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"For what is manly mockery to me?"
March 27, 2013 9:09 AM   Subscribe

Marcel Proust’s First Poem, ‘Pederasty,’ [Daily Beast] "Here is the first known poem by Proust, written when he was 17, that shows him struggling with his homosexual urges. The poem is dedicated to his friend Daniel Halévy, and he wrote to him in a letter: “Don’t treat me as a pederast, that wounds me. Morally I’m trying, if only out of a sense of elegance, to remain pure.” The poem is titled “Pederasty.”"

Pederasty

Translated by Richard Howard

To Daniel Halévy
If I had money from a boundless mint
and sinew enough in hands, lips, loins,
I’d shun the vanity of politics and print,
and leave—tomorrow? No, tonight!—for lawns
luminous with artificial green
(without the rustic flaws of frost and vermin),
where I’d forever be sleeping with one
warm child or other: François? Firmin? . . .
For what is manly mockery to me?
Let Sodom’s apples burn, acre by acre,
I’d savor still the sweat of those sweet limbs!
Beneath a solar gold, a lunar nacre,
I’d… languish (an ars moriendi of my own),
deaf to the knell of dreary Decency!
Pédérastie

À Daniel Halévy
Si j’avais un gros sac d’argent d’or ou de cuivre
Avec un peu de nerf aux reins lèvres ou mains
Laissant ma vanité—cheval, sénat ou livre,
Je m’enfuirais là-bas, hier, ce soir ou demain
Au gazon framboisé—émeraude ou carmin !—
Sans rustiques ennuis, guêpes, rosée ou givre
Je voudrais à jamais coucher, aimer ou vivre
Avec un tiède enfant, Jacques, Pierre ou Firmin.
Arrière le mépris timide des Prud’hommes !
Pigeons, neigez ! Chantez, ormeaux ! blondissez, pommes !
Je veux jusqu’à mourir aspirer son parfum !
Sous l’or des soleils roux, sous la nacre des lunes
Je veux… m’évanouir et me croire défunt
Loin du funèbre glas des Vertus importunes !
"Discovered in the Daniel Halévy archive in Dijon and published in Marcel Proust: Écrits de jeunesse 1887—1895, edited by Anne Borrel et al. Most likely composed in November 1888 and dedicated to Halévy. It seems to have elicited a correction from Halévy, since Proust responded with a letter discussing Halévy’s correction, which was truncated when Proust’s philosophy teacher, Alphonse Darlu, interrupted its writing."
posted by Fizz (41 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
That translation stinks, Prof. Howard.
posted by aught at 9:27 AM on March 27, 2013 [3 favorites]


Improve it! I want to read.
posted by Going To Maine at 9:32 AM on March 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


That translation stinks, Prof. Howard.

I once read a book in which he'd translated "affaires hexagonales," meaning "French affairs," to "hexagonal affairs."
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 9:51 AM on March 27, 2013 [7 favorites]


Yeah. I don't know enough French to translate it, but I know enough to not trust that translation. I also know enough about poetry to know that I don't know jack about poetry. So perhaps in the context of poetic translation, it's a good translation? I dunno.
posted by jeffamaphone at 9:53 AM on March 27, 2013


Here's a stab at a very literal translation:
If I had a great bag of money--gold or copper
And any courage in my guts, lips or hands
Leaving my vanity (be it chivalric, political or literary)
I would fly away, today, tonight or tomorrow
To the lawn studded with raspberry bushes--emerald or blood-red!--
Free of rustic aggravations, wasps, dew or frost
I would forever lie, love or live
With a warm child, Jacques, Pierre or Firmin.
Get behind me, timid, conventional contempt!
Pigeons, snow! Sing, abalones! Ripen, apples!
I wish to breathe your perfume until I die!
Beneath the golden light of copper-red suns, beneath nacreous moons
I wish...to faint and believe myself dead
Far from the funereal toll of importunate Virtues.
That's done very quickly, so anyone should feel free to correct it. I'm very unsure about the "pigeons, abalone, apple" line. "Blondir" is used in a cooking context and could mean, essentially, "become lightly sauteed, apples" (see "Sodom's apples burn"). Or perhaps there are metaphorical meanings here I'm missing wildly. I don't know if the "Pigeons, snow" means "float down in soft, silent masses like snowfall, oh you pigeons" or what.
posted by yoink at 9:54 AM on March 27, 2013 [4 favorites]


On second reading it stinks.
posted by jeffamaphone at 9:56 AM on March 27, 2013


Yeah, I don't know if Howard was trying to mimic a formal ineptitude in the original that I'm not catching, but he can't hold the meter even when departing significantly from the French.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 9:58 AM on March 27, 2013


yoink, I think I like your translation better. Maybe Penguin should hire you.
posted by shivohum at 9:59 AM on March 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ugh, just noticed (too late for the edit window) that I made (at least) one silly flub. "Today, tonight or tomorrow" should be "yesterday, tonight or tomorrow." Some brain fart there as "yesterday" was firmly in my mind.
posted by yoink at 10:09 AM on March 27, 2013


I'm particularly curious about the choice to use the word "Sodom" in the English when it doesn't appear in the French. It's an important word to make up in a gay poem. Is there some way "blondissez, pommes" suggests the Biblical city that's widely (incorrectly) understood to be a story about the evils of homosexuality?
posted by Nelson at 10:12 AM on March 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


For "Arrière", I would rather go with something like "Go back", as it is "adressing" the contempt and telling it to get back, like in Vade retro satana. I might keep Prud'homme in the English, as it is likely a reference to Monsieur Prudhomme.

Same for cheval, sénat ou livre, I'd try to stay close to the French, if I could find words that fit. I think cheval might refer to the Jockey Club; the senate isn't the house, as its members are indirectly elected for a longer term, and a more likely destination for a member of the upper class like Proust.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 10:21 AM on March 27, 2013


Is there some way "blondissez, pommes" suggests the Biblical city

Not that I can figure out, but then I don't have any real sense of gay French slang (especially early C20th gay French slang). "Ma blonde" is, of course, French slang for "my girlfriend" so you could somehow try to get the "apples" becoming "blonds"/boyfriends? But that feels really forced. Someone with better colloquial French than me should weigh in.


For "Arrière", I would rather go with something like "Go back", as it is "adressing" the contempt and telling it to get back, like in Vade retro satana. I might keep Prud'homme in the English, as it is likely a reference to Monsieur Prudhomme.

Same for cheval, sénat ou livre, I'd try to stay close to the French, if I could find words that fit. I think cheval might refer to the Jockey Club; the senate isn't the house, as its members are indirectly elected for a longer term, and a more likely destination for a member of the upper class like Proust.


Yes, I like "Go back"--or just "Back!" perhaps? I don't think leaving "Prud'homme" untranslated helps the non French speaker much. I was just going for the sense of stale, bourgeois conventionality that he represents. Although the Jockey Club features large in Proust's works I'd be surprised if that's what he's going for here. I think it's a nod to the notion of the "Three Estates": the clerics (livre), the knights (cheval) and the people--who are, of course, represented in the the Senate. Here I think he means simply the various different avenues of worldly fame he might imagine: literary success, being in some way a man of action (soldier, adventurer) or political prowess. It's a refusal of the world of negotium for the world of otium.
posted by yoink at 10:30 AM on March 27, 2013


I'd also try to keep the first verse all metal, as it were, by using silver of maybe Sterling. "Framboisé" apparently means "flavored with raspberry juice" or "having some aspect of the raspberry". So Old Marcel wanted to go to a lawn that smelled like raspberries, or had their texture or color? That's kinda queer.

I've also never heard the song of small elms, but if he wants them to sing... and once your trees are singing, you might as well call on the apples to "become blond" or "bleach".
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 10:30 AM on March 27, 2013


Oh duh, yeah--ormeaux here are young elms, aren't they, not abalone. I think I was in a food/animal frame with the pigeons and the apples. But the "singing" has to be with the wind in the elms, no? I'm still pretty much at sea in that line.
posted by yoink at 10:33 AM on March 27, 2013


I approve of this post.

And, bad translation or not, "a lunar nacr" would be a good user name, although " la nacre des lunes" would do almost as well.....
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:39 AM on March 27, 2013


"Go back" or "Step back" would do, I think, but English isn't my first language. I think you're right that the three words represent the three ways he could succeed, the Red, politics, and the Black.

Would small elms sing in the wind? At that point he mostly lived in Paris; is it windy there? Or could he have spent time in a more windy locale? I can't really make sense of it either.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 10:41 AM on March 27, 2013


I'd also try to keep the first verse all metal, as it were, by using silver of maybe Sterling. "Framboisé" apparently means "flavored with raspberry juice" or "having some aspect of the raspberry". So Old Marcel wanted to go to a lawn that smelled like raspberries, or had their texture or color? That's kinda queer.

Raspberries are pubescent. Just sayin'.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:43 AM on March 27, 2013


Would small elms sing in the wind?

They're sure to do it whenever the pigeons snow!
posted by yoink at 10:43 AM on March 27, 2013 [3 favorites]


I might keep Prud'homme in the English, as it is likely a reference to Monsieur Prudhomme. ¶ Same for cheval, sénat ou livre,

It seems that a translation that leaves certain words in the original because of their nuanced use requires the reader to be fairly fluent in the original language to both understand the word and any additional layer of meaning. In which case, why bother translating anything? A successful translation is one that recreates the nuances in another language, which is what makes a good translation a difficult act of composition in its own right.
posted by stopgap at 10:57 AM on March 27, 2013


Here's a stab at a very google translation:

If I had a big bag of gold silver or copper
With a little nerve kidneys lips or hands
Vanity-leaving my horse, senate or book
I would run away there yesterday, tonight or tomorrow
The emerald grass raspberry or carmine! -
Rustic without trouble, wasps, dew or frost
I want to never sleep, live and love
With a warm child, Jacques, Pierre and Firmin.
Rear contempt timid Prud'hommes!
Pigeons neigez! Sing, abalone! blondissez, apples!
I want to die suck her perfume!
In red gold suns, moons in the pearl
I want ... and believe me fainted dead
Away from the funeral knell of Virtues unwelcome!

posted by swlabr at 11:11 AM on March 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


While it's doubtless useful to non-French speakers to see a literal translation, and yoink's is as good as we'd need considering it was done on the fly, it's a bit unfair to criticize Howard's translation on that criterion alone. It's a poem, which means he's not just converting meaning at the level of the word -- not even at the level of rhyme schemes, meters, and so on. He's working with a reading of the French poem that he's made and trying to translate that, whole, while ticking as many of the mechanical boxes as possible and making it sound like English poetry. I don't see why so many think he's failed so miserably at that. I think it's a fine translation. Howard is no amateur after all-- his version of Baudelaire's Les fleurs du mals is definitive.
[I]t is self-evident that fidelity in rendering form makes rendering meaning more difficult. Hence the demand for literalness cannot be deduced from the interest in maintaining meaning. The latter serves the undisciplined license of bad translators far more than it serves poetry and language. Therefore this demand, whose justice is obvious and whose ground is deeply concealed, must necessarily be understood on the basis of more pertinent relationships. Just as fragments of a vessel, in order to be fitted together, must correspond to each other in the tiniest details but need not resemble each other, so translation, instead of making itself resemble the meaning of the original, must lovingly, and in detail, fashion in its own language a counterpart to the original's mode of intention, in order to make both of them recognizable as fragments of a vessel, as fragments of a greater language. For that very reason translation must in large measure turn its attention away from trying to communicate something, away from meaning; the original is essential to translation only insofar as it has already relieved the translator and his work of the burden and organization of what is communicated.
--Walter Benjamin, "The Translator's Task"
posted by Catchfire at 11:28 AM on March 27, 2013 [3 favorites]


It's a balancing act, and I tend to err on the side of leaving general references there, with a note if needs be. Prudhomme is a corner case; IMO you would certainly leave references to better-known characters Cossette or Mme Bovary. M. Prudhomme is more obscure, but I would expect someone interested in Proust's early writings to know who he is. I think yoink's translation is correct, but it doesn't convey the pompousness Prudhomme implies. I imagine some pompous French dude making pronouncements of the "evils of homosexuality, this grave social disease or our age" after dinner. I think of the bores who uttered the contents of Flaubert's Dictionnaires des idées reçues.

If I could make it work (I'm not very good), I would also try to keep the reference to the senate, for the reasons I gave above, and because the senate was a major institution in the Third Republic.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 11:32 AM on March 27, 2013


Well, to follow up on my early drive-by thread-shit: while Howard has well-known bona fides both as a French translator and a gay writer -- and is of course a well-known (though very conventional) poet in his own right, I think he just takes too many liberties with the original here, rends some of it unrecognizable, in the name of... what? Constructing a rhyme scheme in English? Giving it a sense it was written with a contemporary sensibility? Making the gay content even more obvious? (The introduction of "Sodom" was over the top, despite being a nod at a title of one part of A la recherche du temps perdu, and a liberty a non-gay translator would not have gotten away with, I think.)

Maybe his confidence in his reputation in French lit and gay culture led him to think all this was not just okay but the best way to render the original into English (into American)? It's hard to say. I should admit I'm chronically biased in favor of literal translation (and very sensitive to the overall near-impossibility of translating poetry, particularly foreign poetry or poetry from an earlier time, well) but ultimately this should be called an adaptation, a poem by Richard Howard *based* on the idea and imagery of Proust -- and I acknowledge that there are certainly distinguished American poets (paging Merwin and Bly) who have "translated" non-English poems into English taking even more egregious liberties than Howard's rendering of the Proust poem.
posted by aught at 11:32 AM on March 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't see why so many think he's failed so miserably at that.

I don't know that I'd say "failed miserably"--he's rendering it into meter and that forces some liberties/compressions/interpretations. But there are some changes which are hard to defend. "Manly mockery"? That's just not, at all, what Proust is on about--and that's kind of important. "Stupid small-minded bourgeois cant" and "manly mockery" are entirely different things to be rebelling against and they situate you quite differently in terms of the cultural politics of the time (and of the present, come to that). And "Sodom" is such a specific and heavily freighted allusion that bringing it in really seems to distort the poem.
posted by yoink at 11:38 AM on March 27, 2013 [3 favorites]


You could say that by getting Sodom in there, Howard is using a piece Krupp Cemented Armour as a counterpart to the wooden keel of a Yatch.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 11:47 AM on March 27, 2013


There's a point where a translation can tip over into just bunch of words "inspired" by the original poem. The above is a great example. It takes an awful lot of balls to fudge that much with the work of a master, and as a reader, it's fucking infuriating.

Unless the meaning shifts radically for some reason, just convert the words the poet chose, as exactly as possible. If there's a pun or an idiom or something that doesn't translate, just use a footnote. Go any further than that, and what's the point? It's suddenly a different poem by a different author; to call it a translation would be coming awfully close to fraud.

I mean, just look at this shit:

Pigeons, neigez ! Chantez, ormeaux ! blondissez, pommes !

-- the obvious climax of the poem, becomes --

Let Sodom’s apples burn, acre by acre,

-- which not only has been completely pulled out of nowhere, but is also a total downer utterly bereft of exclamation points. Dude's pushing rope.
posted by Sys Rq at 12:45 PM on March 27, 2013


One of the things that the translation really destroys is the poem's obsessions with threes:

silver, gold, copper (I was definitely wrong to translate that "argent" as "money")
kidneys, lips, hands
horse, senate, book
yesterday, this evening, or tomorrow
wasps, dew, frost
sleep, love, live
Jacques, Pierre, Firman
Pigeons, Elms/Abalone, Apples

I wonder if the point of that is a kind of pushing back at the notion of simple binaries? In any case, Howard systematically obliterates all of these triads.
posted by yoink at 12:59 PM on March 27, 2013 [6 favorites]


I'm just finishing La prisonnière. I was just saying to Mrs. Robots what a remarkable achievement it is to have transposed a homosexual relationship into one of the greatest of heterosexual love stories, and made a male lover into an unforgettable woman.
posted by No Robots at 1:26 PM on March 27, 2013


pushing back at the notion of simple binaries?

Would Proust have read Ulrichs on "the third sex" at this point, I wonder? That idea, of gays as sexual "inverts," is so central to his treatment of homosexuality in A La Recherche...
posted by yoink at 1:33 PM on March 27, 2013


Or maybe it's just an artifact of the meter, with 12-syllable verses, and where all the trios save one are set after the 6-syllable cut, except for pigeons/ormeaux/pommes where the verse is cut 4/4/4.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 1:34 PM on March 27, 2013


Or maybe it's just an artifact of the meter, with 12-syllable verses

Most French verse is in hexameters, but it doesn't regularly feature this obsession with groups of three, so I don't think that stands. (Although there is clearly an allusion to Baudelaire's "L'invitation au voyage" in this poem, and that does have the repeated invocation of "Luxe, calme et volupté." But then, it's not in hexameters, either.)
posted by yoink at 1:38 PM on March 27, 2013


It's also remarkable that if you remove the groups of three + emerald and carmine, you end up with a core that still "works" (for the most part):

If I had a big bag // of gold, silver or copper
And a little nerve // in my hands kidneys lips
[right now I'm more like a bag of nerves, amirite]
Leaving my vanity // horse, senate, book
I would flee away // yesterday, this evening, to-morrow
To the flavorful lawn // emerald or carmine
Without rustic trouble // wasps, dew, frost
I would want to forever // lay, love, live
With a warm child // Jacques, Pierre, Firmin
--pigeons, elms, apples --
Step back, contempt, // ...
I want ['till I die from it] // ...
Under the gold of red suns // ...
I want to vanish // ...
Away from the funeral toll // ...
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 2:15 PM on March 27, 2013 [3 favorites]


There's a point where a translation can tip over into just bunch of words "inspired" by the original poem. The above is a great example. It takes an awful lot of balls to fudge that much with the work of a master, and as a reader, it's fucking infuriating.

Don't get me wrong, I think a lot of the above is useful, but again, translating poetry is not (just) an exercise in linguistic conversion. Of course it's easy to see what a translator "missed" by pointing to the "obsessions with threes" or the "obvious climax of the poem," when these are simply some aspects of a mutivalent utterance impossible to capture holistically.

We could just as easily say that a literal translation of the "climactic" line simply doesn't work in English (and it's a terrible line in any language; see below). Or that the use of threes doesn't need to be used every line to get the message, so preserving other aspects of the poem is more desirable. Or that all the valences of a word like "Prud'homme" is pretty difficult to communicate precisely in English, as even the above discussion shows (none of which gets it "right," imo -- and "manly mockery" is as accurate, if not more so).

I also think that calling the Proust poem the work of a "master" is a bit of an overstatement. He was 17 for crissakes! The poem in the original is pretty crap -- and kind of capital-"R" Romantic to boot. Not the work of the modern (prose!) author of En Recherche by any stretch.
posted by Catchfire at 4:31 PM on March 27, 2013


I can get behind "manly mockery" OK, I hadn't seen the implied irony at first. And it's true that the pigeon line makes you want to ask the writer what he's trying to achieve. But getting Sodom in there... Ô_ô ...c'est un peu fort.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 4:54 PM on March 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


I can't think of any plausible intention of "mépris timide des Prud’hommes" in this context that is aptly rended as "manly mockery," Catchfire. I'd be interested how you get there. "Timid contempt" seems to rule out "manly" from the get go. (And, on preview, I can't see how it gets to be "ironic" either--I mean, you could give a heavily sarcastic tinge to it with your voice in performance, but unless you know the original there's nothing in the translation that signals that "manly" here is intended to be ironized.)

And of course all translations are interpretations, and partial interpretations at that. It's never a meaningful critique of a translation to say "oh, it didn't convey everything in the original" because of course it didn't. But you are making a very odd leap from that to saying, essentially, "because you can't get everything right, it really doesn't matter if you try and get anything right." What kind of justification is it to claim that a line is a bad line and that therefore the translator has no duty to try to be faithful to it? Even great poets have bad lines, that doesn't mean their translators should be free to improvise whenever they get to those parts. And while some structural elements that are significant in the original poem will be inevitably deformed in translation, Proust's devotion to groups of three in in this poem is so profoundly marked and so striking that to erase it seems strangely heedless.
posted by yoink at 4:59 PM on March 27, 2013


I also think that calling the Proust poem the work of a "master" is a bit of an overstatement. He was 17 for crissakes!

I'll be sure to tell Keats and Rimbaud you said that.
posted by Sys Rq at 7:32 PM on March 27, 2013


I don't think you can really compare young Proust with Rimbaud; this isn't a masterpiece from a precocious, blinding genius, it's juvenalia from someone who took a while to mature and get serious about writing.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 7:38 PM on March 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


Seconding Monday. If the items in the triads were more closely synonymous, you could call them a metrical fudge ("Jacques, Pierre, ou Firmin" is this, because it doesn't make a difference), however intentional that constant "ou." Redundancy is a constant problem in bad French poetry; it's like a "do" inserted to make the meter work.

Besides that, golden suns and pearly moons aren't the most original images. The snowy pigeons have a spark of something more interesting, though.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 7:51 PM on March 27, 2013


I don't think you can really compare young Proust with Rimbaud; this isn't a masterpiece from a precocious, blinding genius, it's juvenalia from someone who took a while to mature and get serious about writing.

Yes, thank you. My reference to his age was meant to highlight that he was a long way away from becoming the Proust we know; not that seventeen-year olds can't produce good art (I come from the land of Justin Bieber after all...)

I can't think of any plausible intention of "mépris timide des Prud’hommes" in this context that is aptly rended as "manly mockery," Catchfire. I'd be interested how you get there.

Well, it's not what I would have picked, obviously, but I'm neither a poet nor a good translator. I think, like Monday suggests, the irony comes from the fact that M Prudhomme was a parody of French middle-class life. (It's "timid contempt of the Prud'hommes," right?) I was thinking that Howard is punning on (d')homme there because of the manly/mockery/me : mépris/timide/homme alliteration. But I'm a really poor reader of French poetry.
posted by Catchfire at 10:20 PM on March 27, 2013


I think, like Monday suggests, the irony comes from the fact that M Prudhomme was a parody of French middle-class life. (It's "timid contempt of the Prud'hommes," right?) I was thinking that Howard is punning on (d')homme there because of the manly/mockery/me : mépris/timide/homme alliteration.

If he is picking up on "homme" in "Prud'hommes" then that would be a disturbingly bad translation. And, as you say, the Prud'hommes were parodic representatives of dull, small-minded, self-important bourgeois conventionality. Everything, in other words, that is motivating Proust's allusion to them (a male and female couple, remember--not a group of "manly" men)--everything he doubles down on by talking of their "mépris timide"--simply gets washed away when you talk of "manly mockery." Suddenly instead of pearl-clutching, tsk-tsking, contempible bourgeois scandalized by someone's willingness to kick over the conventional bounds of social propriety we're thinking of gay-bashing bros calling Marcel a faggot. It completely changes the point of the line.

And, again, the only way of getting to this being "irony" (i.e., "I'm ironically playing on the word "homme" in the name "Prud'homme") is if we have the original poem in front of us and we read sufficient French in any case to understand the word "homme."
posted by yoink at 9:40 AM on March 28, 2013


I think I was overinterpreting, starting from my knowledge of the French: I saw the manly mockery as only manly in its own mind, like M. Prudhomme boring us about Virility. But I don't think you can interpret it that way just from Howard's translation.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 10:30 AM on March 28, 2013


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