Heureux Ceux …

This post is in response to a comment and question left by the translator Steve Rawcliffe at my prior post on Eve, a poem written by Charles Peguy.  Mr. Rawcliffe was looking for feedback on and examples of a translation of one of the most quoted quatrains from the poem.

In the French, the section reads:

Heureux ceux qui sont morts pour la terre charnelle,
Mais pourvu que ce fût dans une juste guerre.
Heureux ceux qui sont morts pour quatre coins de terre.
Heureux ceux qui sont morts d’une mort solennelle.

Heureux ceux qui sont morts dans les grandes batailles,
Couchés dessus le sol à la face de Dieu.
Heureux ceux qui sont morts sur un dernier haut lieu,
Parmi tout l’appareil des grandes funérailles.

Heureux ceux qui sont morts pour des cités charnelles.
Car elles sont le corps de la cité de Dieu.
Heureux ceux qui sont morts pour leur âtre et leur feu,
Et les pauvres honneurs des maisons paternelles.

 

I am only aware of two previous attempts to translate this section, and Peguy generally, into English. Both occurred in the mid-20th century. I’m not sure whether this is a reflection more on Peguy’s obscurity in the English speaking world or the state of modern poetry.

The excerpt below is free verse translation of this section by Julien and Anne Greene, from their book Basic Verities, which includes samples from many of Peguy’s works. This book is out of print, but Cluny Media (the subject of my next post), will be reissuing it soon.

 

Blessed are those who died for carnal earth

Provided it was in a just war.

Blessed are those who died for a plot of ground.

Blessed are those who died a solemn death.

 

Blessed are those who died in great battles.

Stretched out on the ground in the face of God.

Blessed are those who died on a final high place,

Amid all the pomp of grandiose funerals.

 

Blessed are those who died for carnal cites.

For they are the body of the city of God.

Blessed are those who died for their hearth and fire,

And the lowly honors of their father’s house.

 

The other version is a formal verse translation by Lady Lamb, which was included in The Mysteries of the Holy Innocents and Other Poems (this was reissued just this year by Wipf). Lady Lamb translated several excerpts of Eve, in addition to a translation of poem named in the title.  She largely preserves Peguy’s paired rhyme scheme and the 12 syllable Alexandrine structure.

Happy are they who die for a temporal land,

When a just war calls, and they obey and go forth,

Happy are they who die for a handful of earth,

Happy are they who die in so noble a band.

 

Happy are they who die in their country’s defence,

Lying outstretched before God with upturned faces.

Happy are they who die in those last high places,

Such funeral rites have a great magnificence.

 

Happy are they who die for their cities of earth,

They are the outward forms of the City above.

Happy are they who die for their fire and their hearth,

Their father’s house and its humble honour and love.

 

Mr. Rawcliffe shared his version of the first quatrain:

Happy are those who die for this our carnal earth,
But let their death have been in a war that was just.
Happy are those who die for four corners of dust.
Happy are those who die removed from wit or mirth.

Mr. Rawcliffe, your  version seems to be a very faithful translation (except for the last line, as you note), arguably more faithful than Lady Lamb’s.  I have observed that in some of her other translations of Eve that she seems to sacrifice accuracy in order to preserve the rhyme scheme and meter. This is not a criticism, as I was forced to do the same in my version in a fair number of places. Your effort sounds fine to my untrained ear. I doubt that the rhythm could be duplicated in English for any length without a superhuman effort.

I find it difficult to advise you much beyond this, as I am not a professional translator (Eve was my first attempt) or fluent in French.  The only alternative that came to me, and this may sound very odd, is to change the last line to:

“Happy are those who die through a solemn rebirth.”

In the Christian faith, death is sometimes compared to a second birth, or being born into the next life, Heaven. And maybe “rebirth” connects in a way with the word “carnal” from the first line of the quatrain, with its association with flesh and sexuality? This keeps the rhyme scheme and the 12 syllable meter. But I think your version is perfectly acceptable, and its often best to go with our original instinct in these matters.

Personally, I am partial to formal verse, yet Eve is just so long that I think it would take a large team of dedicated translators to put together a complete, respectable version that mimics Peguy’s form. It may be easier (and saner) for someone to attempt a free verse version that both accurately conveys the meaning and has a pleasing rhythm.

Thank you very much for sharing your translation and comments. Good luck with your project.

5 Comments

Filed under Poetry

5 responses to “Heureux Ceux …

  1. Many thanks for your comments, and the existing translations. While it would have been handy to find that there was an “official” translation of this poem, the fact that there isn’t one does at least leave me free to do as I wish with the quotation in the book I’m translating.

    All the other versions sound more elegant than mine, which is hardly surprising as I am a translator of non-fiction. Not only am I not a poet, but I have read very little poetry!

    I shall probably produce a version of that stanza which uses what I regard as all the best bits from the various versions you’ve pointed me to, and then post that version here … for everyone to laugh at 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • OK, that went faster than I thought, thanks to the sources you dug up for me, and your suggested last line.

      First off, it occurred to me that all the lines starting “Heureux ceux” are a reference to the Beatitudes (from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5, vv 3-11). The Bible translation I usually use is the New International Version, which translates “μακάριοι οἱ” as “blessed are” (no, I do not know New Testament Greek, just a few words of modern Greek — I had to look that up!).

      So the first thing I did was to replace all occurrences of “happy are” with “blessed are”, the “blessed” being pronounced as two syllables (bless-id).

      Then I realised that “temporal earth” was less strained (and less of an obvious effort to scrape together the requisite number of syllables!) than my “this our carnal earth”, so I nicked Lady Lamb’s temporal, while keeping my earth, as at that point I still wanted earth in the last line.

      “But let their death have been” had the right number of syllables, but the accents were in the wrong place, at least if you read it as you normally would, so I went for “Who have laid down their lives”. The more so as “lay down one’s life” is a turn of phrase familiar in connection with the concept of willingly sacrificing oneself, as opposed to “simply” dying.

      While I preferred both the Greenes’ plot of ground and Lamb’s handful of earth to my four corners of dust, I needed the dust to rhyme with just, so I took Lamb’s handful (“for four” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue) but kept my dust.

      That left the most difficult bit. The literal meaning of the last few words (morts d’une mort solennelle) is “dead of a death solemn”. Re-arranging that into normal English gives “died of a solemn death” or “died a solemn death” (the Greenes’ solution, but of course they weren’t trying to make it rhyme).

      I had been very dissatisfied with my provisional solution of “die removed from wit or mirth”, so I was very grateful for your suggestion of “Happy are those who die through a solemn rebirth.” As a Christian, Péguy would have embraced the concept of death as rebirth into eternal life, so I feel happy to use rebirth as a synonym for death here, or at least as a symbol. I might have hesitated to do so if I’d known the poet to be an atheist, but he wasn’t.

      So, unless someone comes up with further ideas, this is what I’m going with:

      Blessed are those who died for a temporal earth
      Who have laid down their lives in a war that was just
      Blessed are those who died for a handful of dust
      Blessed are those who died through a solemn rebirth.

      Thoughts?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I like it, it flows very well. I am still struggling to learn how to properly scan poetry, so I can’t critique your use of stress/accent (I think that is partly why I was attracted to translating a poem that used a syllabic meter).

        Because of this, I try to use interior or end rhymes, alliteration, consonance, assonance and similar techniques when I write my poems. So I like the pairing of the “em” sound in “temporal” and “solemn”, and accordingly think “temporal” works better than “carnal.”

        I think the word “happy” has lost some of its meaning/effect for various reasons, and that “blessed” may better convey Péguy’s intent to a contemporary reader. So, that choice is fine with me. And again, because of the techniques I like, I enjoy the bit of consonance of the “d” sound with “blessed” and “died” in those lines.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for your comments. This could get quite addictive, but you would never make a living out of it. I must have spent two hours on these four lines, not to mention the time that you’ve contributed (for which, my grateful thanks). Even though I’m a fairly expensive translator, at 30 cts a word, that would only earn me $6 an hour!

    One of my translation professors was a literary translator, and he freely admitted to us that he did literary translation for fun and taught us for a living. Or as he put it “No-one would do literary translation if he wanted to get rich, and no-one would teach you lot if he wanted to have fun”, which I suppose was fair comment.

    Like

    • Thanks for the insight. Yes, it is very time consuming, and that was big factor in my stopping the translation.

      I did enjoy it, its sort of like doing a crossword puzzle. Perhaps when I am retired I will take it up as a hobby.

      And speaking as a Catholic, we have not done a good job ensuring that the better Catholic writers and poets’ works have been widely translated. So that was part of my motivation in attempting this.

      Liked by 1 person

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