–a translation* from the French of Louise Labé, 16th century     (original included below)


O beautiful brown eyes, O looks that spurn,
O heated sighs, O tears spent as the rain,
O black nights I await in vain,
O glitterings of day vainly returned!

O sad complaint, O stubbornly what burns,
O lost time, O wind-blown pains,
O thousand deaths stretched ‘cross a thousand seines,
O worst of evils fate for me has churned!

O brain, brow, hair, arm, hand and finger!
O plaintive lute, viol, bow and singer!
So many torches to inflame a bitch!

I bemoan how all these fires to excite
These places licking at my heart ignite
In yours only a spark, the merest itch.


——————————-copyright 2014 Cynthia Jobin

O beaus yeus bruns, ô regards destournez,
O chaus soupirs, ô larmes espandues,
O noires nuits vainement atendues,
O jours luisans vainement retournez:

O tristes pleins, ô desirs obstinez,
O tems perdu, ô peines despendues,
O mile morts en mile rets tendues,
O pire maus contre moy destinez.

O ris, ô front, cheveus, bras, mains et doits:
O lut plaintif, viole, archet et vois:
Tant de flambeaus pour ardre une femmelle!

De toy me plein, que tant de feus portant,
En tant d’endrois d’iceus mon coeur tatant,
N’en est sur toy volé quelque étincelle.


*Labé was a cause célèbre among academic feminists of the later 20th century and many translations of her poetry are floating about the internet…most of them paying no attention to meter or rhyme and going for the closest lexical meaning of the original.  I have attempted here to make a poem from a poem.
The original is from the collection of poems first published in Lyon by Jean de Tournes in 1555 as corrected and amended in 1556 and collected by François Rigolot.(Lyon, Bibliothèque de la Ville, 391714: Bibliographie A2) in his definitive Louise Labé: Oeuvres Complètes Paris:  Flammarion,  2004

22 responses »

  1. Well Cynthia, I feel somewhat out of my depth here. As you know Im quite new to poetry and when I see something like this I hardly feel qualified to comment. But here goes. I think you have done a wonderful job with this translation, the poem flows beautifully (Im presuming that’s part of what meter is),. You are very clever to translate it, get the rhyme and rhythm in the translation and bring the whole poem together so beautifully. There! That’s me!

  2. Dear Cynthia, Quel tour de force!! I have read both your version and the original out loud several times in utter amazement! Your winter work with words is being so very fruitful. Thank you for sharing this challenge and taking it to a new level! I am so loving having this way to stay in contact.
    Thank you for this generosity of sharing you words.

    • You will chuckle to hear that one of the dictionaries I use was liberated from that long narrow departmental office on the third floor of the Admin. Building where “the big jewel” was perennially planted by the window, reading. I never meant to steal that dictionary, only borrowed it and never returned it…and now it’s way too late…I pretend that Ma Soeur is now in heaven and will accept this translation as atonement. So nice to see you visiting here, my friend.

    • What a nice compliment from a fellow translator! Thank you, Ina. I ”ve noticed that there are Dutch translations of this poet floating around the internet..( the translations are floating, that is, not Louise…)

  3. Thanks to you, Cynthia,

    It’s less French to me – and I mean this in a nice way.

    P/s Did the French version actually use the “b” word – 3rd line second stanza. It does say something aout ‘female’ I notice.

    • Hello Eric…I like your question. The closest translation of “femelle” would be “she-animal”. Other translators have used “female” ( more clinical), “woman” (femme) ; I don’t think any went so far as “lady” (dame). I chose the strong Anglo-Saxon “bitch” for connotations of something instinctual and maybe a tad carnivorous. I’m guessing that in the 16th century The “b-word” was used without the self-consciousness that we now find in polite company, or the lewd, demeaning way it’s now used in impolite company. That’s how I chose that word, and I’m really glad you asked! Translation is a fascinating balancing act. Thanks, Eric!

  4. Yes, a beautiful poem isn’t it Cynthia? Your translation was a great help to me though. I didn’t know Louise Labé but now I find several pages of her work in the Oxford Book of French Verse, immediately before that famous Villanelle by Jean Passerat, and I’ve just been reading them (although your help as a translator was sorely lacking). Are her other poems also much loved now?

    • I don’t know the answer to that last question, John, but I can tell you that wordpress stats for the number of viewers of this post since yesterday have gone through the roof. Funny you should mention the Oxford Book of French Verse—we obviously have different editions; mine (2nd edition) has Louise between Pontus De Tyard and Remi Belleau! I refer to her as “Louise” though we’re not yet on familiar terms…it’s just that I can’t get this tablet I’m using to do acute accents).

      I’ve translated a couple more of her sonnets (numbered differently by different sources) and really enjoy her poetry. It is intensely passionate; very much of the “Lyons School”–hostile to obscurity in thought and language, and strongly influenced by the cultivation of things Italian. In fact, her “petrarchan” sonnets may be seen as a feminine counterpart to Petrarch’ s own series devoted to “Laura”. I’m tempted to make a real project of translation here; I read there are 24 sonnets extant in all. But I don’t know…just don’t know yet. Thank you for your thought- inspiring comment!

      • It would be very interesting to see some further poems from her and your translations if you are working on them. My Oxford book has only three sonnets and an elegy. They are certainly passionate. I also like their directness – so I see what you mean about her hostility to obscurity; she’s long dead, but she’s refreshing.

  5. Beautiful poem and erudite translation! I am impressed and share some of your other fan’s urges that you share any others which you have undertaken. What a work to create a sonorous poetic translation of someone else’s work. My only caution is that you don’t let the time investment detract from your own very beautiful poetry. Keep ’em coming!

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