A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Wednesday 8 July 2020

The Flowers of Evil: a New Translation

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.


am said...

Good to see your post today and to know that a copy of your three years of work can be ordered online and delivered soon. When I looked at a photo of Charles Baudelaire, I thought it was a photo of Edgar Allen Poe. One thing leads to another.

"... Got a tell-tale heart, like Mr. Poe ..."


The Solitary Walker said...

One thing leads to another indeed. Did you know Baudelaire was a huge admirer of Poe and introduced him to France by translating much of his work? He felt a great affinity with him.

The Dylan record - what a surprise!

Good to hear from you, Amanda

The Weaver of Grass said...

The cat poem is perfect for any cat lover Robert. It is just so good to see you back in Blogland again. Considering the amount of work you have done over the last three years it is not surprising you have been absent.

am said...

Some synchronicity. After ordering a copy of your translation, I went on a long walk. Toward the end of this particular walk I stopped at a free book box that I check regularly. There was a hardback copy of The Flowers of Evil, selected and edited by Marthiel and Jackson Mathews, featuring 30 translators, published by New Directions in 1955.

It is occurring to me that "flowers of evil" might be something like the lotus flower that grows out of mud. Bob Dylan has addressed similar themes from the beginning and continues along those lines in this song from 2012:

"... In Scarlet Town the end is near

The seven wonders of the world are here

The evil and the good living side by side ..."

Now I can see how Bob Dylan's songs in recent years are showing the influence of Baudelaire, especially the songs released in the past few weeks.

Reading a few of the translations of Baudelaire's poems available to me now, I am seeing something of William Blake which I love and must admit I feel some apprehension, too. I'm struck by Baudelaire's preface: It is not for my wives, my daughters, or my sisters that this book has been written; nor for the wives, daughters, or sisters of my neighbors. I leave that to those who have some reason to confuse good deeds with fine language.

It is intriguing to me that four of the translators in the book that appeared so mysteriously are women.

Okay. That's what's on my mind.

dritanje said...

How wonderful to see you back on your blog Robert, and to see what has kept you occupied for the past 3 years, and that you have completed it, what a marvellous feeling that is. Well done, I'm off to order a copy. Oh and I really like that philosopher's comment that reading is translation to begin with (or something similar) because in the small amounts of translation I've done, I'm so familiar with all those doubts too ...

The Solitary Walker said...

Wow, yes, some synchronicity, am! I came across the New Directions book while researching other Baudelaire translators and translations. I like the connection you make between Baudelaire's evil flowers and the Buddhist lotus flower emerging from the mud, though I'm not sure Baudelaire's 'ideal' always transcends his 'spleen'; in fact, it often seems quite the reverse...

To be sure, there are affinities with Blake:

'The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.'

'Without contraries there is no progression. Attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate are necessary to human existence.'

'Every Harlot was a Virgin once.'

'O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.'

All of this is very Baudelairean; and don't forget Blake was the poetic mirror of London, just as Baudelaire was the poetic mirror of Paris. (I don't know if Baudelaire had read Blake—it is quite possible.) TS Eliot was certainly influenced by both. Dylan also, as you astutely point out.

In my opinion the best modern translator of Baudelaire is a woman—Jan Owen, whose translations were praised by Les Murray, no less. If I ever received such an endorsement I would be very happy indeed!

The Solitary Walker said...

How nice to hear from you again, Morelle, and yes, I feel very pleased the project is finally completed! As I say in the introduction, it was mainly a joy, but often frustrating, even a little frightening at times ... the thing is (as, I suppose, with all writing, not just translating), it is never really finished, as it can always be improved... a comma here, a semi-colon there, a different word here, a different phrase there...

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for reading and commenting, Pat (Weaver of Grass)!

Sackerson said...

I have read Baudelaire in French with (on account of my hit and miss French, which you are familiar with!) the help of a prose translation. I've read a few poems from your translation now and can say that I think you've really captured not just the meaning but also the spirit of Baudelaire. I expect my copy to become well-thumbed.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks, Dominic! I am very pleased you are enjoying it.

WFT Nobby said...

Wonderful to see a new post on this blog, and congratulations on the successful completion of what must have been an intense project.
Can we hope that the next gap between posts will be less than three years?
Cheers, Gail.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks so much for your message, Gail! It's nice to be missed.

am said...

Coincidence? Very very slowly, along with the same pace of reading your translation of Les Fleurs du Mal, I've been reading a bilingual version of Pablo Neruda's Macchu Picchu (to supplement my study of Spanish). Yesterday morning I had a vague sense that Pablo Neruda must have read Baudelaire. The Neruda poem I read this morning (that begins "La poderosa muerte me invitó muchas veces ...") prompted me to go to Google and see if there is a connection. Yes indeed.


It is not possible for me to read more than one Baudelaire poem at a time. Many leave me deeply unsettled but not to the point that I have stopped reading them. It just occurred to me that they are the verbal equivalent of the art work of Francis Bacon, which can draw me in with its brilliant use of color and composition while keeping me off balance emotionally with its imagery. Oddly enough, a surprisingly upbeat college art professor whose art was all about death asked if my chalk pastel figure drawings in the 1980s were influenced in any way by Francis Bacon.

As I write, another connection occurs to me -- Gerhard Richter -- who was brought to my attention by Sabine recently. Sabine commented that my recent mandalas reminded her of Gerhard Richter's new stained glass windows in a German monastery. A little Googling resulted in finding this:

"Richter is said to embody a modern incarnation of Charles Baudelaire's 'painter of modern life'."

Perhaps Baudelaire's poems are having an effect on my mandala series.

Hope that you will return to blogging someday but I am guessing you have other projects in motion.