Home > Translation > Three poems in French and English

Three poems in French and English

February 25, 2011

by Heather Dohollau

Hölderlin à la tour / Hölderlin in the tower

(from Seule enfance, 1978)

Les oiseaux intermittents
Les champs toujours là en face
Les mots voltigent, reviennent
Le touchent, il tend la main
Et les pose doucement
Les uns à côté des autres
Ils disent des choses très simples
Comme la musique
L’eau est calme
L’ombre de l’oiseau surprend
Les jours sont longs
Comme au début de la vie

À partir d’un moment d’une extrême simpilicité
il ne faut plus espérer

Birds    sometimes
the fields    still over there
words go away    come back
touch    he holds out his hand
and puts them down softly
side by side
they say simple things
like music
the water is calm
a bird’s shadow    surprises
the days are long
as once they were

After a moment of extreme simplicity
hope is no longer needed

* * *

Manawydan’s Glass Door (d’après David Jones, 1931)

(from Pages aquarelles, 1989)

Ici rien ne se passe
Tout est dehors
Le temps se plie comme un vêtement
Dans un coin
La mer rentre par transparence
Par la porte de verre
L’eau de la lumière tremble
Sur les murs lisses
Prison ou sanctuaire
Fermé à double tour
Par le regard même
La paix de l’instant se boit
Dans une coupe sans bord
Là-bas un bateau gîte
Toutes voiles dehors
Et avec l’écume bleue
Je mouille la page

Here nothing happens
all’s on the other side
time folded like a coat
lies in a corner
the sea comes clearly in
through the glass door
and on the walls
the watery light is trembling
prison or sanctuary
so well locked up
in its own vision
that the instant’s peace
is drunk in a rimless cup
out there a ship is listing
under sail
and with the blue of the spray
I damp the page

* * *


(from Le Dit des couleurs, 2003)

c’est bien d’avoir l’impossible dans sa vie
car on ne peut pas le perdre
et dès la première vision
au tournant de la route
de l’île entourée des fragments excessifs
comme dans un tableau de Leonardo
ou de Patinir
j’ai su être de surcroît
celle qui est là


le difficile
en tout retour
est de contourner
les emplacements
des feux d’anciens espoirs
et de voir aux mêmes fenêtres
d’autres fleurs


il y a des vitres
qui ne font pas miroir
où de l’autre côté
l’on peut voir
le vide de la route au soleil
et la poste fermée à midi


comme la marée montante
diminue l’île
la peur isole
tout est dehors
même le dedans
mais de ces gués frileux
il en vient
une longue lumière


marcher sur ses pas
pour fouler encore
le corps du chemin
et déplacer
dans la poussière
les pierres incertaines des mots


la mer est profonde
d’un vert très pâle
les galets sont blancs
et ronds comme des pains
quelquefois les anges
posent leurs têtes
pour entendre perler le vide


les fleurs viennent
de l’envers de l’île
et y retournent

It is good to have the impossible in one’s life
because it cannot be lost
and on turning the corner
at the first sight of the island
among an excess of fragments
like a Leonardo painting
or a Patinir
I knew how to be as well
she who was there


the difficulty
on each return
is to avoid
the blackened traces
of the old hopeful fires
and to see in the same windows
other flowers


there are window-panes
that are not mirrors
where on the other side
one can see
the emptiness of the sunny road
and the post office closed at noon


as the rising tide diminishes the island
fear isolates
everything is outside
even the inside
but from these shivering crossings
there comes
a long light


to walk in one’s steps
to tread again
the body of the path
and displace
in the dust
the uncertain stones of words


the sea is deep
and a very pale green
the stones are white
and round like loaves
sometimes angels
lean their heads to listen
as emptiness pearls


the flowers come
from the island’s underside
and go back there

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Heather Dohollau was born in 1925 in South Wales. She moved to France, to Brittany, permanently in 1950, and has written in French since the 1960s. Her books include: Un Regard d’ambre (2008), Une Suite de matins (2005), Le Dit des couleurs (2003), Le Point de rosée (1999), Les Cinq Jardins et autres textes (1996), Seule Enfance suivi de La Venelle des Portes (réed., 1996), La Terre âgée (1996), Les Portes d’en bas (1992), Pages aquarellées (1989), L’Adret du jour (1989; Prix Claude Sernet), Dans l’île (1985), Matière de lumière (1985), La Réponse (1982), and La Venelle des portes (1981), all from the publisher Folle Avoine, and Seule enfance (1978), from éditions Solaire. Of recent years Heather Dohollau has begun writing again in English, and translating her poems in French into English. A selection of these is being considered for publication with Folle Avoine; the poems here are in advance of this.

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  1. Jean
    February 26, 2011 at 2:38 pm

    Oh. I’m awed and entranced and intrigued by this work. I’ll be placing some orders with Folle Avoine, and looking forward to the publication of the bilingual book.

  2. vicki
    February 27, 2011 at 8:33 am

    Listening, i was transported. Thank you Lucy and Dave for this introduction.
    Especially loved listening to her read. Wonderful experience.

  3. February 27, 2011 at 10:00 am

    Such a feeling that rises up in the heart upon hearing Ms. Dohollau read her poems! A shimmeriness that transports me into the reality of the images and impressions painted by the words. Merci bien!

  4. February 27, 2011 at 2:01 pm

    These are really wonderful.

  5. John Taylor
    February 27, 2011 at 4:02 pm

    Quite moved to see these poems now in English, and by the poet’s own hand! I had admired and written about the original French versions–and here we have Heather Dohollau coming full circle! Indeed, “to walk in one’s steps / to tread again / the body of the path.” Readers with French should definitely look up the poet’s volumes at Folle Avoine. Let’s hope that we’ll have a volume in English one of these days. John Taylor

    • Clémence O'Connor
      February 28, 2011 at 5:15 am

      To Lucy – many thanks for a very lovely moment listening to Heather on a sunny Scottish morning! Very glad this is online.

      And to John – delightful to meet you here, finally. It’s a very fine piece that you wrote on Heather Dohollau, and I have been meaning to get in touch. Yes, there will be a bilingual edition with Folle Avoine which Heather and Yves are preparing, and here in Scotland a short bilingual selection in the PN review (if all goes well). Please write any time.

      All good wishes,


  6. February 28, 2011 at 12:06 pm

    Thank you drawing attnetion to these poems which have among other qualities of calm and grace a remarkable sense of place. How beautifully they are read by the author in both languages! And how interesting to note the contrasting music of French and English prosody!

  7. alex cigale
    February 28, 2011 at 1:09 pm

    Absolutely beautiful! Simultaneously simple and complex, this work seems to me to embody the problematic relationship to language that language demands, revealing and concealing at once. Heather Dohollau’s work has been one of the most valuable personal discoveries in editing this otherwise very rich issue and I look forward to deepening my acquainitance. Thank you, John and Clemence, for news of the bilingual edition and for bringing this gorgeous and important work to the attention of the English language audience.

    P.S. For those interested in further analysis, see Clémence O’Connor,
    Translating Non-Figuration: Heather Dohollau’s Poems on ‘Pure Visuality’“; Katharina M. Wilson, An Encyclopedia of Continental Women Writers, vol. 1; Michael Bishop, Contemporary French Women Poets: From Chedid and Dohollau to Tellermann and Bancquart; and John Taylor, Paths to contemporary French literature, vol. 1.

  8. Barbara LaMorticella
    March 2, 2011 at 9:53 pm

    “The emptiness of the sunny road/and the post office closed at noon.” These poems are not just good, they are shivery good. I look forward to the full bilingual Folle Avoine edition.

  9. March 3, 2011 at 9:42 am

    I especially like what is ethereal and other in these–should like to see an essay where she talks about writing in French, writing in English, the differences between the poems, and whether she considers herself a translator of her own poems or a re-maker in another language.

  10. March 3, 2011 at 12:54 pm

    Beautiful poems. I know just enough French to be able to enjoy them in both languages with the lovely, simple translations provided

  11. March 4, 2011 at 4:53 am

    Many thanks on behalf of Heather, who would also like to mention for further reading Michael Brophy’s ‘Tracing the Absent Real – the poetry of Heather Dohollau’, in the Irish Journal of French Studies, no 8, 2008. pp109 – 121. Unfortunately this isn’t available on-line, but adds much to the body of commentary on her work.

    And thanks to Dave for doing such a fine job of sprucing up my rudimentary recording!

  12. subodh gupta
    June 12, 2012 at 1:42 am

    thanks for this

  13. arjita gupta
    December 13, 2012 at 7:04 am

    thanks for your lovely poems thank you verrrrry much

  14. hetavi
    January 29, 2013 at 1:43 pm

    it was a nice experience you know. really nice when someone reads it for you i liked it very much

  15. agada jerry
    February 22, 2013 at 8:11 am

    just extracted this for my group members in our french group class…its the best

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