French Poetry

Thanks to Steve for sending me this via Facebook. It is an example of how French can be so much more poetic and expressive than English.

Y est-ce deux dés?
Hors métropole, cime sauf à roué.
Nord aide luxe associé rires toussoutés.
O Abel Yvelines, y est-ce deux dés?
Cède un lit
Armes nor’af semaine a usé toubib
Tiercé j’adore, Anne, qui ignore vomit
O y est-ce deux dés? Qui aime cède un lit
Rail, j’y aide Togo
A tonneaux, j’y veux danser
“Ah! Cède!” son cygne grogne
“Noue élan fort!” Y est-ce deux dés?
Y est-ce deux dés?
La voix sèche, anisée, gamme doublée
Noailles nie deux plaisent, tout haï. Doué?!
O Abel Yvelines, y est-ce deux dés?

If you don’t read French, you might find that the video of the words set to music will help you understand it anyway.

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9 replies on “French Poetry”

For those of you who don’t speak French I’ve taken the liberty of translating a bit of this into English so you can enjoy it too:

What in God’s name are you doing?
At this hour in the metropolis with your cheeks painted red?
Nor will the lighting increase laughter over your toasted cheese sandwich.
Oh Abel Yvelines, are you blinking mad?
This is your stop on the Metro
Get your bag and hold the handrail.
I love your tiara but it makes Anne want to vomit.

Amazing isn’t it? French really is so much more expressive than English, though I’ve tried to capture the evocative nature of the poem in this translation.

I hope you don’t use the “translation” technique employed in this poem in your Bible translation! Come to think of it, this technique might satisfy people who insist on precise formal equivalence but don’t worry too much about communicating the correct meaning.

So glad you enjoyed my little number. Despite comments to the contrary, I think Lingamish’s translation skills are beyond reproach (and far better than those of many of the students I’ve taught over the past 30 years!).

My own, far more prosaic translation (with introduction and annotations) is as follows:

‘This haunting verse, which brilliantly encapsulates the ambiguities of life in France’s former colonies, was written in 1960-61 shortly after Togoland was granted her independence (1960), but before Algeria was granted hers (1962). Sources close to General de Gaulle at the time claim that he was profoundly moved by the poem, and that it played a part in persuading him to grant independence to Algeria as a matter of urgency.

“Is that two dice there?” – a deliberate reference to Shakespeare’s “Is this a dagger?” To the compulsive gambler, the sight of a pair of dice sends a thrill of anticipation through the body.

“Outside mainland France [a colonial posting is] a safe high spot for the cunning person” – being posted to one of the French colonies was once viewed as a sinecure for civil servants looking for an easy life.

“The North helps bring luxury together with spluttering laughter” – the official justification for France’s colonial policy was that it brought wealth and happiness to the native populations.

“Oh Abel Yvelines, is that two dice there?” It is not certain whether Abel Yvelines is a fictitious or a real person. His name certainly has the ring of authenticity, for it was not unknown among French colons to take French place names as their surname, as a nostalgic reminder of their distant homeland.

“Give up a bed, Arab weaponry this week has worn out the doctor” – a chilling reminder of the armed struggle for Algerian independence which ultimately brought down the Fourth Republic, filling hospital beds and stretching the medics to the very limit.

“I love betting on the horses; Anne, of whom I take no notice, is violently sick” – the colons pursued their gambling and drinking to the exclusion of all other considerations. This was frequently more than their wives could stomach.

“Anyone who loves [humanity] would give up their bed” – a challenge to the morality of perpetuating a situation where much needed hospital care was being denied the sick because of the need to treat victims of a war which could be ended just as soon as the politicians agreed to it.

“I am helping Togo with its railway system” – a highly paternalistic justification for France’s imperialist activities.

“[Drink] by the barrel, I want to dance there” – the real reason why a colonial posting was so attractive was the cheap alcohol and the wild night life.

“‘Oh, give over!’ complains his swan. ‘Tie a knot in your strong urge!’” – the ‘swan’ in question is both a poetic reference to the colon’s wife (Anne) and an allusion to the fact that, as the colonial era was drawing to a close, this represented its “swan song”. Here, Anne is urging her husband to curb his passion for gambling.

“The dry voice, smelling of aniseed, [sings] the scale twice over” – prevented from gambling, the protagonist (heavily under the influence of the pastis he’s been drinking) bursts into song, rendering his song twice over.

“Noailles denies that the double rendition is pleasing, everything is loathsome. Gifted?!” – Anne, a direct descendant of the first duc de Noailles, tells her husband that his singing, and indeed everthing about his conduct, disgusts her and scornfully disabuses him of his belief that he’s highly talented.’

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