Already as a child, I had two contradictory feelings in my heart: the horror of life and the ecstasy of life CHARLES BAUDELAIRE
After three years' work my 200-page verse translation of Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal is now available as a paperback from Sinuous Cat Productions; it contains all 126 poems of the 1861 edition. The distributor is Amazon and the price is £7.99. It's easily traceable on amazon.co.uk, but for international Amazon sites you must search for it by entering either the ASIN number (B08BWFWSXK) or the ISBN number (9798656437936). It's so good to have this labour of love finally in print—I do hope you enjoy.
Here's my introduction to the book:
‘The translator can never be sure of himself, he must never be. He must always be dissatisfied with what he does because ideally, platonically, there is a perfect solution, but he will never find it. He can never enter into the author’s being and even if he could the difference in languages would preclude any exact reproduction.’ GREGORY RABASSA
Translating poetry is a fine balancing act at the best of times, but translating Baudelaire often felt like treading a very high wire indeed. Too great a swing towards the letter on one side or the spirit on the other can cause the literary balancing pole to wobble alarmingly, threatening to plunge the unfortunate tightrope walker into the void below. I’m reminded of a cautionary aphorism I read somewhere, namely that translation is difficult, translation of poetry very difficult, translation of French poetry more difficult still, and translation of Baudelaire all but impossible. Baudelaire himself wrote that ‘A translation of poetry . . . may be an enticing dream, but can only ever be a dream.’ But I do not want to dwell on difficulty or impossibility. I want to dwell on joy. For translating Baudelaire has indeed been a complete joy, a process both rewarding and intoxicating, though also frustrating – and occasionally terrifying.
First I had to decide what other translations to read, if any. (In the end I dipped very lightly into all that I could discover, then put them to the back of my mind.) Next I had to consider meter: Baudelaire often uses the twelve-syllable alexandrine line. (I quickly realised iambic pentameter was the natural choice for my English versions.) Then there was the question of rhyme: Baudelaire’s rhyme schemes are classically strict. (I ended up retaining rhyme, or slant rhyme, or at least some kind of sympathetic end-of-line pairing.) What I was striving for was accessibility, a pleasing flow, and, with luck, a kind of beauty – in comparison with various other translations I had read, many of which seemed awkward and forced to me (Jan Owen’s being notable exceptions). Although I took care to translate as accurately as possible, I would always put the spirit rather than the letter first, if the two conflicted. This tension and its balanced resolution lie, of course, at the heart of all poetry translation.
There were many other problems: for instance how to emulate Baudelaire’s extravagant grotesquerie, his gleeful iconoclasm and his oxymoronic excess, without seeming either ridiculous or incomprehensible to modern readers. Another hurdle was how to mirror Baudelaire’s subtle and mellifluous use of assonance, alliteration and other figurative ploys.
Baudelaire has challenged many translators over the years, including some who are writers and poets themselves: Stanley Kunitz, Robert Lowell, Allen Tate, Roy Campbell, Richard Wilbur, Yvor Winters, Aldous Huxley, Edna St Vincent Millay . . . However, few of these writers (apart from Campbell and Millay) took on more than a small selection of the poems, and their translations sound very antiquated today.
My aim was to attempt to create a translation of all the poems of Les Fleurs du Mal – and in verse, not in prose. (There are prose translations available, such as Joanna Richardson’s, but this seemed like cheating to me.) I wanted to produce a high level of readability, accessibility, comprehensibility and (one can but hope) a general loveliness. My passionate desire, both as translator and reader, is always to encounter translations that can be read and enjoyed in their own right, not as pale reflections of the original, or displeasing to the ear.
My sincere and idealistic intention was to open up Baudelaire to the English-speaking world in a new and exciting way. Translation must be a gateway not a barrier. My model was Don Paterson’s translations (or ‘versions’ as he calls them) of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus. I like Paterson’s idea of translations as versions very much: works that are independent and breathe their own air, yet are still, of course, intimately connected with the original.
I have tried, as far as possible, to honour the meaning and intention of The Flowers of Evil while, at the same time, preserving a strong flavour of its aesthetics (the work has a sublimely paradoxical beauty of expression: it is classical in form, but shockingly modern in theme and thought). I wanted, above all, to produce translations that sounded easy on the ear, looked good to the eye and flowed in a natural way, while sacrificing as little textual accuracy as possible.
For those punctilious readers who think I have strayed too far, lost my nerve, and caused the tightrope to tremble and shake, I quote David Bellos in my defence: ‘If you want the same thing, that’s quite all right. You can read the original. ‘ And also this from Jorge Luis Borges: ‘The original is unfaithful to the translation.’
As the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer has written: ‘Reading is already translation, and translation is translation for the second time . . . In fact, all acts of communication are acts of translation. The process of translating comprises in its essence the whole secret of human understanding of the world . . .’
Robert Wilkinson, June 2020
34. — The Cat
Come, lovely cat, close to my loving heart;
Sheathe your sharp claws and stretch contentedly.
Let me plunge deep into your eyes, which spark
With metal fused with green chalcedony.
And as my idle fingers carelessly
Caress your head and your elastic spine,
And as my subtle hand so sensuously
Strokes your soft fur, so sensitive and fine,
My woman’s there. Her penetrating look,
Like yours, dear creature, cuts like a bee’s sting
Or poisonous dart, profoundly cold and sharp,
And all around her body and brown skin
Hovers a dark and dangerous perfume,
Persuasive and pervasive in the room.