Pushcart 2014: François Villon, “Villon’s Epitaph (Ballade of the Hanged Men)” (Poetry) translated by Richard Wilbur, from Hudson Review, Autumn 2012

O brother men who after us remain,
Do not look coldly on the scene you view,
For if you pity wretchedness and pain,
God will the more incline to pity you.
You see us hang here, half a dozen who
Indulged the flesh in every liberty
Till it was pecked and rotted, as you see,
And these our bones to dust and ashes fall.
Let no one mock our sorry company,
But pray to God that He forgive us all.

I do some background research on all the pieces I blog; any reviews or blog comments I can find, information about the author. I usually find an interesting tidbit or two. This one was an absolute gold mine.

Translation fascinates me: given all that language contains, just how close can any translation come to the original? So much needs to be translated: semantic meaning, of course, but also nuance, associations, images, sound, rhythm. Given how hard it is to convey anything precisely within even a more-or-less homogeneous culture, how can even the essence, let alone the nuance, of a work be translated outside that culture? I got a small taste of this back in college when we looked at some of the issues with respect to Beowolf; it’s hard enough with prose, but given poetry’s additional elements of meter, rhyme, and form, how is it at all possible?

Translator Richard Wilbur has taken a highly formal piece from medieval France, and translated it to 21st century America. He’s preserved meter, syllable count, and a complicated rhyme scheme, while creating a moving poem with contemporary sociopolitical overtones that is nonetheless, as far as I can tell, true to the original. This is remarkable work. And it is available online (thank you, Hudson Review). If you prefer the original French, that’s online too (there’s supposed to be an acrostic of Villon’s name in the original somewhere – but I can’t find it in any language. If you see it, please let me know), with a literal (but far less poetically true) translation, and several French readings are available on video as well.

François Villon, the original poet, led a tumultuous life; born into poverty, he was rescued by a cleric whose name he adopted, and thus had access to education. But he couldn’t stay out of trouble. This poem was written while he awaited hanging, but he was exiled instead and disappeared from history.

The form is the Ballade Supreme, with a highly restrictive format: three ten-line stanzas, each ending with the refrain line, then a five-line “envoy” (new word, never heard that one before) at the end, for a total of 35 lines. Each line is ten syllables. The rhyme scheme allows only four rhymes throughout the entire poem: ABABB/CCDCD repeated for each ten-line verse, with CCDCD as the envoy. This severely limits word choices. It’s why I’m all the more amazed that Wilbur was able to pull it off, and still end up with a lovely poem.

The voice is first person plural – the “we” voice. I’m not sure if this is common in medieval poetry, or in current American poetry for that matter, but it’s one of my favorite artistic choices in contemporary prose, typically used to emphasize like-mindedness. This usage is a bit different; the speaker is a group of six hanged men, asking those who view them – the reader – to look on them with mercy, and I suspect it could be looked at as more of an “I” as a representative – something like the royal “we” – rather than a true plural voice.

It’s quite grim in diction – rotting corpses, picked by birds, soaked in rain, dried and blackened by sun – “pitted like thimbles” – and each stanza ends with the plea, “But pray to God that He forgive us all.” That’s what I love, the sudden expansion of the “we” – “that He forgive us all” – not just the thieves, but those that hanged them, and those who scorn their remains. Of course, that’s a 21st century reading from someone who has a few feelings about being a citizen of one of the few countries that still kills people in the name of justice.

For a close look at the translation, let’s try a table of a few particularly interesting spots:

At this point I’m a bit biased, but it seems to me that, in addition to preserving the literal meaning and formal elements, Wilbur’s translation is also more beautiful. At first I was worried about “pitted like thimbles” – such a great image, and, I thought, perhaps generated from the sense of “as if it were sewed” in the literal translation. But it turns out, the French word for “thimble” is “dé à coudre” which is right there in the text. Whether the particular 15th century juxtaposition of “pecked”, “birds”, and “thimble” means one thing or the other, or whether, having already used the “pecked by birds” imagery in the first stanza, Villon, and then Wilbur, simply expanded and, ahem, embroidered that image, I can’t say… but I know which one strikes me more as a reader.

I’m curious, however, about the use of “forgive” rather than “absolve” – there’s little change in meter, yet Wilbur chose the former. Why? I don’t know, but here are some clues: “absolve” is from the Latin prefix-root combination ab-solve meaning “loosen from”; “forgive” is from the Old English forgiefan meaning “give, grant, allow” and, later, under the influence of other languages (including Latin) such as English has historically been prone, to mean “give up desire to punish”. It seems to me that “absolve” changes the condition of the miscreant; “forgive” changes the condition of the forgiver. Those are two different things. I’ve also discovered that there’s a difference in Catholic theology, but I’ve found differing interpretations of that difference. One is that the Church absolves, but only God forgives; the other is more or less the reverse of that. Being as unfamiliar with Catholicism as I am with French, I’ll have to pass on the issue of which is canonically accurate.

But going back to the first distinction, between the sinner being absolved but the merciful forgiving, I wonder if that’s why Wilbur chose the word he did. Villon wouldn’t have had access to the word “forgive,” of course; is Wilbur assuming it’s the word he would have used, if given a choice? Was Villon’s speaker in the poem, the congregation of hanged men, more interested in convincing onlookers to let go of their scorn, than in being set loose from the already-fulfilled consequences of the crimes?

Formal analysis, justice, the nature of forgiveness, translation theory – all that, and a lovely poem, too. Who could ask for more.