A Review of Arthur Rimbaud’s Festivals of Patience: The Verse Poems, translated by Brian Kim Stefans

Festivals of Patience assembles categorically everything Arthur Rimbaud wrote in verse outside of A Season in Hell and Illuminations, while also including the essential “Letters of the Seer” which are (as Rimbaud himself described them) “…la prose sur l’avenir de la poésie…” prose about the future of poetry. The French originals appear left at all times alongside Brian Kim Stefans’ new English renderings which, for the first time in the history of printed English Rimbaud, actually retain the French meter structure and sometimes the rhyme schemes as well. Stefans writes, “The challenge was to reproduce the syllable counts—12-syllables for the alexandrines, various syllable counts for the ballad forms…I wanted the ghosts of these patterns present.” For decades the majority of English translations have been mainly purposed to just get Rimbaud into as many new hands as possible, perhaps, which might be fine for the beginning. Most of the English speaking-readership, like the musicians or other celebrities who assimilate Rimbaud into their practice…become in a way conditioned to forget or simply gloss over the fact that Rimbaud incorporated rhyme and meter in nearly all of his poetry…call it a kind of publishers-industrial complex effect on Rimbaud’s poetry, if you want…or even an attempt at alternative fact-ing a classic for efficiency’s sake vis-à-vis literary academia, and yes; this is the same kid who could be credited with inventing vers libre a.k.a. free verse. 

Now online Rimbaud is already anyplace we want him 24/7 and could still be in many places we don’t…perfectly, his Etienne Carjat photograph poised like the Nike shoe symbol or as a favorite graffiti stencil, always ready for action, his entire bibliography constantly available in practically any language with a little copy & paste and the click of a button. Expediting the whole printed Rimbaud process by minimizing the labor & creative aspect of the translation, i.e. sticking with the more-or-less literal mirror flip translation, as doctrine, for books, seems like a quaint, rather arcane idea at this point, like learning all over again to walk before you run…Stefans’ translations are in a full sprint.  

Take the iconic opening stanza of the poem “The Drunken Boat” for example, as translated here now by Stefans, alongside one of the more common/trusted English translations in current wide circulation today, such as Wallace Fowlie’s, which remains in 2021 The Poetry Foundation’s top choice via Google search results. It does not require an assiduous close-reading of the two together to notice that Stefans’ is a lot wordier, but also more of an organic extension of the action of the poem, or what could be called the theme, the imagery, tone, content, within appropriate formal limits: 

Comme je descendais des Fleuves impassible              

Je ne me sentis plus guidé par les haleurs:            

Des Peaux-Rouges criards les avient pris pour cibles

Les ayant cloués nus aux poteaux de couleurs

As I descended impassive rivers,  

I no longer felt guided by the haulers:

Shrill Redskins had used them for targets,

Nailed them naked to colored poles.

W. Fowlie:          

As I was going down impassive Rivers,        

I no longer felt myself guided by haulers:      

Yelping redskins had taken them as targets                            

And had nailed them naked to colored stakes.   


B. Kim Stefans: 

As I was flowing down impassive rivers, meek

the lines from my haulers slackened! yelping Redskins

had butchered them, targets of a vile hide-and-seek,

hung them naked from colored poles, scalps shorn, dormant.

Both translators deviate from a more or less one-to-one French-to-English. Fowlie’s however is not very different. He completely dispenses with the rhyme, and there are roughly five beats per line here as opposed to six. Of course “going down” is more natural than “descended” but both could suffice. Choices like the monosyllabic “shrill” over the gerund “yelping” might be justifiable if one’s ostensible goal is to get rid of what could be seen as clutter in the poem. Most English translations over the years have chosen “yelping” here. But then, cry foul if you like, at how Stefans’s goes further, putting entirely new objects, adjectives, and even images, into the poem…blasphemy!? However, the additions like “scalps” or “hide-and-seek” do fit the bill tonally and in terms of imagery/mood. The French verb form pris translates as “taken” but to substitute “used” in that context adds a certain deadpan, maybe sardonic tone to the poem, and less alliteration, in lieu of “nailed” and “naked” which might be too much and rather cartoonish again after “taken” and “targets”. Stefans adds a whole new verb here with “hung” as another way to more plumb the depths of Rimbaud’s thematics, bringing them up to the surface of our attention more broadly. 

The steady backdrop of the rhymes (sometimes made more subtle here in English by Stefans, slant or internal) and the meter may be essential to understanding this budding poets’ perverted swoops of fancy. It’s also partly the engine of some of Rimbaud’s greatest irony, sarcasm and caustic wit, while occasionally the poems can seem very shallow and spiteful at the same time, as in “The Sitting Men”: 

—Oh, don’t make them stand up! Ugh! What a shipwreck!

but lo, they get up…growling like scolded cats, stiff

as paper skeletons; as their tender blades flex,

their pants balloon around their Olympian limbs. 

We do not remember many of the writers Rimbaud poked fun at, like François Coppée or Auguste Creisels, it’s true, but does that mean they really deserved such ridicule? He could’ve been addressing his fellow poets of that time or simply the notion of the patriarchal status quo at large, the eminent hypocrisies of any number of generations that had come before him. At any rate, while many other poets went along regardless tinkering with their novel chemistry sets, Rimbaud was determined to set the entire laboratory ablaze.

Since his work has become the subject of such unending academic scrutiny, even Rimbaud’s most puerile adolescent pranks have been elevated to the highest tiers of university discourse. Surely he would have loved this. Translator after translator has come and gone, each more possessive than the last when it comes to their version of their patron saint of misfits. Though fortunately collections like Festivals of Patience do come along to prove that the task of the translator may not actually or necessarily be one of “setting the record straight” as Jenifer Moxley points out: “One of the unfortunate conditions of offering up a new translation of a famous text is the supposed necessity of justifying your labor by denigrating that of your quondam peers.” Festivals may be free from the kinds of arrogance that other translators (mostly men, mostly white men) often bring to the table under the guise of innovation, dedication or a perverse loyalty of some kind, possibly to the literal. 

Rimbaud might have compared this endless train of foreign suitors to Homer’s Odyssey, with the poems becoming the wife that the warrior-traveler-author has left behind in order to be off & away wherever he wishes. His poems are full of characters from Greek myth, and Stefans’ new translation helps gird the encyclopedic quality Rimbaud’s poems have. Like a teenager today, Rimbaud gravitated towards hubs of information wherever and however he could find them, often appropriating the readymade poetry of the place-names and characters from old popular fables or folk tales, religions and even, to a small extent, consumer brand names of that time à la Pop Art or Marcel Duchamp, in a 19th century burgeoning proton-modern Paris metropolis. Festivals of Patience shores up interesting new evidence that, as other latter-day students of Rimbaud have claimed over the years, poetry is really not, after all, made of words. 

Ben Tripp’s writing appears in EratioFull-StopHyperallergicBOMB, and Brooklyn Rail. He also blogs at benjamintripp.wordpress.com.