?

  2. have we captured the sense and feeling of the original?

  3. what further licences can/should we take?

Hexameter versus Pentameter

English and French verse are built on different principles, one on syllable count under various rules, and the other on metre. {10} Hugo is writing the alexandrine, two hemistichs of six syllables separated by a caesura, with the primary and secondary stresses of the line occurring at the line-end and caesura respectively:

Ruth son geait et Bo oz | dor mait l'her beé tait noire 3 3 | 2 4
Les gre lots des trou peaux | pal pit aient va gue ment 3 3 | 3 3
U neim men se bon té | tomb ait du firm a ment 3 3 | 2 4
C'é tait l'heu re tran qui | lleoù les li ons vont boire. 3 3 | 3 3

Tout re po sait da nsUr | et dans Jé ri ma deth 4 2 | 2 4
Le sas tre sé mai llaient | le ci el pro fond et sombre 3 3 | 3 3
Le croi ssant fi net clair | par mi ces fleurs de l'ombre 3 3 | 4 2
Bri llait à l'o cci den | tet Ruth se de man dait 2 4 | 2 4

Im mo bile ouv rant l'œi | là moit ié sous ses voiles 3 3 | 2 4
Quel dieu quel moi sso nneur | de l'é ter nel ét é 2 4| 2 4
A vait en s'en a llant | né gli ge mment je té 2 4 | 4 2
Ce tte fau ci lle d'or | dans le champ de sé toiles 2 4 | 3 3

Matters are much more complicated — particularly where rhyme quality is concerned — but even this simple analysis should show how different is the French conception of verse. (I have shown the groupings of syllable sounded, given the caesura by |, the sounded e by e, and the silent line-end e by e. {9} {11} {12} {13} {14} The arrangement of hemistich segments — syllables grouped as to where the subsidiary stress falls — are also shown. Except in stanzas 10 and 15, which are rhymed abab, Hugo's 22 stanza poem is rhymed abba.)

We should also note that Hugo's verse is remarkably sonorous and stately: the end-stopped lines giving great dignity to the theme.

The hexameter is the most flexible and widely-used of French verse forms, corresponding to the pentameter in English. But whereas the English pentameter can be unrhymed, even gaining in dramatic or narrative power, the hexameter is always rhymed: there is no equivalent in French to English blank verse. That does not mean that we cannot employ blank verse to render Boöz Endormi, but does suggest its stately correctness will be lost if we write things like:

Unmoving, staring through her half-veiled eyes,
What god, what reaper of eternal summer,
So carelessly in leaving her had thrown
That golden sickle in the field of stars.

The lines move easily and keep close to the original, but are not the same animal. We are obliged to have rhymed pentameters, I think, and these should a. follow the abba rhyme scheme, and b. reproduce Hugo's straightforward exposition as far the rhyme allows.

Capturing the Sense and Feeling

A problem arises immediately with the grass / pass rhyme in stanza 20. Why has Hugo said the grass was black? To get the rhyme, very probably. The second line is beautiful, but of course leads up to the immense bonté tombait du firmament, which is then heightened by the auspicious quietness of the fourth: when lions drink. Unfortunately, the chronology is a little muddled. We don't need to be told it's dark outside, and has been all the time that Ruth has been lying asleep, and we know also that the hour of quietness is not the early morning, but the evening.

Yet there is a way in which the blackness outside is or could be important, which would be to isolate Ruth. Hugo has simply seized on the obvious rhyme, and no doubt it seems lèse majesté to improve on the great man. But whatever we choose, when lions pass will clearly not suffice. To have lions passing is threatening, and from what exactly are they passing? If, however, we return to an almost literal rendering (and in fact powerful) rendering of the last line, we need a rhyme for drink. Clink? Sheepbells? Something familiar and comforting to Ruth, if we compress events as Hugo has? It's a possibility, though we must also make the words continue the sense and feeling of the stanza. Hugo has the sheepbells trembling with anticipation, which is denied us with clink. But perhaps we could stress the ordinariness of the scene:

A clink / of sheepbells traced the darkness as they went.

Or, better, find the equivalent to Hugo's effect:

A clink / of sheepbells sounded: distant, innocent.

The clink / of distant sheepbells carried: innocent.

Further licences

Several "corrections" have been made to the full translation, given here, and they illustrate two matters. One is the need to think beyond the literal meanings of lines: we have to understand what their author intended, and why. And secondly, only by deploying the full resources of English verse will we get (in English) the effect achieved by their author in French. For a glaring example of the first, take the last line of the second stanza:

Ce vieillard possédait Des champs de blés et d'orge ;
Il était, quoique riche, à la justin encline ;
IL n'avait pas de fange en l'eau de son moulin,
IL n'avait pas enfer dans le feu de sa forge.

which the Blackmores have very correctly translated as:

He was a rich man, but he was just.
The lands he owned grew wheat and barley well.
The water of his mill contained no dust;
The fire within his forge contained no hell. {3}

Hugo was probably thinking of the local forge, where worn farming implements were refashioned or recast, but what he has written is a nonsense. What hell? In French, with its neat play on enfer and feu, the line passes muster, and is helped by the pleasingly echo to the preceding line. But it's less convincing when stripped of these supports in English, and I think it better to write something quieter that continues the theme of Boaz's probity:

This old man possessed good fields of wheat,
And barley too: was just, though passing rich.
His mill ran cleanly, fairly: he didn't switch
His neighbour's products from the furnace heat.

Conversely, I have kept Hugo's Jerimadeth contrivance, however: too well known to be worth tinkering with.

Concluding Remarks

The complete poem, given here, follows the original more closely, keeping the abba rhyme scheme and indulging in fewer line transpositions. I have also tried to write reasonable English verse. The verdict must be the reader's, but to those unhappy with the approach — or results — can be recommended the Blackmores' extended tribute to a poet who should be better known. {16} {17}

One final point. The poem is quite lengthy, and no one will undertake such labours unless they actually enjoy working in English verse forms. Pleasure in writing is an obvious (but sometimes overlooked) requirement for all poetry, whether original or translation. The French text follows:

Booz s'était couché de fatigue accablé ;
Il avait tout le jour travaillé dans son aire,
Puis avait fait son lit à sa place ordinaire ;
Booz dormait auprès Des boisseaux pleins de blé.

Ce vieillard possédait Des champs de blés et d'orge,
Il était, quoique riche, à la justice enclin ;
Il n'avait pas de fange en l'eau de son moulin,
Il n'avait pas d'enfer dans le feu de sa forge.

Sa barbe était d'argent comme un ruisseau d'avril.
Sa gerbe n'était point avare ni haineuse ;
Quand il voyait passer quelque pauvre glaneuse :
Laissez tomber exprès des épis, disait-il.

Cet homme marchait pur loin Des sentiers obliques,
Vêtu de probité candide et de lin blanc ;
Et, toujours du côté Des pauvres ruisselant,
Ses sacs de grains semblaient Des fontaines publiques.

Booz était bon maître et fidèle parent ;
Il était généreux, quoiqu'il fût économe ;
Les femmes regardaient Booz plus qu'un jeune homme,
Car le jeune homme est beau, mais le vieillard est grand.

Le vieillard, qui revient vers la source première,
Entre aux jours éternels et sort des jours changeants ;
Et l'on voit de la flamme aux yeux des jeunes gens,
Mais dans l'œil du vieillard on voit de la lumière.

* * *

Donc, Booz dans la nuit dormait parmi les siens ;
Près des meules, qu'on eût prises pour des décombres.
Les moissonneurs couchés faisaient des groupes sombres
Et ceci se passait dans des temps très anciens.

Les tribus d'Israël avaient pour chef un juge ;
La terre, où l'homme errait sous la tente, inquiet
Des empreintes de pieds de géant qu'il voyait,
Était encor mouillée et molle du déluge.

* * *

Comme dormait Jacob, comme dormait Judith,
Booz, les yeux fermés, gisait sous la feuillée.
Or, la porte du ciel s'étant entrebâillée
Au-dessus de sa tête, un songe en descendit.

Et ce songe était tel, que Booz vit un chêne
Qui, sorti de son ventre, allait jusqu'au ciel bleu ;
Une race y montait comme une longue chaîne ;
Un roi chantait en bas, en haut mourait un dieu.

Et Booz murmurait avec la voix de l'âme :
« Comment se pourrait-il que de moi ceci vînt ?
Le chiffre de mes ans a passé quatre-vingt,
Et je n'ai pas de fils, et je n'ai plus de femme.

« Voilà longtemps que celle avec qui j'ai dormi,
O Seigneur ! a quitté ma couche pour la vôtre ;
Et nous sommes encor tout mêlés l'un à l'autre,
Elle à demi vivante et moi mort à demi.

« Une race naîtrait de moi ! Comment le croire ?
Comment se pourrait-il que j'eusse des enfants ?
Quand on est jeune, on a des matins triomphants,
Le jour sort de la nuit comme d'une victoire ;

« Mais, vieux, on tremble ainsi qu'à l'hiver le bouleau.
Je suis veuf, je suis seul, et sur moi le soir tombe,
Et je courbe, ô mon Dieu ! mon âme vers la tombe,
Comme un bœuf ayant soif penche son front vers l'eau. »

Ainsi parlait Booz dans le rêve et l'extase,
Tournant vers Dieu ses yeux par le sommeil noyés ;
Le cèdre ne sent pas une rose à sa base,
Et lui ne sentait pas une femme à ses pieds.

* * *

Pendant qu'il sommeillait, Ruth, une moabite,
S'était couchée aux pieds de Booz, le sein nu,
Espérant on ne sait quel rayon inconnu,
Quand viendrait du réveil la lumière subite.

Booz ne savait point qu'une femme était là,
Et Ruth ne savait point ce que Dieu voulait d'elle,
Un frais parfum sortait des touffes d'asphodèle ;
Les souffles de la nuit flottaient sur Galgala.

L'ombre était nuptiale, auguste et solennelle ;
Les anges y volaient sans doute obscurément,
Car on voyait passer dans la nuit, par moment,
Quelque chose de bleu qui paraissait une aile.

La respiration de Booz qui dormait,
Se mêlait au bruit sourd des ruisseaux sur la mousse.
On était dans le mois où la nature est douce,
Les collines ayant les lys sur leur sommet.

Ruth songeait et Booz dormait, l'herbe était noire ;
Les grelots des troupeaux palpitaient vaguement ;
Une immense bonté tombait du firmament ;
C'était l'heure tranquille où les lions vont boire.

Tout reposait dans Ur et dans Jérimadeth ;
Les astres émaillaient le ciel profond et sombre ;
Le croissant fin et clair parmi ces fleurs de l'ombre
Brillait à l'occident, et Ruth se demandait,

Immobile, ouvrant l'œil à moitié sous ses voiles,
Quel dieu, quel moissonneur de l'éternel été
Avait, en s'en allant, négligemment jeté
Cette faucille d'or dans le champ des étoiles.

 

Notes and References

1. Boöz endormie. http://poetes.com/hugo/booz.htm. French text and notes on site devoted to major French poets (all in French).
2. French-English dictionary. http://www.french-linguistics.co.uk/dictionary/.
3. E. H. Blackmore and A. M. Blackmore, eds., Six French Poets of the Nineteenth Century: Lamartine, Hugo, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Mallarme, (Oxford: University of Oxford, 2000), 89. Q
4. Boaz Asleep. http://www.gavroche.org/vhugo/vhpoetry/comparison.gav. Three translations of the opening two stanzas.
5. Boöz endormie .http://www.utdallas.edu/research/cts/National%20Translation%20Award/Forms/Boaz.asleep.htm NNA. Blackmores' translation of last two stanzas.
6. Moon: some quotes. http://www.giga-usa.com/gigaweb1/quotes2/qutopmoonx001.htm. Unattributed translation.
7. Eric Ormsby, "Victor Hugo: The Ghost in the Pantheon," New Criterion, October 2002. Q
8. National Translation Award. Oct. 2002. http://www.utd.edu/research/cts/National%20Translation%20Award/National%20translation%20award.htm NNA. Given to translators E.H. and A.M. Blackmore.
9. Roy Lewis suggests — On Reading French Verse: A Study of Poetic Form. (Clarendon Press, Oxford. 1982), 104 — himself employed voiles to meet the rhyme étoiles.
10. Verse. http://www.1911encyclopedia.org/V/VE/VERSE.htm. Short, somewhat dated but sensible introduction to classical, French and English prosody.
11. Petite Traite de Prosodie Francaise. Pierre Brandao. Jan. 2002. http://clea.ambrenoire.com/PROSODIE.PDF NNA. Extended account of versification (in French), with references, examples and links.
12. Roy Lewis, On Reading French Verse: A Study of Poetic Form. (Clarendon Press, Oxford. 1982).
13. Quelques notions de base en phonétique corrective. http://courseweb.edteched.uottawa.ca/Phonetique/Aix2000/phonetique.html. Principles and audio examples (all in French).
14. Poésie Française du Vingtième Siècle. http://hcl.harvard.edu/widener/services/research/french272/poeta.pdf. Selected references to French prosody, not restricted to twentieth century poetry.
15. Hugo Online. Extensive but still under construction. http://www.hugo-online.org/index.htm. NNA.
16. Victor Hugo. Short but solid information. http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/vhugo.htm NNA.

 

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