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I payed the fishermen who'd come on his route...:

XXII. Je payai le pêcheur qui passa son chemin
Victor Hugo
Translation by Geoffrey Barto

I payed the fisherman who'd come on his route,
And I took the awful creature in my hand;
It was an obscure thing of the sort the waves wash in,
That if bigger would be a hydra, but if smaller a louse;
Lacking form, like a shadow, nameless as is God.
It opened its awful mouth; a black stump
Came out of its shell; it tried to bite me;
God, in the formidable immensity of the order of things,
Gives a dark place to these hideous specters.
It tried to bite me and we two fought;
Its teeth sought my fingers which trembled at their approach;
The man who had sold it to me turned round the rock;
As he was disappearing, the crab bit me;
I said to him, "Live! and be blessed, poor wretch!"
And I tossed him back in the deep waves,
So he could go tell the rumbling ocean,
Which serves as a baptismal font for the sun,
That man returns good to the monster's bad.

Copyright Geoffrey Barto, 2003


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The child, seeing grandma busy spinning:

XXV. L'enfant, voyant l'aïeule a filer occupée
Victor Hugo
Translation by Geoffrey Barto

The poem paints a charming picture, too charming for me to resist sharing. However, it involves the vocabulary for spinning, a subject with which neither I, nor - I suspect - most of my modern readers will be acquainted. I've therefore taken a few liberties to capture the essence of the poem. Should any spinning experts encounter this, advice on how better to explain the spinning mechanism would be most welcomed. GB

The child, seeing grandma busy spinning,
Wants to make some thread for her biggest doll.
The grandma starts to doze a little, it's her chance!
The child comes up from behind and gently pulls
A thread from off the spindle where the bobbin turns
Then takes off, triumphant, joyously carrying
The lovely golden wool, dyed by saffron,
Just like a little bird would take it for a nest.


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He was telling her...:

XXI. Il lui disait: "Vois-tu, si tous deux nous pouvions
Victor Hugo
Translation by Geoffrey Barto

He was telling her: "You see, if both of us could,
Souls full of faith, hearts filled with light,
Drunk with sweet ecstasy and melancholy,
Break the thousand ties that hold us to this city;
If we could leave this sad and crazy Paris,
We would flee; we would go somewhere, anywhere,
To seek, far from the vain noise, far from the jealous hatreds,
A spot where we would have trees, lawns,
A little house with flowers, a little
Solitude, a little silence, a blue sky,
The song of a bird perched on the roof,
Some shade; - and what more could we possibly need?"

Copyright Geoffrey Barto, 2003


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To the poet who sent me an eagle's feather:

XIX. Au poëte qui m'envoie une plume d'aigle
Victor Hugo
Translation by Geoffrey Barto

Indeed it is a solemn hour!
On this peaceful day, my mind
Believes a little eternal glory
Is mixed with the everyday hullaballoo,

Since, in my humble retreat,
I gather, without stooping,
What the poet will let drop,
What the eagle leaves to fall!

Since on my trusty head
The vainquishing couple has dropped
A feather from the wing
And a line from the heart!

Oh! then be welcome,
Feather! line! glorious gifts!
You have wandered in the clouds,
You have soared through the skies!

Copyright Geoffrey Barto, 2003


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Oh! I was like a fool at first:

IV. Oh! je fus comme fou dans le premier moment
Victor Hugo
Translation by Geoffrey Barto

Oh! I was like a fool at first,
Alas! and bitterly three days I wept.
All you from whom God took your sweet hope,
Fathers and mothers, whose souls have known such suffering,
Everything I felt, did you feel it too?
I wanted to bust my skull on the walk;
Then I revolted, and, at times, terrible,
I fixed my gaze on that horrid thing,
And I wouldn't believe in it, and I cried out: No!
"Could God permit these nameless woes
That drive despair to rise up in the heart?"
It seemed to me that everything was just an awful dream,
That she couldn't have left me that way,
That I could hear her laugh in the next room,
That it was impossible, in sum, that she be dead,
And that I would soon see her come in the door!
Oh! how many times I've said: Silence! she spoke!
Hold up! it's the sound of her hand on the key!
Wait! she's coming! let me alone so I can listen!
For she is surely somewhere in this very house.

Copyright Geoffrey Barto, 2003


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Malaysian Pantoum:

Pantoum malais

This is not a work of Hugo but is associated with him because he was the first to publish it. He took it directly from a letter from Ernest Fouinet, and published it (and several other poems) in a note in Les Orientales associated with the poem Nourmahal la Rousse.

The pantoum is a Malaysian verse form in which the lines of one verse make up the next in a new context. You can read more in this Absolute Write online magazine article, which, despite getting my name wrong (it's Geoffrey Barto) is pretty good.

As far as I know, Hugo wrote no pantoums of his own, at least that were published. But Harmonie du soir, by Baudelaire, seems to fit the bill (thanks to Briant Sarris, sometime co-translator, for pointing it out).

For an amusing pantoum that effectively demonstrates the form, visit Bob Newman's page on the pantoum.

Pantoum malais
French translation by Ernest Fouinet
English translation by Geoffrey Barto

The butterflies flit about on butterfly wings;
They fly to the sea, near the line of rocks.
My heart has ached in my breast,
From the start of my days to this present moment.

They fly to the sea, near the line of rocks...
The vulture sets his course and ascends toward Bandam.
From the start of my days to this present moment,
I have truly admired the young.

The vulture sets his course and ascends toward Bandam.
And lets a few feathers fall at Patami.
I have truly admired the young;
But nothing compares to the object of my desire.

It lets a few feathers fall at Patami.
Here are two young pigeons!
No young man compares to him I desire.
Clever as he is at touching my heart.

It should be noted that in a proper pantoum, the lines ought be identically reproduced. Needless to say, my translation does not do this. Nor did Fouinet's. In my Notes on French Versification and my Thoughts on Translation, among other places, I discuss how the French language shapes the poetry written in it and the problems this poses for the translator. I am not a scholar of Malay, and cannot begin to do the type of analysis I've done for French, as though that analysis were not miniscule enough. However, having looked a little at Malay and the related Indonesian, I would note the following:

Malay and Indonesian have a much more fluid structure than either French or English. Many words can be left out. Roots can be used, if need be, in place of fully articulated forms. Tense and aspect (ongoing versus finished actions) are marked not by verb conjugation, but by particles that can be left out if the writer so chooses. And grammatical gender is non-existent. This should make a pantoum much easier to write in Malay or Indonesian. And nearly impossible to duplicate in French or English. Further, because English can be less precise than French, in translating from Malay to French to English, one is at odds to know when to preserve something about which the French is specific and when to assume that the French language required the specificity, not that the poem included it, and that the ambiguities of English can be exploited to more closely approximate the pantoum form. For an example of what can be done if you're starting with the French, see the Baudelaire piece linked above.


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February 15, 1843:

II. 15 février 1843
Victor Hugo

Translation by Geoffrey Barto

Love him who loves you, and be happy in him.
- Goodbye! - Be his treasure, you who was ours!
Go, blessed child, from one family to another.
Carry off happiness and leave us to ennui.

Here, we hold you back; there you are desired.
Daughter, spouse, angel, child, do your doubled chores.
Give us regrets and give to them hope,
Leave with a tear! and enter with a smile!

(On the marriage of his daughter, Léopoldine)

Translation copyright Geoffrey Barto, 2003.


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The Spring:

VI. La source
Victor Hugo

Translation by Geoffrey Barto

A lion lived near a spring; an eagle
Would also come there to drink
Now, two heroes, one day, two kings - often God
In this manner sets destiny -

Saw each other at this spring, where palm trees attract
The passerby by chance,
And, recognizing each other, these men fought
And felled one another.

The eagle, as they were dying, swooped in over their heads,
And told them, shining:
"You thought the universe was too small, and now you are
Nothing but a shadow!

O princes! you and your bones, yesterday full of youth,
Tomorrow will be no more
Save pebbles mixed unrecognized
With the stones that line this path!

Foolish! To what purpose was this harsh and bitter war,
This duel, this life for life*?
I live in peace, and I'm an eagle, and in solitude,
With him, and he's a lion.

We both come to drink at the same fountain,
Kings in the same lands;
I leave to him the woods, the mountains, the plains,
And keep for myself the skies.

*talion, in both French and English, is the word. It refers to the practice whereby punishments are inflicted according to the crime - murderers executed, thieves deprived of property, etc. - i.e. a literal version of an eye for an eye. Given the oddness of the word, I rephrased.

Translation copyright Geoffrey Barto, 2003


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