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.
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
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
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 http://www.ombredor.com/vb/lib.html).
I encountered more difficulties when translating this poem than I did when dealing with
(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: http://www.groupemarat.com/)
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
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
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: http://www.groupemarat.com/pdf/marat-poemes_affiche_rouge.pdf
Matthews, J. H, ‘Paul Éluard et la peinture surréaliste’, Symposium 37.2 (1983) Literary Reference Center. EBSCO.