Vital Signs

Tiger, Tigre: The Perils of Translation

In November 1875, in a gas-lit flat over a rain-soaked street in Tours, a law student sat together with a young Portuguese widow. They were rifling through her letters. She had been a minor actress in Bordeaux and had played at the Haymarket Theatre and elsewhere. She had had an English lover who once gave her an anthology of poems. "Regarde, c'est vraiment bien," she said, pronouncing it vrai-mon, and she went on to read with her Portuguese accent and voice:

Tiger, tiger burning bright

In the forest of the night

What immortal hand or eye

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

The young Frenchman, who knew some English, was charmed with this, and right then and there the result was the following:

Tigre féroce, aux yeux de charbon

Brûlant et hurlant dans la forêt nocturne

Quel grand chasseur, quel petit peintre

Encadreraient ta logique fière?

"Grand" chasseur and "petit" peintre reflected the kind of royalist anti-intellectualism that this law student fancied...

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