derborence.jpg (14277 bytes)Dwight Peck's lengthy translations

Derborence, by Ramuz

when the mountain fell

translated by D. C. Peck with assistance from Petit Robert

ramuz.gif (27068 bytes)Charles Ferdinand Ramuz was born in Lausanne in 1878, hung out in Paris with the artsy Big Boys from 1903 to 1914, then gratefully came home and never left again. He is doubtless the premier Swiss French writer, and in the course of his long career – he died in 1947 in Pully, near Lausanne – he created a very large body of extraordinary works. In my own non-expert view, his most outstanding achievement was his creation of a melding of an "artless" Swiss mountain peasant way of thought and expression with a structural idiom based upon the sophisticated mindset of Greek drama and the force of expressionist French poetry. I’ve not read all of his books, and I don’t read French as a native might, but my favorites are definitely Derborence (1934) and Le grande peur dans la montagne (1926), both of which brilliantly capture pre-modern high-mountain life in almost a post-modern idiom.

Derborence is still a wonderful place (though the chef of the low-cost lodgings there, in Godey, seems frequently to fall off the back porch drunk, leaving the desperate waitress to offer lodgers only salads and the cheese fondue). Situated at about 1450 meters in a vast hollow behind the massif of the Diablerets, the "mountain of the devils" (3208m), but looking squintingly out southward through a really vicious gorge towards Sion and the valley of the Rhône, Derborence has been a high mountain pasturage since Roman times, used in summer by the peasants of the villages high above Sion in the canton of Valais. The Pas de Chevilles, however, leads steeply up westward over towards Bex in the canton of Vaud [map below], and the Col de Sanetsch leads northwards over towards Gsteig and Gstaad in the canton of Bern.

In the 18th century, extremely large pieces of the Diablerets and its glaciers broke off and descended upon Derborence, to everyone’s instant regret. There, every summer, grazers brought up their cows and sheep and lived in teeny rustic little huts, shoving the animals around and living on bread and cheese inexorably hardening and wishing TV had been invented. Moms, and kids, and all the old dads and grandmoms stayed back in the villages down below. The back half of the mountain collapsed and squooshed people, cows, sheep, trees, shrubs, in fact, everything. It was recorded at the time that, months later, a sole survivor wriggled his way out of the rocks and slabs and went home. This is the simple record upon which Ramuz built his superb story.

In Derborence, Ramuz created an astonishing fake peasant form of speech, at once authentically peasanty-sounding and at the same time highly poetic and artificial – distant, removed, observational, repetitive when necessary, but of course extremely emotive and even sentimental at times. Well, in fact, VERY sentimental at times. That’s okay with me, I reckon he’s earned the sentimentality by virtue of the stark realism of the peasant way of life. (Don't you grad students give me T. S. Eliot's "objective correlative" at this point, I'm trying to be serious!)

And the narrative voice is sometimes astonishing - in a single sentence, the narrator's voice can observe a person, then become the person observing something else, then observe the person observing something else and responding to it, with no confusion or delay for the reader, only a perfect sense of suitability and rightness and a small flash of insight, as the story carries on without a hitch. And the frequent use of the second-person, telling you the reader what you can see and hear -- it's almost cinematic. The hard, minute observational character of some of the narration reminds one often of Alain Robbe-Grillet, an apparently-emotionless attention to physical detail which in fact evokes great emotion.

But for me, the most devastating narrative technique is Ramuz's use of repetition, drawn from Greek drama I suppose, which creates a sense of inevitability, of fate: "it was the 22nd of June", "it was 9 o'clock, the 22nd of June" -- it reminds you of the knocking on the door in Macbeth -- you are in the hands of an artist, and you have only to follow where he leads you.

Ramuz first published Derborence in 1934, with the good offices of his friend the publisher Mermod in Lausanne, and then sat in Lausanne cafés scribbling changes in the margins of every new reprinting of the story between 1936 and 1947. An English translation by Sarah Fisher Scott was published in 1947 by Pantheon Books, then a distinguished independent publisher but now probably owned by Disney or AOL or Coca-Cola or Hyundai Motors, under the title When the Mountain Fell. Ms Scott’s translation is competent, but it was based only upon the first edition, without the benefit of C.-F.’s compulsive café afterthoughts and inspired whims in his later corrections. More importantly, it’s also a misguided effort to retell the story in a colloquial and natural kind of American English, which reads well enough in its own way, but in the case of Ramuz's incantatory prose, it’s a big big mistake.

The present translation was made in the early 1980s for a girlfriend long departed and takes cognizance of all of Ramuz’s additions and corrections in all subsequent reprintings (though a handful have been rejected as not helpful). The original intention was to publish this new translation with superb photos of the scene, but somewhere I lost both the photos and the energy to pursue it. All the Derborence photos I can find now have got either me or my semi-friends in them or lots of telephone wires or the concrete dam at Godey, so perhaps one needs to go back there soon and do the job properly. So here's just the stunning low-key poetry of Ramuz (anglicized and dwighticized) -- the photos may be coming along later.

Rights and permissions. I haven’t got any . . . but don’t sue me, I haven’t got any money either, and you’d just be wasting your time. Ramuz’s original copyright has expired, but in the early 1980s a Swiss film director, Francis Reusser, made a wonderful film of the story, with Bruno Cremer and Isabel Otero in it, Switzerland’s entry in the Cannes film festival in 1985, and because I figured that this guy who made the film must have bought up some of the rights, somehow I never got round to sorting out the legal side of things and seeking a publisher. And – in the meantime – I moved house a dizaine of times and lost the photos I’d taken to illustrate the splendid tale.

So here it is, in three files, and perhaps someday soon with photos stuck on.

derborence.jpg (49950 bytes)

Les Diablerets and higher meadows above Derborence, from Godey, June 2000 (Photo: D. Peck)

derbmap1.jpg (124353 bytes)

Derborence, pronounced Dair-bor-ANSSE (1450m altitude) at the bottom of a bowl.
A path leads from the west over and down from Solalex, Anzeinde, and the Pas de Cheville in the canton de Vaud (chapters 2, 3, 7). The landslide described in this story (shown as Eboulement des Diablerets on the map) came from top center.The road shown across the cone of the landslide is modern, leading to a mountain inn and some vacation chalets at the little lake (marked 1449m), which was created by the landslide. The men from Col de Sanetsch, in the canton of Berne, came from the upper right descending near Godey, as in the photo below (chapter 7). The path from the villages above Sion and the Rhône leads up from the extreme lower right, following high up on the gorge of the Lizerne -- the paved road, which requires a long succession of galleries and tunnels, has been put in in very modern times.

Visit the Derborence Web site at

Descending towards Derborence in awkward weather (1984), looking southwest from below the Col de Sanetsch. Derborence lies just behind the modern dam at Godey (center). The Pas de Cheville lies to the upper right; the valley of the Rhône lies sharply down the left behind the Godey dam.

gonext.gif (2192 bytes)Go ahead to Part I, chapter 1, of Derborence

bookpen.gif (2870 bytes)Please do not reproduce this text in any form for commercial purposes. The Derborence logo at the top of this page was taken in June 2000 from Le Godey in the Derborence valley, with the telephone poles and wires removed. Feedback and suggestions are welcome, . Translated in about 1983, posted on this site 25 June 2001, updated 21 August 2008,version 5 September 2007.


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