Récréations postales – A Translation Case Study


The American artist, James McNeill Whistler became friends with the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé during 1887. This important friendship led to a variety of collaborations: Mallarmé translated Whistler’s essay on art and aesthetics, ‘The Ten O’Clock Lecture’; Whistler created images of Mallarmé and worked with him on the design of various books, including Vers et prose which contains his portrait of Mallarmé as a frontispiece. This friendship also led – eventually – to the University of Glasgow acquiring a set of rare, hand-written manuscripts by Mallarmé.

Récréations Postales

During a visit to Mallarmé in February 1892, Whistler came across a notebook into which the poet has copied a set of quatrains, four line poems in the form of addresses. Mallarmé took a particular interest in creating ‘occasional’ verse – poems inscribed on objects and gifts such as fans or even glacé fruit, or poems that celebrate a particular person or event. The quatrains that Whistler discovered were all supposed to be written on envelopes for letters to his literary and artistic friends (although it’s not clear how many of them were actually sent).

Fascinated, Whistler undertook to get these poems into print for Mallarmé. He touted a manuscript copy of these poems to his own publisher, William Heinemann, under the title of Récréations postales. When this proposal was turned down, he took them to James Osgood of McIlvaine and Co. By September 1893 it looked as if a deluxe edition of 89 quatrains would be published the next year. But for unknown reasons, this never happened. Instead, a smaller edition of 27 quatrains appeared as ‘Loisirs de la poste’ in an American periodical called the Chap Book in December 1894. The fuller version of these poems was only published after Mallarmé’s death in volume called Vers de circonstance (1920).

Autograph copies of all 89 quatrains are now held at Glasgow University Library. These came to the Library through the gift of Whistler’s daughter-in-law, Rosalie Birne Philips and were included amongst a wealth of books, painting and manuscripts that make up the Whistler holdings in Special Collections.

The Online Case Study

As part of the ‘Decadence and Translation’ Network’s activities, we are using a small selection of these quatrains for a translation case study. Click on the links here to find digital scans of seven manuscript pages from Récréations postales: 

In addition to images of the manuscripts you will find transcriptions of the French originals and translations into plain English prose. These have all been annotated (click on underlined words and phrases for more information).

We think these are fascinating and challenging texts and would love to see what readers from across the internet make of them. As well as reading the poems, we’re encouraging you to contribute translations, versions or imitations of Mallarmé’s poems in whatever language form you like. This online exhibition will be incorporated into a physical installation in the form of a large touch screen device at the Glasgow University Library for our last network event during December 2019.