I am really pleased to have 4 poems published in issue 3 of The Compass, the beautiful online magazine edited by Lindsey Holland and Andrew Forster, and with reviews edited by Kim Moore. The poems deal with the aftermath of the Paris attacks last November. One of them contains 6 short lines from a Jacques Brel song – Il neige sur Liège – that I have translated into English. I didn’t know when I started translating them that they’d present such a conundrum, in terms of the fit with the poem. The 6 lines are:


Il est brisé, le cri

Des heures et des oiseaux,

Des enfants à cerceaux

Et du noir et du gris.

Il neige, il neige sur Liège

Que le fleuve traverse sans bruit.


1.The first challenge was that I wanted to render these 6 lines of lyrics into 3.5 lines of a poem, in keeping with the length of the lines and stanzas in the rest of the poem.

2. The beginning of the poem presented a challenge with its broken syntax and use of ‘it’. Literally: ‘It is broken, the cry…’, followed by a series of things that have in some way been broken. By what though? My reading is that all these things – the hours, the birds, the children’s screams, the black, the grey – are broken by the snow falling, which is silencing the town, and turning it white. My French friend, Josee, suggested ‘muffle’ to capture how snow muffles all sound.

3. I started with a translation I found on line, which had done away with ‘it is broken, the cry / of hours and birds…’, replacing it with ‘the clock strikes’, and alluding to a ‘flock of birds’, following the idea that as the clock strikes, the chimes of the bell send the birds into the air. All very visual and filmic, but was this too far from the original? Was some of the poetry (and ambiguity) lost by doing away with the inverted syntax of ‘It is broken, the cry…’?


1858273117 Boys_with_hoops_on_Chesnut_Street-420x373  3305091545.2

Photo sources: http://saint-josse-ten-noodepanorama.blogs.lalibre.be/archive/2010/01/01/saint-josse-sous-la-neige.html and http://www.hooping.org/hula-hoop-history/ and http://liege-urbain.skynetblogs.be/archive/2013/01/20/la-batte-desert-de-neige.html


4. ‘And of the black, and of the grey’. I wasn’t sure how to translate here the relationship between the ‘broken’ and the colours here. Were they the colours of the sky, of the general mood/atmosphere, or of the polluted brick of the buildings?

5. How to translate ‘That the river crosses/passes through without a sound? Was ‘and the river flows silent through’ – respecting the movement and the relationship of the river to the town – more important than the lack of any noise? – ‘and the river flows without a sound.’ 

6. The translation I found online had lost the ‘hoops’ that children run with and run through, that they spin and let run around the playground. Josee said, we get the image of pretty children in their sailor suits making the hoop roll with a stick. It was important to bring hoops back then because the verb ‘play’ was not enough, and also in English, the idea of ‘jumping through hoops’ has other connotations.

7. Josee objected to ‘kids’ when I proposed it (and I normally loathe that word) on the grounds that it was too contemporary for Brel, but there was something about the opposition of ‘birds’ and ‘kids’ that I quite liked in that line, especially when stacked with the other short words ‘hoops’ and ‘play’.

8. I still wasn’t sure about the black and grey, which felt a little disconnected from where I departed. I liked the rhyme of ‘play’ and ‘grey’ bit it needed more. So I decided to bring back the verb from ‘it is broken’, to emphasise how snow was ‘breaking’ the two colours, insisting on the breaking while also slowing the penultimate line right down. I decided to repeat it.

9. Then as for the end, which version to choose – to go with the rhyme derived from ‘hoops’ and ‘through’? Or better to end on ‘sound’? The original ended with ‘bruit’. Is it the movement of the river or its sound that the reader should be left with? There was something paradoxical about ending with the word ‘sound’ to depict ‘silence’.

10. Looking back over the poem as a whole I realised that the poem was essentially one about sound versus silence. The voice of the woman on the loudspeaker (sound), the people listening, waiting (silence), the explosion (sound), the all clear being given on the screens (silence), the snow falling (silence), the voice of Brel (sound), the song of bells and children playing (sound), the silent river (silence), the snow settling over the town (silence).

See the final translation and poem(s) at The Compass.


3 thoughts on “Disposal

Add yours

  1. I really enjoyed your poems and this is a wonderful article, Paul. Thanks for the insight into translating poetry. It’s fascinating to hear about how you arrived at certain word choices, how you created and sustained mood without sacrificing original content completely. Please write more articles like this! – Josephine

  2. I read the poems a week or so ago from a Facebook link. I could have sworn that the French lines were all in French! When i looked again and found just the one phrase in French I was astonished. So the structure created the language in my head. Love the poems, they are even more poignant now than when I first read them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: