La Conscience, by Victor Hugo

Phil James
3 min readOct 1, 2015

a translation.

Here’s a translation of Victor Hugo’s “La Conscience” I just wrote. The story tells the classic tale of Cain escaping the wrath of God, but constantly alludes to physical and psychological barriers.

Here is the original in French


Once with the children adorned in hides,

discordant and lost in the heart of the storm

Cain stood facing Jehovah and defied

him, and as the night fell on the warm

mountain the shadow of a man crept onto the plain;

Breathless and beat, the wife and kids of Cain

told him: “We will lie on this earth, and rest”.

But Cain lifted his eyes and swiftly pressed

to the foothills, and in the ominous sky

noticed deep in its folds a gaping eye

That looked at him from its somber place

“I am ready”, it said while trembling apace.

He woke up his wife and his sons and ran

eagerly away upon that golden span.

For thirty days and nights they walked

scarcely wavering from fear, they barely talked

And without the slightest inkling to look behind

they sleeplessly found that void that pined

for water since their stop in Assur.

“We’ll stop here and rest,” he said, “I’m sure

we’ve reached the ends of the earth.”

But in that moment the sky cast a dearth

of crimson lightning at the horizon’s edge

and within that void was that mortal ledge.

Cain pleaded to his song to be concealed

from that maddened face now revealed.

Then Cain, father of all exiled, desert barrens

Asked of Jabel, his son, a simple errand:

“Extend the ends of this feather tent for me

So safe and concealed we’ll surely be.”

But when they set down some weights of lead

Tsilla, the blond one, looked at Cain and said:

“Do you not see him?” then Cain replied

from this auroral specter I’ll never hide!

Jubal, father of transients in city slums

Who shot clarion calls and smacked his drums,

Set around his idol a massive wall

so that the eye would never see him at all.

And Cain said: “But Jubal, He sees me still!”

and Henoch Replied: “Yes, but only until

I build a tower so damn imposing

you foes will recoil before proposing

to besiege it and its fellow town

We’ll build a great city and we’ll lock it down.”

So Tubalcain, the father of all master smiths

built up a city of gargantuan widths

And while Tubalcain worked, his brothers sought prey,

the kids of Seth and Enos had quickly run away.

We guarded our great city from each and every one

and bored, we launched arrows at the sun.

Granite replaced the tents made of flimsy animal pelt

and iron, not manure, was all we’d smelt,

Our town thus grew dingy and infernal,

The overshadowing tower made night eternal

in the plains; And upon our mountain-thick gate

we engraved: “God will not enter our city-state.”

And when the walls were caulked and dried

We put Cain, our ancestor, in a tower to hide

and he stayed there, haggard and old.

“Father,” said Tsilla, “is that eye all gone?”

And Cain then told him, “son, you’re still wrong.”

“Please,” Cain said, “put me underground,

those men of solitude below don’t bear the sound

nor sight of anything around them anymore.”

“But you’d be dead!” said Tsilla, and Cain said:

forever more”.

from a city of cloud to a city of bone

Cain walked down the tower steps, alone

And once in the dark of that eternal tomb

The eye stared back from the end of the room.

- Berkeley, 2015