Doug Skinner: An Archive on Your Gizmo

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June 8th, 2014 · 8 Comments

Translating verse is difficult enough; it’s harder to try to retain the rhyme and meter.  Some paraphrase is always required, but it often comes closer to the original poem than a more literal rendition.  It is, at any rate, a challenging writing exercise.  Here’s my version of a verse by Jean de la Fontaine, from his first collection of tales in verse, 1665.


Tags: *Words · A

8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Mamie // Jun 13, 2014 at 9:16 pm

    Poor Mister Glutton!

  • 2 Doug // Jun 13, 2014 at 11:01 pm

    Some people just don’t know when to stop.

  • 3 Norman Conquest // Jun 14, 2014 at 9:47 pm


  • 4 Win // Jul 2, 2014 at 11:18 pm

    I would agree that respect for meter and rhyme goes a long way toward bringing poetry over from one language to another. However I find that many translators of verse, especially poets, often stray too far from the literal meaning in their attempt to recreate the “feel” of a foreign poem.
    I’m not very familiar with LaFontaine’s poems, but this one reminded me of an essay I read this afternoon, Three Forms of Sudden Death by Francisco Gonzalez-Crussi, in his book of the same name. One of the three forms he discusses is asphyxiation, of which the “cafe coronary” is one of the more morbidly entertaining, involving as it does the lodging of food in the pharynx (hot dogs are apparently a leading cause of such deaths, perfectly designed in scale and texture to do the trick). Gonzalez-Crussi doesn’t touch on death by overeating as LaFontaine does here, but in the course of emphasizing the fragility of human life (“fleeting and empty, like the froth formed at the surface of liquids that are shaken : buoyant one instant, vanished the next” – Ullage, anyone?) he quotes a pertinent and concise proverb that first appears in a work by the Roman scholar Varro: “Homo, bulla (man is a bubble). Don’t stand too close!

  • 5 Doug // Jul 3, 2014 at 12:08 am

    I find that it depends on the poem. I’ve been reasonably happy with my attempts to translate comic and narrative verse with the meter and rhyme, but found more serious poetry impossible. La Fontaine is well suited for the treatment. You can paraphrase a bit, and still stay close to the literal. And hot dogs should be avoided.

  • 6 Win // Jul 3, 2014 at 12:07 am

    Speaking of bursting, those of a republican and prudent cast of mind will find that an examination of the means of death of various British monarchs through the ages is both a caution and a delight. William the Conqueror, for instance, was so corpulent at the moment of his demise that his corpse burst during the efforts of his erstwhile servants to stuff him into his coffin. Henry I is another favorite; that fine fellow punched his ticket over a gargantuan plate of lamprey eels. King John had a sweeter tooth, and died under a load of peaches, pears and cider.
    I recently discovered a wonderfully laconic account of the gluttonous end of a slightly less elevated member of the English elite in Austin Dobson’s Eighteenth Century Vignettes. His essay on Lady Katherine, second daughter of Henry Hyde, Earl of Clarendon and Rochester, who served as the model for the poet Matthew Prior’s Kitty, concludes with a sentence that I have always considered a perfect example of terse understatement, the kind of thing one would like to find at the end of a good novel: “She died in Savile Row in 1777, of a surfeit of cherries, and was buried at Durrisdeer.”

  • 7 Doug // Jul 3, 2014 at 12:22 pm

    Those monarchs! I have somewhere a typical dinner menu for the court of Louis XIV, and it’s alarming. I continue to be puzzled by all those fatal fruits. Swift blamed his broken health on apples; Diderot died from an apricot. What was it about the fruit? Was it the sugar?

  • 8 Win // Jul 3, 2014 at 2:10 pm

    Perhaps they should have been using juicers. You could, by the way, cook up a verse or two in French using the rhyme of Diderot and abricot…

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