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The Complete Fables of Jean de La Fontaine written by Jean de La Fontaine

 

The Complete Fables of Jean de La Fontaine written by Jean de La Fontaine

Overview:

Inspired new translations of the work of one of the world's greatest fabulists

Told in an elegant style, Jean de la Fontaine's (1621-95) charming animal fables depict sly foxes and scheming cats, vain birds and greedy wolves, all of which subtly express his penetrating insights into French society and the beasts found in all of us. Norman R. Shapiro has been translating La Fontaine's fables for over twenty years, capturing the original work's lively mix of plain and archaic language. This newly complete translation is destined to set the English standard for this work.

Awarded the Lewis Galantière Prize by the American Translators Association, 2008.

Synopsis:

Inspired new translations of the work of one of the world's greatest fabulists

Told in an elegant style, Jean de la Fontaine's (1621-95) charming animal fables depict sly foxes and scheming cats, vain birds and greedy wolves, all of which subtly express his penetrating insights into French society and the beasts found in all of us. Norman R. Shapiro has been translating La Fontaine's fables for over twenty years, capturing the original work's lively mix of plain and archaic language. This newly complete translation is destined to set the English standard for this work.

Awarded the Lewis Galantière Prize by the American Translators Association, 2008.

Katherine K. Koenig - Library Journal

Ably translated from the French by Shapiro (Romance languages & literature, Wesleyan Univ.), the voices of the animals, birds, insects (and even the occasional human) who populate La Fontaine's fables come alive in rhyme and rhythm that develop the traditional tales. Some rhyme seems technically forced, with line breaks in awkward places: "cheese; it" to rhyme with "seize it"; the awkward "circumspecter" to rhyme with "protector"; "forasmuch, it" coupled with "touch it." The rhythm, on sight reading, is also sometimes uneven: "They tell about two thieves who fought/Over a stolen ass: one thought/It should be kept." Yet somehow these imperfections merely enhance the humor and, when read aloud, both rhyme and rhythm flow well, perhaps even better than more perfect poetic versions. And since these fables are now, as they always have been, at their best in oral performance, that is an asset. For libraries lacking a collection of La Fontaine's fables, needing a new copy, or looking for a comprehensive single volume, this one will do nicely.

Excerpt:

The Complete Fables of Jean de La Fontaine


By Jean de La Fontaine

University of Illinois Press

Copyright © 2007 Norman R. Shapiro
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-07381-6


Preface

I am a self-confessed La Fontaine addict. Unlike other addictions, this one is quite harmless. It even has an upside. My translations can help introduce those with limited or no French to the genius of the genial fabulist; and even, perhaps-though doubtful-improve the behavior of a reader or two. ("Doubtful," because, 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. And anyway, it is unlikely that La Fontaine's intent for his little moral tales was truly as didactic as his first six books would have us believe. Their artistry far transcends their morality.)

But it has a definite downside too, by definition. La Fontaine's oeuvre, after all, like any author's, is finite. When, in 1988, I brought out my collection Fifty Fables of La Fontaine, even though I had no conscious intention at the time of doing another, the possibility of continuing to feed my happy addiction was always there. It surfaced with Fifty More Fables in 1998; and again, with Once Again, La Fontaine, a couple of years later. After each backsliding, though, I dutifully resolved that I would reform.

So much for resolutions. I went on, in my all-too-human frailty, to complete the remaining fourscore a couple of years ago, blithely ignoring the fact that the supply would thereby dry up. (And, to the best of my knowledge, there are no treatment centers to deal with La Fontaine addiction.) There are, to be sure, other competent, attractive, even thoroughly engaging French fable writers-scores and scores of them, in fact, over the centuries. And I have dealt with many. But there is only one La Fontaine. I can, of course, hope that researchers may eventually discover a trove of as yet unknown La Fontaine fables. But even that unlikely serendipity would be only a temporary solution at best. And so my "collaboration" with him, while an ongoing joy, is tempered by the knowledge that it now exists in retrospect and not in anticipation. I am both enriched by the past and saddened by its finality.

That confessed, what I present here is the integral fruit of that benignly compelling collaboration with this dean of French fabulists: translations-versions? re-creations?-of his complete Fables, in the sweep of their twelve books extending over his entire literary life, from 1668 to 1694; developing from the child-friendly and uncomplicated minidramas of the earliest, through narratives of greater philosophical and literary complexity-hardly children's fare; and even unto the lengthy but never ponderous works in the late books. Some of these latter are not, in fact, "fables" at all, but rather contes-tales in the style of his often licentious Contes et nouvelles en vers. But who am I to argue? Included with the fables since their first publication (by either La Fontaine or his publisher), they are traditionally part of the corpus; and for the sake of truth in advertising I include them in the announced completeness of the present collection. I hope readers will be as undaunted by "Philemon and Baucis," "The Daughters of Mineas," and the several others, as by "Maître Corbeau, sur un arbre perché ..." and his quite different ilk, which are much more readily committed to the memory of generations of French school children. They will be rewarded with a view of La Fontaine's narrative talent that literary histories often fail to mention but that shows many of the same qualities that make him unique.

A few words are in order concerning my own philosophy as a translator, especially of verse, and, more especially, of La Fontaine's. Without embarking on a screed-like discussion of the "rhyme-and-meter versus free-verse" controversy between "formalists" and "literalists," which will never lose steam among Translation Studies adepts, I would say only that for me-and individual taste is crucial here-to render formal (i.e., rhymed and metered) verse into anything but similar English is tantamount to artistic sacrilege. If the "message" is all the reader wants, a prose (or prosy) rendition is fine. The Lambs' Tales from Shakespeare, I might point out hyperbolically, does serve a valuable purpose, after all. But the message is only part of a poet's artifact. If he or she clothes it in rhymed and metered verse, to do less is to betray at least part of its essence and to become the proverbial translator-cum-traitor, all other things being equal. Granted, no translation will ever "reproduce" the original exactly, but why should it? That is not the translator's purpose. What he or she aims to do is to create a self-contained, self-standing work, one that has an almost mystical connection with the original, but a work that, ostensibly independent, transmits, to whatever degree it can, its music as well as its message. Or, in the words of Seamus Heaney, "the tone" as well as "the tune." A translator tries to do this without sacrificing either to the other. The product must be seamless, and, not calling attention to itself except by choice, must sound as unforced and, indeed, inevitable, as the text that spawned it.

In translating La Fontaine, the preceding observations are especially pertinent. His free-and-easy vers libres (i.e., freeish, not free, verse, in seventeenth-century usage), for all their liberty-their run-on lines, their natural speech rhythms, their inner rhymes and melodic repetitions-are no less set against an underlying metrical grid that constrains and intensifies that freedom. To render them into a rhymeless, meterless English would be rather like turning Shakespeare's blank verse iambics into French rhymed octosyllabic couplets, or Dante's terza rima into sprightly limericks. It's safe to say that something would be lost... La Fontaine's vehicle is as much a part of his organic whole as are his subjects and his style. He is always there, at the reader's elbow, watching, with a complicitous wink and nod, the reaction to a bit of stylistic liberty, an unexpected archaism, an egregious rhyme, a sudden change of meter or line length for dramatic impact. Even, at times, the introduction of a one- or two-syllable word to function as an entire line. To ignore such bits of (deceptively?) casual-sounding inspiration would, for me at least, be unthinkable.

Now, this does not mean that I think the translator should try to follow his form with a slavish fidelity. For La Fontaine, as for generations of French versifiers before, during, and after, the standard poetic line is the twelve-syllable alexandrine. But he is also generous in adding to the mix a variety of decasyllables, octosyllables, and even shorter lines, not to mention a spate of so-called impair (uneven-numbered) lines. All for conscious (or perhaps even unconscious, instinctive) effect. And all in an effort to maintain the naturalness of prose in the formal but unobtrusive trappings of verse. In English poetry, as Pope tells us, the twelve-syllable line is overlong and heavy. Occasional use can be effective, as it is in Pope's own picturesquely sarcastic example: "that like a wounded snake drags its slow length along ..." But it makes more aesthetic sense to use its canonical English equivalent, the iambic pentameter, and to mold it flexibly into a convincing whole, with recourse to lines of other lengths as the rhetorical and dramatic situation demands.

In other words, the reader who troubles to compare my individual lines with La Fontaine's will not usually find a one-for-one correspondence. Such an aping of his line lengths, although perhaps a virtuoso accomplishment, would be an artistically useless one, since, except for a few set pieces in quatrains, he follows no recognizable formal patterns himself. His prosodic freedom-like the freedom of the natural universe in which his characters live their slices of life for us-is, in fact, one of his hallmarks and one of his greatest charms. Some translators (and readers) will disagree. So be it. Here I stand. Others, with as much of a claim to credibility, stand elsewhere.

Let the reader decide ...

* * *

My thanks to my many staunch friends and colleagues for assistance both practical and aesthetic. Evelyn Singer Simha has, as ever, been foremost among them, and exemplary in every regard, with her usual-unusual!-generously proffered advice; and Caldwell Titcomb has always been ready with valuable observations, linguistic and historical.

Most of these translations were written in the comfort of Adams House, Harvard University, where, thanks to the hospitality of its comasters, Doctors Judy and Sean Palfrey, and their assistant victoria Macy, I enjoy the position of writer-in-residence. Let it be said that my friends on its dining hall staff have also played a very sustaining and tasteful role.

My own university, Wesleyan, has likewise been most supportive with a number of grants, especially one founded by my late colleague Professor Joseph McMahon in memory of his parents. Such help has been invaluable, as has the much appreciated interest of Tom Radko and Suzanna Tamminen of the Wesleyan University Press. I am no less indebted to Sylvia and Allan kliman for their encouragement; to Michael Weidman, French Wall, Todd Houle, and Glenn Carlson for their electronic know-how; to Rosalind Eastaway and Linda Cummings for frequent secretarial help; and to a bevy of research assistants-Sophie Hermann, Rachel Hoffman Bengtzen, and Daniela Cammack-for their efficiency and good cheer.

I should like also to acknowledge that the idea of this complete edition was the inspiration of Dr. Willis Regier, who, with his staff at the University of Illinois Press-especially Cope Cumpston and Dawn McIlvain-has been most cooperative and supportive. To each and all, my gratitude, with a special word of appreciation to enthusiastic fablephile Liz Dulany for getting the ball rolling in the first place. And, of course, my thanks to colleague and frequent past collaborator David Schorr, whose whimsical graphic talents provide such fitting company for La Fontaine's verbal art, as well as to John Hollander for his appreciative and always appreciated insights.

* * *

Henri Regnier's eleven-volume critical edition Oeuvres de J. de la Fontaine (rev. ed. [Paris: Hachette, 1883-92]), replete with copious annotations, has served as source of many of my notes. I have chosen to prepare my versions from the French text of the Fables as presented by Ferdinand Gohin in the Association Guillaume Budé's two-volume edition, Oeuvres complètes de La Fontaine (Paris: Société des Belles Lettres, 1934), which purports to be a faithful representation of the last edition corrected by La Fontaine himself.

Publication of this book has been aided by a grant from the Thomas and Catharine McMahon Fund of Wesleyan University, established through the generosity of the late Joseph McMahon.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from The Complete Fables of Jean de La Fontaine by Jean de La Fontaine Copyright © 2007 by Norman R. Shapiro. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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