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This review is taken from PN Review 52, Volume 13 Number 2, November - December 1986.

FOLLIES La Fontaine, 100 Fables, bilingual edition with translations by Francis Scarfe (British Institute in Paris) £15.00

There is no altogether satisfactory English version of La Fontaine's Fables. Their seeming simplicity is altogether deceptive; the alternation of long and short lines, the constantly changing rhyme schemes, the mixture of mythological and colloquial - all are the instruments of a mind of considerable flexibility and constant alertness, balancing affection and wit, humour and elegance. Edward Marsh too often overbalances into whimsy; James Michie does not really do justice to the tonal variety of the original. Bernard Mandeville's eighteenth-century versions have a crude, almost Hudibrastic, vigour, achieved at the cost of La Fontaine's grace and rhythmic sophistication. Reginald Jarman's complete translation of 1962 is humdrum and stiff. Marianne Moore's versions are always entertaining; they have much of her characteristic quirkiness of mind but, for some tastes at least, her own powerful poetic personality intrudes too forcefully between her reader and La Fontaine. Elizur Wright's complete nineteenth-century version remains very readable, if not especially exciting, and there are, of course interesting translations of individual fables by such as Lowell and Frere. John Cairncross produced a very competent small selection a few years ago. Now we have a translation of 100 fables (with French text on the facing-page) by the late Francis Scarfe (he died in March at the age of 75). 'Le Coq et la perle' will serve as a convenient test-piece:


Un jour un Coq détourna
Une perle qu'il donna
Au beau premier lapidaire.
'Je la crois fine', dit-il,
'Mais ...


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