La Conscience, by Victor Hugo
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.
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:
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