Friday, August 3, 2012

Time to Rhyme

So, I've provided a vague sort of intro to Douglas Hofstadter's Le Ton beau de Marot and plenty of passing references in posts this summer; it's time to unveil its central "character" and the first poetic response that it inspired from me. As I mentioned last time, Hofstadter's sprawling book was generated by a tiny little poem from the 16th century French poet, Clément Marot. Hofstadter was intrigued by the question of how such a poem might be translated into English, especially considering all the tight constraints imposed by the medium. He ended up writing more than 600 pages about this question. There are, of course, reasons to translate a poem literally (whatever that means), with concern only for the meanings (whatever that means) of the words, but an important point is that the meaning of this poem is clearly embedded, in part, in its poetic elements. A word-for-word translation is only a partial translation at best.

Still, before I reveal my first translation, it makes sense to include, along with the original poem, one of Hofstadter's "word-for-word" translations so that you can appreciate some of what is going on in Marot's charming creation. The poem was written to cheer up a young girl who'd fallen ill. It is quite lighthearted in tone, but beautifully crafted. Hofstadter, in sending the translation challenge out to his friends and colleagues, identified the following eight structural features that deserve consideration:
  1. It is made up of 28 lines.
  2. Each line has 3 syllables.
  3. The stress falls on the last of these syllables.
  4. It is a series of rhyming couplets.
  5. The semantic couplets are out of phase with the rhyming couplets.
  6. After line 14 the formal "vous" is replaced by the more colloquial "tu".
  7. The last line echoes the first.
  8. The poet slips his own name into the poem.
Actually, Hofstadter originally left out #5, an oversight which surprised me greatly. That lovely cross-rhythm is a key feature that jumped right out at me. (On the other hand, I might easily have missed #6.) Even when one of Hofstadter's colleagues first points out that the rhymes are out of phrase with the semantic couplets, he expresses some hesitation* about whether this property is essential or even intended by Marot. Hofstadter is an avid amateur musician and subtitles his book "In Praise of the Music of Language," so it's odd to me that this particularly musical quality escaped his notice, but it also shows how differently we can hear the same thing. (I probably took extra delight in having out-perceived Hofstadter since his general, wide-ranging brilliance is so intimidating. I do have quite a few other disagreements with his ideas, but I'm saving those for later posts. He's still "the man!")

Anyway, I was quite surprised that on first reading I felt compelled to take up his challenge right away, before reading a single "real" translation. There are dozens and dozens in the book, including dozens by Hofstadter himself, and his own translations of translations others made into languages other than English. (This book will wear you out!) The book is structured so that each chapter is followed by a series of related translations. My hope over the next few months is to continue exploring Hofstadter's book from many angles (especially with respect to musical implications), interspersed with little intermezzo posts featuring various poems I wrote while first reading this book back in 1998. (Too bad I wasn't blogging then, though I was emailing my little creations out to my poor family.) So, I present here my very first translation of Marot's A une Damoyselle malade ("To a Sick Damsel").

To see it, you'll need to highlight the invisible text in the third column. [Of course, you should try translating it yourself first.] You can also go see it here.

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
Si tu dures
Trop malade,
Couleur fade
Tu prendras,
Et perdras
Dieu te doint
Santé bonne,
Ma mignonne.
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.
My delight,
I invite
you to smile;
For awhile
you¹ve been jailed.
Find your failed
health again.
Open then
the cruel door
to explore
right away,
for I say
you’ve no choice.
Go, rejoice,
since your tastes
lay in waste
while you’re ill;
Have your fill,
cakes devour!
Ev'ry hour
sickness wins,
color thins
from your face,
to displace
May God bless
you tonight,
My delight.

It's not perfect, but I'm rather proud of it as a first effort. I actually prefer it to most of the ones found in Hofstadter's book, but I may be biased...

If you're just dying to read more of my tortured rhymes, there are links to quite a few at the end of this post.

* Hofstadter writes: "...couldn't [this "out of phase" property] be pure chance, something Marot never intended or even realized, but that just by accident came out that way? Of course that's conceivable, though hard to believe." (11a) I find it inconceivable that Marot didn't intend this. It gives the poem a kind of forward momentum since each completed rhyme is only halfway through a thought - and when the thought is completed, the ear knows that another rhyme is around the bend.

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