SELECTED POEMS OF VICTOR HUGO: A Bilingual Edition
This satisfyingly fat collection has some definite virtues in tracking the poetic output of Hugo (1802–1885), France's monumental 19th-century scribe: it is organized chronologically, with prefaces that mark out his various phases, and the original French texts are included, which is a rare if necessary pleasure in understanding European poetry. Unfortunately, in terms of translation, this huge book is almost a total loss. The Blackmores (Six French Poets) are a freelance writer and a faculty member of Australia's Curtin University, respectively, and they have chosen to render Hugo's work by preserving the rhymes. What results loses almost all of Hugo's power, as his delicate combination of the plainspoken and grandiose is upset by the demands of English jingling. Perhaps Hugo's most famous lyric, "Tomorrow, at Dawn...," becomes: "I'll cross the woods, I'll cross the mountain-height./ No longer can I keep away from you.../ Alone, unknown, hands crossed, and back inclined;..." If the "mountain-height" and "inclined" seem odd, that's because they are inventions of the translators, in order to rhyme with "bright" and "mind" respectively. Hugo wrote a far simpler poem, about how he would "go by the mountain" with his "back bent" to pay his respects at his daughter's grave. It is not an isolated incident, and anyone who reads even a little French must wince at the constant unpoetic interventions in English. This is a particular pity, as the translators have clearly worked hard to set the poet's work in biographical context, even if a preface underrates his novels as "by-products of his career... in which his talents were only half involved." The rather skimpy notes and very limited bibliography are added disappointments. (Apr.)
Forecast: As far as bilingual selections of Hugo's verse go, this is presently the only game in town, so university libraries and stores with larger poetry collections will be forced to act accordingly. The French versions and good intentions of the translators provide some succor.