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Guitar

by Victor Hugo (1802-1885)
Translated by Joshua C. Frank

Gastibelza, the rifleman coming to town,
Sang loud and clear:
“Has someone seen Doña Sabina around,
Someone from here?
O villagers, sing and dance, go have your fill
While the night gains!
The wind that comes flying around every hill
Will drive me insane!

“Do you know my Sabina, Señora most dear,
Or ask I in error?
Her mother’s the old Moorish lady who’s here
From Antequera,
Who screeched every night in Great Tower with shrill
Owl-like refrain—
The wind that comes flying around every hill
Will drive me insane!

“Sing, dance!  The goods that the hour is sending,
You’ve got to use.
She was young and her eye full of joy never ending
Led me to muse.
The old man with the child, give him, out of goodwill,
A penny for gain!
The wind that comes flying around every hill
Will drive me insane!

“Really, the queen, next to her, was unsightly,
When, toward the night,
On the bridge of Toledo she walked so uprightly
In black corset tight.
The necklace adorning her showed us the seal
Of Charlemagne—
The wind that comes flying around every hill
Will drive me insane!

“Then the king told his nephew while seeing her very
Lovely and fair:
‘For a kiss from that lady, a smile light and airy,
For one single hair,
Infant Don Ruy, I’d give with my quill
Peru and all Spain!
The wind that comes flying around every hill
Will drive me insane!’

“For myself, I don’t know if I loved her so truly,
But I know well:
For one glance from her soul, I, poor dog so unruly,
I could foretell
That I’d happily stay for ten years behind grille,
Shackled with chains—
The wind that comes flying around every hill
Will drive me insane!

“In the summer, one day, all around me was sweet,
Alive and bright;
She played with her sister out there in the creek—
Oh, what a sight:
Seeing her sister’s bare calf standing still,
Not at all plain—
The wind that comes flying around every hill
Will drive me insane!

“When I saw the young girl, I, on sheep-herding duty,
Going my way,
Thought I saw Cleopatra, the ancient young beauty,
Who, so they say,
Led Germany’s Caesar against his own will
Like a Great Dane—
The wind that comes flying around every hill
Will drive me insane!

“O villagers, sing and go dance!  Night is falling.
Sabina, one day,
Sold everything: beauty just like a dove calling,
And her love all the way,
For the Count of Saldaña’s gold ring, for a frill,
A jewel to gain!
The wind that comes flying around every hill
Will drive me insane!

“Suffer me lean on this bench, old and rotting,
For I’m worn out.
She ran away with this Count, just as she had been plotting,
Alas, no doubt!
By the road toward Cerdanya to somewhere uphill
I can’t explain—
The wind that comes flying around every hill
Will drive me insane!

“I saw her depart from my house for the tower
Of her new swain,
But still, at the moment, I’m bored every hour,
Full of disdain.
Idlest dreamer—my dagger sits still,
My soul’s on campaign—
The wind that comes flying around every hill
Drove me insane!”

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Translator’s Notes:  This poem has been set to music by several well-known musicians in different countries, but the best-known French version is recorded and sung by Georges Brassens under the title “Gastibelza, L’Homme à la Carabine,” so named after the first line in the original French.  Victor Hugo based this poem on a Spanish folk song he heard sung by the villagers while vacationing in Biarritz, a beach town on the Atlantic coast about twenty miles from the Spanish border.  According to his notes, the first verse was sung as it is written in the poem.

Notes regarding words and names:

–The name Gastibelza comes from the Basque words “gazte” (young man) and “belz” (black).  I’ve interpreted the English pronunciation as Gas-tee-BELL-za.

–The French word I translated as “rifle” is “carabine,” which refers to a carbine rifle, a shorter rifle designed for use by cavalrymen.

–I’ve translated the name “Sabine” as “Sabina” because that’s what it would be in Spanish.

–The “wind” refers to the Tramontane, a prevailing wind of southern Europe, whose constant howling sound is said to have a disturbing effect upon the psyche.

–Antequera is a town in southern Spain, not far from the Strait of Gibraltar, so it makes sense that a Moor would have come from there.

–The Great Tower is an old Roman fort in Nîmes, France.  The story takes place in Spain, but Hugo apparently liked the name.

–Caesar, of whom Cleopatra was the mistress, was the emperor of Rome, not Germany; perhaps this error is Gastibelza’s ignorance.

–In the tenth and eleventh centuries, Saldaña was the seat of a family of powerful counts, the Banu Gómez.  These counts figure in local history and literature.

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Highness

Your Highness, I’ve needed some setbacks and downturns,
And beautiful sun cut by storms big as mountains,
Always wandering sadly, so poor and deceived,
And with many a kick in the rear I’ve received.
In the winter, had breeches of canvas all holed,
Yet I’d contemplate stars as I shivered with cold,
To develop from this, all my best days behind,
A profound and illustrious philosopher’s mind.

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Original French:

Guitare

Gastibelza, l’homme à la carabine,
Chantait ainsi :
« Quelqu’un a-t-il connu doña Sabine ?
Quelqu’un d’ici ?
Dansez, chantez, villageois ! la nuit gagne
Le mont Falù.
– Le vent qui vient à travers la montagne
Me rendra fou !

« Quelqu’un de vous a-t-il connu Sabine,
Ma señora ?
Sa mère était la vieille maugrabine
D’Antequera,
Qui chaque nuit criait dans la Tour-Magne
Comme un hibou… –
Le vent qui vient à travers la montagne
Me rendra fou !

« Dansez, chantez! Des biens que l’heure envoie
Il faut user.
Elle était jeune et son oeil plein de joie
Faisait penser. –
À ce vieillard qu’un enfant accompagne
Jetez un sou ! … –
Le vent qui vient à travers la montagne
Me rendra fou.

« Vraiment, la reine eût près d’elle été laide
Quand, vers le soir,
Elle passait sur le pont de Tolède
En corset noir.
Un chapelet du temps de Charlemagne
Ornait son cou… –
Le vent qui vient à travers la montagne
Me rendra fou.

« Le roi disait en la voyant si belle
À son neveu:

Pour un baiser, pour un sourire d’elle,
Pour un cheveu,
Infant don Ruy, je donnerais l’Espagne
Et le Pérou ! –
Le vent qui vient à travers la montagne
Me rendra fou.

« Je ne sais pas si j’aimais cette dame,
Mais je sais bien
Que pour avoir un regard de son âme,
Moi, pauvre chien,
J’aurais gaîment passé dix ans au bagne
Sous le verrou… –

Le vent qui vient à travers la montagne
Me rendra fou.

« Un jour d’été que tout était lumière,
Vie et douceur,
Elle s’en vint jouer dans la rivière
Avec sa soeur,
Je vis le pied de sa jeune compagne
Et son genou… –
Le vent qui vient à travers la montagne
Me rendra fou.

« Quand je voyais cette enfant, moi le pâtre
De ce canton,
Je croyais voir la belle Cléopâtre,
Qui, nous dit-on,
Menait César, empereur d’Allemagne,
Par le licou… –
Le vent qui vient à travers la montagne
Me rendra fou.

« Dansez, chantez, villageois, la nuit tombe !
Sabine, un jour,
A tout vendu, sa beauté de colombe,
Et son amour,
Pour l’anneau d’or du comte de Saldagne,
Pour un bijou… –
Le vent qui vient à travers la montagne
Me rendra fou.

« Sur ce vieux banc souffrez que je m’appuie,
Car je suis las.
Avec ce comte elle s’est donc enfuie !
Enfuie, hélas !
Par le chemin qui va vers la Cerdagne,
Je ne sais où… –
Le vent qui vient à travers la montagne
Me rendra fou.

« Je la voyais passer de ma demeure,
Et c’était tout.
Mais à présent je m’ennuie à toute heure,
Plein de dégoût,
Rêveur oisif, l’âme dans la campagne,
La dague au clou… –
Le vent qui vient à travers la montagne
M’a rendu fou ! »

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Altesse

Altesse, il m’a fallu des revers, des traverses
De beau soleil coupé d’effroyables averses,
Etre pauvre, être errant et triste, être cocu,
Et recevoir beaucoup de coups de pied au cul.
Avoir des trous l’hiver dans mes grègues de toile,
Grelotter, et pourtant contempler les étoiles,
Pour devenir après, tous mes beaux jours enfuis,
Le philosophe illustre et profond que je suis.

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Joshua C. Frank works in the field of statistics and lives near Austin, Texas. His poetry has also been published in the Asahi Haikuist Network.


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10 Responses

  1. Paul Freeman

    Impressive! You kept the musicality of ‘Guitar’ and, from the sound of it, the voice.

    The video of ‘Guitar’ was a real toe-tapper.

    I was particularly taken with how much profundity, especially in the final couplet.

    Thanks for two fine translations, Joshua.

    Reply
  2. Brian Yapko

    Josh, both of these are exceptional translations of poems which have been musicalized. It is helpful and enjoyable to hear the poems sung, but it is even more helpful to see the original French and to see how painstakingly you have balanced the need for fidelity to the original while yet allowing the works to sing in English and to become yours. I admire both of these collaborations between you and Victor Hugo, though if I must choose, I think I prefer “Guitar” over “Highness.”

    Your translation of Altesse (“Highness”) works well, but I think your version is slightly more emotionally detached than Hugo’s original. This is not a criticism. It’s an analysis of the trade-off you had to make. The last lines illustrate: Your lines say “To develop… /A profound and illustrious philosopher’s mind.” Hugo’s original says (in literal translation) “To become…/The philosopher illustrious and profound that I am.” There is a difference in emotional weight between the somewhat cool “Philospher’s mind” and the more introspective “that I am.” A very wise poet with extensive experience in translation has explained to me that these trade-offs are essential and inevitable in translating someone else’s work. Here, I believe you chose wisely in order to render the French into English and to keep it poetic and beautiful.

    As for your “Guitar” poem (why is it called “Guitar” and not “Gastibelza”?) I think this is a complete triumph. Your fidelity to Hugo’s original language is strong and yet you make necessary choices to keep the meter and rhymes. I wondered why you used the word “insane” rather than “mad” since that would have kept the meter tighter, and then I realized how dramatically that would have hindered your ability to bring in meaningful rhyme words. I think you made the right choice. What’s more your version sings!

    I, too, am puzzled by Caesar as the emperor of Germany. I can only imagine it’s because Allemagne vaguely rhymes with Cleopatra.

    I’ve gone on too long. Let me just say well done, Josh. I’m very glad to have spent time with these excellent translations!

    Reply
    • Joshua C. Frank

      Thank you Brian! I’m glad you enjoy them and consider me as having made the right translation choices. “Guitar” (I don’t know why Hugo chose that title either) was a difficult one to do; I went through a few versions before I finally chose that one, mainly because of the difficulty of rhyming with the refrain. The process was quite painstaking, not just because of the refrain, but because I had to fit rhyming translations into those short even-numbered lines. Believe it or not, this is still easy compared to some French poems!

      Other translations exist, but I didn’t like them as much as the one I’ve done:

      https://www.suggestedpoem.com/2020/09/gastibelza-poem.html (Henry L. Williams)

      https://www.poetrynook.com/poem/gastibelza (Nelson Rich Tyerman)

      Reply
  3. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Josh, I am no expert when it comes to translations, but I can appreciate the effort that has gone into bringing these two wonderful pieces to a wider audience. I am humbled by your ability to translate so beautifully. Both read smoothly and mellifluously, and you have worked hard to maintain integrity throughout the process – the notes are most helpful and tell me just that. I thoroughly appreciate your diligence and drive, both of which have brought a much-needed beam of sunshine to my morning. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Joshua C. Frank

      Thank you Susan! I really appreciate the compliments, and I’m glad these brought you a much-needed beam of sunshine.

      Both poems are special to me; the first, because it’s such a welcome rebuttal to modern culture’s “Disney movie” mentality, and the second, because the Christian life, being a boot camp for people who want to be saints, is much like what the speaker went through.

      Reply
  4. Margaret Coats

    Josh, “Guitar” is an extremely successful translation of a long and difficult poem. It’s what I consider the most difficult type of poem to translate, because the words are in fact quite simple, and therefore leave the translator almost no leeway to use synonyms. You had to take great care in rendering the meaning and in conforming to the unusual song stanza. I think Hugo may have called it “Guitar” for all these reasons! It is a classic personal (but not introspective) love lament–for loss of a beautiful lady who was never won, and seems not to have been much of a lady in the finer senses. But that does not matter when love is strong and true and sad. It makes a mad hero of the singer who recognizes his condition. He can do nothing but express himself openly, to a community of villagers who admire and sympathize without understanding. The guitar is an improvisational instrument enabling him to act and speak those deep feelings. I can believe Hugo started with a striking tune and mood for words he had heard in a foreign language (maybe Spanish, but considering the location, maybe Basque which is still stranger). Your poem is a fine English characterization of Gastibelza. With “Highness,” you succeed at philosophical and introspective brevity that develops from colloquialism to refinement in showing how the speaker has grown. Both are remarkable poems from a great author who calls forth your talents as poet translator.

    Reply
    • Joshua C. Frank

      Thank you, Margaret! I think this is the best compliment about my translations I’ve heard, especially with your qualifications!

      “Guitar” was the most difficult translation I’ve done, for exactly the reasons you describe, plus having to rhyme two lines with the refrain eleven times. The difficulty is probably why other English translations I’ve seen aren’t so good.

      The song Hugo heard was actually sung in French, with a bit of patois, probably translated from Spanish. Some of my research for my notes comes from this Georges Brassens fan site: http://dbarf.blogspot.com/2010/12/gastibelza-lhomme-la-carabine-victor.html

      Thanks to Brassens, the French know the story of Gastibelza (many only know these poems through him, just like I do), and now the English-speaking world can have a chance to hear it, too.

      Reply

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