Nineteenth Century French Studies 31.3&4 (2003) 378-379
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Monte, Steven, trans. Victor Hugo: Selected Poetry. Manchester: Carcanet, 2001. Pp. xxxiii + 305. ISBN 1-85754-539-7
Caws, Mary Ann, ed. Mallarmé in Prose. New York: New Directions, 2001. Pp. 152. ISBN 0-8112-1451-6
These two new translations of nineteenth-century French texts differ greatly in their goals and formats, but each will be helpful to those embarking on the newly popular cross-cultural aspect of comparative literature courses.
The Hugo text, a bilingual edition with original and translation on facing pages, presents 84 poems including many of Hugo's best known works. The selection runs from Odes et Ballades to the posthumous Toute la Lyre but with a special concentration [End Page 378] on Les Contemplations, accounting for 36 pieces.
The quality of any poetic translation will necessarily be varied, but these poems often combine a startling accuracy with appropriately poetic expression. As one reads the texts that have been most familiar in French, the English renditions produce very closely the same effects.
In his introduction, Steven Monte discusses his decision to attempt the use of rhyme and regular rhythm in his translation. He rejects prose and free verse as not in harmony with the originals, but also diverges from those who would substitute English heroic couplets for the French alexandrine. Monte prefers to use English alexandrines, loosely adapted, finding this a more flexible form.
The introduction begins with a brief but well detailed summary of Hugo's life followed by a discussion of his poetic style. In attempting to present Hugo to an English speaking audience, Monte at first warns of Hugo's lengthy passages and romantic themes. His own sensitivity to Hugo's style is evident, however, in an excellent introduction to the uses of the alexandrine, with examples from Hugo's poems, and an analysis of how innovative Hugo's use of the traditional line was.
A section of notes on the poems alternates between elucidation of references and further comments situating each collection of poems historically. There are also discussions of decisions ambiguities in some texts have forced on the translator and how these might best be handled. Throughout, this edition offers both an introduction to Hugo's poetry and a close analysis of Monte's interpretation.
Mallarmé in Prose is, by contrast, a team effort. Mary Ann Caws presents translations that are partly her own and partly the work of five contributors, sometimes working alone and sometimes in collaboration. The texts, all from Mallarmé's prose, range from his correspondence through a variety of literary and journalistic pieces. In her introduction, Caws posits that a variety of translators will help to distinguish the varied style of Mallarmé's different modes of writing.
The brief selections from the letters show the range of Mallarmé's correspondence with other creative artists and his instructions that his papers not be published after his death.
Dorothy M. Betz