Posts filed under ‘French’

Après la bataille

Victor Hugo

Listen (to Cyrano read)

Mon père, ce héros au sourire si doux,
Suivi d’un seul housard qu’il aimait entre tous
Pour sa grande bravoure et pour sa haute taille,
Parcourait à cheval, le soir d’une bataille,
Le champ couvert de morts sur qui tombait la nuit.
Il lui sembla dans l’ombre entendre un faible bruit.
C’était un Espagnol de l’armée en déroute
Qui se traînait sanglant sur le bord de la route,
Râlant, brisé, livide, et mort plus qu’à moitié.
Et qui disait: ” A boire! à boire par pitié ! ”
Mon père, ému, tendit à son housard fidèle
Une gourde de rhum qui pendait à sa selle,
Et dit: “Tiens, donne à boire à ce pauvre blessé. ”
Tout à coup, au moment où le housard baissé
Se penchait vers lui, l’homme, une espèce de maure,
Saisit un pistolet qu’il étreignait encore,
Et vise au front mon père en criant: “Caramba! ”
Le coup passa si près que le chapeau tomba
Et que le cheval fit un écart en arrière.
” Donne-lui tout de même à boire “, dit mon père.

There is a poetic English translation floating around on the net, but I find it a little contrived, and somewhat too far from the original. You’ll find it easily if you search for “After the Battle Victor Hugo”. I really like the fact that Hugo’s text flows easily and sounds pretty natural. So I’ll give you a verse by verse, pretty much a word for word translation.

After the battle

My father, a hero with such a sweet smile,
Followed by a single soldier whom he liked amongst all,
For his great bravery and his tall stature,
Was wandering on his horse, on the evening of a battle,
Across the field covered with bodies upon which night was falling.
He thought he heard a soft noise in the shadows.
It was a Spaniard from the routed army,
Who was crawling in his blood on the side of the road,
Groaning, broken, livid and more than half dead,
And who was saying: “Something to drink! Take pity, a drink!
My father, moved, gave to his faithful soldier
A flask of rum which hung from his saddle,
And said, “Take it and give a drink to the poor wounded man.”
All of a sudden, as the lowered soldier
Was bending towards him, the man, some kind of Moorish,
Steadies a pistol that he was still holding
And aims at my father’s forehead while shouting: “Caramba!”
The bullet went so close that the hat fell off
And the horse suddenly backed off.
“Give him a drink anyway” said my father.

Around 1800, Victor Hugo’s father was a general in the armies of Napoleon which invaded most of Europe to bring liberty, equality and brotherhood to the people oppressed in the neighboring countries. Surprisingly, the locals did not alway appreciate the wonderful presents that were forced upon them by foreigners. We now know better and such mistakes would not be repeated in the 21st century, but I digress.
This is a moving story told very efficiently as a modern filmmaker would. This would have made a great Kurosawa. Three shots. The camera pans across the bloody battlefield barely lit by an evening sky. Then the camera zooms in to the wounded Spaniard that we discover, low and back lit. Then a quick action scene, the explosion of a bullet, the camera follows the hat that flies off. As the camera zooms back out to the whole landscape, the famous last line is heard in a tired and weary voice, “Give him a drink anyway”.
This poem is quite famous in French speaking countries and several verses are often quoted, most notably the last one, when someone has a generous gesture for a fallen foe, –or cynically, whenever there is wine to be served, a common occurrence.

– Cyrano

Welcome Cyrano! Looking forward to more great readings from you! :)


February 20, 2009 at 11:47 pm 14 comments

The Bedroom

Yves Bonnefoy


The mirror and the river in flood, this morning,
Called to each other across the room, two lights
Appear and merge in the obscurity
Of furniture, within the unsealed room.

We were two realms of sleep, communicating
Through their courses of stone, where the untroubled
Water of a dream dispelled itself,
Forever recomposed, forever broken.

The pure hand slept beside the unquiet hand.
A body shifted slightly in its dream.
Far off, upon a table’s blacker water,
Glittering, the red dress lay asleep.

[translated from the French by Emily Grosholz]

The original:

Le miroir et le fleuve en crue, ce matin,
S’appelaient a travers la chambre, deux lumieres
Se trouvent et s’unissent dans l’obscur
Des meubles de la chambre descellee.

Et nous etions deux pays de sommeil
Communiquant par leurs marches de pierre
Ou se perdait l’eau non trouble d’un reve,
Toujours se reformant, toujours brise.

La main pure dormait pres de la main soucieuse.
Un corps un peu parfois dans son reve bougeait.
Et loin, sur l’eau plus noire d’une table,
La robe rouge eclairante dormait.

I know, I know, I’ve been away for ages. But I’m back, and to make it up to you here’s a gorgeous short piece by French poet Yves Bonnefoy. I love this poem because of the surreal, dreamlike quality of its imagery, and because of the incredible skill with which Bonnefoy sets off a sequence of reflection and counter-reflection, of images toujours se reformant, toujours brise, capturing between the flood and the mirror, between the pure hand and the unquiet hand, the restlessness of sleep disturbed by dreams, and yet rendering a poem of such luminous richness that the very words seem to shimmer with light.


January 27, 2008 at 3:43 am 1 comment


Charles Baudelaire


Rubens, garden of idleness watered by oblivion,
Where quick flesh pillows the impotence of dreams,
Where life's affluence writhes in eddying abandon
Like air in the air, or water in streams.

Leonardo da Vinci, deep mirror of darkness,
Where angels appear, their smiles charged with mystery
And tenderness, within the shadowy enclosures
Of pines and glaciers that shut in their country.

Rembrandt, tragic hospital re-echoing round a sigh;
A tall crucifix for only ornament
Traversed obliquely by a single wintry ray
Through which prayers rise, exhaling from excrement.

Michelangelo, no man's land where Hercules and Christ
Are at one; where powerful phantoms in crowds
Erect themselves deliberately in darkening twilights,
With pressed, rigid fingers ripping open their shrouds.

Rage of the wrestler, impudence of the faun;
Puget the convict's melancholy emperor,
Caging the lion's pride in a weak, jaundiced man,
Deducing beauty from crime, vice and terror.

Watteau, carnival where many a distinguished soul
Flutters like a moth, lost in the brilliance
Of chandeliers shedding frivolity on the cool
Clear decors enclosing the changes of the dance.

Goya, nightmare compact of things incredible:
Foetuses fried for a witch's sabbath feast;
An old woman at a mirror, a little naked girl
Lowering an artful stocking to tempt a devil's lust.

Delacroix, blood lake haunted by evil angels
In the permanent green darkness of a forest of firs,
Where under a stricken sky a muffled sigh fills
The air like a faintly echoed fanfare of Weber's.

Such, O Lord, are the maledictions, the tears,
The ecstasies, the blasphemies, the cries of Te Deum
Re-echoing along labyrinthine corridors:
A dream for mortal hearts distilled from divine opium,

The watchword reiterated by sentinels
A thousand times, the message whispered from post to post,
A beacon burning on a thousand citadels,
A call of all the hunters lost in the great forest.

For is this not indeed, O Lord, the best witness
That our dignity can render to Your pity,
This tide of tears which age after age gathers
To fail and fall on the shore of Your eternity?

(translated from the French by David Paul)

The poem that initially inspired this whole theme. What's lovely about it is the way Baudelaire captures so perfectly the individual style of each painter, so that reading the poem is like wandering through a gallery of (pre-1850) European art. An altogether amazing experience.


June 25, 2006 at 1:46 pm Leave a comment

In Despair

C P Cavafy


He has lost him completely. And now he is seeking
in the lips of every new lover
the lips of his beloved; in the embrace
of every new lover he seeks to be deluded
that he is the same lad, that it is to him he is yielding.

He has lost him completely, as if he had never been at all.
For he wanted – so he said – ­ he wanted to be saved
from the stigmatised, the sick sensual delight;
from the stigmatised, sensual delight of shame.
There was still time – as he said – to be saved.

He has lost him completely, as if he had never been at all.
In his imagination, in his delusions,
on the lips of others it is his lips he is seeking;
he is longing to feel again the love he has known.

(English translation by Rae Dalven)

A follow-up of sorts to the Rilke poem. This is the flip side of the lover's absence – not the lover you can't find, by the lover you can't forget, the endless search for a present experience that will live up to the remembered bliss of the past.

Cavafy, of course, should require no introduction. He is a master of lyrical simplicty, his poems understated masterpieces, statements of plain fact or ordinary emotion that take on, in his writing, in the aching aura of his voice, the incantatory quality of truth.

April 13, 2006 at 8:49 am 1 comment