Translating Hugo: Elle etait dechaussee, My Journey to the French Language

Elle était déchaussée, elle était décoiffée,

Venus

 

Victor Hugo was a poet of the people.  Before penning his most famous novel Les Misérables in 1862, he had written thousands of pages of poetry; often a hundred lines per day. His poetry is filled with a wide array of subject matters and tones: history, familial love, philosophy, nature, social justice, erotic experience, and art.  His vocabulary is enormous, erudite, and cerebral, as is evident in his unabridged works.

As with the theme of Mary Cassatt’s paintings, Hugo captures the love and affection of children in his writing, both poetry and prose.  His most memorable poems were written in tribute to his daughter Leopoldine, who as a young bride at nineteen, drowned with her husband in a boating accident in the Seine.

This blog post is the first in a series of these tribute poems to children. As in my previous poetry translations from French to English, I have chosen to translate in free verse, trying to write iambically with no equivalent measure, with a focus on Hugo’s style of assonance and consonance.  My goal is to translate the central meaning which keeping with the imagery and great imagination of Hugo.

The first poem is about the wonderful discovery of love in adolescence. As many poems are untitled, they are distinguished by the first line.

Elle était déchaussée, elle était décoiffée,
Assise, les pieds nus, parmi les joncs penchants ;
Moi qui passais par là, je crus voir une fée,
Et je lui dis : Veux-tu t’en venir dans les champs ?

Elle me regarda de ce regard suprême
Qui reste à la beauté quand nous en triomphons,
Et je lui dis : Veux-tu, c’est le mois où l’on aime,
Veux-tu nous en aller sous les arbres profonds ?

Elle essuya ses pieds à l’herbe de la rive ;
Elle me regarda pour la seconde fois,
Et la belle folâtre alors devint pensive.
Oh ! comme les oiseaux chantaient au fond des bois !

Comme l’eau caressait doucement le rivage !
Je vis venir à moi, dans les grands roseaux verts,
La belle fille heureuse, effarée et sauvage,
Ses cheveux dans ses yeux, et riant au travers.

Mont-l’Am., juin

 

Translation :

Her feet were bare, her hair tousled,
She sat among leaning reeds, with feet uncovered,
As I passed her by, I believed to see a fairy,
And I said to her: Would you come with me to the fields?

She looked at me with supreme calm
Which rests in beauty when we prevail,
And I said to her:  Would you-as is the month for love,
Would you walk with me into the deep wood?

She dried her feet on the riverbank;
She looked at me a second time,
And her playful beauty became pensive.
On! how the birds sang deep in the forest!

The stream gently caresses its banks!
I see coming towards me, through the tall green reeds,
The beautiful girl, happy, shy and free
Her hair in her eyes, laughing through to me.

Copyright 2016 by Robyn Lowrie.  May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)

 

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