The Conquerors – A French Poem about Columbus’ Voyage

In my last blog post, I mentioned how Columbus’ voyage is not always seen in a positive light. Earlier in the week, I had posted two poems that were positive towards Columbus (one called In 1492, Columbus Sailed the Ocean Blue and the other, a Spanish poem called To Christopher Columbus). Here’s one that is not so favourable. It was written by a Cuban-born French poet named José-Maria de Heredia (1842-1905).

Monique Palomares of Mama Lisa’s World en français sent this poem to me. She learnt it in France in the 8th grade. Below you’ll find it in the original French, followed by an English translation done by Monique Palomares, Lisa Yannucci (yours truly) and Jason Pomerantz. Yes, this was a tough poem to translate! It took the three of us to finally come up with a version that was understandable, yet true to the original meaning. Hope you enjoy reading it (whatever your stand on Columbus is)…

Les conquérants

Comme un vol de gerfauts hors du charnier natal,
Fatigués de porter leurs misères hautaines,
De Palos de Moguer, routiers et capitaines
Partaient, ivres d’un rêve héroïque et brutal.

Ils allaient conquérir le fabuleux métal
Que Cipango* mûrit dans ses mines lointaines,
Et les vents alizés inclinaient leurs antennes
Aux bords mystérieux du monde Occidental.

Chaque soir, espérant des lendemains épiques,
L’azur phosphorescent de la mer des Tropiques
Enchantait leur sommeil d’un mirage doré ;

Ou penchés à l’avant des blanches caravelles,
Ils regardaient monter en un ciel ignoré
Du fond de l’Océan des étoiles nouvelles.

The Conquerors
(English Translation)

Like a flight of gyrfalcons*, from the charnel house of their native land,
Tired of bearing their haughty miseries,
From Palos to Moguer**, captains and mercenaries
Embarked, wild with a heroic and brutal dream.

They voyaged to conquer the famous metal***,
Produced by Japan**** in its distant mines,
As trade winds stretched their tentacles
Over the mysterious rim of the Western world.

Every night, as they hoped for epic tomorrows,
The phosphorescent blue sky of the Tropical sea
Enchanted their sleep with a golden mirage;

Leaning on the bows of the white caravels,
They gazed on new stars rising in an unknown sky,
From the far end of the Ocean.

*A “gyrfalcon” is the largest breed of falcons. They’re from the Artic region. This word (gerfauts) is used in French for poetic reasons (it sounds exotic). The average French person doesn’t know about gyrfalcons unless s/he’s an ornithologist or learned this poem at school.
**Palos is the port that Christopher Columbus departed from.
Moguer is a Spanish town that helped prepare for Columbus’ trip.
In the middle of the 16th century, some chroniclers who’d never been there thought Moguer and Palos were one only town while they’re actually two towns distant by 10km (about 6 miles). Other people didn’t check and used the name “Palos de Moguer” to mean the port Columbus departed from. This poem is an example of this confusion.
***Meaning ‘Gold’.
****In French it says “Cipango” (meaning the country of gold). It’s the first name Europeans gave to Japan. Japan was believed to have large amounts of gold.

This article was posted on Tuesday, October 7th, 2008 at 11:40 pm and is filed under Columbus Day, Columbus Day Poems, Countries & Cultures, France, French, French Poems, Holiday Poems, Holidays Around the World, Languages, Poetry, USA. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

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