Friday, 8 January 2010

LOUIS ARAGON: A TRANSLATION OF 'THE RED POSTER'


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: http://www.uni-muenster.de/LouisAragon/welcome.html)


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’.)


NOTES ON THE POEM :

(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.





REFERENCES


Abidor, Mitch, ‘The Manouchian Group’, from the Manouchian group archive. [http://www.marxists.org/history/france/resistance/manouchian/index.htm]


Block, Marcelline, ‘Louis Aragon’. The Literary Encyclopedia. 13 October 2008.
[http://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=136]


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 [http://www.culturesfrance.com/adpf-publi/folio/aragon/index.html]


An excellent website on Aragon’s life and art: http://www.uni-muenster.de/LouisAragon/ (Although it is mostly in French and German)

11 comments:

  1. A fascinating piece of history. Writing MORT POUR LA FRANCE on the poster is very moving. This seems simpler to translate than the Baudelaire its poetic power lies in its historical witness.

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  2. I also found it fascinating and that is why I wanted to share it on my blog. I liked the way it celebrates their courageous lives while pointing out their humility. I think the poem is very powerful in that it reminds us this is a part of our history that we must not forget. I also found it rather straightforward and yet very moving. And yes it was simplier to translate than Baudelaire's poem! While Baudelaire talks about his impressions and perceptions of a woman he has seen only briefly and therefore uses a lot of images and comparisons, Aragon deals with more concrete events and as I said, his style is more straightforward so it was indeed easier to transcribe.

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  3. I didn't know well Aragon although I am French and interested in history of French Resistance. This translation has helped me to understand better the poem by situating it in its historical and political context. However I wonder why Aragon has chosen 'Manouchian group' to tell this story and what was his relationship with these Resistance fighters ; did he know them ? Did he write other poems about other Resistance groups ?

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  4. I'm very interested in film adaptations of poems, and I guess this led me to ask broader questions of this film clip. I was wondering: do you think it's an attempt to 'translate' the poem into something visual? Or is it more a kind of gloss on the poem? Some of the images (Yosemite National Park, Jean Moulin, Ann Frank) seemed a bit clunky to me - is this a filmmaker getting lost in translation?

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  5. To answer cha.rotte’s question, I do not know whether Aragon knew the members of the ‘Manouchian Group’ or not. However if we look at Aragon’s life and career, a few explanations can be found concerning his motivations to write the poem. First the ‘Manouchian Group’ was a Communist Resistance movement. The group fought the Germans as part of the FTP-MOI, a part of the larger Francs Tireurs et Partisans (FTP), and the continuation of the French Communist Party’s (PCF). Its members were very active in the French Resistance, carrying out several actions such as the sabotage of factories working for the Germans and even more violent actions such as the attempt to kill von Schaumburg, Commander of German troops of Paris, or the successful execution of SS General Ritter, head of the hated ‘Service du Travail Obligatoire’, the German forced labor service (see http://www.marxists.org/history/france/resistance/manouchian/manouchian-group.htm for more information on the ‘Manouchian Group’).
    Through his poem Aragon probably wanted to commemorate their tragic death and remind people of their struggle for he himself was an active member of the French Resistance and more importantly, like the members of the group, he also was a committed Communist. All these elements help to understand his decision to write a poem about them and their struggle. Through his writings Aragon indeed fought against German propaganda and Nazism. Apart from the fact that he wrote several clandestine texts, in July 1933 he also was, with Paul Nizan, sub-editor of a journal called ‘Commune’, edited by the ‘Association des écrivains et artistes révolutionnaires’ (‘Association of the revolutionary writers and artists’) whose aim was to gather a maximum of artists together in order to fight against Fascism and Nazism. Although his actions to help the French Resistance were more journalistic and literary, Aragon must have felt sympathy for the Manouchian Group’s struggle for they both shared common beliefs and they both stood up for their ideals.
    If you are interested in Aragon’s politically committed poems, it is worth looking at another famous text ‘La Rose et le Réséda’, available here: http://www.sceren.fr/memoire/guy_moquet/college-lycee/manouchian_rose.htm
    This poem was dedicated to 4 Resistance fighters, Gabriel Péri, Estienne d’Orves, Guy Môquet and Gilbert Dru, who were from various political horizons (right- and left-wing) but were all shot by the Germans. It was published in a brochure called ‘Mot d’ordre’ edited by French Resistance fighters and many copies were printed illegally.

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  6. 'Mangrovethroatwarbler', to be honest I haven't had a chance to go to the cinema to watch the film; neither could I get a copy of it since the DVD will only be released in February 2010. However from the reviews I have read and the clips I have seen, I do not think the filmmaker was directly inspired by Aragon's text when he made the film, although it can offer an interesting visual illustration of his poem.
    I think the film is specifically dealing with the actual story of the Manouchian Group and is based on historical events, although it seems that the filmmaker did extrapolate a little bit. Personally I think that this might well be a filmmaker getting lost in the visual translation of the actual historical events for the impression is given that he uses a lot of clichés and stereotypes from the French Resistance but also tried to play on our emotional empathy for the characters, trying to make us identify with them. He probably wanted to make his film more attractive to the public by playing on their emotions and their ability to identify with what they see and was therefore hoping to reach a wider audience in France but also in other countries.
    I will certainly try to get a copy of it when it will be available so as to see how Robert Guédiguian decided to present the struggle of these Resistance fighters; however I will still remain a bit suspicious towards this adaptation since the actual letter written by Missak Manouchian himself and the poem written by Aragon, an artist who was also a member of the French Resistance movement and shared common beliefs with the victims, seem more 'genuine' and trustworthy to me. Yet both Aragon and the members of the group were influenced by their political convictions so maybe the film will offer a more objective perspective on the actual events and the circumstances surrounding them...

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  7. I found your translation of this poem lost nothing, apart from maybe a pinch of poetic license! For I feel that your translation conveyed to me the poet's original intent of conjuring up stark emotive imagery set against the backdrop of human sacrifice and the horrors of war. However it can be very difficult to capture the deeper cognitive meaning of poetry when in the transcribing process, and here I quote you from your previous Baudelaire blog:


    When translating literature the aim is not only ‘intelligible communication’ between two people like in a conversation: in the case of a poem for example, the translator has to consider style, punctuation, syntax, rhythm, meaning… The translator is not only dealing with simple ‘codes’, he is involved in the poet’s creative process. He has to make his own choices, according to his own criteria and knowledge, while keeping a certain balance within the ‘author– translator– reader triangle’


    Thus I feel that getting inside the poet's creative process is the key to unlocking the original intent and indeed the balance of what is being conveyed, therefore no two transcriptions would be exactly the same. As an example I have translated the last 5 lines of the poem (31-35) with my individual pinch of poetic license, which I hope still captures the emotive feel of the ending.

    23 standing as the guns flowered,
    23 offering their hearts before their time,
    23 foreigners and yet our brothers,
    23 in love with life yet on the cusp of
    its loss,
    23 shouting "Viv'la France" as they drop.


    I wonder if you think that my translation is too far removed from the original to keep its message intact, and if you think that your very accurate translation conveys a truer sense of the poet's vision?

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  8. Thanks a lot for your comment Charles and ‘bravo!’ for your translation. It is an interesting attempt to capture the message of the poem; it helped me to stand back from my own translation and to consider another way of transcribing the poem in English. I don’t think my translation conveys a ‘truer’ sense of poet’s vision; it is only a more accurate way of translating the poem, for I think there is no ‘true’ translation but only different ways of interpreting it in its context. However you might be right in saying that my translation lacks a bit of ‘poetic license’ since a very accurate translation is way of conveying a very precise version of the poem and cannot sound as good as a poem originally written in English. This is where the difficulty lies I think: to what extent can we adapt the original poem to make it sound better in the language we are translating it into? Is there a limit? Do we have to take our readers into consideration or should we concentrate on translating the poem so as to do justice to the original verses? I suppose we have to try to keep a certain balance between all these elements, while keeping in mind that we will never be able to achieve the perfect balance between them and that we will always lose something in translation. That is why a translation can never be definitive.

    Although your own translation does not always respect the original syntax and rhythm, I think it does keep the original message intact and does justice to Aragon’s poem. Moreover through the syntactic choices you have made, these last lines do ‘flow’ very well in English. However I am not quite sure about your decision to replace ‘France’ by “Viv’ la France”: it is adding a new rhythm to the verse and conveys a different emotion. To me Aragon chose to make them shout ‘La France’ only because this reflects the impression conveyed all through the poem, where they seem very calm and full of humility. Thus shouting ‘Vive la France’ would appear a bit too ‘aggressive’ and virulent compared to the impression given of them in the poem I think. Your last verse is more an adaptation of the original line rather than an actual translation. You combined what the original verse is actually saying and your own vision, informed by the overall impression you had of the poem and the story of these people, of what they could have said before dying. So in my opinion it is going a bit too far… But this is only my opinion and someone else could tell you that you were right in interpreting and adapting the verse in this way. If you are interested in the process of translation you should read my next post on Walter Benjamin ‘The Task of the Translator’ for he deals with most of these issues.

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  9. ‘Mangrovethroatwarbler’, I found three interviews of Robert Guédiguian online (available here: http://www.videos-stream.com/watch.php?id=237609266 / http://www.videos-stream.com/watch.php?id=1299872632 / http://www.videos-stream.com/watch.php?id=4006295455) They are interesting in that the filmmaker explains why he decided to write a film about the ‘Manouchian Group’ and what he wanted to impart through his film. Although he does not refer to Aragon’s poem, I think we can certainly find ‘intertextual’ references to the poem in the film. Like Aragon, Guédiguian wanted to emphasize on the fact that these foreigners fought for freedom and justice in a country which was not theirs (line 28 Aragon writes ‘Justice will come on our triumphant footsteps’); Like Aragon, he argues that he wanted to commemorate their courageous actions. It is also interesting to remark that both the poet and the filmmaker were struck by the same elements in ‘The Red poster’: in fact they both talk about the fact that Missak Manouchian was presented as a threatening and dangerous person for he was pictured with a black beard in a very dark atmosphere (Aragon indeed writes: ‘Black with beard and night hirsute menacing ‘).Then Guédiguian wanted to reflect the idea that these Resistance fighters were prepared to die for their ideals and he also laid stress their bravery: Line 5 Aragon writes ‘Death does not dazzle the eyes of Partisans’. Moreover Guédiguian asserts that he was deeply inspired by the last letter of Manouchian to his wife and as a result that he wanted to throw light on his humility, his faith in humanity and above all, on the fact that he died with no hate for the German people (we know that Aragon was directly inspired by this letter).

    However, if we decide to take the film as a visual ‘translation’ or ‘adaptation’ of the poem, I think we could also say that Robert Guédiguian got ‘lost in translation’. Although both the poem and the film make a strong appeal to the readers/audience’s imagination, Robert Guédiguian claims that he had to include many scenes of love and action in his film to make it more attractive for the public. He indeed explains that the story of ‘L’Affiche Rouge’ is well-known among French people so they might not be willing or eager to see a film about it. Therefore he wanted to attract their attention and interest through these kind of scenes so as to create an emotional empathy for the characters. Yet I do not think that Aragon does extrapolate like this in his poem; in my opinion, even if he does justice to Manouchian’s letter, he does not try to romanticize the story of these foreigners and the tone/style of his poem reflects this impression. I think his verses are more about the importance of commemoration and remembrance. Moreover, although Aragon presents them as human beings like everyone else, he does insist on the fact that they were ‘exceptions’ and that their actions should be recognized as heroic (at least this is the impression I had when reading the poem); On the contrary, Guédiguian explains that he wanted to present them as normal people like you and me so the public could identify with them. He indeed argues that through his film he wanted to say that you do not have to be ‘special’ or important to protest and fight against revolting things. Both the poem and the film play on our emotions but I think what the film does is that it extrapolates on the lives of these Resistance Fighters in order to create a strong emotional empathy. It makes Aragon’s poem much more uncluttered and straightforward than the film, at least this is what I understood through Guédiguian’s description of his film.

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  10. Really very relevant artical with the topic it is good work. http://www.translation.pk

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  11. Hi Juliette,

    Superb job! The translation is great as is and I can see that you tried hard to keep it as literal as possible. Below please find a few suggestions that I hope you would be interested in using if you wanted to take a more adventurous approach to this. I hope you find some use for them.

    Cheers.

    Your pictures were splattered on the walls of our towns

    Because pronouncing your names was difficult

    During curfew time some mysterious fingers

    Had scribbled under your pictures Morts ...

    And the dismal mornings felt somehow different

    I die with no hatred for the German people

    When it is all over later in Yerevan

    How beautiful nature how my heart is hurting

    And I tell you to live and have yourself a child

    They were 23 when the guns flowered

    23 who sacrificed their hearts before their time

    23 who loved life to death

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