Le Vaisseau D'or - The Golden Heart: a Translated Poem by Nichola Ward

Le Vaisseau D’or
By Émile Nelligan Circa 1899

C'était un grand Vaisseau taillé dans l'or massif:
Ses mâts touchaient l'azur, sur des mers inconnues;
La Cyprine d'amour, cheveux épars, chairs nues,
S'étalait à sa proue, au soleil excessif.

Mais il vint une nuit frapper le grand écueil
Dans l'Océan trompeur où chantait la Sirène,
Et le naufrage horrible inclina sa carène
Aux profondeurs du Gouffre, immuable cercueil.

Ce fut un Vaisseau d'Or, dont les flancs diaphanes
Révélaient des trésors que les marins profanes,
Dégoùt, Haine et Névrose, entre eux ont disputés.

Que reste-t-il de lui dans la tempête brève ?
Qu'est devenu mon coeur, navire déserté?
Hélas! Il a sombré dans l'abîme du Rêve!

The Golden Heart
A Translated Poem by Nichola (Nicki) Ward, August 2010

She was a Vessel great and graven-gold
Masts touching Lazuli-The-Sky on unknown seas
A Citrine lover, hair in disarray, flesh bare-displayed
Sprawled from stem to stern…naked to the sunlight

But there came a night where she was chastised by the Reef
In an ocean of lies where the sirens sang
It kissed her keel …The horror of her wreckage
Commended to A Chasm and an Ever-Grave

So became a Golden Vessel, whose walls laid open fancy
And revealed her treasures to the dispute of a desecrated deep
To those crude and squabbling tars:  Fear, Hatred and Disgust

And what remains of this brief storm?
What happened to the lifeless ship that was my heart?
Wretched! - It died in darkness - in the Abyss of dreams



Just for the record, this translation is neither free, nor loose nor blank… Nor is this a “McTranslation”… i.e. a blandly academic exercise which slavishly adheres to rhyme schemes at the complete expense of meaning, music or aptness.

The methodology I use strictly observes the great translator Ezra Pound’s rigors of integrity: Logopeia, Phanopoeia and Melopoeia. What emerges from this disciplined process is not a “translation of text” but a “translation of poetry”

To expand on Marianne Moore’s thesis “It is a poem because it is written by a poet”

To which I would add, “Anyone can translate text…But only a poet can translate a poem”

Do I claim this translation to be definitive? Of course not…but while no one can determine Nelligan’s intent… His technique can be observed and honored. In this sense, I have done my very best to see that this translation is a fair reflection of the holism of his language choices…Even to the extent of reviewing his original handwritten drafts for clues. (flow, corrections, punctuation, alignment, intensity of pen pressure, etc.)

So, I do claim that this is a “Translated Poem” (which for me is a pretty bold statement)

FYI, Below are some samples of my notes made on-the-fly… They show some of the reasoning behind the choices I made and the directions I took. I have left them in their rough and unedited state. These are my notes…To myself…From myself…So no attempt has been made to present a cogent argument…they’re just how I navigate the text and remind myself of key points.

I was going to erase them…but then thought…what the heck…someone might find some of it interesting (I did)

INFORMAL NOTES: August 26, 2010


Of Interest: shortly after this, piece was revealed … Nelligan had a psychotic episode and never returned to full mental health…Although it is a little ghoulish to think in these terms… Part of the power of this piece is the rawness of emotion…and the despair.

That said, it is a superbly crafted poem. Structurally, it is incredibly sound. It also displays a high degree of wit and suggests a playfulness and familiarity with Latin and Greek, that comes from considerable study.

However, it transcends the academic and is not the least “precious” –  It is first and foremost, emotionally authentic …Having translated this, very carefully… I think his language choice is nothing short of brilliant. It is also deeply layered, because Nelligan was clearly familiar with French, English and Irish… All of this echoes on the page…and to my ear…And yet, it is not a Franco-Anglo-Gaelic poem… It has integrity and a distinct Canadian voice


  • The vessel (cup) < > vessel (ship) word-play seems stronger in French then in English ... at least to me. I also get a sense too that that one must consider the erotic "word play" that suggests a maiden's vessel i.e. Vagina or (if one was feeling a bit more pro-creative)..."womb"
  • These last ideas don't carry over into English at all well.
  • The Golden Vessel, while technically accurate just seems like such a bland translation to me...Also, it seems a little sterile
  • So, while "Golden Heart" may not be perfect... it does have a bit more humanity...and it does have a figurative sense as a receptacle of love..
  • It is also a plausible name for a ship

Stanza 1
  •    Azur from Arabic Azul, Lapis Lazuli
  •    Some translators argue (very convincingly) that Cyprine d'amour refers to Venus (of Cyprus)... But, on balance, this seems to be a very ordinary choice for an extraordinary poet
  • So, I chose to look at the "elemental" language that surrounds this piece overall and this stanza does seem to have a "mineral/earth" thing going on (Gold, Lazuli, Cyprine)... furthermore, there's a lot of yellow and since...
·         Cyprine = pale yellow gemstone, form of jade, from which I extrude Citrine, while not technically accurate from a gemologists perspective… the “lemon-ness” of the word.. seems to imply the color”

Judging by Nelligan's wit and erudition it could well mean that this ambiguity is intentional... and that both answers (In French) are correct... of course... in Translation, this would mean that both English answers are wrong.

Stanza 2.
  • “Il vint”… very specific conjugation (Past Historic… a complete(d) act…not continuous past imperfect as in the earlier stanza
  • Carine (carina) = Latin name for keel + (interestingly in the Irish Language which Nelligan also spoke… it is the word for a close “friend”)… “Kissed Keel” seems to very much honor these undertones.
  • Inclina…(literally past participle of “inclined”… to my ear curiously passive voice)… It suggested to me the motion of burying a body at sea…and hence “commended”… This chimes nicely…and also allows the modifier “horribly” to be used. The literal translations “horribly sinking” or “horribly inclined”… are foul to the ear and do not mirror the elegance and melopeia of the original.

Stanza 3.
  • “Il fut” Once again, this (Past Historic) conjugation is not accidental… and not only links unity of time to time to the preceding stanza But also (in my opinion) unity of tone.
  • Diaphanous…Literally Dia Phanos… “permeable to fancy” and thus artistically transparent.
  • Revelaient…Third person plural indicative imperfect…i.e. continuously transparent…
  • “Tresor” might be ironically intended…Kind of a virginal thing...
  • The translation of the "marins profanes" section was very tricky ... "mariners", and "sailors" are appropriate... but I thought that "Tars" was a bit more coarse and perhaps sexual...
  • Untangling the sense structure so that it was both orderly and so that it flowed in English was particularly hard... but to my ear, finishing the stanza "entre eux ont disputés" as "who argue among themselves" was not an option.
  • Nevrose… Often literally translated as neurosis…However, since the poem predates our current psychiatric understanding of neurosis…And since a relationship is clearly intended between the emotions of disgust and hatred… (what we would perhaps describe today as elements of  phobia) My feeling is that the original intent of “nevrose” was broader…to suggest irrational fear.
  • Scansion.. Fear hatred and disgust

Stanza 4.
  • Déserté…deserted … hence unpopulated…hence devoid of human life.
  • Sombre is meant to suggest condemned to darkness and to the land (or sea) of the dead. In French, this “shadow” mirrors the “soleil excessif” in the first stanza beautifully. But, in English, we need to take a different tack…hence “Sunlight”  in the 1st Stanza and “Darkness” in the final envoi.
  • Also… it feels like the duality of somber death and somber shade deserves a “double-tap”… And I think the consonance of Death and Darkness works well
  • Helas = Does not translate as the insipid “alas”… I think Old French/Early Quebec French applies i.e = Ha Las (I am ) Wretched > Misery > Lassus >Weary