the heavy doors of oblivion

6:19 PM Posted by James Owens

Avec ta robe

Avec ta robe sur le rocher comme une aile blanche
Des gouttes au creux de ta main comme une blessure fraîche
Et toi riant la tête renversée comme un enfant seul

Avec tes pieds faibles et nus sur la dure force du rocher
Et tes bras qui t'entourent d'éclairs nonchalants
Et ton genou rond comme l'île de mon enfance

Avec tes jeunes seins qu'un chant muet soulève pour une vaine allégresse
Et les courbes de ton corps plongeant toutes vers ton frêle secret
Et ce pur mystère que ton sang guette pour des nuits futures

Ô toi pareille à un rêve déjà perdu
Ô toi pareille à une fiancée déjà morte
Ô toi mortel instant de l'éternel fleuve

Laisse-moi seulement fermer mes yeux
Laisse-moi seulement poser les paumes de mes mains sur mes paupières
Laisse-moi ne plus te voir

Pour ne pas voir dans l'épaisseur des ombres
Lentements s'entr'ouvrir et tourner
Les lourdes portes de l'oubli

Alain Grandbois

With your dress on the rock like a white wing
Drops in the hollow of your hand like a fresh wound
And you laughing head thrown back like an only child

With your feet weak and naked on the rock’s rough force
And your arms surrounding you with careless lightning
And your knee round as the island of my childhood

With your young breasts a silent song lifts in vain joy
And your body’s curves plunging toward your frail secret
And that pure mystery your blood simmers for future nights

O you like to a dream already lost
O you like to a fiancee already dead
O you mortal instant of the eternal river

Only let me close my eyes
Only let me rest the palms of my hands on my eyelids
Let me no longer see you

So that I will not see the heavy
Doors of oblivion open wide and turn
In the depth of slow shadows



Roxana said...

it's so beautiful that i can't even speak about it...
perhaps only images would do the poem right, though - but no, i can't imagine that, there are indeed many strong visual elements building the "story", but what the last three stanzas express, that exhortation, the pure and intense fear and longing, the heavy doors of oblivions - all this needs words to become within us, not images...

and the translation breathes the same rhythm...

but i have two questions, because i don't know this English usage so i have to ask: "like an only child" - what does this exactly mean? i thought this would mean "a child who has no brothers or sisters" :-) but since it doesn't make sense here, i see i must have been wrong.

and when can one say: "like to" to express comparison? why not simply "like"?

(i am sorry to ruin the wonderful atmosphere with these boring grammar questions, but you know me :-)

James Owens said...

Roxana: Thank you. I only recently discovered this poet, but I think this poem is magnificent --- the original version, anyway:-) He has that melancholy appreciation for the beautiful that sees its passing away even in the moment of its power…. And your imagination starts thinking of images :-) No surprise. So many of your photographs are already translations of this poem! If anyone could do it, I would bet on you....

Of course the grammar questions are not boring! Small nuances are the very things that excite a translator. And I’m not surprised, of course, that your eye goes immediately to these two difficult points....

“un enfant seul” -- “an only child” --- But you are right, “an only child” means exactly what you think it means. I think maybe Grandbois suggests that this throwing back of the head is a gesture that is un-self-conscious, as if made by someone who is not used to being looked at, or perhaps seems a bit indulgent, as if it were the gesture of a spoiled child who always gets her way. (I don’t think the poem is about a spoiled child, just that the gesture looks like this at the moment.)

But then the question still remains -- why not simply translate “un enfant seul” as “a child alone” or “a lonely child,” which would make much easier sense? It is an especially good question, since I feel (feel!) that “an only child” in French would normally be “un enfant unique.”

Maybe one of these other translations would be better …. But Grandbois is Quebecois, and (though I can’t imagine why) this usage seems to be specially Canadian. For example:
So I hope “an only child” might be preserving some nuance of the original --- and I sort of like the extra fold of interpretation that it adds to reading the poem….

“pareille a“ --- “like to” ---- Normally I would translate “pareille a” as simply “like,” but the poem depends on two series of comparisons, one series with “comme” and the other with “pareille a.” I get nervous when I use one word (“like“) to translate two different words from the original…. Maybe it is inevitable, sometimes, but I don’t like it, so I wanted two different kinds of comparison….

“Like to” is an old-fashioned way of making a comparison. Edmund Spenser, about 1600, begins a poem, “My love is like to ice, and I to fire…” But to the ears of native speakers I think it is most likely to sound like the old King James version of the Bible. The Song of Songs: “My love is like to the young doe on the hill…,” “Thy stature is like to the palm tree, and thy breasts to clusters of grapes…”

I think this series of comparisons in Grandbois’s poem has some of the same feel that these Bible quotations have--- ritual, very formal speech, that somehow stands outside of its moment in time. (Though most French Bibles use “resembler” for these passages from Le cantique des cantiques -- sigh…) Unfortunately, this runs a risk of sounding too biblical or at least old-fashioned, and I don’t think that is what Grandbois wants …. Translation is always a mass of compromises and dissatisfaction

Thank you for the questions. Such a long answer, that is the risk you face when you ask this kind of questions --- But I think you knew all along I would not find them boring…

Roxana said...


oh so fascinating, everything. and now more questions arise :-)

i understand your interpretation about the "spoilt child" and indeed it is plausible. not in standard French, there is no way "un enfant seul" could mean "only child" in this sentence. i didn't know about this meaning in Canada, are you sure this is the standard form for "enfant unique" there? i think we should know with certainty how a Canadian understands this sentence before taking a decision. what degree of ambiguity is there for a Canadian, how big the oscillation between "enfant unique" and "enfant seul"? or perhaps none? i think it is a very important point because the two readings we get are so different one can't just simply ignore the question. and it comes to more than just the "free will" of the translator in this case. i'll try ask some friends, if you haven't already done that :-)

another thing i didn't know: "like to". thank you so much, you teach me so many things :-) however, i am not sure about the solution you propose. yes, compromise is always the golden rule when translating, but in this case it seems to me that one loses more than what gains. because if the feeling in English is a very ancient tone, biblical connotation, it is totally different than the simplicity of the wording in French, the every day usage of "pareil". i see why you would talk about a feeling of "ritual" in French, but this is something achieved through rhythm and repetition not through vocabulary and less through morphology. and in any case "ritual" doesn't have to mean "biblical", i would have never thought of that if you hadn't mentioned it, it's not the feeling i get in French (of course i might be wrong :-). but leaving this aside, it seems to me that your effort to avoid a repetition (like) which doesn't exist in the original by introducing not an entirely different construction but only a half variation (like/like to) fails to achieve its purpose, moreover it creates a bit of confusion, the reader's attention is immediately drawn to this difference and one asks the question: why did we have "like" before and now suddenly it changes to "like to"? what is the hidden meaning of this? and there is none. it troubles me, when i read the poem, and it shouldn't. in french i don't even think to relate "comme" and "pareille", because they are such natural ways of building the comparison, there is virtually no difference between the two, other than stylistical concerns. in both sentences one could exchange "comme" and "pareille" and their meanings wouldn't change at all.

i wouldn't worry about this repetition, if i were you, because the text is based on repetitions and then "like" would be in English just one more... again, it's just my feeling, you don't have to listen to me :-)
(or anyway, if you insist, find another solution to express comparison other than "like to", which is only a half solution).

sorry to bother you :-)
(but i adore this poem, and i love the translation as well, very much indeed)

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James Owens said...

R: Thank you for such a well-considered and full response. I am flattered, and I love this kind of talk :-)

On the issue of “pareille / like to” I agree with you. Change it to “like.’

But I agree with reluctance. Even if “comme” and “pareille a” are equal and interchangeable on the tongues of French-speakers today, even if they don’t notice the difference, there is nevertheless a difference in the two expressions, buried in the history of the language. Translation can bring that lost difference back into attention. Walter Benjamin, in “The Art of the Translator,” claims that one purpose of translation is this critical light it throws on the history and structure of languages, and I’ve always been drawn to this idea. (But I’ve learned in the past that I always get into trouble when I stand too close to a theory….)

On the other hand, I think making the translation into a good poem is the most important thing, and you are right, “like to” makes a reader stumble and pause when there is no good reason for stumbling--- and it is only a half-solution, anyway. Unless I have some new inspiration, let it be simply “like.”

On the issue of “enfant seul / only child” I’m not so sure. We agree that the normal expression would be “un enfant unique,” bur a quick search on Google reveals examples where “enfant seul” is translated as “only child.”

In a book by sociologist Jean Louis Flandrin called Sex in the Western World, a proverb meant to encourage large families, “Enfant seul, enfant évaporé,; enfants nombreux, enfants heureux,” is translated as “An only child is a scatterbrained child; many children are happy children.”

Another book, by two French psychologists, written to advise parents with only one child, is titled L’enfant seul and is published in English as The Only Child.

The Commission Scolaire des Hauts-Bois-de-l’Outaouais, in Quebec, maintains a Web page that is attached to a class for adult, French-speaking people who are learning English. On a page of vocabulary dedicated to “The Family” they say “un enfant seul = an only child.”

And there are other, similar examples. (Of course, I know that one can find anything one wants to find on the internet, and these examples don’t prove anything definitely. The opinion of one native speaker would be more valuable that a ton of web pages….)

So -- I think “only child” is a possible translation for the line in the poem…. Whether or not it is the right translation for this context, that is a different question.

I’m torn (of course). I like both ways of translating the phrase --- and it is no trivial question, the line becomes very different…. Probably you are right again --- I should translate “un enfant seul” in the normal and natural way, without adding this little nudge of extra complication to the reading. Probably … but I hesitate….


Dianne said...

Thank you for visiting my site, and for your eye and mindful contributions. The discussion of the work and word is important to me.

I used "Thou" in the fall poem as a way to bring it to a close, and open the door to the potential of a universal thou we all are part of.... but I will work on it, for that inner voice which halts the reader is exactly what I need to know about.

I am fascinated by your translation, whew, and overwhelmed by the dual work of "understanding the original" and choosing the closest meaning in another form/language/culture! WOW

"O you mortal instant of the eternal river"