Translating El Desdichado

THE POEM ITSELF is a book published in 1995 by Stanley Burnshaw, devoted to helping the English reader understand the difficulties in translating foreign poetry. Burnshaw says “Our comments on allusion, symbol, meaning, sound, and the like will enable (the reader) to see what the poem is saying and how, though the poem itself is an unparaphrasable totality.”

Now I have been looking for a good translation of Gérard de Nerval’s El Desdichado for some time, without much success. By “good,” I mean one that I totally like. To begin with, I have a preference for the Spanish meaning of the title. I don’t know much Spanish, but if you put the word “desdichado” in google translate, the meaning is “unhappy.” It doesn’t say a darned thing about why. If you put the word “disinherited” in, and translate it to Spanish, the word you get is “desheredado.”

In his book, Mr. Burnshaw writes: “The Spanish title means “The Unfortunate One” or “The Outcast,” and for some critics these meanings epitomize the poem. For others, however, the title means “The Disinherited,” coming supposedly from the inscription on the shield of the mysterious knight in Ivanhoe. Thus a reader begins with two different keys, and his choice will affect the first line in particular,

I am the Dark (the Shadow), the Widowed, the Unconsoled, / The Prince of Aquitania of the ruined tower: / My only Star is dead— and my starred lute / Bears the black Sun of Melancholy.

“Line 2 can be explained by Nerval’s claim of descent from an old southern family whose titles of nobility were abolished in the Revolution and whose coat of arms bore Three Towers Argent. But Nerval was supposedly born under the sign of Plutus; hence “El Deschidado” is an incarnation of Plutus and the “ruined tower” can be taken to be the “castle of Plutus” or number XVI of Court de Gebelin’s tarot cards, which represents a tower full of gold and falling in ruins. And so it goes— with the Star, the constellated lute, the black Sun of Melancholy: readers have more than they can manage before they reach line 5. They must ultimately depend on their own imaginative interpretations, of course, for a poem is much more than the sum of its symbols and allusions even when these can be looked up in the poet’s private code-book. Nerval was writing a poem to be experienced by others as a poem. No wonder, then, that each reacher becomes his own authority once he has listened to all the scholars.”

So Mr. Burnshaw is saying whatever you prefer the title to mean, it’s okay. Here is the poem in its original French (except for the Spanish title, of course!):

El Desdichado

by GÉRARD DE NERVAL (1803-1855)

Je suis le Ténébreux,— le Veuf,— l’Inconsolé,
Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la Tour abolie:
Ma seule Étoile est morte, – et mon luth constellé
Porte le Soleil noir de la Mélancolie.

Dans la nuit du Tombeau, Toi qui m’as consolé,
Rends-moi le Pausilippe et la mer d’Italie,
La fleur qui plaisait tant à mon cœur désolé,
Et la treille où le Pampre à la Rose s’allie.

Suis-je Amour ou Phébus? . . . Lusignan ou Biron?
Mon front est rouge encor du baiser de la Reine;
J’ai rêvé dans la Grotte où nage la sirène . . .

Et j’ai deux fois vainqueur traversé l’Achéron:
Modulant tour à tour sur la lyre d’Orphée
Les soupirs de la Sainte et les cris de la Fée.

It is even possible that the same person will come up with two different interpretations of the same poem. That is what happened to Jenna Le, who says that, after experiencing a bout of depression, she no longer was satisfied with her first translation of “El Deschidado.” I rather like the second translation. Here is the first verse:

“I am the amputee, unhealed, black with gangrene,
the high-born son whose high-rise was demolished.
My light has fizzled out. My lute, which was embellished
with stars once, sags beneath a coal-black sun.”

Read the rest on “In Translation: A Tale of Two Translations