A Tale of Two Translations

Two years ago, I drafted a rather free translation of Gerard de Nerval’s sonnet “El Desdichado.” “El Desdichado,” a phrase that famously appeared in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, means “the unfortunate one” or “the disowned one.” This translation, which appears below, was published in InTranslation in the summer of 2011.

El Desdichado

Twilight-blacked I am, in my cheerless widowhood.
Am I the prince of Aquitaine, that my towers should thus explode?
My very supernova’s been snuffed out, and my one
shiny-tendoned lute’s been silenced by DEPRESSION.

You who soothed me once: in my sightless tomb,
permit me to hear again the Mediterranean’s boom-boom-boom.
Press into my hand the nosegay that once gave delight,
bouquet where the scent of the rose-tree and grape-vine unite.

In me, the lust god meets the sun god; king meets downcast bard.
On my face is the hickey where Her Majesty kissed me;
in the grotto of the mermaids elapsed a chapter of my history;

in crossing death’s river, twice, I reaped a victor’s reward.
Now my lyre alternates between emitting nun-like sighs
and mimicking a ravished pixie’s raw, climactic cries.

At the time that I made the above translation, I had never personally experienced depression. Now that my lot has changed, two years later, I no longer find the above translation satisfactory. For this reason, I set out to create a new translation, a terser and less flowery one that would hopefully reflect my new understanding of the tragic mental condition that informed Nerval’s poem and, a year later, caused his death.

El Desdichado

I am the amputee, unhealed, black with gangrene,
the high-born son whose high-rise was demolished.
My light has fizzled out. My lute, which was embellished
with stars once, sags beneath a coal-black sun.

You who were once my healer, on this saddest
night, give me my botanicals, my medicine.
Give me my Naples, my Italian
sea, and my trellis hung with roses and clematis.

I used to think I was a god or cherub, duke or baron,
for a queen once kissed my forehead lipstick-red,
and a mermaid let me sleep once in her coral bed.

And I have twice traversed the flume of boatman Charon,
strumming now and then on Orpheus’s lyre
these songs of martyrs’ grief and fickle fays’ desire.


Gérard de Nerval

Gérard de Nerval was born in Paris in 1808. His published works include translations of Goethe and Heinrich Heine, numerous plays and operettas (some of which were co-authored with Alexandre Dumas), the travelogue Voyage en Orient (Voyage to the Orient, 1851), the poetry collection Les chimères (Chimeras, 1854), and the prose work Aurélie (1855). He committed suicide in Paris in 1855.

Jenna Le

Jenna Le's first book, Six Rivers (New York Quarterly Books, 2011), was a Small Press Distribution Poetry Bestseller. Her writing has appeared in AGNI Online, Barrow Street, Bellevue Literary Review, Massachusetts Review, Post Road, and 32 Poems. She has been a Pharos Poetry Competition winner, a Minnetonka Review Editor's Prize winner, a Pushcart Prize nominee, and a PEN Emerging Writers Award nominee.

English translation copyright (c) Jenna Le, 2013.