WOMPO - Women's Poetry Listserv
Foremother Poet: Judith Gautier (1845-1917)
by Ellen Moody
by Ellen Moody
In the most recent issue of PMLA, there's an essay on Judith Gautier by Pauline Yu, 'Your Alabaster in This Porcelain': Judith Gautier's Le Livre de Jade, PMLA, 122:2 (March 2007):464-482. My eye was caught by one of Gautier's creative translations (adaptations is another word one could use) from Chinese poetry, printed with Yu's English translation of Gautier's poem and a literal English metaphrase (to use Dryden's term) of the Chinese poem:
Le depart d'un ami (Li-Tai'-Pe)
Par la verte montagne, aux rudes chemins,
vous reconduis jusqu'a 1'enceinte du nord.
L'eau ecumante roule autour des murs, et se
perd vers l'orient.
C'est a cet endroit que nous nous separons ...
Je m'en retourne, solitaire, et je marche
peniblement. II me semble, maintenant
que j'ai plus de dix mille lis a parcourir
Les nuages legers flanent, paresseusement,
comme mes pensees.
Bientot le soleil se couche, et je sens plus vive-
ment encore la tristesse de la separation.
Par-dessus les broussailles, une derniere fois
j'agite la main, au moment ou vous allez
D'un long hennissement, mon cheval cherche
a rappeler le votre... Mais c'est un chant
d'oiseau qui lui repond!...
A Friend's Departure
By the verdant mountain, on rough paths, I
lead you back to the northern rampart.
The bubbling waters flow around the walls and
vanish toward the east.
It is here that we part....
I return alone, walking wearily. It now seems
that I have more than a thousand miles
The light clouds drift lazily, like my thoughts.
Soon the sun sets, and I feel more intensely
again the sadness of separation.
Through the brush, I wave my hand one last
time, just as you're about to disappear.
With a long whinny, my horse tries to call out
to yours. But it's a bird's song that replies!
The actual poem is in Chinese characters in the article; here is a literal translation:
Farewell to a Friend
Green peaks stretch along the northern
White waters wind around the east city wall.
From this place once taking leave
A lone tumbleweed travels ten thousand miles.
Floating clouds: a traveler's thoughts.
Setting sun: an old friend's feelings.
Waving hands, we go from here
Xiao xiao the parting horses neigh.
Rejouissons-nous ensemble et remplissons de
vin tiede nos tasses de porcelaine.
Le frais printemps s'eloigne, mais il reviendra;
buvons tant que nos levres auront soif.
Et peut-etre oublierons-nous, que nous
sommes a 1'hiver de notre age.
Et que les fleurs se fanent.
Let's rejoice together and refill our porcelain
cups with warm wine.
The spring cool is gone, but it will return; let's
drink while our lips are thirsty.
And perhaps we'll forget that we're in the
winter of our years.
And that the flowers are fading.
Song of Farewell to Spring
Day after day men age in vain,
Year after year spring comes back again.
Let's take delight in a goblet of wine:
No need to pity the flowers in flight.
[The first French poem reminded me of how I felt when not so long ago I said goodbye to a British friend while in England whom I knew I would not see again for a long time to come. The second French poem of a book of poems by older women I have. In both cases I prefer the French strongly for its elegance, melancholy, ennui. They are lovely poems.]
Pauline Yu tells the reader that Judith Gautier was one of the daughters of Theodore Gautier, in Yu's words, "one of the most prominent writers of the century." (I recommend the description of Gautier's milieu found in Richard Holmes's _Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biography_, "Dreams"). Judith became "the wife of a prolific poet and editor, and collaborator with or rumored lover of Richard Wagner, Victor Hugo, John Singer Sargent, and Pierre Loti; "over several decades she published more than fifty volumes of poetry, prose and drama and well over a hundred essays and articles on arts and letters, and she was known for her abilities as a painter, sculptor, and musician as well. A student of several non-European languages,she drew extensively on material from Egypt, Persia, India, and Japan for her creative work, but China, as Gourmont observes, remained her passion and 'inspired her most beautiful books'. Yu tells of Judith's early years, how she came to learn Chinese under the tutelage of a learned man, Ding Dunling, who had lost his job and was threatened with having to return to China (with a complete change of lifestyle, killing off all he valued), and was hired by Theodore Gautier to teach his daughters. There is a full bibliography which includes a biography of Judith Gautier (i.e., Anne Danclos, _La vie de Judith Gautier_; another article on _Le Livre de Jace_, Muriel Detrie, "Le livre de jade de Juidht Guatier: Un livre ionnier," Revuew de litterature comparee, 633 :301-324, and list of Gautier's works.) Yu also tells of the history of translations from the Chinese and the fad in the later 19th century in France for things seeming to be Chinese or influenced by Asian art.
Judith Gautier's first book was her most influential and widely read: a book of creative translations from the Chinese which she called Le Livre de Jade. First published in 1867, it was reissued "in 1902, 1908, 1929, 1933, and most recently 2004." It's been translated into many other languagess, and provided a basis for at least one popular anthology of Chinese poetry in French. Yu tells of the different editions of this book, how it began small and then grew.
I was also interested in this article because I'm a translator too, and I see that like so many translators who produce real poetry, the problem the book has had from the beginning is the literalist and narrow view of translation as a sheer crib for originals, not poetry in its own right. Despite the discomfort many readers voiced and complaints since, the book was read, commented on, strongly praised by some the most famous of the later 19th century and early 20th French poets, e.g., Baudelaire, Mallarme. All men poets are quoted by Yu, no women. Gautier's translations apparently sometimes show Gautier didn't understand the Chinese as much as that she wanted to reinterpret what she read. So what I'd say, for Malory probably had the same relationship to French Arthurian romance, and Pope translated Homer through a Latin crib, Dacier and others. Judith Gautier was (as my favorite French writer on translation art, Renato Poggioli, said) going to the pool of art for her source instead of the world of nature. I have an essay online defending this kind of translation: