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
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.
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
-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.
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.
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
But I have no practice of spoken Breton.
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).
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
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.
mentioned that you recently retired. Did your employment include
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.
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
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
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
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.
original: " The standard on the Brae of
Is up and streaming rarely
"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.
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
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
Christian Souchon: Yes to both
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.
first met because I was looking for Jacobite songs to post on Nessie's
Grotto. What prompted your interest in Jacobite songs? And
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
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).
you found that the internet has brought you people who share your
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
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!)
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