Le Dormeur du val
by Arthur Rimbaud
C’est un trou de verdure où chante une rivière,
Un soldat jeune, bouche ouverte, tête nue,
Les pieds dans les glaïeuls, il dort. Souriant comme
Les parfums ne font pas frissonner sa narine ;
— October, 1870
The Sleeper in the Vale
In a green hollow, a brook is singing
On the grass sleeps a young soldier, hatless
His feet in gladiolas, he is sleeping
As he sleeps in the sun, no aromas reach his nose.
Translation copyright © 2015 by Don Webb
Translator’s note: Le Dormeur du val is a minor classic of French Symbolist poetry. It’s all the more remarkable because Rimbaud wrote it at the age of 16.
The poem is chosen for this issue because it has an echo in Mike Acker’s sparse, almost micro-poem “Pomegranate Guts.” It is also a challenge to any poet: reproduce the imagery and symbolism in Le Dormeur du val while at the same time keeping the form of a Petrarchan sonnet.
This translation succeeds with the end rhymes, which, as any reader can see, are harder to find in English than in French. As for the meter, forget it; you won’t get 12-syllable alexandrine lines or an English equivalent, such as iambic pentameter. A better translation will probably have to adapt the poem to another form, such as the ballad.
And English cannot always reproduce the content. For example, Rimbaud’s poem begins and ends with the word trou. At the beginning, the trou is green; at the end, the trous are red. But “hole” is not always an exact equivalent. In English, “green hollow” better conveys the meaning of un trou de verdure, but “hollow” leaves the contrast implied, whereas it is explicit in the original.
Likewise, Nature, berce-le chaudement uses the familiar form of the verb, which English does not have. In contrast, “let him in warmth abide” has a quaintly formal ring. Is it an infelicity? Probably, but at least it provides a rhyme.
Translators of the world, do your best!