Monday, 27 May 2013

Beckett and Éluard


I wrote a while ago about the pleasures and challenges involved in translating Samuel Beckett's spare French poetry into English.

Beckett was himself a productive translator of other poets, including Apollinaire, Breton, Montale and Rimbaud. He had a particular affinity with surrealist writers, notably Paul Éluard (1895 - 1952), and here's an Éluard poem with a well-known second line. It's followed by three English translations, one by Beckett.


À Peine Défigurée

Adieu tristesse,
Bonjour tristesse.
Tu es inscrite dans les lignes du plafond.
Tu es inscrite dans les yeux que j’aime
Tu n’es pas tout à fait la misère,
Car les lèvres les plus pauvres te dénoncent
Par un sourire.

Bonjour tristesse.
Amour des corps aimables.
Puissance de l’amour
Dont l’amabilité surgit
Comme un monstre sans corps.
Tête désappointée.
Tristesse, beau visage.

Now here's an adequate translation appearing anonymously on the internet, which oddly retains then translates the first two lines:

Barely Disfigured

Adieu Tristesse
Bonjour Tristesse
Farewell Sadness
Hello Sadness
You are inscribed in the lines on the ceiling
You are inscribed in the eyes that I love
You are not poverty absolutely
Since the poorest of lips denounce you
Ah with a smile

Bonjour Tristesse
Love of kind bodies
Power of love
From which kindness rises
Like a bodiless monster
Unattached head
Sadness beautiful face


Now here's the Beckett translation:


Scarcely Disfigured

Farewell sadness
Greeting sadness
Thou art inscribed in the lines of the ceiling
Thou art inscribed in the eyes that I love
Thou art not altogether want
For the poorest lips denounce thee
Smiling
Greeting sadness
Love of the bodies that are lovable
Mightiness of love that lovable
Starts up as a bodiless beast
Head of hope defeated
Sadness countenance of beauty

Beckett's version prompts a number of thoughts, starting with that second line, which had been adopted by Françoise Sagan as the title of her hugely popular 1954 novel. (Beckett's translation was first published in 1966, so he may well have wanted to avoid the associations of the best-selling book). The editors of Beckett's Collected Poems, Sean Lawlor and John Pilling, call Beckett's version of the second line 'rather strained' and suggest that 'greetings might have been expected'.

This is wrong on two counts. 'Greetings sadness' is phonetically undesirable, with the adjacent 's' sounds creating an ugly hissing elision. More importantly Lawlor and Pilling overlook the secondary meaning of 'greeting', from the Scottish verb 'greet', meaning to weep. Beckett, I suggest, was aware of this and a 'greeting sadness' is cognate with a 'crying shame'. As an alternative my blog title would work in both cases, as Salvēte can mean equally 'Hail' and 'Farewell', like the Italian ciao.




The title, 'Scarcely Disfigured' reminds me of a Beckett story, although I can't recall where I first heard it. Beckett was working on a German television production of his play Eh Joe and was approached by the director with a question. Beckett's stage directions specified that a door in the background should be 'imperceptibly ajar'. What exactly did this mean? The two men crossed the set to the door (which was what's called a 'practical', i.e functioning prop) and the director tried various degrees of ajar-ness. Like this? No. Like this? No. How's this?  

Beckett then closed the door with an audible click. 'The door,' he said, 'is now imperceptibly ajar.'

Before closing this blog with an audible click I'd like to throw my hat in the ring with my own translation of the Éluard poem, which may be better than the internet version but is not a patch on Beckett's:


So long sadness
Hello sadness
You're graven in the lines overhead
You're graven in the eyes I love
You're not wholly poor
Though poorest lips deny you,
Smiling.

Hello sadness
Lover of bodies beloved
And the grave energy of love
From which kindness rises
A bodiless creature
The head on a thread,
A sad, a beautiful face.



Mneh. Needs work.


Beckett translation © The Estate of Samuel Beckett

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