“Those intangible songs”

Jethro Bithell wrote in Contemporary French Poetry (1912):

That poem is worth more than all the commentaries on symbolism. “Le chanson grise” (whether it means “gray song,” as some of my friends say, or “drunken song,” as others say — but surely it means both), that is the best description of many of the best poems which the symbolists have written, those intangible songs which so often bring tears to the eyes…

The poem is Art poétique by Paul Verlaine. The first Russian translation, by Valery Bryusov, rendered “grise” as “drunk” although it’s really “tipsy.” (Recall, for instance, Ah! Quel dîner je viens de faire… from La Périchole, an opéra buffe by Jacques Offenbach: “Je suis un peu grise,” the song goes, “I am a little tipsy.” Incidentally, Verlaine not only enjoyed Offenbach’s music but composed librettos for two comic operas, both unfinished.) Russian readers tend to think “disorderly” when they hear “drunk” so Bryusov’s word choice was questionable, although he was a highly accomplished, technically proficient translator.

Pasternak’s version disposed with “drunk” in favor of “under the influence” (“under the hops” literally), bringing back the missing nuance. Still, the “grayness” of the song remains missing from Russian translations as far as I know.

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