Marcel Schwob’s “Mimes” – Mime XVI and XVII

“Translating a poem from 1894 into a language that has evolved and cast off as much as English has is no easy task.”

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

Mime XVI. Sismé

She whom you see withered before you was named Sismé, a daughter of Thratta. First, she came to know of bees and flocks; then she tasted the salt of the sea; finally, a merchant trader lured her to the white houses of Syria. Now she remains enshrined like a precious statuette upon a stone plinth. Count the rings sparkling on her fingers: she has lived as many years. See the bandeau, taut about her crown: here, so timid, she received her first loving kiss. Touch the star of pale rubies that sleeps where her bosom once lay: there rested the head of a beloved. Near Sismé have been placed her faded mirror, her silver jackstones and the long amber pins that once wound through her hair; as come her twentieth year (there are twenty rings), she was adorned with treasures. A wealthy magistrate gave her all a woman could desire. Sismé will never forget him, and his jewels are not spurned by her fragile, white bones. In kind, he built this ornate tomb to protect his tender departed, and he surrounds her with perfumed jars and golden vessels for his fallen tears. Sismé is grateful to him. Yet you, if you wish to glimpse the secret of an embalmed heart, unclench the tiny joints of this left hand: here you will find a small, humble glass ring. This ring was once transparent; but with the years it has become hazy and obscure. Sismé loves it. Be silent and see.

Mime XVII. Burial Gifts

I placed within Lysander’s tomb a green basket, a red lamp, and a silver cup.

The green basket of entwined osier will but for a moment (since in a season it will spoil) remind him of our friendship, of the damp grass in the pastures, of the curved backs of grazing sheep, and of the cool shadows where we drifted into slumber. And he will be reminded of earthly harvests, and of the winters when provisions are amassed together in great stone jars.

The red lantern is adorned with naked women who clutch each other’s hands and dance, with legs entwined. Over the years the scent of its oil will evaporate and the clay, from which the lamp is fashioned, will crumble. And thus Lysander, in his life below earth, will not forget too hastily his blissful nights and the white bodies illuminated by the lamp’s light. With its ruby red tongue, it licked the soft down from arms and thighs for the heightened pleasure of both hand and eye.

The cup of silver is crowned with golden vines and clusters of grapes. Upon it a mad god brandishes his embellished staff and the nostrils of Silenus’s mule appear to quiver once more. It was once filled with sharp wine, pure and blended; wine of Chios perfumed with goatskin, and wine of Aegina chilled in clay pitchers suspended in the wind. From it Lysander drank at great feasts where he recited verse, and the spirit of the wine filled him and possessed him with poetic inspiration, erasing all earthly matters. Thus the daemon’s form will remain always near to him, for when the lattice has decayed and the lamp broken, the silver will continue to abide in his tomb. May he often empty this cup brimming with oblivion in memory of his greatest moments among us!


Translating Schwob’s text “Burial Gifts” was an interesting task. It really blurred my role as translator with that of rewriter, and perhaps even recreator in some small ways. José Saramago, the Portuguese novelist and Nobel prize winner said that “Writers create national literature, but world literature is created by translators.” The thought that translation unlocks knowledge and sensations of words within a language for which some do not have the key helped to appease my misgivings about being unfaithful to Schwob’s source text. The full joy of a translated poem cannot be wholly appreciated by its audience if it does not retain in some way the beauty and grace of its source, just as the source cannot be fully appreciated if it doesn’t attain the beauty and grace of its subject.

Translating a poem from 1894 into a language that has evolved and cast off as much as English has is no easy task. Schwob’s texts evoke so much visual imagery that I felt it necessary to ensure a certain cerebral fluidity by using simpler words that nevertheless conjure the same imagery. In the very first line I translated claie as basket. In the beginning, it was not clear what Schwob meant here, until a French friend evoked une claie à fromages, a latticed willow tray that cheese would be kept on when drying to allow air to pass underneath (this also sheds light on Schwob’s subsequent references to pastures, sheep, grass, etc.). Investigating in my local market, a cheese vendor explained that today the word clayette is used to describe a metal tray on which cheese is aired. I was limited with what I could really do here as tray seemed too sterile, cheese tray too wooden, and mat not mentally stimulating enough. To me, basket was the best choice as it evokes an entwined and natural imagery and is linked to fruits, vegetables, nature, etc. I added osier (a solution borrowed from A. Lenalie) purely to avoid repeating will/willow, but also to justify the use of green, which may have seemed oddly placed otherwise.

Amphores I translated as great stone jars rather than amphoras, in order to allow for the continuous mental imagery evoked by Schwob’s works. While great stone jars may lose the lexical origin of the Greek amphora, it evokes a similar image and allows the reader to experience without having to run for a dictionary.

Another challenging part popped up near the end, where Schwob talks about the démon poétique. Translating the piece in 1901, Lenalie chose to leave out any mention of demons, perhaps censoring for religious reasons. I didn’t want to water down the text as such; however the use of demon was too basic and evoked imagery of evil and the devil. For me, Schwob’s use of the démon poétique was to describe the spontaneous arrival of poetic genius, a genius that fully possessed Lysander and allowed him to recount great poems, and that was summoned (not suprisingly) through alcohol; a veritable Bacchus. I tried to enact this inspiration and possession of Lysander’s tongue in my own translation, retaining the sense of frenzied forces taking him over.


Sara Pullin’s deep-rooted passion for the meaning, movement and beauty found in words meant that translation was an obvious adventure for her to embark upon. Growing up, she was surrounded by the Australian bush and Enid Blyton books, which meant she naturally lived a childhood that was wonderfully juxtaposed between echidnas and hedgehogs, oak trees and eucalypt, and meadows and paddocks. Having permanently settled in France five years ago, she is currently in the midst of her final year of a Double Masters in Translation Studies.