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Adrien Le Corbeau, The Forest Giant

translated from the French by T. E. Lawrence

Foreword by Jeremy Wilson to the French and English parallel text published by Castle Hill Press


T.E. Lawrence once wrote that in the distant future he expected to be remembered if at all as a man of letters rather than a man of action.1 

Of his two surviving translations, one needs no introduction: The Odyssey of Homer quickly became a classic and is still in print, nearly seventy years after it first appeared. It has often attracted scholarly comment. 

By contrast, virtually nothing has been written in English about his translation of Le Gigantesque, first printed in small English and American editions in 1924 and reprinted just once, soon after his death in 1935. Neither edition sold more than a few hundred copies.

Although Lawrence sometimes belittled his translating in letters to literary friends, we know from his correspondence about the Odyssey that he took immense pains over it.2 He saw himself as a literary craftsman, and translating gave him the opportunity to practise this craft in one of its purest forms. For it is no minor undertaking to search out the subtleties of another author's meaning in a foreign language, and then to express them - as well or better - in one's own.

In this task, Lawrence started out with an advantage, because his grasp of French had deep roots. He had first learned it while living in Dinard as a child, and had kept this native understanding alive in his youth through holidays in France and reading French literature. Enjoyment of the latter did not stop when he left university. In June 1911, for example, he wrote home from Carchemish that he was reading a French edition of Rabelais every night, 'a most profound comfort'.3 He used French during the war and afterwards at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.

It is surprising that (to the best of my knowledge) there has been no critical examination of The Forest Giant as a translation - by an English-speaking scholar. One reason may be that copies of Le Gigantesque are hard to find. Although the Acadmie Franaise awarded it the Montyon prize, the novel failed to bring Le Corbeau the literary recognition he so much hoped for.

The parallel edition of the French and English texts will allow readers familiar with French to see that Lawrence's Forest Giant is a skilful re-creation of the work, rather than a straightforward translation. In my judgement his version is significantly better than the French original. It deserves to rank among Lawrence's literary achievements.

History of the translation

In January 1923 Lawrence lost his place in the ranks of the RAF. He decided not to publish either the abridgement of Seven Pillars that he had prepared with Edward Garnett, or the complete text in its 1922 version. Shortly afterwards he re-enlisted, this time in the Tank Corps, and was posted to Bovington Camp in Dorset. There, for the first time since his childhood years at Langley Lodge on the border of the New Forest, he found himself surrounded by countryside - some of the most beautiful in England.

He was also in a deeply introspective mood, as is shown by the sequence of letters that he wrote to Lionel Curtis between March and June 1923.4 In one of these, on 30 May, he wrote: 'The perfect beauty of this place becomes tremendous, by its contrast with the life we lead, and the squalid huts we live in, and the noisy bullying authority of all our daily unloveliness. The nearly intolerable meanness of man is set in a circle of quiet heath, and budding trees, with the firm level bar of Purbeck beyond. The two worlds shout their difference in my ears. Then there is the irresponsibility: . . . There has not been presented to me, since I have been here, a single choice: everything is ordained . . . perhaps in determinism complete there lies the perfect peace I have so longed for.'5

For the moment, his career as a writer had stalled. Seven Pillars was in abeyance, while dismissal from the RAF had halted his other book-project (eventually completed, though to a different plan, as The Mint). Soon after arriving at Bovington he wrote to Jonathan Cape: 'If you, as a publisher, ever have anything in French which needs translating (for a fee!) please give me a chance at it. I've plenty [of] leisure in the Army, and my French is good, and turning it into English is a pleasure to me: also the cash would be welcome, however little it was.'6 Cape's reply was encouraging, and Lawrence wrote again a few days later: 'it would be nice to play with words again. Squad drill is a little heavy on the mind.'7

Cape's first suggestion was a truly daunting project: the French text by J. C. Mardrus of The Arabian Nights. Despite its length, Lawrence was enthusiastic: 'I'd like to do it very well... into as good English as we moderns can write . . . I'll be eager to hear how the idea grows with you.'8 Cape began investigating whether the English rights to Mardrus were available (he later found they were not). In the meantime, he sent Lawrence Le Gigantesque, which had been published in Paris the previous year. Lawrence replied on 12 June: 'I've read The Gigantesque - and it seems to me quite a good book - likely to interest the better class of your public: though the thinking in it is too frequent for the crowd. I'll translate it with pleasure: and have done a couple of chapters already.'9 He may have been attracted by Le Corbeau's central theme, of determinism in human life as in nature.

Despite his initial confidence, Lawrence soon found the task more difficult than he had expected. On 8 July he wrote: 'This is how Le Gigantesque stands. I started gaily: did about 20 pages into direct swinging English then turned back and read it, and it was horrible. The bones of the poor thing showed through.

'So I cancelled that, and did it again more floridly. The book is written very commonplacely, by a man of good imagination and a bad mind and unobservant. Consequently it's banal in style and ordinary in thought, and very interesting in topic.

'I've dressed up about a third of it in grand-sounding prose to hide its hollowness. And am not pleased with it.

'What hurry are you in? I'll finish translating it in about ten days - and would like then to set it aside for a week and then paraphrase the whole thing again from end to end. This I suppose is an impossible proceeding from your point of view, as an honest publisher: but it would be best artistically.

'Sorry for making a mess of it: but it's infuriating to find second-class metaphysics, and slip-shod writing, on so extraordinarily good a theme. I'd like to wring Le Corbeau's neck.'10

It was five weeks before Lawrence wrote to Cape again, this time with typical self-deprecation: 'Here at last is the first half of Le Gigantesque: it's been written over twice, and I still feel it very deficient, both as English and as a work of fiction. However I also feel that it's better than the French. If the man had had a grain of humour.

'Will you let me see it once more, if it gets into type or print?

'The revise of the second half is half-way. I'm very sorry for the slowness, but I've worked at it a little more than I expected: and have been passing army exams and getting fever in-between. . . .

'I'd call this The Forest Giant or something of that sort. Better than The Biggest Tree or The Giant.'11

He wrote again a few days later, promising the second half that week: 'It has been stiff to do: not because the French was hard, but because the style was banal. I have four chapters yet to re-write.'12

It was 13 September before he sent them: 'At last this foul work: complete. Please have [it] typed and send [it] down that I may get it off my suffering chest before I burst. Damn Adrien le Corbeau and his rhetoric. The book is a magnificent idea, ruined by jejune bombast. My version is better than his: but dishonest here and there: but my stomach turned. Couldn't help it.'13

Cape was impressed; but the more he praised the translation, the more Lawrence protested: 'no, I don't feel proud of Le Gigantesque or that I have done any special good thereby. A fellow with another standard in English might have done differently. So no more pay than was bargained for. It isn't earned, chez moi, and you won't make money on the book: for I cannot see the British Public buying it.'14

When Cape ignored this, Lawrence protested again: 'Your cheque and letter arrived today. The first is too large, and I'll hold it till you reconsider. The book is going to cost you money.

'I have the typescript of the first half (corrected) by me, and am holding it till the second comes, that I may see how they fit together. Please send it down that I may see over it and get over it! These last corrections are very dear to the writer, since they remove blemishes particularly sharp in his sight.'15

In the event, this was to be the only translation of a French book that Lawrence completed. Later that year he abandoned a second novel, Pierre Custot's Sturly.16 Then in December he committed himself to a subscribers' abridgement of Seven Pillars - a task that would occupy his free time for three years.

The next book he would translate would be Homer's Odyssey, published in 1932. Nevertheless, the idea of translation from French continued to appeal to him. He mentioned it to publishing friends from time to time. Perhaps the best indication of the pleasure it gave him is in a letter to Edward Garnett, written a few weeks after The Forest Giant was finished: 'Do you know that lately I have been finding my deepest satisfaction in the collocation of words so ordinary and plain that they cannot mean anything to a book-jaded mind: and out of some of such I can draw deep stuff. Is it perhaps that certain sequences of vowels and consonants imply more than others: that writing of this sort has music in it? I don't want to affirm it, and yet I would not deny it: for if writing can have sense (and it has: this letter has) and sound why shouldn't it have something of pattern too? My sequences seem to be independent of ear... to impose themselves through the eye alone. I achieved a good many of them in Le Gigantesque: but fortuitously for the most part.

'Do you think that people ever write consciously well? or does that imply an inordinate love for the material, and so ruin the art. I don't see that it should.'17

Lawrence's surviving letters suggest that he knew nothing about Adrien Le Corbeau, the man whose work he was translating, and felt no curiosity on the subject.

Adrien Le Corbeau was one of several pseudonyms used by Rudolf Bernhardt, a Romanian-born writer who spent most of his adult life in Paris. The French capital held a special appeal to Romanian intellectuals. In the first half of the twentieth century the expatriate community there included many writers and artists.

Born in 1886, Bernhardt moved to Paris in about 1910, with high literary ambitions. During the Great War he caught typhus and nearly died - an experience that informed his second novel L'Heure Finale.18 In the post-war years he worked in publishing. He also wrote for Romanian newspapers using the pseudonym Adrian Corbul. He died of cancer in 1932, in his mid-forties. The previous year he had published a third novel, Le Couple Nu.19 As the title suggests, the theme of the book is erotic; but like The Forest Giant it is filled with references to the natural world.

Jeremy Wilson, 2004, 2006


Notes

1. T. E. Lawrence to Edward Garnett, 13 December 1927, MB p.361.

2. See Jeremy Wilson, 'T. E. Lawrence and the Translating of the Odyssey'

3. T. E. Lawrence to his family, 19 June 1911, HL p.172.

4. DG pp.41021.

5. T. E. Lawrence to Lionel Curtis, 30 May 1923. DG pp.41819.

6. T. E. Lawrence to Jonathan Cape, 30 March 1923, HRC Texas.

7. T. E. Lawrence to Jonathan Cape, 10 April 1923. DG p.408.

8. T. E. Lawrence to Jonathan Cape, 4 June 1923, transcript, T.E.L. papers.

9. T. E. Lawrence to Jonathan Cape, 12 June 1923, HRC Texas.

10. T. E. Lawrence to Jonathan Cape, 8 July 1923, HRC Texas.

11. T. E. Lawrence to Jonathan Cape, 11 August 1923, HRC Texas.

12. T. E. Lawrence to Jonathan Cape, 19 August 1923, HRC Texas.

13. T. E. Lawrence to Jonathan Cape, 13 September 1923, HRC Texas.

14. T. E. Lawrence to Jonathan Cape, 25 September 1923, transcript, T.E.L. papers.

15. T. E. Lawrence to Jonathan Cape, 27 September 1923, transcript, T.E.L. papers.

16. Lawrence burned the draft of his translation. Cape then commissioned a translation from Richard Aldington. Its dust-jacket carried the blurb Lawrence had written for his own version. This was reprinted in DG pp.4389.

17. T. E. Lawrence to Edward Garnett, 4 October 1923, DG pp.4334.

18. A. Le Corbeau, L'Heure Finale (Paris, Bibliothque-Charpentier, 1924).

19. A. Le Corbeau, Le Couple Nu (Paris, Bibliothque-Charpentier, 1931).



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