My brutish love of poetry, part 3

Another gift of Canada is exposure to French Canadian poetry. If you know even a little bit of french, you can poke around at the edges. I am a fan of Anne Hébert and of her cousin Hector de Saint-Denys Garneau.

His life was brief and his family posted his works here.

Somehow poems in a different language shed light on the ways words can convey mood, feeling, all sorts of things. I’m interested, too, in the difference between transliteration and translation. Here is a poem by Hector de Saint-Denys Garneau in the original french (english transliteration and translation follow):


C’est un drôle d’enfant
C’est un oiseau
Il n’est plus là

II s’agit de le trouver
De le chercher
Quand il est là

Il s’agit de ne pas lui faire peur
C’est un oiseau
C’est un colimaçon.

Il ne regarde que pour vous embrasser
Autrement il ne sait pas quoi faire
avec ses yeux

Où les poser
Il les tracasse comme un paysan sa casquette

Il lui faut aller vers vous
Et quand il s’arrête
Et s’il arrive
Il n’est plus là

Alors il faut le voir venir
Et l’aimer durant son voyage.

Here’s my transliteration (a literal almost word-for-word translation, done with the help of a dictionary). Transliteration is beloved by brutes. I do it a lot.


It’s a droll child
It’s a bird
He’s no longer there

It’s necessary to find him
To search for him
When he is there

It’s necessary to not make him afraid
It’s a bird
It’s a snail

He only looks at you to embrace you
Otherwise he does not know what to do
With his eyes

Where to place them
He frets with them, as a peasant with his cap
It’s necessary for him to come toward you

And when he stops himself
And if he arrives
He is no longer there
So it’s necessary to see him coming
And to love him during his trip.

The poetry textbook where I first saw this poem had difficult questions in the back, such as, what is this creature HdSDG is talking about? Is it a boy, a bird or a snail? I didn’t know, and I still don’t know, but I love this poem because it makes me think of birds, and snails, and certain kinds of boys. Small creatures going their own way that seem to disappear if you look too hard at them.

Even this low level transliteration shows, I think, how elegant the original french is, and raises the question of whether the english misses the point of the poem entirely. Maybe it does! One thing I have found hard in french class is the use and translation of reflexive constructions (such as Il s’agit de) and clearly there is something untranslatable there. I’m interested in what is translatable and what isn’t. It seems to me that’s a huge gain when you learn another language – in addition of course to being able to communicate with a whole different set of people – you can express what might be inexpressible in your first language.

Here is a beautiful translation of this poem by Louis Dudek (Macmillan, Canada 1966):


He’s such a funny kid
He’s just like a bird
Already gone

You’ve got to find him
To seek him out
Once he’s there

You’ve got to mind you don’t scare him
He’s just like a bird
Or he’s like a snail

He only looks at you to give you a kind of hug
Otherwise he does not know what to do
With his eyes

Or where to put them
He shuffles them as a peasant shuffles his cap
He has to come toward you

And when he comes to a stop
And if he comes near you
He is no longer there

So it’s important to watch him coming
And to love him whil he’s on the way.

You can see, comparing my transliteration and Dudek’s translation, the choices Dudek made to turn the translated words into an english poem. Again, it shows the grace of the original french.

Here’s another HdSDG poem I’m fond of. Like no other poem I’ve read, this one makes me feel like a character in a film noir. Enjoy. A translation is below.


Je marche à côté d’une joie
D’une joie qui n’est pas à moi
D’une joie à moi que je ne puis pas prendre

Je marche à côté de moi en joie
J’entends mon pas en joie qui marche à côté de moi
Mais je ne puis changer de place sur le trottoir
Je ne puis pas mettre mes pieds dans ces pas-là
et dire voilà c’est moi

Je me contente pour le moment de cette compagnie
Mais je machine en secret des échanges
Par toutes sortes d’opérations, des alchimies,
Par des transfusions de sang
Des déménagements d’atomes
par des jeux d’équilibre

Afin qu’un jour, transposé,
Je sois porté par la danse de ces pas de joie
Avec le bruit décroissant de mon pas à côté de moi
Avec la perte de mon pas perdu
s’étiolant à ma gauche
Sous les pieds d’un étranger
qui prend une rue transversale.

And here’s a translation by Louis Dudek (Macmillan Canada 1966):


I walk beside a joy
Beside a joy that is not mine
A joy of mine which I cannot take

I walk beside myself in joy
I hear my footsteps in joy marching beside me
But I cannot change places on the sidewalk
I cannot put my feet in those steps and say
Look it is I

For the moment I am content with this company
But secretly I plot an exchange
By all sorts of devices, by alchemies,
By blood transfusions
Displacement of atoms
by balancing tricks

So that one day, transposed,
I may be carried along by the dance of those steps of joy
With the noise of my footstep dying away beside me
With the fall of my own lost step
fading to my left
Under the feet of a stranger
who turns down a side street.

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