04 February 2020

Je n'en sais rien

Es-tu brune ou blonde ?
Sont-ils noirs ou bleus,
Tes yeux ?
Je n'en sais rien, mais j'aime leur clarté profonde,
Mais j'adore le désordre de tes cheveux.

Es-tu douce ou dure ?
Est-il sensible ou moqueur,
Ton cœur ?
Je n'en sais rien, mais je rends grâce à la nature
D'avoir fait de ton cœur mon maître et mon vainqueur.

Fidèle, infidèle ?
Qu'est-ce que ça fait.
Au fait ?
Puisque, toujours disposé à couronner mon zèle
Ta beauté sert de gage à mon plus cher souhait.

—Paul Verlaine

I have an eight-hundred-fifty-seven-day streak on Duolingo and I guess it's paying off. While scrolling through Instagram, I came across this Paul Verlaine poem and was somewhere between kilig and amazed that I actually understood it — eighty percent of, more or less.

Three beautiful phrases I've picked up from the post:

Mais j'adore le désordre de tes cheveux. "But I love the disorder of your hair." (My translation, hah!) Has to be my favorite line.

Que l'on se dise sincèrement les choses, sans les retenir... "That we say things to each other sincerely, without holding back." (Still my translation, double hah!) Part of the commentary from the French journalist who posted the poem. She's reminding me of my lifelong desire to gift people with words that are kind and true.

Je n'en sais rien. I would read this as "I know nothing of that". But taken in context, the refrain comes after a series of related questions. For example: "Are you brunette or blonde? / Are they black or blue, / Your eyes?" To which the poet answers, Je n'en sais rien, and "I know nothing of that" doesn't quite fit. As the sentiment is more of "I have no idea" or "I can't tell" or a resigned yet forceful, "I don't know".

Somewhere in the past I've accused Stephen Mitchell of ruining Rilke for me. While everyone was celebrating his poems — mostly Mitchell's translations — I was underwhelmed. Until I found this Randall Jarrell translation — then woah, Rilke is a master! (Search for Mitchell's version and be the judge.)

Still way back in the past, I thought of learning Japanese to make sense of haikus, because surely the English translations we study in school aren't doing the form justice. Or at least that's my impression. But I've given up on my Japanese — I need to learn a whole new writing system! Anyway, I'm happy with my progress in French. The rest of the day shall be spent close-reading Verlaine.

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