I recently bought a copy of The Random House Book of Twentieth Century French Poetry to supplement my Duolingo excursions into French (which I never really learned well, and am trying to relearn).

Generally I like the experience of using Duolingo. The focus on food, family and work is helpful for getting acquainted with aspects of grammar. But since part of my motivation is to be able to read some authors in the original I’ve felt my vocabulary hasn’t really been expanding as quickly as I would like. Maybe its something to do with their learning algorithm, but I seem to get the same words repeated a bit too often.

So I thought reading some poetry in a bilingual edition could help introduce me to some new words.

I didn’t really realize till afterwards that this collection has translations from an amazing group of English writers like Samuel Beckett, Kenneth Roxroth, W. S. Merwin, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, William Carlos Williams, Paul Bowles, Denise Levertov, John Ashberry, Wallace Stevens (the list goes on and on). I suppose it should be no surprise since it was edited by Paul Auster, who also wrote a really amazing introduction to the collection.

Only two lines into the first poem, a translation of Z O N E by Guillaume Apollinaire, I started to have doubts.

A la fin tu es las de ce monde ancien
Bergère ô tour Eiffel le troupeau des ponts bêle ce matin

None other than Samuel Beckett, an Irishman who made his home in Paris, and was a member of the French Resistance, translated this as:

In the end you are weary of this ancient world
This morning the bridges are bleating Eiffel Tower oh herd

I have no problem with the first line, it seems perfect–and wow, what a first line. But the second was puzzling. I needed to look up these words:

While dwelling on these words it seemed to me that Apollinaire was instead addressing the Eiffel Tower as a Shepherdess, and saying that her herd of bridges were bleating this morning, as she towered above them.

Oh Shepherdess Eiffel Tower, the herd of bridges bleat this morning

But who am I (some French newbie) to question Beckett here? This just reminded me of how difficult poetry is, and how doubly difficult translation is. So maybe this was a bad idea after all. But hey, I learned a few new words…

Google Translate did kind of a clunky job, but its answer seemed to align with my version?

Shepherdess O Eiffel Tower the herd of bridges bleats this morning

At any rate, whatever the right answer is here, it’s kind of fun to dwell in the gaps between words.