Marcel Schwob’s “Mimes” – Mime X and XI

"The inhabitants bore their heads where we keep our stomachs; when they waved at us, they bowed their bellies."

Read all previous posts in Asymptote’s “Mimes” translation project here.

Mime X. The Seaman
(trans. Hannah Embleton-Smith)

If you doubt that I have plied the heavy oars, look at my hands and my knees: you will find them worn as ancient tools. I know every weed of the underwater plains that are at times purple and at others blue, and I have absorbed the science of every coiled shell. Some of the weeds are endowed with human life; their buds are transparent eyes, like jelly, their bodies like the teats of sows, and they have scores of slender limbs, which are also mouths. And among the punctured shells, I have seen some that were pierced over a thousand times; and from each little opening came and went a fleshly foot upon which the shell would move.

After crossing the Pillars of Hercules, the ocean surrounding the land becomes strange and wild.

And on its rapid course, it creates dark islands inhabited by marvellous animals and men of different kinds. There a serpent lies with golden whiskers, wisely governing his kingdom; and the women of the land have an eye on the tip of each finger. Others have beaks and crests like birds; as for the rest, they resemble us. On one island at which I alighted, the inhabitants bore their heads where we keep our stomachs; when they waved at us, they bowed their bellies. As regards the Cyclops, pigmies and giants, I shan’t speak of them; for their number is too great.

None of these things appears incredible to me; towards them I feel no terror. But one evening, I saw Scylla. Our boat was grazing the sand of the Sicilian coast. As I was turning the rudder, I remarked in the middle of the water a female head with closed eyes. Its hair was coloured gold. It appeared to be sleeping. And I immediately trembled in fear of seeing her pupils, knowing full well that the moment I gazed into them I would turn the rudder towards the gulf of the sea. 


Hannah Embleton-Smith: I was struck by the assault on the senses in Schwob’s text. In Mime X, the assault is visual. Eyes pervade the land and sea; they infest bodies, with eyes spreading over hands and stomachs. I opted for translating “herbes” as “weeds,” rather than a more neutral “plants” or “flora,” in echo of the underlying sense of invasion by sight and sensuality, which in turn echoes the exploration of beauty in decay and sin by the Symbolists.

This led to one issue with the “yeux transparents” of underwater plants: “yeux” can be translated to “buds,” but in opting for “eyes,” the landscape maintains a voyeuristic symmetry with the women’s hands on the island, endowed with an eye on the tip of each finger.

Another concern of mine was in maintaining the lulling, almost hypnotic rhythm of the original. I manipulated word order: “marvellous animals” comes before “men of different kinds” to end on a short iambic phrase that evokes a hypnotised state and yet a certain playfulness in, or concession to, that hypnosis.

The undercurrents of monstrosity throughout “Mime X” were interesting in translation. For example, “elle” in the original refers to the woman’s head in the water, yet still retains feminine connotation. In translation, it was more evocative to opt for “its,” intensifying the interplay between human and monster, beautiful woman and seemingly detached head awaiting its bait. This “dark side” of the text was also perfect fodder for a collage counterpart, as seen above.


Mime XI. The Six Notes of the Flute
(trans. Alina Opreanu)

In the lush pastures of Sicily there is a wood of sweet almond trees not far from the sea. There is an ancient seat made of black stone upon which shepherds have sat for years. Finely woven cicada cages and green wicker nets for catching fish hang on the branches of nearby trees. She who sleeps perched on the black stone seat, feet wrapped in strips of cloth, head hidden beneath a pointed red straw hat, waits for a shepherd who never returned. He left, hands coated in pure wax, to cut reeds in the damp thicket: he wanted to fashion a flute of seven pipes as the god Pan had instructed him. And after seven hours had passed, the first note arose beside the black stone seat where the one who sleeps today was keeping watch. Now the note was close, bright, and silvery. Then seven hours passed over the meadow blue with sunlight and the second note rang out, joyous and gilded. And every seven hours today’s sleeper heard the sound of one of the pipes of the new flute. The third sound was distant and somber, like an iron clamor. And the fourth note was even more distant and chimed deeply, with brassy resonance. The fifth was disconcerting and brief, like a hit to a pewter vase. But the sixth was dull and muffled, and only as loud as the leaden weights of a net that knock together.

Now she who sleeps today awaited the seventh note, which did not sound at all. The days enveloped the almond tree woods with their white mist, and the twilights with their grey mist, and the nights with their purple and blue mist. Perhaps the shepherd waits for the seventh note, beside a luminous pool, in the growing shadows of evenings and years; and, sitting on the black stone seat, she who waited for the shepherd has fallen asleep.


Alina Opreanu: The transition from the fearful image of Scylla to the delicate shape of the sleeping woman in Mime XI provided an opportunity to play with descriptions of sound: a silvery note (“la note était proche, claire et argentine”), a somber iron clamor (“grave comme la clameur du fer”), a brassy chime (“la voix du cuivre”). Throughout there is a tension between the weightless voice of the flute and the increasing heaviness of the metaphorical objects—iron, brass, pewter, and lead. The musicality of the passage becomes like that of a dirge in the last paragraph, where “brouillard” is repeated three times. While “mist” is a faithful translation, this is perhaps where the English diverges from the French original by creating an atmosphere that is crisp and dreamy rather than shadowy and ancient.

SONY DSCCollages by Hannah Embleton-Smith


Read Alina and Hannah’s translations of both Mimes here!


Alina Opreanu was born in Romania, grew up in the United States, and studied French at Emory University, the Université de Provence, and Harvard University. Currently living in Atlanta, she works in higher education, teaches French, and is a company member of Théâtre du Rêve, Atlanta’s unique French-language theatre company.

Hannah Embleton-Smith is a graduate from Cardiff University in French and English literature. Currently translating commercial and academic texts on a freelance basis, she is going on to pursue an M.A. in literary translation.