Approaches to Reading in French and English

What is translation?

Translating written work means rendering a text from one language into another. This is not necessarily the same as interpretation, which is more concerned with the transmission of overall meaning than with individual words.

There are four kinds of translation of poetry, which begin with the literal and gradually move towards something which is barely translation at all:

1) A literal translation is a word-for-word translation of the poem. The retention of rhythm, rhyme &c is not required.

2) An approximation compromises some meaning in order to retain some of the original poetic structure.

3) An adaptation moves even further from the original and may add to or remove elements found in the original.

4) An imitation is not really a translation, but takes the original text as inspiration for a new work.

The type of translation chosen depends on the intended audience and the distinctions between the types are not necessarily absolute. For example, a translation intended for a general readership may pick a path between literalness, approximation and adaptation, in order to retain the flavour of the original poetics and to make sense of cultural values alien to the audience of the target language. This is a concern when translating from ancient texts, where modern languages have no equivalent for some terms for customs which have long ceased to be practised.

A translation intended for a scholarly audience should be as literal as possible; such translations are accompanied by apparatus (commentaries, notes &c) which explore the source text, any references requiring explanation and any specific linguistic issues encountered by the translator. It is vital that the translator approach an exercise in literal translation with an open mind, prepared to accept the original as it is and to resist the attempt to interpret meaning rather than translate the words.

Issues of translation: poetic translations

The poems reproduced below, together with the original, are a selection of translations of ‘Les Pas’ by Paul Valéry (who himself translated verse and was a theorist of both poetry and translation). Only one of the translations attempts a literal approach; the others are (more or less) poetic translations. It can be seen, when comparing them to the original, that the translators’ (or translating poets’) understanding of the source text varies a great deal. In some cases the translators have failed to express the nuances of Valéry’s text or have imposed meanings not found in the original text or not necessarily intended by the original poet.


Les Pas (Paul Valéry)

Tes pas, enfants de mon silence,

Saintement, lentement placés,

Vers le lit de ma vigilance

Procèdent muets et glacés.

Personne pure, ombre divine,

Qu’ils sont doux, tes pas retenus!

Dieux!… tous les dons que je devine

Viennent à moi sur ces pieds nus!

Si, de tes lèvres avancées,

Tu prépares pour l’apaiser,

A l’habitant de mes pensées

La nourriture d’un baiser,

Ne hâte pas cet acte tendre,

Douceur d’être et de n’être pas,

Car j’ai vécu de vous attendre,

Et mon coeur n’était que vos pas.


The Footsteps

C. Day Lewis


Born of my voiceless time, your steps
Slowly, ecstatically advance:
Toward my expectation’s bed
They move in a hushed, ice-clear trance.

Pure being, shadow-shape divine,
Your step deliberate, how sweet!
God! every gift I have imagined
Comes to me on those naked feet.

If so it be your offered mouth
Is shaped already to appease
That which occupied my thought
With the live substance of a kiss,

Oh hasten not this loving act,
Rapture where self and not-self meet :
My life has been the awaiting you,
Your footfall was my own heart’s beat.


The Footsteps

David Paul


Your footsteps, children of my silence,

With gradual and saintly pace

Towards the bed of my watchfulness,

Muted and frozen, approach.

Pure one, divine shadow,

How gentle are your cautious steps!

Gods!… all the gifts that I can guess

Come to me on those naked feet!

If, with your lips advancing,

You are preparing to appease

The inhabitant of my thoughts

With the sustenance of a kiss,

Do not hasten the tender act,

Bliss of being and not being,

For I have lived on waiting for you,

And my heart was only your footsteps.

The Footsteps

Prita Lal & Guisou Zarbalian


Your steps, children of my silence,

Saintly, slowly placed,

Towards the bed where I lay in wait,

Proceed soundless and frozen.

Pure one, divine shadow,

How gentle they are, your restrained footsteps!

God!… all the gifts that I could imagine

Come to me on these naked feet!

If, from your advanced lips,

You prepare to appease it,

To the inhabitant of my thoughts

The food of a kiss,

Don’t hasten this tender act,

Sweetness of being and not being,

Since I have lived in waiting for you,

And my heart was only your footsteps.



Jan Schreiber


Children of my silence,

your saintly steps, unrushed,

approach my pallet’s vigil,

frozen, timeless, hushed.

Pure one, divinest shadow,

steps verging on retreat,

Gods – what gifts I envision

borne on those naked feet!

If with lips pressed toward me

you deign to nourish this

dweller in my obsessions

with an appeasing kiss,

don’t hasten to your mercy.

Being and not being is sweet.

My life is a vivid waiting,

my heart your padding feet.

Examples of issues arising in the translations

1) Tu and vous

Where all the poets agree is in their failure to address Valéry’s deliberate change of address from the tu-form to the vous-form, seen most clearly in the comparison of ‛Tes pas’ in the first line with ‛vos pas’ in the last; yet the positioning indicates that the movement is crucial to the rendition and interpretation of the poem.

Here, in fact, the literal translator is in a better position. In the commentary or notes accompanying a literal rendition, the literal translator can, of course, observe and discuss the issue; the literal translator might also be justified in using the archaic second person singular form of the target language in the translation, rendering tes as ‘thy’ and tu as ‘thou’, and reserving the formal or plural ‘you’ form only for in places where it occurs in the original text.

Whether or not the poet intends to represent a movement from singular to plural or from intimate to formal, and why he does this, are irrelevant: the fact of the movement, however, is crucial.


2) Active verb forms

Other than adjectival participles, the poem contains the following verb forms:

one imperative: hâte; two infinitives: apaiser, attendre; three predicates in the present tense: Procèdent, devine, prépares, plus sont (used colloquially in place of the subjunctive soient); one perfect: j’ai vécu; one imperfect: était.

Again, some of the translations fail to transmit Valéry’s nuances. For example in the penultimate line, ‛Car j’ai vécu de vous attendre’, Day Lewis omits the connection with the previous statement by ignoring the conjunction Car; he retains the perfect tense, but alters the structure to make the the subject ‘my life’ instead of ‘I’. Schreiber echoes Day Lewis’s choice of subject, but recasts the line into the present tense, which fails to accommodate the sense of completion or accomplishment that the perfect tense transmits.


3) The religious echoes in the text

On two occasions, Valéry uses terms which strongly evoke a religious framework. In line 2, the steps are described as ‛Saintement, lentement placés’, the saintement suggestng a specifically Christian, indeed Catholic, context. However, the plural ‛Dieux!’ in line 7 evokes a very different religious framework.

Only Paul and Schreiber echo the original term in their translations; the other translators choose to translate it as if it were the singular Dieu. In the original, the exclamation ‛Dieux!’ has been separated from the subsequent text by an ellipsis. The effect is emphatic, and suggests that the form used in the exclamation is important to the poet. In translating plural ‛Dieux’ as singular ‛God’, the versions by Lewis and by Lal & Zarbalian impose on the text a specific, Christianized framework.


4) Lexis

Lexical decisions made by the translators have also had an effect on the transmitted meaning of the poem. All the translators have made choices which compromise the poem by imposing a set meaning on what is a markedly oblique text, either by substituting concrete images and terms for Valéry’s ambiguity, or by replacing his ambiguities with certainties. Take the first line as an example:


Tes pas, enfants de mon silence (PV)

Born of my voiceless time, your steps (CDL)

Your footsteps, children of my silence (DP)

Your steps, children of my silence (PL/GZ)

Children of my silence (JS)


Here, Lal & Zarbalian supply the closest to a literal translation, although, like Day Lewis, they translate ‛pas’ loosely as ‘steps’, which can refer to stairs or doorsteps as easily as footsteps.

The other translations make bigger compromises. Day Lewis alters ‛enfants’ to ‘born’, and loses the specificity of youth from Valéry’s text: ‘born’ need not, after all, describe a recent event. Similarly, he provides ‘voiceless’ for ‘silence’, allowing no room for the ambiguity of Valéry’s text, where the poet might be evoking an overall silence, not just the absence of a (human) voice.

In moving the subject from the dominant position (opening words) to the second line, Shreiber prioritises the metaphor, and distorts the links Valéry makes both between the title and the opening words, and between the opening and closing phrases of the poem.


Articles on Translation

Richard Jackson, ‘From Translation to Imitation’

Michael C. Walker, ‘Translating Poetry:  The Works of Arthur Rimbaud From French to English’

Erna Bennett, ‘Translating Poetry’

Translation Journal


Articles on Critical Analysis

John Lye, ‘Critical Reading: A Guide’

E. K. Sparks, ‘Reading a Poem’



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