A Translation of Apollinaire’s “Zone”

I love this poem, “Zone.”  It opens Guillaume Apollinaire’s 1913 book Alcools. It was the last poem he wrote for that book, and in some ways it inaugurated the modern era of poetry, with its use of dislocations, collage, lack of punctuation, and fluid identity.  It is a poem of huge gaiety and vitality, and also of a despair about death—“your Zone with its long crazy line of bullshit about death,” as Allen Ginsberg had it, in his poem “At Apollinaire’s Grave.”  The narrative structure of the 155-line poem is a 24-hour walk in Paris lasting from one sunrise to the next.  Its subjects are the things seen and thought about in that walk, including automobiles, detective stories, billboards, a church, immigrants, Jesus, faith and loss of faith, travel, love, and many other things.  As he said in his great 1917 manifesto “The New Spirit and The Poets,” poetry should include the world:  “In the realm of inspiration, their [the poets] liberty cannot be less than that of a daily newspaper which on a single sheet treats the most diverse matters and ranges over the most distant countries.”  

The poem is written in loose couplets, which I and every other translator tend to ignore, the significant exception I’ve seen being the incredible effort by Samuel Beckett, who uses rhymes and slant-rhymes in parts of his translation to give a sense of Apollinaire’s language.  It is a beautiful, fascinating, and to my ear, a not quite successful effort.  But it stands well with the many other excellent translations of the poem, by Roger Shattuck, Ron Padgett, Donald Revell, and more recently, the highly praised piece by the poet David Lehman.  All of these are terrific, but in each I found some bit of language or usage that seemed inauthentic or that struck my ear as wrong.  Thus, my translation.  I’d be surprised if readers do not react the same way to my effort as I have to the efforts of others, finding flaws in the language translation or bad aesthetic choices made in some of the lines.  That’s okay.  I don’t claim my translation is better than others, only that it is different, and that it solves some of the problems that I had identified in the work of others.  In any case, I encourage every reader to do his or her translation of the poem.  It’s the best way to see first hand its stunning beauty and inventiveness.  

A few words here about Apollinaire’s life:  He was born in Rome in 1880 to a Polish mother and named Wilhelm Albert Włodzimierz Apolinary Kostrowicki.  He never knew his father or his father’s name, but throughout his life improvised a series of biographical fathers, making himself variously a bastard of princes, prelates, a pope, and others.  He came to adulthood in Paris, where the culture was then in a moil of reinvention, and became a member of an incredibly creative circle of artists and writers that included Picasso, Jarry, Max Jacob, and many others.  He saw, perhaps before many of them, the significance of the changes taking place, and invented the names, pedigrees, and principles for the revolutions of Surrealism and Cubism.  He opened his own poetry to new techniques of collage, polyphony, the shifting self (reflected in “Zone” in the shifting pronoun changes between “I” and “you”).  In 1911 he was falsely arrested and imprisoned for six days for the theft of the Mona Lisa, an experience reflected in a couplet in the poem:  “You are in Paris before the judge / Arrested like a common criminal,” and also in his poem “In La Sante.”  The false arrest was an incident in which his life seemed to him to take on improvisational qualities of fantasy and improbability. (The actual thief was Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian house painter caught two years later when he tried to sell the painting in Florence.)  In a later biographical change, in 1916 he joined the French army for World War I, and was wounded in the head while reading a literary magazine in a wartime trench.   Discharged, he returned to Paris, and began a round of prolific activity, publishing erotic novels, fiction, and poetry, editing avant-garde literary journals, writing the play The Breasts of Tiresias, delivering the manifesto “The New Spirit and Poets,” writing the poetry collection calligrammes.  In many ways his whirlwind of activity in support of the arts, the invention of new ways of writing poetry, and his constant effort in publicizing the work of his friends is much like that of his contemporary Ezra Pound. By 1918 he had become  the foremost critic of his age, reviewing art, literature, theater, and ballet as a contributor to leading journals and newspapers.  In May, 1918 he married Jacquline Kolb in a love-match that by all accounts made bride and groom extremely happy.  But his health was failing from the war-wound and the subsequent operations.  Only a few months later, in November 1918, two days before the Armistice, he died of the Spanish flu.  He is reported to have said, on his deathbed, “I want to live!  I still have so many things to say!”  

“Zone” is considered by many to be his greatest work.  I agree, though I would add as among his greatest works “The Pretty Redhead” and “Le Point Mirabeau,” the latter also included in Alcools.  These are wonderful poems, and share the same robust vitality and risk-taking as Zone.  

I mentioned above that my translation differs from others.  I should note some of the differences.  The biggest one is in the final line, soleil cou coupé, which is difficult in any case to translate, with its non-duplicatable French language pun:  cou (“neck”) is an abbreviated form of coupé (“cut”), and as at least one translator (Lehman) has pointed out, the relation between the words suggests the beginning of sun rising at dawn when it is looks as if beheaded by the horizon. Other translations of this line include“Decapitated sun—” (Meredith), “The sun a severed neck” (Shattuck), “Sun corseless head” (Beckett), “Sun     slit throat” (Anne Hyde Greet), “Sun neck cut” (Mandell), “Sun cut throat” (Padgett) and “Let the sun beheaded be” (Lehman).  None of these are satisfactory, nor am I entirely content with my own “The sun now only a half-severed neck,” which, though it includes the word associations, and perhaps maintains some of the shock of the original phrase, loses its necessary compression.  My other major change in here is in the treatment of the “flaming glory of Christ,” which refers to the halo around the Christ.  I reversed that line with the one following in order to make all refer to the halo, and in order to smooth out the English.  There are other minor changes, but these are more in the form of choices among options for translations.  They are easy enough to discern by comparing this to any of the other available versions online or in books.  

I hope readers find this translation useful and fun, and that it takes them back to the original French of the poem. 


You’ve had enough of that old world at last

O Eiffel Tower shepherd this morning the bridges are a bleating flock 

All this Greek and Roman antiquity has exhausted you

Even the automobiles are antiques
Only Religion seems entirely fresh 
Simple like airport hangers

O Christianity in all Europe only you are not antiquated
The most modern European is you Pope Pius X
But what about you whom the windows watch 
Too ashamed to enter a church and confess
You read handouts catalogues posters all crying out 
That here is poetry for this morning here are newspapers for prose
Here are 25-cent detective story thrillers 
Portraits of famous men a thousand other assorted titles

This morning I saw a pretty street whose name I forget
Shining and clean like a sun’s clarion melody
Executives and workers and beautiful secretaries
Pass here four times a day from Monday morning to Saturday night
The siren wails three times each morning
An angry bell barks around noon
Lettering on signs walls and billboards 
Shrieks like parrots
I love the grace of this industrial street
Located in Paris between Aumont-Thieville street and the avenue des Ternes

How young this street is and you only a child
Your mother dresses you in blue and white
You are very pious with your oldest friend René Dalize
You like nothing so much as church ceremonies
It is nine o’clock the gas glows low blue you secretly leave the dormitory
You pray all night in the college chapel
Where the flaming glory of Christ’s halo turns for ever
Like an amethyst eternal adorable and profound 
It is the beautiful lily we all cultivate
It is the red-headed torch the wind cannot extinguish 
It is the pale and ruddy son of the sorrowing mother
It is the tree thick with the foliage of prayers
It is the double gallows of honor and of eternity
It is a six-pointed star
It is God who dies on Friday and rises on Sunday
It is the Christ who soars in the sky higher than any aviator
Who breaks the world altitude record

Christ pupil of my eye
Twentieth century pupil he knows how to do it
And this century changes into a bird and rises in the air like Jesus
The devils in the abyss raise their heads to look at it
They say he imitates Simon Magus of Judea
They shout that he knows how to steal call him thief 
Angels hover around him the lovely flyer 
Icarus Enoch Elijah Apollonius of Tyana
They float around the first airplane
They let pass those who carry the Holy Eucharist
The priests who rise eternally in raising the host
The airplane lands at last without folding its wings
The sky fills with millions of swallows
Hawks come crows hawks owls
Ibis flamingoes and storks from Africa
The Roc celebrated by story tellers and poets
Holding in its claws Adam’s skull the first head
And the eagle from the horizon with a great cry
From America the tiny humming-bird
From China the long supple pihis
Which have only one wing and fly in pairs
The dove immaculate spirit
Escorted by the lyre bird and the ringed peacock
The phoenix re-engendering itself from its flames
Veiling everything for a moment with its fiery ashes 
Sirens leaving their perilous straits
Arrive singing beautifully all three of them
And everything including eagle phoenix and Chinese pihis
Making friends with our flying machine

Now you walk through Paris alone in the crowd
Herds of bellowing buses roll by near you
The anguish of love tightens your throat
As if you could never be loved 
In the old days you would enter a monastery
You are ashamed when you catch yourself saying a prayer
You mock yourself your laughter bursting out like hell fire
Sparks gilding the bottom depths of your life
It’s a picture hung in a dark museum
Sometimes you have to look at it closely

Today as you walk the women of Paris are bloodsoaked
It was and I do not like to remember this it was the decline of beauty

Surrounded by fervent flames Notre Dame looked at me in Chartres
The blood of your Sacred Heart flooded me in Montmartre
I am sick of hearing the blessed words
The love I suffer is a shameful disease
And my image of you survives in insomnia and anguish
Always near you this image which is passing

Now you are on the shore of the Mediterranean
Under lemon trees that flower all year
You go sailing with your friends 
One from Nice one from Menton and two Turbiasques
We watch in fear the octopus from the depths 
And the fish swimming in algae are images of our Saviour

You are in the garden of an inn near Prague
You feel very happy a rose is on the table
And instead of writing your story in prose you watch
The bug sleeping in the heart of the rose

Horror to see yourself drawn in the agates of St. Vitus
You were sad enough to die that day 
You looked like Lazarus crazed by the sudden light
The hands of the clock go backwards in the Jewish quarter 
And you go back slowly in your life
Climbing to Hradchin and listening at night
To Czech songs in taverns

Here you are in Marseilles amid the watermelons

Here you are in Koblenz at the Hotel of the Giant

Here you are in Rome sitting under a Japanese medlar tree

Here you are in Amsterdam with a girl you find beautiful but who is ugly
She is to marry a student from Leyden
We rent rooms in Latin Cubicula locanda
I remember I stayed there three days and then as many more in Gouda

You are in Paris before the judge 
Arrested like a common criminal

You journeyed in sorrow and joy 
Before you learned that the world lies and grows old
You suffered from love at twenty and thirty
I lived crazily and wasted my time
You do not dare look at your hands and at every moment I want to sob 
Over you the one I love for everything that has terrified you

Eyes filled with tears you look at those poor emigrants
They believe in God they pray the women nurse their children
Their smell fills the waiting room of the station Saint-Lazare
They have faith in their star like the Magi
They hope to make money in Argentina
And come back to their countries after making their fortune
One family carries a red comforter as you carry your heart 
This quilt and our dreams are both unreal
Some of these emigrants stay here and find lodging
In hovels in the rue des Rosiers or the rue des Ecouffes
I have seen them strolling at night 
Like chess pieces rarely moving 
They are mostly Jews their wives wear wigs
They remain seated bloodless in their shops

You are standing at the zinc counter of a crappy bar
You drink cheap coffee with the rest of the losers

At night you are in a big restaurant

These women aren’t cruel they have problems
Even the ugliest of them has made her lover suffer

She is the daughter of a Jersey City Police Sergeant

Her hands which I have not seen are hard and chapped

I have great pity for the scars on her belly

I humble my mouth offering it to a poor girl who has a horrible laugh

You’re alone as the morning comes
The milkmen rattle their cans in the street

The night departs like a half-caste beauty
False Ferdine or Leah watching

And you drink this burning liquor like your life
You drink it like brandy

You walk toward Auteuil you want to walk home on foot
To sleep among your fetishes from Oceania and Guinea
That are a Christ of another form and another faith
Inferior Christs of dark hopes

Goodbye goodbye 

The sun now only a half-severed neck

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