alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
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I am now not-quite-finished with Le Ton Beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language, by Douglas Hofstadter. The core of this book is the notion of translating a short French poem written by Clement Marot in 1537. It's a get-well note to a little girl he knows who is sick in bed.

A une Damoyselle malade

Ma mignonne,
Je vous donne
Le bon jour;
Le séjour
C’est prison.
Puis ouvrez
Votre porte
Et qu’on sorte
Car Clément
Le vous mande.
Va, friande
De ta bouche,
Qui se couche
En danger
Pour manger
Si tu dures
Trop malade,
Couleur fade
Tu prendras,
Et perdras
Dieu te doint
Santé bonne,
Ma mignonne.

To quote someone I stumbled across while googling, Hofstadter uses this notion to "discuss the (im-)possibilities of translation from one language (mental frame, context, moment in time) to another". Early in the book, Hofstadter challenges the reader to make their own translation. He makes the following formal observations about the original, though notes that you don't necessarily need to replicate all of them:

1. It is made up of 28 lines.
2. Each line has 3 syllables.
3. The stress falls on the last of these syllables.
4. It is a series of rhyming couplets (AA BB CC DD…)
5. The semantic couplets are out of phase with the rhyming couplets: A, AB, BC,
6. After line 14 the formal "vous" is replaced by the more colloquial "tu".
7. The last line echoes the first.
8. The poet slips his own name into the poem.

I gave it a little thought, but found the prospect too daunting to make a serious attempt. As I continued through the book, however, and saw just how many ways that the poem could be translated, and how many lenses it could be seen through, my subconscious must have loosened up. Half-awake in bed this morning, I was ambushed by poetry. A first line leapt into my head, followed by several others in quick succession, and a set of images that seemed promising to fill in the rest. An hour of polishing produced this:

Kestrell mine,
Here's a fine
Why are you
In that cage?
Turn the page;
Chapter next
Won't be vexed
With such ill.
Migraines will
All be gone.
Alexx on
This insists.
So be kissed;
Hershey's sweet
You must eat
To get well.
Now propel
From your bed.
Books unread
Still remain!
Feed your brain
Lots of prose;
Cheeks of rose
Will restore.
Then you'll soar,
Feeling fine,
Kestrell mine.

All formal qualities except number 6 are preserved. The rhyme of "insists" with "kissed" is arguably a little forced, but I found it too charming a pun to replace. A slightly earlier draft had "migraines" at the *end* of a line, thus failing number 3, but a little massaging fixed that. I give myself bonus points on number 8 by getting my name on line 12, just as in the original. Many of the translations in Hofstadter's book make sure to put in a reference to God near the end, but that didn't seem appropriate for this context.

As to number 6, I played around with using "thou" and "thy" in the second half of the poem, but I didn't like the effect on the tone. The "you"/"thou" distinction, in English, besides being archaic, has a somewhat confused meaning when it does show up in modern speech, with "thou" often being used to indicate *more* formality, not less. This confusion makes it impossible (in my opinion) to translate the "vous"/"tu" into modern English directly. One might, of course, manage to indicate a formality change in some other fashion, but I didn't pull it off.

The central translational shift, of course, is that instead of addressing my poem to J'eanne d'Albret (or a generic sick young girl), I address it to Kestrell. My relationship with Kestrell is not at all the same as Marot's to his subject, but the love and affection translate well, I think. Making Kestrell the subject suggested replacing the prison imagery with a cage, since Kestrell identifies so much with birds. This bird imagery recurs later in the poem, with "soar". "Cage" instantly rhymed in my mind with "page", and since books are so central to Kestrell's life, the image of the book leaped to the fore. In some sense, I would have liked to have a more equal balance between the bird and book imagery, but that's not how it came out. Other Kestrell-specific notes were making the sickness, rather vague in the original, be specifically a migraine, and making the reference to a treat be a Hershey's Kiss. I tried out lines including pralines and clementines (which would have had the bonus of being a pun on "Clement" Marot), but they didn't end up making the cut.

The author being me, of course there are a number of puns. I've already mentioned the double meaning of "kissed". "How-de-doo" stands in for a greeting, as well as starting the theme of sickness. *Very* early in the writing process I thought of the line "Rosy cheeks", which both signifies health, and is a reference to Kes's obsession with _The Name of the Rose_. I banged against it for quite some time, unable to get it to mesh with the surrounding lines in a satisfactory manner. This was partially due to the fact that I had managed to get most of the poem complete while maintaining formal quality 5 (semantic couplets out of phase with rhyming couplets), which was proving much harder in this spot. "Rosy cheeks" should probably be a semantic match with "will restore" or "will bring back", but since I had most of the rest of the poem complete, I had to find rhymes that led both in and out of this. I had "restore"/"soar" pretty early, which gave me a second piece of bird imagery (a bare minimum for a Kestrell poem), but I couldn't find a satisfactory combination of rhyme and image to lead into "rosy cheeks". Eventually, I hit upon the notion of reversing it to "cheeks of rose", which soon suggested "prose" as a rhyme. The final result leaves the syntax a little tortured, but poetry is an art of compromise.
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Alexx Kay

August 2017

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