In a Pit Like a Bear (extract), translated by Mia Harris

Stuck in this cage,
Like a bear, I am trapped,
Each morning we walk,
We walk round and round,
And round and round.
Each morning we walk,
And each time, we finish our walk,
Back in this cage,
The sky is the limit,
Like a great blue chain.
Yet here we are,
Incarcerated outcasts,
Animals to the world.
So each and every morning,
We walk away and end up here,
Over and over again,
In another cell,
An inmate has left,
Left the taps running,
Left the taps dripping.
That guard,
The guard who jingles his keys,
Letting these men come and go,
In another cell,
An inmate has left,
Left the taps running,
Left the taps dripping.

 

As soon as I read the poem in French, I really liked it and wanted to choose it. However, when I read it a second time, I realized that the structure was going to be difficult to recreate in English. English and French poems are structured very differently, but I still wanted to capture the essence of the poem, no matter which language it was in. To overcome this challenge, I took the words of the poem and kept the meaning of it the same, but the structure was different because I tweaked it to make more sense to English readers. Secondly, some of the words used only made sense in French. For example, the literal translation of one line was “The sky is blue like a chain”. When I translated this to English, it sounded like a simile, and this wasn’t what I wanted. The poem is about feeling trapped in a prison cell. I changed it to “The sky is like a great blue chain” to convey this more. I did this with a few more parts of the poem. The third problem I faced was trying to capture the mood of the poem. Sometimes when you translate something from another language, it loses its mood and no longer feels like a poem. I still wanted to capture the feeling of incarceration, so I tweaked some parts of the poem so that English and French readers will feel the same when they read the poem. I wanted to keep the sad, repetitive atmosphere of the poem, and I would say I did so fairly successfully by changing the structure and words, but the meaning of the poem is the same.

Dans une fosse comme un ours
Chaque matin je me promène
Tournons tournons tournons toujours
Le ciel est bleu comme une chaîne
Dans une fosse comme un ours
Chaque matin je me promène

Dans la cellule d’à côté
On y fait couler la fontaine
Avec les clefs qu’il fait tinter
Que le geôlier aille et revienne
Dans la cellule d’à côté
On y fait couler la fontaine

 

Original poem by Guillaume Apollinaire.