15 May 2009

Bit of fun for a Friday

I started translating some Jacques Prévert poems yesterday, for no good reason really, but was at the Youngest's flute lesson, and the teacher had a copy of Paroles. I've loved these poems since I first discovered them, I think for two main reasons. Number one, your French doesn't have to be that great to understand them. Number two, neither do you need to have read (or understood) Lacan, Foucault, et al.

But also because they are beautiful, simple, and slightly surreal poems.

These were published in 1946. Are they free game for translation? I was thinking of sending one off to the Stephen Spender prize. Alas, it is open only to UK residents or citizens.

Anyway, here's one I did earlier... Rough, mind you -- very rough.

(Note -- idea! -- one day I might run one of them through an on-line translator. Just to see what happens.)

Despair Sits on a Bench
("Le désespoir est assis sur un banc")
by Jacques Prévert

In a square, on a bench, is a man
who calls to you as you pass.
He wears glasses and an old grey suit.
He is smoking small cigars
and he calls out to you
or else he waves
but you must pretend not to see him.
You can't look at him,
or listen to him,
you must carry on,
go quickly --
because if you look,
if you listen,
if you give him a little wave,
then nothing and nobody
can stop you from going
to sit next to him.
And he will look at you and smile
and it is horrible.
And he will keep on smiling
until you smile that same smile,
and you are the same as he is,
The more you smile, the more horrible
it gets.
And the worse it gets, of course,
the more you smile.
There is absolutely nothing you can do.
You are stuck there,
smiling on the bench,
with children playing around you
and other people passing by you
so peacefully.
Birds fly out of one tree
and into another.
And you, on the bench,
and you know
that you will never
play like that again,
you will never
be one of those people again,
passing by
so peacefully;
and never again will you leave one tree
for another,
like those birds.

Feel free to correct my grammar!


  1. This is one of my favorite poems! I translated it once, I should find it & compare it with your translation, which is probably better than mine cos I'm no poet (and I know it.)

  2. I would be curious to see where our translations differ, Jan. If you find them let me know!