02 January 2024

Translation: Blaise Cendrars Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of the Little Jehanne of France, Part 1

Cover by Sonia Delaunay, 1913

This is Bora Mici's original French to English translation of the poem La prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France or Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of the Little Jehanne of France by the French early 20th century poet Blaise Cendrars whose name evokes a phoenix. Sonia Delaunay created the accompanying artwork for the poem.

Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of the Little Jehanne of France by Blaise Cendrars with artwork by Sonia Delaunay, Part 1.

Dedicated to musicians

At that time I was an adolescent
I was barely sixteen and could not remember my childhood evanescent
I was 16,000 leagues away from my birthplace reminiscent
I was in Moscow, the city of three-thousand church bells and seven train stations
And I could not get enough of the seven train stations and the three-thousand towers
Because my adolescence was so passionate and so wild
That my heart, now and then, burned like the temple
of Ephesos or like Moscow’s Red Square
When the sun sets.
And my eyes lit up ancient roads.
And I was already such a bad poet
That I did not know how to go all the way to the end.

The Kremlin was like a giant Tartar cake
Crunchy in gold,
With the big all white cathedral mandorlas
And the honeyed gold of the church bells …

An old monk was reading the legend of Novgorod to me
I was thirsty
And I was deciphering the cuneiform script
Then, all of a sudden, the pigeons of the Holy Spirit started flying in the square
And my hands started flying too, with the fluttering of an albatros
And these, these were the last reminiscences of the last day
Of the very last trip
And of the sea.

However, I was a very bad poet.
I did not know how to go all the way to the end.
I was hungry
And all the days and all the women in the coffeeshops and all the glasses
I would have liked to drink them and break them
And all the shop windows and all the streets
And all the houses and all the lives
And all the wheels of the carriages spinning like whirlwinds on badly paved roads
I would have liked to plunge them into an inferno of swords
And I would have liked to grind all the bones
And pull out all the tongues
And liquefy all these strange large naked bodies under the clothes that overwhelm me …
I could sense the arrival of the large red Christ of the Russian Revolution …
And the sun was a bad wound
That was open like a blaze.

At that time I was an adolescent
I was barely sixteen and could not remember my birth evanescent
I was in Moscow, where I wanted to feed on flames
And there were not enough towers and train stations for my eyes to constellate

In Siberia cannons thundered, it was wartime
Hunger the cold the plague cholera
And the murky waters of Love carried millions of carcasses.
In all the train stations I could see all the last trains departing
No one could leave anymore because no more tickets were give out
And the soldiers leaving would have liked to stay …
An old monk would sing me the legend of Novgorod.

I, the bad poet who wanted to go nowhere, I could go everywhere
And the merchants also still had enough money
To try their luck.
Their train left every Friday morning.
We heard that there were many dead.
One of them would bring a hundred cases of alarm clocks and cuckoos from the Black Forest
Another, boxes of hats, cylinders and a selection of bottle openers from Sheffield
Another, Malmo coffins filled with tin-can preserves and sardines in oil
Then there were many women
Women, groins for rent who could also double
As coffins
They were all authorized
We heard that there were many dead over there
They traveled at a reduced fare
And all had checking accounts in the bank.

Yet, one Friday morning, it was finally my turn
It was December
And I also left to accompany the travelling jeweler who was going to Harbin
We had two compartments in the express and 34 chests of Pforzheim jewelry
German bling “Made in Germany”
He had dressed me in new clothes, and while getting on the train I had lost a button
- I remember, I remember, I have thought about it often since
I would sleep on top of the chests and I was so happy to be able to play with the nickeled browning he had also given me

I was very happy carefree
I thought I was playing at highway robbery
We had stolen Golconda’s gold
And, thanks to the Trans-Siberian, we were going to hide it on the other side of the world
I had to protect it against the thieves of the Urals who had attacked the acrobats of Jules Verne
Against the Tungusics, the China boxers
And the little rabid Mongols of the Great Lama
Ali Baba and the forty thieves
And especially, against the most modern
The hotel crooks
And the experts of the international expresses.

Yet still, yet still
I looked like a child sad on the sill
The train’s rhythmic kinks
The “railway syndrome” of the American shrinks
The sound of the doors voices axletrees shrieking on the frozen rails
The golden sestertius of my future
My browning the piano, in the next-door compartment, the cursing of the card players
Jane’s stunning presence
The man in the blue eyeglasses who nervously paced the aisle and looked at me in passing
The crinkling of women
And the steam’s whistle
And the eternal noise of the mad wheels in the furrows of the sky
The windows have frosted scales
No nature!
And behind the Siberian plains, the low sky and the great shadows of the quiet ones that climb and descend.

Read Part 2.

Read Part 3. 

26 September 2023

Translation: Charles Aznavour La Bohème

After Ingres and Rafael, Bora Mici

La bohème 

An epoch will be sung, that the very young
Cannot really know
Montmartre through the cracks, hung its lilacs
Down to our window
And while the attic that was to be our romantic
nest, wasn’t more than a shed
It’s there where we’d collude, I was unfed
And you posed nude.

The bohemian, the bohemian
That meant that we were gay
The bohemian, the bohemian
We ate only every other day.

In the neighboring bars, some of us were the stars
Waiting to gleam
Even though we were twenty, and our stomachs were empty
We’d always dream
And when we got a warm quiche in exchange for a pastiche
From a bistrot hire
Poems together we would tell, gathered ‘round the fire
To forget winter’s spell.

The bohemian, the bohemian
You were pretty like Venus
The bohemian, the bohemian
We all had a spark of genius.

Often in front of my easel, as the rain would drizzle
Being awake all night was bracing
Touching up the line of a supine
breast, a curved hip tracing
And it wasn’t until morn’, when we would sit still and worn
To our coffee steaming
Exhausted, in sheer delight, in love, we were convening
Couldn’t help but love life.

The bohemian, the bohemian
That meant we were twenty years old
The bohemian, the bohemian
We were living on nothing at all.

When as the days go by, my old haunts I spy
I don’t lie, it’s the truth
I don’t recognize the walls nor the skies
That adorned my youth
At the top of some stair, I look for the atelier
Of which there’s nothing left
In its new scenery, Montmartre seems bereft
And the lilacs are history.

The bohemian, the bohemian
We were young, we were wild
The bohemian, the bohemian
It’s meant nothing at all for a while.

02 August 2023

Translation: Pomme My Love Is a City

A peu près album cover, photograph by Marta Bevacqua and artwork by Frank Loriou

This is another translation of a creative song by the French singer-songwriter Pomme. It compares the person she loves to a city. You can hear it here

My love is a city

My love is a city I like to visit with my fingers
My love, a city I criss-cross, where my mind lingers
A model citadel, a model citadel
My love is a city where I like to let my eyes dwell
My love, a city, the tranquil capital my lips bespell
A model citadel, a model citadel.

No other place, no other can enlace me so
No other place than this love
No other place, no other can enlace me so
No other than this love that I know.

I grew tired of new cities where I would just pass through
But this mysterious one I love
It’s the love I dream of anew
An ancient beauty to construe, an ancient beauty to construe
I rush until I hear her voice cry out
I run until my eyes hurt, my ears shout
I rush until I hear her voice, I run
Time is still out, in this town I am about, in this town I am about

No other place, no other can enlace me so
No other place than this love
No other place, no other can enlace me so
No other than this love I know.

At her fountains I drink, I drink
I drink so much I am intoxicated
At her water features I drink, I drink
More and more so that I am inebriated
And I feel myself reanimated, and I feel myself resuscitated
My love is a city I love
I love

24 July 2023

Translation: Emile Zola Au Bonheur des Dames

Félix Vallotton, Le Bon Marché, 1898

Au Bonheur des dames, extract

On Monday, March 14, the Bonheur des Dames inaugurated its renovated store with the exhibition of its new summer stock, which was supposed to last three days. Outside blew a bitter wind, and those passing by, surprised by this return of winter, walked quickly, buttoning their coats. Nevertheless, the neighboring boutiques were simmering with emotion; and you could see the pale faces of the small-shop owners against the windows, busy counting the first cars that stopped in front of the main entrance on Rue Neuve-Saint-Augustin. Tall and deep like a church portico, decorated with a motif of sculptures representing Industry and Commerce shaking hands in a labyrinth of symbols, this entrance was shielded by a glass awning whose freshly-painted gilded ornaments cast light on the sidewalks like the sun’s rays. The facades, still raw and white, extended to the right and left, turned on Rue Monsigny and Rue de la Michodière, and occupied the whole block except for the side on Rue du Dix-Décembre, where the Crédit Immobilier was going to build. All across the length of this development, which recalled the military barracks, when the small-shop owners raised their heads, they could see the piles of merchandise through the one-way mirrors, which from the ground floor to the second floor let ample light into the store. And this enormous cube, this colossal marketplace, which prevented them from seeing the sky, seemed to be the cause of the cold which made them shiver behind their frozen counters.

Still, Mouret was there, giving his orders starting at 10 am. In the middle, along the axis formed by the main entrance, a wide gallery went from one end to the other, flanked by two narrower galleries to the left and to the right, the Monsigny gallery and the Michodière gallery. The hallways had been glazed and transformed into exhibit spaces; iron stairways arose from the ground floor, iron bridges shot from one end to the other, on both floors. The architect who happened to be intelligent, a young man who loved the modern times, had only used stone in the basement and for the corner pillars, and had built the whole skeleton out of iron, the columns supporting the joist and beam structure. The arches supporting the floors and the dividing walls of the interior distribution rooms were made of brick. Everywhere space had been made, the outside air and light could enter freely, the public could circulate with ease, under the bold extension of the long-range trusses. It was the cathedral of modern commerce, solid and light, made for a people of female clients. Below, in the central gallery, after the items on sale at the entrance, came the ties, gloves and silks; the whites and the rouennerie occupied the Monsigny gallery, the notions, hosiery, draperies and woolens the Michodière gallery. Then, on the first floor, were the tailoring department, lingerie, shawls, lace and other new aisles, and relegated to the second floor were the bedding, rugs and upholstery, basically all the items that took up a lot of space and were difficult to handle. Currently, there were thirty-nine aisles, 1,800 employees, among which 200 were women. The sonorous life of the tall metallic nave was humming with a whole world of people.

Mouret’s only passion was to win over the woman. He wanted her to be the queen of his store, he had built this temple in her honor, in order to better have her at his mercy. His strategy consisted in exciting her by bestowing gallant attentions on her, tampering with her desires, and exploiting her feverishness. So, night and day, he racked his brain to try to come up with new ideas. Already, wanting to avoid that the delicate ladies overexerted themselves, he had built two elevators upholstered with velvet. In addition, he had just opened a buffet, where cookies and cordials were served freely, as well as a reading room, a monumental gallery, decorated very luxuriously, where he even had gone as far as to put up paintings on view. However, his deepest idea, when it came to the woman who lacked vanity, had been to conquer her through her child; he did not miss any opportunity, he speculated about all sentiments, created aisles for little boys and girls, stopped the mothers in their tracks as they were passing by and offered pretty pictures and balloons to their babies. This gift of balloons was a stroke of genius. They were distributed to every buyer, red balloons made of fine plastic, with the name of the store written on them in large letters, and which, held by a thread, hanging in the air above, were a living walking advertisement on the streets.

The greatest power was above all in advertising. Mouret went as far as to spend 300,000 francs each year in catalogues, announcements and posters. For his launch of the new summer stock, he had distributed 200,000 catalogues, 50,000 of which had gone abroad and had been translated in all languages. Now, he had them illustrated with etchings, he even accompanied them with samples, attached to the paper. An overflow of shelves, the Bonheur des Dames cried out to everyone, invaded the walls, newspapers, even the curtains at the theatre. He professed that the woman is defenseless against the advertisement, that she fatally ends up giving in. Moreover, he tried to trap her in more learned ways; he analyzed her as if he were a great moralist. And so, he had discovered that she could not resist cheap merchandise, that she bought things she did not need when she thought she had concluded a deal that was to her advantage; and based on this observation, he calculated his system for lowering prices, he progressively lowered the price of the items that remained unsold, preferring to sell at a loss, always faithful to the principle of the fast turnover of merchandise. What’s more, he had further penetrated into the heart of the woman, having just come up with “returns”, a masterpiece of jesuitic seduction. “Please always take it, madame: you can always return it if you no longer like it”. And the woman who resisted found a last excuse, the possibility to rectify her madness; she bought the item, and her conscience was clear. Now, returns and low prices were part of the classical mechanism of the new commerce.