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Translating Apollinaire

Translating Apollinaire

by Clive Scott

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Guillaume Apollinaire (1880–1918) is arguably the most significant French poet of World War I and of the years immediately preceding it. This book delves into Apollinaire’s poetry and poetics as a way to explore the challenges and invitations it offers to the process of translation. In addition to Apollinaire, Clive Scott draws from Deleuze, Vertov,


Guillaume Apollinaire (1880–1918) is arguably the most significant French poet of World War I and of the years immediately preceding it. This book delves into Apollinaire’s poetry and poetics as a way to explore the challenges and invitations it offers to the process of translation. In addition to Apollinaire, Clive Scott draws from Deleuze, Vertov, Barthes, and a number of other international linguists and theorists, to offer his experimental approach to translation—a multimedia approach with an emphasis on photographic collage that treats translation as a record of reading experience rather than the interpretation of a text. Translation, Scott argues, is an activity for all readers, not just a skill for specialists.

Editorial Reviews

Katherine Shingler

“A lively, rich, and though-provoking study, expanding any reader’s experience of Apollinaire’s poetry and providing an illuminating discussion of issues in and around literary translation.”
Susan Harrow

“This invigorating book offers many things.”
Christine Raguet

“Translating Apollinaire is a challenge, but writing about translating Apollinaire is a further challenge, which Clive Scott takes up with his usual acuteness and talent. Reading Translating Apollinaire is yet another challenge, albeit and extremely rewarding one because this book is highly stimulating and Scott’s approach, like the poet’s, is exploratory.”

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University of Exeter Press
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Translating Apollinaire

By Clive Scott

University of Exeter Press

Copyright © 2014 Clive Scott
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-85989-975-8


Styles and Margins

This chapter begins with a story in two parts. The first part takes place between New Year's Day 1915 and 13 October 1915. On 1 January or 2 January 1915, on a train between Nice and Marseille, Apollinaire made the acquaintance of Madeleine Pagès. He was returning to his artillery regiment at Nîmes, having just taken leave of Louise de Coligny-Châtillon on Nice station. Madeleine was on her way back, via Marseille, to her family and her teaching post in Oran. On the train Apollinaire made known to her that he was a poet and offered to send her a copy of Alcools (1913); he took her address.

Apollinaire's first letter to Madeleine, an illustrated postcard in fact, was written on 16 April 1915, explaining that he could not send her a copy of Alcools after all, because his publisher was away at the war. From the very first letters exchanged, Apollinaire makes Madeleine feel the responsibility of letter-writing, responsible for maintaining the contact at the right temperature and with the right frequency: 'Songez que vous avez pris une responsabilité en me répondant, petite fée ... la responsabilité de m'écrire souvent, très souvent. Je vous le demande; bien plus, je l'exige de votre bonne grâce' (3 June 1915) (2005: 53; hereafter just page references are provided). [Bear in mind that you have taken on a responsibility by replying to me, little fairy ... the responsibility of writing to me often, very often. I ask you to do it; much more, I demand it of your good grace]. Elsewhere, he has no scruple about taxing her with the brevity, or the relative coolness, of a letter.

Photographs were another way of applying pressure. He first asked Madeleine for a photo in a letter of 11 May 1915. This request was made in the spirit of a medieval knight asking his lady for a favour, in the courtly sense: he would 'wear' the photograph on his left side, the side on which he carried his sabre and revolver, so that 'sur le coeur de votre poète ce portrait pourrait jaser avec des armes et serait ainsi en bonne compagnie' (40) [lying on the heart of your poet this portrait might chatter with arms and would thus keep good company]. As was customary among First World War soldiers in the service of a lady, Apollinaire fashioned for Madeleine an aluminium ring inscribed '1915', from a German 77 shell (28 May 1915), the first of a string of such 'trophies' (other rings, an inkwell, paper knives, a heart, a penholder), and in the same letter sent a small photograph of himself, cut from a larger group (this practice of excision and fragmentation is, of course, central to my own incorporation of photographs). It was on 3 June 1915 that he acknowledged receipt of his first photograph of Madeleine, 'la jolie personne aux yeux profonds au nez mutin' (52) [the pretty person with the deep eyes and impish nose], and on 23 June he received two more, so that he could now describe the three photographs in his possession: in one, Madeleine is seated in an armchair, in another she is at her desk and in the third on a balcony (67). A further photograph is acknowledged in a letter of 25 June.

We often speak of the photographer taking possession of his subject through the photographic act. Handing over one's photograph is correspondingly a surrender of self, principally to language: that is, to gossip, speculation, aspersion, insinuation. At the same time, the photograph keeps a secret, in its muteness, inaccessible to all violations. Conversely, the person who yields the photograph may wish something to be seen; but so weak in intentionality is the photograph that the receiver may choose to see something else, indeed may choose to see what is not visible. At all events, Apollinaire wastes no time in exploiting the photographs sent to him, in three ways: to endow Madeleine with a character, to confirm an obedience and to enjoy a body. On the receipt of the two photographs (23 June 1915), Apollinaire exults as follows:

Dieu, que ma petite fée est charmante — Je suis bien heureux des deux photos. Le joli joli visage si grave, si sérieusement, si profondément voluptueux. Petite fée, encore encore de vos photos! Que j'aime cette gentille, cette bénévole obéissance de Madeleine! (66)

[God, how charming my little fairy is — I'm very happy with the two photos. The pretty pretty face so serious, so gravely, so deeply voluptuous. Little fairy, more more photos! How I love this kind, this unstinting obedience of Madeleine's].

'Sérieux', 'profond', 'voluptueux', these are the qualities which recur under Apollinaire's pen as the parameters within which Madeleine can develop: 'avec votre air étonné sérieux et impénétrable mais voluptueux à l'extrême' (74–5) [with your surprised serious and impenetrable but extremely voluptuous look]. If Madeleine is to become Apollinaire's desired épistolière, she must inhabit familiar paradoxes: while deploying her natural and charming 'pudicité' in relation to the world, she must explore an exquisite and equally charming 'impudicité' as Apollinaire's correspondent; she must learn to master her erotic impatience — Apollinaire will get leave neither soon nor often — and yet, verbally at least, she must give free rein to that impatience. And this regime requires an obedience from Madeleine which Apollinaire harps upon ('ce que j'aime le mieux c'est de vous avoir rencontrée, vous que je cherchais, le cerveau sororal du mien, la plus grande beauté, la plus tendre obéissance attentive' (30 July 1915) (99) [what I like most is having met you, the one I was looking for, the mind which is a sister of mine, the greatest beauty, the tenderest and attentive obedience] and which is guaranteed by the surrender of those hostages, photographs.

The erotic exploitation of photographs begins perhaps with a photograph whose receipt is first acknowledged in a letter of 10 July and which is referred to again in a letter of 12 July —'Vous ne pouvez imaginer le plaisir que m'a causé la petite photo où ma fée chérie en peignoir se balade entre des massifs d'anthémis et de géraniums' (77) [You cannot imagine the pleasure given me by the small photo in which my beloved fairy in a negligee strolls among the clumps of anthemis and geraniums] — and again at the end of a letter of 22 July:

Maintenant pour finir, je vous aime, j'aime vos cheveux sur le dos, j'aime vos seins que révèle le peignoir, j'aime le front, les yeux, la bouche et tout ce qui est vous, qui est ma Madeleine (91)

[Now to finish, I love you, I love your hair falling down your back, I love your breasts which your negligee reveals, I love the forehead, the eyes, the mouth and all that is you, who are my Madeleine].

One might equally cite, among many others, Apollinaire's reference to a photo received on 8 October 1915:

Je t'adore ma chérie et baise ta bouche. Je baise aussi tes seins dont la photo d'hier m'a donné l'alliciante presquevision et tes cheveux qui m'ont fait surgir de si troublantes correspondances, exprimées par les vers que j'ai cités du poème de Baudelaire: 'Les Promesses d'un visage'.

(9 October 1915) (244)

[I adore you my beloved and kiss your mouth. I kiss your breasts, too, of which yesterday's photo has given me a tempting (?) glimpse and your hair which has summoned up in me such troubling associations, expressed by the lines I quoted from Baudelaire's 'Les Promesses d'un visage'].

The photographs thus become the justification of, and connive with, those modernist versions of the blason which are 'Les neuf Portes de ton corps' (21 September 1915), 'Le Deuxième Poème secret' and 'Le Troisième Poème secret' (9 October 1915) or 'Pour Madeleine seule' (13 October 1915) (and the many similar poems addressed to Lou). Apollinaire, studying these photographs with a magnifying glass ('j'épie au moyen de la loupe les mille détails de mon amour ...' (211) [I spy on the thousand details of my love with the help of a magnifying glass]), itemizes body parts made beautiful and cohesive by the sheer fact of being possessed by Madeleine, who is herself a putative being at the point of convergence of a string of possessive adjectives. Do the photographs warrant her self being taken for granted, after her voluptuousness has been identified? Evidently, for Apollinaire, the sequence of photographs is a sequence of opportunities to read the same body more clearly, rather than a sequence which makes the self ever more problematic ('Ta photo nouvelle te montre longue comme tu dis et que je ne savais pas encore car tes vêtements de voyage le dissimulaient et tes autres photos ne le montraient pas, surtout l'exquise longueur de ta jambe' (202) [Your new photo shows you tall as you say and that I hadn't realized because your travelling outfit concealed it and your other photos did not make it clear, above all the exquisite length of your legs]).

In view of this precipitate eroticization of Madeleine's image, on the visual evidence of parts of a body all invested with a certain voluptuousness — in the first of the three photographs mentioned in the letter of 23 June 1915, 'le menton' is 'si voluptueux', while in the second 'le nez est voluptueux', and the third shows 'l'air voluptueux de Madeleine' which 'dépasse toute imagination' (67) [exceeds all imagining] — it is surprising to find the poem entitled 'Photographie', sent to Madeleine on 13 October 1915 (255–6), so elusive, so indirect, so ambiguous:

1. Ton sourire m'attire comme pourrait m'attirer une fleur17 (3 > 3 > 5 > 3 > 3)

2. Photographie tu es le champignon brun de la forêt qu'est sa beauté 19 (4 > 7 > 4 > 4)

3. Les blancs y sont un clair de lune dans un jardin pacifique

4. Plein d'eau vive et de jardiniers endiablés 16 (2 > 6 > 5 > 3)

5. Photographie tu es la fumée de l'ardeur qu'est sa beauté 11 (3 > 5 > 3)

6. Et il y a en toi Photographie des tons alanguis 16 (4 > 5 > 3 > 4)

7. On y entend une mélopée 9 (4 > 5)15 (6 > 4 > 5)

8. Photographie tu es l'ombre du soleil qu'est sa beauté 15 (4 > 3 > 4 >

We might suggest several reasons for Apollinaire's withdrawal from sensual explicitness to this dignified, oblique and muted treatment. In his poem 'Plainte', sent to Madeleine on 8 October 1915, he had already envisaged Madeleine as an image expressly created to fill his solitude:

Existes-tu, ma Madeleine,
Ou n'est-tu qu'une entité que j'ai créée sans le vouloir
Pour peupler la solitude
Es-tu une de ces déesses comme celles que les Grecs avaientcréées
pour moins s'ennuyer
Je t'adore, ô ma déesse exquise, même si tu n'es que dans mon imagination
Mais tu existes ô Madeleine, ta beauté est réelle
Je l'adore

Malgré la tristesse de la craie et la brutalité incessante des coups de
canon (234)

[Do you exist, my Madeleine,/Or are you no more than a being I created without wishing to/To populate the solitude/Are you one of those goddesses that the Greeks created to diminish their boredom/I adore you, o my exquisite goddess, even if you are only a figment of my imagination/But you exist O Madeleine, your beauty is real/And I adore it/Despite the sadness of the chalk and the incessant brutality of cannon fire].

Apollinaire's ignorance of Madeleine's nudity generalizes itself into a belief, at least, in the reality of her beauty, and it is this that 'Photographie' sets out to capture, not through any physical attributes, but through metaphors from the natural world. Beauty, Apollinaire has also admitted (17 September 1915), is precisely what escapes the camera, because its superlativity is not reducible to what a mechanical device might be able to register. Where elsewhere Apollinaire has allowed that the camera might capture all that is exquisite, fine and perfect in Madeleine, where he has implied that a photograph might at least project a latent Madeleine, he is here careful to make no such claims:

Certes je ne confonds pas tes photos avec toi-même. Je sais que les photos ne donneront jamais l'image de ta beauté qui est trop parfaite, trop royale trop subtile pour être interprétée par un appareil aussi parfait soit-il.

(17 September 1915) (182)

[Certainly I do not confuse your photos with the real you. I know that the photos will never give the image of your beauty which is too perfect, too regal too subtle to be interpreted by a machine however perfect].

The poet, it seems, wishes to compensate for photography's shortcomings by managing to encapsulate Madeleine's beauty in a verbal snapshot.

What kind of photography, then, does Apollinaire have in mind in 'Photographie', and what kind of photographer does he wish to be? And that he is now the 'photographer' has its own possible significance: he is now the one who is putting an image into the hands of others, and has set himself the task of creating an inaccessibility, of shaking off those who might want to colonize the poem with salacious suggestion or vicarious possession. In short, Madeleine's body disappears into her beauty. More particularly, we might argue that Apollinaire wants to wrap Madeleine in the 'flou', in a photographic tradition which lacks resolution, which blurs contours, which cultivates continuity of atmospheric space, which diffuses focus, the photographic tradition of the Pictorialists, of photographers such as Robert Demachy and Constant Puyo, the masters of manipulative techniques such as gum bichromate, bromoil, transfer. One reason for my making this proposal is the sense we may derive, from these photos of Madeleine on the terrace, or on the balcony, or, most especially, 'en peignoir [...] entre des massifs d'anthémis et de géraniums', of those women in white, in poses of meditative self-collection, distant but domestic, spirits of the hearth and garden, so dear to Symbolist photographic iconography (in addition to Demachy and Puyo, one thinks of images by Antonin Personnaz, George Seeley, Clarence Hudson White, Paul BurtyHaviland, or, more particularly, of Alvin Langdon Coburn's The Garden by Moonlight (c. 1907)).

Mystery inhabits this poem in other ways. Is it about photography or about a photograph? Phrases within the poem could as well refer to an individual image as to the photographic process as a whole (e.g. 'le champignon brun de la forêt' = sepia; the 'mélopée' = monochromaticism; 'l'ombre du soleil' = negative/positive process; and if the 'tons alanguis' are treated as a visual rather than musical reference, then there is a certain languidness, or lack of energy, or drained coloration, in the grey tones). If 'photographie' means 'photograph', is this a single photograph seen several times or several photographs, each heralded by the click of the shutter ('photographie' as onomatopoeia)? If the third-person possessive adjective ('sa beauté') refers to Madeleine, is the second person to be identified as photography/a photograph (what then of 'Ton sourire'?), or are third and second persons one and the same (i.e. photography/a photograph is Madeleine, and vice versa), fused in metaphoric identity? If the latter is true, then we are back with a photography and a Madeleine that are equal to each other, or with a Madeleine whose only existence is photographic (let us note that the line-initial tetrasyllabic measure 'Photographie' is three times answered by the line-terminal tetrasyllabic measure 'qu'est sa beauté', as a sustaining refrain).

The very length of the poem's lines may suggest a continuity of atmospheric space, but an atmospheric space which refuses to be framed — the line-lengths create no perceptible scheme — and floats off into an imaginary blind field. The indeterminacy of frame and contour is reinforced by the fact that overall syllabic numbers are more often odd than even, and the lines, when they rhyme, do so only weakly, either by repetition ('beauté') or by rime pauvre (/e/) or by assonance ('pacifique/alanguis'). Lack of resolution is also contributed to by the absence of punctuation, which, one might argue, elasticates temporality in the way the 'flou' does in Symbolist photography — punctuation, like sharpness of focus, delivers an image into history, into temporal units and voice-spans carefully measured.

In keeping with this general vision of the poem, my scansion counts mute e's in the traditional way. This gives us the supple, stretching liaisons of the first line:

Ton souri:/re m'atti:/re comme pourrait/m'attirer/une fleur

and supplies the softening fade in ll. 3 ('lune'), 7 ('une mélopée') and 8 ('l'ombre'). The rhythmic dynamic derives not so much from the length of individual measures, their repetitions and variations, as from the number of measures per line: all lines beginning 'Photographie' are, in my reading, tetrametric, as is line 3. Across this recurrent figure occurs a gradual reduction of measures, from the relatively dynamic pentametric first line — verbal activity in 'm'attire' and 'pourrait m'attirer', where, elsewhere, the verb is usually a bare copula — to the constative trimetric lines (4 and 6) and finally to the dimetric line 7, a line of the acoustic, of a verb of participation, of a single noun, of doubled phonemes (/ã/ and /e/). This metric reduction might be likely to produce a soothing deceleration of vocal tempo, as a gesture of compensation. At all events, the final line re-establishes the tetrametric constant.


Excerpted from Translating Apollinaire by Clive Scott. Copyright © 2014 Clive Scott. Excerpted by permission of University of Exeter Press.
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Meet the Author

Clive Scott is professor emeritus of European literature at the University of East Anglia. Among his numerous books are Translating Rimbaud’s “Illuminations” and Translating Baudelaire.

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