TRANSLATING VALÉRY 2

translating valeryIntroduction

1. Starting a translation.

2. Valéry's theories of poetry.

3. translation as inspired recreation.

La Dormeuse

La Dormeuse or The Sleeper appeared in Paul Valéry's 1922 Charmes ou poèmes, the collection also containing Le Cimetière marin.

Literal Translation

As before, to get a rendering as free from interpretation as possible, we feed the text into an online (machine code) translator. Tidying up a little:

La Dormeuse

à Lucien Fabre.

Quels secrets dans mon cœur brûle ma jeune amie,
Âme par le doux masque aspirant une fleur ?
De quels vains aliments sa naïve chaleur
Fait ce rayonnement d'une femme endormie ?

Souffles, songes, silence, invincible accalmie,
Tu triomphes, ô paix plus puissante qu'un pleur,
Quand de ce plein sommeil l'onde grave et l'ampleur
Conspirent sur le sein d'une telle ennemie.

Dormeuse, amas doré d'ombres et d'abandons,
Ton repos redoutable est chargé de tels dons,

Ô biche avec langueur longue auprès d'une grappe,
Que malgré l'âme absente, occupée aux enfers,
Ta forme au ventre pur qu'un bras fluide drape,
Veille ; ta forme veille, et mes yeux sont ouverts.

The Sleeping one

To Lucien Fabre.

What secrets in my heart burns my young girlfriend,
Soul by the soft mask inhaling a flower?
of what vain foods his naïve heat
makes this radiance of a woman sleeping?

Blow, dreams, silence, invincible lull,
You triumphs, O more powerful peace than a tear,
When of this full sleep the deep wave and the extent
Conspire on the breast of such a enemy.

Sleeping, gilded heap of shadows and of abandonments,
Your fearsome rest is loaded with such gifts,

O doe with long languor with a cluster,
What despite the soul leaves, occupied to the hells,
Your form to the pure stomach that a fluid arm drapes,
Watches; your form watches, and my eyes are opened.

First Attempts

Clearly it's a beautiful poem in strict sonnet form, alexandrines rhymed abbaabbaccdede. To reproduce that form properly, we'll have to choose English words with abundant rhymes for the a and b endings, and not box ourselves in too much with the remaining lines.

Translation of strict forms is always difficult, the perfection of the original denying entry. The readiest points of attack are probably the couplets of lines 2-3, and 6-7. Let's try for the first quatrain, keeping the attractive fourth line:

What secrets are my young friend's heart now keeping,
the soul that through the soft mask of a flower may treat
as vanities the nourishment of native heat
that makes the radiance of a woman sleeping?

Then the next quatrain:

Breathe in dreams and silences now deepening,
a peace more powerful than tears may cheat
the heavy wave and fullness of this meet
conspiracies on that foe's breast are seeping.

And then, in the same vein, not bothering too much too much to get close translation but surrendering the vague sense and connotations the words:

A fearsome gift of shadows and surrenders,
a golden, laden mass of sleep is hers.

O animal so languorously long in clusters
although your soul is distant, in infernos
your pure stomach's fluid arm still musters
a shape to watch me and my viewing knows.

Some phrases are inviting, but in general the rendering isn't close and does make much sense, though the original is also obscure in places.

Valéry's Conception of Poetry

For Valéry, a poem was a form of discourse very different from the everyday: a verbal structure in which certain properties of words are given their fullest possible application: their shape and colour, their connotations, their sensuous qualities, their concrete evocation and their abstract powers. {6} He distrusted the inspired and adventitious, and generally worked to expunge specific references and personal feelings in draft after draft of his poems. As an astute thinker with a remarkably wide range of interests, his hope was to make poetry an important discipline where words, purified of their commonplace associations, could serve as symbols for the eternal in man.

Unfortunately, the disciplines have moved on, and the science, philosophy and mathematics that fascinated Valéry, and through which he formulated his own thought processes are now very different. There are concepts like 'beauty' in aesthetics, and 'truth' in mathematics that resemble Valéry's symbols (diamonds, doves, soul, etc.) but they have a generality and strength that personal formulations can never possess. In some sense, Valéry's distillation of words into their most pure and acute essences is a concern of all poets, but if their deployment does not reveal the world in more meaningful contours then the poetry is stillborn, and the Symbolist movement that started with Baudelaire and Mallarmé in fact came to an end in Valéry. Encouraged by deconstruction and 'death of the author' theories, the view of poetry as self-contained constructions without larger reference enjoys a revival of sorts in Post-modernist poetry, but the technique is one of prose collages aiming more to entertain.

Second Draft

To return to the translation, we can see that La Dormeuse contrasts various aspects of a sleeping mistress: abstract beauty against carnal desire, the woman's desire for love against the poet's wish to remain detached and independent, the secrets being consumed by the dreamer just as the body takes nourishment. {7} The aspects remain as phrases, however, fused by the verse but lacking a narrative continuity. Words are chosen for verse needs more than clarity, moreover, which makes for translation difficulties. Racine, for example, has a comparable beauty of phrasing, but his words have a meaning independent of their formulation, and can be paraphrased. But Valéry's meaning is in his words, and these, being chosen to make a formal sonnet in French, do not generally have useful equivalents. Pleur/ampleur, grappe/drape, etc. are pleasing rhymes, but tear/extent, cluster/drape are not.

For that reason we began by surrendering to the vague sense and connotations of the original, as though we were writing our own poem, following wherever the words led us. Now we have to correct that reverie, still aiming for beauty of phrase but paying more attention to Valéry's formulations. The previous heat/treat rhyme was unhelpful, but can be easily replaced:

What heart's hot secrets is my young friend keeping,
a soul that through the mask of flowers must breathe?
What vain food will natural warmth conceive
to make the radiance of a woman sleeping?

The breath of dreams and silences is deepening.
In what triumph powerful tears may leave
when full and heavy wave of sleep receive
conspiracies that breast of foe is reaping.

A feared repose of shadows and surrenders
is laden with such gifts of sleep as hers.

A doe lies long within its languorous clusters
where soul is lost and busy in infernos,
her form throws out a fluid arm, and musters
a wakefulness to tell me that it knows.

Final Draft

That's reasonably close, to the extent the original allows a definitive meaning. We may be tempted to continue Valéry's method and aim for a more beautiful if enigmatic phrasing:

What heart's hot secrets is my young friend keeping
in soul that through the mask of flowers must breathe?
What sustenance will natural warmth conceive
to make the radiance of woman sleeping?

The breath of dreams and silences is deepening
to peace more forcible than tears may leave
when heavy fullnesses of sleep receive
conspiracies that fatal breast is reaping.

A feared repose of shadows and surrenders
responds with golden gifts of sleep as hers.

A doe extended in its languorous clusters
where soul is lost and busy in infernos:
her form throws out a fluid arm, and musters
a wakefulness to tell me that she knows.

But that seems a mistake: some of the strangeness is ironed out, but the translation is too bland. Something between the two may be best:

What heart's hot secrets is my young friend keeping
in soul that through the mask of flowers must breathe?
What vain food will natural warmth conceive
to make the radiance of woman sleeping?

The breath of dreams and silences is deepening
to peace more forcible than tears may leave
when heavy fullnesses of sleep receive
conspiracies that breast of foe is reaping.

A feared repose of shadows and surrenders
responds with golden gifts of sleep as hers.

A doe extended in its languorous clusters
where soul is lost and busy in infernos:
her form throws out a fluid arm, and musters
a wakefulness to tell me that it knows.

But not a success, of course: only making the poetry seem even more precious and contrived — which may be why Valéry is not much read today.

References and Resources

1. Valéry Studies. "http://www.paulvalery.org/ NNA. Academic resources at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

2. Paul Valéry NNA. Poetry-Portal's entry, with the usual listings.

3. Paul Valéry. Wikepedia article with brief list of links.

4. Dancing in chains. Stephen Romer's Guardian review of Charms by Paul Valéry, translated by Peter Dale.

5. Burnshaw, Stanley (ed.) The Poem Itself. (Penguin Books, 1960).

6. Austen, L.J. Modulation and movement in Valéry's verse in Yale French Studies, 44 (1970), 20.

7. Whiting, C.G. Préciosité in La Jeune Parque and Charmes in Yale French Studies, 44 (1970), 122.

8. Whiting, C.G. Paul Valéry. (Athlone Press, 1978)

 

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