Saturday, 2 March 2013

Translating Beckett's poetry



Samuel Beckett's poetry in French and English doesn't attract much attention. It amounts to a handful of individual volumes starting with Echo's Bones and Other Precipitates (1935).





In 1978 he published Poèmes, suivi de Mirlitonnades, the latter being around forty very short verses (vers de mirliton is French for doggerel, from mirliton, a penny whistle). They are all deceptively simple, like this one:

imagine si ceci
un jour ceci
un beau jour 
imagine
si un jour
un beau jour ceci
si ceci
cessait 
imagine

A metaphysical epic of 21 words in nine lines (or 7 words, carefully repeated). The dying fall of si ceci/cessait is wonderful, with its background English exhalation of 'cease' (upon the midnight with no pain?) and we'll return to it in a moment.

Much of Beckett's French poetry has never been translated. I recently bought the Collected Poems, edited by Sean Lawlor and John Pilling for Faber. Astonishingly this runs to 500 pages, although around half of that is the editors' exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) Commentary. It certainly earns its bulky place next to the 1977 John Calder edition (147 pages) and the notoriously slipshod Poems 1930 - 1989 (Calder again, but expanded to 226 pages, with one of the 'newly discovered' poems attributed to Beckett actually by Robert Browning). This edition was brilliantly demolished in a Guardian review* by Christopher Ricks, who compared two translations of the mirlitonnade appearing above. The first, by Kevin Perryman,  appeared in Babel magazine in 1990:



just think if all this
one day all this
one fine day
just think
if one day
one fine day all this
stopped
just think


'The hinge', says Ricks, 'is the turn "ceci / cessait", and Perryman's "all this / stopped" is abrupt and jagged where the original is shady stealth.'  The second version, by the American poet and translator Marcia Karp, comes closer to the original, but not very close:



imagine yes this this

one day this this
one fine day
imagine
yes one day
one fine day this this
dissolves
imagine



I'm not sure about that 'this this' though. Try saying it aloud. I'm sure I couldn't do any better but prompted by the Ricks review I decided to have a go. I think it's best to replace 'imagine' in English with the more diffident and idiomatic 'say'. This keeps the sense if not the sound or rhythm, but allows something approximating the euphony of si ceci/cessait admired by Ricks.

say all this
one day all this
one fine day
say
if one day
one fine day
if all this
ceased
say

Mneh. Not quite there. 'Ceased' is better than 'dissolved' in the second version, I think, because it conveys an abruptly temporal meaning. Dissolution suggests space as much as time, and I don't like the tongue-twister sibilance between 'this' and 'ceased'. So what if, instead of 'this' in the first line, we use 'lot', as in 'A policeman's lot is not a happy one'? 'Lot', in other words, in the rather fatalistic sense of one's allocated span or condition, one's fate or destiny, with a faint echo to the Old Testament figure fleeing the ruins of Sodom, a place where things 'ceased' abruptly. This works if we adopt the Perryman approach and substitute 'stopped' for 'ceased'. Here's my final version, or at least my latest draft:


          say this lot
one day this lot
one fine day
say
if one day
one fine day
all this lot
stopped
say

Does lot/stopped work? The past tense verb has a /t/ end sound, so it's a good approximate rhyme. All the words are monosyllables, which have a pared-down quality true to the original. Nine lines still, although using eight different words, not seven as in the original. Twenty-two words in total. Perhaps I should cut the 'all' in line 7? I'm tempted to render that last word ('imagine' in the original, 'say' in my draft version), as 'as it were', echoing an earlier Beckett novel title: Comment c'est / How it is (1961).

The Lawlor/Pilling Collected Poems tells us that 'imagine si ceci' was first published in Hand and Eye, a limited edition hommage to Sacheverell Sitwell (Edinburgh: Tragara Press, 1977). The original line 7 ('si ceci') appears in three manuscript versions in Beckett's hand but was omitted in the version he produced for Editions de Minuit, which has perpetuated this omission ever since. Was the omission an error? In the penultimate version, written by Beckett for Josette Hayden on the back of a cigarette packet, the lines admired by Ricks (si ceci / cessait) are replaced by 'pouvait / s'atténnuer'. That's problematic. 'Atténnuer' can mean to lessen, or to palliate (both very Beckettian words), to mitigate and so on, and on. Any suggestions?  

Another Beckett translation tomorrow - and a surprising one.





Poem © The Estate of Samuel Beckett / Les Editions de Minuit

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