Translating Moles

Notes and Ideas on Translating a Poem

While translating Clément Marot's poem, I went through seven drafts and many different ideas. The individual drafts and specific notes on them are on succeeding pages. This page contains some of the ideas that governed the translation in general, and forms an overall chronology.

The later ideas are dated, so that you can see how they influenced successive drafts of the translation.

Ideas on Translation

Little mole
The opening and closing line need to be the same, and must be three syllables. Translation started with the opening line "Little mole". It captured the spirit of Marot's opening.

"Clément" = Resident
Marot inserted his first name into Line 12 of his poem. How could that be updated in a Molish context? The answer wasn't to refer to me, it was to refer to the Moles' creator, the Residents. Fortuitously, "Clément" rhymes with "Resident", making the identification even stronger.

This still wasn't quite enough for the idea to gel.

Archaic French = Mohelmot?
Things really got rolling one morning when I made an interesting comparison. In the original poem, there are words that are now archaic ("l'embonpoint"). Later in the Mole Trilogy, Mohelmot (the name of the Moles' language, and also their culture) has been banned. What would it be like, I wondered, to use Mohelmot in place of archaic French in a translation? Neither would be directly comprehensible by current readers, but could be deciphered from context.

This idea was enough to get me started on a translation. However, work went very slowly, done in little bits here and there.

Mole puns
Somewhere along the way I recalled the Mole People featured in the ZBS serial Ruby. One funny episode consisted of Ruby and Moliere, chief of the Moles, trading mole puns. Hmmm, thought I. Could I incorporate mole puns in the poem, or would that amount to mole-igning my own efforts?

After some deliberation, I decided that any puns on "mole" would have to be very subtle, if used at all.

Darkness Hide You
The opening three lines "Little mole / In your hole / Darkness hide" suggested themselves in a backward way. I came up with the lines, then realized that they made a wonderfully apropos allusion to a common greeting in Mole society - "Darkness hide you". For a culture that could not abide the sun, wishing each other darkness would be a blessing.

That, to me, is when the translation started to become real: when I could get inside the heads of the Mohelmot. I had never heard that greeting before, but when I did, I knew it was right.

The Four Elements
Mole society is bounded by stone, and disaster comes in the form of a flood. From that fact, I started thinking about the relationships of the four platonic elements to the Moles. Earth is definitely good, water bad; but what about fire and air? Air can be good or bad; It connotes sunlight (bad) and breath (good - breathable air is a commodity underground). Fire can be good or bad as well, snuffing out available oxygen or providing heat and energy.

A later idea was to work one element in per each seven lines of the poem. It would be an interesting idea, but would add a whole new structural element not present in the original. The idea was dropped.

Author, author!
It would have been neat to work "half" into the poem as well, but it didn't happen.

Opening and closing (1999-02-06)
One conceit was to have not just the opening and closing lines be the same, but to have the first and last three lines correspond to each other.

Little mole
In your hole
Darkness hide.
Darkness keep
Thy ??? soul,
Little mole.

This managed to last through all drafts but the last.

A Play on Words (1999-02-07)
My favorite part of the poem is a multi-level pun:

Don't stay pent
Hid away.

This works on several different levels:

  1. Literal
    This is simply a plea from adult Moles to the unborn Mole, exhorting it to be born and join Mole society.

  2. Metaphorical
    Considering that the Residents are the Moles' creators, this could also be taken as a plea from the Moles to their silent, invisible creators to reveal themselves.

  3. Direct
    The Residents have been creating music since the early 1970s, yet still remain anonymous. On the third, non-poetic level, this is a plea from a fan to the reclusive Residents to not stay "hid away". (It seems to have worked; they're going on tour as I write this.)

So the pun works within the context of the poem, outside of the poem's context, and in a strange fiction/reality-mixing way. This delights me.

Bright Soul? (1999-02-07)
I still didn't have a good one-syllable adjective for the penultimate line "thy ??? soul". The word "bright" came to mind, and I tried it out. It was a paradox to have the Moles consider a bright thing as good, but I chalked it up to the fact that we know very little about Mole culture.

It didn't last long enough to make it into the first draft.

Dig it! (1999-02-11)
The word "dig" was a nice play on words. Its mining-related meaning fit the Moles perfectly. On the other hand, its slang meaning "to appreciate" could be a nice counterpart to Marot's "friande".

28? (1999-02-11)
An initial draft was done in a downtown coffeehouse. Somehow it came in at 30 lines, not 28.

A truly strange idea (1999-02-11)
Even though I dropped the idea of translating the archaic French into Mohelmot, it still tugged at me. Idea: when finished, translate the English translation into Mohelmot.

Now that's a truly warped idea.

Lipograms (1999-02-12)
One of the unusual subjects covered in Hofstadter's book is lipograms: writings that omits one or more letters. Georges Perec wrote an entire novel in French without using the letter 'e'. It was translated into English - or should I say Anglais? - as A Void, preserving the original's 'e'-vacuum. What a challenge it would be to write a lipogrammatic translation of Marot's poem!

Couplets or Triplets? (1999-02-11)
While listening to the Residents' Intermission again, I noticed that they used two distinct rhymes schemes. Aside from rhyming couplets, they had a tendency to use an AAAB scheme ("Shorty's Lament", "The New Hymn"). Perhaps it would be more faithful to translate the poem not as fourteen rhyming couplets but as nine rhyming triplets!

Feeling better (1999-02-24)
In the fourth draft there is only one line that still refers to illness. That line is in the weakest part of the poem. Perhaps it would be best to just drop the references to illness altogether and focus on the exhortative aspects of the poem.

Ready to Begin

By this point I was putting most of my ideas directly into the notes for the individual drafts.

Along the way I discarded some interesting ideas for translations. Perhaps one day I'll resurrect a few.

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

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