Translation or Imitation? Italianism and Italianisms in Joachim Du Bellay’s Vernacular Poetry


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In his Deffence of 1549 Du Bellay set up polemically a clear distinction, even a binary opposition, between ‘translation’ and poetic ‘imitation’, advocating the latter in the development of the French language and its new poetry, and criticizing the former, whilst at the same time promoting above all translinguistic (translational) imitation of Italian as well as Greek and Latin poetic models. He would go on to blur further the translation-imitation distinction in his preface to the second, augmented L’Olive of 1550, in defense of (and despite) his close translinguistic reliance upon Italian Petrarchist models in his L’Olive of 1549, formulating there ideas about unconscious, spontaneous imitation, as well as looser, freer ‘imitation’. This paper aims to situate and better understand these tensions and possible contradictions, or shifting modifications of thought, about ‘translation’ and ‘imitation’ in the context not only of contemporary pronouncements about translation (notably, in Sebillet’s Art Poetique of 1548, and in Pelletier’s of 1555), but also in direct comparison with the translational reflections and practice of Du Bellay’s Italianizing contemporary and bilingual (French-Italian) poet-translator friend Jean-Pierre de Mesmes (whose ownership of a copy of Du Bellay’s vernacular works further attests the close literary and linguistic relationship between these two contemporary Italianizing writers). The paper then goes on to test Du Bellay’s (and De Mesmes’) shared ideas about free (non-verbatim) translation against Du Bellay’s own imitative-translational practice, first in the Parisian L’Olive, but subsequently in Du Bellay’s Roman vernacular poetry of 1553-57, marked by conscious use and imitation of italianisms as well as Italianate models. The near contemporary reader and philologist Henri Estienne even remarked in his subsequent annotations upon Du Bellay’s vernacular poetry, that his verses (notably, Les Regrets), contained ‘many translations’. If the polemical and theoretical context of 1549 at first generated the Deffence’s oversimplified, damning rejection of ‘translation’, in favour of poetic ‘imitation’, the same 1549 context and its immediate aftermath in the 1550s, saw Du Bellay’s own translinguistic reflections and poetic practice manifest themselves and evolve as a form of ‘translational’ imitation heavily indebted poetically and verbally to Italian models and language, in both France and Rome.


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