Friday, 15 January 2010


As suggested by mangrovethroatwarbler in his comment on my second post, today I will discuss Walter Benjamin famous essay ‘The Task of the Translator’ (1923). I found it very interesting because it helped me to stand back from the translations I have reviewed in this blog but also from my own translations and to reconsider them in the light of Benjamin’s conception of what the task of the translator should be. Although extremely rich and fascinating, his essay is complex and very elaborate so I will do my best to throw light on the main issues Benjamin raises. I will start with a brief summary of the main ideas developed in his essay as I understood them and will then go into further details.

For Benjamin a translation is part of the ‘afterlife’ of a text and the interpretation of the latter should be informed by a history of reception (which he defines as ‘the age of fame’). As a text in its own right, a translation does not only carry messages; it recreates the value given to the text throughout the ages. Moreover a translation appears as something unique in Benjamin’s words for it has the potential to convey what he calls a ‘pure language’, where the ‘mutually exclusive’ differences among two languages can coexist and where the ‘complementary intentions’ of these languages can be communicated. That is why I think Lawrence Venuti’s description of this essay as an ‘utopian vision of linguistic harmony’ is particularly relevant and appropriate. However it is interesting to look closely at his essay to better grasp the scope of his ideas.

For Benjamin translation is not merely about transmitting messages; as a ‘mode’, it has the potential to achieve what he calls a ‘pure language’, a language ‘released in the translation through literalisms, especially in syntax’. He claims that ‘pure language’ is achievable through this ‘technique’ because ‘languages are not strangers to one another, but are, a priori and apart from all historical relationships, interrelated in what they want to express.’ Thus to demonstrate what he defines as the ‘kinship of languages’ in a translation, the form and the meaning of the original have to be conveyed ‘as accurately as possible’. However this does not mean that the translation has to be a perfect copy of the original because, as he explains, ‘Fragments of a vessel which are to be glued together must match one another in the smallest details, although they need not be like one another.’ In order to produce close renderings of the original, the translator has to transform and adapt the translating language for it to ‘match’ the original.

It is not surprising then that Benjamin decides to quote Rudolf Pannwitz to support his argument for his words are suggestive of this idea: ‘Our translations [German ones], even the best ones, proceed from a wrong premise. They want to turn Hindi, Greek, English into German instead of turning German into Hindi, Greek, English.’ For Pannwitz the translator ‘must broaden and deepen his own language with the foreign one.’ However how is this achievable? According to Benjamin the key to release ‘pure language’ is to differentiate the ‘intended object’, which refers to one same object, from the ‘mode of intention’, which is different from a language to another. He writes: ‘Without distinguishing the intended object from the mode of intention, no firm grasp of this basic law of a philosophy of language can be achieved.’ If I understand it well, I think what he means is that, although a word refers to the same object/thing in both languages, it does not have the same connotations or ‘mode of intention’. If we take the word ‘Resistance’ within the context of ‘l’Affiche Rouge’ for instance, it refers to the same concept in English and in French, namely the act of resisting, but what the word connotes can be quite different: For a French person, it could suggest pride or gratitude, it could remind him/her of the French history and the impact it had on his/her country, whereas for an English person, it can have different connotations because of the way he perceived the French Resistance as an English person; it may make him think about the ‘clichés’ conveyed by the media about this historical period or about the ideas he has formed through his readings on the period. (My example is probably too stereotyped but it helped me to understand what Benjamin meant when talking about the difference between the ‘intended object’ and the ‘mode of intention’). It is interesting to remark that these different intentions could exclude each other; but Benjamin argues that, to the intended object, the two words mean the same thing and thus meaning is ‘complementary’ in the intentions.

As a result, the task of translator is not to ‘assemble’ or express what is to be conveyed since the poet/writer has already done that when writing the original text; the task of the translator rather ‘consists in finding that intended effect [Intention] upon the language into which he is translating which produces in it the echo of the original’ and his/her translation ‘instead of resembling the meaning of the original, must lovingly and in detail incorporate the original’s mode of signification, thus making both the original and the translation recognizable as fragments of a greater language.’ Thus the two texts, both the original and its translation, share what Benjamin calls a ‘vital link’ and from this linguistic harmony arises a greater language, a ‘pure language’. This is the reason why the task of translator is something unique and powerful for Benjamin because until he has released this greater language in his translation, ‘it remains hidden in the languages.’

Personally, I thought that translating a text was something very frustrating since a translator is never able to recreate the original in all its greatness (because languages do not share the same linguistic ‘codes’ and ‘modes of intention’) and that he/she could not avoid losing something in translation. But for Benjamin, translation does not seem to be about ‘losing’ something; On the contrary it appears as a way of ‘gaining’ something through the creation of a text which will not be a pale copy of the original but will have the potential to ‘harmonize’ originally conflicting intentions by transforming the translating language, in order to release a ‘greater’ language.

I found Benjamin’s essay as fascinating as admirable for he deals with all the issues at stake when translating a text while describing and analysing them in all their complexities and subtleties. However I would have liked him to give a few concrete examples to illustrate his concept of a ‘pure language’ and to give examples of how a translator concretely incorporates ‘the original’s mode of signification’ into his/her translation. It is nevertheless interesting to note that for Benjamin the potential of a translation to release this greater language depends on what he calls the ‘translatability of the original’ and it seems that not all the texts are translatable: ‘The lower the quality and distinction of its language, the larger the extent to which it is information, the less fertile a field is it for translation, until the utter pre-ponderance of content, far from being the lever for a translation of distinctive mode, renders it impossible.’ Concerning all the texts which do not meet these criteria, the impression is conveyed that translation ceases to be ‘of distinctive mode’ for it only becomes a mere necessity; Benjamin indeed declares that ‘Where a text is identical with truth or dogma, where it is supposed to be “the true language” in all its literalness and without the mediation of meaning, this text is unconditionally translatable. In such case translations are called for only because of the plurality of languages.’ However I still wonder: how do we evaluate the ‘translatability’ of the original text and according to which criteria? How do we evaluate the ‘quality and distinction of its language’?

To conclude one last point should be made about Benjamin’s analysis of the issues surrounding translation. It is also interesting to observe that for Benjamin, a translation also remains something provisional because ‘in its afterlife […] the original undergoes a change. Even words with fixed meaning can undergo a maturing process’ and in the meantime ‘the mother tongue of the translator is transformed as well’ so ‘what sounded fresh once may sound hackneyed later.’ Thus a translator should consider the significance of a text in its context and in the light on the changes it has to undergo throughout the ages because this text will not have the same impact today than it had fifty years ago for instance. As Benjamin aptly remarks ‘This, to be sure, is to admit that all translation is only a somewhat provisional way of coming to terms with the foreignness of languages.’


Benjamin, Walter, ‘THE TASK OF THE TRANSLATOR: An introduction to the translation of Baudelaire’s Tableaux Parisiens’, translated by Harry Zohn, Translation Studies Reader Lawrence Venuti (eds), (USA: Routledge, 1999)

Venuti, Lawrence,Translation Studies Reader, (USA: Routledge, 1999)

Wednesday, 13 January 2010


Today I will look at a poem by Paul Eluard called ‘Légion’. I chose this poem because it is a nice way of completing my posts on ‘L’Affiche Rouge’ for Eluard’s verses are also meant to celebrate and commemorate the actions of the foreigners who were involved in the French Resistance during the Occupation of France.

Born in 1895 in paris, the young Paul Eluard was already driven by an intense desire to change the world and its misery. In 1917 he wrote his first book ‘Le Devoir et l'Inquiétude’ (‘The Duty and the Anxiety’) and in 1918 his ‘Poèmes pour la Paix’ (‘Poems for Peace’) were published. Eluard was a very prolific writer and published more than seventy volumes in his lifetime. In Paris he took part in the very controversial Dadaist movement with other young writers like André Breton, Louis Aragon, and Philippe Soupault, but soon moved towards Surrealism. He signed the original Surrealist manifestos and his poetry soon acquired a new character, greatly influenced by the principles lauded by this artistic movement. Among his friends, Eluard also included many visual artists such as Picasso, Miró, Tanguy, and Dali who illustrated some of his collections of poems but also inspired his poetry in general.

Paul Eluard seen by Salvador Dali

Why did Eluard decide to write a poem about this Communist Resistance movement, namely the ‘Manouchian Group’? Quite significantly Eluard took part in the underground Resistance movement during the German occupation of France and assisted the release of clandestine literature, while writing secret papers himself. However in 1942 his ‘Poésie and Vérité’ (‘Poetry and Truth’) was condemned by the Germans, forcing him to change his residence every month. It is also interesting to remark that the politically committed writer joined the underground Communist Party in 1942 and was very active in Communist affairs. Eluard’s poems of the Resistance had a powerful impact on French morale and were circulated throughout France. Like Aragon, he must have felt a great sympathy towards the struggle of these foreign Resistance fighters.

To better understand the kind of poems Eluard writes, I would like to give a brief description of his conception of poetry. Acting as ambassador of the new poetry, he claimed that for the Surrealists, a word never fully explains an object. It only gives an idea, only tenuously represents the image, and reveals only chance relationships. According to them, language becomes most effective in suggestion through shock words. He argued :’Il nous faut peu de mots pour exprimer l’essentiel. Il nous faut tous les mots pour rendre le réel.’ (We only need a few words to convey the basic essentials. We need every word to convey the real.) The impression is conveyed that his poetry is developed spontaneously and his poems often appear pictorial, immediate, with brief yet very comprehensive verses.

It is interesting to compare ‘Légion’ with Aragon’s poem ‘L’Affiche Rouge’. Eluard emphasizes on the fact that these Resistance fighters fought for justice and his poem also commemorates their struggle. Like Aragon he insists on their humility and lays stress on their courage, their will to fight for a country which was not theirs. Then Eluard goes beyond the original commemoration intended by Aragon and starts his poems with an open recognition of the role and the impact the actions of the ‘Manouchian Group’ had on the French social and cultural life. Through his verses, Eluard seems to argue that they did not die for nothing and that thanks to their fight for freedom and justice, France is now free from oppression and submission. When he writes

If I have the right today to say in French

My sorrow and my hope, my anger and my joy […]

It’s because foreigners as we still call them

Believed in justice on earth and concrete

Eluard might also refer to the censorship he was subjected to during the German Occupation of France: if he has the right today to speak his mind freely, it is partly thanks to them. Having the freedom to speak and write his mind was something fundamental for Eluard and he dedicated a whole poem to this idea, ‘Liberté’ (available here in French and English

I encountered more difficulties when translating this poem than I did when dealing with Aragon’s verses. As I explained above, Eluard often uses ‘shock’ words to suggest an idea or an emotion and his poetry is very pictorial, relying on images which are not always easy to grasp, sometimes making the poem even more difficult to translate. Although it was more difficult to transcribe the meaning of some passages from ‘Légion’ than to capture the message in Aragon’s poem, I still found it easier to translate than the lyric poem of Baudelaire: its verses are briefer and more straightforward than those of ‘A une Passante’. Below is my attempt to translate ‘Légion’ into English but first, here is the original poem by Paul Eluard:

(The original poem was taken from the website of ‘Le Groupe Marat’, an association created by former Resistance fighters and historians whose aim is to commemorate and remind people of the role of foreigners in the French history. It is available here:


1 Si j'ai le droit de dire en français aujourd'hui
2 Ma peine et mon espoir, ma colère et ma joie
3 Si rien ne s'est voilé définitivement
4 De notre rêve immense et de notre sagesse

5 C'est que des étrangers comme on les nomme encore
6 Croyaient à la justice ici bas et concrète
7 Ils avaient dans leur sang le sang de leurs semblables
8 Ces étrangers savaient quelle était leur patrie

9 La liberté d'un peuple oriente tous les peuples
10 Un innocent aux fers enchaîne tous les hommes
11 Et qui se refuse à son coeur sait sa loi
12 Il faut vaincre le gouffre et vaincre la vermine

13 Ces étrangers d'ici qui choisirent le feu
14 Leurs portraits sur les murs sont vivants pour toujours
15 Un soleil de mémoire éclaire leur beauté
16 Ils ont tué pour vivre ils ont crié vengeance

17 Leur vie tuait la mort au coeur d'un miroir fixe
18 Le seul vœu de justice a pour écho la vie
19 Et lorsqu'on n'entendra que cette voix sur terre
20 Lorsqu'on ne tuera plus ils seront bien vengés.
21 Et ce sera justice.

Paul Eluard seen by Pablo Picasso


1 If I have the right today to say in French

2 My sorrow and my hope, my anger and my joy

3 If nothing has been permanently concealed

4 From our immense dream and our wisdom

(Line 3 Eluard uses a transitive verb (‘se voiler’) so his verse literally means ‘If nothing has concealed itself permanently’, something which does not sound right in English I think. I have ‘lost’ this idea in my translation because I had to use a passive form to transcribe the verse, therefore ‘nothing’ is not ‘active’ anymore. If Eluard had wanted to use a passive, he would have said ‘Si rien n’a été voilé définitivement’.)

5 It’s because foreigners as we still call them

6 Believed in justice on earth and concrete

7 They had in their blood the blood of their fellow human beings

8 These foreigners knew what their fatherland was

(Line 8 it was difficult to translate the word ‘patrie’: in English, this word can be translated either as ‘country’, ‘motherland’, ‘fatherland’ or ‘homeland’. I thought the word ‘country’ was too restrictive to describe the idea of a ‘patrie’, which is not only a ‘pays’ (literally a ‘country’) but also means the place where people belong to, the place they fight for because they consider it to be their ‘home’ and not only the country they live in. It is also interesting to note that the word ‘patrie’ is derived from the latin pater which means ‘father’ so I decided the word ‘fatherland’ was appropriate to capture the scope of the term ‘patrie’.)

9 The freedom of a nation guides every nation

10 One innocent imprisoned enchains every men

11 And who denies his heart knows his law

12 It is necessary to overcome the abyss and to defeat the vermin

(Line 10 Eluard uses the expression ‘être aux fers’: literally it means to be ‘in iron’ but in French ‘fers’ designates the chains used to tie the hands of prisoners so the expression that says to be ‘aux fers’ can either be translated as to be ‘imprisoned’ or as to be ‘enchained’. However Eluard also uses the verb ‘to enchain’ at the end of the same verse so to avoid repetition I chose to transcribe it as ‘imprisoned’)

(Line 12 Eluard uses the verb ‘vaincre’ (to defeat/overcome/beat…) twice, however in English I decided to use two different verbs since you cannot really ‘overcome’ a vermin or defeat an ‘abyss’; As a result, Eluard’s anaphora was lost in translation…)

13 These local foreigners who chose the fire

14 Their pictures on the walls are living forever

15 A sun of memory lights up their beauty

16 They have killed to live they have cried for revenge

17 Their life was killing death in the heart of a fixed mirror

18 The only vow of justice has life as an echo

19 And when this will be the only voice we hear on earth

20 When we will stop killing they will be avenged

21 And it will be justice.

(Line 17 was quite hard to translate for the meaning of Eluard’s verse was not very clear to me and unfortunately I had to translate it almost literally as I was afraid of extrapolating on its significance.

What does the antithesis ‘Their life was killing death’ means? Does it mean they ‘overcame’ death because what they left behind through their struggle, namely beliefs in freedom and justice, will live forever? Or does it mean that they fought for the French Resistance no matter the consequences, they were not afraid of dying so death was not meaningful anymore? The latter explanation could be justified by the fact that in line 18, since the ‘echo’ of their ‘vow of justice’ is no death but ‘life’.

However what about the ‘fixed mirror’? Does it refer to the society they lived in and the people who did not do anything to fight against the Germans and were therefore passive, ‘fixed’? Or is it saying that they never hesitated or gave up even though they knew they could die so when they looked in the mirror, they saw a ‘fixed’ image of themselves, a metaphor for their unchanging motivation to fight? I am going too far here? Does it look simplier than that to you?)


Academy of American Poets, ‘Paul Éluard’, Biographies of American Poets (2006) Literary Reference Center. EBSCO.

Benoit, Leroy J, ‘POETIC THEMES OF PAUL ELUARD’, Modern Language Quarterly (1951). Literary Reference Center. EBSCO.

Elytis, Odysseas, ‘The poets’, American Poetry Review (1994) Literary Reference Center. EBSCO.

Groupe Marat, ‘Poèmes autour de l’Affiche rouge’, available at:

Matthews, J. H, ‘Paul Éluard et la peinture surréaliste’, Symposium 37.2 (1983) Literary Reference Center. EBSCO.

Saturday, 9 January 2010


In my previous post I talk about Missak Manouchian and the foreign members of the French Resistance movement whose tragic fate led Aragon to write his poem, ‘L’affiche rouge’. After some research I found the letter Missak Manouchian wrote to his wife Mélinée the morning before his execution. I though it would be good idea to post this letter on my blog since Aragon was inspired by it when he wrote his poem.

In fact Aragon directly refers to Mélinée in the poem and makes several references to Manouchian’s own words, especially in the fourth, the fifth and the sixth stanza. Like in the poem Missak Manouchian appears as someone very humble and insists on the fact that he does not have any hatred for the German people. I found his letter fascinating and very touching at the same time because, although he is about to be executed, he still writes with a lot of humility and tries to remain calm and brave. Like in the poem his tone is rather straightforward but still very moving, since he is saying goodbye to his wife and friends but above all to his own life. I will also publish my own English translation of the letter because I thought it would be an interesting element to add in order to complete my previous post.

Here is a picture of the actual letter by Missak Manouchian :

Now here is the French version of the letter: (the original letter was taken from the ‘’ website available at: )

« Ma Chère Mélinée, ma petite orpheline bien-aimée,

Dans quelques heures, je ne serai plus de ce monde. Nous allons être fusillés cet après-midi à 15 heures. Cela m'arrive comme un accident dans ma vie, je n'y crois pas mais pourtant je sais que je ne te verrai plus jamais.

Que puis-je t'écrire ? Tout est confus en moi et bien clair en même temps.

Je m'étais engagé dans l'Armée de Libération en soldat volontaire et je meurs à deux doigts de la Victoire et du but. Bonheur à ceux qui vont nous survivre et goûter la douceur de la Liberté et de la Paix de demain. Je suis sûr que le peuple français et tous les combattants de la Liberté sauront honorer notre mémoire dignement. Au moment de mourir, je proclame que je n'ai aucune haine contre le peuple allemand et contre qui que ce soit, chacun aura ce qu'il méritera comme châtiment et comme récompense. Le peuple allemand et tous les autres peuples vivront en paix et en fraternité après la guerre qui ne durera plus longtemps. Bonheur à tous... J'ai un regret profond de ne t'avoir pas rendue heureuse, j'aurais bien voulu avoir un enfant de toi, comme tu le voulais toujours. Je te prie donc de te marier après la guerre, sans faute, et d'avoir un enfant pour mon bonheur, et pour accomplir ma dernière volonté, marie-toi avec quelqu'un qui puisse te rendre heureuse. Tous mes biens et toutes mes affaires je les lègue à toi à ta sœur et à mes neveux. Après la guerre tu pourras faire valoir ton droit de pension de guerre en tant que ma femme, car je meurs en soldat régulier de l'armée française de la libération.

Avec l'aide des amis qui voudront bien m'honorer, tu feras éditer mes poèmes et mes écrits qui valent d'être lus. Tu apporteras mes souvenirs si possible à mes parents en Arménie. Je mourrai avec mes 23 camarades tout à l'heure avec le courage et la sérénité d'un homme qui a la conscience bien tranquille, car personnellement, je n'ai fait de mal à personne et si je l'ai fait, je l'ai fait sans haine. Aujourd'hui, il y a du soleil. C'est en regardant le soleil et la belle nature que j'ai tant aimée que je dirai adieu à la vie et à vous tous, ma bien chère femme et mes bien chers amis. Je pardonne à tous ceux qui m'ont fait du mal ou qui ont voulu me faire du mal sauf à celui qui nous a trahis pour racheter sa peau et ceux qui nous ont vendus. Je t'embrasse bien fort ainsi que ta sœur et tous les amis qui me connaissent de loin ou de près, je vous serre tous sur mon cœur. Adieu.

Ton ami, ton camarade, ton mari.

Manouchian Michel.

P.S. J'ai quinze mille francs dans la valise de la rue de Plaisance. Si tu peux les prendre, rends mes dettes et donne le reste à Armène. M. M.”

Mélinée Manouchian

Here is my translation of the letter:

“My dear Mélinée, my beloved little orphan,

In a few hours I will no longer be of this world. We are going to be shot this afternoon at 3.00pm. This is happening to me as an accident in my life, I do not believe it and yet I know that I will never see you again.

What can I write to you? Everything inside me is confused, yet clear at the same time.

I joined the Army of Liberation as a voluntary soldier and I die within inches of victory and of the objective. Happiness to those who will survive us and enjoy the Freedom and Peace of tomorrow. I am sure that the French people and all those who fight for freedom will know how to honour our memory with dignity. At the moment of death I proclaim that I have no hatred for the German people and for whomsoever, everyone will have what he will deserve as punishment and as reward. The German people and all the other nations will live in peace and brotherhood after the war, which will not last much longer. Happiness for all… I have one profound regret and that is not having made you happy, I would have liked to have a child with you, as you always wished. So I am asking you to get married after the war, no matter what, and, for my happiness, to have a child, and in order to fulfil my last wish, marry someone who can make you happy. All my goods and all my belongings I leave them to you your sister and my nephews. After the war you can claim your right to a war pension as my wife, for I die as a regular soldier from the French army of liberation.

With the help of friends who will be willing to honour me properly, you will publish my poems and writings that are worth being read. If possible you will bring my souvenirs to my parents in Armenia. I will soon die with my 23 comrades with the courage and the serenity of a man with a very clear conscience, for personally, I haven’t done any harm to anybody and if I have, I did it without hatred. Today is sunny. It is while looking at the sun and the beautiful nature that I loved so much that I will say farewell to life and to all of you, my beloved wife and my beloved friends. I forgive all those who did hurt me or those who wanted to do so, with the exception of the one who betrayed us to save his life and those who denounced us. Lots of love to you and to your sister and all the friends who know me, near and far, I hold you all in my heart. Farewell. Your friend, your comrade, your husband.

Manouchian Michel

P.S. I have fifteen thousand francs in the suitcase of the ‘rue de Plaisance’. If you can take them, pay off my debts and give the rest to Armène. M.M."

If you are interested in the story of the ‘Manouchian Group’, you can also have a look at two films which were made in remembrance of their struggle:

The first one is called ‘L’affiche Rouge’ (‘The Red Poster’) and was directed by Frank Cassenti in 1975. It mainly deals with a group of actors and actresses who decide to organize a party in remembrance of the ‘Manouchian Group’. All through the film they make parodies of the Nazis and recall scenes from the past, while questioning witnesses, friends and relatives of the victims. The film won the Jean Vigo prize in 1976. I could not find any trailer but here are two pictures from the film:

The second one is more recent and is called ‘L’Armée du Crime’ (‘The Army of Crime’), a title taken from the caption on the propaganda poster ‘The Red Poster’ (‘L’Affiche Rouge’) (see my previous post) and was directed by Robert Guédiguian in 2009. It is a gripping account of Jewish, Poles, Romanians and Italians Resistance fighters in Paris during the German Occupation and deals with the events surrounding ‘The Red Poster’ affair. It tells the story of the ‘Manouchian Group’ from its birth until the execution of its members in 1944. Here are some pictures from the film along with a trailer with English subtitles:


All the websites which helped me to write this post:

Pérez, Michel, ‘L’affiche Rouge’, in Charlie Hebdo, November 1976, available at :

Friday, 8 January 2010


Today I have decided to translate a poem by the French poet Louis Aragon. In fact although a lot of his verses are available in French, I really struggled to find English translations of the poems online as only a few are available. The only version I found was the one from Wikipedia so I thought it would be a good idea to try to make another translation available in English. Moreover it will give me the opportunity to talk about the poet himself and his political commitment since he was a major figure of the French political and literary history.

Louis Aragon was born in 1897 in the fashionable area of 'Neuilly-sur-Seine'
in Paris and died in 1982. Poet, novelist, journalist and essayist, his poems and prose writings often deal with his experience of the Second World War and celebrate communist heroism and patriotism, while throwing light on the importance of memory and commemoration. Aragon started his literary career with his group of Surrealist and Dadaist friends but eventually left them to entirely devote himself to communism until the end of his life. His ideological convictions are often reflected in his literary works.

The poem I am dealing with today is called ‘L’affiche rouge’ (literally ‘The Red Poster’) and is taken from Aragon’s autobiographical novel ‘Le Roman Inachevé’ (literally ‘The unfinished novel’) which is written in verses. Louis Aragon wrote it in 1955 in remembrance of the ‘Manouchian group’, a group of foreigners who fought for the French Resistance and were arrested and shot by the Gestapo in February 1944. The one-day trial of these Resistance fighters, known as the ‘Manouchian group’ (after the leader of the Parisian section of the organization, the Armenian poet and activist Missak Manouchian), gave the collaborationist press the opportunity to create a large publicity campaign. The reason behind it was rather simple: in the ‘Manouchian group’, 20 were foreigners and 11 were Jews. The aim of this huge campaign was to use the group in order to draw a picture of the Resistance as something communist, foreign and above all Jewish. Quite significantly the daily France-Soir headlined its coverage of the trial with: “The trial of the 24 Judeo-Communist terrorists/The Jew Rayman and Alfonso, accomplices of Missak Manouchian, tell judges the story of the murder of Dr. Ritter.”But why is the poem called ‘The Red Poster’?

During the few days before the Manouchian group’s execution, the collaborators campaign reached its height through the publication and posting, throughout France, of ‘L’Affiche Rouge’, namely ‘The Red Poster’. The headline of the poster asked ‘Liberators?’ and at its bottom end one could read: ‘Liberation! By the army of crime.’ Then 10 photos showing members of the group were placed in the middle of the poster, along with a summary of their ‘crimes’: “Alfonso — Spanish Red — 7 attacks” “Grzywacz — Polish Jew — 2 Attacks,” “Rayman — Polish Jew — 13 Attacks.” At the apex of the inverted triangle of photos, pointed to by an arrow, were the words: “Manouchian — Armenian — Chief of the Group — 56 Attacks 150 dead 800 Wounded.”

(see the poster below)

Aragon’s poem had a very specific aim: it was written in remembrance of these Resistance fighters and aimed at preventing their story from being forgotten. The poem is specifically dedicated to all the foreigners who fought for France during the Occupation of the country. All through his poem Aragon insists on the simplicity of the Resistance fighters: he suggests that they were not looking for glory and that they died soberly.

Below is the original poem in French: (Taken from an excellent website dedicated to Aragon, ‘Louis Aragon Online’, created by Dr. Wolfgang Babilas, professor at the ‘Romanisches Seminar der Westfälischen Wilhelms-Universität’ in Munich. Available at:

Missak Manouchian

« L’affiche rouge » (alternative title: « Strophe pour se souvenir »)

1 Vous n'avez réclamé la gloire ni les larmes

2 Ni l'orgue ni la prière aux agonisants

3 Onze ans déjà que cela passe vite onze ans

4 Vous vous étiez servi simplement de vos armes

5 La mort n'éblouit pas les yeux des Partisans

6 Vous aviez vos portraits sur les murs de nos villes

7 Noirs de barbe et de nuit hirsutes menaçants

8 L'affiche qui semblait une tache de sang

9 Parce qu'à prononcer vos noms sont difficiles

10 Y cherchait un effet de peur sur les passants

11 Nul ne semblait vous voir Français de préférence

12 Les gens allaient sans yeux pour vous le jour durant

13 Mais à l'heure du couvre-feu des doigts errants

14 Avaient écrit sous vos photos MORTS POUR LA FRANCE

15 Et les mornes matins en étaient différents

16 Tout avait la couleur uniforme du givre

17 À la fin février pour vos derniers moments

18 Et c'est alors que l'un de vous dit calmement

19 Bonheur à tous Bonheur à ceux qui vont survivre

20 Je meurs sans haine en moi pour le peuple allemand

21 Adieu la peine et le plaisir Adieu les roses

22 Adieu la vie adieu la lumière et le vent

23 Marie-toi sois heureuse et pense à moi souvent

24 Toi qui vas demeurer dans la beauté des choses

25 Quand tout sera fini plus tard en Erivan

26 Un grand soleil d'hiver éclaire la colline

27 Que la nature est belle et que le coeur me fend

28 La justice viendra sur nos pas triomphants

29 Ma Mélinée ô mon amour mon orpheline

30 Et je te dis de vivre et d'avoir un enfant

31 Ils étaient vingt et trois quand les fusils fleurirent

32 Vingt et trois qui donnaient le cœur avant le temps

33 Vingt et trois étrangers et nos frères pourtant

34 Vingt et trois amoureux de vivre à en mourir

35 Vingt et trois qui criaient la France en s'abattant

The Manouchian Group

Now here is my version of the poem in English with some annotations when I was not sure about the translation:

‘The Red Poster’ (alternative title: ‘Stanza to Remember’)

1 You demanded neither glory nor tears

2 Nor organ nor last rites

3 Eleven years already how quickly eleven years go by

4 You made use simply of your weapons

5 Death does not dazzle the eyes of Partisans

6 You had your pictures on the walls of our cities

7 Black with beard and night hirsute menacing

8 The poster that looked like a bloodstain

9 Because your names are hard to pronounce

10 Was meant to create fear among the passers-by

(In line 9 I did not follow Aragon’s syntax: in the original, it literally says ‘Because to pronounce your names are difficult’, but I thought it sounded a bit odd in English. However I am not sure about my decision since Aragon’s syntactic choice in the original poem would also sound odd in spoken French but is not really shocking since it is poetic language… Should I have kept the same syntax to respect Aragon’s poetic choice or was it a good thing to adapt it for the English translation?)

(Line 10 was difficult to translate because what Aragon is saying is that the poster was meant to have an effect of fear on the passers-by, but talking about an ‘effect of fear’ sounded a bit bizarre. So I chose to skip the word ‘effect’ and to talk about the creation of ‘fear’. I also hesitated to write ‘Was meant to frighten the passers-by’ but this is not exactly what Aragon writes, otherwise he would have said ‘cherchait à effrayer les passants’ and it would have simplified the original verse.)

11 No one seemed to see you French by choice

12 People went by all day without seeing you

13 But at curfew wandering fingers

14 Had written under your photos FALLEN FOR FRANCE

15 And it made the dismal mornings different

(Line 12 Aragon literally says that people were passing by all day with ‘no eyes for you’; yet I decided to use the verb ‘to see’ to translate this idea since I did not think a literal translation would have suited.)

16 Everything had the uniform colour of frost

17 In late February for your last moments

18 And that is when one of you said calmly

19 Happiness to all Happiness to those who will survive

20 I die with no hate in me for the German people

( Line 20 in the original the speaker literally says ‘I die with no hate in me’. I hesitated to translate it as ‘I die with not hate inside’ or as ‘I die with not hate in my heart’ but since it is not exactly what Aragon writes, I chose to translate it literally.)

21 Farewell grief and pleasure Farewell roses

22 Farewell life farewell light and wind

23 Get married be happy and think of me often

24 You who will remain in the beauty of things

25 When everything will be over later in Yerevan (a)

(Line 25 in the original Aragon literally writes ‘when everything will be finished’. I decided to replace the word ‘finished’ by the preposition ‘over’ because I think it is shorter and keeps a better rhythm within the verse.)

26 A great winter sun lights up the hill

27 How beautiful is nature and how broken is my heart

28 Justice will come on our triumphant footsteps

29 My Mélinée (b) O my love my orphan girl

30 And I am telling you to live and to have a child

31 There were twenty-three of them when the guns flowered

32 Twenty-three who were giving the heart before the time

33 Twenty-three foreigners and yet our brothers

34 Twenty-three in love with life to the point of losing it

35 Twenty-three who were shouting France as they fell.

(Line 31 in the original Aragon writes that there were 23 of them but in French it literally says ‘They were 23’. If I had translated it literally in English it could have meant that they were 23 years old, which is not what Aragon says. Thus I had to translate it as ‘There were 23 of them’ which, in French, would have been ‘Il y avait 23 d’entre eux’.)


(a) Capital of Armenia.
(b) Mélinée Manouchian: widow of Missak Manouchian.

Aragon’s poem was then set to music by the French singer Léo Ferré. I thought it would be nice to listen to it and to see how he chose to sing the poem. The tone of his voice or the melody of the song might help to capture the atmosphere of Aragon’s poem.


Abidor, Mitch, ‘The Manouchian Group’, from the Manouchian group archive. []

Block, Marcelline, ‘Louis Aragon’. The Literary Encyclopedia. 13 October 2008.

Drake, David, French Intellectuals and Politics from the Dreyfus Affair to the Occupation (Palgrave Macmillan: 2005)

Gavronsky, Serge. "ARAGON: POLITICS AND PICASSO." (Romanic Review: 2001) Literary Reference Center. EBSCO.

Kimyongür, Angela, 'Fais de cela un monument': Louis Aragon, War, Memory and Commemoration’, French Cultural Studies (Sage Publications : 2005)

Philippe Olivera, ‘Louis Aragon’, 1997, full text available online at []

An excellent website on Aragon’s life and art: (Although it is mostly in French and German)