(From the French of Sully Prudhomme, 1839-1907)
The great ships lie at the quayside,
lulled to-and-fro by the swell,
oblivious of little cradles
rocked by female hands.
But… there comes a day of parting,
when those women are bound to weep –
when adventurous men will be tempted
by horizons beyond their reach.
And on that day, aboard great ships,
when the homes they have left look so small,
men will feel themselves drawn landward again
by the cradles’ distant call.
By the cradles’ distant call.
Le long du quai les grandes vaisseaux,
Que la houle incline en silence,
Ne prennent pas garde aux berceaux,
Que le main des femmes balance.
Mais viendra le jour des adieux,
Car il faut que les femmes pleurent,
Et que les homes curieux
Tentent les horizons qui leurrent!
Et ce jour là les grandes vaisseaux
Fuyant le port qui diminue,
Sentent leur masse retenue
Par l’â me des lointains berceaux,
Par l’â me des lointains berceaux.
(From ‘Journeys in Time’)
Note: This is something of a free translation, and while I would normally strive to keep every important word (and many lesser items, even articles, conjunctions, etc.,) in the received language intact, I found it impossible with Prudhomme’s beautiful economy of words. So above, much of the meaning is transferred by sentiments expressed within lines rather than individual words used. (To an extent this is done in more precise translation). In stanza 1 I’ve used ‘lulled’ instead of ‘swayed’ or a similar word, to describe the motion of ships at anchor, the intention being to connect the accidental movement of the ships with the causative action of the cradles. The method may be seen again in stanza 3, where ‘the homes they’ve left look so small’ is substituted for ‘the view of the port recedes’.
The rhyme-scheme of the translation is abcb. In the final line of stanza 1, though, try as I might, and I spent a considerable time on it, I could not for the life of me, by substitution, omission, or any other device, come up with anything to replace rocking by a mother’s hands (‘hands’ being the insurmountable difficulty). I honestly think that it would take a very, very good translator to come up with anything other than what Prudhomme so simply states, and I mean a translator who is also a poet – as a good many, sadly, although claiming to be such or claimed to be so by publishers or critics, most emphatically are not. I refer more specifically to translators in my own main field of experience, which is Classical Chinese.
Looking at the rhyming of stanza 1 again, there are ways in which it could be achieved – finding, for example, an alternative to what appears to be a quite necessary ‘swell’ in line 2 which would rhyme with the seemingly irreplaceable ’hands’ in line 4. This would almost certainly require a change of the word-order in line 2; I’ve attempted this, but nothing absolutely suitable has presented itself. Another possibility is in the transposition of lines 1 and 2 (another legitimate process in normal translation). It is Prudhomme’s straightforward and effective simplicity which warns against adopting these strategies; what is there that would not infringe upon his charming minimality?
Further to the comparison between ships and cradles, donkey’s y/ears ago I did a whole lot of research and over a long time on oared fighting ships, i.e., galleys from 500 BCE or so to a demise which came as late as our not-so-distant 19th century. In the case of the classical Greek trireme of the Piræus and the subsequent Roman types, the banked oars protruded almost exclusively directly from the hull, while the later, 13th century+ mediæval vessels of France, Spain, Venice, and others of the great Mediterranean powers used a superstructure above the gunwales to accommodate the rowers. This was essentially an outrigger – but what an outrigger It was a huge rectangular box resting lengthwise and beamwise atop the hull ; it went by various names at various times, the later and favourite of mine being the telaro (Italian or Spanish, I think). Where one of the special terms is not used, this is called the ‘rowing frame’. For its use in my never-to-be-finished long story The Armoured Isle, though, I adopted, instead, ‘rowing cradle’ (now whether I had seen this term used somewhere or whether it was an invention of mine at the time I can’t remember, but think the latter. A coincidence, when many years later I came across Prudhomme’s poem.
Those great galleys of the 15th-18th centuries were superb craft, and the wonderful reconstruction of Don John’s great flagship at Lepanto can be seen at Barcelona’s Maritime Museum. Once, while on a day’s visit to Barcelona I naturally went along to see it, but on that particular day, to my great chagrin, it was as W.C. Fields’ Philadelphia – it was closed. (I did spend the better part of an hour, though, creeping around the perimeter of the huge glass case within which it is housed, peeping in and marvelling. There is much, and much that is surprising, that can be said about those great galleys of the period. They finally ended up, as most will know, as the prison hulks of Marseilles and Toulon, as Victor Hugo’s Jean Valjean (Les Miserables) and Eugene Süe’s Rodolph (Les Mystères de Paris) knew only too well.
Cradles Big, Cradles Small