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“Tomorrow, at Dawn” Sung in English

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“Tomorrow, at Dawn” Sung in French

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Tomorrow, at Dawn

by Victor Hugo (1802-1885)
Translation by James A. Tweedie

Tomorrow, when the countryside is kissed by dawn,
I’ll leave. For you are waiting there for me I know.
Through forests, over mountains I will journey on;
For we have been apart too long—I miss you so.

And I will walk with eyes so fixed upon my thoughts
That outside sounds and sights I’ll neither hear nor see.
Alone, unknown, back bent, hands crossed as tight as knots,
And sad, so that the day will seem as night to me.

I will not heed the sunset’s gold at close of day
Or note the distant sails descending on Harfleur.
When I at last arrive, upon your grave I’ll lay
Green holly and the finest heather in full flower.

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Demain, dès l’Aube

Demain, à l’heure où blanchit la campagne,
Je partirai. Vois-tu, je sais que tu m’attends.
J’irai par la forêt, j’irai par la montagne.
Je ne puis demeurer loin de toi plus longtemps.

Je marcherai les yeux fixés sur mes pensées,
Sans rien voir au dehors, sans entendre aucun bruit,
Seul, inconnu, le dos courbé, les mains croisées,
Triste, et le jour pour moi sera comme la nuit.

Je ne regarderai ni l’or du soir qui tombe,
Ni les voiles au loin descendant vers Harfleur,
Et quand j’arriverai, je mettrai sur ta tombe
Un bouquet de houx vert et de bruyère en fleur.

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Translator’s note: The French novelist, Victor Hugo, 1802-1885—famous for Le Miserables, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame—was also among the most admired poets of his generation. His poem, “Demain, dès l’aube,” is, arguably, his most well-known and beloved poem. The poem is in three stanzas each comprised of four Alexandrine lines with alternating rhymes (abab). The first stanza is written in such a way that allows it to be interpreted as being a man traveling to visit his lover after a time of separation. It is then revealed that the poem’s true meaning is to describe Hugo’s journey from Paris to Harfleur (a village adjacent to La Havre) to visit the grave of his eldest daughter, Leopoldine, who died in 1843 at the age of 19—drowned in the Seine along with her husband in a boating accident. As translator, I have made it my priority to render the meaning of the poem into English while following the poetic form of rhyme and meter as closely as possible. Doing this required several minor changes to the literal reading of the text (most notably in line 4) with the guiding principle being to consider how Hugo himself might have composed the poem if he had been writing it in English. I am more than satisfied that my efforts have been successful. In translating, I used my own knowledge of the French language, my skill as a formal English poet along with a number of French-to-English translation programs on the internet. A marvelous essay on the origins and history of the poem as well as a line-by-line critical commentary can be found online here.

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James A. Tweedie is a retired pastor living in Long Beach, Washington. He has written and published six novels, one collection of short stories, and three collections of poetry including Mostly Sonnets, all with Dunecrest Press. His poems have been published nationally and internationally in The Lyric, Poetry Salzburg (Austria) Review, California Quarterly, Asses of Parnassus, Lighten Up Online, Better than Starbucks, WestWard Quarterly, Society of Classical Poets, and The Chained Muse.


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10 Responses

  1. DONALD PETER McCRORY

    A truly beautiful and deeply moving translation of a poem that I had not read before! So I have to thank you James for alerting me to such a text. I am sure that many readers will write a thankyou- comment, and desrvedly so. Maybe you could add another V.HUGO poem soon?

    Reply
  2. Paul Freeman

    Nicely done.

    Thanks for an entertaining listen and a fine read.

    Reply
  3. Cheryl Corey

    My French is very rusty, but I had fun trying to translate as I compared it to what you’ve written. Your version stands as an excellent poem in its own right.

    Reply
  4. Margaret Coats

    Congratulations, James, on a beautiful rendering of this poem in English. Rarely do English hexameters maintain their flow so well, and it seems to me you have done this by careful phrasing in which regular accent always falls on more important syllables. That is masterful construction. There is a little waver only at the final word (“flower” often pronounced as two syllables rather than the one regular in your meter). But that is appropriate. Hugo set translators an impossible challenge in the last stanza with both rhymes identical. Your final imperfect rhyme word is also possibly feminine, which emphasizes the end of the poem as do Hugo’s double identical rhymes. And your last two lines ending “lay” and “flower” contribute an aura of rest at the end of a ritual.

    I will, however, disagree that the first stanza can be read as if the speaker’s journey anticipates a happy meeting. The very title contradicts any notion that this is an aubade, or dawn song of lovers. That kind of lyric unwillingly ends a night of love at dawn, while Hugo’s poem is not about love, the night, or dawn. He is talking about what happens tomorrow FROM dawn. That doesn’t mean I want you to change your English title. You know what he’s saying and you manage it your way. Your interpretation leads you to having dawn kiss the countryside, and that first line is thus the one that departs most from the French, where the countryside simply whitens. The word “dawn” is not in the French poem, only in the title. This is Hugo’s anti-aubade. And your poem presents that sad idea in “the day will seem as night to me.” This would be pleasant to an aubade speaker. In your poem and Hugo’s, it’s supremely sad.

    You’ve caught Hugo’s meaning and the music, and put in a bit of your own interpretation, as translators must do. It is your English poem, and a splendid one!

    Reply
    • James A. Tweedie

      Margaret, As always I appreciate your careful, thoughtful and cogent comment. However, I must make it clear that my reference to the opening lines suggesting the possibility of a trip to reunite with a living lover or friend is not original to me, but is the near-universal opinion of those who have written of the poem. Both English and French critics agree on this. Here are two examples:

      “La première strophe de « Demain dès l’aube » suggère que le poète s’adresse à une femme aimée et vivante qu’il est impatient de rejoindre.” Amélie Vioux

      “First, the poet takes us for a walk through Normandy’s countryside. The destination of the journey is a mystery: one first imagines a lover’s date… but the poem will unravel a meaning much deeper to the poet’s heart.” Camille Chevalier-Karfis

      As for the first line’s use of the poetic phrase “kissed by dawn” in place of “whitening” the word seemed directly referential to the title which Hugo gave to the poem. As I mention, it is the fourth line in the first stanza where I took some liberties that stray from the literal to an equivalency.

      Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

      Reply
      • Margaret Coats

        James, I challenge the romanticist conformist critics of this poem because they pay so little attention to its actual words or to the lyric genre to which the poem belongs. All of the initial misreaders must admit they are wrong before they get halfway through the poem, and even more so when they pay any attention to its place in the author’s life.

  5. David Watt

    James, the scholarly work you put in to translate this beautiful poem has paid off handsomely in the form of an equally fine poem.. Victor Hugo deserves more recognition as a poet. I suppose that being an outstanding novelist tends to overshadow Hugo’s additional talents.

    Reply

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