Moles Are Coming

Translating a Poem from 15th century French to Mohelmot

In the spring of 1998 I read a most unusual book: Douglas R. Hofstadter's Le Ton beau de Marot. Its subject was the translation of poetry. Its thesis was that there is no single correct translation of a given poem into another language. Rather, when translating, the translator must balance the literal and metaphorical meanings of the poem, its rich halo of cultural resonances, and its formal structure. It might not be possible to satisfy all of them. The translator's task is to produce an artful work that best captures the spirit of the original.

To demonstrate this proposition, the book focuses on a 28-line poem by the French poet Clément Marot. His 16th-century poem "A une Damoyselle malade" is presented in not three, not four, but in seventy-one different translations. From scrupulously literal to colloquial to machine translations, the book takes us on a unique journey of the imagination. It makes you reconsider exactly what a poem is, and how we think and create.

The Challenge

Once you begin the book, you'll undoubtedly be thinking of creating your own translation. It's an unspoken challenge that permeates the book. Fortunately, the book opens with a few very literal translations, and the rest is a learned discussion of the art of translation. It will give you much to think about.

I was bitten by the translation bug before I began the second chapter. But how could my translation be different? I soon saw that as the true challenge: to see the poem through new eyes. Yet what would that be?

The genesis of an idea came while reading the second chapter. All of the chapter's subheadings were made of three words ending in "tion", such as "Aggravation, Perseveration, Consummation". This tickled the back of my brain. Where had I heard that before...?

The answer came to me sometime later. The unusual musical group The Residents used the same rhyme scheme in their song "Shorty's Lament". For example:

Love is expectation
Love is explanation
Love is exploitation, ahhh
Somebody's getting somebody happy...

Love is complication
Love is consummation
Love is concentration, ahhh
Oh, goddamn it, I can't...

This song is from their monumental Mole Trilogy, a story of two cultures in collision. Briefly, the hard-working Mohelmot (Moles) are flooded out of their underground tunnels, and travel to the land of the Chubs, where they face resentment and exploitation. This leads to conflict between the two races.

So... a 16th century French poem, an obscure musical group, and a culture undergoing a drastic transition. How could I not integrate all of these into a new translation?

Oh, the Obscurity!

Part of the delight in this idea was its sheer perversity. The only people who would really appreciate this would have to have read Hofstadter's book and be familiar with the Residents' work. I'd estimate that at most a dozen people fall might fall into both groups. Of course, they'd have to find this page as well... so, if you're one of those people, this translation is for you.

What the heck; I couldn't resist. After all, "Shorty's Lament" was the first Residents song I ever heard, and I was hooked immediately. In its honor as well, here is the story of the translation.

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

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