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September 21, 2014
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Translating the Fables of La Fontaine: A Creative Linguistic Challenge


Translation is a tricky business. The Italians have a proverb: “Tradurre e tradire”—translation is treason. And if the challenge to be faithful to the original text is already implicit in the fact that individual words in different languages are not always exact synonyms (indeed, there may not even be a one-word approximate synonym), the challenge becomes all the greater when one is also attempting to capture the sound effects of poetry—meter and rhyme. Compromise would always be necessary. And the wide range of possible compromises can be seen in the many excellent—and different—versions of Homer’s epics or Dante’s Divine Comedy. I knew that there were a few well-regarded translations of the Fables already out there, and I resolved not to look at them. Instead I would rely on my three years of high-school French, a bilingual dictionary and occasional help from some Francophone friends. From them I got supportive feedback and was further encouraged when some of my verses were published in Metamorphoses, an academic journal devoted to literary translation. I was also pleased to think that I was continuing a long tradition, because La Fontaine, although he had no interest in doing a close translation, had drawn much of his material from earlier literary sources, first Aesop’s fables, then more exotic fabulists like the Indian Pilpay, and eventually, in Book XII, some of the tales in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.”

In fact, some of the best illustrations of the difficulties inherent in literary translation can be found in Fable I of Book II, a poem whose subject just happens to be language. My title for this poem is “To the Overly Critical,” but the literal version would be “Against Those Who Have Difficult Tastes.” In it, La Fontaine addresses those readers who had complained about the language of Book I. To pacify them, he attempts a more high-flown style, only to be rebuffed: “These windy spoutings leave me out of breath,” say these critics. He tries again. This time:

“Stop right there,” my critic howls.
“I can’t accept these feeble rhymes
Why you haven’t even matched your vowels.
You’ll have to rework this some dozen times.”

And this translation is itself a reworking. In my original version the second and fourth lines were “Are those the best rhymes you can muster?” and “You’ll have to start all over, Buster.” Livelier but too colloquial.