- Joachim Du Bellay: 'The Regrets', with 'The Antiquities of Rome', Three Latin Elegies, and 'The Defense and Enrichment of the French Language': A Bilingual Edition
It would not be true to say that Du Bellay's most famous works, the poetry of his Roman 'exile', the Regrets and the Antiquitez de Rome (1558), along with his 1549 polemic La Deffence et illustration de la langue françoyse, have suffered from scholarly neglect. But if interest in these works among anglophone readers has not been lacking, good English translations have. This fine edition will be an invaluable resource to students and teachers alike. Previous English translations [End Page 105] of all the works included in this volume are available, but none has proved entirely satisfactory. The principal merit of Helgerson's edition is that it provides a clear and precise translation that can easily be read in parallel with the text of the original, which is printed on the facing page. This translation makes no claim to substitute for the original; rather, it offers a way into Du Bellay's text. It illuminates the occasionally obscure language and attends to its nuances and variations, while at the same time retaining a respectful distance and refusing to over-familiarize its strangeness.
In his preface Helgerson describes Du Bellay's world as being 'at once distant and familiar'. The same can be said of Du Bellay's language: there is a tension between the simplicity and artlessness he claimed for his poetry, and what Helgerson terms its 'often intentional remoteness'. As we know from the Deffence, Du Bellay wanted 'to alienate French from vulgar usage', 'to make French new by making it foreign'. Helgerson characterizes his version as a 'literal prose translation', after the model of Robert Durling's translation of Petrarch's Lyric Poems. He also recognizes that translating Du Bellay must not be a matter of smoothing over difficulties: a successful version must clear a way for the reader to appreciate the textures of the poetry. This is a translation that makes every effort to clarify but not to simplify.
Du Bellay's ideas about poetry, and his approach to the composition of poetry, do not stay the same over time. The different collections included in this volume exhibit a variety of styles and degrees of 'foreignness'. In the Regrets Du Bellay set out his intention to write a simple and artless 'prosaic' poetry. The poems in that collection were to be mere 'daily jottings and chronicles' ('papiers journaulx' and 'commentaires'). Here, 'commentaires' might mean something more like 'fragments', 'drafts', 'summaries' (as Marc Bizer has pointed out); but Helgerson's version works perfectly well in evoking the work of a secretary or administrator at the Papal court. He is attentive to the 'everydayness' of the language of the Regrets. But rendering Du Bellay's verse into straightforward, everyday language is more difficult than it appears, and Helgerson makes it seem relatively effortless. Du Bellay claimed for his Regrets a 'sincerity without artifice' ('sans artifice est ma simplicité', Regrets 47), but the impression of simplicity in these poems conceals a lot of work ('L'artifice caché c'est le vray artifice', Regrets 142), and Helgerson unpacks it all and lays it out with admirable dexterity.
Helgerson does not attempt to render equivalent poetic effects, so features of the poetry such as Du Bellay's use of internal rhyme, as well of course as structural rhyme, are necessarily lost. The translation [End Page 106] rationalizes the word-order and naturalizes the syntax. Helgerson will not disrupt the flow of the English sentence to aim at poetic effects: for example, he never attempts to displace adverbial clauses or invert subjects and objects of verbs to achieve patterning similar to Du Bellay's. In aiming for clarity there is a risk of excessive flattening-out of the text's unevenness, constraining its variations and ambiguities. Sometimes...