The Sleeper in the Valley
It is a green hollow where a stream twitters
Wildly hanging on the grasses rags
Of silver; where the sun from the proud mountain
Shines: it is a little valley bubbling with sunlight.
A soldier young, open-mouthed, bare-headed,
The nape of his neck bathing in the cool blue watercress,
Sleeps; he is spread out on the grass, under the skies,
Pale on his bed of green where the light rains down.
His feet in the gladiolas, he lies sleeping. Smiling as
A sick child would smile, he is having a nap:
Nature, cradle him warmly: he is cold.
Fragrances do not make his nostril quiver;
He sleeps in the sun, his hand on his breast
Peacefully. He has two red holes in his right side.
(Le Dormeur du Val
Notes on the translation
I make no claim as to the poetic value of this rather literal translation. Neither to its originality. I tried restituting some of the metaphors, slight double-entendres and literary "tricks" Rimbaud used in his poem and stuck to literal translation for the rest.
Following the good old adage "copy from one, it's plagiarism; copy from many it's research", I occasionally fueled my inspiration with bits or ideas taken from the numerous quality translations available out there (unfortunately all copyright protected) but the present version contains no serious paraphrase except when the simplicity of the original left no choice.
I hereby make this an open-source translation and cordially invite you to submit your suggestions for improvement. In doing so, please keep in mind potential stylistic effects inherited from the original (see below).
Notes on the context of the poem
If memory serves me right, Rimbaud was prompted to write this poem upon seeing such a soldier, fallen in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, while he was himself on the run from home for the second time: he was sixteen at the time.
Although this is his most famous, and arguably one of his best, production, it was considered a youth mistake by Rimbaud, who asked his friend to burn it the following year along with many others: denouncing the subjectivity of romanticism, he had decided to free himself from any stylistic constraint and apply a new brand of poetic "realism" to his writing (no longer being a "slave to the style").
Le dormeur du Val is indeed a very classical French sonnet in its form, but the tone and the content clearly announced his novel ideas and a radically new approach to poetry.
Notes on the content of the poem
Endless analysis on the content and its form can be made, but most would not make much sense when carried over to the translation.
However, one can note the whole structure of the poem which is made to simultaneously build a peaceful, bucolic picture, while at the same time slipping increasingly clear references to the true meaning of this scene:
One-word enjambments in the first two quatrains generate a certain tension through these sort of false alerts (kinda like the cheap thrills you get in horror movies when the camera quickly zoom-out and moves around to reveal... a peacefully empty corridor).
The vocabulary and sensations linked to death and disease are increasingly present in more or less obvious forms: "open-mouthed", "pale", "cold", "Smiling as a sick child would smile", "gladiolas" (also known as "sword lilies" of which their shape is quite reminiscent), "quiver" etc.
But to balance these hints given along the way, Rimbaud keeps insisting on the beautiful and peaceful surroundings: up until the last verse, starting with "peacefully" (Tranquille in the French text), nothing really prepares you openly for the dry conclusion...
An interesting note
For those of you who have seen A Perfect World (one of the very few reasons, imnsh, to forgive director Clint "dirty harry" Eastwood for his early reactionary years of "punk" eradicator), you might remember the introductory flashback scene:
A camera slowly zoom out from a peacefully sleeping Kevin Costner laying on the grass in the middle of a field, a smile on his face... To eventually reveal blood running from his side: he has just been shot and is most likely already dead.
I have no idea whether this is pure coincidence or discreet homage, but it is hard not to see a strong resemblance with Rimbaud's poem.
In a more direct reference, this scene is depicted in the movie Total Eclipse covering the story of Rimbaud and Verlaine.