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Besieging foreign language texts in multiple translation (the way I used to read Dante) puts you in an odd relation to language itself. The foreign text, the real text, sinks to a level with the others. Frustration at difficult syntax is replaced by generalized suspicion. The foreign text becomes in a way vulnerable; you scan it as if for errors. What's probably happening is a refining in your mind of a fourth text, the one you want, which may include familiarity with the foreign tongue, but more likely means acquaintance with the poem itself, as something neither the original nor some hacked through to equation in my own tongue but the poem in its energy, perhaps like something known in youth. A translated poem presents aspects, usually unexpected (I find the knotty parts most interesting.) It's worth saying that I can't read what I want, perhaps quite badly, to read. My nose is pressed to the glass; this position of not understanding something is embarrassing. You feel you should be able to understand the parts you don't. The interest, impetus, is there, and Dante in translation (say Fletcher and Sayers) fuses by a kind of passionate interest with the Italian, perhaps with memories of Eliot's masculine/feminine variant on terza rima.

Hölderlin is a poet I'm likely to approach in multiple translation, Valéry another. A habit of doing this builds until you're adept at looking at what isn't there, and here you become vulnerable to what Herm David used to call the three-month dog expert. Still it presents itself as a perception, not just like a perception, that the translators, no matter how good, don't live with the life of your own language habits. For Dante ultimately I prefer Fletcher, though Sayers captures his impudence, Dante in his Archie Goodwin aspect. Similarly I could say my Quixote, my Faust, even my Unamuno (it's too hard for me to give up Crawford Flitch, but Anthony Kerrigan's Agony of Christianity is glorious.) The perturbation I'm trying to describe, state of unease, is particularly acute for me reading Valéry -- much more I think than for Mallarmé. Reading him is almost reading him. So reading the translations becomes almost reading the translations -- one chooses to quarrel from no place to stand. What's happening is an upsurge of patriotism for one's personal speech, the citadel.

I went over the top lately with Valéry's Ébauche d'un serpent. I don't find the attitudes in the poem particularly appealing, but it's a showcase of his ambivalences toward his Byronic intelligence figure, a verse Teste, complicated by the felt difference in quality between Valéry's scepticism and the serpent's.

Valéry's poem is thirty-one ten-line stanzas, many of them in love with post-Gautier lush rhyming -- the line-end vowels are very self-conscious.

I tinkered with a stanza halfway through, two four-beat quatrains followed by a short line like Robert Burns's:

Oui! De mon poste de feuillage

Reptile aux extases d'oiseau,

Cependant que mon babillage

Tissait de ruses le réseau,

Je te buvais, ô belle sourde!

Calme, claire, de charmes lourde, Je dominais furtivement,

L'oeil dans l'or ardent de ta laine

Ta nuque énigmatique et pleine

Des secrets de ton mouvement!

Yes, in my blind amid the leaves

this chattering bird threw off its scales

which following, my treasure, you

drank me deaf in the intervals.

It was you who charmed me like a fruit

blunt, heavy with your charms

eye sunk in your winking golden fleece

your Gibson Girlish naiad arms

whispered to me.

It was all right, though in places floating very free from what (I suppose to be) the original sense. I went from that to Valéry's first stanza. One of my trots prints two per page, which may have moved me to make the first stanza's short line the rhyme for the next stanza's first quatrain, perhaps since in a sense it's a religious subject, though in Valéry this nearly becomes an investigation of how free aesthetics may float from purely religious considerations, and since I'd already decided to omit the spaces between stanzas, it seemed useful to lock my nine-line stanzas together, with the short lines functioning as separators, xaxaxbxbc xcxcxdxde, etc. I didn't care overmuch about shifts of speaker (that interest some Valéry commentators, I think for old-fashioned reasons), from the spokesmanship built into the plot. Valéry's poem is full of echoic references to other French poems, at least I could catch scraps of Mallarmé and Baudelaire. I replaced these when possible with metaphoric references to the poets, and to writers I admire. Valéry's snake's viperishly triangular green head, "mon triangle d'émeraude/Tire sa langue à double fil . . ." becomes "my head's half-quincunx green as its/extended tongue double-drawn as/Guinness" mixing Sir Thomas Browne's Garden of Cyrus (itself full of references to Eden), an Irish drink and the color green, with a pun on "drawn," since the best pints are drawn from two barrels, one nearly full, the other near-empty, and commentators say the snake is being drawn, in ink, at the start of the poem, and begins to talk in propria persona when the tongue is sketched in (presumably with a split nib). I've written a poem in hexameters of a sort on the death of Socrates, and wasn't going to let past me his reference to hemlock, which for me is "Socrates'/beverage, hic." I'd half intended to make my half-lines work as comment like the short lines in Berryman's Dream Songs, and I think right here replaced Valéry's dedication À Henri Gheon with my "for Henry, gone" to acknowledge the source and kind of atrocities I hoped to commit.

These include references to friends of Valéry not there, explicitly, in his poem. As he says, in a line C. Day Lewis picked up, the reason for form in a poem is to prevent it saying everything. Once you relax it a little, things begin coming in. The fourth stanza's landscapes, phantoms, eyes and lie suggested to me a toy theater's pantomimic dissolving-view scrim, hence Degas' dancers:

Grand Soleil, qui sonnes l'éveil

A l'être, et de feux l'accompagnes,

Toi qui l'enfermes d'un sommeil

Trompeusement peint de campagnes,

Fauteur des fantômes joyeux

Qui rendent sujette des yeux

La présence obscure de l'âme,

Toujours le mensonge m'a plu

Que tu épands sur l'absolu,

Ô roi des ombres fait de flamme!

Oh Magnifiquish caller into

being, chief incinerator

of what playing on the gauzy

back of our toy theater

we take as setting for the sylphid

poppets we admire today

importing into them the souls

Degas would draw in bright Conté

lying his head off.


I liked the Miltonic shadow-flames, but knew they'd come up again, lights so like shades, so let them go here. I like to think I prepared for the jarring introduction of Degas (on whom Valéry wrote well, though his sympathies were imperfect, and whose manner as reported isn't so far from Valéry's Serpent) by filling out the third stanza with a reference to Marsilio Ficino's elegantly appointed pagan chamber fitted up (with the best materials) as a Microcosm in which the spheres's harmonics could be evoked by words, tunes, incense:

best trap of all, your glare concealing

the dirty blue egg tempera

that made sky of Ficino's ceiling

centuries later!

I kept his exclamation mark as an acknowledgment of my effrontery and chucked his heavy remark about being as a flaw in nonbeing's diamond; the two together were impossible in English. I was forced to act as if persona meant nothing; Valéry couldn't get away with it with the defense that he spoke in character. What plonked went. Similarly I shifted the Serpent's more Iagan brags about seducing Eve to complaints at it going the other way.

Inserting Swinburne in the thirteenth stanza made it easier to modulate in the fourteenth from French masters and friends to more English ones:

O masse de béatitude

Tu es si belle, juste prix

De la toute sollicitude

Des bons et des meilleurs esprit!

Pour qu'à tes lévres ils soient pris

Il leur suffit que tu soupires!

Les plus purs s'y penchent les pires,

Les plus durs sont les plus meurtris . . .

Jusques à moi, tu m'attendris,

De qui relévent les vampires!

Oh blessed mass of pulchritude

you are the bestest proper rose

a Ruskin, Pater might admire

or Whistler paint in pensive pose

like Heffernan, her mind her lips

to tempt a Newman languishing

with painted fan, and no one knows

what of you think, a beauty raising

Dracula's hackles.


The temptation, I find, is to talk soberly about what I've done to render Valéry, even his humor -- to explain away tactics which are so much what you'd find in Don Juan. Somehow translating a language you don't know well makes you, while you are doing it, an expert. I wasn't making a trot for myself, even to remind myself what it was like wading in these stanzas. I shot for what I half-imagined was the life in them, and what I invented was a different system of decorum. Perhaps decorums, the plural, is more like. The nouns of writers like Valéry make patterns, more important than the explicit argument. Translating these patterns makes a livelier poem, more true to Valéry's feeling mind, which as he writes includes as motives what he doesn't write down. Roy Campbell once translated Baudelaire beautifully almost overnight. The flowers ink or milk make in water become high-speed clouds in Poltergeist II. As my version says, at the end, instead of what Valéry says to his reptilian, plaited-horsewhip Serpent (more of the nonbeing of being rant):

This style we take from you

non-thing, plié.



Pas de Valéry

The Maritime Graveyard



Faun's Midafternoon

Le vierge

Poe's Monument



Prose Poem

These pieces have appeared in the following publications:

"Pas de Valéry" and "Effecting Translusions," Washington Review XVI, #2, 1990. "The Maritime Graveyard," Another Chicago Magazine #23. "Faun's Midafternoon," House Organ #8, 1994. "Le vierge" and "Poe's Monument," Spit #s 6 & 7, 1993. "Prose Poem," Poetic Briefs #13, 1993.

Copyright Gerald Burns 1995