Welcome to The Valve
Login
Register


Valve Links

The Front Page
Statement of Purpose

John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
Marc Bousquet
Matt Greenfield
Miriam Burstein
Ray Davis
Rohan Maitzen
Sean McCann
Guest Authors

Laura Carroll
Mark Bauerlein
Miriam Jones

Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Advanced Search

Articles
RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom

Comments
RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom

XHTML | CSS

Powered by Expression Engine
Logo by John Holbo

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

 


Blogroll

2blowhards
About Last Night
Academic Splat
Acephalous
Amardeep Singh
Beatrice
Bemsha Swing
Bitch. Ph.D.
Blogenspiel
Blogging the Renaissance
Bookslut
Booksquare
Butterflies & Wheels
Cahiers de Corey
Category D
Charlotte Street
Cheeky Prof
Chekhov’s Mistress
Chrononautic Log
Cliopatria
Cogito, ergo Zoom
Collected Miscellany
Completely Futile
Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind
Conversational Reading
Critical Mass
Crooked Timber
Culture Cat
Culture Industry
CultureSpace
Early Modern Notes
Easily Distracted
fait accompi
Fernham
Ferule & Fescue
Ftrain
GalleyCat
Ghost in the Wire
Giornale Nuovo
God of the Machine
Golden Rule Jones
Grumpy Old Bookman
Ideas of Imperfection
Idiocentrism
Idiotprogrammer
if:book
In Favor of Thinking
In Medias Res
Inside Higher Ed
jane dark’s sugarhigh!
John & Belle Have A Blog
John Crowley
Jonathan Goodwin
Kathryn Cramer
Kitabkhana
Languagehat
Languor Management
Light Reading
Like Anna Karina’s Sweater
Lime Tree
Limited Inc.
Long Pauses
Long Story, Short Pier
Long Sunday
MadInkBeard
Making Light
Maud Newton
Michael Berube
Moo2
MoorishGirl
Motime Like the Present
Narrow Shore
Neil Gaiman
Old Hag
Open University
Pas au-delà
Philobiblion
Planned Obsolescence
Printculture
Pseudopodium
Quick Study
Rake’s Progress
Reader of depressing books
Reading Room
ReadySteadyBlog
Reassigned Time
Reeling and Writhing
Return of the Reluctant
S1ngularity::criticism
Say Something Wonderful
Scribblingwoman
Seventypes
Shaken & Stirred
Silliman’s Blog
Slaves of Academe
Sorrow at Sills Bend
Sounds & Fury
Splinters
Spurious
Stochastic Bookmark
Tenured Radical
the Diaries of Franz Kafka
The Elegant Variation
The Home and the World
The Intersection
The Litblog Co-Op
The Literary Saloon
The Literary Thug
The Little Professor
The Midnight Bell
The Mumpsimus
The Pinocchio Theory
The Reading Experience
The Salt-Box
The Weblog
This Public Address
This Space: The Fire’s Blog
Thoughts, Arguments & Rants
Tingle Alley
Uncomplicatedly
Unfogged
University Diaries
Unqualified Offerings
Waggish
What Now?
William Gibson
Wordherders

Friday, May 25, 2007

Translating Mallarmé

Posted by Adam Roberts on 05/25/07 at 10:21 AM

We don’t have enough poetry here on The Valve.  By way of rectifying that I intend, throughout the summer, to put up a series of posts on French poetry.  More than that I have a proposition.  Instead of constantly picking subjects apart, destructively, I propose that we, collectively, attempt to endow a fresh nation, as far as possible, with one more possession of beauty.  Let’s start with Stéphane Mallarmé.

Here is Stéphane Mallarmé’s ‘Toute l’âme résumée’ from 1895.

Toute l’âme résumée
Quand lente nous l’expirons
Dans plusieurs ronds de fumée
Abolis en autres ronds

Atteste quelque cigare
Brûlant savamment pour peu
Que la cendre se sépare
De son clair baiser de feu

Ainsi le chœur des romances
À la lèvre vole-t-il
Exclus-en si tu commences
Le réel parce que vil

Le sens trop précis rature
Ta vague littérature.

And here is my attempt at an English translation.

The whole soul invoked
In our slow exhalings
Plural rings of smoke
Vanishing in other rings

Attest to some cigar
Burning sagely while
The cinders keep apart
From the clear kiss of fire

As the choir of romance
Flies up to your smile
Keep out if you commence
The real for it is vile

The clear sense makes unsure
Your vague literature.

It’s a poem for which rhyme is clearly important.  Mallarmé takes the hoary old connection between breath and soul (‘spiritus’), visualises it via the soul-stirring pleasures of cigar smoke, and spools out thereby a languidly erotic little lyric, pitched somewhere between the ash and the sharp kiss of fire.  It’s elegant and evocative, and although I’m not sure the final neat couplet connects terribly well with the rest of the piece, I suppose its valorising a smoky vagueness (of symbol, of feeling) over the destructive precision of sense is an appropriately Mallarméan notion.

When I talked, at the top of the post, about ‘endowing a fresh nation, as far as possible, with one more possession of beauty’, I was quoting Dante Rossetti’s philosophy of translation.  There are other philosophies of translation; and, indeed if you’d asked me ten years ago, I’d have probably stood up for Benjamin’s intertext, and said something about how fine Browning’s Agamemnon is.  But when we’re dealing with this sort of short lyric, I wonder whether Rossetti might not be on to something.

Here’s Jerome McGann’s account of Rossetti’s position:

Rossetti set out his ideas about translation in the Preface to his first published book, The Early Italian Poets (1861), where he calls translation the “most direct form of commentary” and exegesis. It is a thus paradigm example of a performative act of literary criticism. Furthermore, the translator’s obligation is to pursue “fidelity” rather than “literality” as his translational goal. So Rossetti’s translations tend to be relatively free with respect to semantic literality and relatively strict with respect to metrical imitation. For Rossetti, a prose translation of poetry is no translation at all. A final “fidelity” is measured by this explicit rule: “a good poem shall not be turned into a bad one”. The rule follows from Rossetti’s basic thought that “the only true motive for putting poetry into a fresh language must be to endow a fresh nation, as far as possible, with one more possession of beauty”.

In other words I’ve subjected Mallarmé to a Rossettian translation.  Rhyme and all.

Now there are some things about my version that I like less than I might.  I’m not happy with ‘invoked’ for ‘résumée’ for instance; and I’m not at all happy with stanza three, in part because I’m not entirely sure what stanza 3 means in the original French.  But whatever it means, ‘lèvre’ is lips, not smile (I’d say, given the tenor of the poem, they’re probably smiling lips; but that’s not what Mallarmé actually has).  ‘If you commence the Real’ is a phrase that is hard to follow without being especially evocative.  Perhaps that’s like the original.  I originally tried a looser “Keep out if you chance/On the Real for it is vile” but I’m not sure that’s an improvement.

I am, incidentally, happy with the fact that I use English half-rhymes as versions of the French full-rhymes (invoked/smoke, exhalings/rings, cigar/apart, while/fire).  I like half-rhymes.  Full-rhymes in English, I think, can often chime too forcefully, can overwhelm the music of the poem as a whole.  But I would argue that, particularly when dealing with a poet like Mallarmé, for whom aural devices like rhyme schemes, internal rhymes, sonic puns and suchlike games are especially important, that it’s worthtrying to preserve the rhyme.  No?  Perhaps you disagree.  Here is an unrhymed, more literally accurate version of the poem.

The whole soul summed up
When slowly we exhale it
In several rings of smoke
Vanishing in other rings

Attest to some cigar
Burning cleverly a little
As long as the ash keeps apart
From his clear kiss of fire

As the choir of Romance
Flies up to your lips
Exclude from it if you begin
the Real because it’s vile

Too precise a meaning erases
Your mysterious literature.

Or, with that last couplet, maybe

Too precise a meaning erases
The mystery of your literature.

So:  which is better, rhyme or non-rhyme? Or is there a third way?

I’m proposing this as an activity, not as an occasion for passive value judgment.  Suggest improvements.  Render the entire poem, if you like; suggest alterations and improvements to stanzas, or individual lines, or individual words if you like.  Collectively we will turn this poem into beautiful English.


Comments

Isn’t Mallarmé supposed to be very difficult to translate into English?  Is this something that if we attempt in a comment box we’ll be hearing about fools rushing in etc. afterwards?

Well, OK, there never was a master work of the human spirit that I couldn’t ruin, so I’ll try some initial comments.  I think that your half-rhymes are OK.  What I’d look at next is rhythm.  Mallarmé’s original, if my high school French is worth anything (probably not), is almost all six or seven syllable lines, with no or very few instances of two stressed syllables next to each other.  That gives it part of its languid feel.  Your translation has some variations within-stanza from five to seven syllables, which I think is too much, with some stressed syllables next to each other ("Keep out") in a way that changes the sound.

Also, again if my high school French is OK, I don’t think he’s using any internal rhymes.  Therefore I find “whole soul” distracting.  Perhaps “All the spirit invoked” for the first line, which would also put it to six syllables?  But invoking spirits is a cliche.  How about “The entire soul invoked”?  That seems better and has seven, also “entire” contains “tired” and therefore seems to fit.  (I also considered “provoked” instead of “invoked” and rejected it for the same reason.)

More later perhaps.

By on 05/25/07 at 12:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Fools rushing in is exactly what I was aiming for.  Mallarmé being notoriously hard to render into English was why I thought we’d start with him.

Good points, Rich.

I don’t think he’s using any internal rhymes.  Therefore I find “whole soul” distracting.

I was going on the assumption that “l’âme résumée” is pretty close to being an internal rhyme; hence ‘whole soul’.  But maybe this is wrong.

By Adam Roberts on 05/25/07 at 01:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Also, I wonder if counting syllables isn’t going to result in something too regular?  I was working with a mixture of feet, counting stresses rather rather than specific syllables.  But, again, maybe it doesn’t really work.

By Adam Roberts on 05/25/07 at 01:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I was about to do something else—but I realized the each of your stanzas has a five -syllable line that also starts with a stress ("Plural rings of smoke”, “Burning sagely while”, “Flies up to your smile").  Those lines should add an initial hopefully unstressed syllable.  How about “In many rings of smoke”, “Cleverly burning while” (ok, still stressed)—the third needs even more work, since I think that whole stanza has to get pulled apart somehow; smiling is not the right feel for this poem.  And how about “As long as ash apart” instead of “The cinders keep apart”?

By on 05/25/07 at 01:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

For stresses vs syllables, I think that you’re already moving from rhyme to half-rhyme—it seems like keeping the lines to six or seven syllables would preserve some of the regularity that you’re losing.

I’d also like to know more about what Mallarmé would have actually meant by “le chœur des romances” and “Le réel” in the third stanza.  “Romance” and “Real”, both with initial caps, seem to bring in too many unintended reifications.  Could this be translated as something like fiction and fact?

By on 05/25/07 at 01:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s time for another break from work, so how about this for a revised basis for the third stanza?

The chorus of romances
That your lips inhale
Will keep the other chances
the vile real would fail

Too much added meaning, probably, but it seems to lead up to the last couplet.  Plus it’s tempting to see the flying to lips idea as an inhalation, given the first two stanzas.  (And yes, the second line has only 5 syllables.)

By on 05/25/07 at 03:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Half-rhyme = half-hearted translation.  Go for no rhyme at all.  If you think what rhyme means in French poetry… the emphasis on its relative “richness,” (degrees of rhyme), alernation of masculine and feminine rhymes, etc… It’s a serious deal. 

It should be all 7 syllable-lines in the original (by my count). 

There’s no excuse to translate this poem at all unless the translation is a new poem in English.  Translation succeeds or fails in its rhythms, so a half-assed approach doesn’t really cut it.  Mallarmé’s poem doesn’t really say much.  It speaks through its sounds and syntax.

By on 05/25/07 at 06:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, that reaction was predicteable (and predicted).  Jonathan, people can either look at this as a fun thing to do, or as serious.  If serious, there’s no reason to do it, is there?  We all have our work, after all, that we could be getting back to in preference to ineptly translating a random poem of Mallarmé’s.  If fun, then I for one don’t see how dismissive advice to tear down the whole thing and start again is fun.

I predict about three more comments until we’re at Infinigon Stage 1 Alert Status.

By on 05/25/07 at 07:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry.  I wasn’t meaning to spoil the fun.  Go ahead by all means.  I was just pointing out that such a thing could be serious too.  What it would take to do it seriously?  It would be to envision an actually successful result.

By on 05/25/07 at 08:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve just noticed that spellcheck (or something) has silently corrected some French words--but oddly not others--to English in the post above.  I’ve de-corrected.

Jonathan: I happen not to share your believe that half-rhyme is only half-assedness by people who can’t be bothered to rhyme fully.  Many poets regard half-rhymes as a legitimate textual strategy.  Some of my favourite poets use it all the time.  Of course you’re perfectly entitled to hate it yourself.

Maculine/feminine rhymes.  The original is all masculine rhymes until the last couplet, which is feminine.  ‘Counting syllables’ is never as good a way of assessing the prosody of a poem as counting feet; which is to say, basically, stresses.  ‘The Assyrians came down like a wolf on the fold’ has the same number of feet as ‘Hail to thee blythe spirit’.  They’re just different kinds of feet.

On the other hand: “There’s no excuse to translate this poem at all...“ You’re quite right.  No excuse at all.  Not any excuse.

By Adam Roberts on 05/26/07 at 05:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

So far: including Rich’s suggestions, we have:

The entire soul invoked
In our slow exhalings
In many rings of smoke
Vanishing in other rings

Attest to some cigar
Burning sagely while
The cinders keep apart
From the clear kiss of fire

The chorus of romances
That your lips inhale
Will keep the other chances
The vile real would fail

The clear sense makes unsure
Your vague literature

By Adam Roberts on 05/26/07 at 05:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Are there to many ‘in’ and ‘en’ syllables in that first stanza now?  A bit jinglejangly.

By Adam Roberts on 05/26/07 at 05:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Hello.
Adam, your examples of counting feet, from Byron and Shelley, undermine your point slightly, since while they have the same number of feet, they have completely different effects.  Byron’s line sounds like wolves descending, while Shelly’s clodhopping spirit sounds anything but blythe.  Hence going by feet will ignore crucial aspects.  None of which is to say I’m not sympathetic to your campaign.

By on 05/26/07 at 06:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Joe.  “...going by feet will ignore crucial aspects...”

Where counting the number of syllables won’t?

My example may have been insufficiently developed.  Take the following two lines of poetry:

‘Half a league half a league half a league onwards’
‘Hail to thee blythe spirit, bird thou never wert’

They both have eleven syllables; but of course they sound very different.  That’s because Tennyson’s dactyls tuck two unstressed syllables after each beat or stress: its a rapid and regular four footed line.  On the other hand the Shelley line (strictly it’s two lines) is in an interestingly-varied trocaic metre (the long vowel ‘blythe’ turns trochee-trochee-trochee, which might have been too regular, into trochee-spondee-trochee, which is more interesting for the ear).  Personally I don’t find it clodhopping in the least, I think it’s spacious and lovely; but it is certainly less galloping than either Byron’s anapests or Tennyson’s dactyls.  The point is that Shelley’s eleven syllables contain six stresses to Tennyson’s four.  This is what I was saying: if you want to understand how different types of verse lines create different effects you need to count feet, not syllables.

By Adam Roberts on 05/26/07 at 07:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Shelley’s eleven syllables contain six stresses...”

Or, indeed, seven.

By Adam Roberts on 05/26/07 at 08:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam: “I’m proposing this as an activity, not as an occasion for passive value judgment.”

Jonathan: “I was just pointing out that such a thing could be serious too.  What it would take to do it seriously?  It would be to envision an actually successful result.”

There once was a young man named Jonathan
Who said “The infinigon’s on again
There is no delight
But in doing things right”
Passive judgment will not be foregone again

Hopefully the above sacrifice to the gods of serious poetry will allow me to continue misbegotten attempts to participate in a communal translation of a notoriously difficult to translate French poet without actually knowing how to read French.

Or, you know, Jonathan, you could write a comparative non-rhymed version.  If the reason you’re not is because that would be too much like work then perhaps you’ve answered your own objection.

Adam, you’re right about the first stanza.  How about

The entire soul invoked
Throughout our slow exhalings
In several rings of smoke
Vanishing in other rings

By on 05/26/07 at 08:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam/Joe, clearly neither counting feet nor syllables is good enough by itself without examining what kind of feet they are.  My original bit about counting syllables was an attempt to express that, despite the number of stresses in each line being correct, there was part of what I thought was an unhurried, even feel to the original being lost.

By on 05/26/07 at 09:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The rhymes are alternating masculine and feminine throughout, by the rules of French prosody. 

reseumée / fumée --feminine

expirons / ronds — masculine

cigare / sépare— f. 

peu / fue—m. 

romances / commences—f. 

il / vil —m. 

rature / littérature --- f. 

The “feminine” rhyme is simply that which ends in the silent e. 

I never said that half-rhyme was illegitimate.  Only that as a translation strategy it was questionable as something equivalent to full rhyme, given the strict rules of classical French prosody. 

As for counting “feet” or syllables in French poetry.  There are no “feet” to speak of.  It is a syllabic meter.  I thought it would be helpful to actually say what the prosody of the poem was with some degree of accuracy.

By on 05/26/07 at 09:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Hi.  I don’t want to detract from the activity, but I find the Rossetti constraint an interesting discussion point.

Rich, I agree entirely, and would expand Adam’s last sentence to say that we need to count feet and then examine how the structure of those feet create the effects they do, which is I’m sure what he means, but would put more eloquently…

The Rossetti example you give in the OP, Adam, is nice because of the expansive use of the word ‘fidelity’, but I have some reservations about Rossetti’s demand for metrical strictness.  A colleague of mine talks about adaptation as a form of reception - I understand that as permitting more freedom than Rossetti would necessarily allow.  Likewise Benjamin’s intertext.  Just seems to me that obeying Rossetti here is more, well, OuLiPo.  Which can be fun and serious, granted.

And some great modern translations - I’m thinking of Heaney / Beowulf, Hughes / Ovid - choose when to submit to the metre of the original, and when to allow the translator / poet to trust their own invention.  Of course, those are long poems, rather than short lyrics.  Hughes’ approach to the (more comparable) poetry in Lorca’s Blood Wedding, for example, also takes liberties with metre, but retains fidelity I think.  Mallarme, as Rich pointed out, is slippery for purposes of fidelity because of the scope for ambiguity and pun, and perhaps these characteristics are more vital than metre or rhyme for a faithful translation?

By on 05/26/07 at 12:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Quite funny, actually, to see Adam Roberts stuff should start to rhyme. Who would have thought. I sometimes like to use sound effects, rhymes to express feelings of my own (or as an element of play). I’ve never done any poem translations and I wonder how “authentic” you can be in translating poems: it’s not your own feelings, and as to the feelings (you think) the author (might have) had when s/he wrote the poem, the only thing you can do is “imitation”; or write, on your own, a new, different poem, just trying to capture the “original” feeling - the feeling, actually, the poem evokes for you.
But it’s good there are people who do the job, translate poems into other languages, and an amazing job they do - thinking, in particular, of Baudelaire translations into German that I’ve read.
Hope I was allowed to say this, don’t want to spoil your fun, am pretty busy at the moment, simply don’t have the time to join in the play; actually wanted to withdraw from the Adam Roberts sphere a little, but you know how to lure me ...

(You don’t “commence the Real”; the sentence structure, it seems to me, is: “Exclus-en, si tu commences, le réel”, “Exclus-en ... le réel”, if you begin to write literature.
“Smile” is probably not the right thing. What is important about those lips is not the visual impression; it’s where “le chœur des romances”, literature comes from. Not smiling lips, but singing lips; “le chant” ...
“Your vague literature”: you lose the ambiguity of the original “vague”, meaning “vague” and “wave”; the old seafaring image of the poet ... and lots more to be said about this. You’re tempting me; but this shall be enough for the moment.
If you like “Toute l’âme résumée”, you might be interested to read Verlaine, “Art poétique”, one of my favourites of the kind.)

By on 05/26/07 at 01:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If someone wants a fully rhymed version, it’s not that hard (except for an errant “s"):

The entire soul invoke
Through our slow exhalings
In several rings of smoke
Vanishing in other rings

Attest to some cigar
Whose clever burn inspires
As long as ash stays far
From the clear kiss of fire

The chorus of romance
That your lips exhale
Will keep the other chance
The vile real would fail

A clear sense makes unsure
Your vague literature.

It’s unclear to me whether this is really better than the half-rhymed version.  Note that I’ve taken Birgit’s sense of what’s flying to the lips as being something from the smoker, from inside, rather than a metaphor for the conversation (as smoke) coming from the other people in the room, therefore an exhalation rather than an inhalation (which does mean that “exhale” is used twice).  This version also flattens out the syllables considerably to six (at least, if you read “entire” and “several” as having two each); the last line of the first and second stanzas have seven each, the second line of the third stanza has five.  If going with this version, the regularity of rhyme would pretty much demand that the rhythm be regularized further.

The meaning of the poem has not yet diverged too far, I think, except perhaps for “inspires” (which I like because it’s another breath word), and for the loss of flying/beginning and the shift from excluding the real to keeping the alternatives that the real would not in the third stanza.

By on 05/26/07 at 07:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan, I’ve only just seen this comment of yours (I assume it was waiting in line to be approved), which makes this of mine look more ungracious than I intended.

It looks as though you and I mean different things by masculine and feminine rhymes.  This is my understanding: a masculine rhyme is one where the rhyme coincides with the last stressed syllable of the line; a feminine rhyme is one where the rhyme does not so coincide.  Some examples from English, of a masculine rhyme

True wit is nature to advantage drest;
Which oft was thought, but ne’er so well exprest.

And of feminine:

Oh, talk not to me of a name great in story;
The days of our youth are the days of our glory;
And the myrtle and ivy of sweet two-and-twenty
Are worth all your laurels, though ever so plenty.

French prosody used to have added wrinkles, in that there were a series of very strict rules applied during its Classical period (counting the final ‘e’ in words even if they were not pronounced).  The French Romantics marked a break with this; and it wouldn’t be correct to suggest that (to revert to Mallarmé) ‘résumée/fumée’ is anything but a masculine rhyme, emphasised on the final syllable.  Similarly you’d need a pretty thick Midi accent to pronounce ‘cigare/sépare’ as feminine rhymes.  The only proper feminine rhymes, I’d say, are the last two.

By Adam Roberts on 05/27/07 at 05:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

My translation, unrhymed:

***

We express our whole soul
When we slowly exhale
Those several rings of smoke
Driven out by other rings

That attest to some cigar
Briefly, brilliantly smoldering
Separated by an ash
From the clear kiss of fire

Thus the choir of romances
Rises to your lips—
If you begin, begin by
Excluding reality. It is vile.

Too much precision of sense erases
Your vague literature.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 05/27/07 at 07:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Notes on the translation:

First of all, I’m impressed with both Adam’s and Rich’s rhymed versions. (And Adam, what a great idea for a post.) It was very liberating not to have to rhyme.

I wanted the double meaning of “express” (the echo with “exhale"). I added the first person plural into the first line, because the impersonal article in French often implies it, and therefore the shift is much different and more awkward in English.

“Driven out” seems crucial to me. The verb is abolir, “to abolish,” and has to complement the erasure in the final couplet. There is real contest here: usurpation, exclusion. In addition, the reader needs the sense that clarity and reason are themselves but other “smoke rings.”

We need some version of the diminutive pour peu to capture the poem’s references to mortality. I chose the Shakespearean reference, “briefly” as in “brief candle.” “Brilliantly” can refer to the mind; one of the weaknesses of my translation is that it doesn’t do so explicitly, but the reference is still to the soul.

“Separated by an ash”—the proximity of consuming death.

“Rises to your lips”—as Birgit notes, the inner compulsion to sing. The next lines are blatantly Eliot / Stevens / Yeats, but I think it’s worth going a long way around to get back to the core of exhausted pedagogy and hard-line aestheticism.

At the end, the literal “erases” is crucial. Otherwise you don’t have the sense of “your vague literature” actually being the soul of the person addressed in the poem.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 05/27/07 at 07:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan Mayhew seems ignorant of the history of translation into English, or of translation generally. The things he mentions about French poetry are the ones that no one ever succeeds in bringing over. His suggestion that the poem not be translated at all is one which I personally have followed, but it seems a bit pointless once someone has decided to make the attempt.

I have nothing more to add, but I think that this is one of the most successful Valve threads ever.

By John Emerson on 05/27/07 at 09:16 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Good translation, Joseph.  Your notes also help to clarify some of the meaning of the poem that I’ve been unsure about.

What is really going on in the last half of the second stanza, though?  A cigar is not really separated by ash from the fire—the unburned part of the cigar is joined to the burning part, where the fire is, and after that there is a section of already burned ash.  So really the fire (i.e. inspiration) separates the cigar (i.e. the person’s remaining life) from mortality (both actual, and the sense of an uninspired klind of living death), while it also consumes.  “Separated by an ash” may be literal, but it doesn’t work for me, unless someone can explain how I’m looking at it wrongly.  The reason that I thought “As long as ash stays far / From the clear kiss of fire” might work is that as the cigar burns down, the smoker comes closer and closer to kissing fire, so that the ash being far away indicates that time is left—which time is always brief, so it includes that concept as well.  But that loses the concept of explicit separation.

Why don’t we try for three versions, temporarily?  We can compare the unrhymed and half-rhymed and fully rhymed versions to see which one we like best.

For the fully rhymed version, I’m going to vulture some of the elements of Joseph’s translation that I like: the last line of Joseph’s first stanza also avoids the faintly off (to me) echo of “ing” in “Vanishing in other rings”.

I can’t figure out how to fit “erases” at the end into the rhyme scheme offhand, as long as the last line remains “Your vague literature” which everyone seems to agree on.  But the emphasis can be turned up with:

Precision must obscure
Your vague literature

By on 05/27/07 at 09:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John E.: “I have nothing more to add, but I think that this is one of the most successful Valve threads ever.”

I don’t know about most successful, but it does work as an ironic counterpoint to the current LS thread about whether the humanities can be useful for politics.  A few years back I decided that if the U.S. was going to fall into a sort of decadent fascism, it was most appropriate for my last comment to be something on the order of a critical analysis of a comic book.  But this may be even better.  Keeping out the real because it is vile is a bit too foreign for contemporary use if done purely for aestheticism, but doing it in a participatory sense (as in, everyone else is keeping out the real, so why shouldn’t we join in in our own way?) adds the element of nihilistic thrill which successfully translates it to an American idiom.

By on 05/27/07 at 09:52 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Here is fully rhymed version v.2:

--

The entire soul invoke
Through our slow exhalings
In several rings of smoke
Driven out by other rings

Attest to some cigar
Whose clever burn inspires
As long as ash stays far
From the clear kiss of fire

In the romantic song
That flies to lips beguiled
The real does not belong
Exclude it, it is vile

Precision will obscure
Your vague literature

--

Notes: I liked chances / fail for the third stanza, but decided that it should be written closer to the meaning of the original.  This version has more regular syllable counts (all 6 or 7) but some lines only have two stresses.  I considered “Rising to lips beguiled”, which I like better than “That flies” because it makes the rising from inside emphasis clear, but that would lose an original verb.

By on 05/27/07 at 01:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As for masculine and feminine rhymes, it looks as though Adam simply does not know what he is talking about on basic, high-school French level.  He is applying an ENGLISH definition of masculine and feminine rhymes to French poetry!  In French poetry, the feminine rhyme is defined simply by the presence of the mute e.  That’s the entire definition.  (So it’s not striclty a phonetic phenomenon since the silent is SILENT).  Mallarmé in fact observes the rules of French prosody in this respect (altnernation of rhymes) in almost all of his poems (the ones that rhyme in the first place).  Just take a look at a few poem if you don’t believe me.  All of his sonnets for example.  The statement that he did not follow this rule is a simple factual mistake, not a difference in how we define rhyme in French.  All the lines in Mallarmé’s poem, all the lines end with a stressed syllable, as indeed all French words do.  The ENGLISH definition of feminine rhyme has no relevance at all. 

I am not at all ignorant of the translation history of French poetry, or of translation generally.  I teach and research the subject after all.  How someone would presume to judge me on the basis of one comment on some blog is beyond me.  I guess that’s the internet at work.  My point was to correct mistatements about the actual original.  That fact that those are the aspects that never come through in English is part of my larger point.  Shouldn’t something like this be attempted? 

There is no point in following the Rossetti method of translation if the resulting poem is a bad one.  After all, that’s the basis of his idea:  that a good poem not be translated as a bad one.  That was what I meant when I said there was not point translating the poem unless the result was convincing in English.  Maybe I misunderstood what was being attempted here.

Rhyme in French poetry is almost a Oulipean constraint.  That motivated my comment on the inadequacy of half-rhymes.  At most they are a well-meaning gesture in the general direction of such a constraint.  Wouldn’t the translation need some equally strict constraint in some sense?  Whether it is rhyme or something else? 

(Sorry, this brings out the most pedantic and annoying side of me.  I am really sorry.  I am not really like this.)

(Another way of looking at this is that French poets in the classical tradition, up through Mallarmé and Valery, don’t rhyme phonetically identical sounds if one has a mute e and the other doesn’t.  For example, Mallarmé doesn’t rhyme with Renée, but it does rhyme with René.  It’s a totally different ethos from rhyme in English.  I love Yeats’ slant rhymes, for example.)

By on 05/27/07 at 01:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Brief comments; more tomorrow, I hope.

First, it’s abundantly clear that both Rich’s rhymed and Joe K.’s unrhymed versions are better than my original, which is exactly what we want.

Joe’s comment semes to me v. interesting, and to open up several avenues of discussion.

Finally Brigit is quite right about (amongst other things) the meaning of the third stanza there.  The only thing I’d say is that, though my French is not the fluentest in the world, I’d say that it is on the obscure side in the original, something emphasised by Mallarme’s decision to use only one punctuation mark in the whole poem.  So, what does a translator do?  Does s/he (a) decide what the sense is, and then translate that unambiguously?  Or (b) try and translate an obscure French phrase into an obscure English one?  I tried the latter, but of course it reads only as if I don’t know what I’m doing.  Is there a way of salvaging that?

By Adam Roberts on 05/27/07 at 02:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Erratum: For “Brigit” read “Birgit”.  Finger slipped.

By Adam Roberts on 05/27/07 at 02:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich:

The entire soul invoke
Through our slow exhalings
In several rings of smoke
Driven out by other rings...

‘Invoke’ looks ungrammatical there.  ‘Invoked’ of course is not a full rhyme, but the sacrifice there might be worth it.

I can’t figure out how to fit “erases” at the end into the rhyme scheme offhand, as long as the last line remains “Your vague literature” which everyone seems to agree on.

Vague, as has been pointed out, is a poor translation (except sonically, and even then) for ‘vague’.  But maybe:

A too-clear sense erases
You literature’s vagueness.

A quarter-rhyme, maybe.  But then again, maybe that’s a daft couplet.

By Adam Roberts on 05/27/07 at 02:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I have no objection to “invoked” in the first line—I’m already cheating with “inspires”.

Adam, when you write that Joe’s comment is interesting, do you mean the part in which he writes: “Mallarme, as Rich pointed out, is slippery for purposes of fidelity because of the scope for ambiguity and pun, and perhaps these characteristics are more vital than metre or rhyme for a faithful translation?” That’s a good thought, but the problem that I in particular have with it is that I don’t read French well enough to get the ambiguities or puns.  If someone listed the ones they saw, I could grind away at English equivalents, of course.

So, in keeping with that, what is the proper translation of French “vague”?  Birgit says “wave” and “vague”.  OK then, the last couplet would be:

A particle erases
Your wave-form’s extra cases

No quantum mechanics jokes, I suppose.

Since literature == soul according to Joseph, how about

A too-clear sense erases
Your sea of other faces

That’s stretching it, yes.

Joseph, do you want more versions of your unrhymed version?  I’d think that if you’re not going for rhyme, you might as well get more uneven with stanzaic form as well.  How about something like what’s below for a start, or is that too gimmicky?

--

We express our whole soul when we slowly exhale
Those several rings of

smoke

Driven out by other rings

That attest to some cigar, briefly, brilliantly smoldering
-- Separated by an ash --
From the clear kiss of fire

Thus the choir of romances
Rises to your lips—
If you begin, begin by
Excluding reality.
It is vile.

Too much precision of sense erases

Your vague literature.

By on 05/27/07 at 03:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Various non-left-justified lines were not preserved in the above, I see.

By on 05/27/07 at 03:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

How someone would presume to judge me on the basis of one comment on some blog is beyond me.

It’s sort of like the tasting-a-rotten-egg thingie.

I am not at all ignorant of the translation history of French poetry, or of translation generally.  I teach and research the subject after all.

Stop this man before he teaches again!

It was very brave of Adam to try to produce a rhymed translation at all. To object to half-rhymes is silly. Likewise the talk about masculine vs. feminine rhymes, or syllabic vs. stressed verse. You’re just enumerating things characteristic of French verse generally which are not found in English verse. You seem to be aiming at a Borgesian translation, identical syllable for syllable with the original.

Academic translators of Chinese verse, by now, are actually forbidden (following the strictures and example of Edward Schafer) to try to produce poems in English: literal only, please. This is the ultimate outcome of this kind of perfectionism.

By John Emerson on 05/27/07 at 08:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

So because I have a different opinion I am ignorant?  I am interested in rhyme as a constraint in poetry and poetry-in-translation.  How does rhyme function differently as a constraint in a translation and in the original?  Is off-rhyme considered to be an equivalent constraint to the highly formal alternation of masculine and feminine rhymes?  Wouldn’t a highly formal approach lead to a less literal, rather than a more literal translation?  I.e, if one is trying to reproduce the same degree of constraint, literalness in semantic content will tend to suffer.  For example, the translation of Perec’s La disparition also omits the letter e, just like the original.  It was felt in this case that the constraint was more significant than other features of the text.  I view Mallarmé as being part of this tradition.  The formal features of the text are significant.

By on 05/27/07 at 09:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"He is applying an ENGLISH definition of masculine and feminine rhymes to French poetry!”

Infinigon Stage 1 Alert level reached! (cue siren noises, “wheep! wheep!” etc.) And once again I was right—exactly three of Jonathan’s comments after I predicted it in three comments.

Jonathan, do you really not see what kind of a bully you’re trying to be here?  Is this how you teach your students?

Adam asked for translations in this thread.  There is no need for you to participate if you don’t think it’s a good idea.  People have obligingly produced both an unrhymed and fully rhymed preliminary translation in reply to your offhand rejection of half-rhymes.  Surely your experience would make you the ideal contributor, if you wanted to, you know, actually contribute.

“Sorry, this brings out the most pedantic and annoying side of me.  I am really sorry.  I am not really like this.”

Well, I don’t know what you’re like normally, but on this thread, you are really like this.

By on 05/27/07 at 09:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I see exactly what kind of bully I am.  The prosody bully.  I am very sorry.  I should have been looking at the very interesting things happening in the translations all of you have produced.  Instead, I got caught up in some other issues.  It was bullying of me to push my own agenda when the thread was not about that, so I do apologize.

By on 05/27/07 at 09:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I do know (this is mere assertion on my part, so you’ll have to believe it or not) quite a lot about English prosody; and a fair bit about Ancient Greek/Latin too, but I’d be the first to concede that I know little about French prosody; and I can well believe that Jonathan knows more than I.  I was applying English prosodic models to a French poem.  My reason for doing so was a belief--I’m happy to stand corrected--that the sorts of rules Jonathan talks about had effectively strangulated French lyric poetry in the 17/18th century (which is to say, that many French poets considered that this was the case), and that 19th century poets, particularly late century, reacted against such rules by writing with a freer hand.  If I’ve got this wrong then I apologise.  But, as Rich says, it doesn’t solve the problem of how to produce a good English poem out of this French one.

By Adam Roberts on 05/28/07 at 04:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Hello.  I thought maybe this diversion might be a way of avoiding the precision which might obscure our literature.  I’m no real speaker of French, so my suggestions of connotations may be ludicrous, but in response to Rich’s prompt, here are some of them.  The first line for me conjures, whether through homonyms, second meanings, or just assonant allusions, some of the following:

touch / the blade / the sea
concentrated / abstracted / summed
superficial / body / drug

So as an alternative way to honour Rossetti’s demand for a new work from an old one, the OuLiPo constraint would be to develop each line into a stanza (a book!) of its own touching all the possible connotations.  In the spirit of receiving by adapting, one could endlessly defer the reification of original ambiguity into precise (vile) literality by branching off (excluding) at every opportunity.  It would almost be turning a brief lyric into an epic, every line becoming a new Leaf of Grass, a brave soul sailing farther, to pick up Birgit’s allusion - creating a vague literature, via the sounds and syntax, from Mallarme’s original.  If, as Jonathan said, it does not say much, what could be the harm?

But otherwise I’m enjoying the versions you’re writing, forgive my digression.  I most like Joseph’s unrhymed version, and Rich’s free verse, I have to say.

By on 05/28/07 at 08:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It seems to me the poem trips over itself in the end, by making a point about not making a point. So it seems like a better idea for a poem than a poem itself. Here’s not a translation as much as an interpretation of the idea and images of the poem that attempts to capture an essence of the poem more than its embodiment:

Breathe a whole being
express

rings of smoke
rent
from other rings

sear and waft
riven
ash by fire –

So beauty of song
to lips arise –

If go
sing from every point
vanish
not death –

Killed by any cut
inspired word aspire –

By Tony Christini on 05/28/07 at 09:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Maybe it should be noted that a superficial understanding of the key notion expressed in this poem is often passionately believed to explain why literature cannot be overtly partisan, etc, and be good literature. Much of the history of literature and art utterly and quite obviously refute this eviscerating belief, yet the mistaken belief is passionately internalized and avowed (sometimes cynically or deceitfully) expressed and used, especially by those of the literary establishment, not least editors and publishers in the academy and industry.

Tony Kushner makes short work of the matter in _Theater_:

“I do not believe that a steadfast refusal to be partisan is, finally, a particularly brave or a moral or even interesting choice. Les Murray, an Australian poet, wrote a short poem called ‘Politics and Art.’ In its entirety: ‘Brutal policy / like inferior art, knows / whose fault it all is.’ This is as invaluable an admonishment as it is ultimately untrue.”

By Tony Christini on 05/28/07 at 09:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Where did my last comment go?  In the queue somewhere.  At any rate, Joe, your idea is interesting, and we’re on a medium that supports hyperlinking, which is probably the best way to implement it.

There’s a danger in going to free verse for something that is ostensibly a translation.  I thought that Joseph’s text could support it because it was so faithful to the meaning of the original.

By on 05/28/07 at 10:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, cheers. I liked what you did with the alignment, working with my translation; your version (which was preserved somehow when I got the comment notification) reminds me of the new, decent collected Mallarmé by Henry Weinfield. (Though by my lights, some of those single word lines do have the effect of chopping the “smokiness” a bit too fine.)

I don’t think the image in the second stanza is really very clear. I associate the “clear kiss of fire” with a combination of things: actuality, inspiration, and, oddly enough, death. As I read the poem, the smoke of literature and thought is separated by an ash from that fire. This is not very intuitive, for the literal reasons you give, and in general I would second Adam’s point about the obscurity of the original. Already I felt that my translation was too unambiguous, particularly in the first stanza.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 05/28/07 at 05:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Also, I have been thinking over Tony’s comment, and have to agree with him that the original poem needs a little correction, or perhaps a great deal of improvement by persons like myself. It’s good, but a little lacking in the proper revolutionary spirit. Tony’s translation is superior; the quote from Kushner, noted for such poems as Angels in America, is even better and should be substituted for Mallarmé whenever possible.

I’ve attempted a new translation of Mallarmé’s poem, based on sounder principles of partisanship, which goes as follows:

“In 1815, M. Charles Francois-Bienvenu Myriel was Bishop of D————. He was a man of seventy-five, and had occupied the bishopric of D—————— since 1806. Although it in no manner concerns, even in the remotest degree, what we have to relate, it may not be useless...”

Something about that line really satisfies me: Although it in no manner concerns, even in the remotest degree, what we have to relate.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 05/28/07 at 05:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind....”

By John Emerson on 05/28/07 at 06:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It sounds like people like the free verse modification of Joseph’s version best.  I’m not really sure how to improve it.  (For the rhymed version, I could in theory slowly improve it by fiddling with each syllable and phrase and line in turn, but I don’t see any reason to do the work.) Joe’s idea is intriguing as a thought experiment, but also sounds too much like real work.  Probably what we’d need for more progress at this stage is for someone else to come in and re-revise everything.

It’s tempting to make a comic version, I have to admit, since that’s usually what I do when working off a poetic model.  My favorite of my own lines is probably still “A particle erases / Your wave-form’s extra cases” for the last couplet, because it is in some sense both true to the original and sort of funny.  Michael Kandel’s translation of Stanislaw Lem’s scientifico-comic poetry in The Cyberiad from Polish into English is probably the model for that kind of thing.

By on 05/28/07 at 06:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Instead of constantly picking subjects apart, destructively, I propose that we, collectively, attempt to endow a fresh nation, as far as possible, with one more possession of beauty.”

I think my interpretation of the poem fits that charge very well. I prefer to call it an interpretation, but it could also be called a (very) loose translation - which I assumed people would understand. I have seen (and taught) translations at least as non-literal as my interpretation and have found them to be very rewarding and worthwhile. I found those translations to be surprising, eye-opening, delightful, instructive.

I find the translations of Mallarmé here to be thoughtful and in some cases wonderful. Without them I could not have come up with my interpretation, for I have little French, and less (despite being schooled in it).

My addendum comment is truly a digression. Certainly the Valve is no digression-free zone.

Rossetti’s ideas in the excerpt of McGann are quite thoughtful, except for this, it seems to me:

“Furthermore, the translator’s obligation is to pursue “fidelity” rather than “literality” as his translational goal. So Rossetti’s translations tend to be relatively free with respect to semantic literality and relatively strict with respect to metrical imitation. For Rossetti, a prose translation of poetry is no translation at all.”

To attempt to define translation is like trying to define story. Virtually any definition is going to be unnecessarily restrictive. It’s going to limit the possiblity of bringing a greater diversity of jewels in to the world. It’s going to limit thought and experience. That is, it’s going to inhibit Rossetti’s better idea which is “to endow a fresh nation, as far as possible, with one more possession of beauty.”

By Tony Christini on 05/28/07 at 07:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam: “Instead of constantly picking subjects apart, destructively, I propose that we, collectively, attempt to endow a fresh nation, as far as possible, with one more possession of beauty.”

Jonathan: “There is no point in following the Rossetti method of translation if the resulting poem is a bad one.”

Tony (directly referring to Adam’s line above): “I think my interpretation of the poem fits that charge very well.”

Cool!  To continue the scienciness, it’s like a physical conservation law.  I have no wish to pick on Jonathan further after his apology, or on Tony, so I won’t say conservation of what.

I will point out, though, that this exchange demonstrates why no one can really talk about beauty any more.  Technical chat about syllables—telling people how you’ve received the work—examining congruence to a particular style—all those are fair game.  Ugliness is fine; I quite enjoyed My Angie Dickinson, a flarf work recommended by Luther Blissett.  But beauty only survives in its use as a bludgeon.  Adam’s attempt to reclaim it is wonderful, but I pretty much assumed that the worthwhile aspect of the thread consisted of its participatory / demystification qualities, its process in other words, rather than in its supposed result.

By on 05/28/07 at 08:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"I will point out, though, that this exchange demonstrates why no one can really talk about beauty any more.”

Not sure what you mean. I see discussion of beauty throughout this entire thread, both explicitly and implicitly. The thread itself can even be seen, in part, as performance and practitioner’s art.

By Tony Christini on 05/28/07 at 08:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I prefer the rhymed version, in that constraints should be reflected (not duplicated, but substitution is fine) in translation. The sense of precision invoked by the last couplet is a critical issue (which I suspect led to Adam’s choice), but I’d render it differently—led there by the jarring of obscure and vague in comments:

Le sens trop précis rature
Ta vague littérature.

Exactitude is erasure
Of your cloudy literature.

By nnyhav on 05/28/07 at 10:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

nnyhav, if you want to keep that constraint, I think that you need to keep either a syllabic or stress one as well.  Since the rest of the rhymed version already has some lines with only two stresses, I’d go with syllables, which has been pushed to six per line with the occasional seven.  Therefore I’d modify it to:

Exactness is erasure
Of cloudy literature

(Or substitute “your vague” for “cloudy” if you prefer.)

But literature is the end of that line seems prosodically clunky no matter what.

How about:

Precision has no place
Your soul’s wake will erase

That combines erasure / soul / wave (in the sense of a boat’s wake) / precision / smoke (in the sense of a wake that you leave behind) in lines of six syllables, but loses the explicit reference to literature.  Unfortunately, it also presents the last line as possibly a sort of despairing prediction that will happen no matter what, which isn’t really in the original.

By on 05/29/07 at 11:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

l. 5: “attests some cigar”, by the way. “Some cigar attests (gives evidence of) the whole soul” (which, if it were not for the exhaled, expired cigar smoke, you couldn’t see). “Toute l’âme résumée” is the object (attests: verb; some cigar: subject).
“Abolis en autres ronds”: really just “dissolved in other rings; no violence, no usurpation. Clarity and reason are the exact opposite of “smoke rings.”
“Pour peu que” is a fixed expression and doesn’t mean “a little”.
Don’t worry about invoking souls; I once “invoked” dogs for the rhyme (and was heavily criticised for it):

Take a sweet little dog.
I could fondle and stroke him,
call and invoke him

Who did the unrhymed translation above? You, Adam? Are you sure you’ve understood stanza 2? The cigar “burns” (is consumed) to the degree the ash separates from its (!) (the cigar’s) “kiss” (metaphorical) of fire.
“Savamment” not “cleverly”, probably; the verb would be “savoir”, the cigar smoke has some information (about your soul).
“Clair” not “clear”, probably, but “bright” (cf. “le clair de lune”); and so on, and so on …
But I’ll stop it here, don’t want to ruin your play - lest I end up with a “serious” translation.
“Le chœur des romances” (the poet’s voice within us, within our soul) flies up to our lips, whence literature is pro-nounced.

“Que ton vers soit la chose envolée
Qu’on sent qui fuit d’une âme en allée …” (Paul Verlaine, “Art poétique”)

French Symbolism (Verlaine, “Art poétique”) pro-claims free verse and moderate rhyme, just as Adam does.
Hope I could help you with the meaning of the original French poem at least - which is not a big thing if you’ve ever seriously dealt with 19th century French poetry.
Without having thought about the rest, what I’d have done about the last line is:

Your vague wave of literature.

But I like:

Exactness is erasure
Of cloudy literature.

A wave and a cloud being essentially the same thing.

By on 05/29/07 at 03:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Birgit, I did the unrhymed translation above.

You have a good point about the ash; as Fry’s translation below makes clear, the ash separates itself.

“Bright” and “clear” have been used alternately by different translators.

A wave and a cloud are not the same thing. Nor are a puppy and a watermelon.

***

For the sake of comparison, here’s Roger Fry, from the 1951 ND paperback edition:

All the soul indrawn
When slowly we exhale it
In many rounds of smoke
Lost in other rounds

Proves that some cigar
Burns skilfully how-so little
Its ash withdraws itself
From the clear kiss of fire

So the choir of songs
Flies it to your lip
Exclude if you begin
The real as being base

Its too sharp sense will overscrawl
Your vague literature

By Joseph Kugelmass on 05/29/07 at 04:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

No offense to the memory of Roger Fry, but I think that we’re already doing better than the above.  Even with changes in English since then, I refuse to believe that “Burns skillfully how-so little” was ever a good line.

It’s hard to know what to put in and what to take out, unless Adam decides to be Thread Dictator.  But I do prefer “dissolved in” to “driven out by” for the rhymed version, both prosodically (it loses a syllable, and puts the stress on the second syllable rather than the first) and slightly for meaning.  I’ll also go on the general idea that anything that any one person says they liked should probably be put in, although that does bring up the problem that the translation may just oscillate back and forth at some point.  Therefore I’ll put in the modified nnyhav ending that Birgit liked.

So here is rhymed version v.3:

The entire soul invoked
Through our slow exhalings
In several rings of smoke
Dissolved in other rings

Attest to some cigar
Whose clever burn inspires
As long as ash stays far
From the clear kiss of fire

In the romantic song
That flies to lips beguiled
The real does not belong
Exclude it, it is vile

Exactness is erasure
Of cloudy literature.

By on 05/29/07 at 05:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

By the way, you can see the real tension points in the poem by seeing how many versions of that part of the poem we’ve had.  Large parts of stanza 1 and 2 are still Adam originals, but the last couplet must have a whole lot of versions by now.  Maybe that means that we should deliberately translate it with something clumsy.

Does anyone know how to make this comment box preserve left spaces and extra blank lines?  I’d like to try to recreate the formatting I had tried for the free verse version.

By on 05/29/07 at 05:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph: “A wave and a cloud are not the same thing.”
If you knew me, you’d know how I mean it; of course, a wave and a cloud are not, really, the same thing.

The first line is carried on in line five, and the sentence structure is really: object, verb, subject. I don’t know who’s invented “attest to”; there’s no “atteste à”, “atteste que”. And, after all, how can you attest anything to a cigar?

And, Adam, there’s nothing obscure about the third stanza: “exclure” is a transitive verb and requires “le réel” as an object. No punctuation because the whole thing is one “wave” of perceptiveness, which, in the end, disappears into nothingness; for the (late) 19th century (symbolist) poet, writing literature is a constant “beginning”, a constant “surge” (and decline) of susceptibility to the “In-finite” “music”.

By on 05/30/07 at 07:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think it’s Adam’s job to propose a final beautiful English version of the poem.

By on 05/30/07 at 08:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

... of course, a wave and a cloud are not, really, the same thing.

Yeah, try saying that looking an electron straight in the orbit.

But yes, it’s up to Adam to bring this full circle.

By nnyhav on 05/30/07 at 10:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Oh, not necessarily.  It could be left as a sort of translation tree.  Or really, people seemed to go in two directions from the original half-rhyme, towards full rhyme and free verse, so I think there’ll end up being three versions.

By the way, I always read “Attest to” as implicitly meaning “Attest to (the existence of)”—I don’t think that it implies that anyone is attesting something to the cigar.  There is the question of whether it should be singular or plural, though, which depends on whether the rings or the soul is doing the attesting.  I assumed that it was the smoke rings.

Here is my idea for the free verse version (Joseph’s translation modified), v.2, with (tab) put in for spaces at the left margin, (line) put in where the comment box would delete an extra blank line—I haven’t otherwise changed the words at all:

We express our whole soul when we slowly exhale
Those several rings of

smoke

Driven out by other rings

That attest to some cigar, briefly, brilliantly smoldering
-- Separated by an ash—
From the clear kiss of fire

Thus the choir of romances
(tab)Rises to your lips—
(tab)(tab)If you begin, begin by
(tab)(tab)(tab)Excluding reality.
It is vile.

Too much precision of sense erases
(line)
(line)
Your vague literature.

By on 05/31/07 at 12:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

“There is the question of whether it should be singular or plural, though, which depends on whether the rings or the soul is doing the attesting. I assumed that it was the smoke rings.”

There is no question that “atteste” is singular, the plural would be “attestent”; and the smoke rings, being part of the subordinate clause, can’t be the subject of the main clause anyway. So the subject (of the main clause) can either be the soul or the cigar, and, according to logic, I’d say the cigar attests to the existence of the soul rather than the other way around.

But let’s say you’ve taken Mallarmé’s poem as a starting point, applied a colouring of imagination to the whole thing and written a new, different poem on your own.

“A puppy and a watermelon being essentially the same thing”, I’m tempted to say; with a twinkle in the eye. But for that read Adam’s next article about particles, thermostats, and so on.

By on 05/31/07 at 03:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hello--

I just found this site--and this post--after following a very different link trail, specifically, on Tintin and Alph-Art.  This is fascinating, since I’ve done some Mallarme translations myself.  Here is one that was published in 2002 in Beacons:  A Magazine of Literary Translation, no. 8 (American Translators Association).  It’s not the same poem, but it’s still a sonnet.  I should add that I’m very much in agreement with the Rossetti theory of translation outlined above.  Anyway, here’s the poem:

GREETING

This frothing, nothing, virgin verse
Attesting but the crystal flute;
Just so a topsy-turvy suit
Of distant mermaids dies immersed.

Avast, we’re sailing, my diverse
And sundry friends, I’m at the stern
You at the sumptuous prow that burns
Across the surge and skies adverse.

A splendid drunkenness enlists me
Undaunted by its pitch and listing
To offer, standing up, hereforth

This toast:  aloneness, reef or star,
To whatsoever’s proven worth
Our canvas’s white care unscarred.

This was a toast he gave at a poets’ banquet--so you must imagine him with a champagne flute in hand, comparing the bubbly with the sea, then sailing on that stormy sea with the progress of avant-garde poetry (he’s speaking mostly to younger poets, which is why they are at the prow, he’s at the stern), the drunkenness caused by champagne with the rocking of the ship, and finally the piece of paper on which one writes with the ship’s sail.  I don’t have the French on hand, but if anyone is interested, I can type it in tomorrow. 

I’m glad to find a chance to post this somewhere--the trouble with small magazines, like Beacons, is that they sink like a stone:  I sent the pieces in, they were accepted, the journal came out, I got my two copies, then nothing. 

I’ve also recently finished a version of “Afternoon of a Faun"--more successful than the piece above, I think--that I’m not sure where to submit.  But an artist friend and I are working together to design a handmade edition of it that would be somehow similar to Mallarme’s and Manet’s.

Feedback is greatly appreciated!

By Andrei Molotiu on 06/13/07 at 04:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Andrei, your translation is, no doubt, better than anything that has been proposed here. A “serious” translation, and great fun too.
I like it.

By on 06/16/07 at 01:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thank you, Birgit!  I was really afraid I had killed this thread for good. 

Admittedly, I may yet have…

By Andrei Molotiu on 06/18/07 at 05:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My wife and I attended the Impressionism exhibition at the de Young Museum in San Francisco last week. Included was a portrait of Stéphane Mallarmé by Manet and reference to the poem. How convenient to find your excellent translation. I copied it, along with the painting that shows Mallarmé perusing a book with cigar in hand and sent it to my cigar-smoking friends. Thank you!

By on 06/15/10 at 08:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Add a comment:

Name:
Email:
Location:
URL:

 

Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below: