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Literary translation: reconstruction or demolition?

Shakespeare wrote, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Does a phrase in any other language sound as sweet? What about the images in literary translation, such as poetry? As my mother used to say, “It all depends and shallow ends.”

Poetry books, coffee and flowers on a table

My personal mantra: Never create without coffee

The other night, as I lay in bed waiting for sleep to find me, I remembered a song I studied in CEGEP called “Pauvre Rutebeuf,” written and recorded by Leo Ferré in 1955.


The lyrics were adapted from excerpts of two poems penned by Rutebeuf in the 13th century, “La complainte” and “La Griesche d'Yver.” Since I don’t read Old French, I can’t tell you if Ferré’s Modern French lyrics are true to the original poems, but I can tell you what happened when various people tried to translate his song.


Ferré’s French lyrics:


Que sont mes amis devenus

Que j’avais de si près tenus

Et tant aimés

Ils ont été trop clairsemés

Je crois le vent les a ôtés

L’amour est morte

Ce sont amis que vent emporte

Et il ventait devant ma porte

Les emporta


This literal English translation—not surprisingly, uncredited— demolishes all the beauty and succinct imagery of the French. In trying to hold the substance together, the translator let the style fall apart.


What has become of my friends

Whom I held so close

And loved so much

They have been too scarce

I believe the wind took them off

Those are friends that wind takes away

And the wind was blowing in front of my door

And took them away


And this is a translation by Joan Baez. She sang the song in French, but thought to explain its meaning to her English listeners. Once again, it’s literal, but probably because it’s purely informational.


What have my friends become?

That I had so closely kept

And so loved

They were too sparse

I believe the wind has taken them away

Love is dead

They are friends who are carried away

And it was blowing outside my door

Took them away


This translator, Roger Greenwald, sought to create an English version that might be singable to Ferré’s music. This meant he had to respect the space constraints. To do so, he reconstructed the original. The result is powerful images and a poetic cadence.


Friends, oh what’s become of you,

The ones that I was so close to,

Our love supreme.

They’ve been too few and far between,

I think they’re scattered by the wind:

All love is dead now.

These friends were ones the wind had brought me

And then a gust blew in and taught me

How light they were.


Creative translators should never be afraid of deconstruction. They must remain mindful of the author’s voice and meaning, but they can play with the words until real music comes out.


Is Roger Greenwald’s version as hauntingly magnificent as Ferré’s? Will it whisper in my ear while I try to fall asleep? No. I’ve already forgotten it.


The possibility of rendering a literary work so it sounds as sweet as the original depends not only on the translator’s skill and intent, but also on content, wording, symbolism, linguistics, limitations of the target language, and so on.


I’ll let you be the judge of my own literary translation talents in the fall of 2025. Until then, stay close, my friends. Don’t let the wind blow you away.

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