Translator’s Note of Victor Hugo’s Work:
Like a battlefield doctor performing triage, a translator has the unenviable task of deciding what can be saved and what must be sacrificed for the latter’s sake. In the case of Hugo’s “Even as the sailor,” I chose to jettison the end-rhyme in order to preserve the rhythms and syllabics of Hugo’s phrasing and the deliberate simplicity of his diction. The original ten-line poem rhymes abbabcddcd and is in alexandrine meter (12 syllables to a line). My translation, although unrhymed, maintains the original’s alexandrine syllabics.
I also chose to retain the direct translation of lieues as “leagues” rather than to substitute the more modern “miles.” Evoking Jules Verne’s 19th-century sci-fi novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and the old French folktale of the Seven-League Boots, that one word seemed to me to impart a more distant, mysterious, and timeless quality to the setting of the poem. “Even as the sailor” is the tenth in a sequence of seventeen poems concerning the death of Hugo’s beloved daughter Léopoldine. Newly married and pregnant, she drowned with her young husband in a boating accident.
Victor Hugo (1802-1885) was a French writer and political activist. While he is best known in English-speaking countries for the novels Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in France he is considered to be a major Romantic poet.
Julie Kane’s translations from French and co-translations from Lithuanian have appeared in Nimrod, The Drunken Boat, Louisiana English Journal, and the anthologies Druskininkai Poetic Fall 2005 and Contemporary Lithuanian Poetry: A Baltic Anthology. The 2011-2013 Louisiana Poet Laureate, she is a Professor of English at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana.
(Even As the Sailor)
Even as the sailor, who calculates and doubts,
Asks the constellations to steer him on his way;
Even as the shepherd, that visionary one,
Seeks in the midst of woods his polestar and his route;
As the astronomer, inundated by rays,
Measures a planet’s mass across millions of leagues;
Me, I seek something else in that vast and pure sky.
To me, that dark sapphire is a hidden abyss.
One can hardly make out, at night, the blue dresses
Of shivering angels, gliding in the azure.
— April 1847
Pendant que le marin, qui calcule et qui doute,
Demande son chemin aux constellations;
Pendant que le berger, l’oeil plein de visions,
Cherche au milieu des bois son étoile et sa route;
Pendant que l’astronome, inondé de rayons,
Pèse un globe à travers des millions de lieues,
Moi, je cherche autre chose en ce ciel vaste et pur.
Mais que ce saphir sombre est un abîme obscur!
On ne peut distinguer, la nuit, les robes bleues
Des anges frissonnants qui glissent dans l’azur.
— Avril 1847