translating mallarme Points Illustrated

Need to understand the outlook, preconceptions and — most importantly— the writing strategies of the poet concerned.

Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujoud'hui

The poem, which opens with one of the most famous lines in French literature, has also the reputation of being very difficult. First, the original text:


Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujoud'hui
Va-t-il nous déchirer avec un coup d'aile ivre
Ce lac dur oublié que hante sous le givre
Le transparent glacier des vols qui n'ont pas fui!
Un cygne d'autrefois se souvient que c'est lui
Magnifique mais qui sans espoir se délivre
Pour n'avoir pas chanté la region ou vivre
Quand du stérile hiver a resplendi l'ennui.
Tout son col secouera cette blanche agonie
Par l'espace infligée a l'oiseau qui le nie,
Mais non l'horreur du sol où le plumage est pris.
Fantôme qu'à ce lieu son pur éclat assigne,
Il s'immobilise au songe froid de mépris
Que vêt parmi l'exil inutile le Cygne.

Other Translations

Many translations can be found, on the Internet:

Virgin, vivacious,
beautifully present day
- will it rend for us
with a beat of drunken wings
this hard lake beneath whose frost

haunts the transparent
glacier of flights never flown?
From days of old, one
swan recalls that it was he,
magnificent, without hope,
James Kirkup {2}

Will virginal, vibrant, beautiful today
shatter with a blow of its rapturous wing
this solid lost lake where beneath the frost haunts
the transparent glacier of unrealized flights
Daisy Aldan {3}

Virginal, vivid, beautiful, will this be
The day that shatters with a drunken wing
The lake beneath the frost, still mirroring
Flights that were never made, transparency?

A swan of old remembers that it is he,
Superb but helpless, for he would not sing
Of regions where life still was beckoning
When winter spread its sterile, cold ennui.
Louis Simpson {4}

The virginal, living and lovely day
Will it fracture for us with a drunken wing-blow
This solid lost lake whose frost’s haunted below
By the transparent glacier of flights not made?

A swan from time past remembers it’s he
Magnificent yet freeing himself hopelessly
Through not having sung of a liveable country
In the radiant boredom of winter’s sterility.
Tony Kline {5}

And in books:

This virginal long-living lovely day
will it tear from us with a wing's wild blow
the lost hard lake haunted beneath the snow
by clear ice-flights that never flew away!

A swan of old remembers it is he
superb but strives to break free woebegone
for having left unsung the territory
to live when sterile winter's tedium shone.
A. M. and E. H. Blackmore {6}

The virgin, bright, and beautiful to-day
Dare it now shatter with a drunken wing
This hard, forgotten lake, this ice where cling
These flights of mine that never flew away . . .
Once was a swan, remembers it is he,
Magnificent but hopeless in his strife,
For never having sung the realms of life
When winter shone in bleak sterility.
G.S. Fraser {7}

What is wrong with these? Well, some of Mallarmé's obscurity is conveyed: who or what is making the flights in line 4, for example? But where is Mallarmé's famed music, the creation of meaning {8} and mood {9} through the sounds of words and/or their connotations? We'd better look at the text.

Literal Translation

The literal translation is clear in outline, though there are difficulties in detail:

The virgin, vivid and beautiful today
Will it tear for us with a blow of its drunken wing
This hard, forgotten lake that haunts beneath the frost
The transparent glacier of flights that have not fled!
A swan of other times remembers that it is he
Magnificent but without hope of freeing himself
For not having sung the region where to live
When of the sterile winter glistened the tediousness.
His whole neck will shake off this white agony
By space inflicted on the bird which denies it
But not the horror of the soil in which his plumage is caught.
Phantom that to this place his pure brightness assigns,
It immobilizes itself in the cold dream of scorn
That clothes during the useless exile of the Swan.

First Draft

Nonetheless, a workmanlike translation comes easily:

Can the virgin, beautiful and vivid day
Release this frosted and forgotten lake,
With a drunk blow of wings to reel away
In névés of flights they have yet to make?
Without song or recognition, the image burns
Tediously into the surrounding cold.
Yet always the magnificence, and the long neck yearns
Beyond the white hardness of the winter's hold.
Fast though feathers be caught in soiling mud,
From a horror of life the bird sails on,
Cold and improbable in its own pure being,
A scorching pure whiteness in the glacial flood:
A dream wrapped in scorn, and a phantom, seeing
How futile is exile for the Swan.


An ababcdcdefgefg rhyme scheme has been substituted for the abbaabbaccdede of the original, and many licences taken with the prose sense. In more detail:

Lines 2-4: release substituted for tear, with a drunk blow of wings substituted for with a blow of its drunken wing; some of the i and v sounds kept but softened with more fs and gs; mystery retained as to what has not fled but, for Mallarmé's openness or lack of referent is substituted flights, wings and violence, i.e. the swan is more foreshadowed.
Lines 5-8: word order changed; more open sounds, almost orotund, are substituted for the continuing tight i, u and v sounds of the original; the sense of imprisonment is stronger in the original. {10}
Lines 9-14: Mallarmé's abstractions, particularly space and immobilization within it, are glossed over: for the involuted, sharpness of the original is substituted a flowing sense of movement; the murkiness of the last lines disappears in a radiant or 'scorching' whiteness.

Conclusion? The translation is more open than the original, but has subverted its overall intent. More damagingly, the translation is not a Symbolist poem — or not in the sense, say, that Wallace Stevens {11} understood the word — but a poem brought back into the mainstream of English poetry. And the reason is probably the translator's outlook. I am not in sympathy with much of the transcendental philosophy {12} of the period, nor with its renaissance as academic radical theory in 1980-90s America {13} {14} and the limitation — if it is a limitation — naturally shows. Successful translation needs a closer empathy with the personality, outlook and aims of the poet.

Further Attempts

Suppose we try again. The Swan is a Symbolist poem, where sound, connotation and the tight abbaabba rhyme scheme are important elements, but we can't evade the simple prose meanings of words. Perhaps we shouldn't translate aujoud'hui as 'day', or reverse the sense of line 10, etc. So:

The virgin, beautiful and vivid today
Will a wing-blow reeling and for our sake
Tear frost from this frozen and hidden lake
In clear ice-fall of flights yet to flee away?
A swan, here magnificent of another day,
Without song or issue, can never shake
The regions of thinking that these fetters make
But tediously glisten through the winter's stay.
Fast though the neck be caught in soiling mud,
Denying the agony of an earthly flood,
In brightness retracted to its own pure being,
To scorching white stillness not passing on:
A dream wrapped in scorn, and a phantom, seeing
How futile is exile for the Swan.

That's closer to the original, though the verse has suffered badly. An answer may be not get hung up on the actual words, but understand what the poet is saying, and then convey that meaning in similar strategies and imagery. For vierge we can use 'pristine', which is the more natural word in this setting — Mallarmé was being clever with adjectives, still an approach of contemporary poets. If we then introduce 'stake' we provide the link between the freshness of the day and the glacial purity of the lake, which the poem implies but Mallarmé (being a good Symbolist) removed. Line 4 is not then mysterious: it's simply conflating the frozen swan (which cannot/has yet to fly away) with the tumbled whiteness of a glacier, though Mallarmé added transparent to confuse or thicken the connotations.

Will the pristine, beautiful and present day
Tear with a wing-blow reeling its frozen stake
From a haunting beneath in this crystal lake
Of clear ice-falls of flights that the frosts withstay?

In the second quatrain, Mallarmé is comparing the swan when alive to its currently beautiful but immobile state, and so drawing a parallel with the poet's condition, at least as he saw it. Everyday existence (here winter) will crush the life out of poets, who cannot even sing (as swans are reputed to) in their death agony: a late Romantic conceit.

For all its magnificence of a former day
Without song or issue, it cannot shake,
This swan, from the fetters these regions make
But tediously glisten through the winter's stay.

Looking at the sextet, we should first remove our 'flood' and its rhyme 'mud'. Mallarmé is saying something different, that the bird is both yearning for freedom, and denying that it is imprisoned.

Despite the white agony, the whole neck yearns
For the spaces beyond, which this sentence spurns.

Lines 11 and 12 of the concluding quatrain need to be entirely recast:

Not from horror of soil is this plumage being
Entangled but brightness assigned and gone:
A dream wrapped in scorn, and a phantom, seeing
How futile is exile for the Swan.

But this rendering doesn't sound like Mallarmé, who had a gift for evocative phrases, beautiful and enigmatic, that sometimes survive translation ('The flesh is sad and I've read all the books') but here do not. We have no equivalent to le bel aujoud'hui, nor to the poem's i and ui sounds which recall the angular sharpness of the ice. Then there is ivre, contrived (as so much is) for the rhyme, but an ugly word in English, with unhelpful rhymes: chunk, skunk, hunk, junk, sunk, funk, etc. Nonetheless, we have to convey some of the original's features, and tighten the word meanings. One approach is to use a terser style of the sonnet, less beautiful, but more integrated:

Will the virginal and bright today
With the rapture of a wing-blow break
For us the haunting under this hard lake
The iced cascades of flights not fled away.

A swan, magnificent another day
Recalls itself, its freedom, cannot make
A song from regions here but only take
On sterile tediousness of winter's stay.

White the agony the neck denies
In a space inflicted the bird denies.

Not the horror trapping this plumed being,
From earth to phantomed brightness gone:
But scorn immobilized, its clothing, seeing
Futile is exile for the Swan.

We have assonance in i sounds, and Mallarmé's structure and prose sense, but have not rendered the famous first line. The mystery has gone, and the verse lacks proper integration of sound and phrasing. The problem may be the famous opening line, which translates into anapestic metre, and the French hexameter, which gives the poet more space to work with. The answer, I think, is to find our own arresting first line, and not be too slavish in finding English equivalents to Mallarmé's over-use of 'v's:

The fresh, the beautiful, vivacious day:
with wing-blow reeling can its brilliance wake
beneath this haunted, forgotten and frosted lake
the clear ice-falls of flights not yet fled away?

In past magnificence of thoughts today
the swan recaptures its freedom but cannot make
a song from surroundings, but only take
on the sterile, dull glint of the winter's stay.

Out of white agony the whole neck lies
in a space inflicted that the bird denies.

Cold and immobile in its feathered being,
not in horror of earth but to brightness gone,
as a dream wrapped in scorn, and a phantom, seeing
how ineffectual is exile for the Swan.

Here I'll leave the matter for the present. Not a wholly successful rendering, but perhaps a bit better than previous efforts.

Notes and References

1. Squaring the circle: Stéphane Mallarmé. John Simon. Jan. 1995. NNA. Review and biography in The New Criterion.
2. Sonnet: Stéphane Mallarmé. James Kirkup's version in tanka form.
3. Daisy Aldan translation. NNA. Now on CD or tape only.
4. Louis Simpson translation. NNA. Anthologie Française page.
5. Tony Kline translation. One of 30 Mallarmé translations on the site.
6. 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), 287. Q
7. G.S. Fraser in Peter France and Duncan Glen, eds., European Poetry in Scotland: An Anthology of Translations, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1989), 52.
8. David Halliburton, The Fateful Discourse of Worldly Things (Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 1997), 236. Q
9. Louis MacNeice, Modern Poetry: A Personal Essay (London: Oxford University Press, 1938), 102. Q
10. Unfolding Mallarme: The Development of a Poetic Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 168. Q
11. David Michael Hertz, Angels of Reality: Emersonian Unfoldings in Wright, Stevens, and Ives (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1993), 73. Q
12. Stephen Adam Schwartz, Was Mallarme a Transcendental Philosopher?: The Place of Literature in the 'Divagations, The Romanic Review 89, no. 1 (1998) Q
13. Dianna C. Niebylski, The Poem on the Edge of the Word: The Limits of Language and the Uses of Silence in the Poetry of Mallarme, Rilke, and Vallejo (New York: Peter Lang, 1993), 1.
14. Mallarmé, Stéphane, and French Symbolism. James A. Winders .
. Extended article with good bibliography.
15. Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898) 2003. Books and Writers entry.
16. Stéphane Mallarmé. Helpful introduction.
17. Herodiade. Cris Hassold. NNA. Exposition of poem and Mallarmé's aims generally.
18. Hexameter. NNA. Useful guide to versification, in French and English.
19. Against moderism. NNA.

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.


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