Marcel Schwob’s “Mimes” – Mime XIX and Mime XX

“Then I enfolded her in my arms—but clasped nothing besides the beguiling air.”

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

Mime XIX. The mirror, the golden pin, the poppy

First to speak, the mirror:

I was shaped in silver by a skilful craftsman. At first I lay hollow like his hand and my other face looked like the ball of a wall-eye. But then I was given curvature enough to reflect images. Finally Athene breathed her wisdom into me. I am aware of the desires of the girl who holds me and already I tell her that she is pretty. Still at night she rises and lights her bronze lamp. She directs the gilded flight of the flame towards me, and her heart craves some other face than hers. I show her own white temple and her sculpted cheeks and the swelling tips of her breasts and her eyes full of curiosity. She almost touches me with her trembling lips—but the golden burning lights up her face alone; all else remains dark within me.

Next, the golden pin:

Stolen from a Tyrian by a black slave, I was unglamorously criss-crossing a hank of silken byssus when a perfumed courtesan snatched me up. She set me in her hair, there to prick unwary fingers. Aphrodite taught me and delighted in honing my point. In the end I have fetched up in this girl’s hair, where I make her coiled tresses quiver. She leaps beneath me like a maddened heifer and does not perceive the source of her discomfort. During the four phases of the night, I stir up notions in her head and her heart follows suit. The lamp’s restless flame makes the shadows dance and bend their winged arms. Thus storms of visions flash before her and she rushes to her mirror. But that shows only her face in the anguish of desire.

Next, the poppy flower:

I was born in fields beneath the ground, among plants of unearthly hues. I know all the degrees of darkness; I have seen the shining flowers of the shadows. Persephone held me in her lap and I drifted off there. When Aphrodite’s pin pricks the girl with curiosity, I show her the shapes that wander in the eternal darkness. They are beautiful young people, adorned with graces that are no more. Aphrodite will provide for their desires, and Athene shows the mortals the absurdity of their dreams; but Persephone keeps the mystical keys to two doors: the one of horn and the other ivory. By the first door she sends out into the night the shades that haunt mankind; and Aphrodite overcomes them and Athene kills them. But by the second door, the Goddess Herself receives those men and women who are weary of Aphrodite and of Athene.


Mime XX. Acme

Acme died while I still pressed her hand to my lips and the mourners stood all around us. The cold crept into her lower limbs and they grew pale and chill. Then it rose up to her heart, which ceased to beat, like a blood-streaked bird found outsplayed, claws huddled into its chest, of a frosty morning. Then the cold reached her mouth, which turned a leaden purple.

And the mourning women rubbed her body with Syria balsam, and measured up her feet and hands to ready her for the pyre. And the russet flame leaped towards her like a horrifying mistress born of summer nights, to devour her body beneath searing kisses.

And grey men, whose office this was, brought two silver urns into my house: the ashes of Acme.

Thrice Adonis died, and thrice the women came out to mourn him from the rooftops. And this third year, on the night of the feasts, I had a dream.

It seemed to me that my darling Acme was there at my bedside, clutching her chest with her left hand. She had come up from the kingdom of the shades, for her body was strangely translucent, except at the heart, where she pressed her hand.

Then the grief awoke me and I lamented like the women who were mourning Adonis.

And sleep’s bitter poppies overcame me once more. And once more it seemed to me that there at my side stood my darling Acme, pressing her hand to her heart. At this I wept again and prayed the cruel watchman of dreams to keep her back.

But she returned a third time, and made me a sign with her head.

And I know not by what dark way she led me into the plains of the dead, which are encircled by the liquid girdle of the Styx and echo with the croaking of black frogs. There, now seated on a mound, she drew her left hand away, so uncovering her breast.

Now Acme’s shade was as translucent as beryl, but in her chest I saw a crimson blotch, heart-shaped.

And wordlessly, she begged me to reclaim her bloodied heart, so that she might wander free of pain among the fields of poppies that ripple through the underworld like the wheatfields on the island of Sicily.

Then I enfolded her in my arms—but clasped nothing besides the beguiling air. And it seemed to me that blood flowed into my heart and Acme’s shade dissolved into complete transparency.

So I have written these lines because my heart is filled with the heart of Acme.


Analysis by Sophie Lewis

Mime XIX: We have three speaking voices here, three parts or roles, if you like: the mirror, the golden pin and the poppy. In their designation in my translation, I had in mind the approach of a somewhat old-fashioned dramatic script, with characters or voices speaking in turn. Hence my use of the colon before each one’s speech.

I tried to choose simple tenses more often, to maintain an eternal, timeless feel, rather than going for some particular placing in history or time (i.e. deliberately avoiding imperfects).

‘Aigrette’—this doesn’t work as bird name as it is too particular for English: the language naturally objects that there is no bird there. But the bird metaphor can be gestured to as ‘flight’, somewhat metonymically.

I was concerned to reproduce patterns of alliteration and assonance, with the same consonants where I could, but more often with equivalently repeated or patterned sets. Eg ‘lay hollow like his hand’, ‘ball of a wall-eye’ and ‘criss-crossing a hank of silken byssus’. Even some approximate chiasmus, as in the last example and also in the ‘cross’ of sounds here: ‘shows only her own face in the anguish’.

‘I am aware of the desires’ might seem a deliberate reduction in translation of the force of negation intended in the French ‘Je n’ignore pas…’, but I decided that a literal translation would in fact carry more force in English than the French was intended to, so went for the less obtrusive option.

I am almost embarrassed to admit to choosing words for their atmospheric associations over other equally good words lacking such associations. For example ‘temple’ rather than ‘forehead’—to weave more thoroughly an unearthly, inner-sanctum feeling, even though the connection may not be warranted just here. Although I am backed up by the sculpted cheeks in my conception of a deliberate architecture in this bust image. Similarly, I went for honing the pin’s ‘point’, rather than its spike or anything else sharp and pointy because the point also suggests a point of argument and /or intention—appropriate for this opinionated pin—not just a physical sharp end. Again, I’m not sure how much this enriching of the text with secondary ideas and connections is justified. But it’s hard to resist connecting ideas and words where connections can be made—and the unspoken assumption, the truth in fact, is that the translation process is one of mourning and letting go myriad small connections, some so small I doubtless haven’t seen them before losing them, so it’s nice to commemorate them by finding equivalents and substitutes.

I find the punctuation sparse and have kept it so. No need to overdramatise, for example by adding a comma after ‘still’: ‘Still, at night, she rises…’

I made a number of decisions based on the pin’s being ‘sans gloire’: the very workaday and contemporary word ‘unglamorous’ was preferred over the heroic era ‘inglorious’ (along with its dreadful cinematic association); the higher register ‘traversed / crossed’ options were discarded for the charlady-level, almost childish but also deliberately laborious, repetitive ‘criss-cross’; and ‘hank’ was preferred over the more general and elegant-sounding ‘length’, for its jargon specificity as well as echoes of hair. I also ended up re-ordering this sentence in order to bring it down a peg, in line with the pin’s direct style and to avoid pomposity.

I was definitely hearing the fairy tale tones of Sleeping Beauty’s hallowed lines: ‘she shall prick her finger on a spindle and die…’ and tried to hint at that in my pin ‘pricking the girl with curiosity’, in which the curiosity is both active upon her and through her.

The blunt finality of ‘grâces qui n’existent plus’ is strangely hard to get right. ‘That no longer exist’ would be the literal version—but in French ‘exister’ functions as a more deliberate form of the ‘existential’ (ha!) ‘to be’ that is ‘être’. Whereas we have a more physical perception of ‘to exist’, in English, it’s less grand and more prosaic. I tried out ‘long gone’, ‘long past’, ‘over and done’. ‘To be no more’ was my eventual preference—in its fundamental structure, this seemed closest to the essentialism I was after.

Mime XX: I worked hard to resist calling the bloody bird ‘blood-batched’, which would have been an entirely unwarranted Shakespearian echo. But I also did not want blood-stained, which is the standard pairing and too ordinary for this deliberate and simple text in which every image is central.

My first step out of line, as it were, was to translate ‘hommes mornes’—‘gloomy / sombre men’ as ‘grey men’. My thought was to evoke something like Eliot’s city workers, with grey implying not only ashen tones, and so mourning and cremation, but also the soot and uniformisation of mass living and, hence, of mass dying.

‘… la main gauche dont elle se couvrait le sein’—I agonised here over whether to follow my wish to make this last clause in the sentence more present and active than it is in the French. A closer translation—which would have its merits—would run something like ‘she lifted her left hand away, with which she had been covering her breast’ or ‘which had been hiding her breast’. Instead I chose to retain more of the line’s rhythm and its family of sounds but followed the implication of the French in my slight over-interpretation: ‘she drew her left hand away, so uncovering her breast.’ There are lots of ways this could be done but I decided that ‘uncovering’ was both in the intention of the French and more dramatic than the English would otherwise be, where the French was not undramatic.

Again in my quest to over-translate or to forge new connections within the text, I’ve chosen ‘heart-shaped’ rather than ‘shaped like a heart’ to translate ‘formée comme un coeur’ because I want to keep the heart’s agency in the shaping as a possibility, as well as and along with its role as a model. If this is in the French, it is only a hint, so I’m bringing something forward which is only one strand of the implicit texture of the piece.


Sophie Lewis is a London-born writer, editor, and translator from French and Portuguese. Her recent translations include Thérèse and Isabelle by Violette Leduc (Salammbô), The Man Who Walked Through Walls by Marcel Aymé (Pushkin), and The Earth Turned Upside Down by Jules Verne (Hesperus). She is editor-at-large at And Other Stories press, and she has lived in Rio de Janeiro since 2011. An excerpt from her translation of Thérèse and Isabelle appeared in the July 2014 issue of Asymptote

Featured image by Chuck Kuan (see his Tumblr here!).