Poetry Review Winter 2012/3 – Adès & Hugo

Timothy Adès has produced new translations of Victor Hugo’s poems about being a grandfather.  Merryn Williams finds that many of them have stood the test of time…


Victor Hugo, How to be a GrandfatherHow-to-be-a-grandfather-199x300
translated and introduced by Timothy Adès
Hearing Eye
pp 180     £12
ISBN 978-1-905082-66-7




Victor Hugo (1802-85) is best known in this country as the author of Les Misérables, but he was also a prolific poet and a great humanitarian.   He was a democrat, passionately opposed to the monarchy and the power of the Church, and, as the translator explains, we in Britain don’t understand why people feel strongly about these things.  He was forced to go into exile in Guernsey, and that is where some of these poems were written. Four of his children died before him but his beloved grandchildren, Georges and Jeanne, spent a great deal of time with him in his old age.

Timothy Adès has produced a complete translation of his last book of poetry, L’ Art d’être Grand-P?re, most of which has not been translated before.   Like the originals, they rhyme, and they are reasonably accurate.  This one is typical:

Jean talks: she burbles, sweet and low;
Tells nature things she doesn’t know,
Tells groaning waves and moaning woods,
Flowers and nests, all heaven, the clouds,
Offering insights, by a smile,
From shimmering dream and roving soul:
A formless murmur, blurred and hazed.
Old grandpa God gives ear, amazed.

Doting grandparents should perhaps be careful before they go into print, and many of these poems are too sweet for my taste.  But I was interested in the political poems, which deal with subjects like Napoleon, the Second Empire and the Commune.  The test of a translation must be whether it works as a poem in the new language, and ‘June 1871 (The End of the Paris Commune)’ certainly does work:

A woman told me this: ‘I took to flight.
My baby at my breast, poor little mite,
Cried, and I was afraid she might be heard.
Imagine, Sir, the child was two months old,
No stronger than a fly.  I tried and tried
To stop her mouth with kisses: but she cried,
Rattling.  She would have fed, but I was dry:
I only wept.  That’s how a night went by.
I hid behind a door. I saw the glint
Of arms, the guns of killers, on the hunt
For my husband. Morning broke.  Behind that door,
A curse on it! my darling cried no more.
Sir, she was dead: I touched her, she was cold.
I ran, not caring if I too was killed,
Anywhere, with my daughter. People called
Out to me, but I fled, I don’t know where,
Into the fields, and dug a hole with bare
Hands, in some paddock, in a place of shade.
It’s hard to bury one your breast has fed!
I laid to rest in earth my angel, sleeping’. 

The father stood beside her: he was weeping.

Nothing old-fashioned about this one; it could be happening anywhere in a war zone.  The book has left me determined to find out more about Victor Hugo.