translating ronsardIntroduction

1. alternative approaches to translation.

Sonnet XXII

Readers appalled at the amount of work sometimes necessary to translate a poem may wonder if there is not an easier route. Sometimes, yes. Here is a Ronsard sonnet from from Le Premier Livre des Sonnets Pour Helene. {1} It's a typical Renaissance piece:

Puis qu'elle est tout hyver, toute la mesme glace,
Toute neige, et son cœur tout armé de glaçons,
Qui ne m'aime sinon pour avoir mes chansons,
Pourquoy suis-je si fol que je ne m'en delace?

Dequoy me sert son nom, sa grandeur et sa race,
Que d'honneste servage, et de belles prisons?
Maistresse, je n'ay pas les cheveux si grisons,
Qu'une autre de bon cœur ne prenne vostre place.

Amour, qui est enfant, ne cele verité.
Vous n'estes si superbe, ou si riche en beauté,
Qu'il faille desdaigner un bon cœur qui vous aime.

R'entrer en mon Avril desormais je ne puis:
Aimez moy, s'il vous plaist, grison comme je suis,
Et je vous aimeray quand vous serez de mesme.


The piece is printed in Quainton and Vinestock's excellent Pierre de Ronsard: Selected Poems, {2} and their prose translation is already half way to poetry:

Since she is all winter, all sheer ice, all snow,and her heart armoured all around with icicles, since she loves me only so that she can receive my songs, why am I am so foolish that I do not free myself from her?

What good to me is her name, her greatness and her ancestry, other than to provide honourable bondage and beautiful prisons? Beloved, my hair is not so grey that someone else would not take your place with a glad heart.

Love, who is a child, does not conceal the truth. You are not so grand, or so richly endowed with beauty, that you should scorn a true heart that loves you.

I cannot now return to the April of my life; love me, I beg you, grey-haired as I am, and I will love you when you are in the same state.

There are no difficult rhymes to find, and the translation comes easily:

Since she is ever winter, ice and snow,
and is with icicles so ringed around
and loves not me but how my verses sound,
why then be foolish and not let her go?

What good to me that name and lineage show
how honourably I am in prison bound?
Beloved: grey is not that thickly found
that none but you would gladly take me so.

Though love's a child it cannot hide its eyes
and say in looks and state your greatness lies
that you may spurn this heart's most honest vow.

Love me, though my April years are fled,
and I, with grey hair sprent upon my head,
will love the you become as I am now.

The hexameter version lets us vary the tempo and more fully capture the meaning:

Since she is ever winter to me, ice and snow,
and is with icicles completely kirtled round
and loves not me but only how my verses sound,
why then indulge in foolishness, not let her go?

What good to me that name and state and lineage show
how honourably and sweetly I'm in prison bound?
There's no such grey, beloved, on this old head found
that you alone of all would gladly take me so.

A child is love, no doubt, but cannot hide his eyes
and say in lofty state and looks your grandeur lies
that you with contumely may spurn this heart's true vow.

So love me, though the April of my years is fled,
I beg of you, with grey hairs sprent upon my head,
and I will love the same a you as I am now.

How easily? About an hour's work — provided we have experience in writing sonnets. I hesitate to say this, but translators who cannot write a decent sonnet in English should not attempt Ronsard. Those that do have the verse skills, however, and, like a professional dancer, keep them up by constant practice, will find these formal exercises far easier than recasting the content in a form for which it was never designed. Ronsard's relationship with Hélène de Surgère was hedged about by conventions, and the directness of free verse styles only poses questions that the originals cannot answer.

Notes and References

1. Puis qu'elle est tout hyver, toute la mesme glace.,_toute_la_mesme_glace

2. Pierre de Ronsard: Selected Poems. Malcolm Quainton and Elizabeth Vinestock. (Penguin Books, 2002).


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


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A 568-page free pdf ebook on practical verse writing is available from Ocaso Press. Click here for the download page.