All Moles Considered

An Analysis of this translation of Clément Marot's "A une Damoyselle malade" into Mohelmot

After many drafts, inspirations, and discarded ideas, the Mole translation is finally done. The final question of "how well does it accomplish its goals?" remains to be answered. We can't judge this without first knowing what the goals of the translation were.

My goals of translation were twofold. One, the translation should retain as much as possible of the original poem's structure and content. Two, the values of Mohelmot should come through well to anyone familiar with the Moles. I'll examine these three topics (structure, content, and Molishness) separately.


The structure of the translation is the easiest thing to compare to the original. Marot's poem has the following structural elements:

  1. The poem has 28 lines.
  2. Each line is exactly three syllables.
  3. Each line's accent is in on the last syllable.
  4. The lines are arranged in 14 rhyming couplets.
  5. The first line is identical to the last.
  6. The semantic couplets are out of phase with the rhyming couplets.
  7. The author's name is in the original (on line 12).
  8. The form of address changes midway from formal to familiar.

#1-5 are satisfied by the translation.

#6 is bent somewhat; there are several places where the semantic couplets aren't quite out of phase (note "Delve and dig/(Zag and zig)") with the rhyme. This constraint isn't rigidly enforced in the original, so it's okay to me to bend it a bit in the translation.

#7 is satisfied in a strange way by substituting "Resident", the creator of the Moles, for "Clément", the original's author. Marot didn't create the subject of his poem, but is an amusing level-mixing that works well. The fact that they rhyme is an happy coincidence.

#8 is completely absent. It's possible to satisfy this requirement easily, but it makes the translation read strangely. We don't use "thy" and "thou" in everyday speech, so their use gives the translation a faux archaic feel. Additionally, this rarity makes the transition from formal to informal even more jarring. Rather than adhere slavishly to this constraint at the expense of the translation's flow, I disregarded it. It was the right choice, and produced a better translation.

The language of the translation presented a problem. The archaic French of the original contains several words that are not in use today. How should these be translated? In the end I ignored the fact that words were archaic, since both 16th century France and the tunnels of the Moles would be foreign to us. Both contain enough anachronistic cultural elements that rendering one's archaic words in the other would ignore the fundamentally alien nature of both cultures to current society.

(Ideally, I should translate the translation into the Moles' language, but I do not know it well enough.)

All in all, structurally the translation works.


In several ways the translation diverged from the original, and all had to do with the poem's content and imagery.

Most obviously, the subject of the poem changed from being a sick, bed-ridden girl to an as yet unborn Mole. It wasn't a premeditated change. As I worked through several drafts, I found myself concentrating on Mole culture to the exclusion of the few images of illness that were in the first drafts. By the fifth draft, the only line referring to illness had been replaced.

I did, however, keep the image of someone removed from society, unable to participate in normal activities. In Marot's original, the girl was encouraged to leave her bed and dine on fancy food. The obvious translation of this into Mole society was to encourage someone who couldn't work to do so by putting the task in its best light. Hence the five line section:

You shall mine
Stone divine
Gems and ore.
All this - more! -
Awaits you.

What is to the girl a delicacy, the products of work are to a Mole. Both are appreciated with refinement, and serve to entice.

In one sense, I took Marot's image of confinement even further. While he compared her bed to a prison, in the translation the image took on literal form in the unborn Mole's shell. It actually is a prison, a cell that separates two worlds.

In literal meaning, the translation is quite unlike the original. Marot alternates between encouragement (to get well) and warning (of the dangers of remaining unwell). The translation ignores this alternation. Instead, it mixes predictions of the future ("Axe and pick/Soon you'll raise") with encouragement to be born ("Join we who/Delve and dig"). In this respect, the two are most unlike.

Yet on a deeper level, the correspondence does exist. Both the unborn Mole and the sick girl are in a kind of purgatory, waiting to leave and enjoy the pleasures life offers. The difference between the poem and the translation comes from the fact that the health of the unborn Mole isn't in jeopardy, hence warnings must be replaced by more encouragement.

The poem and translation differ in tone as well. While Marot's original is a personal message to a sick relative or acquaintance, I imagine the Mohelmot translation as a common prayer known to all Moles. It is used in a ritual, not personal, way.

Mohelmot in the translation

The Residents have never explicitly revealed much about the Moles. We know the following:

  1. They live below ground.
  2. Their music is serious and religious.
  3. They have a strong work ethic.

How are these facts present in the translation?

Imagery of darkness and depth appears throughout the translation. From the opening ("Little mole/In your hole/Darkness hide") to the end ("All born in/Tunnels deep"), darkness and depth have a positive connotation - they bind the Moles together, creating a culture in which all Mohelmot participates.

The serious, religious qualities of the translation are more elusive. Only in the closing ("We will keep/Whole your soul") is there an explicit reference to any sort of spiritual concept. The rest of the translation falls between serious and light. While no couplet is explicitly humorous, some have an idiomatic quality that keeps the whole from becoming too serious. In particular, I'm thinking of the couplets "Leave your shell/With a kick" and "All this - more! -/Awaits you".

Finally, the work ethic of the Moles is strongly present throughout the whole translation. The initial exhortation to "Leave your shell" is immediately followed by what will come as soon as the shell is broken: "Axe and pick/Soon you'll raise". Images of mining and digging permeate the remainder.

I made an effort to think like a Mole while I worked on this translation, and I'm satisfied with the result.

(I did take one liberty with Moles: there's nothing outside of the translation that indicates whether they're born live or hatch from eggs. I suspect even the Residents hadn't considered this.)


I maintained structural fidelity to the original, and captured Mohelmot reasonably well. It was the original poem's specific imagery that did not translate well to the world of the Moles. Yet I believe that thematically, the translation is a decent one, given the challenge of mapping sixteenth century France onto a different culture. I'm satisfied with the result. It's not perfect, but I don't think there is a perfect translation given these constraints.

a cloak welcomes night
mole eyes sparkle with new sight
diamonds in dark

Last updated 8 June 2000
All contents ©1999-2002 Mark L. Irons