Volume 2, No. 4 
October 1998

Michael Walker

Michael Walker is a writer, cultural theorist, visual artist, and poet. He lives in San Francisco, California. Walker is perhaps best known to the academic and biomedical communities for his work on the reformation of Mongolia’s health care system, and has also authored a number of journal articles on various aspects of Mongolian technological and legal reform. His other areas of research interest include HIV/AIDS education and prevention, geography and navigation, feminist themes in literature, and how the arts and sciences interact in various cultural settings. With regard to languages, his interests include: English, Spanish, Chinese, Mongolian, Russian, Hebrew, Hurrain, Arabic, and Persian. His personal interests include: soccer, running, hockey, cooking, and music. Mike can be reached at: mikewalker@geocities.com



A Unique Medium
by Gabe Bokor
Index 1997-98
  Translator Profiles
May Your Neurons Never Get Tired of Your Challenges
by Steve Vlasta Vitek
  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant & Worker Bee
The Business of Translating
Danilo Nogueira
  Literary Translation
Translating Poetry/The Work of Arthur Rimbaud from French to English
by Michael Walker
  Art & Entertainment
Translator, a Lovely Profession
by Karin Almegård Nörby/Monica Scheer
Fernsehuntertitelung in Flandern
by Luc Ockers
 Biomedical Translation
Immunology—a Brief Overview, Part 2
by Lúcia M. Singer, Ph.D.
  Science & Technology
A Translator’s Guide to Organic Chemical Nomenclature XIII
by Chester E. Claff, Jr., Ph.D.
  Caught in the Web
Web Surfing for Fun and Profit
by Cathy Flick, Ph.D.
Translators’ On-Line Resources
by Gabe Bokor
Translators’ Events
Letters to the Editor
Call for Papers
Translation Journal
Literary Translations Rimbaud
Arthur Rimbaud


Translating Poetry
The Works of Arthur Rimbaud From French to English

by Michael C. Walker

Few writers depend so heavily on the intricacies of a given language as the poet, for whom each word is often essential. Every major language can provide examples of fine poetry, rich in the demeanor and presence of language, filled with the richness that makes a language unique and interesting. Some would argue that without the variance found in dissimilar languages poetry would fail us as a comprehensive art; could we have the peculiar grammar of Emily Dickinson beside the lyricism of Baudelaire if both poets were constrained to the same language? However, such richness provides difficulty for those who are called upon to translate poetry from one language to another, a common task in the case of well-known poets and a growing area of interest for the works of lesser-known contemporary poets. This article examines issues germane to the translation of poetry using the works of the nineteenth century French poet Arthur Rimbaud as its example.
    Rimbaud is, with no room for argument, one of the greatest and most unusual poets in the history of French literature. He began writing in earnest as a young boy, displaying an uncanny aptitude for lucent thought and a way with his native language which bespoke a depth of character far beyond his years. Perhaps most remarkably, Rimbaud wrote the entirety of his poetical works during his adolescence, turning away from poetry altogether in his late teenage years to pursue a precarious career of trading in Yemen and Africa. Although Rimbaud was knowledgeable about the works of the leading poets of his time and often mimicked (and mocked) their forms in his own work, it was his unique style that earned him a rightful place among France’s notable writers. Since his death in 1891 and the gradual establishment of interest in his works, his poetry has been translated into at least twenty-five different languages, including the four other Romance languages and most remaining European tongues. One of the first languages to receive Rimbaud’s work was, logically, English. Rimbaud had not pursued translating his French poems into this language, thus all translations we have in English of Rimbaud are the efforts of others, almost exclusively successive to his death.
    While many translators have worked with Rimbaud’s poetry and have produced volumes of his work in English, perhaps no single individual stands out as crucial to bringing Rimbaud to an English-reading audience as Wallace Fowlie, a noted professor emeritus of French at Duke University. Fowlie’s approach to Rimbaud was to present the original French side-by-side with his English translations in book form, to allow the reader a direct comparison of the works in both languages. Therefore, Fowlie’s efforts are a true treasure for anyone curious to the process of translating poetry from one language to another. The epistemology of Fowlie’s logic in word choice and the restructuring of phrases is clear and easy to discern from these comparative presentations. Furthermore, the variance in grammar is readily apparent, demonstrating the intricacies of both Rimbaud’s verse and French in general. Fowlie has attempted to preserve not only the meaning and tone of Rimbaud in his English translations but also the energy and empirical structure of the poet’s art. Such is no small feat given Rimbaud’s often bizarre handling of his native tongue.
    The transcendent aspects of Rimbaud’s voice do allow some agency in the selection of foreign words to match his verse in translation, but the particular nuances of French as a language cannot be underestimated in the context of Rimbaud’s works. French is often hailed as the language of romance, and it does impart the Romantic in every sense of that word, from its origins in Latin to its embodiment of the great Romantic age traditions in art and literature. The idea of belles lettres is in itself a French concept, and French poetry does stand apart even from the poetries of other Romance languages in its lyricism. The French of Rimbaud—though swift and strident oftentimes—is overtly soft, dulcet, and flowing in its cadence. To this end, Rimbaud amplifies the French language, somehow making it even more “French” than it would be in another application or scenario. I pair Rimbaud’s written French with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ spoken French: soft, even, and ever-melodious. English, and most other, non-Romance languages— certainly all the Germanic and Slavic languages—have difficulty in replicating such subtitles as these graces are not intrinsic to these languages. How then, are Rimbaud’s thoughts best translated into another language without the loss of his breath, his tone? Certainly, this is not an issue limited to Rimbaud alone—or to French writers alone, either, as other languages present examples of the same challenges, such as the case of translating Tsvetaeva out of the Russian.
    Certainly the rhyme-structure and rhythm of Rimbaud is difficult to duplicate in English; like most poets working in a rhyme scheme, Rimbaud chose certain words for their compatibility with other rhymed words. When immensely lucky, the translator shall find an approximate word in English which will also rhyme, but this is, of course, the happy exception and not the arduous rule. As astute as Fowlie’s translations are, he encounters this problem time and again. How Fowlie approaches this quandary is interesting and instructive. For example, the original line in Rimbaud’s “Fêtes de la Patience” (“Festivals of Patience”) reads: Oisive jeunesse
À tout asservie,
Par délicatesse
J’ai perdu ma vie.

   Fowlie’s translation of the above reads: Idle youth
enslaved to everything,
through sensitivity
I wasted my life.

   Fowlie has certainly preserved the meaning of the verse and the sense of despondency and urgency of the French, but the sound of the language is lost entirely. If there is no means of retaining the lyrical flow and essence of a language—characteristics so important to poetry—how then, does the translator possibly impart the poet’s intent into the translation? One method—though a controversial one—is via innovations in punctuation. If cadence and flow may not be maintained through the sound quality of the words, then possibly punctuation can do what phonetics cannot. Often this is the case when translating Asian poetry—especially Chinese—into Romance or Germanic languages. For a poet such as Emily Dickinson, who made use of punctuation in rather unconventional ways, this technique is not an option, but for Rimbaud and most French, Spanish, and Italian poets prior to the mid-twentieth century, it is often worth a try.
    Another example from Fowlie’s translations should expose a secondary problem of Rimbaud’s poetry: his words tend to bear a more pronounced meaning in French than their English equivalents can often express. First, the French: Le premier habit noir, le plus beau jour de tartes,

   Now, Fowlie’s English translation: The first black suit, on the finest day of pastries    The precise, literal, meaning of both of the sentences above is very close, yet something is missing in the English variant. Fowlie stays as true as possible to Rimbaud’s meaning, and, in the context of the rest of the poem, this sentence makes perfect sense. Where the difficulty lies in this example is the difference in structure between French and English. Had the task been to translate this passage into Spanish, it would have been easier to retain the order and appearance of the words Rimbaud provides. It is important in reading the French to note that “habit” comes before “noir”, but there is no mechanism in English to permit this flow of words; the adjective must precede the noun it describes, efforts at doing otherwise seem only awkward. We could say “the first suit of black—on the day finest—of pastries” but this solution is more cumbersome to the reader than Fowlie’s direct translation.
    While the translator preparing an entire volume of poetry with a substantial budget to do so may elect to include the source text with the translations, many who are confronted with translating a small portion of poetry for other types of publications cannot justify such maneuvers. Instead, constraints may dictate the most compact translation possible. Here, the voice of the poet and to some degree the essence of the source language should retain its unique character without ancillary exposition or explanation. How can this challenge be met? Perhaps by examining the intent of the poet in using his word choices. While analysis of poetry is often beyond the translator’s purpose or providence, simple examination and query can usually at least rule out what should not be done. Rimbaud can illustrate this situation most effectively, as witnessed in the following excerpt: Morts de Quatre-vingt-douze et de Quatre-vingt-treize,

   From the above one may reduce the translation to a simple: The dead of ’92 and ’93,    None of Rimbaud’s purpose or flair is lost in using the numerals instead of their written equivalents, and the sentence is shortened considerably. In fact, if the numerals were spelled out as words in English, the contemporary reader might be puzzled by the use of the words instead of the numerals.
    Some knowledge not only of poetry and literature but also the etymology of whatever foreign language one is translating from is essential to producing accurate translations, especially when dealing with poets from other centuries. Most translators possess such a knowledge, but those who specialize in scientific or business-oriented work may not need to call upon their background in the history of a language so often as is necessary for the dependable translation of poetry. The best person to translate poetry—other than the actual poet—is someone who has intensively studied the poet and his/her works, but lacking this, one may resort to examining important criticism of the poet by scholars. Centering oneself in the poetry—even briefly—in this fashion can make all the difference between producing a mediocre translation and a superb rendition. The duty of the translator in translating poetry is as essential as when translating an important legal or technical document as scholars in the recipient language will rely with good faith on the translator to have produced a reliable work for their own purposes.

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