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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry

Sonnets of Love and Death

Jean de Sponde

(trans. David R. Slavitt)

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To purchase Sonnets of Love & Death

Title: Sonnets of Love & Death
Author: Jean de Sponde
Genre: Poetry
Written: 16th century
Length: 82 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Sonnets of Love & Death - US
Sonnets of Love & Death - UK
Sonnets of Love & Death - Canada
  • This is a bilingual edition
  • Translated by David R. Slavitt (2001)

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Our Assessment:

B- : an "A-" for the French originals, but a "C-" for Slavitt's English "translation"

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Sixteenth-century Frenchman Jean de Sponde sounds like a fairly interesting character. He translated Homer and Aristotle, he was a bon vivant, he was a Calvinist who became a serious Catholic, and he died relatively young. He also penned these poems which "probably were not meant for publication or for any wide public at all, but rather were private productions" (so David R. Slavitt in his preface).
       There are apparently several translations of Sponde's sonnets; Slavitt mentions those by Robert Nugent (1962) and G.F.Cunningham (1964). This edition, published by Northwestern University Press, is, fortunately, a bilingual one: it offers both Sponde's originals and Slavitt's English rendering.
       The French originals are quite fascinating, and very unlike much of the French poetry that came afterwards. Slavitt compares Sponde's work to John Donne and Philip Sidney, and in his use of language and poetic approach Sponde's work is, indeed, closer to them than to the strict classical poetry that dominated French literature for so long.
       They are good, these sonnets -- and surprisingly accessible, even today. The language is not plain or wooden -- Sponde does have a poet's ear -- but there is not ostentation or effect merely for show. He manages to achieve his effect straightforwardly, almost simply.
       There aren't many poems here -- 26 "Sonnets d'amour" and 12 "Sonnets de la mort" -- but it makes for a nice little collection, both an historic curiosity and a fine, obscure but worthwhile bit of poetry.

       Slavitt's English renderings are another matter. Translation is a difficult business. Slavitt chooses to work within Sponde's sonnet-form constraints, following (by and large) Sponde's rhyme scheme and, apparently (at least vaguely) the metre. However, Slavitt also chooses not to slavishly (or at least literally) adhere to what Sponde wrote.
       The basic point of what Sponde is trying to express seems to come across, more or less. But Slavitt is liberal in his transposition. Even those who don't read French might wonder where some of Sponde's question and exclamation marks have disappeared to. Those who do read French might be even more troubled.
       The tone and sound-play of Sponde's best lines can perhaps understandably not be captured. Consider for example the third and fourth lines of the first sonnet:

Et si c'est sur les vents qu'elle a son fondement,
Qui la peut conserver sans être renversée ?
       From the s-s-s sequence ("si c'est sur") to the drawn out "vent (...) / son / fonde- / ment", and then the beautifully balanced "conserver / renversée" -- and the fine flow of the whole sentence -- Sponde does a lot here. Slavitt makes of this:
Or think of the tousling winds that to and fro
rock the world's foundation. Nevertheless,

it does not fly apart.
       In the next line Sponde has "justes contrepoids"; Slavitt makes of them "two / different distractions". And on it goes.
       Some of what Slavitt does isn't bad -- as English poetry. But most of the time it does not do justice to what Sponde wrote. Slavitt is too willing to change, add, shift, alter. In almost every poem the tone is very different than in the French -- often, it seems to us, unnecessarily so. Perhaps it is the form that demands these shortcuts and this shortchanging, perhaps Slavitt simply believes that a freer translation is perfectly acceptable. Whatever the reason, we were less than thrilled by the results.

       We acknowledge that we are suspicious of all translation (as users of this site will have noticed), and that we have a distinct preference for translation that is close to literal. Others may find what Slavitt does agreeable -- possibly even preferable, since one might argue it adds another dimension to the poetry. In any case, readers should be aware that Slavitt's renderings are not very close to the originals.

       Given that there is apparently not even an accessible and cheap French edition of the poems available (though they can be found online) the volume can certainly be recommended -- for the French versions. As to the English versions ... that is probably a matter of taste, and it certainly wasn't to ours.

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Sonnets of Love & Death: David R. Slavitt: Other:
  • See Index of Poetry at the complete review
  • See Index of Bilingual editions under review
  • See Index of French literature

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About the Author:

       French author Jean de Sponde (1557-1595) was a noted translator.

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© 2001-2021 the complete review

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