Tuesday, December 15, 2009

“The Gypsy”

It’s Translation Tuesday again, & as promised, we have another translation from Apollinaire—his poem “La Tzigane,” again from the 1913 Alcools collection.

Apollinaire was a master at so many types of lyric poetry—he could construct elaborate & complex long poems, occasional poems, very short gnomic works & odes filled with lyrical lines & obscure references. He also excelled at ballad-like works, tho I myself found these the most difficult to translate. It’s hard to carry a singing tone across from one language to another. Of course, rendering the poem in rhyme would solve part of that—it would have that lyrical sound somewhat intact—tho the sounds of Apollinaire’s rhymes often strike me as subtle on the ear, & therefore heavy rhyming sounds, or rhymes that seemed even slightly forced would, in my opinion, be even less true to the original than unrhymed lines—which I always used in my translations, whether the originals rhymed or not.

The tale told in “La Tzigane” is straightforward—the lovers go to the gypst woman fortune-teller to receive assurance about their love—but her message is unclear. The last line of the first stanza is enigmatic: “De ce puits sortit l’Espérance.” Did Hope rise up from the wells or did it leave them? Also wells (“puits”) seems to be introduced as a pun on the previous line: “Nous lui dîmes adieu et puis”—“et puis” is “and then,” but in combination with the concluding line of the stanza there’s a secondary meaning such as: “We bid her fare-thee-well and then/Hope departed from that then” (with “then” in the final line being a noun.) The words “puis” & “puits” are homonyms.

These word puzzles are a source of fascination, tho when one is in the midst of translating a poem they can make your head hurt! Hope you enjoy this one, without headache—& tune in next Tuesday for another of B.N.’s poems.

The Gypsy Woman

The gypsy knew in advance
Our lives are crossed by nights
We bade her fare-thee-well and then
Hope welled up

Clumsy as a tame bear Love
Danced upright whenever we wished
And the bluebird’s feathers molted
And the mendicants lost their Ave

We all know well enough we’re damned
But hope of love along the way
Makes us ponder hand in hand
What the gypsy had foretold

Guillaume Apollinaire
translated by John Hayes, © 1990-2009

Pic is Hommage à Apollinaire by Marc Chagall


  1. "Clumsy as a tame bear Love
    Danced upright." Oh, I love that.

    The Chagall is a perfect accompaniment.

    I enjoy these Translation Tuesdays, John!

  2. I always admire your translations because translating poetry must be so difficult. You give us access to the poem and you help explain some of the intricate meaning. As always, thanks.

  3. Yeah we're damned, but we can have fun in the meantime. Yes? I say yes.

    Thanks, John. You know I LOVE translation Tuesday.

  4. Hi Willow, Alan & Reya

    Willow: I like that part as well! Glad you enjoyed it--& the Chagall.

    Alan: Thanks so much!

    Reya: Yes! Really appreciate your support of the translations!


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