"Whoever wishes to create a poem which will endure will not take as his subject such vulgur and particular matters." Thus, 70 years after Francois Villon passed from men's eyes, did his first editor, Clement Marot, take the vagabond poet to task for filling his greater and lesser Testaments with names and allusions that would have to be obscure to anyone who was not a Parisian (preferably a memeber of the Paris underworld) around 1460. Add to this note the fact that editor-translator Kinnell says a substantial part of Villon's work "cannot be translated successfully," and the prognosis for this collection seems cloudy at best.
Not so, however. Although (more likely, because) he focused so tightly on his own interior monologues and on the physical minutiae of his time and place, Villon is one of the handful of writers in history who speak to all times and places. And the translation, though seldom brilliant, has a quality ultimately even more valuable in this kind of writing: transparency.
The transparency is, of course, relative; any poem worth reading offers the translator an almost unlimited range of options, and in Villon's case these options have been used for virtuoso display by translators beginning with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and continuing through Swinburne up to Robert Lowell and Richard Wilbur. Kinnell opts usually for the direct simplicity which is one of Villon's notable traits. Rossetti's "Where are the snows of yesteryear" becomes the plain "But where are the snows of last winter." Kinnell makes no attempt to follow the intricate rhyme schemes which came naturally to Villon and inevitably sound contrived and prettified in modern English. The avoidance of prettiness extends to the blunt presentation of the four-letter words (usually five or six letters in French), and this, too, helps to make Villion sound like a man of our times.
Like those other notorious jailbirds Dante and Cervantes, Villon and the modern reader a barrier more impenetrable than the Middle French language, and Kinnell has stripped that barrier away. One may wonder whether the humble task of a rather literal translation calls for a poetic talent as high-powered as his. He demonstrates that it does.
It should be noted that the edition is bilingual, with the French text on pages facing the English - an excellent way to acquaint readers with the strong but delicate forms this poet used. The notes are succinct but informative, giving the identity of the mysterious Archipiada and big-footed Bertha as well as the more mundane Jean Laurens (whose identity is important for poetic irony). And if Kinnell misses the reference to "ecus" following that to "saluts" in line 1287 of "The Testament," the lack is hardly traumatic. His introduction is a good brief treatment of a poet whose work calls for whole books of interpretation - and the thorough bibliography lists the most notable of such books for those who want to explore further. An almost exemplary edition. (Houghton Mifflin, $10; paperback, $5.95)