Guy Tiphane
Zoe Ullman
EN 214 (Lyric)
December 2, 2003

Paul Éluard’s Poetry: An Exercise in Translation

I became interested in the issue of translating poetry after learning of the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize of the Evansville Review (Evansville).  I first reacted by thinking that since poetry translated poorly it could be better left untouched.  On the other hand, the act of translation may be a good way to bring cultures together in a truly peaceful manner.

About the problem of translating French surrealist poets, G.D. Martin wrote: “even the English speaker who read French is, I suspect, not seeing the original French poem, but an anglicized shadow of it cast by his own Anglo-Saxon mind” (Martin, 3).  Therefore in the act of translation we bring an additional shadow cast by the translator’s mind as well.  To illustrate this problem, let’s look at Martin’s own translation of the first two lines of Anne Hébert’s “Il y a certainement quelqu’un”:

Il y a certainement quelqu’un

Qui m’a tuée

Someone certainly has

Killed me



In the French original language, the speaker says that there is, certainly, someone who killed her.  The translation says that someone certainly killed the speaker.  In addition to the fact that the gender of the speaker could readily be made available to the French reader, the emphasis of the certainty seems to have shifted from “someone” to the fact that she has been killed.  Someone uttering the sentence in French to a French audience would scan the room as if in search for the guilty.  The English version would seem to refer to someone not in the room.  An almost imperceptible difference, but one that shows the potential difficulty of translating while maintaining the true sense of a poem.

With that in mind, I undertook to translate two poems by Paul Éluard a French surrealist poet who wrote between and during the two world wars in which he was involved either as a soldier or as a member of the French resistance.  Éluard’s language is very crisp, with an economy of words that leave several ambiguities.  The poems seemed to call for a duplication of this economy to allow a similar effect, what Martin called “the curious and characteristically Eluardian effect at once of great ambiguity and suggestiveness, and of great apparent clarity and purity” (4).

First Attempt: Translating “Liberté

I first chose Paul Éluard’s “Liberté” (“Liberty”), written and published in 1942 while active in the French resistance.  The poem became a symbol at the time of the refusal by French intellectuals to submit to the oppression of the occupation.  Its language should have been simple enough for a rapid translation by the beginner that I am, while letting me experience the process.  Among other things I found that it took a long time to finalize the choice of words in several instances, in a way similar to crafting a poem of one’s own.  I found that I needed to appropriate the text and to absorb the original words and sounds in order to reproduce it in the new language in a manner that would be close to the poet’s intent.  In that context, it meant that rapid translations could be fine to “get an idea” of what the poem says while a much longer study would be needed to produce a fine poem for publication as if written by the original author.

I stumbled on several grammatical details, but more specifically on word order.  While the placement of adjectives in French occurs generally after the nouns they qualify, it is generally the reverse in English with loose exceptions.  For example I used the two word orders on lines 5 and 6 (“pages read” and “blank pages”), sacrificing the effect of the repetition (“On all the pages”) that could have resulted if both adjectives could have been used at the end.  The word order used in possessive clauses can also vary as in “On the warriors’ arms” (line 10) instead of “On the arms of the warrior.”  While in lines 10 and 11 I used the possessive, I reverted to the form “of the” in most other instances for two reasons: one being that they do not designate people, and the other that “of the” seems to work well with the repetition of “on the” in other lines (e.g. lines 3, 14, 30).

The more problematic lines contained unexpected combinations of words.  Line 51, “Sur mon lit coquille vide,” may be saying that an empty shell is on my bed or that the bed is like an empty shell.  The absence of punctuation throughout the poem accentuates that issue of how combinations of words form a clause one way or another, most likely what Eluard wanted.  In line 7, “Stone blood paper or ash” is a combination of words that was better left as is, translated word by word without the help of an interpretation.

Finally, there may be images that pertain to the language of the period.  White bread (line 18) may simply represent a difficult type of bread to find during the war or could be related to an expression meaning “good beginnings.”  Lamps may switch on and off in modern, practical times, but are most likely to come alight and die out in earlier days and in the underground, and in poems.
















































































































Sur mes cahiers d’écolier

Sur mon pupitre et les arbres

Sur le sable sur la neige

J’écris ton nom


Sur toutes les pages lues

Sur toutes les pages blanches

Pierre sang papier ou cendre

J’écris ton nom


Sur les images dorées

Sur les armes des guerriers

Sur la couronne des rois

J’écris ton nom


Sur la jungle et le désert

Sur les nids sur les genêts

Sur l’écho de mon enfance

J’écris ton nom


Sur les merveilles des nuits

Sur le pain blanc des journées

Sur les saisons fiancées

J’écris ton nom


Sur tous mes chiffons d’azur

Sur l’étang soleil moisi

Sur le lac lune vivante

J’écris ton nom


Sur les champs sur l’horizon

Sur les ailes des oiseaux

Et sur le moulin des ombres

J’écris ton nom


Sur chaque bouffée d’aurore

Sur la mer sur les bateaux

Sur la montagne démente

J’écris ton nom


Sur la mousse des nuages

Sur les sueurs de l’orage

Sur la pluie épaisse et fade

J’écris ton nom


Sur les formes scintillantes

Sur les cloches des couleurs

Sur la vérité physique

J’écris ton nom


Sur les sentiers éveillés

Sur les routes déployées

Sur les places qui débordent

J’écris ton nom


Sur la lampe qui s’allume

Sur la lampe qui s’éteint

Sur mes maisons réunies

J’écris ton nom


Sur le fruit coupé en deux

Du miroir et de ma chambre

Sur mon lit coquille vide

J’écris ton nom


Sur mon chien gourmand et tendre

Sur ses oreilles dressées

Sur sa patte maladroite

J’écris ton nom


Sur le tremplin de ma porte

Sur les objets familiers

Sur le flot du feu béni

J’écris ton nom


Sur toute chair accordée

Sur le front de mes amis

Sur chaque main qui se tend

J’écris ton nom


Sur la vitre des surprises

Sur les lèvres attentives

Bien au-dessus du silence

J’écris ton nom


Sur mes refuges détruits

Sur mes phares écroulés

Sur le murs de mon ennui

J’écris ton nom


Sur l’absence sans désir

Sur la solitude nue

Sur les marches de la mort

J’écris ton nom


Sur la santé revenue

Sur le risque disparu

Sur l’espoir sans souvenir

J’écris ton nom


Et par le pouvoir d’un mot

Je recommence ma vie

Je suis né pour te connaître

Pour te nommer






On my school notebooks

On my school desk and the trees

On the sand on the snow

I write your name


On all the pages read

On all the blank pages

Stone blood paper or ash

I write your name


On the golden images

On the warriors’ arms

On the kings’ crown

I write your name


On the jungle and the desert

On the nests on the brooms[1]

On the echo of my childhood

I write your name


On the wonders of the nights

On the white bread of the days

On the seasons engaged[2]

I write your name


On all my rags[3] of azure

On the pond mildewed sun

On the lake live moon

I write your name


On the fields on the horizon

On the wings of the birds

And on the mill of the shadows

I write your name


On every puff of dawn

On the sea on the boats

On the mad mountain

I write your name


On the foam of the clouds

On the sweat of the storm

On the thick and dull rain

I write your name


On the scintillating figure

On the bells[4] of the colors

On the physical truth

I write your name


On the paths awake

On the roads unfurled

On the squares overflowing

I write your name


On the lamp that comes alight[5]

On the lamp that dies out[6]

On my houses combined

I write your name


On the fruit cut in halves

Of the mirror and of my room

On my empty shell bed[7]

I write your name


On my gourmand and tender dog

On his pricked up ears

On his clumsy paw

I write your name


On the springboard of my door

On the familiar objects

On the flood of the blessed fire

I write your name


On any[8] granted flesh

On my friends’ brow

On every hand held out

I write your name


On the window of the surprises

On the attentive lips

Well above the silence

I write your name


On my destroyed shelters

On my crumbled beacons

On the walls of my boredom

I write your name


On the absence without desire

On the bare solitude

On the steps of death

I write your name


On the health returned

On the risk disappeared

On hope without remembrance

I write your name


And by the power of a word

I start my life again

I was born to know you

To name you





Translating La Mort L’Amour La Vie

This poem is made of longer lines than Liberté with more definite sentences, giving the translator a different challenge with preserving the poet’s voice.  In what would seem to be Éluard’s style there is no punctuation but each line calls for its own imagery, as if the words were closer together.  For example, in the first line “the depth the immensity” produces a stronger effect than the same words separated by a comma or a conjunction, an effect that is continued with a similar repetition in the next line (“without contact without echo”).  Notice the deep feeling of nothingness left by line 13 (“Nothing ahead nothing behind nothing entirely”).

Once again, the translation required as many revisions as one would put into an original poem.  I found myself letting it rest for a day, as I do for creative writing.  However, a translator must keep with the poet’s intention by searching for alternatives that would work in the new language and try to reproduce the effect of the original words.  I tried to imagine the poet reading the translation himself, which may have given it a French twist.  But as the revisions and the search for alternatives went, I felt more confident in the choice of every single word and sentence, as if I had appropriated the poem.

There were, of course, a few problematic lines.  When I saw the word “vendange” in line 35 I knew there would not be an appropriate English word for the annual harvesting of grapes that do not grow in England.  To make matters worse, the poet wrote “la moisson la vendange,” concatenating the generic harvest with the more specific grape harvest.  As a result “The harvest the grape harvest” sounds almost technical, the second harvest seemingly correcting the first with a more precise definition.


All things considered, I found that poetic translation is more difficult than writing original poetry because of the need to absorb the original poem and poet, as an actor trying to imitate an actual person.  It is not up to the translator to be original, but at the same time he has to be poetic in the style of the poet.  I often found myself doubting my own version of the words, oscillating between two choices at every revision.  But at the end, I was so satisfied by “Death Love Life” that I sent it to Evansville.  Who knows if the experts will find it satisfactory?




























































La Mort L’Amour La Vie


J’ai cru pouvoir briser la profondeur l’immensité

Par mon chagrin tout nu sans contact sans écho

Je me suis étendu dans ma prison aux portes vierges

Comme un mort raisonnable qui a su mourir

Un mort non couronné sinon de son néant

Je me suis étendu sur les vagues absurdes

Du poison absorbé par amour de la cendre

La solitude m’a semblé plus vive que le sang


Je voulais désunir la vie

Je voulais partager la mort avec la mort

Rendre mon cœur au vide et le vide à la vie

Tout effacer qu’il n’y ait rien ni vitre ni buée

Ni rien devant ni rien derrière rien entier

J’avais éliminé le glaçon des mains jointes

J’avais éliminé l’hivernale ossature

Du vœu de vivre qui s’annule


Tu es venue le feu s’est alors ranimé

L’ombre a cédé le froid d’en bas s’est étoilé

Et la terre s’est recouverte

De ta chair claire et je me suis senti léger

Tu es venue la solitude était vaincue

J’avais un guide sur la terre je savais

Me diriger je me savais démesuré

J’avançais je gagnais de l’espace et du temps


J’allais vers toi j’allais sans fin vers la lumière

La vie avait un corps l’espoir tendait sa voile

Le sommeil ruisselait de rêves et la nuit

Promettait à l’aurore des regards confiants

Les rayons de tes bras entr’ouvraient le brouillard

Ta bouche était mouillée des premières rosées

Le repos ébloui remplaçait la fatigue

Et j’adorais l’amour comme à mes premiers jours


Les champs sont labourés les usines rayonnent

Et le blé fait son nid dans une houle énorme

La moisson la vendange ont des témoins sans nombre

Rien n’est simple ni singulier

La mer est dans les yeux du ciel ou de la nuit

La forêt donne aux arbres la sécurité

Et les murs des maisons ont une peau commune

Et les routes toujours se croisent


Les hommes sont faits pour s’entendre

Pour se comprendre pour s’aimer

Ont des enfants qui deviendront pères des hommes

Ont des enfants sans feu ni lieu

Qui réinventeront les hommes

Et la nature et leur patrie

Celle de tous les hommes

Celle de tous les temps.



Death Love Life


I believed I could break the depth the immensity

By my grief naked without contact without echo

I lay in my prison with virgin doors

Like a sensible dead man who was able to die

A dead man uncrowned but of his nothingness

I lay on the absurd waves

Of the poison absorbed for the love of ashes

Solitude seemed more alive than blood


I wanted to break up life

I wanted to share death with death

Surrender my heart to the void and the void to life

Erase everything to leave nothing neither window nor steam

Nothing ahead nothing behind nothing entirely

I had eliminated the icicle from the joined hands

I had eliminated the wintery bone structure

Of the vow to live that cancels itself


You came the fire then rekindled itself

The shadow yielded the cold below frosted

And the earth covered itself

With your fair flesh and I felt light

You came solitude was defeated

I had a guide on earth I knew

To direct myself I knew I was immoderate

I moved forward I gained space and time


I went towards you I went without end towards the light

Life had a body hope spread out its sail

Sleep streamed with dreams and the night

Promised the dawn trusting eyes

The rays of your arms parted the fog

Your mouth was wet with the early dew

The dazzled rest replaced the fatigue

And I adored love as in my first days


The fields are ploughed the factories radiate

And the wheat nests in an enormous swell

The harvest the grape harvest have innumerable witnesses

Nothing is simple nor singular

The sea is in the eyes of the sky or of the night

The forest gives the trees their safety

And the walls of the houses have a common skin

And the roads always cross each other


People are made to get along

To understand each other to love each other

Have children who will become parents of mankind

Have children with neither hearth nor home

Who will reinvent mankind

And nature and their homeland

That of all mankind

That of all times.




Works Cited

Martin, G.D., ed., trans., Anthology of Contemporary French Poetry, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971.

Works Consulted

Eluard, P., Poèmes d’Amour et de Liberté, J. Gaucheron, ed., Paris: Le Temps des Cerises, 1995.

Evansville Review, The Willis Barnstone Translation Prize, December 2, 2003.


[1] Flowering shrubs

[2] as in engaged to be married

[3] also “scraps of paper”

[4] or curves

[5] or switches on

[6] or switches off

[7] bed that is an empty shell, on empty shell on bed

[8] as opposed to “every” or “all”