- W. S. Merwin chez les régents
Merwin, William S., Follain, Jean, translation, lexical continuum
Why did W. S. Merwin (1927–2019), so recently lost to us, choose a literal English translation of chez les régents from the title of a Jean Follain poem—yielding what appears to be a non-sens? And why would this question inspire a short note in a journal of Occitan studies?
Jean Follain (1903–1971) published more than nine books of poetry, none of them particularly well-known today. Among his poems is “Paysage de l’enfant allant chez les régents,” translated by Merwin as ‘Landscape of a Child on His Way to the Place of the Regents.’1 Knowing Merwin’s affinity for things Occitan, on first reading years ago, I casually assumed that Follain was a writer from the Midi. I wondered how ‘the place of the regents’ pertained to a poem about a little red-haired boy being taken to school by his mother. But I thought I knew the answer from my long acquaintance with Occitan dialect dictionaries: regent is found across the south of France as ‘(primary school) teacher,’ fr. ‘instituteur (communal).’2
As I learned from a recent re-reading, it turns out that Follain was from Normandy, not the south of France. Occitan was not his language. Looking at obituaries for Merwin made me wonder anew at his rendering of régent as ‘regent.’ Consulting Lexilogos’ online dictionaries of normand brought nothing to light. Then I checked further afield, in Hatzfeld and Darmesteter’s [End Page 65] Dictionnaire général, the FEW, and the online Trésor de la langue française. Bingo!
Régent is not Norman, nor is it confined to Occitan. It is a good pan-French word, today most frequently signifying (as in English) ‘one who rules in the place of a minor or absent monarch,’ but with an older, wider range of meanings found well into the twentieth century.
Dictionnaire général: 2. Vieilli. ‘Celui qui dirige une classe’…; Specialt De nos jours. ‘professeur dans un collège communal.’
FEW 10 “regens”: fr. régent ‘celui qui enseigne dans une école, un collège’ (1532 [Rabelais]–1844).
TLFi: 1. ‘personne qui gouverne’, 2. ‘personne qui administre’, 3. ‘personne qui enseigne (dans un collège).’
And there is the explanation for Follain’s “chez les régents.” It is more difficult, however, to explain why régent stayed ‘regent’ in the translation. Pace Merwin, the title would make more sense to today’s reader as ‘to the land of teachers’, or ‘where the teachers rule’, the latter echoing the word’s origin in Lat. regĕre .
In parallel with TLFi 1. ‘personne qui gouverne,’ American English still uses regent for ‘governor of a college or university.’ The OED confirms scattered remnants of usage at the university level in the UK. Neither of these can be what Merwin had in mind. I submit that his ‘to the place of the regents’ is, in the most generous view, a literal reading of régent, which deep familiarity with vocabulary outside the scope of standard French would have avoided. We may never know if it was a deliberate choice, but, with all due respect for the delicacy of Merwin’s translation work, it was unfortunate at best. Leaving the word regent untranslated may not be a mistranslation, but it does yield a non-sens which contributes nothing to our understanding of the relation between the title and the body of the poem—or that indelible moment in time celebrated by Follain
The wider, overall lesson for anyone working with Occitan—or French—is clear: we ignore the parallels between oïl and oc and the lexical continuum of Gallo-Romance at our own scholarly risk and peril. It is not for nothing that Wartburg’s FEW was designed [End Page 66] from the outset to cover all words in the French lexicon. Translation is not for the faint at heart, and even our much-regretted William can do with an occasional corrective.
FEW Französisches etymologisches Wörterbuch
OED Oxford English Dictionary Online <www.oed.com>.