The poetry of Victor Hugo

A brief passage of one of Victor Hugo’s finest idylls and a brief critique of two recent (and highly praised) translations of this text Illustrate the difficulties in translating Hugo into English. The following are the concluding lines in French of “Boaz Asleep,” an exquisite and tender idyll based on the Biblical story, which ends with a truly memorable image:

Et Ruth se demandait...
Quel Dieu, quel moissoneur de l’eternel ete
Avait en s’en allant negligemment jete
Cette faucille d’or dans le champ des etoiles!

This is translated in the recently published Victor Hugo: Selected Poems, by E.H. & A. Blackmore, (University of Chicago Press), as:

...What stray god, as he cropped
The timeless summer, had so idly dropped
That golden sickle in the starry field.

This uneven, indeed banal, even ugly version of a lovely image, which Hugo carried off with sovereign ease, is typical of English translations of this poem. I am aghast at the use of “cropped” for the sake of a forced rhyme with “dropped,” which is the wrong word anyway. I also dislike the commonplace “starry field.” Nevertheless, the translators were given the 2001 National Translators’ Award.

Brooks Haxton, in the recent Penguin Edition of Hugo’s Selected Poems does not do much better:

while Ruth wondered...
what god
of the eternal summer, passing dropped
his golden scythe there in that field of

I do not know whether my version, while more faithful, will be thought better, but here it is:

And Ruth wondered...
What god, what reaper of the eternal summer,
Had, as he left, carelessly thrown
This golden sickle into the field of stars.

The French lines by Victor Hugo are justly admired by the French as a superb poetic image, and they often come to my mind when I see the “sickle” of the moon at night.

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