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7    En una noche oscura,
11  Con ansias en amores inflamada,
7    ¡Oh dichosa ventura!
7    Salí sin ser notada,
11   Estando ya mi casa sosegada.

8  A l'ombre d'une obscure Nuict
8  D'angoisseux amour embrasée
8  O'l'heureux sort qui me conduit,
8  Je sortis sans estre avisée,
8  Le calme tenant à propos
8  Ma maison en un doux repos ...



Paul Valéry on Poetry in Translation



I may now introduce Father Cyprian of the Nativity of the Virgin, the admirable translator of the works of St John of the Cross [San Juan de la Cruz, famous Spanish poet]... I should doubtless never have read very far in the old volume I was leafing through had my eyes not chanced to light on some verses facing a Spanish text. I saw, I read, I at once murmured to myself:


A l'ombre d'une obscure Nuict
D'angoisseux amour embrasée
O'l'heureux sort qui me conduit,
Je sortis sans estre avisée,
Le calme tenant à propos
Ma maison en un doux repos ...

NB: below is NOT a translation, it's a trot*

In the shadow of a dark night/ 
consumed with an anguishing love/
Oh, the lucky chance that led me!/ 
I went out without being forewarned/ 
the calmness conveniently holding/
 my house in a sweet repose.

* A trot is a literal word-for-word translation of a poem, not intended to translate the “poetry”, but only the meaning


"Oh", I said, "but this sings!"


There is no other test of poetry. For poetry to be a certainty (or at least for us to feel ourselves in imminent danger of poetry), it is necessary and indeed sufficient, for the simple arrangement of words, which we have been reading as spoken, to compel our voice, even the inner voice, to leave the tone and rhythm of ordinary speech and to enter a quite different key and, as it were, a quite different time. This inner coercion to a pulse and a rhythmical action profoundly transforms all the values of the text that imposes it. All at once this text is no longer one of those intended to teach us something and to vanish as soon as that something is understood; its effect is to make us live a different life, breathe according to this second life; and it implies a state or a world in which the objects and beings found there, or rather their images, have other freedoms and other ties than those in the practical world....


Having read and reread these verses, I have the curiosity to look at the Spanish, which I can understand a little when it is extremely easy. The charming stanza I quoted is a translation of the following:


     En una noche oscura,

     Con ansias en amores inflamada,

     ¡Oh dichosa ventura!

     Salí sin ser notada,

     Estando ya mi casa sosegada.


It is impossible to be more faithful -- even though our reverend translator has modified the type of stanza. He has adapted our octosyllabics instead of following the variations of the original metre. He realized that prosody must suit the language, and unlike other translators ... he has not attempted to impose on French what French does not itself impose on or propose to the French ear. This is really to translate, which is to reconstitute as nearly as possible the effect of a certain cause -- here, a text is Spanish, by means of another cause, a text in French...


...In poetic matters my vice is to be unable to love (or indeed to tolerate) what does not give me the feeling of perfection. Like so many other vices it gets worse with age. Whatever I feel I could easily change in a work is the enemy of my pleasure, that is, the enemy of the work. It is no use dazzling or surprising me at certain points only; if the rest does not link these up, if the rest may be freely forgotten, I am angry. And the more precious those scattered pleasures were, the angrier I am. It annoys me that beauties should be accidents and that I should find before me the opposite of a work...


I prefer, therefore, those poems which produce (or seem to produce) their beauties as if they were the delicious fruits of their seemingly natural course, the necessary products of their own unity or of the idea of fulfilment which is their sap and their substance. But this apparent marvel can never be got without its entailing extremely hard work, and all the more sustained since, to be finished, it must strive to cover up its own traces. The purest genius is revealed only on reflection: it never projects onto its work the laborious and excessive shadow of a particular person. What I call Perfection eliminates the person of the author, and therefore does not fail to arouse a certain hint of mysticism -- as does every quest whose bounds are deliberately set 'at infinity'.


Nothing is less modern, for nowadays almost the only thing of importance is to become known: this immediate aim is reached by every possible means, and the imperfections of the man and his work, when properly handled and exploited, are not the slightest handicap.



                          Paul Valéry, The Art of Poetry, pp 285-86, 288-89

                             -- translated by Denise Folliot




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