Shakespeare and the French Poet


"A remarkable poet, Bonnefoy is also one of the few French partisans of Shakespeare, who has been misunderstood by much of Gallic literary tradition from Voltaire onwards. Whether meditating upon the perplexities of translating Shakespeare into French, or more directly interpreting the plays, Bonnefoy refreshes and illuminates."—Harold Bloom

An interview with Yves Bonnefoy from
Shakespeare and the French Poet
Edited by John Naughton

John Naughton: Can you remember when you first encountered Shakespeare and what your impressions were? Were you immediately drawn to his work? Was there a feeling of affinity?

Yves Bonnefoy: I can remember my first encounter since it was one of those moments that are not experienced in an especially powerful way at the time but that later come to dominate your thinking and to influence your choices. I was in school, and in the book of readings we were using to study English there was the most famous scene in Julius Caesar: "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears," and that whole speech in which Mark Antony captivates his listeners, winning them over with cynical skill but at the same time speaking with such nobility and emotion about Caesar's remains. It's a great moment, not just of rhetoric but also of the lyrical essence of poetry. "'Twas on a summer's evening in his tent"—that whole passage that causes the "gracious drops" to flow.

Why did I find this scene so striking, more striking at the time than any other passage of English poetry, with the exception of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner? It was certainly because of the beauty and intensity I've mentioned, but today I think it was also because that superb English harbored a great deal of our own approach to poetry: the grand words of Latin origin, but also, and even more important, something of that resonant space that French poetry often maintains between words to allow their range of meaning a wider scope. In this case, the connection was somewhat closer than usual, and it allowed me to measure all the more fully the distance between these two paths of poetry, English and French.

I think I was also struck, though of course somewhat subconsciously, or, at least, in a not yet fully informed way, by the manner in which Shakespeare seems to consciously and deliberately bring together in this scene the aims and methods of rhetoric on the one hand, and poetry on the other. In a word, Antony's speech shows poetry in various kinds of relation to something other than itself. And this can help us to understand that poetry doesn't spring forth in a single bound from the depths of one's mind and spirit, but must free itself from various obstacles that are a function of the particular nature of language or cultural tradition. For someone like me, who wanted very much to devote himself to poetry, it was obviously important to understand this. I could almost convince myself that poetry is born in a more ordinary way in our lives and in our poems than I would have thought from reading Latin poets like Virgil, whose words seemed suggestive of an absolute; these poets were mysterious and seemed almost from another world because I understood Latin rather poorly, and there's no better way to find its words and phrases unsettling!

Need I add that these thoughts I had about Shakespeare were in an embryonic form? I had no particular capacity or knowledge or points of reference to develop them more fully. Let's just say that I thought a great deal about those speeches of Brutus and of Mark Antony; I wanted to translate them and, in fact, did many years later. Julius Caesar was the first play I translated, along with Hamlet, which I undertook at the same time—with the feeling of a very important rendez-vous with myself.

Naughton: When exactly did you begin to translate Shakespeare? What were the circumstances?

Bonnefoy: It was much later. I was in my thirties. And I hadn't been pursuing the idea. It was one of those chance occurrences that we marvel at later, since they seem to bring about what we've always wanted. In 1953 I published my first book of poems, which I sent to Pierre Jean Jouve, whom I had been admiring from afar. He asked me to come see him, which I did, and we found we had a great many common interests and tastes, especially in poetry. We talked about Shakespeare; Jouve had translated Romeo and Juliet before the war.

As it happened, Pierre Leyris, who had been friends with Jouve for many years, was planning to publish an edition of Shakespeare's complete works with the original English and translations by various French writers, his whole idea being to involve writers and poets rather than English language specialists. Leyris was the great translator whose work helped introduce French readers to Melville and Hopkins, as well as Djuna Barnes. Later on he also published a French edition of the complete works of William Blake. Leyris had contacted Jouve, since he knew of his translation of Romeo and Juliet, and had asked him to do the sonnets, an invitation that Jouve accepted enthusiastically. Then, without even consulting me, Jouve suggested to Leyris that he should offer me something to translate, which Leyris did. I didn't hesitate for a second; I felt I was ready, though my knowledge of Elizabethan English was still rather minimal.

Pierre Leyris asked me to do Julius Caesar, on condition that I first submit a sample, which was to be the first scene of the play. And so I did a translation of "Hence! home, you idle creatures, get you home!" and did it with such fervor and passion that Leyris immediately gave me Hamlet to translate as well. After these, I translated other plays, as well as Shakespeare's poems, for the volumes that appeared over the following years. The project made those happy years for me. I liked and respected Pierre Leyris, and he became and remained one of my dearest friends until his death, just recently, at the age of ninety-three, when he was at work on a new translation of Shakespeare's sonnets. Pierre read my work and gave me advice about specific details. But most of all, he gave me confidence. It was hard work, in fact. I was not in the least interested in producing, as many others did, a variation on previously existing translations without taking into account the difficulties of the text, and so I surrounded myself with critical editions and armed myself with dictionaries. I discovered Alexander Schmidt's superb lexicon and began to read various critical studies of Shakespeare that I happened to find.

Naughton: What were the first difficulties you ran into?

Bonnefoy: First of all, there were, of course, difficulties with the language, for I had a lot to learn, in particular about Elizabethan culture, and I spent much more time then than I do now with words and expressions that were unfamiliar to me. And then there was the fact that each new play brought its own problems: obscure patches in a sometimes unreliable text; passages, often famous ones, that the various editors interpret in quite different ways, all too often without coming to a decision. But those scholars and historians of the language certainly enable a non-native speaker like me to better understand Shakespeare, and without the editors of the New Arden Shakespeare, or the New Oxford and the New Cambridge editions, or, later, the Riverside edition, I couldn't have done a thing.

But what is especially interesting is a difficulty of a more fundamental nature, presented not by the vocabulary but by the prosody. This difficulty is a consequence of the difference between the two forms of poetry: Shakespeare's on the one hand, and our French traditions and experimentations on the other. Needless to say, I would never have imagined that translating works as essentially and profoundly poetic as Julius Caesar or Hamlet or The Winter's Tale could be anything other than a personal act of poetry, not merely restoring the meaning as fully as possible, but simultaneously reinventing a meaning and a form in the French version, a rhythm—form and rhythm being a part of the meaning in their own way, an irreplaceable part. Verse, real verse, emerging as such, is the only medium that can suggest Shakespeare's verse in my translation.

Yet the job is far from simple, for in the original act of writing poetry, form and meaning come into being at the same time, whereas for the translator the meaning has already been decided in the work to be translated. So you can't give yourself fully to the simultaneity of the two sides of poetic creation and receive its benefits. And there is also the fact—more important than you might think—that English verse, at its very inception, is an extension of the tonic stress that is the soul of each English word; it begins with the very first word in a line. It can move forward without thinking too much about the form it will assume. To become a form, it doesn't have to separate itself from existence as it is ordinarily experienced, and particularly from the experience of time, whereas form in French, where there is no stress of that kind, has for centuries been established in verse mainly by the number of syllables, which means that you have to make your way through twelve syllables to see that you're dealing with an alexandrine, for example. That's why the creation of form remains at a distance from the life situations of people who want to express themselves in a poem. Form is something spatial, something unaware of the temporal nature of hope or suffering or finitude. In short, a quite different way of approaching the world through speech, a quite different way of arriving at an experience of unity, which is the universal aim and intuition of poetry. It's another prosodic tradition, other customs and usages, all of which makes it problematic, or at least difficult, to articulate in French what is so immediate and spontaneous in the bursts of meaning in Shakespeare's pentameter, which often has no rhyme.

But this is hardly the place to dwell on such problems, and so I shall simply say, in answer to your question, that these difficulties are also golden opportunities for a translator because they force you to become more conscious of the specific nature of your own poetic traditions and prejudices, while the daily practice of translation helps you to see in your own work—in which the lack of tonic stresses is counterbalanced, when you wish, by the silent e—possibilities of shaking off the yoke of a prosody that is too abstract. From the moment I first read Rimbaud, who went very far in this direction, I became fascinated by the poetic potential of lines of verse with an uneven number of syllables, our vers impairs, especially eleven-syllable lines, which break up the symmetrical form of the old alexandrine and so open to a more immediate awareness of time. For me, the uneven line was one way of transgressing the burdensome rigidity of our classic prosody. And with this goal in mind, when I encountered Shakespeare I obviously received a great deal. I've mentioned the first scene of Julius Caesar and recalled my enthusiasm translating it. Think of these lines:

Wherefore rejoice? What conquests brings he home?
What tributaries follow him to Rome
To grace in captive bonds his chariot wheels.
You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things.

Or of the beginning of Henry IV, part one:

So shaken as we are, so wan with care,
Find we a time for fighted peace to pant.

Then think of the verse of Racine, or even Victor Hugo working the alexandrine like a caged squirrel on a wheel! English pentameter is perfect for making one forget the inner symmetries, the secret motionlessness, of the alexandrine. One of the reasons for my enthusiasm, for my wanting to stay close to Julius Caesar and Hamlet, was Shakespeare's verse, this surging of life in an utterance, his striking way of revealing what I would call the genius of the iamb.

Naughton: So it wasn't totally by chance that you began to translate Shakespeare. There was also an element of personal vocation?

Bonnefoy: Chance obviously played a role. When I began to translate, I was already in my thirties, as I've said. I wasn't prepared and had done nothing to prepare myself. But this is where chance can be invaluable, since it forces us to look into ourselves and to discover what may be lying dormant there. Chance offered me a translation; I could have refused. Or I might have done one out of curiosity or because I felt the need to at the time, but then stopped. On the contrary, I accepted the invitation and later did all that I could to prolong the experience, to explore what was occurring in the depths of the work I had taken on. Translating a writer means reading that writer. It means having the opportunity to truly read him or her, in a way that you would normally not read an author, since you have to pause at every word and even slide below a lot of them, which an ordinary reader wouldn't—and shouldn't—usually do. So translating Shakespeare meant getting as close to him as possible, really being with him. It even meant being hounded by him, obsessing over some passage that resisted translation. And when the poet is Shakespeare—Shakespeare quite specifically—it can be something of paramount importance. In my case, chance brought me into contact with a body of work that had an immediate and profound significance for me, and answered a need.

Naughton: Did you know right away what this need was? Can you try to describe it?

Bonnefoy: I'll try, because it will help me to explain the way I see Shakespeare. The need I felt at the time, a need that hasn't changed, was to understand what poetry is, and what act of consciousness allows us to recognize it and to free it from ordinary speech. What are the means by which we can help it to exist, both in our words and in our lives? And why, along with the instinctive practice of poetry, is there this need to understand its nature? It's because this understanding may contribute to an activity that seems to me almost as important as the writing of poetry itself, that is, the thinking we devote to other poets (or painters or any form of artistic creation as it relates to poetry). This kind of thinking allows us to bring together the experiments of many poets and thus to create a kind of poetical brotherhood, which today appears in danger of fragmentation, if not of complete disappearance from the concerns of society. That would be a catastrophic loss.

Now what can answer this need if not works that fully and boldly embrace the question of what poetry is? Works of that kind are fairly rare. But Shakespeare's plays and poems offer an example. We become aware of it when we see Hamlet mindful of something within him that his words can't express, or when we notice how Shakespeare's key plays, from Romeo and Juliet to The Winter's Tale and The Tempest, construct their fictions—with such discernment and diversity—as critiques of that idealistic transfiguration of the world and of other people, which is the original sin of lyric poetry. Shakespeare speaks about poetry, about its hopes but also about the dangers that threaten it; so I approached his work as a lesson that would be essential to me, provided I could free his thinking from its necessarily indirect expression in the plays and give it form in notions that would remain as close as possible to that great experience which is poetry, resistant by nature to the order of concepts. In a word, it was elucidation that I was attempting, and I didn't accomplish it all at once. I was hardly capable of that, and I certainly don't pretend, as you can imagine, that my effort takes stock of all the immense reality of Shakespeare. I do feel, however, that I now have a better sense of what he was about.

What has struck me most about Shakespeare over the many years that I have been translating him (it's almost half a century now, and I've done eleven plays, together with the poems and around sixty of the sonnets.) is that his thinking about poetry was accompanied by a very particular and specific action: the way he tried to recapture a fuller poetic intuition when it was imperiled both in his life and in his writing by a narrow and even fallacious conception of what poetry has to be. I'm thinking of the poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, and especially the sonnets. The sonnets are often magnificent syntheses of rhetoric and poetic sensibility, thanks to the musical power of the words, but the writing is obviously trapped in the kind of representation of the world and existence that is created by the propensity toward the ideal, which loves the beauty of the young man but disastrously undervalues ordinary reality, the reality that bears the mark of finitude. This denial of what is, is revealed in the sonnets through the author's utterly fantastic and truly murderous reading of women, who are reduced to the image of the "dark lady." Clearly, poetry has not yet accomplished its task. It should be the war against conceptual representations, the kind of war that would allow it to experience the immediacy of other beings and to free those beings from the stereotypical interpretations that impoverish them. But here poetry has devoted itself to an intelligible structure that once again removes real beings and replaces them with the values and images this system provides. Underneath the idolatry and the fear, there is a great deal of agitation and anguish in these poems. Their author perceives the trap he has been lured into.

But Shakespeare wrote these sonnets in the 1590s, when sonnets were all the rage and almost everyone in England, from true poets to anonymous rhymesters, was producing them. And I dare say Shakespeare thought about that and concluded that his need for poetry could be filled elsewhere, in the place where he worked almost instinctively—the theater. "I dare say," because I know that at that time, when there was not yet an entirely clear conception of poetry—which hadn't completely freed itself from rhetoric, for example—it was through intuitions that could hardly be put into words that a feeling and a choice of this sort would be made manifest. But I believe this is what happened. The stage offered Shakespeare all the possibilities of the spoken word, characters in whose speech the stereotypical thinking of a society, its sexism for instance, would flourish and abound, but in which more lucid intuitions and even remarks of a subversive nature could also be heard, giving the author a chance to deepen his relation to life, to death, and to aspects of existence that are authentically real. And all along, through the fiction that structures the plays, there are situations, events, and figures that can be presented in such a way as to reflect symbolically or emblematically the playwright's thinking about poetry and poetics. Once again, I can't be as clear as I would like to be, since this isn't the place to develop this line of thought, but let's just say that it's in the current that passes from the lure of timelessness to the experience of finitude that I want to follow Shakespeare. This is the direction I am pursuing in the preface that I am writing for my translation of As You Like It. I have written an essay after each one of my translations so as to take my bearings and to determine what other play I should now approach. Shakespeare's meditation on the dignity of women in Antony and Cleopatra, on their right to reclaim their own "nobility," to use Cleopatra's word, led me to see the same wish in Desdemona, though in her it was intimidated and scorned. And Desdemona, as victim, prompted me to look more closely at Rosalind, who refuses to be one.

Naughton: You have just referred to two of the essays that appear in this book, and this leads me to another question. When you write about an English-language author, when you translate him, don't you encounter different kinds of difficulties with vocabulary from those you were speaking of a moment ago, the ones that had to do with, say, the meanings of words at a different moment in history? I'm thinking of the difficulties that are inherent in the very nature of languages, which all have different ways of raising and resolving great metaphysical questions as well as issues relating to poetics. You make use of a very specific vocabulary when you discuss the plays, and such words as présence and évidence, which recur frequently, may mean something to you that your translators will have difficulty capturing, especially if they resort to simple English equivalents.

Bonnefoy: You raise questions that ask for several different responses, depending on the relevant activity. When we translate a poet such as Shakespeare, the problem of a "philosophical" vocabulary in his work does in fact come up, but it is not all that serious. A poet is not a philosopher; he only uses philosophical words in a context where there are images, symbols, and other facts to sustain and even clarify the meaning, and the translation of this meaning can only be made in the roundabout way that considers the whole context, which presents problems but of a different sort. And so to look for a more or less exact equivalent of a philosophical term in order to use it in the translation , after having first decided on the meaning of a term in the original text, is useless and even inappropriate. It's better to get to the idea through the phrase as a whole. Take the English word "mind": Here is a word that gives all kinds of difficulty to French translators of English. How should it be translated? What exactly does it mean, and which of the related categories in French can best render this meaning? Should you go with esprit, a word that is itself full of difficulties, or rather with intellect? What is its relation to our entendement, or to raison? Isn't it as humble as our avis, or sentiment, when Rosalind says "all the world was of my father's mind," and doesn't it rise to the level of âme when Lucrece exclaims, "Immaculate and spotless is my mind"? But what would be a real headache for me if I were a translator of a philosophical treatise, where the words tend to be restricted to a single, precise meaning, is not at all the case in Shakespeare where the meaning can be approached from every angle of the phrase. I translated Prospero's "the bettering of my mind" by "le perfectionnement de mon esprit." And Hamlet's "in my mind's eye, Horatio" by "avec les yeux de l'âme, Horatio."

But the dissimilarities and incompatibilities between our abstract categories can cause us most concern when we French begin to reflect upon and analyze a poem in English. For we will use our own concepts, and among these we will of course find, or invent, ones that seem appropriate and useful; they will become one with our understanding of the work. But these concepts that we have taken on may not exist in exactly the same way in English, so the problem is knowing how to translate into another language essays that were written with the hope of showing our English-speaking friends that we are merely taking different paths to the same place, a place where we might pursue a common quest for truth. The words are not the same; there is a risk of misunderstanding what has been said, what has been put forward—and, of course, the risk is reciprocal.

I am thinking, for instance, of the concept of parole, which is fundamental to the way in which questions about poetry are raised in French. Parole is the verbal form that our thinking, our desire, our decisions, our actions take on at moments of existence that are sometimes experienced with great intensity. As such, parole is obviously a way of using language, but it is also something more. It seeks to modify the use of language by exposing it to situations that often exceed its capacity to understand. Above all, it's the place in our consciousness where the conceptual order gives up its claim to govern the mind, since the parole is concerned with situations and objects that truly exist and are therefore more than what their definitions say about them, and are often even perceived as this overabundance, particularly in situations where feeling is in play. The parole is not simply a use of language, if by language we mean the present state of words as they are recorded in a dictionary and reduced to conceptual relations. Even when attached to particular words, parole stirs language to its depths. In short, it has more truth than language. And so, how should parole be translated? Neither "speech act," nor "utterance," nor "word" provides a convincing solution. Of course there is "Word" with a capital w— that is, "the Word"—but its reference to a divine authority that is beyond the reach of ordinary human language shows precisely why attention has not been focused in English thought on the usage, both ordinary and transcendental, that we can make of our paroles.

Another word that does not come over easily, though a similar term does exist in English, is the word évidence that you asked me about. When a mental operation is at issue, the translation of this word creates no particular problem. A statement, let us say, is évident when its truth emerges from its mere articulation, when no one feels the slightest doubt about it. In this case, you have adjectives such as "obvious" or "self-evident" that work perfectly well. But we might speak in French of the évidence of the world when, one morning, on leaving home—the mental place that language saturates with its representations and its fantasies—we see the mountain, the trees, the sky as they break free from the mist. What is at issue this time? We need to find a way of signifying that these realities are making themselves known in such a way that nothing about them is kept at a distance by the various interests that might have been pursued by conceptual thinking, so that all their various elements—which are no longer perceived as separate components—are now all in the same foreground, making it possible for us to see a fullness in them, a fullness through which we rediscover the unity, the oneness of the world that had been forgotten. At such moments, things are one with themselves, beyond any formulation we might attempt to produce by conceptual means, even beyond all the evocations that poetry is capable of. In short, évidence is silence. To a person who goes out in the morning into the rain just as it is stopping, it teaches that to be évident is to be "sufficient." It is what turns things into what I like to call "presences."

These, then, are difficult words. But they do speak of an "experience" that is fundamental to what I identify as the motivating principle of poetry. And so I feel the need to use them in order to understand Shakespeare, since it seems to me that beneath the enormous breadth of his undertaking, which ventures to every level of society and emotional life, it is this very specific dimension of poetry that is trying to emerge in a writer who was, in many ways, the first modern.

Naughton: One last question. When you are thinking about Shakespeare, and obviously when you are translating him, your main concern is with poetic speech, but this is less and less a concern of contemporary society. Don't translations such as yours run the risk of speaking only to a happy few, when the plays themselves were and are theatrical works designed to appeal to the largest possible audiences?

Bonnefoy: It's true that poetry has less and less of a place in intellectual society, and in France this is nothing new. But just as it did at other times, poetry touches people who know how to be attentive to what is stirring and searching within them, and there are many people like this, scattered throughout the whole country. If a translation that is concerned with its poetic articulation is also a good, powerful rendering—which is obviously not always the case—it's sure to have its readers and its audience, although with an audience it is essential that those who direct or act in the play be sensitive to this poetic dimension in Shakespeare. The problem is that outside English-speaking countries, there are often only translations that have failed to see that poetic utterance—la parole—in all its vehemence is the very soul of the tragedies and the key to their meaning. When Shakespeare is staged in England or the United States, the original text is there, with its rhythms, its resonances, and every actor is thus in a position to discover the poetic resources of the play in whatever way he or she wishes. The play can be presented in all its depth and can lay out its true form, which is the reason why performances of Shakespeare's works are often so much better in English-speaking countries, especially perhaps, in little theaters—on college campuses, for instance—where actors and directors can give themselves entirely to the text, without having to worry too much about the kind of fashionable interpretation that elsewhere weakens the conception of the production or the direction of the actors. In France we don't have that inexhaustible resource.

And so it's very tempting to see in Shakespeare only the playwright who has his characters to say certain things; who delights in putting insinuations and double meanings into words; and whose principal interest is in how the public will receive the actors' retorts, their interjections and rejoinders, their cries and their laughter, all of it punctuated with the appropriate gestures and orchestrated with maximum effect on stage—in short, the Shakespeare who is viewed as the perfect "man of the theater." The concern for theatrical effectiveness certainly exists in Shakespeare; there can be no doubt about that. But where is it implemented? Surely it is in the pentameter, sometimes in the rhymes, and always in the rhythms; and in the great breaks in the words—the "multitudinous seas" the hands of Macbeth will "incarnadine" at the darkest moment of the play—that boldly expose, at the very moment they are spoken, a field of perceptions, worries, values, conflicts, rifts, passions, which constitute for Shakespeare the poetic recovery of existence. They alone allow us to understand the deepest motivations and the most essential aims of the action of the drama. It's in speech, in the depths of an invention that is specifically verbal, that the action—the inner action—is lodged. The truth of this is borne out by Hamlet's soliloquies and other great speeches in Shakespeare in which the sentences are long and seem muddled to those of our contemporaries who do not realize that they must be lived on the level of their birth in the writing, at the point where the writing escapes from ordinary language. When Hamlet, advancing to the front of the stage, says, "To be or not to be," it is to have the spectator or the reader enter into his speech and venture with him onto a stage that obviously, and fortunately, is a mental one—the place where, with little or no setting, Shakespeare sought to place his work.

With Shakespeare, theater and poetry are one. Failing to realize this—and translations abet such failure—can only lead to false problems. Should we give preference to a translation written "to be read" or to one written "for the stage"? The dilemma is a false one that paradoxically risks impoverishing a translation meant to be read rather than performed. For if the importance of poetry in the play is forgotten, we will expect the literary translation to try to collect all the possible nuances of meaning, which of course is legitimate, but what will this profusion of meaning be? Something that has come untied, whose various elements, real or imagined, will fly off in every direction. And this will provide a perfect excuse for calling attention to problems in the text that aren't really there. A perfect excuse, too, for losing sight of the fundamental mystery of our being-in-the-world, which haunts Hamlet and shakes old Lear to the core when he suddenly becomes aware of it, but which can also become pure light at the festive moment when Perdita and Florizel set the truth of love against the bitter lessons of winter.

Translated by John Naughton


Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 257-69 of Shakespeare and the French Poet by Yves Bonnefoy, edited by John Naughton, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2004 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

Yves Bonnefoy
Shakespeare and the French Poet
Edited and with an Introduction by John Naughton
©2004, 294 pages
Cloth $55.00 ISBN: 0-226-06442-5
Paper $22.50 ISBN: 0-226-06443-3

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for Shakespeare and the French Poet.

See also: