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Title: Whitman futur, ou l'avenir à venir: "Poets to Come" in French Translation

Author(s): Éric Athenot and Blake Bronson-Bartlett

Publication information: Written for the Walt Whitman Archive. First published on the Archive in 2012.

Whitman Archive ID: anc.02025


Whitman futur, ou l'avenir à venir: "Poets to Come" in French Translation

A Brief Overview of the Translations

"Poets to Come" was among the first of Whitman's poems translated in 1886 by Jules Laforgue for the new and short-lived avant-garde periodical La Vogue. It appeared with other poems from the "Inscriptions" cluster in the June 28, 1886 issue and was followed by two further installments in the July 5th and August 2nd issues. All of Laforgue's translations were later republished in the 1918 Nouvelle Revue Française edition, Walt Whitman: Œuvres choisies, along with translations by Valery Larbaud, André Gide, Louis Fabulet, Jean Schlumberger, and Francis Viélé-Griffin. In their 1886 form, the Laforgue translations were published with the first French poems ever written in vers libre, while the 1918 collection in which they were republished aimed to explode the singular mythic image of Whitman propagated by internationalist Whitmaniac Léon Bazalgette. The latter, who published the first complete French edition of the 1891–92 Leaves of Grass under the title Feuilles d'herbe in 1909, played a tremendous role in disseminating Whitman among European intellectuals and men of letters, not only through his rendering of the "Deathbed edition" in French but by dint of his 1908 biography, Walt Whitman: l'homme et son œuvre, and his 1921 book-length essay, Le Poème-Évangile de Walt Whitman. The two most notable French translators of Whitman's poetry in the second half of the twentieth century were Roger Asselineau and Jacques Darras, who both taught American poetry in French universities. The former, who died in 2002, first published the internationally acclaimed L'Évolution de Walt Whitman in 1954 (reprinted in an expanded edition by University of Iowa Press in 1999) and was for half a century the foremost Whitman scholar in France. Darras, born in 1939, continues to this day to translate major American poets from Pound to Ginsberg and to publish a poetic œuvre of his own.


The Translators
Jules Laforgue (1860–1887)

At age nineteen, after having failed his baccalaureat (roughly the equivalent of a college-level entrance exam) for the third time, Laforgue began publishing his first poems in literary magazines. Two years later, he was employed as a reader of French for the Empress of Germany. While working for the Empress, Laforgue learned about Whitman through Thérèse Bentzon's 1872 article, "Un poète americain, Walt Whitman: 'muscle and pluck forever,'" a moralistic critique of the poet's relatively crude naturalism and democratic vision. Bentzon did not deter the young Laforgue, whose first book of poetry, Complaintes (1885), bears the influence of Whitman's integration of urban, cosmic, and scientific themes. Laforgue's first translations of Whitman appeared in La Vogue the following year—shortly after the same review had introduced the world to Rimbaud's Illuminations. In 1887, Laforgue, through his friend R. Brisbane, obtained permission from Whitman and his future executors to produce a French translation of Leaves of Grass in its entirety. Tragically, Laforgue contracted tuberculosis and died the same year, just four days before his twenty-seventh birthday.


Léon Bazalgette (1873–1928)

Bazalgette's translation of the "Deathbed edition" was published almost simultaneously with his adoring biography of the poet, Walt Whitman: l'homme et son œuvre. Like Richard Maurice Bucke's chapter on Whitman in Cosmic Consciousness, Bazalgette's biography casts the poet in the role of an ecstatic pantheist and prophet of the modern world. This image of the poet inspired proponents of "unanism," who celebrated the collective soul of the masses, and the writers of the "Abbaye" group, who in their works explored the connections between humankind and nature. While these two groups helped Bazalgette spread Whitman's influence among artists and intellectuals, Bazalgette's publisher, the well-respected Le Mercure de France, insured the wide acceptance of his translation by the general reading public. Due to the popularity of his translation, Bazalgette was exposed to the criticism of the French literati who had already read him in English. Most notable among Bazalgette's critics was André Gide, who accused Bazalgette of "heterosexualizing" Whitman. In his Corydon (1911; 1922), Gide's surrogate, Dr. Corydon, argues that Bazalgette's translation contravenes the true intentions of Whitman's poetry and fails to grasp its emotional intensities because Bazalgette denies and suppresses the poet's clear promotion of male-male affection. As mentioned above, Walt Whitman: Œuvres choisies (1918) was also edited and published in reaction against Bazalgette's translation. Although French and American critics have been, and continue to be, critical of Bazalgette's translation of Whitman, he was nonetheless responsible for sparking a national passion for Whitman as well as a generative controversy among readers of the poet's work in France in the early twentieth century.


Roger Asselineau (1915–2002)

Asselineau's interest in American literature—especially Whitman—was inspired by his experience with the French Resistance, his consequent imprisonment in Nazi-occupied France, and his release following the American invasion. Before and during his tenure as a world-renowned Whitman biographer, translator, and scholar, Asselineau also published his own poetry. The first collection, Traduit de moi-même, was published under the pseudonym Robert Maurice in 1949, and his last, Miettes et miracles, was published the year of his death. His dissertation, L'Évolution de Walt Whitman après la première édition des Feuilles d'herbe (titled, in English translation, The Evolution of Walt Whitman), was first published in France in 1954, and has since become a perennial biographical resource for students and scholars of Whitman worldwide. In addition to being a significant work of literary biography—and certainly one of the more objective treatments of Whitman to have emerged in France by the mid-twentieth century—Asselineau's biography was one of the first works of Whitman scholarship to claim that the poet's homosexuality was the key to understanding his life and work.


Jacques Darras (1939–)

As both an academic and a poet, Darras has worked at a crosscurrent of international literary culture since the late nineteen-seventies, when he published his thesis on Joseph Conrad (Joseph Conrad et les signes de l'Empire). During his academic career at the Université de Picardie, he has created several masters level programs in foreign languages, including Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese, Dutch, and Polish. He has edited anthologies of poetry written in many languages, as well as anthologies of French poetry, and has authored works of literary criticism such as Nous sommes tous des romantiques allemands (2002). In 2011, Darras edited a special issue of Europe: revue littéraire mensuelle. Besides having collected and translated essays on Whitman's poetry and transnational influence by poets and scholars from across Europe as well as the American continent, Darras contributed multiple texts, which call enthusiastically for a widespread reconsideration of Whitman in Europe, if not for the fate of poetry, then for the sake of the continent's future.


An Overview of Each Translation of "Poets to Come"

Despite the brevity and deceptive simplicity of "Poets to Come," a comparison of the four known translations of the poem reveals the unique problems it has posed to French translators, thus revealing its linguistic richness and rhetorical complexity.

Laforgue's famously poor command of English is apparent in all of the La Vogue translations. All three of the installments were published under the same awkward heading: "Brins d'Herbes (Traduit de l'étonnant poëte américain Walt Whitman)", which translates back into English literally as "Blades of Grasses (Translated from the astonishing American poet, Walt Whitman)." Paradoxically enough, Laforgue's linguistic ignorance led him to produce the most poetic of the four versions. His word-by-word translation—heavily dependent on a bilingual dictionary and/or on his English fiancée, Leah Lee—accounts for his difficulties with idiomatic phrases, such as "run back" (courir arriére) in line six and "sauntering along" (flânant le long) in line seven. Such oddities are all the more evocative given the fact that they do not make sense in French. Yet perhaps Laforgue assumed that Whitman's "barbaric yawp" and his use of vernacular had appeared as strange and incorrect to his first American readers as the translations would to the French. Laforgue reproduces the affect of common speech with his repeated use of the colloquial moi, je in lines six and seven, although this choice conveys the general character of Whitman's poetry more than it directly translates the authoritative "I's" of the poem. Such rugged stylistic flourishes contrast in an appropriately Whitmanian way with the archaic spelling of poëtes, instead of poètes, which gives the poem a symboliste ring, as if in an effort to recruit Whitman for the avant-garde endeavors of the publication in which the translation originally appeared, La Vogue. The symbolist spelling was not maintained when it was reprinted in the 1918 collection, Œuvres choisies.

Although Bazalgette's translation provides some useful renditions of Whitman's lines, it suffers from grammatical constraints that are imposed on the original, along with formal diction that is uncharacteristic of the English text. For instance, Bazalgette translates the phrase "greater than before known," at the end of line three, as plus grande que celles jusqu'ici connues, which roughly translates back into English as "greater than those known so far." Bazalgette captures some of the vernacular style of the English, but his phrasing does not capture Whitman's brevity and directness. The inadequacy of the phrase is best demonstrated by the fact that Bazalgette changed it for the 1922 edition of his Feuilles d'herbe. Perhaps attempting to counterbalance the poet's vernacular style as he spread the Whitmanian gospel, in the 1922 edition he errs on the side of redundancy by rendering "greater than before known," as plus grande qu'on n'en connut jamais. In this variant translation, Bazalgette introduces a subject-verb construction that is not in the original, thus obligating him to employ the formal-sounding on, equivalent to the collective "we" or the haughty "one" (i.e.: "one does not wear white shoes after labor day") in English. He also employs the 'ne' explétif, also known as the 'ne' pléonastique, which is often placed after a conjunction and between the subject and verb when making comparisons based on inequality in French. Yet ne is typically the first half of a negative grammatical construction in French as well (i.e.: ne [verb] pas, the equivalent of "not" in English, or ne [verb] jamais, the equivalent of "never"). Whether or not the 1922 version of Bazalgette's translation is an improvement is perhaps a more challenging question than one might have expected.

It is worth considering that Bazalgette's 1922 variation might not be an aesthetic adjustment so much as it is a subtle allusion to Laforgue's translation, which appears in the anti-Bazalgette N.R.F. collection of 1918. Laforgue translates the phrase as plus grande qu'on ait jamais vu, the same as Bazalgette's 1922 version without the misleading, albeit correct, 'ne' explétif. Not so much an improvement as a pedantic corrective, then, Bazalgette's 1922 variant makes the phrase "greater than before known" a focal point illustrating a latent dialogue between translators, from one text to another. Such a dialogue can also be heard taking place between Asselineau's and Darras's translations, both of which capture the economy of Whitman's "greater than before known" while avoiding some of the pitfalls of their predecessors. Asselineau is perhaps too succint, translating the phrase as plus grande de toutes, or "greater than all," thus losing the sense of time, historical becoming, the greatness of the present in relation to the past, all of which are themes essential to Whitman's poetry in general. Darras captures the brevity of the phrase as well as its vernacular affect with his plus grande jamais vue. From one translation to the next, the translator attains a new level of boldness in sacrificing the demands of grammatical standards and conventional diction in the host language to poetic experimentation and renewal.

From a purely literary point of view, the least ambitious of the four texts are Bazalgette's and Asselineau's, albeit for quite different reasons. Bazalgette employs a few stilted archaic constructions, such as Point aujourd-hui ne doit me justifier in line two, and his selection of verbs also inflects the voice of the poem with surprisingly un-Whitmanian connotations. Where "to hurry back" is translated as se détourner by Laforgue, as retourne en hâte by Asselineau, and as pivoter et rentrer by Darras, Bazalgette offers me renfoncer en hâte, suggesting a violent forcing of the poet's persona into the shadows rather than the "turning" or "pivoting," which both resonate, however slightly, with the untranslatable verb "to wheel" of the original. Also uncharacteristic of Whitman is Bazalgette's rendering of "for you must justify me" as Car il vous faut me justifier in line four, where he prefers the verb falloir to devoir (Laforgue's and Asselineau's choice). As falloir can only be used in the rather un-Whitmanian passive voice, it roughly back-translates as "it is essential that you justify me," thus placing unwarranted distance between the speaker of the poem and the addressee.

Similarly, Asselineau translates the same phrase in line four as Car il est de votre devoir de me justifier, suggesting that it is not only essential for the poets of the future to justify the speaker of the poem, or that they not only "have to" or "must" justify him, (vous devez in Laforgue, il vous faut in Bazalgette, and the innovative De vous dresser et me justifier, oui à vous in Darras), but that they have been charged with the "duty" to "justify" him, as if they were being commanded by a poet-god, -monarch, or -dictator. Asselineau makes some attempts to interpret and elaborate upon Whitman's poem, as in line eight, where he translates "Leaving it to you to prove and define it"—the 'it' being 'his casual look,' one assumes, from line seven—as Vous laissant le soin de poser et de résoudre le problème. Of the four translators, Asselineau is the only one to replace the "it" with another object, in this case not le visage (or "face") but "the problem." Though one might critique Asselineau for taking liberties with the original, "the problem" does not preclude the possibility of being the supplement for "his casual look." In fact, Asselineau's choice to render the "it" as "the problem" brings to the bilingual reader's attention the problems—one might say the pleasure of struggling with the problems—that are raised by the "casual look," which disappears and leaves in its place the "it": an ambiguous supplement, to be proven and defined in the revealing and fleeting activity of reading. Overall, though, Asselineau's version lacks the hubristic poetic ambition of other translations. In managing to be unambiguous and clear, it serves as an invaluable tool in deciphering the semantic coding of the original, but proves frustratingly prosaic for a reader looking for echoes of Whitman's own poetic daring.

Unlike Asselineau, however, Darras takes significant risks as a translator, at the lexical as well as stylistic levels. He gives "brood"—deprived of any animal connotation in the four texts—a mock-Marxist ring by opting for la classe nouvelle (or "the new class"). As he often does in his Feuilles d'herbe, his choices show scant rhetorical respect for the original and err on the side of incongruity. In line seven, for instance, the past tense erupts from nowhere: Je suis l'homme qui flânant sans cesse sans jamais s'arrêter vous lance au passage un regard puis s'est détourné (emphasis added), which translates back into English roughly as "I am the man who wandering non-stop without ever stopping throws you a passing glance then turned away." The rendering of "averts" as "turned away" is not only unfaithful to the original but disorienting for the reader. It is worth considering, however, that Darras's rendering of the verb in the past tense addresses the "problem," as Asselineau has it, of Whitman's infamous passing "glance," or regard. As surprising as it is for Darras to follow vous lance au passage un regard puis ("throws you a passing glance then") with s'est détourné ("turned away"), the temporal shift nevertheless draws to the reader's attention the fleeting moment in which the body of the poet is perceived in the imaginative act of reading, yet has already disappeared, already "hurr[ied] back in darkness." Darras shows daring with his translation of line four, "Arouse! Arouse—for you must justify me—you must answer," as De vous dresser et me justifier, oui à vous! Darras's line translates back into English as "To rise up and justify me, yes [it will be] up to you!", restoring some of the emotion of the original while adding some exuberance and detracting from the formal tone given to the line by previous translators. Most significantly, perhaps, Darras's choice to use the verb se dresser restores the eroticism of Whitman's "arouse," which is lost in the other three translations of the original. This matter will be examined more closely in the section on "arouse" below.


Addressing Specific Questions about the French Translations

The French versions of "Poets to Come" raise a set of specific questions about their authors' interpretive choices, while throwing into relief the strategies they adopted, in order to come up with four strikingly different poems.


Who is the "you" addressed by the poem's persona?

As it is unanimously found in the plural form—vous—in all four versions, the "you" of the poem is clearly understood by the translators to refer to a plural reader, to all "poets to come." On this at least the four translators seem to agree. One may argue, though, that as the poet addresses the "new brood," the singular pronoun—tu—could have been used. The use of the tu would have developed the kind of erotic intimacy and imaginative coupling between reader and poet usually found in Whitman's poems—and at play in "Poets to Come"—which aims to guarantee Whitman's legacy, one reader at a time, via inseminative inspiration. Using tu would have implicated the singular person's role in generating and fostering a "new brood" of poets through an erotics of reading.


How much attention do the translators pay to the poem's political agenda?

The nationalist American overtones of the poem as it appeared in its original version, as "Chants Democratic 14," in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass seem to be lost on all but one of the four translators. Against Laforgue's pure ("pure"), Bazalgette's autochtone ("autochtonous"), and Darras's indigène ("indigenous"), only Asselineau's née de ce sol ("born of this soil") manages to reproduce the ideological coding of the 1860 version by specifying the "soil" from which the future poets will spring—although, in the Deathbed version, the poem could be understood as referring to poets who will spring from "soils" beyond the American continent.

The "new brood" does not fare very well in these translations either. The first definition provided by the 1844 Webster's Dictionary is unambiguous: "Offspring; progeny; formerly used of human beings in elegant works, and we have brother, from this word; but it is now usually used in contempt." The four French translations pay attention to the sense of "progeny" in the word "brood," with the exception of Darras, as we have seen earlier, who introduces a rather strange Marxist echo with his use of the word classe. The other three go for more predictable options—génération (Laforgue) and race (Bazalgette and Asselineau)—though they do not capture the specifically animal and new-born connotations of the original.


What is the poem's persona "for"?

An interesting feature of these translations is how they cope with the phrase, "what I am for." While it seems fairly straightforward in English, the French translations yield some surprising results. Laforgue and Darras turn the "what" into "who" and drop the "for," thus rendering the line as qui je suis, literally "who I am." Bazalgette and Asselineau come up with an odd phrasing: pourquoi je suis, or "why I am." None of them sounds entirely satisfying, but the translations draw the bilingual reader's attention to the deceptive simplicity of the phrase. While "who I am" and "why I am" are related to the question of "what I am for," in contrast with the French translations, the original phrase emphasizes the purpose of the "I," the poem, and the poet, to future generations, rather than the universal quandary of identity.


How does one translate the motions the persona goes through in the poem?

The English verb "to wheel" poses interesting problems for the French translator. There is no equivalent for this odd, slightly archaic English word in French. The 1844 Webster's has four definitions of the verb, the second of which is: "To turn; to move round; as, a body of troops wheel to the right or left." Laforgue and Bazalgette opt for the plain and barely adequate tourner ("to turn"). Asselineau chooses fais demi-tour ("to turn around"), which retains some of the military flavor of the definition offered by Webster's. Darras chooses the more mechanical pivoter ("to pivot, or to swivel"), thus echoing the at times mechanical representations of bodies in Whitman's poetry.


"Poets to Come" and its grammar of the future

Even though the "future indicative" does not exist in English, bilingual readers in the Romance languages might pick up on a possible pun on the "future indicative" tense in line five of "Poets to Come." All four translators pass on the opportunity to pun explicitly on the "future indicative" tense —le futur de l'indicatif in French—in the phrase "indicative words for the future." The reason for this might be that a literal translation would appear strange in French. One may wonder, however, to what extent this putative strangeness might not serve the forward-looking ambition of the poem while restoring some of its complex layering of linguistic registers, otherwise lost in translation.

French has two words for "future"—avenir (which is purely temporal) and futur (which refers both to the grammatical tense and the temporal category). Laforgue translates the phrase literally and opts for un ou deux mots indicatifs pour l'avenir. Bazalgette avoids the pun altogether, by rendering the phrase as un mot ou deux d'indication pour l'avenir ("one or two words of indication for the future [temporal only]"). Asselineau varies Bazalgette's line by rendering it as un ou deux mots à titre d'indication pour l'avenir ("one or two words by way of/as a guide of indication for the future"). Of the four, Darras comes closest to the pun with un ou deux mots d'indication pour le futur ("one or two words of indication for the future [temporally and grammatically]"), but he shies away from making it explicit. Nevertheless, it is difficult to ignore completely the suggestion of the pun on le futur de l'indicatif in Laforgue's mots indicatifs pour l'avenir and Darras's mots d'indication pour le futur, and for this reason their choices as translators should be considered poetic acts unto themselves, which bring new life to the original by transforming and enriching its lexical play in another language.


How sexy are Whitman's "poets to come"?

As evinced by the 1860 version of "Poets to Come" ("Chants Democratic 14"), the verb "arouse" in line four is used to signify both a rise to action and sexual arousal. The French versions all seem to favor the meaning of "standing up" and have absolutely nothing sexual in their rendering of the verb. Laforgue, Bazalgette, and Asselineau translate "Arouse!" as levez-vous! ("stand up!"). Only Darras, however modestly, through his use of the verb se dresser ("to stand up" and also "to become erect"), alludes to a potential erotic encounter between the persona and his poets to come. As se dresser also means "to rise up," Darras's use of the verb could also develop the politicized translation of Whitman's "new brood" as la class nouvelle, the "new class," in line three. One might even suggest that the Marxist ring of la class nouvelle and the libidinous uprising suggested by se dresser are faithful to the combination of politics and sexuality found throughout Whitman's poetry. However, the translation of "you" as vous further obscures the clearly erotic overtones of the original, as it does in all of the translations.


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