Translation Tuesday: Poems by Boris Vian

Translated by Jeremy Page


To Odette Bost


Into the houses where children die

Go some very old people.

They sit down in the antechamber

Their sticks between their black knees.

They listen, nod their heads.


Every time the child coughs

Their hands clutch their hearts

And make big yellow spiders

And the cough, rising through the furnishings,

Is shredded, listless as a pale butterfly.


They have vague smiles

And the child’s cough stops

And the big yellow spiders

Rest, shaking,

On the polished boxwood handles

Of the sticks, between their hard knees.


And then, when the child is dead

They get up, and go elsewhere…



To Lucien Coutaud


There are islands in the Black Sea

Pale and made of cold stone

You’re always alone there

And you go into castles

Full of rooms into walls

And you find soft women

Gentle fat white women

Displayed on open beds

Their hair gives off a scent

In thin curly volutes

Blue in the colourless air of the bedrooms

You mustn’t stop

For they are there, they’re waiting

They can do anything they like

They take on any shape

They flow like water.


You mustn’t go to the islands of the Black Sea

You’d do better to buy ham.




To Edith


Mothers bleed when you’re made

And hold you all your life

By a flayed gash of flesh

You’re brought up in cages

You live by chewing morsels

Of bleeding, torn off breasts

Which you hook onto your cradle

You have blood all over you.

And as you don’t enjoy the sight of this

You make the blood of others flow

One day, there won’t be any left

And you’ll be free.





I notice a dog in the street

I say to him: how’s it going, dog?

Do you think he’d reply?

No? Well, he replies anyway

And that doesn’t concern you

So when I see people

Passing by without even noticing dogs

I’m ashamed for their parents

And for their parents’ parents

Because such a bad upbringing

Requires at least … and I’m not being generous

Three generations with hereditary syphilis

But I would add to avoid giving offence

That a fair number of dogs don’t have much to say.



Boris Vian (1920–1959) was a French novelist, poet, playwright, singer, musician and inventor. He enjoyed relatively little success in his own lifetime, but subsequently his name has become synonymous with Saint Germain des Prés in the postwar decade, and his work has become hugely influential. However, his poetry, unlike his novels and plays, remains largely untranslated into English, possibly as a result of the challenges posed by Vian’s inventive wordplay and surrealistic allusions.

Jeremy Page works in the Centre for Language Studies at the University of Sussex and is the founding editor of the Frogmore Papers. In the 1970s he directed an English-language translation of Boris Vian’s absurdist classic The Empire Builders. His poetry is widely published, most recently in Closing Time (Pindrop 2014) and his translations of Catullus’s Lesbia poems were published as The Cost of All Desire by Ashley Press in 2011.