Stories of Starlight

Alphonse Daudet 1840 – 1897

The relatively short story Les Étoiles, by Alphonse Daudet is from Lettres de mon Moulin first published in 1866 and telling of Daudet’s life in Provence. Often described as ‘charming’, these stories have that simplicity which tempts the possessor of even only school-boy French to think that he might be able to offer them in translation.

I tried with Les Étoiles, and soon found that simplicity is not the only attribute. As with other Daudet ‘lettres’, there is a musicality to the telling, and a large part of its success lies in the convincing evocation of the magic of a starlit summer night in the Luberon.

The plot is simple: a mountain shepherd tells of a night, years before, when his supplies were delivered, not by the usual farm boy or old woman, but by the beautiful daughter of his employer, with whom, of course, he was madly, but secretly, in love. Arriving late, by virtue of having lost the path, she is forced to abort her return journey to the valley, and to seek shelter in what we might call his bothy. Conscious of the need to behave well, the narrator recalls how, when she could not sleep for fear of the night-sounds of the mountain, they sat together by a camp-fire until the dawn, and he told her the stories of the stars that shone above them.

It is a romantic, even sentimental tale, but the sentiment is true, and it ends with his observation ‘et par moments je me figurais qu’une de ces étoiles, la plus fine, la plus brilliante, ayant perdu sa route, etait venue se poser sur mon épaule pour dormir…’

‘And from time to time, I thought that one of those stars, the finest, the most brilliant, having lost its way, had come to rest itself upon my shoulder and sleep….’

There are plenty of essays by those fluent in more than one language, those who are truly bi- or multi-lingual, where the problems of translation are rehearsed. If language splits reality into segments, then different languages split it into differing segments: words do not match each other exactly – no more, perhaps than they do from individual to individual within a single language. We can only approximate our experience and feeling in words. Yet I recall a visiting lecturer more than forty years ago asserting that language is ‘the nearest you can get to the centre of your own consciousness’.

It’s the musical differences that strike me most however: the metre, the syllabic arrangements of the phrasing: ‘par moments’ might have the sense of ‘from time to time’, but ‘from time to time’ does not dance to the same tune as ‘par moments,’ and Daudet chose not to use ‘de temps en temps’. And where has that repetition gone from ‘la plus fine, la plus brilliante’?

To get similar sound qualities, and similar meanings is difficult enough: to get the same blend of meaning and sound, impossible. To translate one language’s idiom into another language’s equivalent, might founder on the fact that the two might use a totally different metaphor to get across a similar mood, or conversely that a very similar metaphor might hold different semantics in each case.

Something else that the act of translating brought home to me, was that the social mores of our times has changed in the century and a half since Daudet was writing. Stories in other languages than your own will also date! The sense of shock, and possible outrage at the thought of an unmarried couple spending the night alone upon the mountain is not so great, nor so insistent as it was. That is not to say propriety does not exist, nor that in our own times eyebrows would not be raised, jokes would not be made. Reputations, though, might not be under such threat nowadays, or rather, not under the same threat. In our own time, it might be that memories of such an event would vary so profoundly as to turn romance into assault, or vice-versa.

That put me on to the idea of adaptation, or re-writing in addition to ‘simple’ translation. Could this story be taken and re-imagined for our own time. And could it be re-told for my own place? Living on the foothills of the Lake District mountains, and within sight of the Scottish Border hills, and the north end of the Pennine chain, I have experienced evenings and nights not unlike the one that Daudet described. Home time after a day spent in the Lake District, we have often commented, is precisely the time to stay put in the middle of it! Could I imagine a circumstance, though, in which a similar train of events, with characters in a similar situation might take place.

Curiously, when I started to re-write it, I found that I automatically set my story forty years into my own past, and drew upon memories over more than ten years, not quite evenly spaced either side of the specified date. Other elements of the story, equally unplanned, were distorted, by the change of location in time and place, and of culture, more than by the change in language. It perhaps goes without saying, and I’m not sure of its significance, that writing the story turned out to be easier than completing the translation!

The Stars

(told by a Provencal Shepherd, by Alphones Daudet (1840-1897); translated by Mike Smith)

In the days when I guarded the animals in the Luberon, I spent whole weeks without seeing a living soul, alone on the pasture with my dog, Labri, and my flocks. From time to time the hermit of Mont-de-L’Ure would pass by searching for herbs, or I would catch sight of the dark faces of the charcoal burners of Piedmont, but they were simple men, silenced by solitude, having lost the habit of talking, and knowing nothing of what was said below in the towns and villages. Also, every fortnight, when I listened on the road for the braying of the mule that brought up from the farm my supplies for the fortnight, and saw appear, bit by bit, below the ridge, the raised head of little Miarro (the farm boy) or the red hair of old aunt Norade, I was truly happy. I made them tell me stories of the country below, of the baptisms, the marriages, but what interested me above all was what passed of the daughter of my masters, our Miss Stephanie, the most beautiful of all for ten leagues around. Without appearing to show too much interest, I got to know if she was going out or staying up late much, and if she had many new boyfriends. And to those who would ask me what these things have to do with me, a poor shepherd of the mountains, I will say that I was twenty years old and that Stephanie was the most beautiful girl I had seen in my life.

Now, one Sunday that I waited for the fortnightly supplies, it turned out that they arrived very late. That morning I told myself, “it’s because of the High Mass”. Then, around midday there came a great storm and I thought that the mule could not set out because of the bad state of the roads. Finally, at three o’clock, the sky having cleared, the mountain sparkling with water and sun, I heard among the dripping of the leaves and the overflowing of the swollen streams, the braying of the mule, as cheerful and resounding as a ring of bells on Easter day. But it wasn’t little Miarro, nor old Norade that brought them. It was – guess who! Our young lady, my little ones. Our young lady in person, seated right among the osier baskets, all ruddy with the mountain air and the freshness of the storm.

The farm boy was sick, the aunt on holiday with her children. The beautiful Stephanie told me all, descending from her mule, and also that she was late because she had lost her way. But to see her in all her Sunday finery, with her flowered ribbon and her bright skirt, she looked like one late for some dance who had to search for her way in the thickets. Oh the delicate creature! My eyes could not stop looking at her. It is true that I had never seen her so close. Sometimes, in winter, when the flocks had descended to the valley and I returned to the farm for the evening to eat she crossed the room quickly, scarcely talking to the servants, always dressed up and a little haughty. … And now I had her before me, no-one but for me; is this not when one loses one’s head?

When she had emptied the provisions from the pannier, Stephanie gave a look of curiosity around her. Lifting a little her beautiful Sunday skirt which could be spoiled, she entered into the fold, wishing to see the corner where I slept, the bed of straw, the sheep-skin, hung on the wall, my cross and flintlock. All of it amused her.

So, this is where you live, my poor shepherd. Don’t you tire of being here alone? What do you do? What do you think of?

I wanted to reply “of you mistress” and I could not lie; but my agitation was so great that I could not find a word. I knew well that she understood, at that the wicked one took pleasure in redoubling my embarrassment with her mischievousness.

And your good friend, shepherd, does she come up to see you sometimes?   ….That would be the golden goat, or the fairy Esterelle who courts only at the peak of the mountain.

And she herself, talking to me, had the air of the fairy Esterelle, with the pretty laugh and toss of her head and her haste to go which made her visit seem like an apparition.

            Goodbye shepherd.

            Farewell, mistress.

            And then she left, carrying the empty baskets.

When she left on the falling path it seemed to me that the stones rolling beneath the shoes of the mule fell one by one on my heart. These I heard for a long time, a long time. And until the end of the day I remained as if asleep, without stirring for fear of breaking my dream. Towards evening, as the depth of the valleys began to turn blue and the animals were bleating one after the other to return to the fold, I heard someone calling me from below, and I saw appearing our young miss, no longer laughing as usual, but trembling with cold, and fear and soaking wet. It appears that at the bottom of the hill she had found the Sorgue engorged by the rain from the storm, and with it running at full force, she was in danger of drowning. Worst of all, at that hour of the night it was no longer possible to consider returning to the farm; with the crossing out our young lady could never return alone, and I could not leave my flocks. The idea of passing the night on the mountain was above all the cause of her unease. Me, I reassured her as best I could.

In July, the nights are kind, mistress. It’s not a bad time.

And I lit a great fire to dry her feet and her dress, soaked with the waters of the Sorgue. Then I put before her milk and cheese, but the poor little one could dream neither of warming herself nor of eating, and to see the great big tears that came to her eyes, I myself wanted to cry.

Eventually night came fully on. There remained but one last flash of sunshine at the crest of the mountains, one wisp of light on the sleeping hillside. I wished that our young lady would enter the fold to sleep. Having spread upon the fresh straw a beautiful new skin, I wished her a good night and went to settle myself outside in front of the door. God is my witness, notwithstanding the fire of love that seared my blood, not one bad thought drove me; nothing but a great pride to dream that in a corner of my fold, close to the curious flock who watched her sleep, the daughter of my masters – like a most precious sheep whiter than all the rest – rested, entrusted to my care. Never had the sky seemed to me so profound, the stars so brilliant….Suddenly the doorway of the fold opened and the beautiful Stephanie appeared. She could not sleep. The restless animals cried in the straw or bleated in their dreams. She liked best to be near the fire. Seeing this I put my she-goat skin around her shoulders and we remained seated next to each other without speaking. If you have ever experienced a night of stars you know that in the hours when we sleep a mysterious world arises in the solitude and silence. Then the springs sing most clearly, the pools light up little flames. All the spirits of the mountains come and go freely, and there are rustlings in the air and imperceptible sounds as if one heard the branches grow and the grass swell. The day is the time of beings, but the night, that is the time of things. When one is not used to it, it makes one afraid….and our young mistress was shivering and she pressed close to me at the least noise. One time, a long, melancholy cry came from the pool that glowed below us, rising towards us in waves. At the same instant a shooting star slipped beneath our heads in the same direction as if that cry we had heard carried with it a light.

What is that? Stephanie asked in a low voice.

            A soul entering paradise, mistress; and I made the sign of the cross.

            She crossed herself too, and waited a moment, her head held up, concentrating. Then she said:

            Is it true, shepherd that you are sorcerers, you and the others?

            No, my young lady. But here we live close to the stars and we know them better than the people of the plains.

            She stared above, her head held in her hands, cloaked in the sheep-skin like a little heavenly father.

            What a sight! How beautiful ! Never have I seen such…Do you know their names, shepherd?

But yes, mistress. Look! Just above us, see the Way of Saint Jacques (the Milky Way). It comes to France all the way from Spain. It is St.Jacques of Galice who traced it to show the way to Charlemagne when he made war upon the Saracens[1]. Next you have The Chariot of Souls (the Great Bear) with its four resplendent axles. The three stars below are the Three Beasts and the little one next to the three is the Charioteer. See that rain of stars that fall? They are the souls that the good God does not want with him. A little lower there is the Rake of the Three Kings (Orion). By this we set our clocks, we others. By looking at nothing but them, I know now what minute it is. A little lower, always in the middle, shines the brilliant Jean de Milan, the flame of the stars. (Sirius) About this star the shepherds tell a tale. It came about that one night, Jean de Milan with the Rake of the Three Kings and The Chicken Coop (The Pleiades), were invited to a wedding feast of a star friend. The Chicken Coop, most eager, it is said, was the first and took the high road. The Rake of Three Kings, took a short cut, and caught him up, but the lazy Jean de Milan, slept in late and was always behind, and furious, threw his stick at them to stop them. That is why The Three are also called The Stick of Jean de Milan…. But the most beautiful of all the stars, mistress, is our own, Star of the Shepherd, which lights our way at the dawn when we come out with our flocks, and also at the evening when we return. We call her Maguelonne, the beautiful Maguelonne who chased after Peter of Provence (Saturn) and was married to him for seven years.

What! Shepherd, there are marriages between the stars?

            But yes, mistress.

            And as I tried to explain to her these marriages I felt something cool and small weigh slowly upon my shoulder. It was her head, heavy with sleep lying against me with a pretty flurry of ribbon and lace and wavy hair. She rested there without moving until the moment the stars in the sky faded, erased by the day that arose. Me, I watched her sleep, a little troubled in the bottom of my mind, but piously protected by that clear night that gave me nothing but good thoughts. Around us the stars continued their silent progress, docile as a great flock, and from time to time I imagined that one of the stars, the finest, the most brilliant, having lost her way had come to rest on my shoulder and sleep.

[1] All these popular astronomic details are traditions from the Almanac Provencal, published in Avignon (Daudet’s note)

Read Part Two: Shooting Stars on tomorrows Daily

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  1. […] You might think the translation a bit clunky. We certainly do, but that’s not the point. Whatever it is, it forms the basis of our understanding of the original story, and gives the prompt to wanting to re-write it for the here and now (or at least, for a there and then recalled in the here and now). The same would be true if the original had been written in our own language. There are always limitations on what we think we have read, and what we draw from any story or are driven to by it must be inspired within those limitations. So the clunky translation is not only a gateway to that original, but also to the re-written story. Here’s a gateway to Stories of Starlight […]

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