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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Sonnet for Hélène

(Azalea by Carl Larsson, 1853-1919, Swedish painter
and interior designer)

The Italians have a saying, “Traduttore, traditore” or “a translator is a traitor.” It is impossible for a translator to avoid misrepresenting the original.

This is particularly true when translating poetry. There is no one way to proceed. Should the rhyme pattern be repeated? What about the meter? How should one translate figures of speech like metaphors and alliteration and onomatopoeia?

Some argue for a more literal translation of words and expressions, while others favor an indirect but poetic translation, focusing on the spirit of the original verse. Many do agree that the best translators of poetry often are published poets themselves.

The original poem below, in the French of the time of its first definitive publication in 1587, is part of a sequence of sonnets written by Pierre de Ronsard, a much-respected French poet. He is speaking to the much younger Hélène, who is declining his passionate offer of love.


Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir à la chandelle,
Assise aupres du feu, devidant et filant,
Direz chantant mes vers, en vous esmerveillant :
Ronsard me celebroit du temps que j’estois belle.

Lors vous n’aurez servante oyant telle nouvelle,
Desja sous le labeur à demy sommeillant,
Qui au bruit de mon nom ne s’aille resveillant,
Benissant vostre nom de louange immortelle.

Je seray sous la terre et fantôme sans os,
Par les ombres myrteux je prendray mon repos:
Vous serez au fouyer une vieille accroupie,

Regrettant mon amour et vostre fier desdain.
Vivez, si m’en croyez, n’attendez à demain:
Cueillez dés aujourd’huy les roses de la vie.

~ Pierre de Ronsard (1524-1585), French poet

This English version below, also in sonnet form, is a quite literal yet still poetic translation.

from SONNETS FOR HÉLÈNE, Book II: xlii

When you are truly old, beside the evening candle,
Sitting by the fire, winding wool and spinning,
Murmuring my verses, you’ll marvel then, in saying,
“Long ago, Ronsard sang to me, when I was beautiful.”

There’ll be no serving-girl of yours, who hears it all,
Even if, tired from toil, she’s already drowsing,
Fails to rouse at the sound of my name’s echoing,
And blesses your name, then, with praise immortal.

I’ll be under the earth, a boneless phantom,
At rest in the myrtle groves of the dark kingdom¹:
You’ll be an old woman hunched over the fire,

Regretting my love for you, your fierce disdain,
So live, believe me: don’t wait for another day,
Gather them now the roses of life, and desire.

~ translated by A. S. Kline, born 1947, English poet and translator

¹ myrtle groves of the dark kingdom – groves located in the underworld, according to classical mythology

At first glance, the second version of the poem in English below does not appear to be a translation of the original Ronsard sonnet. Its form is somewhat different, only three quatrains long, two lines shorter than a sonnet. Most significantly, it seems to tell a different story, of a woman in her old age sitting by the fire, reading a book rather than spinning wool. But W. B. Yeats is repeating Ronsard’s point, reminding his beloved that the great love of her youth remains faithful to her many years later, even after he is gone.


When you are old and gray and full of sleep,
And, nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

~ W. B. Yeats (1865-1939), Irish poet and dramatist and winner of the 1923 Nobel Prize in Literature


OneMrAnderson said...

I love this poem. Stumbled onto your site and I've been reading posts since I got here. Excellent idea and I hope you keep up the quality work. Thank you.

Pentimento said...

How perfect that today is the birthday of the woman Yeats was addressing, Maud Gonne!

maria horvath said...


I wish I could say that I knew all along that it was the lovely Maud's birthday, but the post is just a happy coincidence.