The first time I heard Apollinaire, my sister was reciting “Les Colchiques” from memory at the dinner table. When she finished I leaned forward and asked her, Who wrote that? Later that night, I found Guillaume Apollinaire’s calligrammes, his war poetry, and his life story scattered throughout various websites. Born in 1880 in Rome, Apollinaire was raised trilingual, which later allowed him to gain popularity in the Parisian circle of artists forming at the time. He fought in World War I, and was severely injured. He died shortly thereafter in 1918. “Les Colchiques” was published in his 1913 book Alcools.
Most of Apollinaire’s poetry, infused with linguistic, formal, and visual distortions, does not lend itself generously to the process of translation. In fact, I was first drawn to the task of translating this poem after reading renditions from other artists. No one sought to preserve the poem’s beauty, but rather attempted literal translations of the French. The difficulties of translation are magnified within Apollinaire’s work because he uses language as a form. In “Les Colchiques,” for example, he inverts sentences to confuse the images of eyes with the images of flowers in a way that leaves the reader unsure whether the flowers are blooming in the subject’s eyes or in the meadow.
Apollinaire so masters his ambiguous language that by the end of the poem, the reader is not convinced they have read a love poem. Rather, they are left in Apollinaire’s poisonous meadow, grazing with the cows and unsure what the metaphor was to begin with. Where Apollinaire does allow for solid ground is in the sonic beauty of his poem, how the words compliment one another and create cyclical waves of tones and rhymes. It is precisely that aspect of his poetry that gave me the confidence to stray from a literal translation and try to find a similar, albeit inferior, language in English.
Le pré est vénéneux mais joli en automne
Les vaches y paissant
Le colchique couleur de cerne et de lilas
Y fleurit tes yeux sont comme cette fleur-la
Violâtres comme leur cerne et comme cet automne
Et ma vie pour tes yeux lentement s’empoisonne.
Les enfants de l’école viennent avec fracas
Vêtus de hoquetons et jouant de l’harmonica
Ils cueillent les colchiques qui sont comme des mères
Filles de leurs filles et sont couleur de tes paupières
Qui battent comme les fleurs battent au vent dement
Le gardien du troupeau chante tout doucement
Tandis que lentes et meuglant les vaches abandonnent
Pour toujours ce grand pré mal fleuri par l’automne.
The meadow holds its poison in the autumn
The grazing cows there
The crocus shaded lilac color
flowers where your eyes are tired
Violet like their shadows and this autumn
And for your eyes I feed my life this poison.
Schoolchildren in the meadow making noise
dressed in uniforms and playing flutes
They gather crocuses—their mothers
daughters of their daughters and the color of your eyelids
shivering like flowers in the delirious wind
The cowherd sings gently
While the lowing cows slowly abandon
forever this meadow fed poisonously by autumn.