Saagar Asnani on translating Guillaume Apollinaire

Saagar Asnani


on translating Guillaume Apollinaire


Translating 1909 was an absolute treat; it gave me the opportunity to delve into turn-of-the-century Parisian fashions to determine the most fitting translations for words like robe, ottoman, tunique, and Récamier. While trying to reconstruct in my mind’s eye the beautiful dress described in the poem, I realized that the descriptions fit perfectly onto pictures of styles created by the legendary Parisian designer Paul Poiret. Considered the father of the modern runway, Poiret’s designs were in vogue during the early 1910s, and he was celebrated for his emancipatory styles, trading the corset for the sash. Looking at pictures of Poiret’s styles, I came across a picture of his chemise dress, which was a close match for the long silk gown with a tunic draped at the shoulders mentioned in the poem. For that reason, I chose to translate tunique as “chemise” instead of “tunic,” which seemed too facile a choice. I wanted the translation to most clearly evoke the image that Apollinaire had in mind, so I modernized the vocabulary (“coiffée à la Récamier” as “hair styled into a messy bun” and “ottoman violine” as “violet Turkish silk”) while maintaining the overall image as closely to the original as possible.

While some may choose to anglicize the syntax of the poem in translation, I think that there is a certain beauty of meter and rhythm that is lost in such a practice. For example, the line “Les yeux bleus les dents blanches et les lèvres très rouges” could be translated grammatically into English as: “The blue eyes, the white teeth, and the very red lips.” Although pre-positioning of adjectives is most common in English, post-positioning is also possible without greatly altering the meaning. Furthermore, the grammaticalization of the definite article le/la/les in French as a marker of grammatical gender means that in translation to English (which does not have a grammatical gender), it was unnecessary to maintain the definite article. To better flow from the previous line, I added the words “with” (to justify the link between her face and the French tricolore) and “her” (to emphasize the provenance of these patriotic features). The result: “With her eyes blue teeth white and lips so very red” actually flows much better in between the repeated line “She had a face colored like France.” Another line which gave me particular pause was “J’aimais j’aimais le peuple habile des machines.” In French, the imperfect tense (here j’aimais) is inflected through just one word, whereas in English there are three possibilities, usually requiring auxiliary verbs: “I used to love” or “I was loving” or (in a few special cases) “I loved.” However, given Apollinaire’s repetition of the verb, in an almost breathless, stuttering manner, it seemed too verbose to repeat out the entire verbal phrase “I used to love” twice in the same line. Such a repetition would completely efface the uncertainty of Apollinaire’s original. Therefore, I went with a combination of two different verbal aspects: “I loved” and “I used to love.” The result is a more gradual unfolding of the narrator’s thoughts over time, while still retaining the breathlessness of the original. The lack of punctuation across the whole poem adds a level of autonomy to its words, wherein the words derive meaning from their interrelationships, not from the imposition of grammatical symbols (which might also function as a metaphor for the whole poem: a revitalized post-Industrial Revolution France ready to forge its path without the interference of foreign powers).

On the level of the poetic meaning, Apollinaire certainly drew from some easily recognizable tropes to construct his personification of France. The “little golden slippers” and “clock strik[ing] midnight” are clear references to Cinderella and the ephemerality of the riches adorning France during the Belle Époque. The terrific and otherworldly side of fantasy is conjured through his phrase quartier énormes – “outlandish districts.” In this stanza, one is unable to forget the despondence from which Cinderella arose and the vaunted position which she attained over the course of the story. Nonetheless, in writing this poem, Apollinaire was calling to attention the vanity of his country, its obsession with superficial beauty, and the allure of the riches derived from exploitation of machines and people. The beauty of the moment was captivating, but it was also terrifying. Little did Apollinaire know the extent to which the next few years would see the meltdown of humanity within the world he had come to know and love.

I would also like to thank my friends, Jennifer Ye Ji Cho and Younghoon Jeong, for being excellent extra pairs of eyes to look over my translation and providing honest and critical feedback.

about the author

Guillaume Apollinaire (1880–1918) was a literary figure of huge import to French modernist movements. When discussing the beginnings of the avant-garde, Apollinaire’s legacy looms large; his impact on the bohemian persona is just as significant as his writings. An extremely prolific thinker and writer, Apollinaire published poetry, plays, art critiques, short stories, and novels, influencing a wide variety of modern art movements, most notably André Breton’s Surrealist movement. What is perhaps most surprising about Apollinaire is his outspoken distaste for the music being written by his contemporaries. In his Chroniques d’art, he draws a distinction between “modern and new” music, the former being exemplary while the latter the unfortunate consequence of mindless experimentation. Paradoxically, though he describes musique nouvelle (“new music”) as being “obscure, empty, bereft of life, immobile, and enslaved to aesthetics and beauty,” he (perhaps unwittingly) explores the musical idiom in his own poetry and recitation. The Penn libraries are in possession of an original phonograph recording of Apollinaire reciting one of his most famous poems, Le Pont Mirabeau (Mirabeau Bridge). In it, he follows an almost musical contour to his recitation of the poetry, adding vocal ornamentation to the prosody of the language at the end of each poetic line as he speaks into the recording machine. The poem’s intrinsic rhythm is itself strangely reminiscent of a river’s flow: a relentless move forward through the passage of time, punctuated by waves undulating back and forth. Even if Apollinaire disavowed music’s attachment to the aesthetic, it seems that his own poetry could not escape its pull. Apollinaire published his collected poems, Alcools (Alcohols), in 1913, before the outbreak of World War I and the end of the Belle Époque. In 1909, we see an Apollinaire reminiscing on the past, his current moment of relentless change, and uncertainty for what the future will bring.

about the translator

Saagar Asnani (C’19) is a PhD student in musicology at the University of California, Berkeley. A medievalist, linguist, and poetry enthusiast, Saagar is fascinated by how music and language overlap, interact, and work together in myriad ways within our world. A scholar of fourteenth century French vocal music, he believes that by studying the soundscapes of the past we can learn more about the structures and dynamics of human communication and perception today. Most recently, he has taken up the study of Catalan and Korean. Although his research on medieval music has immersed him in Latin and Middle French, he relishes the opportunity to work on texts in Modern French when it arises. As a graduating senior at Penn in 2019, he was awarded the Clifton C. Cherpack Prize in French Studies. In his free time, he enjoys playing viola and is an active member of UC Berkeley’s Symphony Orchestra.

photo by Ryan Hardy