Express yourself in French!
Je suis le maître de mon destin.
zhuh swee luh MET-truh duh maw dess-TANG.
I am the Master of my fate.
From the poem “Invictus,” by William Ernest Henley. Not exactly a famous French writer, was he? But there’s the fun. If we take a snippet from the literature of one language, and translate it into another language, it rarely sounds as elegant. Why?
Because every language has its typical patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables, its own intonations (where your voice goes up or down, for example, or varies the sounds you are saying in some other way), which create the characteristic rhythms of the language. And these, in turn, shape the poetry of the language.
Take English. The single most characteristic pattern in English-language poetry is iambic pentameter: da-DAH da-DAH da-DAH da-DAH da-DAH. Much of Shakespeare uses iambic pentameter. (An iamb is a two-syllable “foot” with the emphasis on the second syllable; pentameter means that there are five feet in the line of poetry.) This sounds “normal” to the ears of an English speaker. Likewise, today’s phrase is written in iambic tetrameter: four feet, the same da-DAH rhythm.
But French marches to a different drummer. French words do not have stressed or unstressed syllables. Instead, the stress varies depending on where the word falls in the sentence. Typically, what English-speakers call stress is placed on the last syllable of a sentence, breath-group, or other grouping.
The classic rhythm of French poetry is called “le vers alexandrin”, or Alexandrian verse. It consists of 12 syllables to the line, arranged in six feet of two syllables each. There is supposed to be a break at the halfway point, that is, after the sixth syllable.
But today’s phrase, when the French translation is pronounced, seems to fall into nine syllables, five and then four. It sounds awkward, truncated, ungraceful in French. It needs three more syllables, and they must be placed properly: one more in the first half of the line and two more in the second half, or vice versa.
No wonder the work of the translator is so difficult!