(translated from the French of Louise Labé.  The original below)


I live, I die.  I burn, I drown.
Enduring cold, I am most hot.
Life is too hard, and it’s too soft.
Joy insinuates when I am down.

I can weep suddenly, or be a clown;
Know torment and take pleasure in the lot.
It flees, yet it endures, what wealth I’ve got.
I am a desert, yet in green abound.

So love takes me to and fro
That in my deepest misery
The pain is gone before I know.

And when I’m confident the glow of
Happiness will last forever at its apogee–
I am reduced again to my first woe.

____________________________copyright Cynthia Jobin, 2014


Je vis, je meurs:  je me brule et  me noye.
J’ay chaut estreme en endurant froidure:
La vie m’est et trop molle et drop dure.
J’ay grans ennuis entremeslez de joye:

Tout à un coup je ris et je larmoye,
Et en plaisir maint grief tourment j’endure:
Mon bien s’en va, et à jamais il dure:
Tout en un coup je seiche et je verdoye.

Ainsi Amour inconstamment me meine:
Et quand je pense avoir plus de douleur,
Sans y penser je me treuve hors de peine.

Puis quand je croy ma joye estre certeine,
Et estre au haut de mon désiré heur,
Il me remet en mon premier malheur.



This sonnet is in the typical petrarchist manner of a “sonnet of antitheses”.
As noted before, (see SONNET II, archives, Feb. 5, 2014), many translations of Louise Labé’s poetry already exist—some almost transliterations, others keeping close to lexical meaning but with little or no attention to the petrarchan poetic form she employed.  What I have attempted is to make a poem from a poem.
Source:  1556 text in Renaissance French, from Franc̡ois Rigolot’s  Louise Labé:  Oeuvres Complètes.



33 responses »

    • Thank you, Ina. The website–and book–you refer to above, is one among several that sprang up in the recent past…most of them written, I’m sorry to say, with a feminist axe to grind. A woman named Annie Finch has translated the sonnets in this one. I present her version of Sonnet VIII here for the fun of comparison. You’re a poet; you be the judge.

      Sonnet VIII

      (translated by Annie Finch)

      I live, I die; I burn and I also drown.
      I’m utterly hot and all I feel is cold.
      Life is too soft and too hard for me to hold;
      my joy and my heavy burden are mixed in one.
      I laugh at the same time that I weep and frown;
      the tarnish of grief has marred my pleasure’s gold;
      my good flies away, but stays until it’s old;
      I wither just as I find out that I’ve grown.
      This is how love guides me, so changeably
      that when I think the pain has me controlled
      with my very next thought I find that I am free
      then just as I trust in joy so certainly
      that peak of a yearned-for hour makes me bold,
      he shows me my familiar grief unfold.

      • Hi Cynthia. I’m not very good in French, so I don’t know why it is “noye” here, I learnt that it is “je noie” in the present tense, (I drown) but maybe it is one of those grammar things I forgot. 🙂 and why is it she says “chaut” rather than “chaud’ ? The rhyme abba abba cdc cee seems to be kept in both translations as well as possible, I think Finch in her translation tried to keep the ten syllabics, but then why she has used “also” in the first line, I don’t know or perhaps she pronounced French differently, thus thinking she needed eleven syllabics? You made a poem of a poem and you did a great job, and I also like the translation by Finch. I tried to do it too (of course I would lol) :

        I live, I die, I burn myself and drown.
        I feel extremely hot while I’m to freeze.
        My life’s too hard and much too soft to please.
        I’m happy now and at the same time down.

        I, in one and the same moment, laugh and frown.
        I am tormented and I am at ease.
        My wealth be gone, I’ll take it till it flees.
        In one and the same moment I am done.

        This way that Amor throws me here and there
        making me think that pain is never gone at all
        and that my misery starts fading in thin air.

        And when I am so certain I have won the fight
        believing I have won it afteralll,
        I’m back in misery and back to fall.


        • Well, Ina, you are an amazement! To answer some of your thoughts with my thoughts:
          —the French here is from the 16th century, and different from what you and I learned in school. For example, “y”, instead of “”I”, “t” instead of “d”, “s” instead of “x”, “ez” instead of “é”, etc….etc. So it’s not a question of your French, but Louise’s French.
          You’re right that Finch kept to the abba pattern, but she didn’t keep to the meter–mostly iambic, with masculine line endings. She also didn’t t keep to the ten-syllable line (neither did I, and neither did you!). What I really object to in Finch’s version, is that she created her own metaphor (taint and gold) just to make her rhyme– an image that doesn’t exist in the original. If Finch was trying to make a good English poem, I believe she failed.
          I won’t be so foolish as to pass judgement on your version except to say that it’s more literal and prosaic than mine, and more poetic than Finch’s. In the end we must say as the French do: “Chacun à son gout!”

          • Ah, that is why the French came across as strange lol. I had no idea it was that old 🙂 (I should have read the year 1556 in your posting! Well it was fun and I had to look up some French words, so that is good for learning 🙂 I think the original Amour is Amor, the god, perhaps. Not sure! 🙂

            • You’re probably right about Amour and Amor. In some of her prose writings Louise personifies these things, and employs several Latin pagan gods, like Apollo, Cupid, Jupiter…It was the custom in her time to give amour a capital letter and turn it into a kind of godlike personage….translation is fun, n’est-ce pas?

              • Well it is, but I realise one should know something of the background of the poet 🙂 I met a woman, a writer in Leeds, who told me that poetry can not be translated. She was very sure about that but some good translations are better than the original perhaps. Translating poetry means a lot more than meets the eye 🙂 and you do it very well!

  1. Cynthia, I can only wish I had the gift of translation, but, alas! I only know English. My French teacher in high school used to get so exasperated at me she would throw an eraser at my head, although, I have to admit, she always missed. At the time I thought she missed because she had lousy aim, but now I suspect she missed on purpose, though she did have a volcanic temper.
    What I see in your translation is a stark antithesis that is almost spartan in its use of language. The translation by Annie Finch is richer in some ways, at least in its use of language, but the meaning is not so immediate as in your translation. The meaning you derive from the poem is different too. The Finch translation makes the poem seem as if it is a complaint. No matter how hard I work to find joy, my joy turns around into sorrow. There is more of a pathos in your translation:
    And when I’m confident the glow of
    Happiness will last forever at its apogee–
    I am reduced again to my first woe.
    Happiness comes in life, but when it comes, the “first woe,” the woe underlying all of life, reduces the poet to what they were before the happiness or love or pleasure takes transcendence for a period of time. There is a fatalistic strain in your translation that is not in the Finch translation. I liked seeing both translations. I am glad you provided one to Ina. It was interesting, especially as I puzzled my way with great pain, and inaccurate understanding I’m sure, through the original French version.

    • Well, Thomas, having been a teacher of French in secondary school many years ago, I can understand that blackboard-eraser projectile. I never threw one, but at times was mightily tempted to do so! Thank you for your comment here, as always.

  2. Such a challenge you set yourself Cynthia but you’ve brought us a beautiful version of a moving original. I love particularly your rendition of the opening line of the sestet.
    I wonder if you could be tempted to give us a translation of Jean Passerat’s Villanelle. I love it but I’m never sure that I’ve properly understood the Renaissance French.

    • There are quite a few ways, it seems, to look at what a translator does. I have always loved Richard Wilbur’s translations from the French, because he is not just a linguist, he is a fine poet. My bias is that “it takes one to know one.”….about the Passerat villanelle, yes, I could be tempted to try it, but it’s been done so much, and it’s such a spare thing, I wonder if there’s any room for more! Thank you, John, for that remark about the “volta” above, and of course for your constant encouragement.

  3. Cynth, Good one. Really sticks to the gut and I love the other reactions too. Would you consider a book? Too many are never published. G&L classics are being retranslated all of the time.

    • Hello, my friend…your opinion is valuable to me, on this score, polyglot and scholar that you are! There’s never really an ultimate or final translation, is there? As you and I know, it’s impossible. I am, on and off, working through Louise’s 24 extant sonnets—maybe for a book….who knows? En tout cas, merci bien!

  4. Cynthia: Such a labor and quite a poem – one which demands more than one reading. Thank you for bringing it, with its sadness and contrasts to us. I am amazed by the ancient French which differs so from much the French which I once knew and spoke, the emotions however are just as topical and real as they appear to have been 450 years ago. Writing is an enduring legacy – thank you

    • Jane! I thought you were somebody else! (Lovely New gravatar!) The French of the 16th century is somewhat different from what we know, but not as indecipherable as that of much earlier times; enough exposure, and it all begins to make sense . Merci, mon amie!

  5. Cynthia, as I have said before I know nothing of all this! But I do know your translation flows perfectly and is so superior to that of Annie Finch! In my opinion of course! You tackle some challenging stuff and I have huge admiration for you and your skills.

    • Dear Christine, It is precisely because you are not with the veterans of the jaded, academic, jargonized silly people who do this stuff all the time, that I highly value your response and opinion. You come openly, as an intelligent human being, with a “take” based in the real… me, this is priceless. Thank you, my friend.

      • 😊 As always Cynthia you have brought a smile to my face; I love your gentle, sensitive, intellectual sense of humour.

        I passed my first and only very basic French exam (O level in the UK) when I was 34! I think if you had been my french teacher in secondary school I may have been a target for your potential hurtling rubber!!

  6. This is really quite beautiful Cynthia, and speaks to me of the roller-coaster of emotions most of us have in this life. If only it could be smoother! But, sometimes I wonder, if life and our reaction to the circumstances were less bumpy, maybe it would be a little dull. Maybe we need that ‘Life is too hard, and it’s too soft’ to appreciate and understand those feelings much more! 🙂

    • Hello, Suzy…I think you are right in your observations, and it seems that the French lady who is the originator of the thoughts in this poem was saying much the same, 450 years ago! Thank you for your visit and lovely comment.

  7. Delicious!
    I doubt that my French will ever get to your level. Yet, I keep working away… I would like to be able to translate enough of my own pieces to put out a bilingual book but I seem to be running into a stone (not brick around here) wall. 🙂 x

    • The thing is, you have to flip your mind into a slightly different channel, and that isn’t easy. I’m okay with reading and writing, but if I had to converse now, I’d be very rusty, from lack of practice…then my tongue, teeth and throat would be sore from using different muscles! My French is mostly school French, but it goes way back to kindergarten so it was ingrained at an early age by Quebecois nuns. As I’ve said to others, I thought God spoke only French, back then, because that’s the language we used in learning catechism and prayers! Anyway, translating Louise is a fun project….I don’t know where I’ll take it…..and I wish you luck with your own. keep at it! Bon Courage!

      • That is why I encouraged my children to learn another language. They all know some ASL and some know more Spanish than others but all know some with the youngest fluent. My older son speaks Chinese which he “picked up” at work…
        Starting later in life is a challenge but I’m not giving up. Thank you!

  8. Cynthia, I just loved this poem. It so well describes life’s ups and downs and the complexities of our emotions, that awful roller coaster. I related to it and was also taken by your word choices and the rhythm. It’s good to read poems like this.

  9. Hello Cynthia, I can relate to this poem. As for the French, I wish I had learnt it (surely, a thing to be done in the future, as one says learning never ends). Anyway, English is fine for now, and I like this poem you have translated.

    • It does enrich life to know more than one language–I guess you know that yourself–because no two languages are exactly the same in thought. Translation is a most interesting and valuable exercise but can never be perfectly identical to the original. Some people say that poetry cannot be translated, and in one way they are right. But if we try to get as close as we can to the original thought and feeling–like every attempt at communication– the world may be richer for it. Thank you for your visit and comment, Ramu!

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