translating verlainePoints Illustrated

1. The difficulties of short line rhyming.

2. Approaching through rhythm.

3. Advantages of free verse.

Chanson d'Automne

Chanson d'Automne from Paul Verlaine's Poèmes saturniens (1867) has never wanted for translators:

Arthur Symons: {1}

When a sighing begins
In the violins
Of the autumn-song,
My heart is drowned
In the slow sound
anguorous and long

Pale as with pain,
Breath fails me when
The hours tolls deep.
My thoughts recover
The days that are over
And I weep.

And I go
Where the winds know,
Broken and brief,
To and fro,
As the winds blow
A dead leaf.

And some later attempts: the first stanzas, as permitted by copyright:

The long sobs of
The violins
Of autumn
Lay waste my heart
With monotones
Of boredom. {2}

The sobbing winds
Of violins
of autumn drone,
Wound my heart,
Languors start
In monotone. {3}

The autumn's throbbing
Strings moan, sobbing,
Drone their dole;
Long-drawn and low,
Each tremolo
Sears my soul. {4}

Violins complain
Of autumn again,
They sob and moan.
And my heartstrings ache
Like the song they make,
A monotone. {5}

The long sobs
of autumn's
wound my heart
with a monotonous
languor. {6}

Long moans on autumn's
saxophones - wound my heart with
languor's monotones {7}

The long moan
Of the violins
Of autumn
Rends my heart
With a languorous
Monotone. {8}

Autumn begins
With violins
Of lament,
Wounding my breast
With dull, oppressed
Discontent. {9}

Frankly, only the Symons piece is acceptable verse, free or otherwise.

Looking at the Original

The original is very simple, which causes the trouble:

Les saglots longs
Des violons
De l'automne
Blessent mon coeur
D'une langueur

Tout suffocant
Et blême, quand
Sonne l'heure,
Je me souviens
Des jours anciens
Et je pleure;

Et je m'en vais
Au vent mauvais
Qui m'emporte
Deçà, delà,
Pareil à la
Feuille morte.

A literal rendering:

The long sobs
Of the violins
Of autumn
Wound my heart
With a languor

All suffocating
And pale when
The hour strikes
I remember
The old days
And weep

And I go away
In the ill wind
that carries me off
This side and beyond
Like the
Dead leaf.

Literal Rendering

The verse is so spare that perhaps it's best to make very few changes to the literal:

In autumn
The long sobs
Of the violins
Wound my heart,
A languorous,


Pale when
The hour strikes
I remember
Past days
And weep

And go away
In the ill wind
Carried off
Hither and ever
Like a
Dead leaf.


Rhyming Version: First Attempts

If we work straight from the above we'll probably get something like:

The sobs in
The violin
Show autumn's flown.
In hurt's tears
The heart hears
A monotone.

The suffocated, pale
The hours exhale,
The past times creep,
Count and fall
As I recall
Their pain and weep.

I go away
In the wind's say:
Bereft and brief,
Hither and yon,
Carried as the wan
Dead leaf.

Which is only goodish in parts.

Getting the Musicality

We have lost the musicality, the closed, heavy sounds, the delicate interlacing of single and feminine rhymes. Let's see what we can do with the rhythm.

First we should acknowledge the poverty of English equivalents. There is nothing to match the closed, dead sounds of feuille morte, the reverberation of l'automne, or the rightness of Et je m'e vais / Au vent mauvais, etc. Even violins has an echo very different from our thin English pronunciation. We can't replace violins with strings or instruments without losing the particular resonance of the word, and circumlocution is the last thing wanted in so direct and musical a piece. What we can do is to muffle the sound with excess consonants and assonance, however, and aim for something of Verlaine's slow, dropping rhythm:

Are autumn violins
That bring a
Pain to the heart.

Bleached of importance,
Tolled and pale,
Slowly the hours
Strike out the past.
Suffocating, I
Recall and weep.

One with the wind
Tossed out to fall,
Uselessly carried
Hither and thither
One with the lifeless
Faded leaf.

We are then within striking distance of rhyme:

Inconsolable winds
Bring violins,
And autumn's part
Is monotonous
And languorous,
Pain to the heart-

Suffocating, pale
Halting and stale
Slowly hours creep,
Gather and fall
As I recall
Past days and weep.

Tossed this way
And that as winds may,

One with the grief
Hither and yon
Carried and gone,
Dead the leaf.

If we were a stickler for form, we'd notice that the original stanza's third and sixth lines have feminine endings, and possibly write something like:

In autumn's winds
Of violins,
The sounds are making
A monotonous
And languorous
Heart acheing.

Suffocating, pale,
Carried stale,
Frail to our keeping,
The hours fall
And I recall
Past days, weeping.

Tossed this way
And that as may
The wind in leaving:
Hither and yon,
The last leaf gone,
And year grieving.

But the feminine ending in French is not a distinct unstressed syllable, and the previous rhymed version may be better.

Notes and References

1. Arthur Symons, Poems (2 vols. First Collected Edition. 1902)
2. Paul L. Verlaine, and Martin H. Sorrell, Selected Poems (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1999), 25. Q
3. Tatiana Greene, "Avatars Multilingues d'Un Poème De Verlaine," Symposium 38, no. 2 (1984): 116. Q
4. John Simon, "Victimized Verlaine," New Criterion, June 1999, 29. Review of One Hundred and One Poems by Paul Verlaine, translated by Norman R. Shapiro. Q
5. Autumn Song. Translator unknown. Accessed 28 Jun 2004.
6. The Long Sobs. Translator Peter Low 2000. NNA. Accessed 28 Jun 2004.
7. Song of Autumn: haiku form. Translator James Kirkup. Accessed 28 Jun 2004.
8. Song of Autumn. Translator Herbert Lomas. Accessed 28 Jun 2004.
9. Autumn Dirge. Translator Watson Kirkconnell. 1928. Accessed 28 Jun 2004.


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

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