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Portrait of God

drawn from Scripture

by François-René de Chateaubriand (1768-1848), translated by Adam Sedia

Know you the jealous God, who dare engage
In sin, whose impious deeds ignite his rage?
His flaming chariot courses far through space;
Death and the Demon flee before his face;
Trembling, the Threefold Heavens’ immensity
Fall at the feet of His eternity:
The paling sun, the bloody moon advance
Before the glow thrown from His burning lance;
He bids night burst forth from the chasms of hell,
He speaks, all worlds fall mute; His eyes repel
The sea, and the Abyss’s storm-churned deep
Can only raise cowed hands to Him and weep.
When crime is crowned this same God answers “Curse!”
Who blesses pains the patient soul endures!

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Original French

PEINTURE DE DIEU.
tirée de l’écriture.

Paris, 1810.
Savez-vous, ô pécheur ! quel est ce Dieu jaloux
Quand l’œuvre de l’impie allume son courroux ?
Sur un char foudroyant il roule dans l’espace ;
La Mort et le Démon volent devant sa face ;
Les trois cieux, dont il fait trembler l’immensité,
S’abaissent sous les pas de son éternité :
Le soleil pâlissant et la lune sanglante
Marchent à la lueur de sa lance brûlante ;
Des gouffres de l’enfer il fait sortir la nuit ;
Il parle, tout se tait ; la mer le voit, et fuit,
Et l’Abîme, du fond des vagues tourmentées,
Lève en criant vers lui ses mains épouvantées.
Au crime couronné ce Dieu redit : «Malheur !»
Et c’est le même Dieu qui bénit la douleur !

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Sonnet

by José de Espronceda (1808-1842), translated by Adam Sedia

You plunge cascading, wavy fount, in falls
With a sonorous yet harmonious crash;
A crystal bed on golden sands, you flash;
Your currents pool, a haven where life stalls.

Your shores’ pure ambience, hemmed by forest-walls,
Unites, joins to your softly plaintive splash
The hymn bird-choirs raise as they flit and dash,
The all-surrounding echo’s ringing calls.

Hail, mansion formerly of my delight.
Hail, cherished gift of my enamored soul,
My Glory’s temple in far-distant days.

Despised and sad, I seek once more your sight;
There to emerge from these misfortunes whole,
With bliss I once enjoyed beneath your gaze.

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Original Spanish

Soneto

Bajas de la cascada, undosa Fuente
con armónico estrépito sonoro
y, en lecho de cristal y arenas de oro,
forma quieto remanso tu corriente.

En tu emboscada margen, puro ambiente
une sus blandas quejas al canoro
himno que de las aves alza el coro,
y al eco en torno resonar se siente.

Salve, mansión que mis delicias fuiste,
regalo de mi alma enamorada,
templo otro tiempo de la Gloria mía.

Vuelvo a encontrarte desdeñado y triste,
Y en desventuras mirarás trocada
La dicha que gozar me viste un día.

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To Night

by José de Espronceda (1808-1842), translated by Adam Sedia

Entombed in a lugubrious quietude,
The seas, the skies, the land, the wind lie still;
The moon floats upward lazily until
It lights amid the mourning stars’ vast brood.
The shepherd sleeps, his happiness renewed,
Amid his flock, the birds have ceased their trill,
And the night’s sleepy mantle comes to fill
Man with rest from his cares, so long accrued.
Hail, moon! Long life to you, nocturnal veil,
The blissful lover’s ultimate desire;
Forever may your heaven-shroud prevail,
And never may the wide earth’s smallest part,
While illumined by Phoebus’s radiant fire,
Behold my tears, the sadness of my heart.

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Original Spanish

A la Noche

En lúgubre silencio sepultados
yacen los mares, cielo, tierra y viento;
la luna va con tardo movimiento
por medio de los astros enlutados.
Duerme el feliz pastor con sus ganados,
paran las aves su canoro acento,
y de la noche el manto soñoliento
al hombre da descanso en sus cuidados.
¡Salve, oh luna! Salud, nocturno velo,
tan deseado del dichoso amante;
así entoldases siempre el alto cielo,
y de Febo jamás la luz radiante,
iluminado el espacioso suelo,
viese mi llanto triste e incesante.

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7 Responses

  1. Margaret Coats

    You’ve done a marvelous job of ending the Chateaubriand translation just as the French author does, with rhyme words that both seem threatening to poor humans, although they deal with very different judgments from the same God who curses and blesses. In the first line of the poem, you risk that the reader seeing “who” after “God” will think “God” is its antecedent–but your second-person “dare” immediately shows who the “who” is. This was a line where the French Alexandrine had more in it than you could transfer to an English pentameter line, but the subject is one where the reader should be applying his full attention.

    In the fountain sonnet, I admire your choice of “with bliss” for the final line; I would have said “in bliss,” but the Spanish meanings of “dicha” clearly allow this bliss to be a person. Here is a place where a preposition choice truly changes the feeling created; the fountain could have been one of those paradisal retreats in solitude. I do, however, wonder why you have two verbs (“unites,” “joins”) and two “the’s” for the birdsong and echo commingled with the fountain’s “softly plaintive splash.” I think this creates confusion at line 8, where “ringing” could be a noun and “calls” a verb, making that line a fragment floating away from the rest of the quatrain. Why not just say “And all-surrounding echo’s ringing calls,” as does the Spanish “y”?

    In “To Night,” you succeed in the challenge posed by the Spanish poet, to make night most desired by both the blissful lover and the sad speaker–and to distinguish the two of them in the words of the sestet. It would be good, though, to have a semi-colon after “flock,” making it clear that the shepherd is, and the birds are not, amid the flock.

    Overall, these poems show wonderful aplomb in introducing to readers of English these intriguing works by little known poets!

    Reply
    • Adam Sedia

      Dr. Coats —

      Thank you for taking the time to read and consider my work, as well as for your insightful comments. I agree that the French Alexandrine meter is more fertile; I originally experimented with keeping the meter, but found that standard iambic pentameter worked best in English. I had to “play around” with the Chateaubriand quite a bit to arrive at something that I found satisfactory. I’m thrilled that you enjoyed it.

      As for both Espronceda poems, I had the hardest time with the stanza with the issues you identify. It’s interesting that that’s apparent to the reader. I chose two nominal phrases to have both serve as the object of “unite,” to keep the flow of thought through the stanza. In the end, I agree that making “calls” a verb is more consistent with “se siente” in the original. I also, on reflection, prefer your suggested “in bliss” to “with bliss.” (I did not intend “with” to personify “bliss,” and I don’t mind the double entendre, but I do think “in” sounds better.)

      Again, thank you for the insightful, encouraging, and helpful words.

      Reply
      • Margaret Coats

        Thanks for confirming my opinion! Iambic pentameter does usually work better in English poems than does an attempt to render French Alexandrines in hexameter. I’ve made English versions of three or four French Alexandrine sonnets in both hexameter and pentameter, and proved the point to myself. Here you chose a stunning example of French Scriptural paraphrase, and your English reproduces Chateaubriand’s powerful but not heavy effects.

  2. C.B. Anderson

    I apologize for coming so late to the party, but your translations read just as well as an original versions might. What I mean to say is that your translations are stand-alone poems, whether you want them to be or not. I am not fluent in either French or Spanish, but I trust your fidelity to the original texts. Your profession must certainly require that you adhere to the highest standards of probity. It was a good read.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      From my point of view, verse translations should be good stand-alone English poems. If an exact translation is wanted, the translator should give up form and write in prose. And I have news for that exacticist–even a prose translation never picks up all the word meaning or turns of phrase or underlying associations in the original. Therefore, why not translate some of the music (form) as well as most of the words (meaning)?

      Reply
  3. Cynthia Erlandson

    These are all exquisite, Adam! I especially appreciate “Portrait of God”, in that it is bold to portray the powerful side of God that is so rarely contemplated, compared to the more common, impotent-grandfather-in-the-sky image of Him.

    Reply
  4. BDW

    I know well how hard it is to translate poetry from one language into another; and, as Ms. Coats suggests it is an impossibility to bring/wring a poem from one language completely into another. And yet, the person who does so is, as Goethe suggests, a blessing to his language. The translator is like an explorer and discoverer of unknown lands, who shares the treasures that he or she finds. Because I have never felt the urge to translate Chateaubriand or Espronceda, I wonder why Mr. Sedia chose these two Romantic (1800-1850) poets. [I do think his best poetry relies on Romantic imagery.] Though, unlike Mr. Anderson, I never feel a translation is the equal of the original, still I think it is so important for the poet to translate poets of other cultures to more keenly appreciate those qualities missing from his or her own linguistic culture. Part of that profundity (or shallowness) can then be brought into one’s own poetry

    For the grand poet, if it is not essential, it is very nearly required to do translations. How many great poets of the last three millennia have no familiarity of poetry of other languages? This is why Mr. Sedia is on his way, first, with his criticism, and second, with his translations—both vital to the accomplished poet. This is why I am intrigued at anything Mr. Sedia may uncover in his researches. Indeed, I wonder if he may have uncovered anything substantial in his investigations of 2020.

    I have since given up on translations of complete works, but ever am I working on and borrowing phrases from other language poets and prose writers: this week, in my poem published here on Donald Trump, which concludes with quotes from Schopenhauer and Galileo. Also because I wrote so much on censorship this week, I used poetic imagery from a poem by Varlam Shalamov (1907-1982).

    Here is a poem of many years ago, which doesn’t claim to be a translation, but draws rather heavily upon the poem “A Noche” by Lope de Vega (1562-1635) on night that I wrote in iambic hexameters in a form I invented—the bilding—of interlocking terza rima. I have found iambic hexameters have some qualities lacking
    in iambic pentameters

    To Night

    Oh, lovely Night, you fabricator of the Day,
    embellishing our world with your crazed sleights of hand.
    You send the bright, full moon to light our merry way;
    and mountains flatten, seas dry up, at your command.
    Oh, you inhabitor of hollow, empty minds,
    you alchemist of Love, sweet chimera unmanned,
    although you cannot see, because you’ve closed the blinds,
    we are enamored of the beauties that you bring.
    Your works are dark, and stark, though they’re amazing finds;
    they leave us cold and cautious, weary, wondering.
    Half of my life is yours, whether I sleep or wake;
    asleep, I’m unaware, awake, I’m wandering.

    Reply

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