Christiana Hills

... translating André Maurois translating Rudyard Kipling
If – A Counterattack

For André Maurois


If you can watch your viceroy’s deteriorating outrage
And without mentioning servile motherhood, start rebuilding it,
Or, through servile mysticism, lose the gaffer by a hundred steeplechases
Without gall and without daylight;

If you can be an elf without being theatrical with amnesia,
If you can be debilitating without being tempting,
And, feeling yourself hampered, without hampering your bellows,
Nevertheless fight and defend yourself;

If you can bear hearing your parole
Bounced upon by clothing in order to excite satisfaction,
And hearing that segregated coral lie about you
Without lying about motherhood yourself;

If you can stay dilapidated while being poor,
If you can stay petty while consulting notions,
And if you can love all your amenities like a fairy,
Without any of them being everything for you;

If you know how to meditate, observe, and know,
Without ever becoming scrawny or destitute,
To dream, without letting your repulsion be your mainspring,
To think, without being mere grammar;

If you can be dank without ever joining a raffle,
If you can be sheepish and never impressive,
If you know how to be clingy, if you know how to be scurrilous,
Without being glittering or diminutive;

If you can meet cubbyholes after defamation
And receive those two jockstraps with the same chessman,
If you can keep your countrywoman and your particulars
When everyone else is losing theirs,

Then notions, dice, exasperations and vicinities
Will all forever be your sloppy escapes,
And, what’s worth more than notions and biospheres,
You will be a counterattack, my filth.

Translator's Note

This poem is a translated translation—that is, a translated version of André Maurois’s 1918 French translation of Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem, “If.” And by translated, I mean literal movement: back and forth through the dictionary, using a N + 7–based technique[1]  of my own invention.

I first came across Maurois’s translation of Kipling’s poem as I was translating Oulipo member Michèle Audin’s Cent vingt et un jours (One Hundred Twenty-Days). Parts of the poem are quoted in the novel, and when I sought to replace lines from Maurois’s French translation with Kipling’s corresponding original lines in English, I quickly realized the impossibility of my endeavor, since Maurois’s translation is a radical transformation of the poem. I still ended up citing Kipling’s original lines in my translation, but had to adjust the context in which they appear and add an awkward ellipsis to get to the poem’s famous final line.

To get back at Maurois for the tricky translation acrobatics he imposed on me, I’ve posed this counterattack, a radical transformation of his translation. My technique might be called [N, A] + 7 > [N, A] – 7, with the left side of the formula being applied to the source text, the “>” representing “into” (as with FR>EN), and the right side being applied to the target text. My process was as follows: using a bilingual French-English dictionary,[2] I first applied the “+ 7” technique to all the nouns and adjectives in Maurois’s French translation. I then translated the result into English, taking care to use the first English word suggested in my bilingual dictionary for the transformed French words. For counterbalance, I applied a “- 7” technique to the translated nouns and adjectives in the English version, which you see here. I also made small editorial adjustments to this “final” version, as a translator’s liberty is wont to do.

Also, I gave no consideration to the rhyme scheme in the original.

[1] The technique of N + 7, also known as S + 7, has been defined by Raymond Queneau as “replacing each noun (N) with the seventh following it in the dictionary” (Oulipo Compendium). Proper nouns are neither replaced nor included when counting.

[2] Mine happens to be the 2004 edition of the Collins Robert French Dictionary, the first non-pocket bilingual dictionary I ever owned.

Christiana Hills

Christiana Hills is a translator from the French with a penchant for the experimental. Her translation of Oulipo member Michèle Audin's One Hundred Twenty-One Days was published earlier this year with Deep Vellum. She is currently finishing up a PhD in Translation Studies at Binghamton University while living in Raleigh, North Carolina.