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December 05, 2016
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Translating the Fables of La Fontaine: A Creative Linguistic Challenge

By Pearl Hochstadt

Everyone has an urge to be creative. It’s important, though, to recognize one’s proper medium. I’ve picked up paintbrushes, cameras and sketchpads. I’ve satisfied my brief obsession with quilting with the completion of one potholder. And I finally had to admit that my medium is words.

But that still left one big question: What would I write about? Inspiration came only rarely. And I wasn’t sufficiently pleased with my occasional poetic effusions to write them down (a failure I still regret). Then, in 1998, the answer came to me. I had just attended my high school class’s 50th-year reunion — my first ever — and I recalled how in French class we had had to memorize the first few fables of the 17th-century poet Jean de La Fontaine. I could still recite them. Why not try to translate them, aiming to approximate not just their sense but also their meter and rhyme schemes? That would be a fun game. Better yet, since La Fontaine had published the fables in twelve separate books, if I committed myself to finishing one book a year I would have a project that would carry me to the age of eighty. And so I was launched. I kept to my schedule, only allowing myself extra time for Book XII because it was twice as long as the longest of the preceding books.