Around half a millennium ago, a French man from the town of Cahors en Quercy named Clement Marot wrote a poem to a young girl who was bedridden with an illness. The poem, titled by the author “A une Damoyselle malade,” is well known today by its principle line, “Ma Mignonne.” Marot’s prose is light and breezy, a cute slip for a sick little friend. “Ma Mignonne” is surprisingly comprehensible to modern French speakers, despite a few archaic words.
The original poem goes as follows, with a literal translation by Douglas Hofstadter:
Ma mignonne, -> My sweet/cute [one] (feminine)
Je vous donne -> I [to] you (respectful) give/bid/convey
Le Bon jour ; -> The good day (i.e., a hello, i.e., greetings).
Le séjour -> The stay/sojourn/visit (i.e., quarantine)
C’est prison. -> [it] is prison.
Guérison -> Cure/recovery/healing (i.e., [good] health)
Recouvrez, -> Recover (respectful imperative),
Puis ouvrez -> [And] then open (respectful imperative)
Votre porte -> Your (respectful) door,
Et qu’on sorte -> And [that one (i.e., you (respectful)) should] go out
Vitement, -> Fast[ly]/quickly[ly]/rapidly[ly]
Car Clément -> For/because Clement
Le vous mande. -> It (i.e., thusly) [to] you (respectful) commands/orders.
Va, friande -> Go (familiar imperative), fond-one/enjoyer/partaker
De ta bouche, -> Of your (familiar) mouth,
Qui se couche -> Who/which herself/himself/itself beds (i.e., lies down)
En danger -> In danger;
Pour manger -> For/in-order-to eat
Confitures ; -> Jams/jellies/confectionery
Si tu dures -> If you (familiar) last (i.e., stay/remain)
Trop malade, -> Too sick/ill,
Couleur fade -> [A] color pale/faded/dull
Tu prendras, -> You (familiar) will take [on],
Et perdras -> And [you (familiar)] will waste/lose
L’embonpoint. -> The plumpness/stoutness/portliness (i.e., well-fed look)
Dieu te doint -> [May] God [to] you (familiar) give/grant
Santé bonne, -> Health good,
Ma mignonne. -> My sweet/cute [one] (feminine).
In his 1997 book Le Ton beau de Marot, Douglas Hofstadter explores the challenge of translating this single poem perfectly. The task is ultimately found to be impossible: there is no translation that does not sacrifice one dimension of the poem to preserve another. Hofstadter identifies seven key properties of the syntax of the poem:
1. The poem is 28 lines long.
2. Each line consists of three syllables.
3. Each line’s main stress falls on it’s final syllable.
4. The poem is a string of rhyming couplets: AA, BB, CC,…
5. Midway, the tone changes from formal (“vous”) to informal (“tu”).
6. The poem’s opening line is echoed precisely at the very bottom.
7. The poet puts his own name directly into his poem.
A faithful translation of the poem would ideally take into account all seven of these properties, along with reasonable word choice. But a translator is also tasked with translating the gestalt of the poem, the feeling one gets when reading it, the vibe, if you will. A translation of language is therefore a translation of culture. Within every word of a language lies the shadow of the entire vocabulary of the speaker and listener. How, then, to translate between cultures? Is it possible to culturally translate “Ma Mignonne” from medieval French while keeping in line with Hofstadter’s seven properties and the literal meaning of the poem? Many have tried. Some throw out the literal meaning and syntax in favor of a cultural transposition, while others who study the meaning and the seven properties turn a blind eye to vibe, gestalt, and culture. I present two translations on either end of this spectrum:
Fairest Friend – Robert French
Let me send
Quit this place,
Its dark halls
And dank walls.
In soft stealth,
Dress and flee
Off with me,
Calls for you.
Hid from day,
So at last
Let’s be gone,
To dine on
And sweet jam.
If you stay
Ill this way,
Pale and drawn,
You’ll put on
But then cede
Pounds you need.
May God’s wealth
Bless your health
Till the end,
French’s translation manages a reasonably literal translation, with few deviations from the original in meaning. French also keeps six out of seven of the syntactic properties, constrained by English’s lack of a formal/informal dichotomy. But some might say that this translation lacks something in vibe of the original. Where Marot’s poem is light and playful, French’s translation feels gloomy and drawn-out. The next version inverses this attempt:
Hi Toots! – Nancy Hofstadter
And prison’s hell.
Flee your cell.
In a nutshell.)
Go pig out,
Ope wide your mouth:
Keep those sweetmeats
Unless you’re hale,
You’ll turn pale,
That wiggles your tail.
Good health to you,
My little flower,
Mon petit chou.
This version by Douglas Hofstadter’s own mother breaks nearly all of her son’s seven syntactic properties. It pushes the literal translation quite far, even going so far as to include a line in French, “Mon petit chou” (meaning “My little cabbage”) that was not present in the original. However, Nancy Hofstadter’s light-hearted meanderings effectively echo Marot’s version in vibe, perhaps better than French’s oh-so-literal version. While both may be considered translations, Nancy Hofstadter’s “Hi Toot’s” could be said to be more of a cultural translation than French’s preservation of meaning.
To the reader, I challenge you to make your own translation of “Ma Mignonne.” You do not need to speak French to do so – I speak barely a word myself. Hundreds of translations have been made in many languages around the world, each with it’s own interpretation and self-imposed constraints. Be creative. Some translations are self-referential, others choose to imagine the relationship between narrator and subject to be completely different, such as between lovers, family, or even farmer and cow. Send your translation to me, if you so choose, and I will delight in the fruits of your Sisyphean task.
About the Author
Mud is a seasoned Quest writer, an Environmental Studies student in their third year. Mud has kept up a weekly strange entertainment column for over thirty issues and has covered pressing sustainability and land-use stories for the past two years.