efore attempting to write this review of Norman R. Shapiro's Lyrics of the French Renaissance,2 I leafed though my old anthologies of Marot's, du Bellay's, and Ronsard's works to see which poems the translator had chosen among the thousands available to him. Scanning the Table of contents, I saw that Shapiro had selected significant poems from every book by each of the three great Renaissance poets, a good choice if one is to give the reader an idea of the range of inspiration and the variety of style of the translated poets. As I opened this book of translations randomly, I fell upon du Bellay's Les Antiquitez de Rome. Shapiro translated six of the 32 sonnets of this book. The first one he offers is the third sonnet of the series.
Nouveau venu, qui cherches Rome en Rome,
Et rien de Rome en Rome n'apperçois,
Ces vieux palais, ces vieux arcz que tu vois,
Et ces vieux murs, c'est ce que Rome on nomme.
Voy quel orgueil, quelle ruine: et comme
Celle qui mist le monde sous ses loix,
Pour donter tout, se donta quelquefois,
Et devint proye au temps, qui tout consomme.
Rome de Rome est le seul monument,
Et Rome Rome a vaincu seulement.
Le Tybre seul, qui vers la mer s'enfuit,
Reste de Rome. O mondaine inconstance!
Ce qui est ferme, est par le temps destruit,
Et ce qui fuit, au temps fait resistance.
Stranger, who look for Rome in Rome, but find
Little of what was Rome in Rome, behold!
Those arches, walls, and palaces of old
Are all that Rome, in name, has left behind.
Proud ruins! She, who had all humankind
Under her law's dominion long controlled,
Through victories and victories untold,
Perished, to all-consuming Time consigned.
Rome is Rome's final lasting monument,
And Rome, Rome's one last conquest, power-spent;
Only the Tiber, flowing toward the sea,
Remains of Rome! O man's fate, constant never!
Time wastes what changeless seems, stands solidly;
The fleeting conquers time, flows on forever.3
How appropriate for this review of a literary translator's work in a translators' journal! Du Bellay's poem is itself a translation of "Qui Romam in media quæris, novus advena, Roma," a Latin epigram attributed to Janus Vitalis (1485-c.1560), a neo-Latin poet of Palermo. Du Bellay had probably read it in a collection of poetry published in Venice in 1554 by Gabriel Giolito under the title Antonii Terminii Contursini Licani. Innii Albini Terminii Senioris. Molsae, Bernardini Rotae, equitis Neapolitani, et aliorum illustrium poetarum carmina.4
It was also translated in French by Jean Doublet (1529-160?), Lazare de Baïf (149?-1547) and Guillaume Colletet (1598-1659). John J. Emerson quotes English translations by J. V. Cunningham (1911-1985) who, according to Emerson, probably translated from the Latin; Edmund Spenser (c.1552-1599) who was translating from du Bellay's poem; Ezra Pound (1885-1972) also probably translating from the French Renaissance poet; Robert Lowell (1917-1977) translating from the Spanish translation of the Vitalis poem by Francisco de Quevedo y Villegas (1580-1645); Alix Ingber also translating from Quevedo's Spanish in 1995.5
Shapiro's version is then the latest in a crisscross of translations, some of which typically do not claim or admit they were inspired by any previous work. In the 16th century, authors rarely acknowledged their sources. Not that they were dishonest, it simply wasn't done that way then. Their attitude to translation was more akin to adaptation. They made the underlying text their own and wrote for their audience, the general reading public, and not only for a select group of university scholars who would judge of their faithfulness to the source text in terms of the number of explanatory footnotes.
In his preface Shapiro says:
No translation can ever be an exact reproduction, unto every last nuance. What it can and should be, however, is a work in its own right, quite able to stand by itself, but intimately related to the originalit would not exist without it, though it should be able to do sowith its message left intact and as much of its admittedly intangible spirit carried over as well.6
And that is certainly what this book offers, a collection of beautiful English poems worthy of being read as original works, which happen to have been inspired by French verses which the reader can also read on the opposite page for reference, since it is a bilingual edition.
The aim of the translator, in my opinion, is to recreate for the reader of his target language the reading experience of the reader of the original. To this end, the grammar, style, rhythm and music of the translation must appear as natural to the 21st century English reader of the translation as they did to the 16th century French public. The translator's duty of faithfulness is first to the reader, and then to the author. "This means, for example," writes Shapiro, "that if rhyme and meter are part of the originals, part of how the poet conceived them, they will be part of my versions as well." 7 Indeed the translated poems rhyme and scan with a comparable musicality. The reader who is looking for a word for word equivalent will be disappointed, but the one who enjoys the poetic experience of being introduced to new perceptions of the realities of love, death, friendship, and other timeless themes of the human psyche through song and poetry will love this book.
1 Pseudonym of the poet Robert
2 Lyrics of the French RenaissanceMarot, Du Bellay, Ronsard, English version by Norman R. Shapiro, Chicago: the University of Chicago Press, 2006; first published by Yale University Press, 2002; 385 pp.
3Ibid., pp. 184-85.
4I'm only quoting here a footnote from my 1961 edition of Joachim du Bellay's Oeuvres poétiques by Henri Chamard so as to appear more scholarly than I truly am.
6Lyrics of the French Renaissance, pp. xxiii-xxiv.
7Ibid., p. xxiv.