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The alchemy of words: Transforming “Le vaisseau d’or” into “The Ship of Gold”

Paul Leroux
(Language Update, Volume 9, Number 2, 2012, page 30)

Let’s face it. Most texts in the Translation Bureau are administrative in nature, and quite literally prosaic. But, at least once in our careers, we are likely to face the seemingly daunting task of translating poetry. This may stem from a conjunction of unique circumstances, or a special occasion. We should thus have some familiarity with the mechanics of English and French versification. Then, when the time comes, we will be equipped for and equal to the challenge.

Abstract, theoretical knowledge is all very well. But nothing beats a practical example to illustrate how a thing is done. For the purposes of the exercise, let us examine one of the most famous poems ever written by a Quebec author: Émile Nelligan’s “Le vaisseau d’or.” (The poem was set to music by composer André Gagnon for the rock opera Nelligan. The poem also lent its name to a restaurant once owned and operated by former Montréal mayor Jean Drapeau.)

The poem itself

The French text is as follows:

Ce fut un grand Vaisseau taillé dans l’or massif :
Ses mâts touchaient l’azur, sur des mers inconnues;
La Cyprine d’amour, cheveux épars, chairs nues,
S’étalait à sa proue, au soleil excessif.

Mais il vint une nuit frapper le grand écueil
Dans l’Océan trompeur où chantait la Sirène,
Et le naufrage horrible inclina sa carène
Aux profondeurs du Gouffre, immuable cercueil.

Ce fut un Vaisseau d’Or, dont les flancs diaphanes
Révélaient des trésors que les marins profanes,
Dégoût, Haine et Névrose, entre eux ont disputés.

Que reste-t-il de lui dans la tempête brève?
Qu’est devenu mon cœur, navire déserté?
Hélas! Il a sombré dans l’abîme du Rêve!

Analyzing what the poem means

As with any translation, we must first understand the meaning of the text. In this case, as poems go, the meaning is fairly straightforward. Nelligan begins with the allegorical image of a ship wrecked at sea, which becomes a metaphor for his own disillusioned and despairing heart.

Some expressions may pose problems for the translator. We need to know, of course, the English equivalents of the various nautical terms (vaisseau, mâts, proue, écueil, carène, flancs), which refer to parts of a ship and dangers at sea.

Two allusions are made to Greek or Roman mythology and require a little research. Sirène refers to the sirens, mermaid-like creatures whose song attracted sailors such as Ulysses or Odysseus to shoals and rocks on which their ships might founder. Cyprine is a name given to Aphrodite or Venus, the goddess of beauty and love.

Two other expressions may raise questions in the translator’s mind. What does Nelligan mean by the words immuable cercueil? The English cognate is “immutable,” which means unchangeable, and thus final or permanent.

Marins profanes is another puzzling choice of words. As an adjective, “profane” is the opposite of “sacred.” As a verb, “profane” means to desecrate. What kind of marin (or sailor) would desecrate a ship? My conclusion is that marins profanes is a reference to pirates.

Mechanics of French versification

Unlike modern poetry in blank or free verse, traditional poetry is highly structured and follows a set pattern. We must thus consider what type of poem we are dealing with, and what rules govern its structure.

I found a very useful website* that helped me to identify the characteristics of Nelligan’s poem. “Le vaisseau d’or” is a French-style sonnet, with 14 lines divided into two quatrains (groups of four lines of verse) and two tercets (groups of three lines).

Each verse is an alexandrin (alexandrine), with 12 syllables, divided into two hémistiches (hemistiches, groups of six syllables), with a break or césure in the middle. The equivalent English metre would be hexameter (six “feet” of two or three syllables each).

The poem’s rhyme scheme is abba cddc eef gfg. In other words, the first and last verses of the quatrains rhyme, as do the second and third. The tercets are more complicated, rhyming the first and second, third and fifth, and fourth and sixth verses.

Mechanics of English versification

One could perhaps produce a literal, prosaic rendering of the poem’s meaning, and let it go at that. But this would not entirely do justice to the poem. What we want is to recreate the poem’s form (as well as its content) in the target language, that is, English.

English poetry has its own laws and patterns which we must observe. We have mentioned metre, and specifically hexameter in this case. But, in English, it is not enough to count syllables. We must also count feet (we need six) and consider whether the syllables are stressed or unstressed. To the English ear, Nelligan’s poem consists of iambs (groups of two syllables, one unstressed, the second stressed—da-DUM) and anapests (two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed—da-da-DUM).

So we need to pay attention to the rhythm of each verse, and the rhyme of its final syllable with another verse. In a sense, we must work backward from this final syllable for our target-language poem to read and scan correctly.

Proposed English version

Here is the final English version I came up with:

There was a mighty ship, of solid gold ‘twas wrought:
Its masts reached to the sky, over oceans unknown;
The goddess Love herself, flesh bare and hair wind-blown,
Stood sculpted at its bow, in sunshine desert hot.

A treach’rous shoal it struck one dark and stormy eve,
Where sailors sirens’ songs unwitting sweetly lull,
And then a shipwreck dread did sink its golden hull
Into the murky depths, grave granting no reprieve!

There was a ship of gold, and through its ghostly side
Such riches it revealed, for which fell pirates vied,
Neurosis, Hate, Disgust, among themselves, those three.

Ah, what remains, now that the storm no longer teems?
What has my heart become, thus set adrift at sea?
Alas, that ship has sunk in an abyss of dreams!

Rhyme and reason: Explanations for my choices

As you can see, I have resorted to a number of literary tricks and devices to bring my English version into line with the style of the original French.

For instance, I used “’twas,” a contraction of “it was” and an archaic form of the verb “to be.” I also used an apostrophe to eliminate a superfluous syllable of “treacherous.” I added “golden” before “hull,” which does not add an element of meaning, since we know from the first verse that the ship is made of gold. These are perfectly legitimate procedures that fall under the heading of poetic licence.

It took me a while to come up with “Where sailors sirens’ songs unwitting sweetly lull.” The natural syntax would be “Where sirens’ songs sweetly lull unwitting sailors.” I had to rearrange subject, object and verb to find the proper rhythm in keeping with Nelligan’s Dans l’Océan trompeur où chantait la Sirène.

The problematic immuable cercueil has become “grave granting no reprieve” in English. Both expressions suggest the permanence of death and the idea of the ocean as a burial ground. (You may recall the phrase “Davy Jones’s locker” as a reference to the sea.)

Flancs diaphanes was initially “see-through side.” To my ear, that sounded too modern and not very poetic. “Ghostly” was more aesthetically pleasing, suggested transparency, and had the added benefit of alluding to legendary ghost ships like the Flying Dutchman.

Marins profanes ended up as “fell pirates.” The adjective “fell” (evil, wicked) may be stating the obvious, but it provides an added syllable that allows the verse to flow better.

Dans la tempête brève is rendered by “the storm no longer teems.” In the French version, it sounds as if the storm continues to rage, and Nelligan’s heart is still being tossed. I have construed brève as meaning that the storm has ceased, though its deleterious effects linger.

By way of a postscript

Modern literary analysis includes researching the life of the poet, for clues to the meaning of his or her works. It will come as no surprise to you that Émile Nelligan was institutionalized at the tender age of 19 and spent his remaining 47 years in an insane asylum. The rock opera Nelligan suggests he was not actually mad but the victim of his father’s machinations. (David Nelligan was ashamed of his son being “a poet—a French poet,” according to the libretto.)

In the rock opera, Émile Nelligan’s final words are Je suis poète et je mourrai fou (I am a poet and I shall die mad). The task of translating poetry may seem maddening at first, but the end result can be, to quote another poet (John Keats), a thing of beauty and a joy forever:

Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness;…
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits.…
The passion poesy, glories infinite,
Haunt us till they become a cheering light
Unto our souls…

If we can achieve this only once during our careers as translators, we may count our skills and talents as indeed well spent.

Back to remark 1* Études littéraires. Notions de versification française.