One of the issues with being half-learned is that one can fall into traps and tasks that are more difficult than you expected. This week I thought, why don’t I translate some Mallarmé? Alternate voice here Dave Moore had given me a book on him for my birthday (which I haven’t had time to read yet, too busy with this project…) but having recently translated and performed another poem by Apollinaire, I was reminded how often the English language Modernists looked to the preceding French Symbolists for inspiration.
So, I look. I see lots of sonnets, which is good. I like short poems personally and I aim for shorter pieces here for performance too. And short should make for a shorter translation task. On one hand, I have my unfamiliarity with French other than my il y a longtemps high school. On the other hand, I’ve tackled French Dada and Surrealist work, so a 19th century Symbolist should be no harder.
The hard to translate word here would be: “Oops.”
Turns out Mallarmé focused on esoteric philosophical ideas and the ideal in his art and manner. Maybe the rough English language analog would be Wallace Stevens, but with Stevens I can lay back and enjoy the color and sound of his English language words without having to worry about translating them into another language, and Mallarmé is very compressed and obscure in his tropes. There’s a reason that 20th century Dadaists found him congenial despite his dour and spiritual outlook: in French he may be interesting without one needing to understand what he’s intent about.
The 16 line poem I picked to translate, “Saint” is an earlier one, one reckoned to be less obscure than later Mallarmé. I’m not sure how much that helped.
I read one report “Mallarmé was…widely considered incomprehensible—the standard joke was to request a translation of his work into French…” I read that several hours into my translation. I laughed pretty hard.
You go for the cheap pun Frank. Look here: I wrote “phalange.” Is that not singular? My friend Manet’s painting of me will enlarge on this point!
Mallarmé’s “Saint” isn’t incomprehensible. It’s even an admirable poem with something to portray about the ideal nature of music. It probably helps if one has some background in Roman Catholic liturgy as one reads it, but imagery requiring a bit of understanding of other cultures can be a feature not a bug.
Here it is in French, in one of three slightly different versions I eventually came upon:
A la fenêtre recélant
Le santal vieux qui se dédore
De la viole étincelant
Jadis selon flûte ou mandore,
Est la sainte pale, étalant
Le livre vieux qui se déplie
Du Magnificat ruisselant
Jadis selon vêpre ou complie:
A ce vitrage d’ostensoir
Que frôle une harpe par l’Ange
Formée avec son vol du soir
Pour la délicate phalange
Du doigt que, sans le santal
Ni le vieux livre, elle balance
Sur le plumage instrumental,
Musicienne du silence.
Native French speakers: feel free to mock my audacity to render this. For those interested in translation, I’m going to allow you to look over my shoulder as I worked on this. Note: I almost never try to render rhyme schemes or meter from one language to another. Like Stevens in English, this poem sounds lovely in French even if you can’t figure it out. In English I tried to instead vividly render the images, which is my preference in translation, even if it can lead to approximations and out and out bad guesses. And then to put that to some English word-music that may not reference the other language’s “tune.”
Here’s what I came up with:
The window frames
The worn fretboard
Of the splendid viola—
Once played music with flute or mandolin.
There’s the pale saint, opening,
Spreading the old book.
Mary’s Magnificat falls out—
Once for vesper or compline.
This window is a monstrance.
She holds her harp, an angel’s
Customary evening wing,
Played by the delicate phalanx
Of fingers. Without a fretboard,
Without the old book, she strums
On the instrumental plumage,
A musician of silence.
First Stanza. This is an extraordinarily difficult image to figure out, and some of the guesses others have made are not a concrete image, which could even be Mallarmé’s intent. There’s clearly an instrument mentioned, a viol (a larger predecessor to our modern viola, and I imagined a viola da gamba, a wonderful “early-music” instrument for which the viol name was used). I rendered it as viola so that moderns might have a more common instrument in their minds eye. I did the same for “mandore” an ancestor of the now more familiar mandolin. Mallarmé may have meant to add an ancient music air to this, and I could have gone the other way with the instrument names (Stevens would have).
One of the chief problems is some read this description as an instrument that’s out of sight (“recélant” can mean to harbor or to conceal—and a window concealing?). Idealist Mallarmé could have intended it out of the frame. But I wasn’t sure, and I’d rather the reader know about it clearly, particularly as it opens the poem. And his description is puzzling—a point made of it being personified as sandalwood for one thing. Sandalwood is a hardwood. You probably wouldn’t use it to make the soundboard of an instrument, which functionally and surface-area-wise would be the main part. But it can be used for necks and particularly for finger/fretboards. Even though Mallarmé repeats sandalwood later in the poem, and there are fragrance and ceremonial connections with the wood and word, I decided to call it a fretboard, to help us see the instrument. There’s another issue with Mallarmé’s description: the instrument is “étincelant” and yet also “dédore.” I decided that the instrument is “splendid” but also “worn” in the area of that hardwood fretboard: i.e. this is a fine instrument that has been well and often played.
Second Stanza. This one is more straightforward. Cecilia is the “sainte pale” (named specifically in early versions of the poem) and she’s opened a book which seems to contain the score of a setting to Mary the mother of Jesus’ famous passage called the Magnificat in Roman Catholicism. I decided to add the “Mary’s” to the Magnificat just to help listeners hear the word as a proper noun. And something happens regarding the Magnificat: “ruisselant.” This word, best as I can figure has a sense of streaming or trickling. At first I thought the image is that the music represented by the score is magically sounding itself as Cecilia the patron saint of music opens the old book. But I don’t think we are to hear music as the poem develops, and so I wondered if the meanings of ruisselant infer running downhill. I decided that the score of the Magnificat falls out of the book, making itself known, but not making a sound or allowing it to be used to aid the music making, just as in stanza one Cecilia is not availing herself of a fine and once oft-used viola.
Third Stanza. Tougher again. This stanza contains the strongest image of the poem, the fusing of an angel’s bird-like wing with the somewhat-like shape of a harp—and Mallarmé wants to stuff other ideas into the four lines too. I decided that the specific and technical term “monstrance” cannot be replaced: it’s a glass altarpiece holder of a sacred object. Wallace Stevens would have loved to have used that word! The obscurity of the word adds some mystery I think, and no simply understandable single word replaces it. With the stanza’s last word I fell into thinking Mallarmé intended to pun on “phalange” (phalanx) which is from the Greek, meaning a massed formation (usually of soldiers or police)—but also fingers, similarly grouped together in disciplined order when playing an instrument. I decided to use phalanx because either words’ use for fingers is somewhat obscure in English (outside of medical usage) but I liked the idea of the delicate phalanx of soldiers or riot troops. But I think phalange may be singular in French, and if so, I may have misunderstood Mallarmé’s intent. My sin is falling in love with the image.
Fourth Stanza. Home stretch! Easier again, and choices already made set it up. In my reading Mallarmé is saying Cecilia has her spiritual intent on ideal music, the impossible music made with the mythical wings of angels and the impossible music made by strumming a bird’s feathers—such a fine image because it works bidirectionally! Actual music has been left behind as once, and not now (“jadis,” twice in the poem). She no longer needs the viola or the score.
She’s become the unheard melodies that idealist Keats says are sweeter than heard ones.
CeCe, you’re messing up the form again! It’s a 12 bar minor blues with a 4 bar tag I’m going to modulate counter-clockwise on the cycle of 5ths each second chorus, and then—what you do mean, “Wing it?”
In performance, I had to resort to heard music so that the estate of John Cage didn’t sue me for plagiarism. I thought I might try to reference the Velvet Underground when it featured the pale saint John Cale on keyboards and viola. But neither the drum part nor the rhythm guitars I settled on had that VU feel. None-the-less I went ahead and created a top line using viola and a keening combo organ.
Last time I repeated the short poem several times so that I could show the different ways it could be expressed. Today’s short musical piece gathers a sort of meditative power if played on repeat. The player is below.