Home > 19th Century, British Literature, Keats John, Personal Posts, Poetry > My experience with reading poems by Keats

My experience with reading poems by Keats

January 31, 2016 Leave a comment Go to comments

Poems by John Keats. French copy: Seul dans la splendeur.

keats_poèmesAfter reading his letters to Fanny Brawne, I thought that the least I could do was read some of Keats’ poems. I know, I’m doing things a little bit backwards. Let’s face it, reading poetry in another language is hard. Reading their translation is not satisfying and bilingual editions are the best compromise. So I got myself Seul dans la splendeur, a bilingual edition of a collection of poems by Keats. The English is on the left page, and the French translation by Robert Davreu is on the right page.

I am not going to review poems by Keats only armed with my high school literary baggage and an imperfect knowledge of the English language. The poems are beautiful, eerie, light as feathers and yet deep. They are imprinted with that deep awareness that life is fleeting that only chronically ill persons seem to perceive. (When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be) I preferred the poems with no reference to other literary works (On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer doesn’t fascinate me) or Greek mythology. It spoke to the readers of that time but so much to me. I always find it bombastic. Anyway.

I want to write about my reading experience with these poems, even if it’s probably not of much interest to anyone but myself.

I wasn’t happy with the translation. There were complicated French words and I had to look at the original to understand the verse (!!) That’s on me, I should have known these words. Sometimes I felt like the French was taking too much liberty with the original poem. Here’s an example with On Fame (II).

Keats_On_Fame

I don’t understand how grateful becomes qui rend grâce and not reconnaissante or why ripe plum becomes once prune mûre and then prune à maturité when the original repeats ripe plum twice. These are details. My main concern is about the two last verses. In the next to last verse, teasing the world for grace is translated as importun assoiffé de la faveur du monde. If I translated it back, I’d write something like unwelcome visitor greedy for the world’s grace. Does it sound like the original? Teasing sounds light, like poking slightly someone to have them do what you want. Assoiffé is another level of passion and it’s negative.

The last verse goes on with the negative vibe coming off the translation of the previous one. Again, if I translated back Pourrisse son salut pour une idolâtrie barbare, I’d write Ruins his salvation for barbarian idolatry. How can fierce miscreed become barbarian idolatry? Does the English have another meaning in Keats’ times? Were the words stronger then than they sound to me now? I hope an English native reader also fluent in French can help me with that. And of course, the next question is “who am I to challenge the work of a professional translator”?…

Something entirely different. My being a French reader did something funny when I arrived to On the Grasshopper and Cricket.

keats_grasshopperAs you can see in the translation of the title, a grasshopper is une sauterelle. Sauterelle is a feminine word and the end of the word with elle suggests femininity as well. If I were a cartoonist and I had to draw a sauterelle with human characteristics, it would be an elegant and graceful woman. So, I can’t picture a grasshopper as a he and when I read the original poem, it was a bit disturbing. It’s strange how our native language shapes our minds.

The footnote on this poem says that Keats wrote it in a contest between he and Leigh Hunt to see whether they were able to whip out a poem about grasshoppers and crickets in fifteen minutes. That’s how talented Keats was: fifteen minutes to write a beautiful poem that transports us to a hot summer day in a second. His untimely death seems such a waste of talent. Or perhaps it’s wishful thinking on our side and his talent was a comet in his youth, like Rimbaud.

  1. January 31, 2016 at 12:05 pm

    I completely understand your reluctance to read poetry in translation. I resisted it for such a long time, but it’s the only option for opening me up to so many poets in other languages… It also helps to read more than one translation, as it can give you a completely different feel. I saw four versions of Baudelaire’s poem ‘La Beauté’ in English and none of them precisely conveyed the full text, but together they helped to build up a better picture of it. (But of course, who has time to do that unless they are studying literature?)

    As for the gendered nouns – that is a constant problem. For instance, I always think of cat as feminine, because in Romanian and German it’s a feminine noun, so all cats are females to me. Which doesn’t work very well in French, of course!

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    • January 31, 2016 at 2:15 pm

      You’re right, the only solution would be to read several translations and cross-reference them to get a better picture. I sure don’t have time to do that.

      I have Ivresse de l’aube by Kostolanyi. I really wonder how far from the original the translation is. He was a fantastic poet, according to what I’ve read. But how does Hungarian poetry translate into French?

      That’s interesting that cat is a feminine noun in Romanian. I’d expect it to be the same as in French. I think it’s different than for sauterelle because in French, you have two words. Either it’s un chat or une chatte. So if it’s un chat, it can’t be a female…Whereas sauterelle, there’s only one word.

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  2. January 31, 2016 at 1:14 pm

    Really enjoyed this post, thanks for sharing your experience. I’ve found the same thing reading parallel translations of Goethe’s poetry (German->English). My German isn’t good enough to completely follow the originals, but the English is not satisfying & loses some of its lyricism–so I read the German, then the English to get a better sense of the meaning, then the German again with a deeper understanding. Obviously this is a lengthy process but in the end it works out okay–but who has the time?

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    • January 31, 2016 at 2:20 pm

      That’s what I did too. It takes a bit of time but it’s really easy to do with these bilingual editions. You just have to look at the adjoining page.
      Shakespeare’s sonnets seemed easier to read than Keats. Is it the same for English readers?

      The problem is for poetry in languages we can’t read. Is it worth reading Italian or Spanish or German poetry when I can’t have a taste of the original?

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      • January 31, 2016 at 5:52 pm

        I think Keats uses so much imagery & so many double or triple meanings that he’s probably very hard to translate (or hard to read in your second language). It’s there in Shakespeare, but it’s far less intense, so probably easier to read in a foreign language/translate.

        I’ve read a little bit of Italian poetry and enjoyed it–I can’t read or speak any Italian, but I know how the words are generally meant to sound, so I can at least get the sense of the rhythm & flow (and then the meaning from a translation). I’m not sure I could do the same for a language that’s a totally unknown quantity, where I don’t even know how it sounds.

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        • January 31, 2016 at 7:16 pm

          I knew I was missing a lot in these poems. *sigh*

          It would be useless to have the Hungarian original if you don’t speak Hungarian. Unlike Italian, you wouldn’t recognise anything.

          Liked by 1 person

          • January 31, 2016 at 8:13 pm

            For what it’s worth, I think Shakespeare’s sonnets are much more fun to read than Keats’. I think that Keats spent most of his time trying to be too clever for his own good. Shakespeare was a bit more grounded!

            Liked by 1 person

  3. January 31, 2016 at 2:07 pm

    We tried reading some French poems in class last term, and I could sense our teacher’s frustration that we couldn’t really grasp how beautiful it was because we were translating rather than understanding the French itself. Poetry *is* difficult, and I don’t know what the solution is. As Marina says, sometimes a translation is the only alternative, but as LouLou says, sometimes it’s just not satisfying.

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    • January 31, 2016 at 2:23 pm

      Which French poems did you study?

      On top of the obvious language difficulty linked to the vocabulary, poems are meant to be told. So I know I miss the beauty of how the poem sounds since I can’t say it properly.
      And then, there’s the beauty coming from the versification techniques.
      It’s a score with three voices that’s hard to hear completely when you’re a foreigner.

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      • January 31, 2016 at 2:44 pm

        We read some Jacques Prévert and some Baudelaire from Les Fleurs du Mal. But I find it much easier to read prose, I’m getting on quite well with Indiana now, because I’ve become used to the style and the vocabulary is becoming more familiar as I read each chapter. I’m just starting Part 2 now and hope to read much quicker from now on…

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        • January 31, 2016 at 3:33 pm

          My guess is that Baudelaire was easier than Prévert.

          In my experience with English, 19thC literature isn’t the most complicated once you get into the style. French & English words look alike sometimes and you can guess the meaning.
          The worst is books full of slang. And long description of nature and animals.

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          • January 31, 2016 at 3:50 pm

            Yes, slang is very difficult. I haven’t tried to read any modern French, but modern Indonesian is full of Jakarta slang and it’s really hard because you can’t find it in a dictionary.

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            • January 31, 2016 at 7:25 pm

              English slang is in the dictionary, at least. But you can’t be in the dictionary all the time when you read.

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              • January 31, 2016 at 10:46 pm

                No, if you need to do that, the text is too hard. But what I found was some modern Indonesian texts, even when I had a good vocabulary on the topic, it was useless because everything was written in slang. If there wasn’t too much of it I could work it out from context, but there were times when I came across something I just couldn’t figure out and the dictionary was no help. Of course now with the internet, it would be easy:)

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        • January 31, 2016 at 5:46 pm

          Just chiming in here on Baudelaire. He translated much of H. P. Lovecraft’s works. I’m sorry I don’t know if it was short stories only or if he also did some of the poetry. Lovecraft’s style is difficult to read in English. Baudelaire’s translations were described as wildly popular in France.

          Liked by 1 person

          • January 31, 2016 at 7:15 pm

            Baudelaire is also Poe’s translator. I’ve never read H.P. Lovecraft.

            Liked by 1 person

            • January 31, 2016 at 7:37 pm

              You know, Emma, I totally goofed when I said Baudelaire translated Lovecraft’s work. It was Poe! Glad you mentioned Poe, it jogged my ancient faulty memory.

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          • January 31, 2016 at 10:42 pm

            That’s interesting. I’ve never read any Lovecraft. Another to track down!

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            • February 1, 2016 at 3:17 am

              Alas, I goofed when I said Lovecraft. It was Poe that Baudelaire translated which was so popular. Glad Emma mentioned Poe.

              Liked by 1 person

  4. February 1, 2016 at 8:00 am

    Oh well, we’ll read him too! (I think I already have, long ago…)

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  5. February 1, 2016 at 11:54 am

    Wonderful review, Emma! Loved your comparison of the original Keats poem with the French translation and on your alternative translations. This sentence from your post made me smile – “I am not going to review poems by Keats only armed with…an imperfect knowledge of the English language” 🙂 Because your next sentence read – “The poems are beautiful, eerie, light as feathers and yet deep. They are imprinted with that deep awareness that life is fleeting”. Well, if imperfect English looks like that, I so want to write like that 🙂 Your English is wonderful and is always a pleasure to read. You are so modest. It was interesting to read your thoughts on the word for ‘grasshopper’. I would have thought that with respect to animals, birds and insects, there would be two words to indicate the female and the male and then there would be a cultural assumption of what the animal or bird would normally be – for example a cat is always regarded as a ‘she’. It is interesting that there is only a feminine word for the grasshopper in French and there is no word for the male grasshopper. I agree with you that because of this, Keats’ poem might sound odd. If I can digress here, Mary Oliver wrote a beautiful poem on the grasshopper in which she refers to it as ‘she’. Oliver is famous for doing that – in her poems, a grasshopper, a bear, a deer – they are all ‘she’. I think she must be French in her heart 🙂

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    • February 1, 2016 at 10:33 pm

      Thanks Vishy.
      I think that there are two words (feminine /masculine) for familiar or big animal. There’s only one word for fish, insects…I have the feeling that there’s one word when you can’t determine the sex of the animal just by looking at it. (like for the sauterelle)

      I thought that in English, by default, personified animals were always “he”.

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  6. February 1, 2016 at 11:03 pm

    A red flag went up for me too when I hit “prune à maturité” (??), as well as, on top of that, the weird and somewhat arbitrary rhyme scheme in the French translation, which at times seems to be trying to capture the rhyme scheme of Keats but at others seems to abandon even trying. I can’t answer your question regarding “fierce miscreed” other than to say that such a translation seems awkward to me too, implying a separate faith rather than fault in one’s own.

    I find it always helpful when reading poetry in translation to have the originals on facing pages or (like Richard Howard’s Les Fleurs du mal) at least included in the same volume. Even if one doesn’t know the language, it’s often possible to get some of the musicality. It’s even rewarding to look at something like Chinese poetry with the original facing the translation, and to marvel at how a few brush strokes seem to convey something that a translator sometimes takes several lines to get across.

    As for your question, “Who am I to challenge the work of a professional translator?” – I think that as a native speaker of French you’re the perfect person to challenge such work. The goal of a translator from English to French is to make the French work well, not simply to try to imitate the English original.

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    • February 2, 2016 at 2:27 pm

      About “prune à maturité” : If he had used prune mûre again, it would have rhymed with parure after and perhaps he didn’t want that.

      I wonder how Baudelaire would have translated his own poems…

      I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bilingual edition of Chinese poems. I suppose I’m not going to the right bookstores for that.

      About my question on my challenging the translator. I can appreciate whether the French sounds right in itself but my English isn’t good enough to be sure that my understanding of the original is sufficient to check the “validity” of the translation.
      Then, there’s also the actual request made by the publisher. Take translations from Ancient Rome writers. I have a bilingual edition of Aeneid. It is aimed at students: the translation is done to help you understand the Latin and not to be good in itself. Its purpose is education, not really to make you grasp the text separately from the original and it’s barely readable.

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  7. February 2, 2016 at 3:48 pm

    I have never reads Keats, nor much poetry by any poet, really, but I so enjoyed your reflections in this post. I, too, would be more interested in his “emotional side” than something reflecting Greek history. And, the poor translation would drive me bananas! You “ripe plum” example is just the kind of thing that would frustrate me no end. I used to read French quite well, even analyzing Candide in French after I read it in French, so I don’t appreciate incorrect words being thrust in my path. (That’s also the teacher in me.) 🙂

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    • February 4, 2016 at 10:19 pm

      I don’t know why the translator chose these expressions instead of others. There might be a valid reason that escapes my understanding. He knows Keats and English better than me, otherwise he wouldn’t be a translator.

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  8. February 4, 2016 at 12:55 pm

    Is your translation a recent one or an older one?

    Poetry in translation is a fascinating subject. I did a post on Cavafy, the Greek poet, where I compared three or four translations of the same poem and it was interesting how much even minor word changes could alter the sense. But then, with so few words in so many poems, that’s not so surprising.

    I got two Rimbaud collections among my Christmas gifts, both are parallel texts which can be helpful (though if I had a parallel Cavafy text it wouldn’t help at all since I have no Greek).

    There’s always this tension between translating the language precisely, and translating the feel of the poem. The two often war with each other, which is why Eugene Onegin is often called untranslatable (apparently the two are particularly at odds there when you move from Russian to English).

    It would be interesting to understand the choices with ripe plum. The translator must have been aware that they were losing the original repetition, but clearly decided that was better than the alternative (the additional rhyme you mention) so perhaps they thought it better to preserve flow than sense. Rather them than me making that kind of choice.

    Fascinating post Emma. I’ve not read much Keats. I grew up with Greek myth so I imagine I’d be pretty ok with those elements, references to other works can be much more challenging since the poet is often assuming a certain kind of education in the reader and centuries later it’s unlikely the reader has it. Those poems are often much more poet’s poems, like jazz pieces which reference another jazz musician’s work in the choice of notes. Rewarding for those in that world, but often lost on those of us who aren’t.

    Re Lovecraft, I’m quite a big fan of his work. I’m not persuaded however that you would be. It’s cosmic horror/weird sf, it’s highly influential (much more so than he would ever have dreamt in his life) but not the sort of thing you generally find interesting from what I’ve seen. Even if you do like him, he was a pulp author so his output varied hugely in quality and was often produced to deadline. He’s out of copyright so if you’re curious you can get a sense here with one of his signature tales – The Call of Cthulhu: http://www.dagonbytes.com/thelibrary/lovecraft/thecallofcthulhu.htm

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    • February 4, 2016 at 10:35 pm

      I don’t know if the translation is recent or not. I’d like to know how he made his choice. I’m sure everything has been thought through but I don’t underdand his reasons.

      Translating poetry is tricky. I’ve looked at several translations of a poem by Baudelaire for a post and none of them was really satisfactory. Form is crucial in poetry and the translator’s task is tough.

      I’m not bothered with the Greek references because I don’t understand them. (I don’t get all of them but the “famous” ones are ok.) It’s more that I find these comparisons heavy and they don’t age as well as the rest. I associate this with a certain way of declaiming poems or speeches, with old fashioned education. I’m sure it was expected to drop a few Greek names here and there at the time, just to prove you were well educated.

      Re HP Lovecraft. To be honest, I have no intention of reading him. I’ve been burnt enough with attempts at reading SF and I know when it’s best to refrain. 🙂

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      • February 5, 2016 at 2:37 pm

        I get what you mean re the Greek references, and yes they don’t necessarily age well. I admit I’ll probably take those faster if/when I read more Keats and not spend too much time on them.

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  9. February 9, 2016 at 1:29 pm

    Great post Emma.

    Translation of poems always seemed very problematic to me. Sometimes I wonder if it is really worth it at all to read them in translation.

    I think that you are on to something with your observations concerning how out native language effects out thinking and imagining literature.

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    • February 9, 2016 at 2:21 pm

      Thanks Brian.
      I also wonder if it’s worth reading poetry in translation but in the end, I still think it’s better than nothing.

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