translating rimbaudPoints Illustrated

1. Deriving an English hexameter: its virtues and difficulties.

2. Undoing the tangles of a literal translation: licences taken.

Arthur Rimbaud: Mémoire

First the French:


L'eau claire; comme le sel des larmes d'enfance,
L'assaut au soleil des blancheurs des corps de femmes ;
la soie, en foule et de lys pur, des oriflammes
sous les murs dont quelque pucelle eut la défense ;

l'ébat des anges ; - Non... le courant d'or en marche,
meut ses bras, noirs, et lourds et frais surtout,
d'herbe. Elle, sombre, ayant le ciel bleu pour ciel-de-lit,
appelle pour rideaux l'ombre de la colline et de l'arche.


Eh ! l'humide carreau tend ses bouillons limpides !
L'eau meuble d'or pâle et sans fond les couches prêtes.
Les robes vertes et déteintes des fillettes
font les saules, d'où sautent les oiseaux sans brides.

Plus pure qu'un louis, jaune et chaude paupière
le souci d'eau - ta foi conjugale, ô l'Épouse ! -
au midi prompt, de son terne miroir, jalouse
au ciel gris de chaleur la Sphère rose et chère.


Madame se tient trop debout dans la prairie
prochaine où neigent les fils du travail ; l'ombrelle
aux doigts ; foulant l'ombelle ; trop fière pour elle ;
des enfants lisant dans la verdure fleurie

leur livre de maroquin rouge ! Hélas, Lui, comme
mille anges blancs qui se séparent sur la route,
s'éloigne par delà la montagne ! Elle, toute
froide et noire, court ! après le départ de l'homme !


Regrets des bras épais et jeunes d'herbe pure !
Or des lunes d'avril au cœur du saint lit !
Joie des chantiers riverains à l'abandon,
en proie aux soirs d'août qui faisaient germer ces pourritures !

Qu'elle pleure à présent sous les remparts ! l'haleine
des peupliers d'en haut est pour la seule brise.
Puis, c'est la nappe, sans reflets, source grise :
un vieux, dragueur, dans sa barque immobile, peine.


Jouet de cet œil d'eau morne, je n'y puis prendre,
ô canot immobile ! oh ! bras trop courts ! ni l'une
ni l'autre fleur ; ni la jaune qui m'importune,
là ; ni la bleue, amis, à l'eau couleur de cendre.

Ah ! la poudre des saules qu'une aile secoue !
Les roses des roseaux dès longtemps dévorées !
Mon canot toujours fixe ; et sa chaîne tirée
Au fond de cet œil d'eau sans bords , - à quelle boue ?

And then a first stab at a translation (letters note departure from a literal translation: discussed below):


Clear water, like the salt of childhood tears;
The white of women's bodies opened in the sun, a
And truth, beyond its walls and oriflammes, won
Out with the valour of a maid pure in her years.

The frolic of angels — no — a moving flood of gold
With arms heavy, black, above all, coolness of the grass,
Having the blue of Heaven for the sky's bed, to pass b
Under the curtain of shadow to the arch and hill's fold.


Under the water, the stones extend as in clear broth,
The water spreads out its prepared beds of pale gold,
The dresses of girls are translucent, as green as mould,
And willows, out of which the unfettered birds hop.

More complete than eyelid or the warmth of a gold louis, c
Is the shrift of water, retelling its wedding vows, d
Jealous though at prompt noon, at the tarnish of day's drouse
To the mirrored sphere, pink, grey, dear to us. e


Too upright is Madam in the meadow's splendoured glass. f
She watches the sons of toil snow round as a white cloud, g
In her fingers she twirls her parasol, tramples it, too proud
For her are the children reading in the flowered grass

Their books in red morocco. But he, alas, has bent
As on all paths a thousand angels separate the way,
Beyond the mountain, and she, if not to stay h
Overcast and cold, must take the route as sent.


Regret of arms satiated and celibate,
Saintliness of beds on moonlit April nights,
The joy raining down on abandoned river sites,
The rotting August evenings that in these germinate.

Under walls let her weep now: the breaths possess
Care only for the poplars, high up in the breeze alone;
The surface is grey, unglinting, and as quiet as stone: i
An old dredger labours in a boat quite motionless.


Plaything of this eye of sad waters that nothing hinders j
In my boarding of this still boat, O arms too short!
Not this flower or that, which is yellow, however sought,
Or the blue one, friends, in waters grey as cinders.

Ah, for the powder of the willows, the plume of blood k
In wings, roses from the reeds dragged from time's jaws!
The boat does not move although the chain draws
On through a water-logged eye, without banks: what mud!


Other Translations

For comparison, here are three translations of the first couple of stanzas: {1}


Clear water; like the salt of childhood tears;
The assault in the sunlight of the whiteness of women's bodies;
The silk of banners, in masses and of pure lily,
Under the walls whose defense a maid held;

The play of angels, — no . . . the golden current in progress,
Moves its arms, black, heavy, and above all cool, of grass. The water
Dark, having the blue sky for the sky's bed, calls up
For curtains the shadows of the hill and arch. {2}


Clear water: stinging like the child’s salt tears,
Whiteness of women’s bodies attacking the sun:
Silk, en masse and pure lily, Oriflammes
Under walls the Maid defended without fear:

Dancing of angels: - No…the gold current slid
Moving its dark arms, tired, cool above all, and green.
She, sombre, having the blue Heavens for canopy,
Summoned as curtains the arch and the hill’s shade. {3}


Bright water: like the salty tears of infancy;
assault upon the sun of women's brilliant flesh,
the lily oriflammes that spread their silken mesh
by walls to whose defence some Joan possessed the key;

the sport of angels; no . . . see the gold current march.
moving its arms of grass, thick, black and cool.
Meanwhile the grass, sky-canopied and with a darkling smile,
insists on curtains, for her shade, from hill and arch. {4}


Aims of Translation

What do readers expect? Some feel that, whatever else a translation attempts, it must be poetry. Ideally, the translation should have the same appeal in the translated language as the original enjoyed in its own language. And if new words have to be introduced, or original words left out, then so be it. Yet for others, such an approach is anathema. They wish to read the poem in the original language and look to the translation to facilitate that process — when the plainer the rendering the better. Both aims have their strengths, and supporters. {5}

In this exercise we attempt the first aim. Though Rimbaud is difficult — sudden juxtapositions, unexplained characters, and ambiguities of meaning {6} — he is not that difficult, at least in this poem. A good translation will not stumble at the difficulties, but try to weave them in to get a pleasing density of meaning. Certainly we shall have to appreciate what Rimbaud was attempting (or refuting) in the tradition of French verse, but a poem without ambiguities or overtones would not be worth rereading.

One concession we will make, however, is the rendering of the hexameter, the staple of French verse. Normally, the English pentameter would be used — for reasons of ease, expectations, long tradition. Here we shall develop an English hexameter, with rhyme, and attempt to turn this usually ungainly creature into something supple and expressive, remembering that Rimbaud's evocations of childhood are some of the most vivid in French literature.

Specific Problems

A first attempt is given above, and the reader must judge how well the aims have been achieved. For non-French speakers, the accompanying letters note the licences taken in the translation, which are not many. The one major problem of understanding is the stanza:

leur livre de maroquin rouge ! Hélas, Lui, comme
mille anges blancs qui se séparent sur la route,
s'éloigne par delà la montagne ! Elle, toute
froide et noire, court ! après le départ de l'homme !

For which a literal rendering is:

their book in red morocco. Alas, he, like
thousand white angels that separate on the way,
Goes off behind the mountain ! She, all
cold and black, runs off ! after the departure of the man !

What man, what mountain, and what she? And why black, if not simply to make the neat phrase froide et noire? No one knows, though much has been written. {6} Unless Rimbaud is making an allusion to slavery in the US cotton fields, which is possible and I have accepted in the final version, it seemed best to ignore black and suppose that the 'she' is a French woman with the relationship troubles experienced by Rimbaud's mother, who may indeed be the 'she'.

Improved Version

The translation above generally makes sense, and reproduces some of Rimbaud's striking lines. To complete the process, and make something more specifically English, we could write:


Clear water, like the salt of childhood tears:
The white of women's bodies opened in the sun,
And truth, beyond walls or the silk oriflammes, won
Out with the valour of a maid pure in her years.

The frolic of angels in their moving blaze of gold,
Imponderable arms sparkling with the coolness of the grass,
And the blues of Heaven taking up their beds to pass
Under the canopy of shade into the arch and hill's fold.


The stones, under the water, extend as in a clear broth,
And depths, freckled in prepared beds of pale gold,
And frocks of girls, loosely faded, as green as mould,
And willows, and hopping birds, unfettered, woven in the day's cloth.

Round as the eyelid, with the warmth of a gold Louis,
Blooms the marsh marigold, fresh in its wedding vows.
The mirror at prompt noon, jealous of the day's drouse
Tarnishes into a sphere, heat-flecked and dear to us.


Too upright is Madam in the meadow's rippled glass.
The sons of toil are in the cotton-fields falling as a white cloud.
In her fingers she twirls her parasol, tramples it, too proud
To watch her children reading in the flowered grass

Their books in red morocco. Of what they think or dream —
As on all paths a thousand angels flare upon the day —
Of hopes lost in high mountains, she cannot follow; her way
Is overcast and cold, as is the shadowed stream.


Regret of arms satiated and celibate,
Sainted, straight white beds on moonlit April nights,
And the tear-wet joy falling on abandoned river sites,
And the rotting evenings in August that these germinate.

Under walls let her weep now: the winds possess
Only the high poplars, their motions tremulously sown.
Underneath in lead, unglinting, weighed with stone,
An old dredger labours, the small boat motionless.


Flotsam, plaything of these waters that nothing hinders,
A boat beholden to stillness, and with arms too short,
And flowers blue or yellow, not then ever sought,
And breath now spread upon a water dull as cinders.

And for all that there are willows, powder, the plume of blood
That would drag out roses from reedbeds of time's jaws,
The boat stays here, unmoving, and the chain draws
On the eye, water-heavy and deep in the unbanked mud.


Improved Version: Assessment

I don't suppose this will be acceptable to everyone. Purists will be particularly outraged by the frequent deviations from the original, the interpolations, and the glossing over of difficulties inherent in Rimbaud's work. But I would make three points.

1. The difficulties can be overdone: with a little rewriting the poem is perfectly clear, and we seem sometimes to be prizing Modernism, of which this was a forerunner, for its difficulties rather than despite them.

2. The hexameter can be made to work in English: we don't have to put up with such things as:

Verses so modulate, so tuned, so varied in accent,
Rich with unexpected changes, smooth, stately sonorous {7}

the (splendid in its way):

As the breath in the buds that stir is her bridal breath:
But Fate is the name of her; and his name is Death, {8}

or (the rather Edwardian):

Grant, O regal in bounty, a subtle and delicate largesse;
Grant an ethereal alms, out of the wealth of thy soul {9}

3. The metre here is so varied and unemphatic as to verge on free verse. Six stresses can be recognized in each line, but they are not regular or briskly struck:

Clear | water || like the salt of childhood tears:
The white of women's bodies | opened in the sun,
And truth | beyond walls | or the silk oriflammes |won
Out with the valour of a maid | pure in her years.

The verse has a rather slow, eddying motion: compare with the stanza recast in strict pentameters:

Clear water, like the salt of childhood tears:
The white of bodies opened in the sun,
And further than walls or oriflammes, truth won
With valour of a maid so pure in years.

The hexameter form is infinitely to be preferred, but doubtless a better pentameter version could be written. The final (hexameter) version is here.

Notes and References

1. Popular translations include those by Wyatt Mason (Modern Library, 2003), Paul Schmidt (HarperPerennial, 1994) and Oliver Bernard (Penguin, 1987): none available on line.
2. Wallace Fowlie, Rimbaud: Complete Works, (University of Chicago, 1966).
3. Memory. Translator A.S. Kline 2002.
4. Norman Cameron, Poems from Rimbaud (Hogarth Press, 1942), 61.
5. E.g. Eugene Chen Eoyang, The Transparent Eye: Reflections on Translation, Chinese Literature, and Comparative Poetics (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1993), 196-209, and Douglas Robinson, What Is Translation? Centrifugal Theories, Critical Interventions (Kent State Univ Press, 1997). Q
6. W. M. Frohock, Rimbaud's Poetic Practice: Image and Theme in the Major Poems (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963), 145. Q
7. James Spedding, quoted in Egerton Smith, Principles of English Verse (Westport, Greenwood Press, 1970) 151.
8. Algernon Charles Swinburne, Atalanta in Calydon. NNA. Accessed on 1 Jul 2004.
9. Sir William Watson, Hymn to the Sea. 1895. NNA. Accessed Jul 2004.
10. Hexameter. NNA. Useful guide to versification, in French and English.

The departures from a literal rendering were designed to untangle some of the syntax, and meet the rhyming requirements (the latter also being Rimbaud's concern, only too obviously at times).

a Literally assault in the sunlight from the whiteness of women's bodies — rendering avoids the pun salt and assault. Truth also added to clarify the sense.
b. Literally calls for curtains of shade: rendering preserves the sense of the river flowing under the shadow of arch and hill.
c. Literally more yellow than a louis (gold coin), pure and warm eyelid: general sense retained.
d. Literally water marigold/jet of water — your conjugal faith, O Spouse: more declamatory than is comfortable in English.
e. Literally Of the sky grey with heat the rose and precious/expensive sphere: rendering simplifies and emphasizes dear.
f. Rendering adds splendoured glass: original just says meadows. Corrected to meadow's praire scene in final version.
g. Literally Next to where snow the sons of toil: rendering amplifies sense.
h. Literally She, all / cold and black runs off! after the man's departure — an enigmatic line, discussed above.
i. Literally grey source: rendering adds stone to make the rhyme.
j. Small departure from the sense: literally eye that I can take / O immobile small boat: rendered eye that nothing hinders / In my boarding this small boat
k. An addition: literally that a wing shakes, rendered as the plume of blood / In wings to meet the rhyme.


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

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