TRANSLATING JAMMES

translating verlainePoints Illustrated

1. Reorganizing to make rhyme possible.

2. Translating in stages.

3. Not 'improving' on the original.

Clara d'Ellébeuse

Francis Jammes, a contemporary of Claudel and Valéry, kept to his native Pyrenees, and wrote simple poems that combine nostalgia for women lost or imagined with poignant rural scenes. One of his best known is Clara d'Ellébeuse: the French text: {1} {2}

J'aime dans le temps Clara d'Ellébeuse,

J'aime dans le temps Clara d'Ellébeuse,
l'écolière des anciens pensionnats,
qui allaint, les soirs chauds, sous les tilleuls
lire les magazines d'autrefois.

Je n'aime qu'elle, et je sens sur mon coeur
la lumière bleue de sa gorge blanche.
Ou est-elle? Où donc était ce bonheur?
Dans sa chambre claire il entrait des branches.

Elle n'est peut-être pas encore morte
— ou peut-être que nous l'étions tous deux.
La grande cour vait des feuilles mortes
dans le vent froid des fins d'été très vieux.

Te souviens-tu ces plumes de paon,
dans un grand vase, auprès des coquillages? . . .
on apprenait qu'on avait fait naufrage,
on appelait Terre-Neuve: le Banc.

Viens, viens, ma chère Clara d'Ellébeuse:
aimons-nous encore si tu existes.
Le vieux jardin a des vieilles tulipes.
Viens toute nue, ô Clara d'Ellébeuse.

The two translations known to me are rather different. The first, of which I give the opening three stanzas, is faithful and pleasant:

1. Down through the years I love Clara d'Ellébeuse,
the schoolgirl of old boarding schools,
who used to go, on warm evenings, beneath the linden trees
to read the magazines of bygone days.

2. I love only her, and feel upon my heart
the blue light of her white throat.
Where is she? Where then was that happiness?
The branches entered her bright room.

3. Perhaps she is not dead
or perhaps we both were.
The great courtyard was filled with dead leaves
in the cold wind of the end of a very old summer. {1}

The second is prose, but packs a stronger punch: {2}

3. Perhaps she is not yet dead — or perhaps we both were dead. The big yard had dead leaves in the cold wind of Summers' endings long ago.

4. Do you remember those peacock feathers, in a tall vase, beside shells? . . . we learned that there had been a shipwreck, we called Newfoundland: the Banks.

5. Come, come, my precious Clara d'Ellébeuse: let us love still if you exist. The old garden has old tulips. Come quite naked, O Clara d'Ellébeuse.

Both are attractive renderings. Gifford and Dickie's the blue light of her white throat accurately captures la lumière bleue de sa gorge blanche. The William Rees's The old garden has old tulips is as simple and poignant as the original. What, unfortunately, aren't captured are the musicality and the rhymes. Even something as everyday as dans un grand vase, auprès des coquillages has its neat structure and echoing assonance. The striking Dans sa chambre claire il entrait des branches picks up the blanche rhyme earlier. And so on: French and English verse have different sounds and structures.

Introducing Rhyme

Suppose, good those these rendering are, we wanted to do more — retain the rhyme scheme and echo the original musicality? As they stand in free verse or prose, rhyme seems an intrusion, something that will spoil the naive charm of the piece. Moreover, there is no obvious way of doing so with the renderings given, which means we must first arrange the lines into regular verse:

I love forever Clara d’Ellébeuse,
the girl who went to old-time boarding schools,
who read, warm evenings, under linden trees
her magazines of chat and fashion rules.

I love but her alone, and on my heart
the blue light of her white throat’s laid the same.
Where is she? Or happiness can start
when into her bright room the branches came?

Perhaps it may be that she is not dead
or perhaps the both of us have long been so.
Across the yard the cold wind’s leaves have spread,
brought in by summers’ endings years ago.

Do you remember those tall peacock feathers
in a great vase, and sea shells heaped around?
How we learned of shipwrecks and the weathers
of Newfoundland, and Bank, that fishing ground?

Come, my precious Clara d’Ellébeuse,
come and let us love if you exist.
The tulips nodding in these grounds insist
you come quite naked, Clara d’Ellébeuse.

That must seem a backward step: the first renderings are fresher and more convincing. But (because regular verse is helped by rhyme where free verse generally is not) we can now reshape to get the rhymes:

I love forever Clara d’Ellébeuse,
the girl who went to old-time boarding schools,
and read, warm evenings, under linden trees
her magazines of chat and fashion rules.

It is her I love, and on my heart
the blue light of her white throat’s laid the same.
Where is she? Or happiness can start
when into her bright room the branches came?

Perhaps it may be that she is not dead
or perhaps the both of us have long been so.
Across the yard the cold wind’s leaves have spread,
brought in by summers’ endings years ago.

Do you remember those tall peacock feathers
in a great vase, and sea shells heaped around?
How we learned of shipwrecks and the weathers
of Newfoundland, and Bank, that fishing ground?

Come, my precious Clara d’Ellébeuse,
come and let us love if you exist.
The tulips nodding in these grounds insist
you come quite naked, Clara d’Ellébeuse.

Final Draft

Some licences have been taken to achieve these ends, and the rhymes are not properly integrated. We need to rewrite, not much, but sufficient to give coherence and music to the lines:

I love forever Clara d’Ellébeuse,
the girl attending old-time boarding schools,
who came, warm evenings, under linden trees
to read her magazines of other days.

Her alone I love and on my heart
I feel her cool white throat alight in flame.
Where is she now, or happiness's part
when into her bright room the branches came?

Perhaps it may be that she is not dead
— or else the pair of us have long been so.
The cold wind’s leaves across the yard have spread,
brought in by summers’ endings years ago.

Do you remember those great peacock feathers
and that tall vase, with sea shells heaped around?
How once we learned of shipwrecks and of weathers
in Newfoundland, the Bank and fishing ground?

Come, my precious Clara d’Ellébeuse,
together let us love if you exist.
Old gardens have old tulips in their midst.
O come quite naked, Clara d’Ellébeuse.

Additionally, we've removed some of the tiresome 'cleverness' of the previous draft, and abandoned rhyme in the first stanza, as Jammes himself has done. We still have weathers and fishing ground, but they are not foreign to the tone or meaning of the piece.

Notes and References

1. Selected Poems of Francis Jammes. Translated by Barry Gifford and Bettina Dickie. (Utah State Univ. Press, 1976), 6-7.
2. The Penguin Book of French Poetry: 1820-1950. Translated by William Rees. (Penguin Classics, 1992). http://books.google.com/books?id=YAepXCkCPkIC&dq=J%27aime+dans+le+temps+Clara+d%27Ell%C3%A9beuse&source=gbs_summary_s&cad=0

 

The final version is included in Diversions, a free pdf collection of translations published by Ocaso Press.

A 568-page free pdf ebook on practical verse writing is available from Ocaso Press. Click here for the download page.

 

Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if cited in the usual way.