Animal Poems

Ursula Whitcher

This group of poems is a menagerie: it includes a cow, a dove, an octopus, an elephant, and even a tin of sardines. On the surface, the three poets whose works I have chosen to translate are as different as a cow, a dove, and a sardine. Ovid was born nearly two thousand years before Georges Fourest, and wrote epic poetry where Fourest wrote comic verse. Fourest and Guillaume Apollinaire were nearly contemporary; but Fourest came from a good bourgeois family, worked as a lawyer, and lived to a ripe old age, while Apollinaire was an immigrant to France, and died poetically young. However, their poems share a certain tone: each of these poets has a sense of humor, and none is afraid of irreverence. Ovid's Jupiter must appease a jealous wife, Fourest's sardines are more saintly than humans, and Apollinaire, youngest and brashest, compares himself to both Orpheus and the Holy Spirit.

The extract from Ovid's Metamorphoses was the hardest to translate: Latin poetry depends on a contrast between long and short vowels which English cannot parallel. A strict rhythmic meter is the traditional equivalent; but even meter is out of fashion, and the modern student can scarcely identify iambic pentameter. Myself untutored, I did not feel worthy to impose a strict English meter on Ovid. I did try to be very conscious of rhythm, requiring five or six beats in each line. The Metamorphoses are fluid, but they must have some structure, or one loses the sense of Ovid's ingenuity.

In translating Fourest's "Sardines à L'Huile" and my selections from Apollinaire's Bestiaire, the main issue was rhyme. In English rhyme often sounds silly; but these particular poems are silly or witty enough that they must rhyme, or lose their sense altogehter. Though "Sardines à L'Huile" follows no set pattern, every line rhymes with one of its neighbors, and some lines have interior rhyme as well. I did not try to reproduce this bounty exactly; instead I rhymed as many lines as I could without sacrificing the poem's quick pace, and counted on alliteration and assonance to make up the difference. The Bestiaire ties rhyme to structure in a way that "Sardines à L'Huile" does not; nearly all of the poems in this book are rhymed quatrains. Since rhyme and structure hang together, nearly every couplet must be preserved. The jokes depend on it, but more importantly, a tight rhyme sounds intelligent. The speaker of Le Bestiaire is anything but self-effacing, and the translator must preserve his confident voice.

Animal Poetry

Translations by Ursula Whitcher, 2001