Le Vaisseau d’Or, a new English translation by Jacques Renaud of Émile Nelligan’s masterpiece

Émile Nelligan à l'âge de 19 ans. Copyright © Archives nationales du Canada. L'auteur de la photo est inconnu. Le numéro de référence à l'Anc: ANC C-88566

Émile Nelligan à l’âge de 19 ans, c’est-à-dire peu de temps avant d’être interné au refuge Saint-Benoit le 9 août 1899. Copyright: Archives nationales du Canada. L’auteur de la photo est inconnu. Le numéro de référence à l’Anc: ANC C-88566

Posted here, a recent English translation I made of Québec poet Émile Nelligan’s masterpiece, Le Vaisseau d’Or ( 1899 ).  I kept the original title in French. It feels right that way.  I took notes on the poem and the translation while working on it.  I posted some of them — and the original poem in French.

Translation by Jacques Renaud (aka Loup Kibiloki) :

Le Vaisseau d’Or

It was a massive Ship carved out of solid Gold,
Its masts reaching azure, she sailed on unknown seas
With Aphrodite of love spreading out at the prow,
Hair dishevelled and naked under excessive sun.

But it came that the ship one night struck the great reef
On treacherous Ocean where the Siren was singing.
The horrible shipwreck tilted the hull aslant
Deep down the abyss depth, immutable coffin.

It was a Gold Vessel. Her diaphanous sides
Were revealing treasures that the secular crew,
Disgust and Neurosis, and Hatred, fought over.

What’s left of it after the brief abating storm?
What became of my heart, empty deserted ship?
Alas, it has sunk down in the abyss of Dream.

© Copyright 2009 Hamilton-Lucas Sinclair (Loup Kibiloki, Jacques Renaud, Le Scribe); click

Émile Nelligan au refuge Saint-Benoît. Nelligan y fut interné en 1899 (à l’âge de 19 ans: Nelligan était né le 24 décembre 1879). Nelligan est resté vingt-cinq ans à Saint-Benoît, puis a été transféré à l’hôpital psychiatrique Saint-Jean-de-Dieu à Montréal. Il est resté à Saint-Jean-de-Dieu jusqu’à son décès survenu le 18 novembre 1941. La photo est de Joseph-Octave Lagacé. Elle aurait été prise aux environs de 1920 à Saint-Benoit. Cette photo fait partie d’une collection, la Collection Wyczynski, du nom du biographe le plus connu de Nelligan, du moins l’un des plus prestigieux.

The original en français :

Le Vaisseau d’Or

Ce fut un grand Vaisseau taillé dans l’or massif:
Ses mâts touchaient l’azur, sur des mers inconnues;
La Cyprine d’amour, cheveux épars, chairs nues,
S’étalait à sa proue, au soleil excessif.

Mais il vint une nuit frapper le grand écueil
Dans l’Océan trompeur où chantait la Sirène,
Et le naufrage horrible inclina sa carène
Aux profondeurs du Gouffre, immuable cercueil.

Ce fut un Vaisseau d’Or, dont les flancs diaphanes
Révélaient des trésors que les marins profanes,
Dégoût, Haine et Névrose, ont entre eux disputés.

Que reste-t-il de lui dans la tempête brève?
Qu’est devenu mon coeur, navire déserté?
Hélas! Il a sombré dans l’abîme du Rêve!

Notes I jotted down while translating :

Nelligan’s poem Le Vaisseau d’Or is a masterpiece. I’ve known it by heart for a long time.

Aphrodite is hair dishevelled, stark naked, spreadeagled, spreading out at the prow:

“La Cyprine d’amour, cheveux épars, chairs nues
“S’étalait à sa proue au soleil excessif.”

“La Cyprine” is another name for Aphrodite (or “Venus”, in latin). Aphrodite is said to      originate from Cyprus, so she came to be called “la Cyprine” in French, as you’d say “la parisienne”, or “la montréalaise” – “the Parisian girl” or “the Parisian lady” (fill in … ); in French, you don’t need to add the equivalent of “girl” (“fille”) or “lady” (“dame”) to the expression to show that it’s a girl or a lady or a feminine entity, and not a man or a masculine entity, because (except exceptions) French express feminine or masculine by a) a change in the form of the word itself  (if it’s “parisienne”, it’s feminine, if it’s “parisien”, it’s masculine; or b) if the word is preceded by “la,” it means it’s feminine, if preceded by “le,” it means it’s masculine). So, “la Cyprine” is enough to show that one is talking about a feminine entity.

“Cyprine d’amour” has the same syntaxic structure as “vaisseau d’or”; what is meant is that “la Cyprine”, or “Aphrodite,” is made out of love, “love” is the substance “la Cyprine” is made of, in the same sense that the large ship, the vessel, is made out of gold (it’s not “golden”, it’s made out of gold). Maybe I should have translated “la Cyprine d’amour” by “Aphrodite of love.”  (Or did I change that passage?)

“Cheveux épars”, literally, is “hair sparse”, “hair everywhere”; Aphrodite is hair dishevelled. If Aphrodite’s “cheveux” (“cheveux” is plural; singular is “cheveu”) are “épars”, she’s hair dishevelled, “échevelée.”

“Dishevelled,” in English, and “échevelée” [masculine: échevelé] in French, have the same origin (obseve the sound of the “cheveux” in “dishevelled”). Both words mean more or less the same thing (and both can also be used figuratively). It’s like “horn” in English and “corne” in French: originally, they were the same word; the first consonant became softer in English and stronger in French. Try it, play with the sound. Follow the evolution of the sound through centuries along your throat, travel in time. Apparently, more than 70% of English words are of French origin. It is said. Probably true.

“Chairs nues” (plural), means she’s as naked as can be. Some kind of very poetical “in your face” erotic metaphor. Bold and very poetical in the context.

“S’étalait à sa proue”. “S’étalait”, she “was spreading out”; or “was spreadeagled”; or… I had to choose, so I did. From “spreading out” to “spreadeagled,” from “spreadeagled” to “spreading out…”

[ I take notes, I go back to the translation, to and fro, there’s constant interaction, so there can be discrepancies between notes or comments, and the “final” translation to which they refer. Which doesn’t mean that notes and comments are “wrong,” for whatever that could mean. ]

“Au soleil excessif.” Literally, “soleil excessif” is “excessive sun”: over-abundance of sun, excessive, “blinding sun”. I could have translated “soleil excessif” by “blinding sun”. Did I? … Apparently not. For the moment…

I chose to avoid using the adjective “golden” (the French adjective “doré” never appears in the poem): “golden” is “doré”, it has the colour, the appearance of gold, it’s not necessarily gold. “Golden” can have (although not exclusively) the meaning of something “glittering like” gold, or “looking like” gold, as in “doré.” However, Nelligan’s vessel is described as carved out of solid gold (“taillé dans l’or massif”). “C’était un Vaisseau d’or”, “It was a gold Vessel”; the vessel doesn’t look like gold, it is not “doré” (“golden”), it is “d’or”, made out of gold, “taillé” [infinitive: “tailler”; transitive verb], actually, “carved out.” The vessel is solid gold, it’s huge. The impression strongly given by the poem, especially the first verse, is one of “massiveness,” the vessel is massive, actually the whole event is massive, huge, short and massive (as opposed to “short and sweet”), although “massif,” in the original, applies more precisely to gold (“or”), not precisely to (but not excluding) the vessel.

“Solid gold” is usually translated as “or massif” in French. (Btw, “or” is masculine.) I’m not an expert on gold as a commodities, but it seems that, usually, “massive gold” rather translates in French as “or plein,” not as “or massif.” Anyway.

There’s the golden lid mentioned by Aurobindo, the Vedas, some Upanishads : «The Vedas and the Upanishads speak of a golden lid (Hiranmaya Patra in Sanskrit) which divides the lower rational mind from the higher planes of the Mind above us.» On blog auromere, This post: The Golden Lid or Hiranmaya Patra, explains the significance of that Golden Lid in the words of Sri Aurobindo & The Mother.

Source for the illustration: click on it. From Sandeep’s blog: Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo & The Mother.

The word “vaisseau” is used three times in the original version in French: in the title (Le Vaisseau d’Or), in the first line (C’était un grand Vaisseau), and at the ninth line (Ce fut un Vaisseau d’Or).

[A little statistics to (to try to) impress a prof (though you should play it safe, don’t brag ) : Émile Nelligan used the word “vaisseau” at least once in each of the following poems: La Fuite de l’enfance; Jardin sentimental; Placet; Je veux m’éluder; Banquet macabre; Ténèbres.]

I translated the word “vaisseau,” from the first line, by “ship,” for reasons of rythm. I should explain more thoroughly why, it would be good for enhancing my own understanding of the poem, it would be interesting, but it could be long, Loup. So, do it another time. Thanks, Loup.

After shipwreck, the poem adopts past time to evoke the Gold Vessel: “it was” a Gold Vessel. It isn’t anymore, “it was”; the inspiration tells the poet, and the reader : “It’s over.” At the end, (thirteenth line) the “vessel” (vaisseau) has disappeared, it has been transformed, and the poem evokes a “navire”, not a “vaisseau”, so I translated “navire” by “ship”, “navire déserté”, “deserted ship”. It’s the only occurence of the word “navire” (instead of “vaisseau”, which is more solemn and “literary”) in Nelligan’s poem. The use of the word “navire”, here, could mean “back to ordinary life, m’boy”.  I can hear Nelligan answering back:  “I’m not your boy and I won’t quit. I may look like a sensitive pushover, but don’t get fooled by face value, actually I’m back, wake up! Aphrodite! let’s sail again!”

La “carène” is the “hull,” not the “keel.”

I kept the French title.

Le Vaisseau d’Or is a powerful symbol.  The poem will speak to your soul and your soul will react according to dharma. Let your deepest heart and mind read it. Double attention:  being attentive at reading the poem while simultaneously being attentive to the deepest reach in you.  No tension, smoothly. There’s a very deep, profound message in that poem – and even when you reach that depth, it’s even deeper, with inner links to all that isn’t explicit in the poem.

To me, the poem has something to do with the chaitya purusha or chaitya guru, the personal divine soul (you’ll find chaitya guru mentioned in the Bhagavat Gita); what Srî Aurobindo also calls the “psychic being”, evolving and growing in consciousness through experience and time, and whose spiritual destiny is unique for each one of us.  The total loss in the poem could pretty well be the loss of contact with the “psychic being,” – which can be catastrophic. The poem has something to do with that.  Sometimes, the shock of inner evolution, and the fall back that accompany it so often, can be massive.

Nelligan was a golden comet.  He probably went from “golden” to gold too fast.  Too suddenly.  Something like that. I don’t know.

Nelligan, still, stirs our hearts.

Next time, pal. We’ll make it.  You’ll make it.

I realize I wrote illustration and photo captions in French. I intend to translate them to English.  I think I said that before.  Maybe not.

One finds biographies of Nelligan here in English on Wikipedia, ici en français – Fondation littéraire Fleur de Lys, ici encore en français sur Wikipédia ; and elsewhere on the net.

© Copyright 2009 Hamilton-Lucas Sinclair ( Loup Kibiloki, Jacques Renaud, Le Scribe ), click – for the English translation of Émile Nelligan’s Le Vaisseau d’Or, and the article (or notes), etc.

Winter Evening, Émile Nelligan : a video of a new English translation of “Soir d’Hiver” (“… comme la neige a neigé!”)    —   All café-terrasses are vistas on infinity. Let’s have coffee together.    –    Toutes les terrasses du monde s’ouvrent sur l’infini. On va prendre un café ensemble.    —    The Damned Canuck. English translation of Gaston Miron’s poem and the original in French.

Loup Kibiloki ( Jacques Renaud )  :    Plusieurs suites poétiques de Loup Kibiloki ( Jacques Renaud )   –  Beaucoup de poèmes de Jacques Renaud ( Loup Kibiloki )  –  Des poèmes à Shiva –   Des histoires, des comptines, des contes.  En prose ou en versets libres.  Parfois bizarres, parfois pas.   –   Toutes les terrasses du monde s’ouvrent sur l’infini. On va prendre un café ensemble. Poème. « Toujours, tu rencontreras Rimbaud dans les rues vermillonnes et safranées de Marrakech … »

Suites poétiques, Loup Kibiloki ( Jacques Renaud )  :   Les Enchantements de Mémoire  – Sentiers d’Étoiles  –  Rasez les Cités  –  Électrodes  –  Vénus et la Mélancolie  –  Le Cycle du Scorpion  –  Le Cycle du Bélier  –  La Nuit des temps  –  La Stupéfiante Mutation de sa Chrysalide


About Jacques Renaud

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