Exploring and Renegotiating Transparency in Poetry Translation

By | 1 May 2015

Applications: Sappho and Marceline Desbordes-Valmore

I will now demonstrate two applications of these observations, aimed at inviting broader reader engagement with the technical intricacies of the original poets’ works, as well as producing clear English-language translations. In light of considering Seiichi Niikuni’s translated poetry, I will apply a slightly more ‘distant’ approach, where applicable, to identify grammatical manipulations in the original text of Marceline Desbordes -Valmore’s ‘L’Impossible’ and demonstrate issues that may not be apparent to a non-speaker of French and which may be disguised by a dynamically or formally equivalent English translation. I will also engage with theories of transmission, as well as poetic licence and focus on the translator’s own experience of approaching a text, as demonstrated in Ezra Pound’s engagement with Li Bai, in a pieced-together translation of some of Sappho’s smaller poetic fragments. Central to these translations is not a requirement for complete accuracy or fidelity to the original poets’ works, but full disclosure of the translator’s approach as both critic and creative writer, engaging with issues identified within the poems, and offering these in the most permissive way possible for assessment by a broader audience.

Marceline Desbordes-Valmore (1786-1859) published her first of seven collections of poetry in 1819 and drew much critical acclaim for her works’ emotional, descriptive content. Aimée Boutin notes that Desbordes-Valmore has a particular poetic focus on mothers, valorising the maternal and focusing on the image of a lost mother in much of her work, and espousing the mother-infant relationship as a model social dynamic.1 However, upon reading across her oeuvre, there are also more subtly feminist strains to her work, conveyed subtly through the poet’s grammatical selections. Desbordes-Valmore shifts between genders from one poem to the next, writing sometimes as male, as in ‘Le Prisonnier de guerre’, or female in ‘L’Amour’. In ‘L’Impossible’, Desbordes-Valmore’s persona is referred to in the gender neutral ‘l’enfant’, but accompanying adjectives are in the feminine form. Conversely, when referring to her speaker as ‘l’enfant’ in ‘Tristesse’, masculine forms are used exclusively. While these moves are clear in French, they may not always be so in English, depending on the choices of the individual translator. This slippage of gender suggests subtle negotiation with readers’ expectations, and when coupled with a consistently positive depiction of maternal love and presence, promotes a feminist reading. Explanatory footnotes, which highlight where these manipulations would be valuable additions to an English-language translation, but as of yet have not been included in any publications.

I will now present ‘L’Impossible’ as it originally appears in French, with my own emphasis where clear female references appear placed in bold, and ambiguous female references in italics, along with my own translation of the poem:

Qui me rendra ces jours où la vie a des ailes
Et vole, vole ainsi que l'alouette aux cieux,
Lorsque tant de clarté passe devant ses yeux,
Qu'elle tombe éblouie au fond des fleurs, de celles
Qui parfument son nid, son âme, son sommeil,
Et lustrent son plumage ardé par le soleil !

Ciel ! un de ces fils d'or pour ourdir ma journée,
Un débris de ce prisme aux brillantes couleurs !
Au fond de ces beaux jours et de ces belles fleurs,
Un rêve ! où je sois libre, enfant, à peine née,

Quand l'amour de ma mère était mon avenir,
Quand on ne mourait pas encor dans ma famille,
Quand tout vivait pour moi, vaine petite fille !
Quand vivre était le ciel, ou s'en ressouvenir,

Quand j'aimais sans savoir ce que j'aimais, quand l'âme
Me palpitait heureuse, et de quoi ? Je ne sais ;
Quand toute la nature était parfum et flamme,
Quand mes deux bras s'ouvraient devant ces jours... passés.2


Who will return to me those days when life has wings
and flies, flies like a lark up to the skies,
when so much lightness passes before her eyes
that she falls dazzled deep into the flowers
perfuming her nest, her soul, her sleep,
and her feathers shine in the sun!
Heaven! One of those golden threads to weave in my day,
debris from that prism of brilliant colours!
Deep in those beautiful days and those fine flowers,
a dream! Where I'm free, a child, barely born,
when my mother's love was my future;
when none yet died in my family,
when everything lived for me, vain little girl!
when living was heaven, or remembering it!
When I loved without knowing why I loved, when the heart 
pulsed happily inside me, and why? I don't know;
when all nature was perfume and flame,
when my two arms opened before those days… past.

As is made apparent by the replication of the poems alongside one another, I have not imitated Desbordes-Valmore’s rhyme scheme. Instead, I have produced a relatively direct, plain translation of the French text. The gender of the speaker and focal child is much clearer in English than in French, as the highlighted sections indicate. In this instance, explanatory highlights would be a clearer demonstration of Desbordes-Valmore’s technical subversions for a reader than a relatively cumbersome dynamically equivalent translation. The highlighted French text is presented as a clear counter to the simpler English version, offering readers multiple points of engagement and areas for further research. However, such an approach may be dismissed from broader publication on the grounds that footnoting of this kind can detract from the poetry itself. This is why I have elected to place only the French text in bold; the presumption is that the recipient audience may not speak French, and therefore any addition to or engagement with the original text, via footnotes or extra notations of any kind, would not essentially change the reader’s experience of that text. In fact, the reader is much more likely to examine the original poem, now that additional ‘bridges’ have been made between the known, English-language version, and the previously unknown French text.

The next translation to be demonstrated is much more overtly creative. To translate Sappho is to engage closely with poems fraught with lacunae and contextual ambiguity. The ancient Greek poet Sappho, born between 630 and 612 BCE, has had a long and sometimes turbulent relationship with translators, scholars, and poets in English over the centuries. In part this can be attributed to the fragmentary state of her work, largely lost, partially degraded, or recovered ‘second-hand’ via questionably direct quotations in others’ works. Her poetry has been preserved in two main states: quoted in certain ancient texts; and on papyri dug up from an Egyptian archaeological site in Oxyrhynchus. The physical deterioration of these excavated pieces, and the questionable authority of versions recorded by Longinus and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, make reading Sappho’s poetry a suspicious process. Legends and scant biographical details, proliferating in light of bawdy Attic comedies, Ovid’s fiction of Sappho, and literary fictions produced by Italian, French and English-speaking authors, have also complicated this matter.

However, by reading widely across Sappho’s oeuvre, recurring themes can be identified and allied with less physically complete poems, offering room for broader interpretations. The following translation takes heavy liberties with Sappho’s original fragmented text, imposing new structures and a narrative on fragments that are otherwise disparate and as of yet not aligned with a larger poem. In this instance, reproducing Sappho’s original Greek, as well as an explanatory exegesis, at the beginning of the translations, would greatly assist in signalling my creative as well as interpretive interests in producing this translation. My translation represents another layer of this historical traditional of imposing biographies on Sappho; this creative adaptation literally forces a narrative upon otherwise unlinked poetic fragments, but ideally engages with a much more vocal, self-determinative vision of the poet, in keeping with my critical understanding of Sappho as a biographical and poetic figure:


†αυταόρα† ἐστεφαναπλόκην (fr. 125)			
.... Ἔμεθεν δ’ ἔχεισθα λάθαν (fr. 129A)			
)ἐπιν(   ).(...)ν̣ό.(					
καιν(  (fr. 59)
ζάβατον (fr. 181)
καὶ ποθήω καὶ μάομαι ... (fr. 36)			
ἰοίην (fr. 182)						
καὶτ’ ἐ (
μηδεν (
νῦν δ ἀ ( (fr. 82B, part.)						



I used to weave crowns
you forget me
and I long and seek
I may go

My translation is heavily influenced by Anne Carson’s If Not, Winter and her superbly crisp interpretations of Sappho’s terse Aeolic Greek.3 The terseness of the selected lines boosts the sense of desolation that this version is intended to promote, as the speaker is forced to shift from place to place, and gaps between the speaker’s voice, actions, and intentions are made clear by the disjointed nature of the translation. Each numbered fragment is presented alongside its translation, out or order and clearly highlighting the artificial nature of this construction. One fragment has also been cut-off, and cannot be completely translated, emphasising losses inherent in making such a poem, and overarching in the heavy-handed ways in which Sappho’s work has been translated, transferred, and adapted in English-language translations for centuries. The speaker and reader are both disconnected.

This adaptive translation is ‘inspired by Sappho’, rather than a strict reproduction of the poet’s work, in much the same way that Pound’s Cathay reflects on Li Bai but does not strictly examine the original poet’s work, context, and concerns. Rather than being promoted as a translation, this poem and any others like it would be better described as creative adaptations that reflect a school of thought surrounding a poet, but which also have translated elements. Rather than only focusing on translations that are ‘transparent’ renditions of a source poem into another language, without acknowledgement of the often-convoluted processes that brought the poet’s work to such attention, a much more broadly transparent process of translation should be popularly embraced. By addressing the roles of the translator or translators historically or more recently connected with the original poet’s work, more readers from a wider range of backgrounds will be able to enhance their understandings of a new text, and potentially pursue further studies or revise their previous understandings of the natures of such works.

Translating poetry is a negotiation of distance between originary and introduced linguistics, structures, and contexts. Ideally, these movements should be ‘mapped out’ in reproductions, allowing for maximum transparency in the reading and interpreting processes. Publications that feature the original poem and translation side-by-side are valuable in that they offer grounds for linguistic comparison to readers versed in both languages, and facilitate recognition of structural similarities for readers with or without the necessary language skills. More valuable still are translations presented with the original version, and detailed notes to acknowledge linguistic traversals, contextual analyses, and historical references perhaps not common knowledge to a casual reader. Beyond this, there is much value to be found in openly creative adaptations of translations, which celebrate and explore the roles of the translator, reader, and original poet, in even more diverse ways.

The examples of my own translations, inspired by earlier translation processes examined in this paper, demonstrate some of the possibilities for transparent negotiation with texts from a variety of linguistic and historical backgrounds to take place, openly inviting criticism and engagement not only with other translators, but also with a wider readership. Despite the potential for difficulty associated with producing, publishing and marketing translations that are not traditionally ‘transparent’, this revised scope of transparency in translation stands to offer much scope for readers and translators alike to consider, as well as more consciously recognise the subjective links between the original poet and their new recipients.

  1. Aimée Boutin, Maternal Echoes: The Poetry of Marceline Desbordes-Valmore and Alphonse de Lamartine, Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2001, pp. 12-16.
  2. Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, Les Pleurs: Poésies nouvelles, Paris: Goullet, 1834, pp. 269-272.
  3. Original Greek text from Carson, If Not, Winter, p. 254; 262; 122; 350; 72; 350; 158.
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