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Translating Voyelles

RimbaudPortrait.jpgRimbaud was a poet of meteoric brilliance, quickly burnt out. I must get to know him better! I have translated a thousand poems, mostly rhymed and rhyming: a great many are sonnets, including all the 154 sonnets of Shakespeare, which I rewrote without using letter E; but only one is a sonnet by Rimbaud; inevitably this one is his celebrated poem ‘Vowels’ (Voyelles).

Inevitably too, I translated Voyelles without using the letter E. The result is what is called a Lipogram – a piece of writing where one or several letters are deliberately avoided. It is an experimental way of writing pioneered by the ‘Oulipo’ movement, founded in 1960. Oulipo is a French abbreviation for ‘workshop of potential literature’ and its exponents treat words and language in a playful and inventive way. Its notable members have included the novelists Georges Perec and Italo Calvino.

perec.jpgVoyelles is one of six classic French poems that Georges Perec rewrote without an E in his entirely E-less novel La Disparition. This novel is available in the equally E-less English translation A Void, by Gilbert Adair: it is great fun to read. The French poems are not there: Adair, with good reason, inserted English poems instead, notably ‘The Raven’ by Poe. ‘Quoth the raven, Nevermore’ becomes ‘Said my black bird, Not Again’…

So it was left to me to translate the six French poems without using letter E. My version of Rimbaud’s ‘Vowels’ is on the great Brindinpress website of translated poetry, at Nearby you will find Norman Cameron’s version, among others, and my one other Rimbaud poem, ‘Crows’.

Norman Cameron is a great translator of Rimbaud, but on my bookstall of translated poetry I prefer Martin Sorrell’s very fine versions, in the compact and sharply priced volume from Oxford University Press. Martin has also translated Verlaine, Apollinaire and Lorca in the same series.

Writing this blog has caused me to revisit my lipogrammatic ‘Vowels’ file and add to it.

As you will see, in each version I avoided the vowel/s shown at the top; but in the last version I used no vowel except ‘E’. The title ‘Vocalisations’ is that used by Perec when he rewrote the poem in French without letter E. It is the commonest letter in French, as it is in English. 

Here’s Rimbaud’s original, followed by my variations. Rimbaud perceives the vowels as having colours! Some people perceive musical notes, or musical instruments, in that way: the technical term is synesthesia.

Voyelles par Arthur Rimbaud 


A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu : voyelles,
Je dirai quelque jour vos naissances latentes :
A, noir corset velu des mouches éclatantes
Qui bombinent autour des puanteurs cruelles,

Golfes d’ombre ; E, candeurs des vapeurs et des tentes,
Lances des glaciers fiers, rois blancs, frissons d’ombelles ;
I, pourpres, sang craché, rire des lèvres belles
Dans la colère ou les ivresses pénitentes ;

U, cycles, vibrements divins des mers virides,
Paix des pâtis semés d’animaux, paix des rides
Que l’alchimie imprime aux grands fronts studieux ;

O, suprême Clairon plein des strideurs étranges,
Silences traversés des Mondes et des Anges :
— O l’Oméga, rayon violet de Ses Yeux!


My first lipogram on Rimbaud’s poem

A black, X blank, I blood, U grass, O sky:
I’ll bring to light your backgrounds. Wait a bit.
A, smooth black armour of a flashing fly
Buzzing around a vicious stinking pit,

Dark gulfs; X, fair camp-canvas, vapour-drips,
Alp-cusps, snow-kings and shaking fumitory;
I, crimsons, spat blood, luscious laughing lips,
Furious, or only drunk with saying sorry:

U, holy rhythms of a Gaian main,
Calm grazing-grounds of cows, calm brows and brain
That witchcraft furrows, mind-span that absorbs;

O, mighty trump, full-blown with wondrous chords,
Still voids for flights of worlds and spirit-birds.
O, big round O, viola-ray, O Orbs!

written by the meteoric young genius

X nights, E gulls, I blood, U green, O blue:
I’ll tell your origins in just one jiffy.
First, sleek jet corset of some flies which flew
Like buzz-bombs over sink-holes fiercely whiffy,

Dim depths; E, tents, or white condensing drips,
proud snow-crests, virgin kings, the trembling umbel;
I, crimsons, blood-gouts, luscious chortling lips,
Once furious, or drunk, but now quite humble:

U, holy rhythms of the snot-green brine,
Furrows incised on brows, whose chemistries
Conjure gold spells; quiet greenbelt strewn with kine;

O, mighty trump, full-blown with wondrous chords,
Still voids for flights of worlds or spirit-birds:
O, big round O, lobbed violet of those Eyes!

by the ne’er-do-well wonder-boy who stole La Mauté’s husband,

A black, E snow, J blood, U green, O blue:
My task: your backgrounds have to be revealed.
A, sleek black corset of a fly that flew
around a swamp malodorous, concealed,

Buzzy; E, canvas tents and puffs of steam,
Proud snowy crests, proud monarchs, trembly umbel;
J, purples, blood-gouts, lovely mouths that stream
Laughter of rage, once drunk perhaps, now humble;

U, holy groundhog throb of snot-green seas,
The peace of beast-strewn pastures, peace of ruts
Dug by dark spells on brows of PhD’s;

O, the last trump, full of strange brazen brays,
Mute tracts traversed by worlds’ and angels’ routes,
O Omega, those eyeballs’ purple rays!


by the whippersnapper from Charleville-Mézières,

A black, E white, I blood, X grass, O sky:
Here’s how the whole gang started. Wait a bit.
A, smooth black corset of a flashing fly
prancing atop an evil stinking pit,

black holes; E, canvas tents, condensing drips,
white kings, fierce glacier-spears, the cowslip’s shiver;
I, crimson, spat blood, mirth of lovely lips
Enraged, or tipsy, off to see the shriver;

X, cycles, holy throb of snot-green seas,
The peace of beast-strewn meadows, peace of grooves
That witchcraft scored on brows of PhD’s;

O, the last blast, blown with weird brazen brays,
Still voids traversed by worlds’ and angels’ hooves,
O Orbs, great Omega, viola-rays!

Thank that blatant makar, a faraway castaway at Harar

A night, X snow, I blood, Y grass, O sky:
How did that gang start off, now? Wait a bit.
A, smooth black thorax of a flashing fly
prancing atop an evil stinking pit,

black voids; X, canvas camps and foggy drips,
snow-kings, high glacial swords, a cowslip’s frisson;
I, crimson, spat blood, mirth of tasty lips
Angry, or tipsy, off to find a parson;

Y, holy rhythmic throb of briny snots,
Calm grazing-grass of moo-cows, calm of spraints
That magic’s drawn on brows of toiling swots;

O, mighty blast, blown hard with odd brass brays,
Still voids, tram-tracks of worlds and flying saints:
O Orbs, big Royal Orbs, viola-rays!

Arthur Rimbaud scripsit, scalpsit, slurpsit

A black, E white, I red, U green, Z sky:
What lies behind these items? Wait a bit.
A, shiny hull that guards a flashing fly
Buzzing beside an evil stinking pit,

Dark gulfs; E, fair camp-canvas, misty drips,
Alp-cusps, pale kings and lilies vacillating;
I, scarlet, spat red cells, sweet laughing lips,
Irate, unless half-cut with exculpating:

U, cycles, drums that grace a Gaian main,
Calm heifers’ pastures ; tranquil temples, brain
Adept at study, wrinkled by witchcraft;

Z, mighty trumpet-blast, replete with genius,
Vacuums where angels flit and planets waft:
Z, zigzag Z-ray, plump and purple Zinnias!

Extreme verses! We’ve kept the E, we’ve eschewed the rest,
we never needed them. We persevered!

E jet, E sleet, E red, E green, E… See
Whence these emerged! We’re exegetes: we’ll tell.
E, welded vestments the resplendent bee
Needs, when she seeks the sewer’s repellent smell,

Grey depths; E, wet sheens, essences, speedwells,
Ellesmere’s deep-freezes, Re e neve, tents;
E, belched red cells, the glee des lèvres belles:
She’s vexed… let’s see! She’s legless, she repents!

E, wheels, celestes, green meres where petrels breed,
Self-seeded beeves well-rested where they feed,
Experts’ meek temples, trenches hexes pressed;

E, endless sennets, revellers’ blended cheers,
The ether’s messengers, the seven seers;



Timothy Adès is a distinguished rhyming translator and an old friend of the Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation. He translated Victor Hugo’s last book of poems, How to be a Grandfather; two books each by the French poets Desnos and Cassou; and two books from Spanish. He recreated Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets without using letter E, in a book called Loving by Will

Posted on:Thursday 28th May, 2020