Familiale (Jacques Prévert)

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

Some issues translating ‘Familiale’

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.

See also:

Abdellatif Laâbi: attesting against barbarism (Dec 2016)

‘Five minutes after the air raid’ by Miroslav Holub (Nov 2013)

Seeking refuge in poetry (Sep 2015)

Poem: Corsica (Jul 2015)

‘Saying thank you’ – a poem for father’s day (Jun 2015)

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
This entry was posted in Culture, Poetry and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Familiale (Jacques Prévert)

  1. nivekd says:

    Eddie
    Thank you! That’s lovely. A great translation.
    I’m a continuing education student at the University of Liverpool: for seven years I’ve enrolled to read and discuss ‘European Literature in Translation’ and, of course, the translation of the various editions of class members is often a topic in itself. Last year I went to a corking session at the Edinburgh Book Festival: “French Fiction. Wednesday 22 August 12:00 – 13:00. Translation Duel Buy Tickets. What happens to a story’s essence when it is translated from one language to another’ where two translators justified their versions line by line. The most fascinating hour.
    All the best

    Liked by 1 person

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