The quickest way to get me very, very interested in something is to tell me I can’t do it.
So it’s really no surprise that I’ve been obsessed with translating French poet Stéphane Mallarmé’s famous sonnet, the one sometimes known as “Le Cygne,” for years.
No one has ever actually told me that I couldn’t do it. But I’ve told myself.
When I wrote this FluentU article on how to read advanced French sentences, I couldn’t think of anything more advanced, French or helpful for grammar study than the first stanza of that Mallarmé poem, the one that begins with this strange and beautiful line:
“Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui…”
(Full translation to come, of course.)
I couldn’t help remarking, though, that it was probably not possible to translate well. In doing so, I virtually guaranteed myself many future nights tinkering with it and tossing and turning in bed just thinking about it.
Mallarmé’s original sonnet appears below in French. My English translation comes at the end of this post. If you’re mostly interested in reading the poem in English, you’re welcome to skip all the way down.
However, if you’re interested in how one became the other, feel free to read between the lines, so to speak.
Mallarmé’s original sonnet (hear it)
Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui
Va-t-il nous déchirer avec un coup d’aile ivre
Ce lac dur oublié que hante sous le givre
Le transparent glacier des vols qui n’ont pas fui !
Un cygne d’autrefois se souvient que c’est lui
Magnifique mais qui sans espoir se délivre
Pour n’avoir pas chanté la région où vivre
Quand du stérile hiver a resplendi l’ennui.
Tout son col secouera cette blanche agonie
Par l’espace infligée à l’oiseau qui le nie,
Mais non l’horreur du sol où le plumage est pris.
Fantôme qu’à ce lieu son pur éclat assigne,
Il s’immobilise au songe froid de mépris
Que vêt parmi l’exil inutile le Cygne.
A bit of background
I believe this is technically an unnamed sonnet, but it’s sometimes referred to as “Le Cygne,” which can be confusing because there’s a poem by Baudelaire of the same name. Mallarmé, like Baudelaire, is considered a French symbolist poet.
Mallarmé’s “Le Cygne” has often been interpreted as a depiction of writer’s block of sorts, or more specifically of the inability of the poet to create, though not always. There’s a lot of “white” and winter imagery, as well as wordplay that likens a harsh winter to the blank page. In fact, in this Yale Books article, Mary Ann Caws refers to the poem as Mallarmé’s “White Sonnet.”
When translating or reading any poem in another language, it can be important to understand what that poem means to people in their native language. It’s my impression that this particular poem is beloved by a lot of native French speakers simply for its sounds and imagery.
That doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been picked apart by critics and scholars in French just like it has in English, but it also has a certain immediate, popular appeal. The first line has a classic, recognizable quality to it, and parts of the poem have been used or cited in other artistic works. It appears in Christophe Honoré’s film La Belle Personne and also in Oulipo author Anna Garréta’s Sphinx (an English translation by Emma Ramadan of which is available through Deep Vellum Publishing).
In terms of the above, I can’t think of any English poetry like it—the closest may be some of Poe’s stuff that relies more heavily on sonic and aesthetic elements, like “Ulalume,” and in fact, the two writers shared some literary ground. Mallarmé translated “The Raven” into French in 1875.
Why is this poem so hard to translate?
To start with, there are a lot of images and meanings that are confusing to imagine even if you can fully read the poem in French or are looking at a literal English translation.
For example, in the first line we have “le bel aujourd’hui,” or “the beautiful today.” That’s not “the beautiful day,” or “the beautiful, today.” It’s the beautiful today. A less advanced reader of French might be confused, as I was at one time, into thinking that there are three different nouns in the first line, but those three words are actually all adjectives: “Le vierge (the blank, virgin), le vivace (the persistent, everlasting) et le bel (and the beautiful) aujourd’hui (today).”
Secondly, there’s lots of wordplay, including the major pun on “cygne” (swan) and “signe” (signal, sign, symbol). This is obviously impossible to translate into English because a swan is something very specific. However, we can imagine a play on “a swan/as wan” in the first mention of the bird, which speaks to a different kind of relationship between phrasings considering all the pale and “lifeless” imagery scattered throughout the poem.
Thirdly, there’s not only the end rhyme scheme but a lot of internal rhymes, assonances and other sounds that create specific effects, without which I am certain the poem would not be nearly so beloved. The most present of these is the “ee” sound, which figures in the overall rhyme scheme and is rife throughout the poem.
There are also certain sound clusters that are consolidated in specific places. For example, the first stanza features more “ou” sounds, the third stanza has “col” (neck) and “sol” (earth), and the accented vowel “é” (pronounced approximately like “ay”) tends to fall towards the middle of lines.
This analysis even suggests that at one point the “ee” sounds evoke one thing and the “en” sounds evoke…well, two things. Like a lot you could say about this poem, it’s a stretch, but fascinating. I even had my own little sound map made up but decided not to share it here because, by the end, it had so many colors on it that it had become disastrously ugly and impossible to look at. I swear, if you want to become fluent in French, just become obsessed with this poem.
A final challenge is the fact that despite its weird mixture of images and meanings, Mallarmé’s writing is not just there to be looked at and interpreted like an inkblot. Despite its sometimes unexpected syntax, it does actually obey the constraints of grammar and needs to be followed across multiple lines with the eyes and mind. This means that moving or changing one small part can cause you to have to mess with an entire stanza. It’s the translator’s slide puzzle of nightmares.
Other English translations and commentary
- This New Yorker article, “Encrypted,” goes into detail about some of the general difficulties in translating Mallarmé’s work, and includes a non-rhyming translation of the poem by Peter Manson, a Scottish poet.
- In a “workshop” on textetc.com, John Holcombe lays out some more specific difficulties with the poem, shows some other translations side-by-side, and makes several attempts at translation himself with accompanying explanations and evaluations.
Goals: What I tried to do in translating this poem
- Keep the lines intact.
In other words, to keep the essential meaning of a line to a line. This isn’t, of course, the same as a literal 1:1 translation, but I think it can be a beneficial exercise to shoot for as close as possible to a 1:1 translation the first time through.
Differences in word order and grammar required me to switch up the order in which words appeared and occasionally drop a preposition down to the next line. However, in the end, if you put my translation side-by-side with the original—weird imagery and unclear meanings aside—the basic thrust of what you’re seeing in one is more or less what you’re reading in the other. I didn’t necessarily intend for this to work out, but it did.
- Stick to the ending rhyme pattern of each stanza.
I stuck with the rhyme pattern of the last syllables on lines for each stanza, but did not necessarily use the same actual rhymes that appear in the original, and did not worry about the overall rhyme scheme.
- Keep the essential music of the poem.
While this sounds like the snottiest, most elusive and most subjective goal, it was my main reason for even attempting this translation, and without it, adding my attempt to the thick pile of English renderings of this poem out there would have been completely meaningless. There were, however, no hard and fast rules as to what this meant.
A lot of it, as it turned out, had to do with Mallarmé’s tight internal rhymes that hit the reader on a subconscious or near-subconscious level. A crucial one, I felt, ended up being the subtle rhyme between the last line ending (“mépris”) and “parmi” in the beginning of the next line. To preserve this, I passed over the more obvious translations for “mépris,” “scorn” and “contempt,” and instead used “slights,” which creates an assonance with “by” in the next line and has the added benefit of recalling “flights” in the first stanza.
In short, what I wanted was a more literal and more musical English translation of this poem than I had seen thus far.
Sacrifices: What I was willing to let go in translating this poem
- As mentioned, the overall rhyme scheme.
- Exact rhymes.
Believe it or not, there aren’t that many words that rhyme with “swan.” Even if, as mentioned, this particular swan is looking very wan, I decided to be flexible and settle for assonances and even near-assonances. Otherwise, I would have had to start moving things around between lines, and I had already decided that wasn’t necessarily worth it.
- Easy cognates.
Most translations I’ve seen keep the “agony” cognate in the third stanza. This can work for more prose-ish translations that are aiming mostly to bring across meaning and aesthetic impact. But for a rhyming translation, I couldn’t figure out a way to hang on to that cognate without causing the rest of the poem to bend over backwards and snap.
I saw throwing it out as the equivalent of taking your attention off Boardwalk and Park Place in a game of Monopoly so you can amass hotels on those mid-level orange properties at the opposite end of the board that aren’t as obvious but will win you the game.
“Région/region” seemed even less important, and I wound up changing it to “domain” to keep some of the French double meaning (a physical designated place as well as a genre/field/specialty).
“Plumage” seems like a gimme, but I changed it to “quills” to better preserve the double meaning of feathers/writing implement.
Ultimately, it’s my hope that this translation enables readers of English to get some of the experience of the original poem with its hidden linguistic tidbits, its double meanings, its sounds that pair with its images so seamlessly, and its intense musical and lyrical quality.
In this breakdown by Daniel Lefèvre and his lycée students (also linked above), it’s pointed out that certain “coups d’aile” (wingbeats), of which one is referenced in the second line, were already present in the first line due to the alliteration—meaning, I assume, the fricatives and plosive (“v” and “b”), that make the sound of air being pushed aside.
I think that the “th” sound in English, when combined with “b,” creates just as powerful an effect, if not a more powerful one. This is a good example of the type of effect I tried to recreate throughout the poem, balancing as best I could between the feel and the literal meaning.
This is a poem that can greatly benefit from being read out loud.
My English translation of Mallarmé’s “swan” sonnet
The blank, the abiding and the beautiful today
Will it tear us up with a drunken wingbeat
This forgotten hard lake whose frost’s haunted beneath
By the transparent glacier of flights never made!
A swan from past days remembers it’s he
Magnificent though who without hope breaks free
For not having sung the domain to be
When from sterile winter resplended ennui.
His whole neck will shake off this white tribulation
Inflicted by space on the bird who denies it,
But not horror of the earth where his quills have been taken.
Phantom whom to this place his pure gleam bonds
He’s immobilized in the cold dream of slights
Put on by in exile so futile the Swan.