Sunday, January 26, 2014

Hofstader's "Ma Mignonne"

À une Damoyselle malade
Clément Marot

Ma mignonne,
Je vous donne
Le bon jour ;
Le séjour
C'est prison.
Puis ouvrez
Votre porte
Et qu'on sorte
Car Clément
Le vous mande.
Va, friande
De ta bouche,
Qui se couche
En danger
Pour manger
Confitures ;
Si tu dures
Trop malade,
Couleur fade
Tu prendras,
Et perdras
Dieu te doint
Santé bonne,
Ma mignonne.

In The Life in Rhymes of Clément Marot, Douglas Hofstader takes us on a merry ride through the process of translating Clément Marot's poem "A une Damoyselle malade," a poem to which Hofstader affectionately gives the nickname "Ma Mignonne," taking an appellation from the first line of the poem. Along the way he asks the reader to discover the problems of translating poetry, especially when the reader's interest and enjoyment of that poetry relies heavily on its structure ("Note also that a teeny bending of the norms of pronunciation was deemed allowable [in my translation]...Did you catch any of these minuscule anomalies while reading "My Sweet Maid" aloud?).

Before he begins his task of translating, Hofstader provides the non-reader of French with a list of characteristics describing the original French poem, which the reader should keep in mind while perusing his multiple translations:

1. The poem is 28 lines long. 
2. Each line consists of three syllables. 
3. Each line's main stress falls on its final syllable. 
4. The poem is a string of rhyming couplets: AA, BB, CC... 
5. Midway, the tone changes from formal ("vous") to informal ("tu"). 
6. The poem's opening line is echoed precisely at the very bottom. 
7. The poet puts his own name directly into his poem. 

The biography of Marot which serves as an introduction to the translations is, charmingly, written in rhymed prose:
 "In the four-and-a-half centuries now passed since his death, Marot's carved a niche – although small, quite secure – in the vast pantheon of French literature. Le tome beau de Marot – the great book of our bard – has respect far and wide; though he's dead, he's not died. Mort n'y mord, Marot's motto: "Death, dull are thy fangs." The fellow (it can't be denied) had toupet – he had marrow and pluck, plus some luck of the dice. Thus he garnered nice blurbs from the likes of Boileau ('Il trouva pour rimer des cheins tout nouveaux' – He opened up pathways of rhyme no one knew)" 
Hofstader's transparent critique of his own translations entertains and intrigues. He gives the reader all the tools to make their own translation(s) of Marot, while humbly presenting his own examples. He acknowledges that these translations – like all translations of poetry – each fail in unique ways and succeed in other ways to convey aspects of the original to an Anglophone ear. His admissions are also written in a prose style that is nothing if not adorably endearing:
"...despite the fact that I was striving for nothing but the purest, most austere, least form-concerned type of literality, issues of form raised their little heads all over the place, like crowds of little mushroomlets merrily sprouting up in the most carefully tended of lawns." 
Interestingly enough, in pointing out his own difficulties in translating these poems, Hofstader actually (it seems inadvertently) uncovers some tiny flaws in Marot's tight verse:
"Another interesting matter is the handling of lines 20-21 (Si tu dures / Trop malade)... In a truly mindless translation, 'too' would have to modify 'sick' and the word 'long' would not enter the picture at all...Marot wanted to encourage his little friend Jeanne not to stay sick for too long a time. The idea of 'staying too sick,' after all, doesn't even make sense, for to be sick at all is by definition to be too sick."
The lines in question are not only a problem for the English-speaking translator, they are confusing in the original French. The enjambement that Marot makes in these lines is an anomaly in this poem, and one that feels awkward given the tightness of the other lines. However, Marot might have intended this moment to grab the reader's attention, for the lines in question also contain a haunting speculative clause for a girl in poor health: "If you last, ..."

The pessimistic translator may be discouraged to know that this poem exists in possibly a hundred translations, none of them, of course, actually equaling the original. But I choose to think it a wondrous thing that any one poem so simple and short can, by the process of translation, undergo a sort of self-multiplication, producing a wide range of related poems in several languages – one begins to think of the poem as engenderer of its own small world, a deity, if you will, of its kind.

Here are several of Hofstader's translations and "translations," beginning with the initial crib. (As an aside -- I encourage anyone to call their significant other "My sweet cute one feminine" and giggle at the resulting facial expression.)

1. My Sweet/Cute [One] (Feminine)

My sweet/cute [one] (feminine)
I [to] you (respectfully) give/bid/convey
The good day (i.e. a hello, i.e. greetings).
The stay/soujourn/visit (i.e. quarantine)
[It] is prison.
Cure/recovery/healing (i.e. [good] health)
Recover (respectful imperative)
[And] then open (respectful imperative)
Your (respectful) door,
And [that one (i.e. you (respectful)) should] go out
For/because Clement
It (i.e. thusly) [to] you (respectful) commands/orders.
Go (familiar imperative), fond-one/enjoyer/partaker
Of your (familiar) mouth,
Who/which herself/ himself/itself beds (i.e. lies down)
In danger;
For/in-order-to eat
If you (familiar) last (i.e. stay/remain)
Too sick/ill,
[A] color pale/faded/dull
You (familiar) will take [on],
And [you (familiar)] will waste/lose
The plumpness/stoutness/portliness (i.e. well-fed look).
[May] God [to] you (familiar) give/grant
Health good,
My sweet/cute [one] (feminine).

2. To a Sick Damsel

My sweet,
I bid you
A good day;
The stay
Is prison.
Then open
Your door,
And go out
For Clément
Tells you to.
Go, indulger
Of thy mouth,
lying abed
In danger,
Off to eat
Fruit preserves;
If thou stay'st
Too sick
Pale shade
Thou wilt acquire,
And wilt lose
Thy plump form.
God grant thee
Good health,
My sweet.

3. My Sweet Maid

My sweet maid,
You I wish
A good day;
Your sickbed
Is a jail.
Total health
Please regain,
Then unlatch
Your room's door,
And go out
With full speed,
For Clement
Does insist.
Go, gourmand,
Thou whose mouth
Lies abed
Under threat,
Off to eat
Fruit preserves;
If thou stay'st
Sick too long
A pale shade
Wilt acquire,
And wilt lose
Thy round shape.
May God grant
Thee good health,
My sweet maid.

4. My small princess

My small princess, I send you a warm hello. Your stay in bed has been like a term in prison. Uncle Clement urges you to recuperate, and to get out of there soon. You've always loved sweets, so don't let being bed-ridden stop you from indulging – have some jam! And don't stay sick too long, because you'll get ghostly pale and start looking like skin and bones. God will surely bring you back to good health, my small princess.

5. Touchstones
("a pattern of words telegraphic... a chain of keys to its message will reveal what mustn't be skipped')

Vous: Cuteness; hail. Quarentine; cure. Egress; speed. Clément; insistence.
Tu: Epicurism; threat. Appetite; jams. Pallor; gauntness. Prayer; cuteness.

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