Sailors (extract), translated by Suzannah V. Evans

Some do come back, though: shipwreck’s debris,
Hacked up by pirates, riddled with scurvy . . .
Broken, disfigured, adrift, with a limp:
– One eye down. – And you, do you have one I could pinch?
– Yellow fever. – What about you, do you have it in pink?
– A scar. – Oh, it’s signed! . . . That’s something, I think.
– Arm out of whack. – Yes, that was musket-fire.
The rest is thanks to a surgeon I admire.
– And that hole in your cheek? – An old pike blow.
– That lump? – To starboard? . . . oh sorry, it’s my tobacco.
– That? – Nothing: a fuck-up, I caught a bullet with my hand,
It works as a barometer, tomorrow you’ll understand:
Sure as day! Whenever I feel a twinge . . .
Admit it, they no longer make hulls of my ilk!
They hanged me twice . . . –
And the honest crook
Whittles a wooden boat for a child with his hook.

– They survive like that, sniffing storms out at sea,
Rich in fame and three hundred francs’ annuity,
Old cartridge ends, shipwrecks of heroes! . . .
– Heroes? – how they’d laugh! . . . – No thank you: matelots!

– Sailors! – You’re not it, young sailor boys,
For whom the women make so much noise . . .
Ah, the old ones had prouder appetites!
They shrug their shoulders at your tiny bites.
At thirteen, they were eating Englishmen, these pirates!
You, you’re nothing but military pelletas . . .
Come on, they don’t make them like that anymore, so praiseworthy!
Everything ends . . . everything! The sea . . . is no longer seaworthy!
In the old days, it was saltier and wilder.
But now nothing is purer and milder . . .
The sea . . . the sea is nothing but a soldiers’ cocotte! . . .

– Dream on, you sailors, as you pace your lot
As if on deck . . . A peaceful reverie
Of moaning hulls, cracked masts at sea . . .
– To the pumps! . . .
No: it’s over! The old days are gone:
So long, my gorgeous ship, with your masts still looking on.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Like an old hull, derigged, on the strand,
Where sometimes a wave still nudges the sand,
The old sailor is a sea-soul, suffering inside,
Waiting, aground . . . – for what: death?
No, the tide.

Isle of Ushant. – April.


Reading ‘Matelots’ by Corbière, I can almost smell salt. The poem opens the Breton section of Corbière’s Les Amours jaunes (1873) and rails against romanticised depictions of sailors, offering an alternative portrayal of these sea-tossed wanderers. Here, Corbière repeatedly contrasts landlubbers and sailors, suggesting that the latter are impossible for earthbound people to understand. He stresses their physical vigour, apparent in fights and sex, and depicts the dangers of a life at sea. This extract is from the last third of the poem, and sets the reader right amid the bustling dialogue of returning sailors. Despite their various injuries, the sailors’ speech is vigorous, full of lively exclamations, jokes, and boasts, including the swaggering assertion that ‘they no longer make hulls of my ilk!’. The language is fast-paced, interspliced with dashes and suspension points. One of the difficulties I had in translating this passage, then, was how to convey Corbière’s vitality, and particularly his colloquialisms and specialised marine vocabulary. It was a challenge to render phrases such as ‘hachis d’abordage’, and I initially translated it as ‘Ground meat from boarding’. This translation didn’t feel right, however: it wasn’t clear that it was the sailors who were being depicted as ground meat, and I wasn’t sure that ‘boarding’ conveyed the sense of attack from other ships. ‘Hacked up by pirates’ seemed both clearer in terms of semantics and truer to Corbière’s rough-and-ready poetry. Finally, it was difficult to capture certain puns, as in the assertion that a fiancée waits ‘vaguely’ earlier on in the poem (in French, ‘vaguement’ puns on ‘vague’, meaning ‘wave’). I added in my own sly, hidden pun in this extract, speaking of ‘tiny bites’ in the couplet about the changing appetites of sailors, punning multilingually on the colloquial French term for the male sexual organ (‘bite’).

Original poem by Tristan Corbière.