(A translation from the French of Louise Labé, 16th century. Original given below)


Lute, dear companion of my discontent,
Innocent witness to my sighs,
Fair steward of my sad outcries,
How often you have joined in my lament.

So bothered by my mood’s descent
That having once begun to improvise
A happy tune you suddenly revise it,
Mimicking my plaintive instrument.

And should I bid you play a major key
You hold back, in the minor, silence me–
Seeing how I sigh so tenderly again

You give expression to my tale of woe
And I am held back from self-pity in the hope
Your sadness brings my sadness to an end.

____________________________________________© Cynthia Jobin 2015



Lut, compagnon de ma calamité,
De mes soupires témoin irreprochablle,
De mes ennuis controlleur veritable,
Tu as souvent avec moy lamenté:

Et tant le pleur piteus t’a molesté,
Que commençant quelque son delectable,
Tu le rendois tout soudein lamentable,
Feignant le ton que plein avait chanté.

Et si te veus efforcer au contraire,
Tu te destens et si me contreins taire:
Mais me voyant tendrement soupirer,

Donnant faveur à ma tant triste pleinte:
En mes ennuis me plaire suis contreinte,
Et d’un dous mal douce fin esperer.

______________________________________Louise Labé:Oeuvres Complètes,par François Rigolot


Some of my other translations of the Labé sonnets: search TRANSLATIONS above for category archives.

42 responses »

    • I assume from the start the impossibility of translating a poem exactly. There is much about natural language that is peculiar to time and place, and ineffable to another time and place. But the challenge remains—for someone like me—to try and transport a kind of essence and quality of thought from one language to another. There are other translations of Labé to be found on the internet. They did not satisfy me, for what I see as their lack of understanding, and their clumsy prosody. In working my translations, my intent is to pay careful attention to lexical meaning, but to take it into making a poem as well. A poem from a poem. Thank you for your interest!

      • I agree with your methodology. I thought you also did a very good job of capturing the overall intent and spirit of the poem, though I thought the French was darker, more pessimistic, more modern, and more cynical.

        I actually thought your translation was more likeable than the original in that sense.

    • No, Barbara, it’s not about my sadness, but Louise’s! Her poetry is very emotional, always exercised about something…mostly the ups and downs of her love life. She wrote twenty-four sonnets, in all, at a time when few women were doing that.(Some scholars want us to believe she was really the pseudonym of a male poet). She also wrote a series of elegies. I’ve been translating the sonnets, a bit at a time. Some of them are “a bit much!” 🙂

  1. Another very clever translation Cynthia. I would love to be able co do this but a mere O level in French leaves a great deal to be desired for a translation process.

    Strange though it may sound I cannot bear to hear music in the minor key; it upsets me to the point of wincing. And one of our grandchildren is the same and has been so since he was 2! We have to be very careful what music we play when he is around. He is now 4😊

    • From what I’ve read about harmonics, we of western culture associate the minor key with sadness, or “I want out!”. Some explain it as overtones of dissonance when the major third is lowered a half tone. Most studies of psychomusical effects conclude that our sense of sadness in minor keys is not innate or universal ( for example, the traditional music played at a Japanese wedding would have us weeping buckets with foreboding, but to them it’s full of promise!), but these. feelings are learned from our conventional environment. They say a baby in the womb can hear music played outside of the womb, so…..what was your little fellow’s mother singing or playing while expectant?

      I became interested in all this many years ago when someone in theatre arts told me my voice was in a minor key. I do like sad music sometimes, when I feel sad. And I remember a fad around here, of expectant mothers being told to listen to classical music so their babies would be smarter…hah! 🙂

      • I find all this stuff fascinating. I know I, too. like to listen to sad sounding music when I feel sad but it has to be major key sad!! 😊. I will have to ask Janette what music she played while Theo was snuggled up inside her. I know some of it made him move around. He was probably wincing like me!! 😄

  2. I’m stumped by some of the medieval French (is that a modern English-English cricket expression?). I’m foxed by it (maybe that’s no better!). But I do unreservedly relish your modern version Cynthia. That’s a truly beautiful poem. Controlled but natural. Congratulations!

    • I agree that this one is a thorny thicket, John! To figure out when she is using which person singular is nigh impossible from the verb endings—which is the kind of clue we rely on today. After studying the decisions made by two other translators, I have followed my own hunches. 🙂

      I seem to remember a certain native Frenchman, Monsieur Guilloton, professor of French Literature, who was very concerned that our collegiate minds of mush should understand the difference in medieval French between the “langue d’oil” and the “langue d’oc”, (oil and oc being the words for “yes”, north and south respectively). Langue d’oil (Paris) became the standard idiom on which modern French is based, and the langue d’oc (Marseilles), known as Provençal, was the idiom of the troubadours. Now Louise Labé was from Lyon—-midway between those two major cities! No wonder we are a bit foxed! I am slowly getting used to certain patterns, though, and hope that will carry me through all twenty-four sonnets. Thank you for that very nice compliment.

  3. Wow, this sent me on a memory trip into my ancient Oxford Book of French Verse (the edge of every page is gold-leaved and the closed book has a lovely feel). I am not familiar with Labé, there are four of her poems in this collection. She goes in for much sobbing and weeping – this is not a criticism, this is my kind of poetry. I love their conversational tone. I shall take the volume up to bed with me. Thank you… goodnight.

    • Good morning…rather, good afternoon to you, Hilary. I can just picture that lovely old book of yours. My Oxford Book of French Verse is a beat-up old darling from a bookstore remainder pile…still I love it dearly. Labé is an interesting subject. People feel free to speculate about a 16th century woman about whom the facts are scant—especially one who was a writer. There is a controversy, still, about whether or not she was just a courtesan and the poems actually written by a group of male poets under her name.(Shades of “who wrote Shakespeare”!!) The feminists also have adopted Labé as an icon for their own agenda. I became interested when I read some of their recent translations and found them awful. Now it’s another of my projects!

  4. It’s beautiful Cynthia – feel like the ying and yang of a relationship that is in perfect unison with each other. No matter the mood, the right companion always knows ~ at least that’s my take on your exquisite writing. Have a wonderful weekend ~

    • I love your take on this poem, Mary. It rekindled my belief that poetry may have as many meanings as there are readers. I wonder if the French lady who wrote it ever heard of the
      yin/yang idea? You have a good weekend, too. And thanks!

  5. Cynthia, so sad yet almost hauntingly beautiful. You have taken great care in your work. I’ve seen some translations that would bring tears to your eyes or perhaps raise your blood pressure? 😉 xx

    • Oh yes, Léa. I’ve seen those whoppers too. As a matter of fact, that’s what got me started on the translation of the Louise Labé sonnets! I figured I couldn’t do worse. 🙂

        • Well, Léa, Louise has been dead for almost 500 years now 🙂 You might find a book about her, if not her own book. That would probably be in a feminist anthology of some sort, or a scholarly work. She wrote in an old style of French that’s not always easy to understand today. There are things on the internet, if you want to know more. Just Google her! 🙂 Bonne chance!

          • Thank you Cynthia! I love adding to my budding collection of French poets. I do have one that has been around awhile, François Villon. They can be difficult, at least for me, but I do enjoy the challenge. Merci beaucoup!

  6. Louise Labe! Haven’t thought about her in years! I loved those poets in my 20s — the craft combining epigrammatic phrasing and the pulsing music — traits you clearly honour in this rendering! Such great pleasure!

  7. That’s quite a beautiful poem, and so genius of you to not only translate it but speak it in French too – wonderful!!♥ Don’t think I’ll be speaking any of mine in French! 😉 Although, having said that, it would be fascinating to know what it would sound like!! 😀 I can relate to what the poet is saying even though I don’t play the Lute or any instrument really. I do love the piano though, but never learned to play it properly – just improvisation and making my own music. So I’m guessing from this the Lute plays in minor key?

    You sent me on quite a trip Cynthia, ending on YouTube looking up major and minor. I have looked at information on it before but wanted to refresh my memory on the difference. I found some favourite songs of mine from the 70’s and 80’s remixed in major key (not quite sure how they do that) Sweet Dreams (Eurythmics) – We Will Rock You (Queen) both sound very weird in major key (like forced happiness – ugh!) Then found Hey Jude and Let It Be (The Beatles) remixed in minor key, again sounds weird, made me realise despite some sadness in there, how upbeat and happy sounding those Beatles were!

    I think I discovered I’m actually in the middle regarding major or minor, but I do love the minor. It can sound sad, but also intentionally powerful, aggressive or sardonic. All depends on the lyrics and the rhythm. Thank for the unintentional education!! 😀

    • Looks like all the chat about major and minor sent you googling…what fun. I too love “Hey Jude ” and “Let It Be”—in fact I love just about everything the Beatles did musically. I’m glad this was interesting to you, Suzy, and thank you for your wonderful, interesting comment in return! 🙂

  8. I’m not fluent in French, so cannot understand the French version, but your English version is so beautifully melancholy and so is your reading of it.

  9. Hello Cynthia, another beautiful “poem from a poem”. You have a very obvious talent for translation and rhyme and human experience all combined. When I read a translation of yours, I take it in deeply knowing the effort and something of the heart which wrote it.

  10. A lovely poem, Cynthia, and a very natural-sounding translation. I’m with Labé on the strangely soothing power of sad music – I have never come away from listening to a sad song feeling worse than beforehand, but usually a lot better.

  11. A lovely poem and the ensuing dialogue does it justice. Congratulations again dear Cynthia, I enjoyed my visit immensely. Today I had enough time to follow some of the links and love GolNaran’s drawings – very cool, very original and what texture! I am awed by your blog followers almost as much as by your own achievements. I feel quite ‘heady’, thank you.

    • Dear Jane, To borrow a phrase I learned from John Looker (Stevens), I am dead chuffed by what you’ve said here. I made a decision from the first not to feature a “community” blog roll because I wanted the poems to stand without distraction. But I was also hoping that comments would develop into conversations that might link readers to other readers…a more subtle way of making connections, and much more interesting than the constant bid for praise. I know from my stats that there is a lot of link-clicking going on, and that pleases me immensely. I suspect some folks come back here to read, as much for the comments as the poems….and that’s my idea of blogging. Thank you so much for always being an important part of the conversation, and for letting me know my hope is justified.

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