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Found In Translation: The Reader's Perspective of Love in French Poetry

Dr Gerard Sharpling, Centre for Applied Linguistics

Published July 2013

The perception is that the French see love not as a polar opposite to hate but as a spectrum of feelings, reactions and perceptions. But what space lies along that spectrum for those that define themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans? Dr Gerard Sharpling looks at the opportunities to be gained from reading French poetry with a mind to LGBT and genderqueer perspectives.


In 1998, my PhD supervisor, Judy Sproxton, invited me to co-teach a group of final year students studying French Renaissance poetry. One task that the students were asked to complete was to translate Louise Labé’s Sonnets into a readable English prose version. This innovative pedagogical activity triggered an exciting new research direction for me, which forms part of a new book project: Inventing love: readings/re-readings of French poetry.

When I studied Renaissance poetry in the early 1980s, there was very little flexibility for me to develop my own response to the poetry. Rather, the type of instruction available at that time emphasised the more formal aspects of versification and prosody, and the requirement for technical and Classical knowledge. Traditional French poetry instruction, indeed, involved highlighting the intertexts and literary allusions of the poem and sought to illuminate the ‘intentions’ of the (often male, heterosexual) poet. My own work at the time, in contrast, placed the reader, rather than the poet, at the centre of the experience of reading poetry. This immediately offered many advantages. For one thing, there was no ‘right or wrong’ answer to what the poem ‘meant’; interest shifted from the intended ‘meaning’ of the poem to the multiplicity and diversity of readers themselves and the sense they make of the text from diverse perspectives. More importantly, translations of poetry were no longer to be seen as imperfect replicas of an unattainable ‘original’ but in themselves charted the historical process of making sense of experience.

When translating French poetry, my argument would be that the experience of the interpreter allows for new possibilities of ‘inventing’ love. For example, it is quite possible to see translations of a poet, such as Arthur Rimbaud, as gradually shaping and refining the experience of homosexual love. More pertinently, poetry can be read from a genderqueer perspective and this can open up new, exciting possibilities to reinvent the experience of love. I am especially interested at present in transgendered readings of poetry in which a male reader, such as myself, might project themselves into, or identify with, a female rather than male persona. The creative possibilities of re-inventing love in this way serve to destabilise the dominant, binary view of gender imposed across decades by an approach steeped in the classical tradition.

To add to this renewed flexibility, the recognition that the reader is central has enabled me to challenge the apparent superiority of verse translations of French sonnets over their seemingly imperfect prose counterparts. One example of my recent research will clarify this. Here, I focus on the sonnet ‘Je vis, je meurs’ (written by Louise Labé) by comparing published verse translations with my own prose rendering of the text.

Louise’s poem reads as follows:

Je vis, je meurs: je me brule et me noye.
J’ay chaut estreme en endurant froidure:
La vie m’est et trop molle et trop dure.
J’ay grans ennuis entremeslez de joye:
Tout à un coup je ris et je larmoye,
Et en plaisir maint grief tourment j’endure:
Mon bien s’en va, et à jamais il dure:
Tout en un coup je seiche et je verdoye.
Ainsi Amour inconstamment me meine:
Et quand je pense avoir plus de douleur,
Sans y penser je me treuve hors de peine.
Puis quand je croy ma joye estre certeine,
Et estre au haut de mon desiré heur,
Il me remet en mon premier malheur.
(Rigolot, 1986: 125)

In this powerful and poignant poem, the antithetical sentiments of pain and joy inherent in the love experience are simultaneously constructed and negated, so that at the very moment of expressing pain, the persona is relieved from it and, just as she assumes pain to have gone away, it returns with renewed vigour. Amongst the many linguistic challenges in translating this poem is the difficulty of rendering the last three lines (or ‘turn’) of the sonnet effectively. Dunstan-Martin’s standard rendering of the sonnet does it this way:

And when I think joy cannot be denied,
And scaled the peak of happiness I sought,
He casts me down into my former grief.

Alice Park, meanwhile, translates these three lines as follows:

With Lady Luck. Again and yet again,
Her wheel is spinning madly to produce
This wanton, wild, intense, exquisite pain

Both these renderings adopt a different idiom, yet emphasis is placed on the wiles of fate and how they conspire to destabilise the powerless poet-persona. This reflects the Petrarchan perspective of love as dominating and as disempowering. Yet to proceed in this way is to misunderstand the inherent irony, and humour, within Louise’s account. As a corrective to this, I choose to place less emphasis on the wiles of fate, and have accentuated more strongly the writer’s personal involvement in the self-analysis of her own experience, and the irony of her own condition. My own rendering is as follows:

I burn, yet I drown. I’m sweltering, yet I’m freezing too. Life is too gentle and soft, yet too harsh and cruel. What joy I feel, and yet what sorrow. At once I laugh and I cry, and I am torn between pleasure and torment. Just when my happiness has left for good, it is there for all time. I shrivel up, yet begin to grow again. These are the tricks that being in love plays on me. Whenever I expect to feel pain, I’m granted an unexpected reprieve. Yet just as it seems that joy is certain, and I have scaled the heights of my long-sought happiness, this feeling of love knocks me back, and once again, unhappiness takes control.

Of course, my rendering does not yet take account of my developing interest in transgendered readings of Louise’s poetry, and it remains for me to build in this awareness as a male-to-female transgendered reader/translator. But of course, there is nothing sacrosanct about Louise’s text that tells us it has to be submitted to a compulsory heterosexual or gender binary reading. It can be dismantled and reconstructed according to the gendered nature of each individual reader.

Dr Gerard SharplingDr Gerard Sharpling has published in a very wide range of areas, from literary theory and criticism to applied linguistics and language testing. Dr Sharpling is currently developing a text book on humanistic forms of language testing and is continuing his work on English translations of French poetry. Beyond the sphere of applied linguistics, he has research interests in LGBT issues (in particular transgender and bisexuality) as well as adoption and attachment theory.

Image: Kiss In (29) - 14Feb10, Paris (France) by Philippe Leroyer (via Flickr)