Keshav Sharma on translating Arthur Rimbaud

Keshav Sharma

on translating Arthur Rimbaud

Arthur Rimbaud’s “Eternity,” published in May 1872, reflects a marked shift in the poet’s form and style, opting for a more subtle tone and delicate imagery to express his desire for spiritual rejuvenation. This follows a period of violent passion, jealousy, and guilt on account of his illicit relationship with fellow poet Paul Verlaine. More importantly, the poem represents a liminal stage in Rimbaud’s poetic career: the departure from poetic convention in the form of verse composition into the individual territory, where he pushed the boundaries of poetic structure and style through his later works. “Eternity” is a timeless depiction of an evanescent moment, the sunset at sea.

The interplay of light and dark and the layered visual and aural imagery that Rimbaud uses to emphasize the abstract nature of the setting portrays eternity as an elusive yet tantalizing experience for the narrator. In keeping with this interpretation while consolidating the original form to the greatest extent possible, I chose to translate allée, which is literally translated as “gone” to “pursues.” By doing so, I aimed to characterize this scene between the sea and the sun as an eternal journey as opposed to an eternal destination for the narrator, thereby setting the stage for the flurry of observations and emotions that ensues. The sun also represents an object of rapture for the narrator, so I translated it in a manner that complements the transience of the moment: “the sun’s infinity” within an “Eternity.”

In the second stanza, I translated âme sentinelle as “oh, vigilant soul,” as opposed to other translations describing a “guardian soul” or “sentinel soul,” as it seems to convey the soul as a better version of the narrator, one that sees more and understands more. This is better suited to Rimbaud’s character, which the narrator presumably reflects, in that the narrator emulates the soul, as Rimbaud intends to become a more idealized version of himself. This further supports my translation of the next line where Murmurons l’aveu becomes “Softly we confess,” a reluctant declaration between the narrator and the soul. The translation imbues the concept of eternity with an air of secrecy and provides further rationale for its elusive nature. The simple change between the next two lines, “night’s empty hole” and “kindling day’s caress,” further demarcates his past from that which he aims to be. By leaving his old self behind, Rimbaud shall “part ways” and “still fly higher,” thereby liberating himself from “human praise” (translated from humains suffrages — a poet’s success is derived from recognition of the quality of their work by others) and “common desires” (translated from communs élans — a pointed allusion to his relationship with Paul Verlaine).

It is now in the fifth and sixth stanzas that Rimbaud speaks of the ill-fated future. I chose to interpret the final two lines, “Le Devoir s’exhale / Sans qu’on dise: enfin,” as Rimbaud foreseeing a futile struggle to live his current life and complete his duties as a poet with satisfaction, thus “Duty’s exhale blown / And no end imagined.” This is only made clearer in the sixth stanza, in which I translated Là pas d’espérance as “There is no hope there,” “there” being his future life as a poet, and Nul orietur as “Nor any rising.” The translation of the third line in the fifth stanza proved to be quite difficult as orietur, an old French noun derived from the Latin verb orior, loosely translated as “to emerge” or “to rise,” had little pertinence to the poem. Of its several meanings, I chose to define orietur as “rising” to express a double entendre with the physical rising of the sun and the spiritual rising of Rimbaud above his former, banal life. With the repetition of the first stanza in the last, Rimbaud emphasizes the derivative nature of eternity and, more importantly, the repetitive and seemingly unresolved struggle he had faced to achieve spiritual reform.

about the author

Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud (1854–1891) was a French poet renowned for his avant-garde works and later influence on modern literature and arts, which served as a precursor to the Surrealist movement that manifested in full force almost three decades after his death. Rimbaud is most notably remembered as a pioneer of the Symbolist movement in late nineteenth-century France that sought to push beyond the boundaries of realism and naturalism and infuse poetry with more imagination in the form of visions and dreams. Though this is perhaps best exemplified in his most famous poetry book Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell, 1873), the emergence of this style is first witnessed in Rimbaud’s smaller poetry collection Derniers Vers (1872). Rimbaud’s artful use of synaesthetic imagery and the subtle manipulation of color and tone with a few well-chosen words adds a layered conception to reality, an essence underlying the material world that is best seen and understood through powerful emotional responses. Rimbaud’s later shift to prose poetry coincided with his preference for a modernist art form; he kept this stance until he abandoned poetry altogether in 1875.

about the translator

Keshav Sharma is a freshman at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, studying in the faculty of health sciences. He enjoys the works of Romantic novelist Victor Hugo, postmodern novelist Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and seventeenth-century playwright Molière. His interest in translating poetry stems from his belief that all languages have universal similarities and it is simply up to us to uncover them.