In September 2021, we welcomed returning final-year students back to their studies with a series of refresher classes after all the disruptions of 2020-21.
For one set of these classes, we set grammar books to one side and extended the great French poet Charles Baudelaire’s ‘Invitation to a Voyage’ to students. He claims that each one of us has an internal supply of natural opium to inspire and enthral us. In other words, the poet invites us to engage the limitless potential of our imaginations. Taking a leaf out of Baudelaire’s book, this particular class was to be an exercise in creative translation with an emphasis on the imagination.
Students looked briefly at one out of a pair of Baudelaire’s prose poems, namely ‘L’Étranger’ (‘The Stranger’ see English translation here) and ‘Les Fenêtres’ (‘Windows’, available in French and English translation here). They then had 15-20 minutes to produce their own version of it, by imagining their own encounter with a stranger in the clouds or by looking through a window in their mind onto a place of particular resonance for them.
The results are remarkable, a testimony to the innate creativity of our students who have already had to draw on their imaginations to think and be in another language. We also celebrate Baudelaire, who would have turned 200 in 2021, by extending his invitation to a voyage of the imagination.
Here’s the first set of poems based on ‘L’Étranger’:
In the clouds
- Are you alone here in the clouds?
- It is dark, it is raining.
- You are mysterious.
- I am not mysterious, I am afraid.
- You are afraid?
- Of light? Of darkness? Of joy? Of sadness?
- Of the world.
- But look down! The world is bright, the world is happy, the world is for everyone.
- So, why am I up here in the clouds?
- So what’s your gimmick, then, Mr. Woke? Tell me about your family.
- I don’t have any worth speaking of, no parents or siblings.
- No friends then either?
- People come and go, for better or worse.
- And where do you come from?
- Many places, but what of them?
- And beauty?
- I see it everywhere, almost spiritually.
- Do you want riches? And fortune?
- Doesn’t seem to build a good lifestyle.
- So what do you even care for, since you have nothing left?
- Don’t you feel the breeze today? It’s so good to be here, wherever that is.
Les richesses, et la fortune. Le sort. C’est quoi, sans les efforts pour les atteindre? C’est quoi, la vie, quand elle est remplie par les bêtises? C’est quoi, une maison, quand elle manque la porte? Et c’est quoi, une porte, quand elle attend toujours quelqu’un? Mur. Je vis, mais seulement quand les murs me permettent.
En regardant les nuages rosâtres trébucher les uns sur les autres,
Je me demande serai-je jamais content ?
Le bonheur interne qui me manque devrait exister quelque part.
J’en suis sûr. J’en suis tellement sûr que ce néant me fait mal.
Les nuages quittent le ciel, révélant un azur aveuglant,
Avec son soleil fulgurant qui me brule les yeux
Et ses rayons qui embrassent ma peau,
Tout en déchirant mon corps en morceaux de l’intérieur.
Cependant, cette douleur me faire sentir à l’aise,
Elle me rappelle que je suis encore vivant
Soit à contrecœur, soit à dessein.
-My body leaves me, floating in pure darkness. The silhouette asks, what is it like?
-It’s having no sensations, no responsibilities, no existence except from serenity.
-What was life like before? Says the silhouette
-Full of living, of existing, that world is still there but nowhere to be found.
-Is there fear?
-Do you want to leave?
-Here I am a cloud, floating with no feeling, coming and going, sometimes existing, sometimes not.
- Why is there only light?
- Because there is no darkness
- Where is the blue?
- There are only in orange and reds.
- What about words?
- There is nothing to say but to melt like the sun.
- And when does the sun rise?
- It only sets, moving towards the pink dusk.
Il se balade
Ses pas tombent avec soin
Sur le sol qu’il méprise
Plutôt, il préfère le ciel
Les autres, ils regardent leurs pas
Ses pensées sont à Terre
Mais il ne les connait pas
Il ne connait personne
Sauf ses amis nébuleux
Une fois rencontrés, ils disparaissent à jamais
Toujours différents, mais familiers tout de même
Cette amitié, c’est tout ce qu’il lui faut
Car le ciel le reflète
Toujours seul et jamais seul
Le ciel ne le quittera jamais.
His feet tread carefully
Along the ground he ignores
Rather, he prefers the sky
The others all stare at their feet
Their thoughts are of Earth
But he does not understand them
He does not understand anyone
Apart from his friends in the sky
Soon after meeting, they disappear forever
Always different, but familiar all the same
This friendship is all that he needs
Because the sky reflects him
Always alone and never alone
The sky will never leave him.
translated by Emily Maynard
I’m watching the clouds,
They pass like time and life, across an ambiguous sky,
Will they darken and bring rain and life with them,
Or will they burn away and reveal the splendid sun above,
Revitalising, yet cruel.
The clouds intertwine, transforming into faces I once knew
And mesmerising patterns, drawing me further into my reverie…
A swallow soars upwards, undulating in the sky, headed towards the infinite universe above…
I wonder where she is she destined,
Is she returning home, to comfort and familiarity,
Or onwards, to new lands and uncertain skies,
To new ventures and risks,
Through turbulent tempests or over calm seas,
Skimming over waters of far-away lakes and oceans?
I will never know.
I wish her well with a nod of my head
And ponder what I’ll have for dinner…
And to conclude a pair of poems inspired by ‘Les Fenêtres’ (‘Windows’).
The sun bounces off the waves gently, casting a dim shadow in front of me as I look out over the sea. The small beacon of the lighthouse has lit up, a relic of safety from years gone by. We watch as the haze on the horizon creates murky skyscrapers, which rise from the sea as a lost city. Then, they pass, and we are left watching the container ships which have taken their place. Hundreds of goods transported from A to B. A floating island made of metal and oblivious to the numerous voyeurs on the shoreline.
A woman walks past on the beach with her dog, stopping only to pick up stones to throw for him. I wonder how far she has travelled to get here.
The window has a calming glow to it, a lulling sense of safety which beckons as if the warmth of the lowing sun is beating through it.
I rise from my stupor, in the stuffy, shadowy room I call home in Exeter. I move lightly, guided by some deep yearning within me and open my window.
What awaits me is the most bright, bustling, and brilliant sight. My gaze settles on a waiter. His uniform pristine, his face set in a perfect, polite smile. He carries two overflowing flutes of deep golden liquid.
When he lays them on the ornate table bathed in perfect evening sunshine, my attention shifts to the women who grasp these glasses with fervour. Their skin is rosy, pricked by the strength of the sun’s rays.
The bustle softens, the music fades and what is left is the sound of their laughter. What beauty in that joyful noise? What envy to be as carefree as their shrieks of laughter sound?
I leave my room and join them, through my open window. The metal chair feels cool against my legs in this humid plaza in Northern Italy. Cold, bubbling, golden liquid glides into my mouth, leaving a trail of sticky warmth within me. I am boxed in by bold, boisterous buildings. Our table is pressed into a corner and yet I am the freest I’ve ever felt.
For the Festival of Discovery at the University of Exeter, staff and students from Modern Languages and Cultures gathered to share, translate and enjoy poetry in multiple languages.
A session on Colourful Language was a chance to reimagine a poem about language and colour in whatever language or idiom students chose. You can read the original poem, ‘Voyelles’ by the visionary French poet Arthur Rimbaud (written in 1871, when he was 16 years old), and a translation into English on Wikipedia.
Two students on the MA in Translation, Juliana Galán and Maria Florencia Fernández, have shared their versions with us. They translated the colours and images of the original into ones that speak of the landscapes of their Latin American homelands, demonstrating the diversity of Spanish across the continent.
Maria Florencia Fernández says: ‘I focused on the sounds and alliteration to convey what the vowels/colours mean to me, and I gave it a bit of Argentinian flavour with the pampas.’
A negro, E blanco, I rojo, U verde, O azul
Un día contaré qué hace cada vocal
A, enjambre negro de bichos que zumban
Amontonados alrededor de la podredumbre
Golfos en las sombras; E, candor vacío – nieblas y tiendas,
Flechas heladas del glaciar, reyes blancos, flores temblorosas;
I, púrpura, sangrienta, risas desde labios encendidos
De furia o penitencia ebria;
U, giros, vibraciones divinas de mares verdosos,
La paz de las pampas donde las aves revolotean, entrecejos que se suavizan
Cuando el alquimista cree haber logrado su premio
O, trompeta estridente suprema, silencio atravesado
Por mundos y ángeles que sobrevuelan – O,
lánguida letra perdida, omega, rayo alilado… Sus ojos…
Juliana Galán wrote ‘My translation does not take a literal approach. It does keep some of the same words and remains close to the text, but I mainly took the images and feelings that the author’s description evoked in me, social situations, politics, landscapes, nature, and my own memories. My translation is localized in Colombia and is driven by feelings and my heart.’
A negro, E gris, I rojo, U azul, O dorado
Un día habré de hablarle a las vocales de su magia.
A, la muerte en traje de batalla, negra mortaja bañada en lágrimas saladas,
Las manos suplicantes de madres desesperadas
Playa al amanecer; E, candor gis – neblina y chinchorros,
Malocas y ciudades sagradas en las sierras altivas, hermanos sabios y gentiles, cardúmenes de peces sierra,
Alas que reposan en la ciénaga.
I, rojo, latidos y palpitaciones, mejillas delatoras, rostros del altiplano, labios expectantes,
El fin del día, el amor, la ira y la vida.
U, olas; vibraciones divinas de océanos infinitos
Media noche, profundidad insondable, vidas ocultas, bitácora de la humanidad
Cyan de cielos de verano, días de sol, burbujas etéreas.
O, celestial trompeta estridente, silencios atravesados de cuerpos fugaces
Aleteos de ángeles laboriosos,
O, la última letra olvidada, Omega; Helios, su rayo dorado
La divinidad, la luz, su alma.
You can listen to Juliana read her poem here.
A few days later we reconvened to share poems and songs in languages from Arabic to Welsh, including the indigenous languages of Mapuche and Quechua (click here to listen on Spotify).
While most of us shared works by other people, Laurine Collardeau shared a poem of her own in French. Laurine is a student of French literature at the Sorbonne who joined us from Paris as an Erasmus student.
Laurine says: ‘When I wrote ‘Empreientes’, I just had finished reading Proust’s A l’Ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (1919), the second book of Proust’s novel A la Recherche du Temps perdu, which is about adolescent ego development, the first stages of love, memory, the experience of art… all at once. As I was reflecting on how memory works, I found it fascinating that people always leave something in us. This means that they don’t really leave a feeling but rather the remembrance of the time when the relationship took place. This is what the term ‘Empreintes’ (i.e. ‘footprints’) refers to. I like the idea that people leave footprints behind and that you are still able to follow them, yet footprints are sometimes misleading. Therefore, we tend to remember the best of someone and rarely the reasons why the relationship ended. This poem is a bit messy, which makes sense considering I’m stepping into adulthood and am right in the middle of figuring things out – if they can ever be figured. I write with what we call in France écriture inclusive which means I have not specified genders. This explains the use of a dot followed by an ‘e’ at the end of adjectives.’
Soudain comme un début in media res
J’ai vu ton visage au son du clocher
De la ville dont nous voulions nous échapper
Comment vas-tu ?
Qu’est devenu l’homme qui vendait des fruits au coin de ta rue ?
Le marchant de CD a déménagé
Son enseigne est un nouveau prêt-à-porter
Il faut construire pour enterrer le passé
Comment vas-tu ?
As-tu relu les notes que j’avais laissé dans tes revues ?
Si on avait su…
Je porte toujours les chaînes d’un bracelet aux paroles non tenues
Si mon adolescence n’est plus sur mon visage elle est sur le tien
Sur une silhouette qui me surprend à chaque fois que je la vois au loin
Sur un arrêt de bus qui me demande si je dois poursuivre mon chemin
Rien n’est fini
Si tout devient ruines
Tu es parti
Tes empreintes restent humides
Le futur faisait peur mais je t’y voyais
Sur des cartes aux distances déjà toutes tracées
Plains les trains fantômes de m’avoir éloigné.e
Que disais-tu ?
Te découvrir c’est comme être frappé pas un doux déjà-vu
Des tours de magie cèlent les amitiés
Je m’attendais à te voir t’évaporer
À entendre le silence quand j’ai décroché
En voyant que je lis encore les livres que je ne t’ai pas rendu
Si j’avais su…
Qu’aimer trop jeune c’est être incapable de vivre avec une vielle rancune
Si mon adolescence n’est plus dans mon langage elle est dans ta voix
Dans un nom qui hante l’aube de lettres qui n’ont pas survécu l’envoi
Dans des promesses qui reposaient sur l’interdiction des aux revoir
Et je suis sûr.e
Que tu les as tenues
Car les gentils voisins racontent que tu ne savais pas t’exprimer
Que l’on te reconnaissait mieux de dos à force d’avoir essayé
De fuir mais moi j’ai suivi des yeux les empreintes pour te retrouver
Je ne sais plus
Quand le soleil s’est levé
Mais d’autres sont venus
Et tes empreintes ont séché
Footprints, translated by Professor Hugh Roberts
Suddenly like a start in the middle
I saw your face at the sound of the bell tower
Of the town from which we wanted to escape
How are you?
What’s become of the man who sold fruit at the corner fruit of your street?
The CD shop has moved
Shop sign is for a new clothing store
You have to build to bury the past
How are you?
Have you reread the notes that I left in your magazines?
If we had known…
I still wear the links of a bracelet of unkept promises
If my teenage years aren’t seen on my face any longer they’re on yours
On the shape of your body that surprises me each time I see it from afar
When the bus stops and made me wonder if I must carry on my journey
Nothing is over
If all becomes ruins
Your footsteps are still warm
The future was scary but I saw you in it
On maps on which distances were already marked out
Pity the ghost trains which took me away
What were you saying?
Finding you again is like getting hit not a sweet déjà-vu
Magic tricks hide friendships
I was waiting to see you vanish
To hear the silence when I hung up
What were you saying?
As I see I’m still reading the books I didn’t return to you
If I had known …
That loving too young is to be unable to go on living with an old grudge
If my teenage years are no longer in my langauge they’re in your voice
In a name which haunts the the dawn of letter that didn’t survive being sent
In promises which depended on forbidding farewells
And I’m sure
That you’ve kept them
For the nice neighbours say you didn’t know how to express yourself
That they recognized you better from behind by dint of your always trying
To flee but me, my eyes followed your footsteps to find you again
I no longer know
When the sun came up
But others have comes
And your footsteps have dried
If you have been inspired to write your own poem based on something you’ve read, please share it with us. Or just share your favourite poems and songs in any language in the comments.