Qu'est-ce que sais?
July 25, 2009 9:33 PM   Subscribe

Can someone help translate a poem from French to English?

Years back in some little library in some little town in France, I met a man demonstrating how a printing press worked, and he printed off this poem. At the time he gave me a vague translation, but I just found it again and would love to know it properly.

'En Train de Lire'

Des livres, on en avait á profusion, les murs en étaient tapissés, dans le coloir, la cuisine, l'entrée, sur les rebords des fenêtres, que sais-je encore?
Il y en avait des milliers, dans tous les coins de la maison.
On aurait dit que les gens allaient et venaient, naissaient, et mouraient, mais que les livres étaient éternals.
Enfant, j'espérais devenir un livre quand je serais grand.
Pas un écrivain, un livre.

-Amos Oz.

I think it's about a child admiring books in a library, and saying that when they grow up, they want to be a book (not an author). Any help's much appreciated!
posted by twirlypen to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Best answer: Inexpert, but here you go...

"While Reading"

We had a profusion of books, the walls were carpeted, in the hall, the kitchen, the foyer, on the windowsills, I'm telling you.
There were thousands, in every corner of the house.
We would say that people come and go, are born and die, but books are eternal.
So I want to become a book when I grow up.
Not a writer, but a book.
posted by Go Banana at 9:52 PM on July 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


Books, there were a profusion, the walls were lined, in the coloir(?), the kitchen, the entrance, on the window sills, who knows where else?
There were thousands, in all the corners of the house.
It seemed as though people came and went, were born, and died, but the books were eternal.
As a child, I hoped to become a book when I grew up.
Not a writer, a book.

Disclaimers: I'm not a native French speaker. I barely speak French. I have no idea what a "coloir" is, but I gather it's a room or passageway. "Window sills" is a guess; "les rebords des fenêtres" is "the something of the windows". I repeat, I barely speak French. The poem is probably actually about a circus monkey who runs away with a zebra.
posted by Flunkie at 10:02 PM on July 25, 2009


I agree with Go Banana, but I would put more of it in a past tense. I'm not fluent, my two cents.

"As a child, I hoped to become a book when I grew up."

Also, it might just be an idiom I don't understand, but "que sais-je encore?" seems more like it could be translated as "who knows where else?" (what more do I know...?)
posted by Solon and Thanks at 10:07 PM on July 25, 2009


Ohhhhhhhhh... couloir. With a "u". That's "hall".

(but I didn't know that either)
posted by Flunkie at 10:09 PM on July 25, 2009


Some changes on Go Banana's translation, mostly in terms of tense:

Of books, there was a profusion: the walls were covered*, the hall, the kitchen, the entryway/foyer, the windowsills, what else do I know?
There were thousands, in all corners of the house.
It could have been said** that people came and went, were born, and died, but that the books were eternal.
As a child, I hoped to become a book when I grew up.
Not a writer, a book.


* I was unfamiliar with "tapisser" but it appears to mean "to wallpaper," so "covered" isn't quite right but "the walls were wallpapered" is weird.
** Not sure about this one -- the "on aurait dit" could either be a colloquial way to say "we would have said," or it could be passive voice, translated as "it could have been said" or "we might have said" or "you could say" or ...
On preview, I like Flunkie's "it seemed as though..."

Someone correct me!
posted by librarina at 10:12 PM on July 25, 2009


On a rereading, I'd like to insert a "that". Change this:

It seemed as though people came and went, were born, and died, but the books were eternal.

To this:

It seemed as though people came and went, were born, and died, but that the books were eternal.

That is, to more strongly connect "the books were eternal" to "it seemed".
posted by Flunkie at 10:24 PM on July 25, 2009


Personally, I would translate the "on"s as "we"s since it seems to specficially raising the idea that the poet's family owned a lot of books, that there was some family influence there growing up, not that there just happened to be a lot of books, and that "it seemed as though..." etc.

So, in my opinion: "Books, we had a profusion of them" and "We would say..." (though the later is a litttle awkward.)

Oh, hey, and on doing some research for an already-done translation I found this, which you might like:

“Enfant, j’espérais devenir un livre quand je serais grand. Pas un écrivain, un livre : les hommes se font tuer comme des fourmis. Les écrivains aussi. Mais un livre, même si on le détruisait méthodiquement, il en subsisterait toujours quelque part un exemplaire qui ressusciterait sur une étagère, au fond d’un rayonnage dans quelque bibliothèque perdue, à Reykjavik, Valladolid ou Vancouver.”

Amos Oz, Une histoire d’amour et de ténèbres
Traduit de l’hébreu par Sylvie Cohen
Gallimard, 2004, réed. Folio n° 4265, 2008

"As a child, I hoped to become a book when I grew up. Not a writer, a book : men have themselves kill like ants. Writers too. But a book, even if one methodically destroyed it, it would always remain somewhere in a copy that is revived on a shelf, at the bottom of some shelves in some lost library, in Reykjavik, Valladolid, or Vancouver."
Amos Oz, A History of Love and Uncertainty (or of love and darkness)
Translated from Hebrew by Sylvie Cohen (original poem might be in Hebrew, too)
Translated hastily and inexactly from French by me
posted by Solon and Thanks at 10:30 PM on July 25, 2009


Personally, I would translate the "on"s as "we"s since it seems to specficially raising the idea that the poet's family owned a lot of books, that there was some family influence there growing up
Well... First, there's no explicit mention of family or familial influence. Second, I think "we" might have been "nous". Third, consider:

On aurait dit que

Literally, that's "one would have said that". It's not "we said that"; it's not "one said that". I think that "one would have said that", as opposed to "one said that", fits much better as "it seemed as though" than as "we said that".

Probably the first "on", though:

Des livres, on en avait á profusion

I think that's literally "Of the books, one had them to profusion", which, yeah, is probably better as "Books, we had a profusion" than "Books, there were a profusion".

Again, I barely speak French, so I'll shut up now.
posted by Flunkie at 10:46 PM on July 25, 2009


Ooooh, no I'm not going to shut up quite yet. Google Translate backs me up on "It seemed as though" rather than "We said that":

It translates "On aurait dit que" as "It was as".

And Yahoo Bablefish translates it as "It would have been said that".
posted by Flunkie at 10:49 PM on July 25, 2009


And for what it's worth, here are Google's and Yahoo's translations of the whole thing:

Google
Books, they were in abundance, the walls were covered in the hallway, kitchen, entry, on the edges of windows, whatever?
There were thousands in every corner of the house.
It was as people came and went, born and died, but the books were eternal.
Child, I hoped to become a book when I grow.
Not a writer, a book.

Yahoo
Books, there was of it á profusion, the walls were papered by it, in the corridor, the kitchen, l' entry, on the edges of the windows, which do I still know?
There were thousands of them, in all the corners of the house.
It would have been said that people went and came, were born, and died, but that the books were éternals.
Child, j' hoped to become a book when I would be tall. Not a writer, a book.

Wow, Google is so much better than Yahoo it's not even funny.

Anyway, now I will shut up.
posted by Flunkie at 10:54 PM on July 25, 2009


Well... First, there's no explicit mention of family or familial influence. Second, I think "we" might have been "nous". Third, consider:

That's true that there's no explicit mention of family, but in colloquial french "on" is very often used to mean "we." It's pretty much a manner of opinion which one it means in a context like this.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 10:59 PM on July 25, 2009


Actually, you're probably right that "On aurait dit que" is something like "It would have been said that." I think that's simply an expression I didn't recognize. The first one does translate pretty literally to "we had a profusion of them", though.

Hey, as long as we're all cluttering this up... :)
posted by Solon and Thanks at 11:02 PM on July 25, 2009


.
posted by Wolof at 11:04 PM on July 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


Books, we had so many, the walls were covered, the hallway, the kitchen, the entry, the windowsills, what else do I know?
There were thousands, in all the corners of the house.
We'd have said that people came and went, were born and died, but books were eternal.
As a child, I hoped to become a book when I grew up.
Not a writer. A book.
posted by citron at 11:27 PM on July 25, 2009


'En Train de Lire'
While reading

Des livres, on en avait á profusion, 
Books, we had so many,
les murs en étaient tapissés, 
On the walls,
dans le coloir, la cuisine, l'entrée,
In the corridors, the kitchen, the hall,
 sur les rebords des fenêtres,
On the rim of the windows 
que sais-je encore?
Where else do i know ?
Il y en avait des milliers, dans tous les coins de la maison.
Thousands of them, all over the house
On aurait dit que les gens allaient et venaient, naissaient, et mouraient, mais que les livres étaient éternals.
People would come and go, live and die, but books were forever
Enfant, j'espérais devenir un livre quand je serais grand.
A child, I wanted to become a book when I grow up
Pas un écrivain, un livre.
Not a writer, a book

French speaker, liberal translation
posted by motdiem2 at 11:47 PM on July 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


A few notes:

I would translate "que sais-je encore?" as "I don't even remember where else"

and I would translate "tous les coins" as "in every nook and cranny"

I'm not a native speaker, but I did take French for 13 years, ending 20 odd years ago.
posted by birdsquared at 12:05 AM on July 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Best answer: It seems to be not a poem, but an excerpt from his memoir, the English translation of which by Nicholas de Lange is reviewed here.

The review also includes de Lange's translation of the passage, which goes:
The one thing we had plenty of was books. They were everywhere: from wall to laden wall, in the passage and the kitchen and the entrance and on every windowsill. Thousands of books, in every corner of the flat. I had the feeling that people might come and go, were born and died, but books went on forever. When I was little, my ambition was to grow up to be a book. Not a writer.
(I guess de Lange omits the final "un livre".)
posted by No-sword at 12:36 AM on July 26, 2009 [3 favorites]


Response by poster: Fantastic! Thanks, everyone. I've marked a couple of best answers, but everything was helpful. I've pulled together everyone's comments to make a final version for myself that I've put below. It's not necessarily the most strictly correct version, but the one that reads well and seems to convey the message the best:

Books, we had them everywhere- the walls, the hall, the kitchen, the foyer, the windows, and I don’t know where else.
There were thousands, in every corner of the house.
It seemed as though people came and went, were born and died, but that the books were eternal.
As a child, I hoped to become a book when I grew up.
Not a writer, a book.
posted by twirlypen at 3:34 AM on July 28, 2009


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