Translator's notes


By Louis Aragon

A memorial note on Edith McMorran and a translation of Aragon’s ‘C’

This translation was presented as part of a collective tribute offered on 23 October 2004 at St Hugh's College, Oxford, to the memory of Edith McMorran, who died on 1 December 2003. Edith McMorran was remembered not only as a loyal friend, colleague and tutor, but also as the founder and presiding spirit of the extraordinarily successful series of colloquia known as ‘Translation in Oxford’ (TRIO). She did most of the administration and the organisation, she often provided supplementary hospitality in her own home, and she made the programmes varied and interesting enough to attract speakers and audiences, not only from within the Modern Languages Faculty, but also from outside the University and indeed from a wider public.

Edith came from a French Jewish family; their family business, Frank et fils, was expropriated under the occupation of France in the Second World War and the family – together with Edith, who was of course at that time a small child – fled Paris just in time to avoid almost certain deportation.

The poem translated here comes from a collection of resistance poems written by Louis Aragon in 1942. The first, which is simply called ‘C’, is an indirect, understated, marginally surrealistic parody of false romantic fictions of the national past, shifting to a condensed evocation of the desolation of war. The opening line of the original (‘J'ai traversé les ponts de Cé’) refers to a real place in western France, just south of Angers, which marked the frontier of Caesar's invasion of Gaul (‘Cé’ is an abbreviation of ‘César’). Aragon uses the reference in order to evoke the border between occupied France and the parts of the country not yet subject to the occupying authorities; ‘Cé’ is also the syllable that determines the rhyme of every line. I found it impossible to render this double device in English. I changed the title ‘C’ to ‘S’ to make the rhyme easier and invented a mythical ‘Esse’, a name which can be heard both as French (as in the noun ending ‘-esse’) and as German and may thus suggest the treacherous blending of the occupier with the occupied.

At the memorial event, I read the translation and played a recording of a setting of the original poem by Francis Poulenc, a composer whom Edith herself much admired. The setting brings out the latent warmth as well as the irony of the poem.

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