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Interview with Christian Souchon, translator of Merlin poems and Jacobite Songs

Dear Christian,
Q: You've taken on the translation of Celtic poems about Merlin into English, and French. Do you remember how you first became interested in Merlin?


Christian Souchon: Like anybody here I had heard the names of Arthur, Merlin, Lancelot etc...when I was a child, but knew nothing precise about the Arthurian legends. I discovered them when a bestseller book on "King Arthur" was published by the ethnographer, Jean Markale in 1977. The book focussed on the historical and mythical figure of Arthur and stressed that Merlin, too, was a mix of myth and reality.
Q: In poems about him?

Christian Souchon: At about the same time,  I discovered in a bookshop in Nantes (in Brittany) a facsimile re-edition of an old book of Breton poetry, the "Barzaz Breiz", quoted in Markale's book. I read it in one go in the train on my way back to Paris. Since then I read it again and again. Among the most fascinating poems and ballads collected by the author of the book (more than 50), are the four pieces about Merlin.

Q: Are there any particular themes about Merlin that you most enjoy?

Christian Souchon: To begin with, the themes dealt with in the "Barzhaz" (where Merlin is not connected with Arthur):

-the mysterious begetting of the fatherless child: a reminiscence of the Greek mythology with its numberless half-gods like Hercules,
-the adept of pagan magics in conflict with the oncoming Christian faith: an allegory for historical facts having taken place in Brittany in the 5th and 6th centuries,
-the decay of the famous seer and magician tricked out of his talismans by an old woman -also a magician,
-as a result of this defeat his becoming a madman living in the woods among wild beasts, which endows him with new gifts
-his final conversion to Christianity.
    Outside Brittany, Merlin is said to have -deliberately- caused his own decay out of love to the young Vivian, his disciple in magics: this self-destructive trend in an over-talented  individual could interest psychiatrists! (Besides, the comparison with the Breton legend proves it: No matter how old, women are dangerous! ).
    All these themes are very rich and have inspired not only writers, from the 13th century onwards, but also painters like Eduard Burne-Jones ..., and modern film makers: The film "Excalibur", for instance, depicts very well the enigmatic figure of Merlin  
I could also imagine that, at least inconsciously, Edgar Rice Burroughs, was influenced by the figure of Merlin when he created his semi-animal superman Tarzan. 
Q: Where did you find these Celtic poems?


Christian Souchon: In the "Barzhaz Breizh", litterally "treasure of the bards (barzh) of Brittany (Breizh)", published in 1839 by Hersart de la Villemarqué, at once a folklorist, philologist and impassioned Breton patriot.
Q: Did you learn to read Celtic in order to translate the poems?  If not, what inspired you to learn Celtic?

Christian Souchon: I had some basic knowledge of the Breton language before, gained, when I was at secondary school,  during holidays in Brittany, my mother's homeland. I have improved it very much lately especially thanks to the specialized sites on the Web and I can read now books nearly without difficulty. 

But I have no practice of spoken Breton.
Q: What languages do you read and speak?

Christian Souchon: German, a little Serbo-Croatian (a remnant of my highschool student's past) and English (but I lack practice in spoken English).

Q: When did you start translating? 

Christian Souchon: At school, where I learnt Latin and Greek. But I had then not good fun doing it and I remember it as a chore.

Later on, for my job or parallel to it, I had on certain rare occasions to make translations from German and English
Q: Did you begin with poetry or prose?

Christian Souchon: With prose of course: technical texts in German for our firm, legal stuff and economics in English for the international Organization OECD.

Q: You've mentioned that you recently retired.  Did your employment include translation?

Christian Souchon: Alas, no. I was an entrepreneur engaged in electrical public works: overhead power lines, street lighting, railroad signalling ...exclusively on the French territory and lately, in the French speaking part of Belgium.

Q: Since rhymes in one language rarely translate to rhymes in another, how do you preserve the feeling of a rhyming poem when you translate it?

Christian Souchon: A very difficult question that cannot be answered other than with an example:

When I started translating the lyrics of the songs of my musical website, I began with a French translation of the Jacobite song "The Standard on the Brae of Mar".
During a holiday in Scotland, we visited Braemar Castle and I remembered that it was connected with an earlier Jacobite Rising than the 1745 one. And yet the song clearly refers to Prince Charlie (an enigma for which as yet I found no satifying explanation!)
To make sure that I didn't misunderstand something, I decided to translate this beautiful song.
Since the text countains several proper nouns (Mar, Lochnagar, Airlie, Charlie...) I had nearly at once a verse translation. So I set to look for the missing rhymes. I had much trouble with the "gathering pipe" which has no correspondence with the French military tradition.
The second difficulty was that most English words are monosyllabic and therefore convey a maximum of ideas in a minimum of syllables, yet the translated lyrics must have exactly the same length as the original.
 In the case of that war and march song, this little problem could be solved in using the imperative form of the verbs.
 For example:
original: " The standard on the Brae of Mar
             Is up and streaming rarely              
translated as
            "Dressée sur les hauteurs de Mar                          litteraly:"Drawn-up on the heights of Mar,
            Flotte, noble bannière"                                                        Stream noble banner!."
The "standard" had become a "banner", and  "is streaming" is now an order: "stream!"; besides the idea contained in the adverb "rarely" is preserved in the adjective "noble".
In translating from Breton into English  I use the same kinds of "tricks"
Besides, you may have noticed that the structures of the Breton and the English language are not very far from one another.
Q: When you translate a poem, do you find yourself doing research on related topics, such as the plants mentioned in a poem, or a magical tradition?

Christian Souchon: No, as an experienced teacher you taught me to do so and I found it very useful to to thoroughly understand the topic I am working on, to enrich a web site and make it a little less unilateral.

I had done it as yet only when something was not clear to me in the original text.
For instance , as I had found a passable musical arrrangement for the barcarole "Skyeboat", I wanted a "singable" French text to it.
I was led to translate "Rocked in the deep,    Flora will keep    Watch..." as "Au creux des ondes, Flora la blonde, Veille...".
At the beginning I wanted to describe the 1745 rising such as it may be perceived through the deforming prisma of the mostly enthusiastic Jacobite songs.  I studied the portraits of the heroic girl I could grasp: she was definitely a brunette!  I didn't change my text however, for the sake of the melodious rhyme.
Q: You've sent me poems showing  the original, the pidgin English and your final version.  Was this for my benefit, or do you go through this process for yourself?  (May I show such a page to readers of this interview?)

Christian Souchon: Yes to both questions.

If you are to interpret a text that is already an interpretation you cumulate errors and the end result may have very less to do with the original. The best way to prevent it to do as we did.
Q: We first met because I was looking for Jacobite songs to post on Nessie's Grotto. What prompted your interest in Jacobite songs?  And translating them? 

Christian Souchon: First, the grandiose and strange beauty of the music, so well matching the grandiose and stange beauty of the Highland landscapes: the whimsical melodic line of some songs like "Came ye by Athol" is unique and can be compared worldwide with nothing else .

Then, the importance for the Scots of the 1745 events that is easily felt still today: I remember how the visitors of Braemar Castle were moved to tears on listening to the very eloquent guide who evoked the suppression of the Clan system  and the ensuing  events:clearances, etc; how Culloden Moor, in 1998, was crowded with visitors who were also pilgrims.
And last but not least, the fact that Scotland and Brittany alike, were placed by the whims of History in similar positions: forced to comply with the views of a mighty neighbour with whom they had to melt their national identity.
That's why I decided to unite in the same site the musical treasures of these Celtic brethren.
I translated them because the texts are so rich: you have a complete -though biassed- view of the 1745 rising when you put these lyrics together: even  the amount of the reward promised for Charles Edward's capture, for instance, is mentioned in one song!
I translate them, because the Scots dialect is perhaps not so easy to understand especially for French readers.
More generally, why one feels the urge of putting something into a Website is a question that all who keep a site can (or cannot) answer!
also says you are interested in the dances of Brittany.  Do you actually perform these dances? Do you belong to a group that performs them and plays the music?

Christian Souchon: No, I always was a poor dancer, a heavy grievance for my wife against her husband.

But dance, unlike the national idiom that is fading away, is still very popular and vivid in Brittany and practised with young people. The range of instruments with which that music is performed is very limited (pipes and "bombarde", a sort of high-pitched oboe). I wanted to avail myself of the nearly illimitable possibilities offered by Midi-sequencing and bring in a little more variety in making these arrangements (banjo, guitar, whistle, accordion and so on).
Q: Have you found that the internet has brought you people who share your interests?


Christian Souchon: Yes, Breton compatriots in first place and other "celtomaniacs" in Europe and America. But since the site is chiefly in French and I made no particular efforts to advertise it their number is as yet rather limited.
As a retired man I hope to find the time necessary to help it, little by little,( if my wife allows me to do so!)
Q: Is there anything you'd like to say about Merlin, translation, history, mythology or poetry and song that I haven't covered here.

Christian Souchon: I'd like to thank you for all the knowledge and know-how you imparted to me on that occasion, for your precious and patient help, and for your catching enthusiasm . 



Link to the beginning of Christian Souchon's Merlin Cycle of poems:

Link to example of translation steps from Celtic to French and English

Click here.

Christian Souchon's translated Jacobite songs: /jacobe.htm


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