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Lament of the Little White Horse

by Paul Fort (1872-1960)
Translated by Joshua C. Frank

The little horse in the weather so dread,
What courage he had inside!
A little horse as white as white bread,
All behind and him ahead.

Of nice weather it never was said
In that poor countryside.
Every season was winter instead,
All behind and all ahead.

But happy always was he as he led
The village guys on a ride
Through the dark rain on the farmstead,
All behind and him ahead.

Those in his carriage saw just ahead
His small, pretty tail wave wide.
So content with his life, well-fed,
Them behind and him ahead.

But one day in the weather so dread,
With him well-behaved outside,
A bolt of white lightning struck him dead,
All behind and him ahead.

He died never seeing good weather ahead,
What courage he had inside!
He only saw the winter instead,
All behind and all ahead.

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Translator’s Note: This poem was popularized in France by the folk singer Georges Brassens (1921-1981) who set it to music and released it as “Le Petit Cheval” (“The Little Horse”) in 1952.  I put the line breaks after the rhyming syllables, matching Brassens’s written lyrics, rather than using Fort’s longer lines.  Also, I don’t know if it matters, but in a few places, the meter appears to be slightly off from the French version; this is because Brassens made a few elisions (“p’tit ch’val” instead of “petit cheval” in the first line, for example) to make it singable; I went with his elisions for internal consistency of meter in the translation.

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Original French

Le petit cheval dans le mauvais temps, qu’il avait donc du courage!
C’était un petit cheval blanc, tous derrière et lui devant.

Il n’y avait jamais de beau temps dans ce pauvre paysage.
Il n’y avait jamais de printemps, ni derrière ni devant.

Mais toujours il était content, menant les gars du village,
A travers la pluie noire des champs, tous derrière et lui devant.

Sa voiture allait poursuivant sa belle petite queue sauvage.
C’est alors qu’il était content, eux derrière et lui devant.

Mais un jour, dans le mauvais temps, un jour qu’il était si sage,
Il est mort par un éclair blanc, tous derrière et lui devant.

Il est mort sans voir le beau temps, qu’il avait donc du courage!
Il est mort sans voir le printemps ni derrière ni devant.

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Joshua C. Frank works in the field of statistics and lives near Austin, Texas. 


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11 Responses

  1. Jeff Eardley

    Joshua, thank you for this superb translation of a great song. The YouTube clip says it all. What a great songwriter and so nice to see Nana again. Our great English entertainer, Jake Thackray, modelled himself on Brassens and is worth checking out. He had a successful career but was plagued with self-doubt and died, a sad alcoholic in 2002. Brassens is lovely to listen to in French. I recall a happy bastille night in the lovely Normandy town of Honfleur, with hundreds of folk singing “Brother Gorilla” in the pouring rain. Thanks again for triggering a few happy memories.

    Reply
    • Joshua C. Frank

      Jeff, I’m glad you like the translation! Yes, Brassens was a very talented poet, and I love his ballads and his singing of classic French poems; a Frenchman introduced me to his music when I was 12. I’ll have to look into Thackray…

      Reply
  2. Paul Freeman

    I’ve just finished reading ‘Animal Farm’ and was reminded of Benjamin, the donkey who plodded on through life oblivious.

    My daughter’s studying French and appreciated both the French and English versions – and the video.

    Thanks for the read, Joshua.

    Reply
    • Joshua C. Frank

      Paul, I’m happy that your daughter appreciated both versions! I hadn’t thought of the Animal Farm angle, that’s interesting. For me, the closest analogy I could think of in the English-speaking world was “Puff the Magic Dragon,” because of the feeling of loss captured so well by the poet.

      Reply
  3. Brian Yapko

    Josh, this is a very enjoyable (albeit sad) poem which, if my college French still serves, is presented with general accuracy but which you also make yours by taking some poetic liberties such as the comparison of the white horse with “white bread” and the image of perpetual winter rather than “never spring.” While it may not be a word-for-word translation, I think your version captures Fort’s spirit and musicality in a way that a literal translation could not. It is indeed a sad story for that poor horse who, despite his courage, never really gets to live his life with the joy he deserves. I fully agree with your reference of “Puff the Magic Dragon” as it does have that aching sadness that feels like youth forever lost.

    Reply
    • Joshua C. Frank

      Yes, Brian, you’re absolutely right about the poetic liberties. My philosophy of translating poetry is to preserve the overall meaning of each idea, to preserve rhyme (a difficult proposition with some French poems!) and meter, and to write something in the style of the original poet that looks as though it had originally been written in English. All this is often at the expense of word-for-word and image-for-image accuracy, neither of which I think can be fully preserved anyway due to connotations and cultural associations with various images.

      I’m glad you like my version better than a literal translation.

      Reply
  4. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Josh, thank you for this treat of a translation. Yes, it’s sad, but it shines with the magical beauty that children (and adults like me) love. I’ve enjoyed your conversation with Brian on the poetic liberties taken to preserve and, I think, enhance the overall meaning. I wasn’t familiar with this song but can see the “Puff the Magic Dragon” connection… a favorite of mine as a little girl. Wonderful stuff!

    Reply
    • Joshua C. Frank

      Thank you, Susan, I’m so glad you like it, and the poetic liberties I took.

      The French have certainly agreed with you about the magical beauty that children love; the poem, after being set to music, became a children’s folk song over time, and is now as well-known among French-speaking children as “Puff the Magic Dragon” is among English-speaking children.

      Reply
  5. Margaret Coats

    Josh, I’d like to congratulate you on “a little horse as white as white bread.” This liberty with words reinforces both the symbolism and the theme of the poem. While I don’t know Paul Fort, I notice in looking him up that he was a symbolist. “White” in this song symbolizes the goodness and purity of humble beings content with the necessities of life (being well-fed) as they courageously live and work through dreadfully hard times. Fort’s other “white” (the lightning that kills the horse) can be seen as a pure blessing that flashes out of the dark rain and ends the monotonous misery. I would have translated “pluie noire” as “black rain” for the black/white contrast, but your “dark” is acceptable, especially as it may be better at adding the connotation of “sinister.” What you add with the white bread is common staple food that supports life though it may not be tasty or nutritious–although I must say France is a place where common baguettes are always good.

    I can see your difficulties with meter. You’re dealing with two different rhythms. Fort’s poem is very rough in the syllable count that is far more important in French than in English, and the song adds to this a melody that doesn’t quite fit the words. That reveals it as an “artisan” song rather than a real folk song. Folk songs challenge transcribers trying to write them down in modern musical notation, but the melodies are clear and comprehensible to singers and listeners.

    You chose an excellent recording. The singers give a good interpretation of the poem with their special effects. Both make a little hesitation before “devant” to emphasize that the little horse, and his kind of people, are “ahead” of others. And when Brassens introduces “courage” (the all-important virtue) he slows down for four syllables, “coo-oo-rah-juh.” In modern speech it’s two, in verse three, but in this poem, four! I should also say you chose an appropriate piece to translate for times when everyone perceives hard times and expects them to get worse. Bring on country music and the blues! Tough, but enjoyable. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Joshua C. Frank

      Thank you, Margaret! I’m so glad you like my translation. You clearly have far more experience analyzing poetry than I do. I just went with what it seemed to me that Fort would have written in English.

      Because of the difficulties in meter you mention, I chose a Robert-Frost-style accentual verse, which fits because Frost often wrote on pastoral themes. I also noticed that the melody doesn’t fit the existing meter, but felt that accounting for it was crucial, as the French know it as a song with that melody. Brassens often did this with his original songs as well, caring more about the melody sounding good than the lyrics having proper meter; I would have to use the same kind of accentual verse in translating many of them too. (By the way, it was Evan who chose the video.)

      I suppose the current hard times may have subconsciously influenced me to choose this one to translate (that and the challenge of replicating the rhymes in English!). More translations will definitely be coming.

      Reply
    • Joshua C. Frank

      I forgot to mention that your compliments mean a lot coming from someone with your qualifications (“Ph.D. in English and American Literature and Language from Harvard University” and “a career of teaching literature, languages, and writing”). Thanks again!

      Reply

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