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The Complete Fables of Jean de La Fontaine

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Translated by Norman Shapiro

Robert Paquin photoThe Complete Fables of Jean de La Fontaine, translated by Norman Shapiro, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007.

Reading Jean de La Fontaine's fables is a double pleasure. These short moralistic narrative poems are not only witty, but they also evince a wonderful (I was going to say "fabulous") poetic skill. And reading Norman Shapiro's translation doubles the pleasure one more time.

Unlike Shapiro's translation of French Renaissance poets previously reviewed here (see <>), these fables are not published in a bilingual edition. They are not meant to be read line by line as a language lesson. The translator adapts and distances himself from the French, and his translation doesn't always correspond word for word or even line for line to the French. What it does follow is the intent of the author as it tries to reproduce for the English reader the reading experience of the native French reader savoring La Fontaine's fables.

These short moralistic narrative poems are not only witty, but they also evince a wonderful poetic skill.
La Fontaine did not invent the fable as a genre. He had models—the legendary Greek Aesop and his imitators, of course, but also the Romans Phaedrus and Horace, and a host of other Latin writers as well as oriental fabulists such as Brahmin Bidpai, in translation of course. La Fontaine also had contemporaries who wrote fables, but what distinguishes him is that he wrote his in verse. Thanks to him, the fable became a poetic genre, with rhyme and rhythm, even if La Fontaine's fables retain some of the freedom of prose in their use of metrics. The lines of varying lengths create a rhythm that has less of a monotonous chanting quality and more of the irregularities of natural speech.

What is remarkable here is that Shapiro manages to recreate this in English. In his translation the lines vary in length mimicking oral speech while retaining rhythm and rhyme and thus creating surprise and enjoyment in reading. In his introduction to the book, John Hollander speaks very highly of the translator's talent, illustrating his praise with many examples. Let's just look at the first fable, the well known La cigale et la fourmi/The Cricket and the Ant (p. 5):

The cricket, having sung her song
All summer long,
Found—when the winter winds blew free—
Her cupboard bare as bare could be;
Nothing to greet her hungering eye:
No merest crumb of worm or fly...

Now the French:

La cigale, ayant chanté
Tout l'été,
Se trouva fort dépourvue
Quand la bise fut venue.
Pas un seul petit morceau
De mouche ou de vermisseau...

The translation is not literal, it doesn't translate the words, it translates the meaning. And the rhyme is part of the meaning. It's also part of the pleasure. Shapiro's fables work as poems on their own. The poems read as if they were original creations and not translations, so that the reader who doesn't understand French and has never read La Fontaine may experience the same pleasure as the French reader. But what about somebody like myself who can read both French and English? Well the pleasure is doubled, since I get to appreciate not only the wit and poetic talent of the author, but also the intelligence and craft of the translator who manages to recreate this in English. Here's another example taken this time from The Miller, His Son, and the Ass (p. 55). You will see how the overall meaning is the same though the information given in one line may occur in a different line.

... But listen to a story first, I pray.
... J'ai lu dans quelque endroit qu'un meunier et son fils,

A miller and his son, one market day,
L'un vieillard, l'autre enfant, non pas des plus petits,

Went off to sell their ass; one of them, old—
Mais garçon de quinze ans, si j'ai bonne mémoire,

The father, that is, if you need be told—
Allaient vendre leur âne un certain jour de foire.

The other, if my memory serves, a young
Afin qu'il fût plus frais et de meilleur débit,

Lad of some fifteen years. Betwixt them hung
On lui lia les pieds, on vous le suspendit;

The ass, suspended, hooves together bound.
Puis cet homme et son fils le portent comme un lustre :

For thus, they thought, he was sure to be found
Pauvres gens, idiots, couple ignorant et rustre.

Fresh and in finest fettle. As the pair
Carry him, chandelier-like, to the fair...

This example illustrates how the translation is an adaptation from the French, different yet serving the same purpose. The aim being to entertain while educating, to provide pleasure while encouraging the reader to reflect.

Shapiro's avowed mission is to allow readers who can't read French to enjoy these fables and learn from them. They teach simple wisdom and common sense. Beware of flatterers, don't be a spendthrift, the type of advice my mother used to give me as a child. But one also finds social judgments based on the observation of "the way of the world" at court and elsewhere. And even if in his preface Shapiro himself declares, "though I myself have translated many hundreds of fables over the years, despite all their edifying content I am still as flawed a human being as I was when I began" (p. xvii), the reader's (and the translator's) awareness of his own shortcomings must surely contribute to the improvement of his character. Can one ask for more?

No wonder many aphorisms contained in La Fontaine have become common sayings or proverbs in French and they are often quoted as pearls of wisdom without reference to the fables. As Shapiro points out in the notes to his translation, "Many La Fontaine morals with a proverbial ring to them were, in fact, [...] introduced by him into the language" (p. 422). Here is a list of such formulas excerpted from La Fontaine's fables, along with Shapiro's English translation:

    • Tout flatteur vit aux dépens de celui qui l'écoute—Flatterers thrive on fools' credulity.
    • Rien ne sert de courir, il faut partir à point—To win the race you needn't run; just start on time.
    • Je plie et ne rompt pas—I never break; I merely bend,
    • Aide-toi, le Ciel t'aidera—Heaven helps those who help themselves.
    • Tel est pris qui croyait prendre—Lest we be hoist upon our own petard.
    • La raison du plus fort est toujours la meilleure—The strongest argue best, and always win.

Friends to whom I showed this English translation of La Fontaine's fables were all properly impressed by the talent of the translator, but often concluded by saying, "but I prefer La Fontaine's formulations." Of course, and Shapiro does not claim to be Jean de La Fontaine, but his translator. The challenge here is to reproduce the concision of the formula while respecting rhythm and rhyme. The aim is to translate the fable, while keeping as much as possible of its poetry.

On first reading, I wondered about Shapiro's occasional use of a French word or expression which he italicises. Why use French words? As a professional translator and a native French-speaker living in Canada where we feel constantly "threatened" by the gratuitous introduction of English in our vocabulary, I'm always wary of lexical borrowings. Why did Shapiro use words from a different language when there are English words with the same meaning. The only reason I could think of at first was that the translator was stuck for a rhyme and found this way out. Witness Death and the Wretched Man (p. 19), where you find the two following lines:

...I want no part of you! Be off!
It was Maecenas—something of a philosophe...

Or again in The Fox and the Stork (p. 22), where

...Quick to accept, replies: "Merci beaucoup!"

rhymes with

...No need for tra-la-la with friends like you.

Shapiro doesn't do this only with French though. On the next page, in The Child and the Schoolmaster (p. 23), we find

..."Help!" yelps the child. "I'm dead!" The magister,
Deciding that a proper remonstration
Is what the urchin needs, stops then and there...

Ah, but here the Latin word magister is the exact word which La Fontaine uses in his fable, except that Shapiro uses it for a rhyme, whereas La Fontaine puts it at the beginning of the line. So, my objection to the translator's use of French or foreign words didn't hold in this case. Okay, what about The Eagle and the Dung Beetle (p.36), where you read the line "My neighbor, my compère, my guest"? This corresponds in La Fontaine to the following line:

C'est mon voisin. C'est mon compère.

A line which rhymes three lines down with:

L'étourdit, l'oblige à se taire.

Finally I had to admit that Shapiro knew what he was doing. And mostly he was having fun. He plays with the words, and wants us to join in the game. His use of non-English words is a wink at the reader, a smile, a reminder that the fables may work very well in English thanks to his command of the art of translation and prosody, but they are in essence French and they were originally created by Jean de La Fontaine in the 17th century.

The fable Death and the Wretched Man quoted above was written in imitation of another fable called Death and the Woodsman, which La Fontaine claims to have adapted from Aesop. In his first book of fables published in 1668, the two are printed together as numbers 15 and 16, with a short explanation by the author in which he explains: "Never are we able to surpass the Ancients: they leave us only the glory of following them closely." (p. 20) I wonder if Norman Shapiro, as he was translating that passage, thought of applying it to himself. As far as I'm concerned, the glory and the talent of Jean de La Fontaine were certainly well served in this translation of the fables.

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