Another good evening for the Alliance Française and for Director, Philippe Milloux, to add to his record in this, his final year there.
This time round it was a poetry reading, but with a difference. James Joyce had written a set of love poems, entitled Chamber Music, while he was still in Dublin and had some aspirations to becoming a poet rather than a novelist. They are short and simple but with resonances and allusions.
They are also untranslatable, as is the case with most good poetry. That is to say that you can never fully reproduce the original in another language. The most you can do is convey the sentiment and the flavour but in what is essentially a new form. If you are lucky you may also be able to render the rhythm or rhyme and preserve much of the range of ambiguity.
Well, Olivier Litvine, currently Director of the Alliance Française in Pondichéry in India, has just attempted some of this in bringing us a French language version of these poems, entitled Musique de Chambre.
The evening's format was simple. Essentially Olivier read a French version of a poem and Irish poet Theo Dorgan then read Joyce's original version. This all took place against a background crafted by Jean-Philippe Imbert, from DCU, who took on the role of animateur
We didn't hear any of the Joyce poems set to music in either language but, in a marvellously controlled tenor rendering of There's no Place like Home, Noel O'Grady set the musical ambiance of the time within which the poems were written.
Then Jean-Philippe kicked off with an animated introduction which, following a quick poll of the audience, swayed effortlessly between English and French.
It wasn't long before we got to the first reading and though I had some difficulty following it on the spot - my French is not that good and I'm not a poetry buff - I have since read over both the original English and the French versions of many of the poems and Olivier seems to have made a very good fist of it.
He mentioned two aspects of these particular poems which posed a problem for the translator.
Joyce tended from time to time to use old forms like "thee" and "thou" which are not readily carried over fully into a translation. So he opted to just ignore this particular conceit.
A more difficult one is when Joyce invents words. You are never sure of the range of ambiguity in them precisely because they are new and are meant to be a bit of a shock to the system.
I thought I had come across one in these lines and wondered how Olivier would deal with it.
And softly to undo the snoodOlivier's version
That is the sign of maidenhood.
Avant de doucement défaire cette résilleI had to look up "résille" never having had the pleasure of meeting it in French. It turned out to be a "hairnet" and I thought Olivier had caught something there - gossamer, maidenhood and all that. I was convinced that Joyce had made up "snood" though, for the life of me, I couldn't figure out the connotations. Then I looked it up and it turned out to be an actual word denoting a coarse kind of hairnet that hung down over the back of the neck. It definitely fell short of the gossamer evoked by Olivier's simple choice of words.
Symbole de ta virginité.
But the next one is made up.
How sweet to lie there,So is this an island, isolation made by water, like Yeats's Lake Isle, or is it a church aisle flanked by pine trees?
Sweet to kiss,
When the great pine forest
Comme il est doux de s'allongerAnd the bed aside, has Olivier evoked "behind closed doors" and "fate" with resonances of Sartre's "Huit Clos"? Who knows? And that's the fun of it.
Doux de s'embrasser
La où la grande forêt de pin
Fait un lit clos!
Theo gave us a very robust reading of the originals. He even wondered at one stage whether Joyce was parodying himself, consciously or unconsciously, but he concluded that, in this case, the poem had actually been rescued by its French translation anyway.
His commentary on Joyce throughout the readings was most illuminating. I think he was a bit taken aback when I described it as provocative, but I meant it as a compliment and, in fact, I was referring to the whole evening, which I found very stimulating.
Having consulted his script, Jean-Philippe figured we had come to the stage where some audience participation might be a good idea.
So I jumped in as suggested that it might be a good thing that Joyce was not with us this evening as the poet himself is not the best translator of his own work. I cited Pearse's poem Fornocht do chonac thú where the poet himself has given us a woeful English translation of a beautiful, and perfect, poem in Irish. The panel seemed to go along with me on that one. You can follow up my angle here.
Jean-Philippe wondered whether a poet could reasonably claim to translate from a language of which he had no understanding whatever. Apparently this is not quite as uncommon as you might think and it takes place through an intermediary who explains the bones of the original.
The audience, including myself, were inclined pour scorn on any such venture until Theo piped up and recounted how he had got stuck once with translating a poem from Slovenian, a language of which he knew absolutely nothing. The result has been hailed as one of the best translations of a poem from Slovenian to English. You'll have to get him to tell the story if you come across him. It's a good one and I'm not going to spoil it here.
If you haven't picked up the flavour of this vibrant and provocative evening the remaining photos below may help.
Une très belle soirée, or as we'd say, "a good time was had by all".