Translating Les Chiméres by Gérard de Nerval

/ by Will Stone

The following thoughts concern the immense difficulty of rendering these legendary sonnets into a suitable English equivalent, to offer some formal apology for one’s inability to transmit adequately the poet’s subliminal language, and to acknowledge failure at breaching that defiantly autonomous cultural-linguistic fortress, the foreign tongue. In the case of Nerval, I should perhaps offer my head instead of an apology, for this is a poet king who ignores the translator’s fawning courtier at every turn. A line such as “Et les citrons amers où s’imprimaient tes dents?” from “Delfica,” plunges the translator into a thorny thicket where the more he struggles for the bright glade visible beyond, the more he becomes entangled. In his struggle, he attempts to capture the true essence concealed in the image, because this image plucked from Nerval’s intricate loom of memory and imagination is surely more real than the reality to which we attribute the combined meaning of the words used in that line. Because this line is poetic flux wrested from the imagination and restrained in a primary language, the poet’s language, i.e. that which is culturally governed by where he/she happened to appear in history, etc., it instinctively rejects the tampering of an outsider, who though perhaps sympathetic to the poetic truth it signals, is still intent on forcing it into a new agenda using a further language which, while claiming to be the guardian of the poem’s afterlife, was not even present at its birth. Like a partly-submerged crocodile with one amber eye half open, the foreign line sits, waiting for the anxious translator to make a move. This tense ceremony can last hours, days, weeks or even months, and to react too early is to crack under the insupportable pressure of requiring a result, and the result is often consequently a bloody mess. Yet still one cannot resist the temptation to rush in too eagerly, sacrificing the odd limb or two, in order to reach final victory, which is, in any case, a chimera in its own right. Realizing the eternal patience of that eye, I backed off slowly and approached the line at a later date, and as luck would have it, from a blind spot. In turning the line on end, I had managed to salvage something, and in doing so even achieved a measure of assonance with “columns” from the previous line.


But any festivities are short-lived, as so often what appeared to be definitive in the afterglow of inspiration can seem considerably less confident, when reappraised a few days later. Might it not be better, then, to avoid this line-by-line anxiety and incite a revolution? Why crawl so slavishly to meaning? Why not approach these Chimeras in a much freer way, dispense with Nerval’s difficult allusions and seemingly deranged mystical-topographical references, his expressions of intense personal crisis grafted on to myth, religion and romantic idealism? Still safeguard (somehow) the subtle ambiguities and endearing soliloquies of a man who increasingly suspected himself of having failed his ideal utterly, still retain the underlying spirit and visionary mode of the sequence, but identify the key point of sense in the original, sever the root and use this as a springboard to a daring new poem in English which prolongs the poetic essence of the original but isn’t shackled to content? The speaker quickly gathers a crowd about him. An ideal as ever well meant, this is, in practice, I fear a tall order, because Nerval’s poetic essence is inextricably locked into his obscure imagery, and to dilute it in any substantial way would be to risk losing everything at once. His images are not romantic tinsel or window dressing, designed to be cleared away by the terrier translator to reveal a hidden meaning beyond the poem. They are not meant to be understood or dissected, as many have tried to do, pruned or pared down for the convenience of translators who so desire a readable poem in English that they are willing simply to strip away everything “they” deem irrelevant, in order to present an impressive streamlined version which is not “free” at all, but merely a ghost of the original, cobbled together to satisfy the appetite of casual browsers, or should that be ‘in terms meaningful to the contemporary reader’ – whatever that may mean? To be really free is not to make a summary of the original poem, but to create an entirely new poem, which touches on the deepest point of sense in the original and locates it in a new language culture, having first removed the essence from the original and allowed it to permeate one’s own poetic sensibility before taking action. Only then can anything radical occur which might challenge the traditional notions of fidelity in translation.


In practice, this is, I acknowledge, fraught with dangers, and frankly with Nerval, I realized early on that I would be consumed by pursuing such a path. How could one possibly interfere with this labyrinthine imagery or superimpose it on to a modern canvas without imposing more strain on that weary shape inching inexorably along a spiral whose dark center was a desperate pre-dawn moment in the rue de la Vieille Lanterne? They are what they are, both symbol and meaning interlocked, – like the marriage of rose and vine in “El Desdichado” – an inextricable sinew of the imagination, of the dream-memory image which to Nerval is becoming real, or at least more permanent than the borrowed temporary reality of the language which works so hard to relate it. They existed in the poet’s psyche, or in that area between the brain and the earth or speaking world which, brazenly irrational by nature, has yet to be given a name. Language is the medium of expression of the poet, but the raw material is not lexically formed, one does not see language, but an intensity of juxtaposing images and visionary intensities which it is the responsibility of language to convey. But language is always changing – how does one measure the crest of a wave which knows only motion? The translator then should be ultimately concerned with capturing the vision intact, rather than chasing around after the vanities of language which is essentially only a vehicle for the imagination to present itself to maximum effect in that culture where it begins its life. It only becomes foreign when others elsewhere, with a different culture, demand that it reveals itself, it is then that the work changes irreversibly. Once pawed over by other cultures it can reveal its truth, as it is needless for it to hide any longer behind its mother tongue. This is the translator’s chance. One must create a new language poem after knowing the original’s essence is ready to uproot. It must be removed from the original language and held up to the light, it must be re-energized by the new poet’s strength as he examines its contours in that light, before it can be reintroduced successfully to mother language. It is not enough to leave it in the author’s language where it has lain comfortably for so long, and just throw the foreign and native languages together hoping that somehow the message will be transmitted. To stick religiously to the original rhyme and meter of the French, in an attempt to highlight a formal faithfulness, which in the meantime might well be suffocating something of greater purity beneath the surface, will also cause insurmountable problems. Faithfully to render every one of Nerval’s rhymes with a suitable English equivalent is an absurdity which simply cannot be done without terrible punishment inflicted on the reader. Those who have tried have been left holding a mirror to the original which is itself blind. When gazing into it one sees only the mirror’s blindness, and one looks away embarrassed, knowing the author has been gagged and the reader duped by seeing not a true reflection of the original in the glass, but a replication which has, because of an over-reliance on mimicry, cancelled itself out.


Naturally one should, if one is able to, read the French original above my translation as the latter is no doubt hampered by the fact that it is only an extension of the original, made without permission when no permission was necessary. It stands alone, a sandy hummock in the lee of a granite mountain, liable to be eroded away to nothing at any time, but an awareness of its own impermanence gives it a certain daring and propensity for risk which the original has forgotten. It is this that the original needs to maintain its power. It does not want to become a monolith, a dead thing in the old landscape of language, smothered in creepers and half-forgotten myths. Only the translation can keep revealing a work’s concealed essence in new ways, and as layers of language slowly settle over its time-worn root, the translation accepts a truly mammoth responsibility which falls harder at the feet of each successive translator. But even if he fails spectacularly he may still, as George Steiner says of translation, “make explicit by its own precisely honest inadequacy the genius of that it focuses on.” And such a fall may well bring the keen eye of another explorer along the same route, someone who is prepared to begin from the point at which the other fell. But even if a translator succeeds, he/she will do so only for as long as the original work requires him/her to. With this in mind, permit me then the modest indulgence of checking my watch.




I am the brooding shadow-the bereaved-the unconsoled,

Aquitaine’s Prince of the doomed tower:

My only star is dead and my astral lute

Bears the black sun of melancholy.


In the sepulchral night, you who consoled me,

Give back Posilipo and the sea of Italy,

The flower that so pleased my desolate heart,

And the arbor where rose and vine marry.


Am I Love or Phoebus?...Lusignan or Biron?

My brow’s still red from the kiss of the queen;

I’ve dreamed in the cave where the siren swims...


And as conqueror I twice crossed Acheron:

Inflecting by turn on Orpheus’ lyre


The sighs of the saint and the fairy’s cry.





Do you recall, DAPHNE, that old refrain,

At the sycamore’s foot, beneath the white laurel,

The olive, myrtle or quivering willow,

A song of love...that always begins again!


Remember the TEMPLE, its massive columns,

Your toothmarks left in the bitter lemons?

And fatal to unwary callers, the cave

Where sleeps the vanquished dragon’s time worn seed.


They will return, those gods you ever mourn!

Time will restore the order of bygone days;

The earth has shuddered with prophetic breath...


And yet the sibyl with latin face

Still sleeps beneath the arch of Constantine:


- And nothing has disturbed the sober portico.

Will Stone

is a British poet, essayist and translator.