In Napoleon’s Army After the Fall of Moscow, Victor Hugo reveals the catastrophic carnage of Napoleon’s 1812 Campaign in Russia through the eyes of the soldiers. Hugo often criticized Napoleon’s leadership of French armies in the newspapers, journals and his literature, which provoked heated debate in France with his contemporaries Balzac, Baudelaire, Vigny and Verlaine. Hugo’s aim was to challenge the conscience of nineteenth century France as the nation was piecing itself back together after the annihilation and humiliation of the monarchy during the French Revolution of late eighteenth century followed soon by the defeats of Napoleon in the early nineteenth.
The message and imagery of Napoleon’s Army After the Fall of Moscow, are very powerful in the original language of French. However, Victor Hugo’s works are very difficult to translate as Hugo had a limitless appetite for quirks and oddities of language and was therefore unfaithful to literary convention. Also, our present-day English is far less tolerant of adjectives and apostrophes than nineteenth-century French; therefore, it is more difficult to extract the imagery of Hugo’s mind on the battlefield.
In addition, Hugo’s vocabulary is very advanced as noted by translator, C.J. Brennan, “Hugo uses all the words in the French dictionary—and certain others… If you rewrote his poems in more commonplace language, their very spirit and substance would be damaged. Even with an open dictionary to help me, I cannot always understand the vocabulary of the original” (XVII). In poetry, Hugo was unwilling to abide by the old regime’s rules in matters of rhyme and meter. As he uses the rhymed couplets, a format in our language of “periwigs and eighteenth century decorum”, Anglophone readers are likely to miss the underlying message of Hugo’s works.
Hugo stated in a letter in 1870 that he wished all literary decisions concerning his works to be left to the reader’s judgement, rather than anyone who had personal contact with him. Thank you, M. Hugo! Therefore, in this English translation of Hugo’s poem, I have tried not to reproduce Hugo’s exact meters in English as no English verse form corresponds to the French alexandrine; consequently, I have translated the verses as I felt Hugo would in trying to recreate the wake of Napoleon’s carnage.
While translating Hugo’s vocabulary from French to English, I tried to stay very close to his original physiognomy of meaning, form, content, semantic and physical features of the poem. In many of the French vocabulary definitions, there are multiple entries; therefore, I had to determine and chose the best semantic feature of Hugo’s meaning. As in all works of poetry and prose, the meaning is purely subjective unless you are fortunate to have the author’s notes and purposes. For example, in line 8, the ending word troupeau can be translated flock, herd, mass, crowd, host, mob. Hugo chose this word to rhyme in this couplet with drapeau, the tricolore French flag in the previous line. He is also describing the carnage of the grand armée, from the day before. Now, they are dead, lying on the white field, as the three colors of the flag: red blood, white snow and blue uniforms. Therefore, I chose the definition masse which represents a large crowd as well as a funeral rite.
In addition, Hugo uses anaphora Il neigeait, It is snowing, throughout the poem to introduce each scene and to emphasize the boundless white fields. He also uses the anaphora pleine blanche, white field, to support this.
Blackmore stated, “Hugo must be read—not read about”.(XX). Therefore, I will now present Napoleon’s Army After the Fall of Moscow for your pleasure!
L’Expiation: Original French
Il neigeait. On était vaincu par sa conquête.
Pour la première fois l’aigle baissait la tête.
Sombres jours ! l’empereur revenait lentement,
Laissant derrière lui brûler Moscou fumant.
Il neigeait. L’âpre hiver fondait en avalanche.
Après la plaine blanche une autre plaine blanche.
On ne connaissait plus les chefs ni le drapeau.
Hier la grande armée, et maintenant troupeau.
On ne distinguait plus les ailes ni le centre.
Il neigeait. Les blessés s’abritaient dans le ventre
Des chevaux morts ; au seuil des bivouacs désolés
On voyait des clairons à leur poste gelés.
Restés debout, en selle et muets, blancs de givre,
Collant leur bouche en pierre aux trompettes de cuivre.
Boulets, mitraille, obus, mêlés aux flocons blancs,
Pleuvaient ; les grenadiers, surpris d’être tremblants,
Marchaient pensifs, la glace à leur moustache grise.
Il neigeait, il neigeait toujours ! La froide bise
Sifflait ; sur le verglas, dans des lieux inconnus,
On n’avait pas de pain et l’on allait pieds nus.
Ce n’étaient plus des cœurs vivants, des gens de guerre :
C’était un rêve errant dans la brume, un mystère,
Une procession d’ombres sous le ciel noir.
La solitude vaste, épouvantable à voir,
Partout apparaissait, muette vengeresse.
Le ciel faisait sans bruit avec la neige épaisse
Pour cette immense armée un immense linceul.
Et chacun se sentant mourir, on était seul.
–Sortira-t-on jamais de ce funeste empire ?
Deux ennemis ! le czar, le nord. Le nord est pire.
On jetait les canons pour brûler les aflûts.
Qui se couchait, mourait. Groupe morne et confus,
Ils fuyaient ; le désert dévorait le cortège.
On pouvait, a des plis qui soulevaient la neige,
Voir que des régiments s’étaient endormis là
O chutes d’Annibal ! lendemains d’Attila !
Fuyards, blessés, mourants, caissons, brancards, civières,
On s’écrasait aux ponts pour passer les rivières,
On s’endormait dix mille, on se réveillait cent.
Ney, que suivait naguère une armée, à présent
S’évadait, disputant sa montre à trois cosaques.
Toutes les nuits, qui vive ! alerte, assauts ! attaques !
Ces fantômes prenaient leur fusil, et sur eux
Ils voyaient se ruer, effrayants, ténébreux,
Avec des cris pareils aux voix des vautours chauves,
D’horribles escadrons, tourbillons d’hommes fauves.
Toute une armée ainsi dans la nuit se perdait.
L’empereur était là, debout, qui regardait.
Il était comme un arbre en proie à la cognée.
Sur ce géant, grandeur jusqu’alors épargnée,
Le malheur, bûcheron sinistre, était monté ;
Et lui, chêne vivant, par la hache insultée,
Tressaillant sous le spectre aux lugubres revanches,
Il regardait tomber autour de lui ses branches.
Chefs, soldats, tous mouraient. Chacun avait son tour.
Tandis qu’environnant sa tente avec amour,
Voyant son ombre aller et venir sur la toile,
Accusaient le destin de lèse-majesté,
Lui se sentit soudain dans l’âme épouvanté.
Stupéfait du désastre et ne sachant que croire,
L’empereur se tourna vers Dieu ; l’homme de gloire
Trembla ; Napoléon comprit qu’il expiait
Quelque chose peut-être, et, livide, inquiet,
Devant ses légions sur la neige semées :
« Est-ce le châtiment, dit-il. Dieu des armées ? »
Alors il s’entendit appeler par son nom
Et quelqu’un qui parlait dans l’ombre lui dit : Non.
My Translation to English
It was snowing. He was defeated by his conquest.
For the first time the eagle hung his head.
Dark days! The Emperor slowly returned,
Leaving behind him, a burning Moscow.
It was snowing. The bitter winter melted into an avalanche.
One white plain after another.
One no longer recognized the commanders nor the flag.
What was yesterday a grand army, is now a masse.
One could no longer distinguish the wings or the center.
It was snowing. The injured were sheltered in the belly
Of dead horses; and in the threshold of distressed bivouacs
One could see the buglers frozen to their posts.
Frozen upright in their saddles, white frost
Locking their mouths to their brass trumpets.
Bullets, shells, shrapnel, mixed with white flurries,
It was raining; the grenadiers, surprised to be trembling,
Walking thoughtfully, ice in their moustache of grey.
It was snowing, it was always snowing! The cold north wind
Whistling; on the black ice, in the strange country,
One had no bread and had bare feet.
There were no longer living hearts inside of the men of war:
It was an errant dream in the obscure haze; a mystery,
A procession of shadows under the black sky.
The vast solitude, terrifying to see,
Everywhere appearing, silent vengeance.
The silent sky, thick with snow
Covering this immense army with an immeasurable pall
And each sensing death, feeling alone.
“Can one ever leave this fatal empire?”
Two enemies! the czar, the north. The north is worse.
They threw the canons to burn the carriage
Whomever slept, died. A sad and confused troop
They were fleeing the desert which consumed them,
Regiments at a time, visible now,
Asleep in the anonymous snow.
O fallen Hannibal! tomorrow from Attila!
Fugitives, wounded, dying, caissons, stretchers, gurneys,
Crashing into bridges to cross the rivers,
Sleeping by the ten thousands, waking in the hundreds.
Ney, not long ago, following an army, now escaping
Pleading now with his time piece for three Cossacks
In exchange for bread.
Every night, those living! alert, assaults! attacks!
Saw these phantoms taking their guns,
Like horrible squadrons of dark, swirling vultures.
The entire army, as well as the entire night, lost.
The Emperor was there, standing, watching.
He was as the core of a great tree, a prey to the ax shaft.
This giant, until now, spared greatness.
The unfortunate, sinister woodcutter, was mounted;
And he, a living oak, insulted by the ax,
Startled under the spectrum of dismal revenge,
Watching fall around him, his branches.
Leaders, soldiers, all dying. Each had his turn.
While surrounding his camp with love,
Seeing his shadow come and go on the white canvas,
Accusing the fate of lèse-majesté,
He sensed fear suddenly in his soul.
Stunned by the disaster, not knowing what to believe,
The Emperor turned to God; the man of glory
Trembled; Napoléon understood that he had atoned
Something perhaps, and, livid, anxious,
In front of his legions on the snow plagued with difficulties:
“Is this the punishment”, he said, “God of the armies?”
Then he heard his name called
And someone who spoke from the shadows said to him: “No”.
E.H. & A. M. Blackmore. Selected poems of Victor Hugo. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2001. Print
Copyright 2016 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)
Translating Hugo: A Albert Durer. My Journey to the French Language