Arts Found In Translation
The reason why the Penguin edition of Andre Gide’s nouvelle La Symphonie Pastoral is great is because of Dorothy Bussy, the translator. I have read this version more times than the years I have lived, and can read good chunks of the French original not because I understand a lick of that language but because I’m so familiar with passages like this:
“She [blind Gertrude] told me later that when she heard birds’ song she used to suppose it was simply the effect of light, like the gentle warmth which she felt on her cheeks and hands, and that, without precisely thinking about it, it seemed to her quite natural warm air should begin to sing…”
“I took Gertrude with me through the forest to that fold in Jura where in the clear weather one can see through a curtain of branches and across an immense stretch of land at one’s feet, the wonder of the snowy Alps emerging from a thin veil of mist, The sun was already declining on the left when we reached our customary seat. A meadow of thick, closely cropped grass sloped downwards at our feet. Further off, a few cows were grazing; each of them among these mountain herds wears a bell at its neck.”and this, the prime passage of the nouvelle:
“[While listening to the Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony] asked [blind Gertrude] to imagine the colors of nature in the same way—the reds and oranges analogous to the sounds of the horns and trombones; the yellows and greens like those of the violins, cellos, and double basses; the violets and blues suggested by clarinets and oboes. A sort of inner rapture now took the place of her doubts and uncertainties. ‘How beautiful it must be!’ she kept repeating.”
The only value nature (trees, wild animals, mountains) has for me is a literary one. I’m happy never to see another forest in my life, but life without access to pastoral literature like La Symphonie Pastoral would be unbearable. But that is not the point I want to make in this post. I want to point out, instead, that the translator of the Penguin version, Bussy (1886—1960), was a lesbian (and a major influence on Eleanor Roosevelt, her pupil at Souvestre). Which explains why the natural beauty of Gertrude, the orphan adopted by the narrator of the story, a country priest, is convincing. In the way that Bussy could not openly express her form of love in real life, the fictional priest, who is married, cannot openly love Gertrude; in place of actual love—actual desire, actual lust—he uses the codes of Christian love. The distance enhances Gertrude’s beauty, which conditions the beauty of the rural town, the priest’s home, and the seasons the gently arrive and depart. “I had not seen [the house] for fifteen years,” writes the country priest about the moment he first met the young woman who will unsettle his position with his family and God, “for none of my duties take me that way; I could not have said where it lay and it had so entirely dropped out of my mind that when I suddenly recognized it in the golden enchantment of the rose-fleck evening sky, I felt as though I had only seen it before in a dream.”
You can find this edition of La Symphonie Pastoral in most secondhand bookstores.