Behold This Palm, That Oak, Those Bays

Verse is one of those things that make translating a truly losing proposition, a cause for premature balding. Translators are tearing out their hair constantly as yet another phonetic or semantic effect proves impossible to render in the into language. With prose, the utilitarian prose that we read most of the time, you have more or less something to say and you come up with words that seem to you to get at your thoughts with, you hope, increasing accuracy. With poetry, you may have something to say but you also have something to sing; and indeed, sometimes the singing bit comes first, the music preceding the meaning. Glance through a poet’s notebook and you will find ample proof of the preceding évidence (obvious fact, even head-slappingly obvious fact): possible rhyme schemes drawn up without any complete verse to show for it, or the lone poetic line or two jotted down because clearly they sound good and the poet may eventually place them somewhere else. I know of at least two beautifully fictionalized accounts of the workings of a poet’s mind, chapter three of Joyce’s Ulysses, when we are treated to Stephen Daedalus’s thoughts for quite some time as the young man wanders over the “seaspawn and seawrack” and “into eternity” on Sandymount strand; and various passages passim in Nabokov’s The Gift, when the young protagonist, the poet Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev, reflects on, for example, the very mechanics of versifying (and in the process begins composing a poem—he can’t help himself). Not surprisingly, phonetic effects—rhymes and lines of prose that in fact scan as verse—are as thick as those autumnal leaves strewing the rills and gills and kills of Vallombrosa.

In another clear and elegant example, chapter eleven of his wonderful autobiography Speak, Memory, Nabokov recreates years later in English the genesis of his first poem, no doubt in Russian, in the planished (as he terms it elsewhere) prose of his sterling grand style. There he claims that it is initially an image, a raindrop, a “globule of quicksilver” performing a “sudden glissando down the center vein of a leaf,” that gives rise to his first lyric. (Indeed, he stated in one of his “interviews”—he famously wrote out all of his answers—that he thought in images when writing, rather than in any one of the three languages he mastered.) In the passage, however, Nabokov makes lovingly clear that sounds, the simple rhyme scheme of what is shaping up to be a quatrain, are immensely important, if not primordial: “…having shed its bright load the relieved leaf unbent: Tip, leaf, dip, relief…”

Although he does not say it, we are left to imagine that with those two rhymes in place, ip and ief, all he had left to do then was to string the wire of some plausible meaning between the telephone poles of those four words. For example:

A trickle to the tip
Of a tiny mouse-eared leaf
Precipitates a dip
And brings a green relief.

A translator trying to do this ditty over into, say, French, already faces a number of difficulties—and this quaint quatrain isn’t even very complicated! There are the tee sounds of trickle, to, tip and tiny in the first two verses that make for a kind of tinkling rill-like run down to “mouse-eared.” There is the commanding presence of “precipitates,” whose four syllables make it the longest single word in the ditty. That and the internal rhyme of “precip-” and “dip” lend it a special emphasis. Indeed, it has here, dare I say, a certain gravitas (that’s Latin for you), a notion that goes well with an image in which the laws of gravity play such a central role. And why a green relief? One has to put that question to Andrew Marvell in “The Garden” (“Annihilating all that’s made/To a green thought in a green shade”). It is a possible intertextual echo that the translator has to be mindful of.

Now, while the French translator does have précipiter available to work into the translation, “tip” could be rendered as bout (pronounced a bit like boo), the vowel sound not at all like that of the daintier tip, evoking smaller things, tiny drips and tiny leaves. There is also extémité, but that has four syllables and would prove difficult to place. There is pointe, too, but unless one works a variant of the word pointe (appointe, chasse-pointe, etc.), the rhymes are not legion. This is true of feuille as well, the French for “leaf.” The rhymes are few. And how nice that “leaf” is completely embedded in “relief,” an effect that can only be replicated in French by turning to a variant on feuille, as it were, like the verb effeuiller, to pluck the petals of, to take the leaves from. All of these rhymes, by the way, point us in directions that are quite different from the general movement of sense that tip => dip and leaf => relief establish.

Change the first line of our lyric to “Quicksilver at the tip…” and the translator now has to take care to place two colors in the final translation, at the start and at the end. Go all recherché and make the second verse read “…Of a porraceous leaf” (the clear light green of leek leaves, which is indeed the color of some young leaves) and we also smuggle in an echo of the verb to pour, again a bit of flowing liquid in the background that adds to the overall impression. The French translator here is in a bind. Littré, the great nineteenth-century lexicographer, includes porracé in his dictionary (the term comes from histoire naturelle), but adjectives normally follow the nouns they modify in French (une feuille porracée) and the verse would no longer conclude on the very important “leaf,” with the line end suggesting a pause while the sense runs on into the next verse, mimicking in a way the tension of a drop of water now clinging, now falling from the tip of a leaf. And in any case, “to pour” is verser in French. That’s another tuft or two of hair forever uprooted.

Now add a facile punning title to the piece like “Spring Release” and you are going to draw a sigh of defeat from the French translator. The season of spring is printemps (the best and true “prime time,” the one really worth watching); on the other hand, a spring in the sense of a mechanism is a ressort in French, while the closest I can get to “spring release” is ressort de séparation, under “spring release device” in the on-line Grand dictionnaire terminologique out of Quebec (the field is said to be “astronautics,” moreover). Even a simple title like “Drop” has, given the poem’s contents, two major senses crouching for employment within, the idea of a bead of water, of course, and the idea of a fall, of a bead of water dropping. In French, the former is goutte, the latter chute or such verbs as tomber, chuter, or choir. In English, the two meanings exist in a quantum state, so to speak, both available, both applicable to the poem to come. In this case, it is the translator who is forced to “decide” the state of the title, tipping it over into one or the other sense. This notion that the translator sometimes faces a quantum-state meaning is an important one and deserves a posting of its own.

Finally, if we trick out our poem in lace ruff, doublet, trunk hose, and bombast for good measure,

Lo, the drop-heavy tip
Of motley April’s leaf
Bows slowly down to dip,
Then leaps in quick relief.

we give our translator additional reasons to despair. No, it’s not the musty wording here (“lo,” “motley,” and a compound construction like “drop-heavy”). That is a question of what is called register (recherché, formal, informal; obsolete, old, recent; bloviating, bureaucratic, belle-lettrist) and is usually not too difficult to solve. Good translators know the breadth of their into language; they can come up with an equivalent. It’s a matter of imitating a comparable style in one’s own language appropriate to the time and voice of the out-of text. I still recall with pride managing years ago to place the archaic verb form “shew” in the translation of a French text from the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century. The translator needn’t overdo it, of course (as I recall I strictly avoided in that text such obvious effects as seemingly whimsical Capitalisation and olde-style Spellings but indulged in a few dated expressions and one archaic verb form).

The new difficulties in the above reworked quatrain spring from the shift in vowels to a lower, and heavier as it were, sound, from the higher-pitched vowels of “trickle,” “tip” and “eared” in the first two verses of the original ditty, which tend to underscore tininess or daintiness; to the now deeper vowels, and in one case interior rhyme, of “lo” and “slowly” in particular, “down,” and “drop,” “motley” and “bows.” (In phonological terms, the general shift is from front vowels to back ones.) It’s as if a bit more weight has been added to the verse, stressing now the slow bending of the leaf before it springs back when the clinging drop finally slips from the tip. In a word, the first poem is more drip, the second more drop. A translator, again, has to be attentive to all that, and, as we have seen, the corresponding vocabulary in the into language may not cooperate at all. Finally, at the very start of the verse the “lo” Shakespearean pun, which is actually quite clever (in sonnet 7, “Lo, in the orient when the gracious light/Lifts up his burning head…”), is impossible to replicate in French, I think, although I would love to be proved wrong (bah, quips the French punster, but, no, that does not count…)

Wer den Dichter will verstehen
Muß in Dichters Lande gehen.

(He who the poet would understand
Must betake him to the poet’s land.)

Lovely place really. No visa required, not even a passport. One’s only papers, the heavily rewritten, slightly crumbled ones spilling from various pockets of the rumpled poet of popular imagination. A land of rills and gills and kills. Though beware: no one patch of that earth is like any other.

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