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Songs of Bilitis

Word count: 1510

Song Cycle by Claude Achille Debussy (1862 - 1918)

Original language: Chansons de Bilitis

1. Pastoral Song

Language: English after the French (Français)

Authorship

  • Translation from French (Français) to English copyright © 2003 by Marvin J. Ward, (re)printed on this website with kind permission. To reprint and distribute this author's work for concert programs, CD booklets, etc., you may ask the copyright-holder(s) directly or ask us; we are authorized to grant permission on their behalf. Please provide the translator's name when contacting us.

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We must sing a pastoral song, invoke Pan, 
god of the summer wind. I watch my flock 
and Sélénis watches hers, in the round
shade of a trembling olive tree.

Sélénis is lying in the meadow. 
She rises and runs, or searches for grasshoppers, 
or gathers flowers with grasses, 
or washes her face in the cool water of the brook.

And I, I tear the wool from the blond backs of the sheep 
to fill up my distaff, and I spin. 
The hours pass too slowly. 
An eagle passes in the sky.

The shade turns, let us move the basket 
of [figs]1 and the jar of milk. 
We must sing a pastoral song, 
invoke Pan, god of the summer wind.


View original text (without footnotes)
1 Debussy version: "flowers"

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2. Comparisons

Language: English after the French (Français)

Authorship

  • Translation from French (Français) to English copyright © 2003 by Marvin J. Ward, (re)printed on this website with kind permission. To reprint and distribute this author's work for concert programs, CD booklets, etc., you may ask the copyright-holder(s) directly or ask us; we are authorized to grant permission on their behalf. Please provide the translator's name when contacting us.

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 Little Sparrow, bird of Kypris, sing with our first desires! The
 fresh bodies of the young girls are covered with flowers like the
 earth. The night of all our dreams is approaching and we talk of it
 amongst ourselves.

 Sometimes, we compare together our beauties so different, our hair
 already long, our young breasts still small, our puberties round like
 quails and hidden under the nascent down.

 Yesterday, I fought this way with Melanthô my elder. She was
 proud of her breasts which had grown in a month, and, pointing to my
 flat tunic, she called me Little Child.

 Not a single man could see us, we got naked in front of the girls,
 and, if she won on one point, I won by far on the others. Little
 Sparrow, bird of Kypris, sing with our first desires!


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3. The tales

Language: English after the French (Français)

Authorship

  • Translation from French (Français) to English copyright © 2003 by Marvin J. Ward, (re)printed on this website with kind permission. To reprint and distribute this author's work for concert programs, CD booklets, etc., you may ask the copyright-holder(s) directly or ask us; we are authorized to grant permission on their behalf. Please provide the translator's name when contacting us.

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I am beloved of the little children; 
as soon as they see me, they run to me,
and clutch my tunic, and take my legs 
in their little arms.

If they have gathered flowers, they give them all to me;
if they have caught a beetle, they put it in my hand; 
if they have nothing, they caress me 
and make me sit down in front of them.

Then they kiss me on the cheek, 
they put their heads on my breasts;
they plead with me with their eyes. 
I know well what that means.

That means: "Dear Bilitis, tell us [again] 
because we are nice,  the story 
of the hero Perseus or the death of little Hellé. "


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4. Song

Language: English after the French (Français)

Authorship

  • Translation from French (Français) to English copyright © 2003 by Marvin J. Ward, (re)printed on this website with kind permission. To reprint and distribute this author's work for concert programs, CD booklets, etc., you may ask the copyright-holder(s) directly or ask us; we are authorized to grant permission on their behalf. Please provide the translator's name when contacting us.

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"Shade of the woods where she was to come, 
Tell me where did my mistress go?" 
"She went down onto the plain." - 
"Plain, where did my mistress go?" -
"She followed the banks of the stream."

"Beautiful river, who saw her pass, 
tell me, is she near here?" 
"She left me for the path." - 
"Path, do you see her still?" -
"She left me for the road."

"O white road, road to the city, tell me, 
where did you lead her?" - 
"To the golden road which enters Sardis." -
"O, road of light, do you touch her bare feet?" -
"She went into the palace of the king."

"O palace, splendor of the earth, give her back to me!" - 
"Look, she has collars on her breasts 
and tassels in her hair, 
a hundred pearls along her legs, 
two arms around her waist."


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5. The Game of Jacks

Language: English after the French (Français)

Authorship

  • Translation from French (Français) to English copyright © 2003 by Marvin J. Ward, (re)printed on this website with kind permission. To reprint and distribute this author's work for concert programs, CD booklets, etc., you may ask the copyright-holder(s) directly or ask us; we are authorized to grant permission on their behalf. Please provide the translator's name when contacting us.

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Since we both love him, 
we played jacks with him. 
And it was a famous game. 
Many young girls watched it.

First, she cast the throw of the Kyclôpes, 
and I, the throw of Sôlon.  But she, 
the Kallibolos, and I, feeling I'd lost, 
I prayed to the goddess!

I played, I had the Epiphénôn,
she the terrible throw of Khios, me the Antiteukhos,
she the Trikhias, and I the throw of Aphrodite
which won the disputed lover.

But, seeing her grow pale, I took her by the neck
and I told her everything in her ear 
(so that she alone could hear me): 
"Do not cry, little friend, 
we will let him choose between us."


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6. Bilitis

Language: English after the French (Français)

Authorship

  • Translation from French (Français) to English copyright © 2003 by Marvin J. Ward, (re)printed on this website with kind permission. To reprint and distribute this author's work for concert programs, CD booklets, etc., you may ask the copyright-holder(s) directly or ask us; we are authorized to grant permission on their behalf. Please provide the translator's name when contacting us.

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One woman envelops herself in white wool.
Another clothes herself in silk and gold.
Another covers herself in flowers, 
green leaves and grapes. 

I, I can only live naked. 
My lover, take me as I am: 
without dress or jewels or sandals, 
here is Bilitis alone. 

My hair is black with its blackness 
and my lips are red with their redness. 
My curls float around me free 
and round like feathers. 

Take me just as my mother made me 
in a night of love long ago, 
and if I am pleasing to you thus, 
do not forget to tell me so.


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7. The Nameless Tomb

Language: English after the French (Français)

Authorship

  • Translation from French (Français) to English copyright © 2003 by Marvin J. Ward, (re)printed on this website with kind permission. To reprint and distribute this author's work for concert programs, CD booklets, etc., you may ask the copyright-holder(s) directly or ask us; we are authorized to grant permission on their behalf. Please provide the translator's name when contacting us.

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Mnasidika having taken me by the hand
led me outside the gates of the city, 
to a small uncultivated field
where there was a marble stele,
and she said to me: "This was my mother's lover."

Then I felt a great shiver, 
and without letting go of her hand, 
I leaned on her shoulder, 
in order to read the four verses 
between the hollow cup and the snake:

"It is not death that took me away
but the Nymphs of the springs. 
I am resting here beneath the light earth 
with Xanthô's cut hair. 
May she alone weep for me. 
I do not tell my name." 

We remained standing for a long time,
and we did not pour the libation.
For how should we call an unknown soul 
from amongst the throngs in Hades?


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8. The Egyptian Courtesans

Language: English after the French (Français)

Authorship

  • Translation from French (Français) to English copyright © 2003 by Marvin J. Ward, (re)printed on this website with kind permission. To reprint and distribute this author's work for concert programs, CD booklets, etc., you may ask the copyright-holder(s) directly or ask us; we are authorized to grant permission on their behalf. Please provide the translator's name when contacting us.

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I went with Plango 
to the Egyptian courtesans, 
way up at the top of the old city. 
They have earthenware amphorae, 
copper platters and yellow mats 
where they squat without effort. 

Their bedrooms are quiet, 
without angles or corners, 
so much have the successive layers of blue stucco 
blunted the capitals 
and rounded the base of the walls. 

They stand motionless, 
their hands resting on their knees. 
When they offer the soup, 
they murmur: "Happiness." 
And when you thank them,
they say: "Thanks to you." 

They understand Hellenic and pretend to speak it badly 
in order to make fun of us in their language; 
but we, tooth for tooth, we speak Lydian 
and suddenly they become uneasy.


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9. The pure water of the basin

Language: English after the French (Français)

Authorship

  • Translation from French (Français) to English copyright © 2003 by Marvin J. Ward, (re)printed on this website with kind permission. To reprint and distribute this author's work for concert programs, CD booklets, etc., you may ask the copyright-holder(s) directly or ask us; we are authorized to grant permission on their behalf. Please provide the translator's name when contacting us.

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"Pure water of the basin, motionless mirror, 
tell me my beauty." "Bilitis, or whoever you are,
Thetys perhaps or Amphitrite, 
you are beautiful, know it. 

Your face is tilted beneath your thick hair,
swollen with flowers and perfume. 
Your soft eyelids are scarcely open 
and your flanks are weary from the movements of love. 

Your body tired from the weight of your breasts bears 
the fine marks of the fingernail 
and the blue stains of the kiss. 
Your arms are red from the embrace. 
Every line of your skin was loved." 

"Clear water of the basin, your coolness gives rest. 
Receive me who am indeed weary. 
Take away the color from my cheeks, and the sweat from
my belly and the memory of the night."


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10. The Dancer With Krotales

Language: English after the French (Français)

Authorship

  • Translation from French (Français) to English copyright © 2003 by Marvin J. Ward, (re)printed on this website with kind permission. To reprint and distribute this author's work for concert programs, CD booklets, etc., you may ask the copyright-holder(s) directly or ask us; we are authorized to grant permission on their behalf. Please provide the translator's name when contacting us.

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You attach to your light hands 
your resounding krotales, Myrrhinidion, my dear, 
and barely naked out of the dress, 
you stretch your nervous limbs. 
How pretty you are, arms in the air, 
loins arched and breasts red! 

You begin: you place your feet one in front of the other,
hesitate, and slide softly. 
Your body bends like a scarf, 
you caress your skin which shivers, 
and voluptuousness floods your long fainted eyes. 

Suddenly, you strike the krotales! 
Arch yourself up on your raised feet, 
shake your loins, throw your legs and your hands full of noise
call all the desires in a band around your spinning body. 

We applaud with great cries, whether, 
smiling over your shoulder, 
you shake with a shiver your convulsive and muscular behind, 
or you undulate almost extended, 
to the rhythm of your memories.


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11. The Memory of Mnasidika

Language: English after the French (Français)

Authorship

  • Translation from French (Français) to English copyright © 2003 by Marvin J. Ward, (re)printed on this website with kind permission. To reprint and distribute this author's work for concert programs, CD booklets, etc., you may ask the copyright-holder(s) directly or ask us; we are authorized to grant permission on their behalf. Please provide the translator's name when contacting us.

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They danced one in front of the other, 
with a rapid and fleeing movement; 
they seemed always to wish to enlace each other, 
and yet they never touched, 
except with the tips of their lips. 

When they turned their backs in dancing, 
they looked at each other, heads on their shoulders, 
and the sweat shone on their raised arms,
and their fine hair flowed across their breasts. 

The languor of their eyes, the fire in their cheeks, 
the seriousness of their faces, were three ardent songs. 
They grazed each other furtively, 
they bent their bodies on their hips. 

And suddenly, they fell, 
to finish the supple dance on the ground ... 
Memory of Mnasidika, it was then that you appeared, 
and everything, other than your image, was unwelcome.


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12. The Morning Rain

Language: English after the French (Français)

Authorship

  • Translation from French (Français) to English copyright © 2003 by Marvin J. Ward, (re)printed on this website with kind permission. To reprint and distribute this author's work for concert programs, CD booklets, etc., you may ask the copyright-holder(s) directly or ask us; we are authorized to grant permission on their behalf. Please provide the translator's name when contacting us.

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Night is ending. The stars are fading away.
Now the last courtesans have gone in 
with their lovers. 
And I, in the morning rain, 
I am writing these verses in the sand.

The leaves are loaded with shining water. 
Streams across the paths 
carry the earth and the dead leaves. 
The rain, drop by drop, 
is making holes in my song.

Oh, how sad and alone I am here! 
The youngest do not look at me; 
the oldest have forgotten me. It is good. 
They will learn my verses, 
and the children of their children.

There is what neither Myrtalê, nor Thaïs, 
nor Glikéra will say to each other, 
the day when their beautiful cheeks are hollow. 
Those who love after me 
will sing my stanzas together.


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