En ce temps-là: Where to begin with La Prose du Transsibérien?
By Timothy Young
Blaise Cendrars’ monumental long poem from 1913, La Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France is a transforming work. When translating the poem recently for a musical setting, I faced the task of making a literal/literary transformation. My primary goal was language; the secondary was sonority – to find new words that could be performed as a libretto. Knowing many previous translations existed, I put on blinders and proceeded as if in ignorance. Only after finishing my task did I glance around myself and compare my words with those of other translators. A look at variations on the first two lines shows many ways youth and memory make themselves known:
“En ce temps-là, j'étais en mon adolescence
J'avais à peine seize ans et je ne me souvenais déjà plus de mon enfance.”
Original French, 1913
"I was a youngster in those days.
Hardly sixteen and already I couldn't remember my childhood."
John Dos Passos, 1931.
“It was in the time of my adolescence.
I was scarcely sixteen and I had already forgotten my childhood.”
Walter Albert, 1966
“Back then I was still young.
I was barely sixteen but my childhood memories were gone.”
Ron Padgett, 1992
“At that time I was in my adolescence
I was barely sixteen years old and had already forgotten my childhood.”
Alan Passes, 2000
“At that time I was a kid
Barely sixteen and already I no longer remembered my childhood.”
Donald Wellman, undated
“I was in my adolescence at the time
Scarcely sixteen and already I no longer remembered my childhood.”
Ekaterina Likhtik, undated
“Back then, I was still so young
I was only sixteen, yet I remembered nothing of my childhood.”
Timothy Young, 2007
Kid? Adolescence? Young? – Not remember or simply forget? - But childhood, certainly. (Maybe there are too few fitting synonyms for this concept.) Translating this poem is an exercise in personal and private choices. Cendrars was remembering, as best he could (or wanted), so our collective task, following him, was to find words that fit, then figure out how we would have written the poem if it had occurred to us.
The liberties needed for reworking this poem are like those exercised by another writer as she struggled with a different poem of youthful memory. When Gertrude Stein agreed to translate Georges Hugnet’s “Enfances” in 1930, she knew that she would be writing a reaction to his poem, rather than a parallel English version (even though Hugnet assumed the latter, and thus, their friendship faded . . .) When “Poem Pritten on Pfances of Georges Hugnet" appeared in Pagany, (Jan-Mar, 1931), Stein had transformed the first line: "Enfances aux cent coins de ma memoire . . ." into: "In the one hundred small places of myself, my youth . . ." Stein’s derivation slips just slightly into her personal vision in this line, before traveling much farther afield as the poem goes along.
I tried to stay close to the “true” meaning of Cendrars' words, though how can I say that when even the first two lines betray my possessiveness of my own youth and memory?