Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Labé's "Je vis, je meure…" in translation

Sonnet VIII

Je vis, je meure, je me brule et me noye :
J'ay chaut estreme en endurant froidure :
La vie m'est et trop molle et trop dure.
J'ay grans ennuis entremeslez de joye :

Tout à un coup je ris et je larmoye,
Et en plaisir maint grief tourment j'endure :
Mon bien s'en va, et à jamais il dure :
Tout en un coup je seiche et je verdoye.

Ainsi Amour inconstamment me meine :
Et quand je pense avoir plus de douleur,
Sans y penser je me treuve hors de peine.

Puis quand je croy ma joye estre certaine,
Et estre au haut de mon desiré heur,
Il me remet en mon premier malheur.

Louise Labé

Sonnet VIII

I live, I die; am burnt and submerged;
I am scorched by biting cold;
Life both coddles and abuses me.
My great suffering is entangled with great joy:

It happens all at once – I laugh, shedding tears.
Full of gladness, I am haunted still by grief.
My livelihood is fled, but ever endures.
All at once I wither and I flourish.

Thus Love is my fickle guide:
And when I see only more sorrow ahead,
Suddenly I am brought out of misery.

Then when it seems my joy has been decided,
And I am on the brink of bliss, 
Love forsakes me to my former wretchedness.

Labé; tr. Sara Balsom

Of course a great difficulty of translation is deciding whether to remain stringently faithful to the original diction, or render natural-sounding language in the translation. In translating this sonnet, I opted rather for the latter, although I find myself doubting this decision. While I like the sound of my English translation, I am afraid of having missed the point of translating this particular sonnet. Labé's diction is somewhat simplistic for the period, yet the intellectual concept of the poem is complex and striking. She describes life as a series of contradictions or juxtapositions which ultimately resolves into misery. The simplicity of the language makes this idea seem almost commonplace, the speaker almost apathetic, as if this is something one should or could learn in a school primer. The French have a history of taking a less melodramatic attitude towards suffering than the English do, and this sonnet seems to express this especially in the last line, which literally translates to something like "puts me back into my first/primary unhappiness." I don't believe that "former wretchedness" conveys this adequately, although I chose it for its half-rhyme with "bliss," which gives a truer rendering of Labé's rhyme scheme, and its metrical value, the three syllables of "wretchedness" being less jarring than the four in "unhappiness."

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