From French, To French

Had not realized that French is a precursor to English. Thought they developed separately, and borrowed from each other. Turns out, in reading Paul Auster’s “Twentieth Century French Poetry” overview (1981, contained in The The Art of Hunger [1992]), modern poetry is centred in French, so much so that some of the better known English poets mastered their poetry through first mastering French:

This much is certain: If not for the arrival of William and his armies on English soil in 1066, the English language as we know it would never have come into being. For the next three hundred years, French was the language spoken at the English court, and it was not until the end of the Hundred Years’ War that it became clear, once and for all, that France and England were not to become a single country. Even John Gower, one of the fist to write in the English vernacular, composed a large portion of his work in French, and Chaucer, the greatest of the early English pets, devoted much of his creative energy to the translation of Le Roman de la rose, and found his first models in the work of the Frenchman Guillaume de Machaut. …(T.S.) Eliot would later write that “…the kind of poetry I needed, to teach me the use of my own voice, did not exist in England at all, and was only to be found in France.” As for (Ezra) Pound, he stated flatly that “practically the whole development of the English verse-art has been achieved by steals from the French.”

…Since the twenties, American and British poets have been steadily translating their French counterparts–not simply as a literary exercise, but as an act of discovery and passion. Consider, for example, these words from John Dos Passos’ preface to his translations of Cendrars in 1930: “…I think it has been worthwhile to attempt to these alive, informal, personal, every day poems of Cendrars’ into English…”. Or T.S. Eliot, introducing his translation of Anabasis by Saint-John Perse (in 1930): “I believe that this is a piece of writing of the same importance as the later work of James Joyce, as valuable as Anna Livia Plurabelle.”

…many of the most important contemporary American and British poets have tried their hand at translating the French, amoung them Pound, Williams, Eliot, Stevens, Beckett, MacNeice, Spender, Ashbery, Blackburn, Bly, Kinnell, Levertov, Merwin, Wright, Tomlinson, Wilbur–to mention just some of the most familiar names. It would be difficult to imagine their work, had they not been touched in some way by the French.

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1 Response to From French, To French

  1. David says:

    I still recall learning about “Law French” at law school. Hmm. Let me see if I can find it. Here’s the example I remember, from an English case in Dyer’s Reports. A 1631 case reported in 1688:

    Richardson, Ch. Just. de C. Banc al Assises at Salisbury in Summer 1631. fuit assault per prisoner la condemne pur felony que puis son condemnation ject un Brickbat a le dit Justice que narrowly mist, & pur ceo immediately fuit Indictment drawn per Noy envers le Prisoner, & son dexter manus ampute & fix al Gibbet, sur que luy mesme immediatement hange in presence de Court.

    Sir George Treby

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