Monday Afternoon Poetry: Translating Mallarmé

Over at The Valve, Adam Roberts has posted a new translation of Stéphane Mallarmé’s wonderful poem “Tout l’ame résumée.” (A little background: Stéphane Mallomar was the first to coat the graham cracker of poststructuralism with creamy, marshmallow Symbolism and the dark chocolate of rhyme.) It’s an inspired idea, and I tried my hand at translating it myself. My version is below, along with the original French, with formatting and phrasing borrowed from Roberts’s post. I’d love to hear your thoughts, line readings, or corrections; also, feel free to post other translations of your own, in any language. Snuggle Bunny, surlacarte — tag, you’re it. (Also, a shout-out to petitpoussin for her ongoing Poetry Monday series.)

Here is Stéphane Mallarmé’s ‘Toute l’âme résumée’ from 1895.

Toute l’âme résumée
Quand lente nous l’expirons
Dans plusieurs ronds de fumée
Abolis en autres ronds

Atteste quelque cigare
Brûlant savamment pour peu
Que la cendre se sépare
De son clair baiser de feu

Ainsi le chœur des romances
À la lèvre vole-t-il
Exclus-en si tu commences
Le réel parce que vil

Le sens trop précis rature
Ta vague littérature.

And here is my attempt at an English translation.

We express our whole soul
When we slowly exhale
Those several rings of smoke
Driven out by other rings

That attest to some cigar
Briefly, brilliantly smoldering
Ash separating itself
From the clear kiss of fire

Thus the choir of romances
Rises to your lips—
If you begin, begin by
Excluding reality. It is vile.

Too much precision of sense erases
Your vague literature.


You can find my notes on the translation here, and a funny turn in the comment thread here.