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May 03, 2016
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Translating the Fables of La Fontaine: A Creative Linguistic Challenge

Everyone has an urge to be creative. It’s important, though, to recognize one’s proper medium. I’ve picked up paintbrushes, cameras and sketchpads. I’ve satisfied my brief obsession with quilting with the completion of one potholder. And I finally had to admit that my medium is words.

But that still left one big question: What would I write about? Inspiration came only rarely. And I wasn’t sufficiently pleased with my occasional poetic effusions to write them down (a failure I still regret). Then, in 1998, the answer came to me. I had just attended my high school class’s 50th-year reunion — my first ever — and I recalled how in French class we had had to memorize the first few fables of the 17th-century poet Jean de La Fontaine. I could still recite them. Why not try to translate them, aiming to approximate not just their sense but also their meter and rhyme schemes? That would be a fun game. Better yet, since La Fontaine had published the fables in twelve separate books, if I committed myself to finishing one book a year I would have a project that would carry me to the age of eighty. And so I was launched. I kept to my schedule, only allowing myself extra time for Book XII because it was twice as long as the longest of the preceding books.

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.

In that case I knew which version to choose. But I still haven’t made up my mind about the last two lines of the poem. In one version I liked the first line better: “You fussy folk are doomed to discontent./You can’t be satisfied; at last that’s evident.” In another version I liked the second line better: “ You fussy folk know only groans and sighing./ You can’t be satisfied; there’s no use trying.” Which do you prefer?

Occasionally, though, I was lucky enough to find a wording that was even better than the original French. My favorite example is “Cross my heart” as a rendering of “Sans mentir” (without lying) in the fable “The Crow and the Fox” (Book I, Fable II). The meter is a perfect match and the language is far more expressive. But my luck didn’t last for the rest of the poem. As anyone who also had to memorize it will recognize, the meter at the end departs widely from the original. Here is my translation in full:

Perched on a treetop, behold Master Crow
With his mouth crammed full of cheese.
Lured by the scent, Master Fox sits below
And sounds him with pleasantries.
“Greetings. M’lord” is his studied homage.
“Aren’t you the handsome fellow.
A voice to match such splendid plumage
Must be both sweet and mellow.
Cross my heart, you’ve got to be
The height of vocal glory
Deserving of celebrity
Throughout this territory.”
It works: the crow just has to show
How gorgeous he can sound.
He shapes his mouth into an O.
The cheese falls to the ground.
Fox seizes it and smirks “Dear sir,
Here’s valuable advice.
To learn to distrust a flatterer
A cheese is a trifling price.”
Wracked with confusion, shame and pain,
Crow views his sorry state
And vows he’ll not be tricked again
Just a bit too late.

Eventually the project was completed and I was emboldened to send a sample of my work to the distinguished poet/translator Richard Wilbur. I couldn’t have been more thrilled when he responded that I “stand up very well to the competition.” But now I face the most daunting challenge of all: how to find the right publisher.