Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Assies toy sur le bort d'une ondante riviere

I've been working my way through John Hollander's anthology Sonnets: From Dante to the Present. It has its flaws (especially Hollander's invention of titles for untitled sonnets, whereby John Donne's "Batter my heart..." becomes "The Soul to Her Rescuer," which is crapulently unequal to such a brilliant piece of poetry), but is on the whole a lovely little book. (I love the Everyman anthologies, so perfectly pocket-sized and pretty, with their built-in cloth bookmarks.) And it has some surprises in it. Such as a sonnet by Jean-Baptiste Chassignet (1571-1635), as translated by Frank Warnke:

Water Never the Same [another of Hollander's lame inventions, methinks]

Beside a flowing river sit and gaze,
And see how it perpetually runs
In wave on wave, in many thousand turns,
As through the fields it takes its fluid ways.

Thou'lt never see again the wave which first
Flow'd by thee; water never is the same;
It passes day by day, although the name
Of water and of river doth persist.

So changes man, and will not be tomorrow
That which he is today, he cannot borrow
That strength which time doth alter and consume:
Until our death one name we do retain;
Although today no parcel doth remain
Of what I was, the name I still assume.


This isn't too bad--I like the slant-rhymes in ll. 2/3 and 5/8--and is very faithful (line-to-line sense and rhyme-scheme-wise) to the original, as it turns out, but what's with all the thees, thous and doths? This might be understandable if it was an old translation, but it's from Warnke's 1975 book European Metaphysical Poetry. 1975! Warnke's probably trying to convey the informality of the address in Chassignet's original, but whereas the "tu/vous" distinction still means something in French, the "thou/you" distinction suffered extinction some time ago, with "you" now serving as a general purpose form of 2nd person address. "Thees" and "thous" just sound poncy nowadays. The diction in Chassignet's original is actually less archaic than Warnke's translation, for all its old-fashioned orthography:

Assies toy sur le bort d'une ondante riviere

Assies toy sur le bort d'une ondante riviere
Tu la verras fluer d'un perpetuel cours,
Et flots sur flots roulant en mille et mille tours
Descharger par les prèz son humide carriere.

Mais tu ne verras rien de ceste onde premiere
Qui n'aguiere couloit, l'eau change tous les jours,
Tous les jours elle passe, et la nommons tousjours
Mesme fleuve, et mesme eau, d'une mesme maniere.

Ainsi l'homme varie, et ne sera demain
Telle comme aujourd'huy du pauvre cors humain
La force que le temps abbrevie, et consomme :

Le nom sans varier nous suit jusqu'au trespas,
Et combien qu'au jourd'huy celuy ne sois-je pas
Qui vivois hier passé, tousjours mesme on me nomme.


I've had a bash at it, trying to make it sound like a more contemporary poem in English:


Find yourself a flat stone by the riverbank,
Sit down and watch the river purl and froth
And flow; note where it pools and how its flanks
Straighten and bend into bows. It is both

Protean and permanent. You’ll never
See the same wave twice; the molecules
Of H2O won’t sit still and make fools
Of sages who would fix them. But clever

Man has done it, naming this forever
Fitful stream of fluxity, nailing its
Matrix, water, and its channel, river,
As if they were as still as stone. A man sits

By a river. He is no more the same
Man he was, yet he bears a constant name.

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