Louise Labé – Sonnet XIV

This entry is part 1 of 7 in the series Louise Labé


Vermeer – Woman with a Lute
Vermeer – Woman with a Lute

As long as these old eyes can fill with tears,
reliving some sweet hour I spent with you,
and this old voice can hold a tune through all
my sighs and sobs and still be faintly heard,

as long as this old hand can pluck the strings
of my beloved lute, pick out your song,
as long as this old spirit can still yearn
for that complicity we used to share,

I’m far from feeling that I want to die.
But come the time I find myself dry-eyed,
with broken voice and hand too weak to play

a note, my spirit shrinking in its mortal frame,
no longer capable of any sign of love,
I’ll beckon Death to dim my brightest day.

Tant que mes yeus pourront larmes espandre,
A l’heur passé avec toy regretter:
Et qu’aus sanglots & soupirs resister
Pourra ma voix, & un peu faire entendre:

Tant que ma main pourra les cordes tendre
Du mignart Lut, pour tes graces chanter:
Tant que l’esprit se voudra contenter
De ne vouloir rien fors que toy comprendre:

Je ne souhaitte encore point mourir.
Mais quand mes yeus je sentiray tarir,
Ma voix cassée, & ma main impuissante,

Et mon esprit en ce mortel séjour
Ne pouvant plus montrer signe d’amante:
Prirey la Mort noircir mon plus cler jour.


With thanks to Dave and Via Negativa for encouragement and inspiration over the past year.

Written in the mid-16th century, this well expresses how I feel about starting, and continuing, latish in life, to write and translate poetry.

Louise Labé in Wikipedia

Series NavigationLouise Labé – Sonnets VIII & IX →

8 Replies to “Louise Labé – Sonnet XIV”

  1. Wonderful, Jean. It’s a beautiful poem and you’ve certainly done it justice. I would perhaps argue with inserting “old” before “eyes”, “voice”, “hand” and “spirit” because it seems to me that she’s looking into the future, rather than speaking of herself in the present. Nevertheless your interpretation makes perfect sense and is musically faultless so please forgive me for splitting hairs!

  2. Natalie, the poet – if she existed – was probably quite young when she wrote this, so you are right. But, although most of my translation is quite close and literal, the poem drew me because I saw my own feelings reflected – and I’m a lot older, so I made the choice to add the word ‘old’ and make this version a little bit mine.

    1. Yes, was aware of this this and you’ve made it work beautifully. Having only done the occasional and very un-professional translation myself, I’m unable to decide whether the main task of the translator is to stick as closely as possible to the author’s intention, or whether it’s best (more creative) to introduce new angles!

  3. A huge and endless discussion! I’m still feeling my way, but I think there’s a stronger case for stricter fidelity when you translate something of great current interest that’s never been translated before than when it’s something, like this poem, that’s very old and widely available in existing translations – which range from very literal to much freer than mine because they prioritise rhyme over meaning.

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