The Drunken Boat (Le Bateau ivre) is one of the most important poems in the French language. Rimbaud wrote it when he was 16 and employed imagery and symbolism which were rarely topped before or after.
Volumes have been written about the poem and its significance so I’m limiting my discussion here to the question of English translations. There have been many of those (just a few examples are here, here and here), including by notable writers (Beckett’s is here).
Far from a thorough student of the subject, I confined my research to the translations I could find online, and thought them all lacking because they didn’t follow a few rules which, in the case of this poem, seemed to me obligatory:
1. Keep the structure close to the French alexandrine meter, which splits the 12-syllable line into two semi-independent halves with six syllables each. The meter saw more use in French than elsewhere, its popularity probably peaked before Rimbaud’s time, and it doesn’t always sound as appealing outside of French. With all that said, I feel that a translation of Le Bateau ivre must use this meter. It couples the potent imagery with a rigid, prose-like exposition, to a positive effect: first, Rimbaud’s extremely rich, hallucinatory visuals do not seem to need a boost from an overly flashy structure; second, the tight meter induces a trance-like effect, paralleling both the boat’s psychological experience and its up and down movement on the waves.
2. Keep the rhyming structure the same as in the original, for many of the above reasons.
3. Translate line-for-line where possible, or at least keep the images the same, so that the English reader visualizes roughly the same thing as the French does. Most English versions which I’ve come across honor this principle. Keeping the word pitch the same is essential and the pressure on the translator is consequently often unfair. It suffices to translate “punaises” (line 55) with “bedbugs” to throw the modern reader off, even though in other contexts this would be a perfectly valid translation — the image projected in the mind is mundane and awkward.
Translations of the poem that honor all of the principles are not unheard of, in other languages. Here is Nabokov’s elegant rendition into Russian, which follows Rimbaud’s 13–12–13–12 syllable structure and keeps the stress on the penultimate syllable of lines 1 and 3 of each quatrain. Celati’s translation into Italian (which I have in a book and unfortunately can’t seem to find online) is a bit less polished but the reader’s feeling while and after reading the poem is similar to the experience of the original.
Here is my attempt, product of a few recent intercontinental flights. I made judgment calls on the rhymes (not exact at times) and the meter (in about a third of the verses it is simply 12–12–12–12, the rest follow Nabokov’s, and Rimbaud’s, form; the 6/6 split is suspicious on occasion) while hopefully preserving the symbolism and the visions. I’d be very interested to hear feedback!
The Drunken Boat
By Arthur Rimbaud
As I further down the impassive Rivers came,
No longer felt I guided by the bargemen’s hauls:
Screaming Redskins had used them to practice their aim,
And they had nailed them, naked, onto colored poles.
I didn’t much care for any of the crewmen,
The Flemish wheat, the English cotton in their tow.
As all that clamor died along with my bargemen,
The River let me sail at will upon its flow.
Straight into the furious lashing of the tide,
I, that other winter more deaf than toddler mind,
Ran! The Peninsulas, unmoored and set aglide,
Never knew a cry of triumph so unconfined.
The tempest blessed me as I woke unto the sea.
More lightweight than a cork I danced on crest and trough,
(Eternal rollers of victims they’re said to be,)
Ten nights without the lantern and its banal glow!
Sweeter than to children a sour apple’s meat,
The green water penetrated my pinewood frame,
And the stains of blue wine and splashes of vomit
It washed; my anchor and rudder the sea would claim.
And from that moment onwards I bathed in the Verse
Of the Sea, infused with stars and lactescent ink,
Ravaging green azures, where, pallid and submersed,
A delighted, drowned dreamer sometimes may sink;
Where, suddenly dyeing the blue, deranged fires,
And slow rhythms under the daylight’s shining stare,
Stronger than alcohol, vaster than our lyres,
Ferment for me the bitter redness of love’s glare!
I know the skies in thunderbolts, a whirlwind’s might,
And the surf, and the currents, to dusks I have been,
And dawns as sublime as exalted doves in flight,
And I saw at times that which man but thinks he’s seen!
I saw the low sun speckled with mystic horrors,
Illuminating long and solid purple straps,
Which remind of ancient dramas and their actors,
The waves rolling far off their trembling shutter-flaps!
I have dreamt of a green night in glittering snows,
A kiss reaching into the sea’s eye, slow and long,
The flowing of a lifeblood which no human knows,
And blue and yellow surging of phosphoric song!
I followed for months, like herds adrift on prairies,
Frantic, the swell that battles reefs until the death,
Never dreaming that the lustrous feet of Marys,
Could force the muzzle onto Oceans out of breath!
I crashed, do you know, into rare, exotic lands,
Where flowers fuse with panther eyes in skins of men,
Iridiscent rainbows stretched tight as bridle bands,
Neath the seas’ horizon, and to glaucous herds again!
I saw the enormous marshes seething, and nets
Where a Leviathan rots in the weed, grasp this!
And a sinkhole amidst the placid seas which lets
The flow collapse into a cascading abyss!
Glaciers, silver suns, pearl waves, skies of ember!
Hideous wrecks along the bottoms of brown bays,
Where gigantic snakes whom the vermin dismember,
Fall from contorted trees in a black, pungent haze!
I would have liked to show to children the dolphin
On a blue rising wave, that golden fish that sings.
Foams colored by flowers gently rocked my drifting,
And ineffable winds at times lent me their wings.
And sometimes, martyrs sick of poles and zones, mellow,
Their sobs sweetening my rolling, the weeping seas
Raised for me dark blossoms, suction cups all yellow,
And I hung out there like a woman on her knees…
Akin to an island, watching my sides ravaged
By quarrels and droppings of pale-eyed, noisy birds,
I wandered along as across my frayed cordage
Drowned men sank backwards into slumber without words!
Hurled by the hurricane into the birdless ether,
Lost under the hair of coves on shallow ground,
I, a boat whose wreck, a carcass drunk with water,
Neither merchant ships nor Monitors would have found;
Free, smoking, arisen from violet vapour,
I pierced the blushing sky like a wall gives to drill,
A luscious reward for good verse put on paper:
Lichens of sunlight and an azure spill,
I ran, flecked with lunulas, electric bows,
A rabid plank, trailed by sea-horses black as night,
When Julys carved with crushing bludgeon blows
Ultramarine skies into funnels set alight;
I who trembled to sense, at fifty leagues of distance,
Groaning Behemots rut, and Maelstroms broad and thick,
Eternal spinner of a blue inert persistence,
I miss Europe’s ancient parapet walls of brick!
I’ve seen astral islands, and swarms of stars, on deep
Delirious skies to which sailors set their course:
- In those endless nights, are you exiled, do you sleep,
One million golden birds, O future Vital Force?
But, truly, I’ve wept much! Every Dawn but saddens,
Every sun is bitter, every moon is rotten.
Rancid love has bloated me with stupor that maddens,
O may my keel dissolve! May I sink to bottom!
I want one water in Europe — shallow lying,
Black and cold, where into the scented dying day
A crouching child full of sorrow sends off flying
A boat as fragile as a butterfly in May!
I cannot anymore, O waves, bathed in your langours,
Undo the wake which cotton freighters spread in rays,
Nor endure the pride of the flags and the banners,
Nor swim under the floating bridges’ dreadful gaze!