Tuesday, November 17, 2009


It’s Tuesday morning here in beautiful downtown Indian Valley, & this week it’s Translation Tuesday. The selection is by Blaise Cendrars, from his 1919 Dix-neuf poèmes élastiques (Nineteen Elastic Poems), which I translated while living in Baghdad by the Bay in the 90s.

The poem is “Crépitiments,” & the title is just one of the interesting words & phrases the intrepid translator is going to encounter here. The translation is literal, but the clue to its meaning comes in the first line: the “cracklings” or “sputterings” are radio static, tho of course, radio static is carrying some metaphorical weight throughout. We also come across the odd word “arcencielesques” as an adjective modifying “dissonances” in the first line (“dissonances”—same in French & English!) I’ve seen this translated as “rainbowed,” & a tad more literally it could be “rainbowesque,” but I liked the sound of “rainbowish,” especially as it gives a thread of internal short “i” sounds thru the opening stanza.”

The final line of the first stanza contains the very untranslatable “On,” which can mean anything from “one” (e.g., “as one knows”—that “one”) to “they” to simply indicating a construction that usually is passive in English. “On se dit” is the sign you see in northern Vermont, for instance: “On se dit français ici”—“French is spoken here.” The other moment I’d point to is “Well done”—the English pun is also present in the French phrase “bien fait.”

Finally, Bodin was a 16th century French jurist who was known for his cruel persecution for those accused of witchcraft.

Enjoy the poem, & have a fine Tuesday!


The rainbowish dissonances of the Tower during its wireless
Shit is spoken in every corner of the universe

Chrome yellow
We're in touch
The ocean liners approach from every coast
Back off
Every watch is synchronized
And the clocks strike
Paris-Midi announces that a German professor was eaten by
      cannibals in the Congo
Well done
This evening L'Intransigeant published some verses for postcards
It's stupid when all the astrologers burglarize stars
We don't see them again
I interrogate the sky
The Weather Bureau predicts bad weather

There is no futurism
There is no simultaneity
Bodin has burned all the witches
There's nothing
There are no more horoscopes and we have to work
I'm uptight
The Spirit
I'm going to take a trip
And I'm sending this stripped poem to my friend R ...

Blaise Cendrars
translated by John Hayes, © 1990-2009


  1. A poet who writes with his tongue in his cheek! I love "Shit is spoken in every corner of the universe." How true.

  2. "Shit is spoken in every corner of the universe." What a great line!!
    Thanks for the introduction. I learn so much over here, John.

    The only "cracklins" I know, are those fried pork skin thingies my dad used to be so fond of.

    (oh, I see Sandra liked the same line!)

  3. WOW! I love translation Tuesdays.

    I had never heard of this guy (thank you!) It's interesting that you translated this poem while in SF. It has the same potent jab of energy that your own poetry had at that time. Very cool!!

    Also think you're spot on, thinking of your blog as a magazine. That's so right!

  4. Hi Sandra, Willow & Reya

    Sandra: Yes, it is true!

    Willow: Glad you liked it--Cendrars could really come up with some dynamite lines.

    Reya: Thanks so much! I do think all the translating I did while in SF had a huge effect on my poetry.

  5. I love the tone of this and the cracklings throughout. That line gets us all, I think: Shit is spoken in every corner of the universe - too, too true!

  6. So interesting to read the translation and your comments, John. I've translated a number of Blaise Cendrars' poems and posted one or two. Last year I finished a translation of 'La prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France'. What a fascinating journey that was. The challenge is in the selection of just the right idiom in English that will capture the meaning within the context of Cendrars' times and will also sound relevant for the contemporary reader.

  7. Hi Dick: Again, apologies on the lateness--very hectic week! That's interesting. I translated that poem too--it's quite an adventure!

  8. That was fun! So "merde" was in the original then?
    What's really funny is that I had never heard of the term "Baghdad by the Bay" until it cropped up on "Jeopardy" last night. And now here it is again!

  9. Hi Kat: The original line reads "On se dit merde de tous les coins de l'univers"

    Baghdad by the Bay was coined by the great San Francisco Chronicle columnist, Herb Caen.


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