The Three Birds (a ballade translation)

Depart at once and fly away,
Beyond golden fields of oats and hay,

To the wood pigeon was my query.
Find me the flower, without delay,
Which will make her take note and love me.

But the wood pigeon, it said, Nay, nay.
It told me: That’s too far away!

Take flight, and soar aloft up high,
Help me, I count on it, as you fly,
To the eagle I vainly inquired.
Find me fire from heaven in the sky,
If to delight her that is required.
But the eagle, in its reply,
It told me: That’s too far up high!

Devour! Before it is too late,
This heart, too full of her in this state,
To the vulture I at last pleaded.
Take your share, no need to be ornate,
Leave undamaged parts that are needed.
But the vulture answered, without wait,
It told me: That’s too far, too late!

05.23.94 – 07.11.94


This poem is my personal translation of the French poem Les Trois Oiseaux (The Three Birds), by François Coppée as part of his L’Exilée collection in 1877. However, I translated it not just into English, but into the French ballade form, to keep some respect for the French origins of the original poem that appears below.



J’ai dit au ramier: Pars et va quand même,
Au delà des champs d’avoine et de foin,
Me chercher la fleur qui fera qu’on m’aime.
La ramier m’a dit: C’est trop loin!

Et j’ai dit à l’aigle: Aide moi, j’y compte,
Et, si c’est le feu du ciel qu’il me faut,
Pour l’aller ravir, prends ton vol et monte.
Et l’aigle m’a dit: C’est trop haut!

Et j’ai dit enfin au vautour: Dévore
Ce coeur trop plein d’elle et prends ta part.
Laisse ce qui peut être intact encore.
La vautour m’a dit: C’est trop tard!

François Coppée


Copyright by Minh Tan on listed dated of completion.



Notes to this poem…

Let’s get one thing straight. I am totally against poetry translation. I’m generally against most literature translations, especially great literature, except to share knowledge because of the cultural context and possibly references inferred which the translation would often miss out on or else be awkward in presenting. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t be done well, but often not and never as good as the original. I am especially against poetic translations because poetry is often packed with, both, cultural values and references, which, if translated in the compact form that is poetry, would either be lost or be extremely awkward, better left as a long list of footnotes.

Let’s get a second thing straight. My French was never very good despite good marks in French class for many years. That is hardly good French in the real world, and especially not adequate for a translation, although I had the skills to really learn what I needed to know, albeit painstakingly so, when I needed it.

Those two things said, it should give you an idea how much I loved the original French poem to go and translate it anyway. I even dared to do it into ballade form, which’s origin is French. Looking back now, and almost after I had the translation completed, the audacity of such a thought that I would be able to succeed was vainly arrogant of me regarding my language abilities shocked me, to be honest. I might have mastered English at the time into my first language, originally my second as I had been born Vietnamese, but still, I would have dared any of my friends at the time with a mastery of English to have tried such a thing, never mind myself. However, I feel I succeeded well and, if nothing else, at least be able to share with other English readers a poem I found beautiful when they might otherwise not bother to read it because they couldn’t understand French.

I can’t remember for certain where I found this poem, but I do believe it was in a classical music CD liner note. I was randomly borrowing classical CDs from the library to randomly explore classical music and I am pretty sure it came from there, somewhere. Whatever the truth, this poem translation is in a strict poetic form that should I be able to find a melody for it, a song should emerge fairly easily, and I do hope to write this into a song one day.


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