Looking for Poèmes Algol by Noël Arnaud


I am looking for a book by Oulipo member Noël Arnaud, his Poèmes Algol from 1968. Just thought I’d ask here. Does anybody here have it, or know how where I can find a copy? To buy, borrow or steal. Well, maybe not steal.

Obviously, and contrary to common belief, you can’t find everything on the Internet—nor in Swedish public and research libraries.

I’ve been looking out for the ALGOL poems since your post, and—violà!—I’ve found a French anthology of Oulipian texts that includes a dozen or so of Noël Arnauds ALGOL Poems. The original «Poèmes ALGOL» were 96 pages, apparently, including postface etc., so there has to be more of them somewhere.

To my surprise (since ALGOL keywords are in English) the poems seems to be all in French. Arnaud has translated the 24 keywords of plain vanilla ALGOL to French and then used these French words as the basis for his ALGOL poems.

[code]true vrai
false faux

goto aller à
if si
then alors
else sinon
for pour
do faire

step pas
until jusqu’à
while tant que
comment commentaire

begin début
end fin

own rémanent
Boolean booléen
integer entier
real réel
array tableau
switch aguillage
procedure procédure

string chaîne
label étiquette
value valeur
As a translation of ALGOL, Arnaud’s translation has a few flaws, I guess—«aller à» and «faire» are not imperatives (but infinitives) while «pas», «début», and «fin» are not verbs at all (but nouns); still (as English doesn’t wear its syntactical categories on its sleeves, anyway), you might expect that the resulting poems would be eminently retranslatable into English, but you would be disappointed.

Here’s an example:

Whatever that means (and I’ll leave it to the French speakers of the forum to tell us what it actually means.), it can’t very well be anything like

Here’s another:

This, I think, means (though the parenthetical remark to the title warns there is not much meaning in it):

«Pas» in French meaning both “step” and “not”!

And yet another one (said to be richer in meaning):

I guess this means:

Note that in that last one, Arnaud introduces the word «faut», meaning “has to”, which is pronounced just like the base vocabulary word «faux» (meaning “false”).

There’s a deep lesson here (perhaps) to be learned with regard to translation in general. I’m not positive just what it is, though.

Several of the other poems are composed not directly out of Arnauds French ALGOL vocabulary itself but of syllables (as pronounced, not as spelled) contained in that vocabulary. Here we go:

using syllables from the following French ALGOL words (pronounced identically, though spelled differently when needed): tabLEAU, déBUT, commENTAIRE, ENTIER, vaLEUR, TANT QUE.

Arnaud also plays other tricks with his base vocabulary—changing the consonants in all the words he uses for another e.g. S as in

transforming the words:

and meaning something like

(Unless this would be a more faithful translation!


There’s a deep lesson here (perhaps) to be learned with regard to translation in general. I’m not positive just what it is, though.
The rule of thumb generally is that to translate poetry, the translator need be not only fluent in both languages but also a skilled poet themselves. (No offense intended!)

These poems (especially the one near your remark, ALGORICHE (riche de sens)) seem to rely on a high degree of phonetic wordplay, using lots of alliteration and assonance, so necessarily whatever you translated to might retain the overall /meaning/, which is often beside the point, while losing the overall /sound/. They lose their appeal the same as pop music lyrics do when divorced of their throbbing beats and hypnotic music video context.

For antique machine poetry you’re probably better off enjoying the myth of The Policeman’s Beard Is Half Constructed, and for English sound poetry in this vein, you should find a copy of Christian Bok’s Eunoia.

I didn’t know anything about “Poèmes Algol” before reading this post, this intrigues me :smiley:
I’m guessing, in Oulipo fashion, that it was an attempt at constructing poems using a very strict constraint, which is to only use the Algol base words. And I’m also guessing that, at the time, “computer talk” was seen as a new and interesting language, and Arnaud wanted to play with it, or something like that. By the way, Felix, I wouldn’t have guessed the connection between MACHINALGOL and the Algol language, good job for finding it :slight_smile:

On the topic of translating the Algol keywords, I think that his translation is actually “correct” - that is, in line with how French people write pseudocode, even nowadays: in particular, we use infinitive forms when English uses what looks like imperative. And I don’t even think it’s just a bad translation someone did one day and everyone stuck with it for some reason: I’m pretty sure cookbooks in French use the infinitive to detail the steps (as in “Battre les oeufs en neige” or “Faire cuire à 175°C”). And French intro classes to algorithmics will tell you that an algorithm is like a cooking recipe :smiley:
Interestingly, this also carries to interactive fiction: French players have a tendency to use infinitive forms of verbs (imperative is also supported), when English players seem to think of it as imperative. We talked a little bit about it in the last FrenchComp’s thread.

If I may discuss the translations (and those poems are pretty hard to translate, even to a native speaker!!), the first one seems very complicated to me because of the multiple meanings every word has: “chaîne” means string, but also chain or channel; “tableau” means array but also painting, and “valeur” means value but also worth. Thus it is impossible to translate in English using only ALGOL words, and merely very hard if you lift that restriction.
I might have found some meaning (although I’m sure it’s the wrong one), so I’ll have a go at it:

This would be the clearer, more expansive interpretation that I have in mind:

(very, very loose interpretation!)

As for the fourth one, it’s actually rather unsubtle:

The sausage referring of course to… yknow.

Alas, I can’t accept the praise, much as I’d love to—Arnaud (or possibly the anthologists) already provided the key.

Thanks for the information on French recipe uses of infinitives and the—in hindsight obvious—translation of the saucy sausage insinuation. (I have only the very slightest knowledge of French as yet, but I’m working on it, albeit slowly.)

Surely Felix is right in translating “serai” as a first person verb?

No offense taken! I’ve made my living partly as an English->Swedish translator for ten years now, so I’m under no illusions as to the quality of my translations of those poems.

The Internet is not totally useless after all.

As far as I can find, the only form where “serai” makes full sense is indeed as “Je serai” - Futur Simple (“I will be”, basically).

But the “ça” kinda takes precedence. “Ça serait” means “that would be”, and there’s not much you can say about it. But in that case, the spelling doesn’t fit.

I’m fairly certain that French is one of those languages where the pronoun is compulsory. There are so many similarities, if you ommit the pronoun, it gets muddled up beyond all recognition. Chances are, if it doesn’t have “Je” (or “nous”), it’s not a first person verb… even if the spelling is.

It’s a mystery.


Awesome, nice find, Felix.

You know I’m a Swede too - I scoured the libraries here as well, it seems you’d need to go to Paris or New York to dig up a copy.

What’s this “French anthology of Oulipian texts” where you found this? Where’d you find THAT?

Oops. All that ranting and still I managed not to give you the piece of information you really asked for.
This sample of ALGOL poems can be found in either of two anthologies: «La littérature potentielle» and «Anthologie de l’OuLiPo».
And you can locate them within Sweden with a Libris Library Catalogue search for “Oulipo”: http://libris.kb.se/hitlist?q=OuLiPo&r=;spr:fre&f=simp&g=&m=10&p=1&d=libris&s=r&t=v