Saturday, December 29, 2007

How to Paint the Portrait of a Bird by Jacques Prévert — a book review

Today I had the opportunity to read a lovely new book translated and illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein. The original text is a poem written in French by Jacques Prévert.

First, my initial impressions of the book before I came home and did some research. "Oh, wow!" and "What a beautiful book!" were the primary reactions I had at the time. And I came home totally jacked about this book, which you can read in its entirety online at the MacMillan website, with "Copyrighted materials" prominently splashed on each page, or (as it turns out), over at, where you can leaf through without the Big Grey Letters.

I loved the text and the happy-colored illustrations, which look to me to be pen-and-ink drawings that have been colored in with something that looks to me like colored pencils, but I could be wrong on that. It's a delightful book and a delightful story and I wish I'd seen it much sooner. Also, I wish to make clear before going forward that I enthusiastically adore this book and wish to recommend it highly.

However, I have a minor quarrel with its designation as a "translation." (*Activate nerdiness chip now*) Until today, I'd not read this poem before, in French or English, but since this afternoon I've located the original French text and a translation by famous San Franciso poet, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Ferlinghetti's is extremely close to the original French text. Following is an excerpt from each of the three texts. The bolded lines are the most blatant difference between Prévert/Ferlinghetti on the one hand and Gerstein on the other. Note also the difference in the description of the sun, wind, and insects (which are unspecified in the original, but are bees and butterflies for Gerstein).

From Prévert's original text:

Faire ensuite le portrait de l'arbre
en choisissant la plus belle de ses branches
pour l'oiseau
peindre aussi le vert feuillage et la fraîcheur du vent
la poussière du soleil
et le bruit des bêtes de l'herbe dans la chaleur de l'été
et puis attendre que l'oiseau se décide à chanter
Si l'oiseau ne chante pas
c'est mauvais signe
Signe que le tableau est mauvais

mais s'il chante c'est bon signe
signe que vous pouvez signer

From Ferlinghetti's translation:

Then paint the portrait of the tree
choosing the most beautiful of its branches
for the bird
paint also the green foliage and the wind's freshness
the dust of the sun
and the noise of insects in the summer heat
and then wait for the bird to decide to sing
If the bird doesn't sing
it's a bad sign
a sign that the painting is bad

but if he sings it's a good sign
a sign that you can sign

From Gerstein's text:

Now paint the portrait of the tree
with the prettiest branch for the bird.
Paint the green leaves and the summer breeze.
Paint the smell of the sunshine and the flowers,
and the songs of the bees and the butterflies.
Then wait for the bird to sing.
If it doesn't sing, don't be sad.
You did your best.

But if the bird sings,
it's a very good sign.
It's a sign that you can sign.

Now, I really like the Mordicai Gerstein book, in fact, I kinda love it. But in reality, it should not say "Illustration and Translation by Mordicai Gerstein" on the cover. It should read "Illustration and Adaptation/Interpretation". Because Gerstein doesn't stick with translating the original text; in places, he flat-out alters the meaning. His choices are understandable and lend themselves to a gentler text for children, but they are there. And the book closes with a parenthetical that is not from the original poem, but is evidently a comment from Gerstein, although there's no accompanying notation to that effect.

Final say?
Go. Read this book. Buy this book, even. It is like holding happiness and music and creativity and wonder in your hands.

Also, consider sharing the original Prévert poem with children if your kids speak/understand or are learning the French language, because it is simple and lovely and magical.

1 comment:

Nyarlathotep said...

it s realy pretty much ...I v red translated paroles in Arabic version ..i loved Prevet's simplicity ..n i loved his manner of dissecting the reality n then assembling it "randomly " ..i dont know if the word "randomly " is a good descriptipn !! cuz when I read in depth some of his poets I found that random manner is systmatically organized ....