TRANSLATING VERLAINE 2

translating verlainePoints Illustrated

1. Starting with original's structure.

2. Taking matters logically.

3. Compressing for pure sound.

Le Ciel est, par-dessus le toit

Earnest Dowson's rendering is the best known, and possibly still the best if we want the delicate musicality of Verlaine's piece brought over into English: {1}

The sky is up above the roof
    So blue, so soft!
A tree there, up above the roof,
    Swayeth aloft.  

A bell within that sky we see,
    Chimes low and faint:
A bird upon that tree we see,
    Maketh complaint.  

Dear God! is not the life up there,
    Simple and sweet?
How peacefully are borne up there
    Sounds of the street!  

What hast thou done, who comest here,
    To weep alway?
Where hast thou laid, who comest here,
    Thy youth away?

Though entitled 'After Verlaine', it's fairly close to the original: French {2} and machine code rendering: {3}

Le ciel est, par-dessus le toit,
Si beau, si calme!
Un arbre, par-dessus le toit,
Berce sa palme.

La cloche, dans le ciel qu'on voit,
Doucement tinte,
Un oiseau sur l'arbre qu'on voit,
Chante sa plainte.

Mon Dieu, mon Dieu, la vie est là,
Simple et tranquille.
Cette paisible rumeur-là
Vient de la ville.

-Qu'as-tu fait, ô toi que voilà
Pleurant sans cesse,
Dis, qu'as-tu fait, toi que voilà,
De ta jeunesse?

The sky is, by over the roof,
So beautiful, if calm! 
A tree, by over the roof,
Lull its palm. 

The bell, in the sky that one sees,
Gently rings,
A bird on the tree that one sees,
Sings his complaint. 

My God, my God, life is there,
Simple and quiet. 
This calm rumor there
Comes from the city. 

That did you, O you that here
Crying continually,
Says, that did you, you that here,
Of your youth?

Other Renderings

Le ciel is a popular piece, and many translators have tried their hand. A few comments on what's available on the Internet:

Stanzas One and Two: Martin Sorrell {4}

The sky above the roof’s
So blue, so calm.
A branch above the roof’s
Fanning the air.

Dear God, dear God, there
Simple and quiet.
These soft and distant sounds
Come from the town.

A fairly literal translation, unrhymed and not musical. (Form is 3 2 3 2. Do branches fan the air? Clumping rhythm in These soft and distant sounds / Come from the town.)

Stanza Three: Norman R. Shapiro {5}

My God, my God, out there. . .  That’s where
Real life is found.
A simple town . . . and everywhere
Its gentle sound.

Another university press offering: contemporary language and rhyme has led to gross misrepresentation. (Verlaine is not talking about 'real life'. Original suggests the town is distant, not 'everywhere'.)

Stanza Four: Richard Stokes {6}

O you, O you, what have you done,
Weeping without end,
Say, O say, what have you done
With all your youth?

Unrhymed and doesn't respect Verlaine's form. (Form is 4 3 4 2 rather than Verlaine's 4 2 4 2).

Stanzas Three and Four: 'Marcus' {7}

My god that's Life out there:
so settled down--
the peaceful noise I hear
comes from the town.

"Hey you down there! the one
with all the tears:
Say, what have you done
with your young years?"

Doesn't convey Verlaine's mood and music. (Form is 3 2 3 2. Peaceful noise is unfortunate. It's youth, not young years that Verlaine is lamenting: he was 36 when the piece was published in Sagesse. He is looking up at the tree, possibly from his prison cell: who is calling Hey you down there ?)

Looking at the Original

The poem is built on a 8/4 syllable system with an abab rhyme scheme:

Le | ciel | est | par | de | ssus | le | toit =8a: masculine rhyme
Si | beau | si | calme =4b: feminine rhyme
Un | ar | bre | par | de | ssus | le | toit =8a: masculine rhyme
Ber | ce | sa | palme =4b: feminine rhyme

The first difficulty comes with the rhymes: vie / tranquille, cesse / jeunesse, etc. make acceptable rhymes in French but not in English. Then there is palme, so obviously chosen to rhyme with calme. Do we take it as a palm (i.e. a Mediterranean setting) or poetic license for branch? Translators have disagreed. The stanza form is clearly going to be 4a 2b 4a 2b, unusual in English, which prefers the 4a 3b 4a 3b ballad form. But Verlaine is not evoking speed but a rapt listening.

We start by leaving aside the rhyme, and making as few changes as possible to the literal rendering above, obtaining something like:

The sky is here, above the roof,
so blue, so calm! 
A tree is here, above the roof,
swaying in branch. 

The bell-tower in the sky that one sees,
quietly rings,
A bird is in a tree that one sees,
singing its plaint. 

My God, my God, how life is there
simple and still. 
How calm is the rumor that comes
from the town.

O you that are here, what did you do,
crying all day:
what did you do, you that are here,
to your youth?

From here it's a simple matter to add rhyme:

The sky is here above the roof,
so blue, so soft.
A tree is here above the roof
swaying aloft.

A bell-tower in the sky that we see
calls soft and faint.
A bird that’s sitting in a tree
echoes its plaint.

My God, my God, how life is here
calm and sweet.
How murmuring the sounds that here
come from the street.

You that are here, what did you do,
weeping each day:
tell us, what did you do, you,
to your youth?

Taking It Further

That is it. Simple if we take it in stages: analyze, literal version, rhymed. We can move away from a close translation, of course, and replace some of the repeated rhyme words:

The sky is here above the roof,
so blue, so soft.
A palm here soars above the roof
swaying aloft.

A clock-tower in the sky we see
calls low and faint.
A bird that’s sitting in a tree
echoes its plaint.

My God, my God, how life is here
calm and sweet.
How murmuring the sounds we hear
far from the street.

What have you done, you who are known
weeping each day?
Tells us what you have done to have thrown
your youth away.

The rendering should called 'After Verlaine'. To compress the poem more into pure sounds we cut the tetrameter to a trimeter:

The sky above the roof,
so blue, so soft.
A palm soars from the roof
swaying aloft.

A steeple that we see
calls clear and faint.
And the bird on a tree
echoes its plaint.

My God, how simple it were
if life were sweet
as this peaceful murmur
far from the street.

What have you done, here known
weeping each day?
Tell us why you have thrown
your youth away.

It's not now the same poem, but an attractive one, I'd have thought.

Notes and References

1. Le Ciel EST, par-dessus le toit translated by Ernest Dowson. http://poetry.elcore.net/CatholicPoets/Dowson/Dowson57.html
2. Le Ciel est, par-dessus le toit. French text. http://www.agonia.net/index.php/poetry/69856/index.html NNA
3. Free Translation. http://ets.freetranslation.com/
4. Selected Poems by Paul Verlaine.Translated by Martin Sorrell (OUP, 1999). http://books.google.com/books?id=XH9nizMSjZIC&pg=PA110&lpg=PA110&dq=%22Le+ciel+est,+par+dessus+le+toit%22+translation&source=web&ots=yd-uHCzAPv&sig=svSk5eD9u5aXSTrEob7dlXVBab4&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=15&ct=result - PPA111,M1
5. One Hundred and One Poems by Paul Verlaine: A Bilingual Edition. Translated by Norman R. Shapiro. (Univ. Chicago Press, 1999).
6. Le Ciel est, par-dessus le toit translated by Richard Stokes. http://www.recmusic.org/lieder/get_text.html?TextId=16292.
7. Verlaine translated by 'Marcus'. http://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=58901&page=11

 

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

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