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The relatively short story Les Étoiles, by Alphonse Daudet is from Lettres de mon Moulin first published in 1866 and telling of Daudet’s life in Provence. Often described as ‘charming’, these stories have that simplicity which tempts even the possessor of only school-boy French to think that he might be able to offer them in translation.

I tried with Les Étoiles, and soon found that simplicity is not the only attribute. As with other Daudet ‘lettres’, there is a musicality to the telling, and a large part of its success lies in the convincing evocation of the magic of a starlit summer night in the Luberon.

The plot is simple: a mountain shepherd tells of a night, years before, when his supplies were delivered, not by the usual farm boy or old woman, but by the beautiful daughter of his employer, with whom, of course, he was madly but secretly in love. Arriving late, by virtue of having lost the path, she is forced to abort her return journey to the valley and to seek shelter in what we might call his bothy. Conscious of the need to behave well, the narrator recalls how, when she could not sleep for fear of the night-sounds of the mountain, they sat together by a camp-fire until the dawn, and he told her the stories of the stars that shone above them.

It is a romantic, even sentimental tale, but the sentiment is true, and it ends with his observation ‘et par moments je me figurais qu’une de ces étoiles, la plus fine, la plus brilliante, ayant perdu sa route, etait venue se poser sur mon épaule pour dormir…’

 

‘And from time to time, I thought that one of those stars, the finest, the most brilliant, having lost its way, had come to rest itself upon my shoulder and sleep….’

 

There are plenty of essays by those fluent in more than one language, those who are truly bi- or multi-lingual, where the problems of translation are rehearsed. If language splits reality into segments, then different languages split it into differing segments: words do not match each other exactly – no more, perhaps than they do from individual to individual within a single language. We can only approximate our experience and feeling in words. Yet I recall a visiting lecturer more than forty years ago asserting that language is ‘the nearest you can get to the centre of your own consciousness’.

It’s the musical differences that strike me most however: the metre, the syllabic arrangements of the phrasing: ‘par moments’ might have the sense of ‘from time to time’, but ‘from time to time’ does not dance to the same tune as ‘par moments’. And where has that repetition gone from ‘la plus fine, la plus brilliante’?

To get similar sound qualities, and similar meanings is difficult enough: to get the same blend of meaning and sound, impossible. To translate one language’s idiom into another language’s equivalent, might founder on the fact that the two might use a totally different metaphor to get across a similar mood, or conversely that a very similar metaphor might hold different semantics in each case.

Something else that the act of translating brought home to me, was that the social mores of our times has changed in the century and a half since Daudet was writing. Stories in other languages than your own will also date! The sense of shock, and possible outrage at the thought of an unmarried couple spending the night alone upon the mountain is not so great, nor so insistent as it was. That is not to say propriety does not exist, nor that in our own times eyebrows would not be raised, jokes would not be made. Reputations, though, might not be under such threat nowadays, or rather, not under the same threat.

That put me on to the idea of adaptation, or re-writing in addition to ‘simple’ translation. Could this story be taken and re-told for our own time. And could it be re-told for my own place? Living on the foothills of the Lake District mountains, and within sight of the Scottish Border hills, and the north end of the Pennine chain, I have experienced evenings and nights not unlike the one that Daudet described. Home time after a day spent in the Lake District, we have often commented, is precisely the time to stay put in the middle of it! Could I imagine a circumstance, though, in which a similar train of events, with characters in a similar situation might take place.

Curiously, when I started to re-write it, I found that I automatically set my story forty years into my own past, and drew upon memories over more than ten years, not quite evenly spaced either side of the specified date. Other elements of the story, equally unplanned, were distorted, by the change of location in time and place, and of culture, more than by the change in language. It perhaps goes without saying, and I’m not sure of its significance, that writing the story turned out to be easier than completing the translation!

A fistful of BHD stories can be found in Other Stories & Rosie Wreay

49 stories,flash fictions and monologues by BHD

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I’ve written about Daudet before, exploring the connection between the title, and the ending of his story Belisaire’s Prussian.

The Two Inns is a very different sort of story, but well worth looking at for the intricacies behind its seemingly simple structure. Briefly, the first person narrator chooses to enter the inferior looking of the eponymous inns, which flank the carriage road from Nimes.

The inn he rejects is busy, noisy and joyous, but the one he enters is gloomy, dilapidated and deserted, save for a sorrowful woman, made ugly by grief. It is, the narrator says, ‘an act of charity to stop there and drink a glass.

Despite her surprise at his choice, she serves him poor food and wine, and tells him her story. The inn across the road has become what her inn used to be, by stealing her trade. It is run by ‘a woman from Arles,’ who has enticed away the customers, and who employs ‘husseys’ as chambermaids and serving girls.

There are other tragedies too, in the life of the woman at the poor inn. Her two daughters have died. There is no explanation for this, merely the fact of it having happened. To cap it all though, the woman’s own husband has been seduced away by the woman from Arles, and it is his voice that can be heard singing loudly from across the road.

In what seems to be the typical Daudet style, there is no redress for these evils, but only the narrator’s bleak presentation of them. The poor woman’s predicament is summed up by the last lines of the story:

And she stood there, as if in a trance, trembling, with her hands outstretched, and tears rolling down her cheeks, which made her look uglier than ever, to hear her Jose singing for the woman from Arles.’

The appended two lines of his song, a country love-song, seem almost superfluous. But behind Daudet’s bleak, uncompromising account, there lurks, I think, a more positive message, though it is an uncompromising one. It is the burden of a later song….. ‘laugh and the world laughs with you/cry and you cry alone.’ This revelation though, is not made by the narrator, but by the woman herself, who speaks ‘with a heart-broken air, but with utmost gentleness’. ‘What can you expect?’ she asks. ‘Men are made that way; they don’t like to see people cry;’

 

The Two Inns can be found, in translation, in Volume 4 of the Hammerton 1920s’ twenty volume collection, The World’s Thousand Best Stories, along with another 15 of Daudet’s tales – few writers get that many!  If you fancy the original French, you will find it in the excellent 1997 paperback pocket edition by Arcadia of L’Arlesienne, which includes d’autres Lettres de mon moulin.

This is another of those stories from long ago and far away – if you live when and where I do – that can form the basis of a useful exercise. We still have inns, and hamlets, and High roads, and travellers who must call in, and might even hear stories if they do. Our choices might be between different brand names, but they are essentially the same as those that Daudet’s narrator would have been faced with.

To re-imagine, and to write such stories, is not merely a matter of transposition from one time or place to another, but a chance to explore what it is in the human experience that crosses the gulf between times and places, and to create the voices in which such stories would now be told, and by implication, what ears we might wish them to be heard by.