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On Translating Apollinaire

Alcools: Poems 1898-1913

by Guillaume Apollinaire, translated by William Meredith, Introduction and notes by Francis Steegmuller
Doubleday, 242 pp., $4.95

A spate of books about Apollinaire in recent years has almost nudged him alongside the other French heavy-weights since Baudelaire: Rimbaud, Mallarmé, and Valéry. It has been no handicap that he can beat them all, except Rimbaud, when it comes to biographical glamor. He is probably best known as the bohemian writer imprisoned as a suspected accomplice in the theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911, and as the poet whose published volumes eliminate punctuation and at the end include word drawings called calligrammes. Yet his poetry remains little known in English in spite of his growing reputation. The qualities of his work are not easily conveyed in translation or literary studies.

The most cautious thing to say of this collection is that it marks a sensitive point of transition between Symbolism and Surrealism in French poetry. Indeed this double loyalty declares itself in the composition of several poems that sandwich long passages of free verse between an opening and a closing section in regular verse. But Alcools can stand on its own feet, not because its biographical allusiveness makes it a “veritable novel” as Francis Steegmuller concludes in his final note for this translation, but because Apollinaire, having drunk the world like an eau-de-vie, can convey the heat and sting of that liquor in his language. His lyricism of immediate reality, outer and inner, bursts forth in all directions and passes through an endlessly renewed cycle of enthusiasm and despair. His own terminology seems a little grandiose: poet of Order and Adventure. It is simpler and truer to say that in his village there is always a sunny and a shady side of the street. He keeps crossing and recrossing like a restless child until he finally disappears, or multiplies to fill the whole street with his alternate selves, or turns up again as a forlorn wanderer heavy with wisdom.

A la fin tu es las de ce monde ancien

In the end you are weary of this ancient world.

So begins the first poem, “Zone.” But that declamatory alexandrine (it ceases to be one as soon as one has read further) turns out to be the opposite of the truth, for Apollinaire in his endless quest for himself tires of nothing and finds equal inspiration in religion and aviation, in the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Eiffel Tower. The falsest note of all is his self pity and yearning for the indulgence of future generations. Such passages reveal his greatest weakness: the incapacity to prune his work.

So here we have what the squeeze of the literary market place can deliver only too infrequently: a translation by a poet (William Meredith was chosen for the Yale Younger Poets Series in 1944 and has published two collections since) of a complete volume of poems with lasting literary merit. Meredith states his strategy as a translator thus: “I have tried, when I had to alter the sense, to pay very close attention to tone and imagery, and I hope I have not softened but only diverted the energy of the original.” Yet where does the energy go? Meredith’s poems do not compete strenuously with Apollinaire’s; he rarely offers on the right-hand page new and independent versions that hold their own against the strong opposition they face. I cannot imagine anyone choosing to memorize these English verses as French school children and adults memorize the originals. Is the test too hard? The fact remains, they are softened. Meredith has written faithful, sensitive translations with a curious halting quality that arises in part out of a major decision he failed to make correctly.

In a celebrated gesture of audacity and petulance with printer’s errors, Apollinaire deleted all punctuation from the proofs of Alcools. In so doing, he created one of the book’s principal characteristics: a naked and streamlined exterior that covers a traditional interior. Maintaining that in English the same purge would lead to confusion or mannerism, Meredith punctuates his translations and thus must fence off phrases that can be assembled in various ways in the French. Without punctuation, the poetry flows in all directions—across lines, back into itself, almost uphill. To put all the dams and locks and channels back in impedes the current without building up any meaningful pressure. Apollinaire’s action, though apparently arbitrary and whimsical, followed logically in his evolution toward an integrity of line and stanza, and also harmonizes with the monotonous and uninflected way in which he read his poems for early phonograph records. Meredith’s decision to punctuate also helps explain his failure to develop any workable equivalent of Apollinaire’s undistinguished but assertive alexandrines. The English does not show sufficient contrast between regular verse and improvised conversational style.

Mirabeau Bridge” will illustrate several of my strictures. The commas and periods in the English obstruct the movement of both sound and sense, and Apollinaire’s gentle endstopping has been lost. In his opening note, Meredith refers to the “classic misreading” in the first stanza here, meaning that “et nos amours” must be read as belonging exclusively to the following clause because an early published version punctuates it so. (Also “coule” is singular.) But does that bind us? An essential attitude toward poet and poetry is implied by Apollinaire’s having released the lines from such regimentation and allowed “et nos amours” to become a pivot for the stanza and to face two ways. It is a misreading not to understand that both constructions belong, and that the little flickering of sense should not be stilled by misplaced scholarship.

Not until the final stanza of “Mirabeau Bridge” does the English match the delicate riming and gliding of the French. But is matching what this poem asks for? No, much much more. And Meredith knows it well enough to have introduced clear evidence of what he can do when he draws on his own poetic invention to possess and triumph over the French. Just look at the subtle changes he rings on the refrain, something an ordinary translator, out of laziness or respect, would never attempt. The third and fourth verses in English prove that Meredith is capable of a stroke of genius when his sensibility rules him. Their terseness expresses a delicacy of feeling that would go soft in a long slow line like the French.

There are other strong pages: the songs that divide the sections of “Song of the Poorly Loved” and some portions of the poem proper, and almost all the “Rhénanes.” But the volume as a whole is patchy and unfortunately suggests a poet stuck with the task of having to translate a lot of verse he might read with interest yet not seek to incorporate into his own idiom. As a result these pages vacillate between a scrupulous trot and poems in English “after” Apollinaire. Naturally I differ with Meredith over a great many interpretations, yet the volume is little marred by painful howlers and misprints. In a few instances an essential element has been distorted. The “love” referred to in the brief preamble of “Song of the Poorly Loved” is not a “he” but an “it” for the sentiment (p. 19). A “shark” appears inappropriately in the refrain of the same poem, evidently to provide a rime (p. 25). “A formless tale,” the fast words of “Cortège” in English, complete the rime once again but betray the principal theme of the poem about the clear form and meaning of the past (p. 75). In “Lul de Faltenin” the line should be “Suddenly turned into a medusa” (p. 125). “Feu” in the third line of “The Brazier” surely means not “fire” as it does two lines earlier but “former” or “late” as in the expression “feu le roi” (p. 145). And in several places a gratuitous “then” or “and” loosens both syntax and rhythm.

Since this volume arrives fifty years late, one wonders how much of Apollinaire’s spirit has reached us in the interval through other passages: Pound, the English critic F.S. Flint, MacLeish, and e.e cummings. A good deal probably. And even more interesting cases are those of Louis Zukofski, who with René Taupin in 1934 wrote an analysis and passionate defense called Le Style Apollinaire, and Allen Ginsburg, who has tucked away in several of his poems what I consider the best Apollinaire in English. Through these two, a portion of Apollinaire’s conversational-incantatory style has found its resonance in American poetry. Meredith’s new translation of Alcools gives a more balanced and less exciting view of Apollinaire than theirs at a time when we no longer turn to Europe for lessons in experimentation and literary freedom.

NOTE: Fifteen years ago, when there was no biography of him in English or French and no collection of translations, I published Selected Writings of Apollinaire (New Directions). That volume, which included about a quarter of Alcools, unveiled some of the classic bloomers of the century; they continue to haunt me. Meredith is more accurate. No meaningful comparison of the poems we both try our hands at is possible here, though in the proper place such an exercise is valuable and great fun. On looking back I am surprised to discover that many of my versions are freer than Meredith’s. Using no punctuation, I had to work as close as I could to Apollinaire’s rhythm and jettisoned rime and sometimes imagery. And I discover something else far more important than our different angles of vision. We were both victimized by a convention of contemporary publishing that I have never seen effectively challenged.

In my “Translator’s Note” (1948) I wrote as follows:

The verse translations herein should be able to stand alone as poems in the English language. However, they must serve the equally important purpose of helping the reader whose French is uncertain to follow the original text—or rather, of forcing him to refer to the left-hand page out of a natural dissatisfaction with what is on the right-hand page. By the curiosity and exasperation they provoke, verse translations make us aware of the contents of the two languages involved and oblige us to acknowledge what is untranslatable in poetry.

Today, and particularly after having read Meredith’s Alcools, I must reverse my position 180 degrees on every statement in that paragraph except the first—in respect to literary translation, that is. Obviously students and scholars going about certain essentially linguistic tasks must be able to refer back and forth rapidly between texts in an activity that sometimes resembles watching a tennis game. We have there one useful category of translation, but I am talking about something else. Why do we have an en face text for the poet-translator as well? Do we really need it? How did it get there? Such a format, now standard publishing practice for poetry established by the well-meant insistence of the powerful scholarly community during the past few decades, sets up the original to stare implacably across at its offspring and all too often to suffocate the poet in the translator. It obliges him to think more often of a finished poem in a foreign language than of a nascent one in his own. And even if the poet emerges victorious from this duel, the reader may still be hypnotized by the format into the old tennis game of split reading that prevents him from entering fully into the flow of either version.

My conclusion is categorical and emphatic. In translations of poetry by poets intended to be read as poetry, let’s throw out the original altogether, welcome all the risks that such liberation entails, unclutter the format, and cut costs to boot. If for some reason the original is not available to those who really want it (and don’t just think they ought to want it), it could be kept under wraps in an appendix. We may not bring about either better or more translations of foreign poetry this way. But we will at least clear the air and know whether we hold in our hands a volume of poetry in English or an accurate trot for specialists. The distinction is crucial for the craft of translation. Meredith and I made the same mistake. We tried to do two things at once: to be faithful to the French and to be free in English. You might approach such a feat by reversing your field from poem to poem, but what a muddle of a book it would make. No, we must choose between pony or poetry, and as one of the guilty in the past I protest that we are far too often being sold the former when we should insist on the latter.

LE PONT MIRABEAU

Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine Et nos amours Faut-il qu’il m’en souvienne
La joie venait toujours après la peine

Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure Les jours s’en vont je demeure

Les mains dans les mains restons face à face Tandis que sous Le pont de nos bras passe
Des éternels regards l’onde si lasse

Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure Les jours s’en vont je demeure

L’amour s’en va comme cette eau courante L’amour s’en va Comme la vie est lente
Et comme l’Espérance est violente

Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure Les jours s’en vont je demeure

Passent les jours et passent les semaines Ni temps passe Ni les amours reviennent
Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine

Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure Les jours s’en vont je demeure

MIRABEAU BRIDGE

Under Mirabeau Bridge flows the Seine.
   Why must I be reminded again
   Of our love?
Doesn’t happiness issue from pain?

Bring on the night, ring out the hour.
   The days wear on but I endure.

Face to face, hand in hand, so
   That beneath
   The bridge our arms make, the
   slow
Wave of our looking can flow.

Then call the night, bell the day.
   Time runs off, I must stay.

And love runs down like this
   Water, love runs down.
   How slow life is,
How violent hope is.

Come night, strike hour.
   Days go, I endure.

Nor days nor any time detain.
   Time past or love
   Can not come again.
Under Mirabeau Bridge flows the Seine.

Bring on the night ring out the hour.
   Days wear away, I endure.

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