The mother is knitting
The son is fighting
She thinks it quite natural the mother
And the father what is he doing the father?
He’s doing business
His wife is knitting
His son is fighting
He’s doing business
He thinks it quite natural the father
And the son and the son
What does he think the son?
He thinks nothing absolutely nothing the son
The son his mother is knitting his father is doing business he is fighting
When he’s finished fighting
He will do business with his father
The fighting carries on the mother carries on she is knitting
The father carries on doing business
The son is killed he doesn’t carry on
The father and the mother go to the graveyard
They think it natural the father and the mother
Life carries on life with knitting fighting doing business
Business fighting knitting fighting
Business business and business
Life with the graveyard
Jacques Prévert – Paroles (1946)
translated by Eddie Playfair, 2019
When I looked for a version of Jacques Prévert’s anti-war poem ‘Familiale’ in English, I wasn’t fully satisfied with any of the ones I found, even that of the great Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1958). So I had a go myself. Translating anything, especially poetry, requires give and take and there can be no final authoritative version as the choices made are often a matter of interpretation and taste.
With this poem, the inevitable big loss in translation is one of rhyme. There is no way of reproducing ‘père, mère, guerre, faire, affaires, cimetière’ as rhyming words in English. Once you accept that loss, it’s then about trying to make up for it with similarly simple, everyday sing-song language which communicates the universal message and works in repetition.
The choice of ‘knitting’ for ‘faire du tricot’ and ‘fighting’ for ‘faire la guerre’ was based on their directness. ‘Doing the knitting’ and ‘making war’ or ‘going to war’just didn’t work for me and I felt that Ferlinghetti’s ‘fights the war’ and ‘finishes the war’ weren’t quite right either. I realise that there is some resulting ambiguity about what kind of fighting is being referred to if the word ‘war’ isn’t used. When it comes to ‘faire des affaires’ there’s no good substitute for ‘doing business’ but obviously ‘knitting, fighting and doing business’ in English does break with the repetition of ‘faire, faire, faire…’ in the original.
I also thought carefully about using ‘carries on’ rather than ‘continues’ for the French ‘continue’ and decided to go for what I thought felt most conversational. With ‘think it’ rather than ‘find it’, it was about making the lines ‘What does the son think? / He thinks nothing’ work. ‘He finds..’ is not the same as ‘Il trouve que..’
Lots of difficult choices, but of course the joy of translation is that different versions can coexist.
Seeking refuge in poetry (Sep 2015)
Poem: Corsica (Jul 2015)
‘Saying thank you’ – a poem for father’s day (Jun 2015)