a different side of Baudelaire

10:20 AM Posted by James Owens

Les Fleurs du Mal - XCIX

I have not forgotten our little white house
at peace on the edge of town:
the plaster Pomona and worn Venus
hiding their nudity in a starved grove,
and the big open eye in the curious heavens,
the late sun streaming, proud at the window
where its sheaf of light broke—that seemed
to contemplate our long, quiet dinners
and scattered lovely glimmers like candle glow
on the frugal cloth and rustic curtains.


The original French and a few other translations are here.



Sorlil said...

I presume this is your own translation, I like it and prefer it's directness and simplicity compared to the other translations. But then the other translations have been restricted in a sense because of trying to preserve the end-rhymes.

One of my favorite poets is Akhmatova, in translation of course, I have the complete Akhmatova translated by Judith Hemschemeyer who does not attempt to reproduce all the end-rhymes and I love the translations. But when I read Akhmatova translated by someone who does attempt to preserve the ends rhymes I don't really like the work at all.

anhaga said...

It is always a problem when you translate: how does one translate form in addition to the meaning of the words? I think you must try to translate form. The translation of a sonnet had better give some indication that it is a sonnet, because that is part of its meaning -- but does translating form mean doing the same thing in a new language, or doing something different that produces the same effect through different means, because languages operate differently, have different poetic traditions, etc.?

I don't know any absolute answer, so I just resort to whatever works with any particular poem.

In the case of this poem, it seems to me that the form --- 12-syllable lines in rhymed couplets --- is more or less a default form for 19th century French poetry. It was much easier for Baudelaire to write rhyming couplets than it is for us, and the form would not have called attention to itself as anything at all unusual. If a translator forces this poem's shape into a strict imitation of B's form, all of this changes.

I'm assuming that the default position for comtemporary poets is something like "medium-length, unrhymed lines, unsually organized into phrasal units," and that this is our equivalent to B's couplets, and that translating the poem into this form creates something near to the effect it would have had for B's readers a hundred and fifty years ago.... At least, that's what I think today --- tomorrow I'll change my mind, likely enough.

It occurs to me that my above description of a default form for contemporary poetry might not be as convincing for you. It seems to me that "traditional" form is more acceptable these days in Scottish, English, Irish poetry than in American.

I love Akhmatova, too, btw. I'll have to look for Hemschemeyer's version.

Sorlil said...

I've been reading up on poetic literary theory recently because I don't know much about it apart from the obvious main movements and I'm trying to understand the reasons for the differences beween British and American poetics.

Can I ask where you view your own poetry in relation to theory and which tradition do you perceive yourself as writing within?

Roxana said...

yes, I agree with James, one has to try to translate the form also, which means to recreate the same musical qualities of the verses, the cadence, the rhythms, cette materialite et meme corporeite de la langue as the french would say. and you put it correctly: "doing something different that produces the same effect through different means". this is of course easier said than done :-) I like your translation, but it conveys a feeling of modernity which could be misleading for someone who doesn't know Baudelaire and cannot read it in original. but then again, the French had no choice but to invent the blank verse because their rhymed poetry is so limited by the fact that all the accents fall on the last syllable of the rhythmic groupe (groupe rythmique, i don't know if it means somehting in English). this is a disaster for poetry :-)

Sorlil said...

I'm delighted to say our books came this morning, thankyou very much! They look beautiful and I'm looking forward to getting into them.

Sorlil said...

I meant your books, lol

anhaga said...

Sorlil --

Technically, they are your books now. :-) So I guess it is okay either way.

I'm glad you asked the question about theory and tradition, though it isn't an easy one to answer. One should think through such questions about one's own work, and I really never have....

I think I have more to say about this than I want to put in the comments box. Look for a full post in the next few days....

anhaga said...

Roxana --

Le groupe rythmique has never been a formal unit of versification in English as it is in French, I guess because accentual stress is so prominent that it takes precedence. On the other hand, I think a lot of recent poetry in America (less so in Britain) could be analyzed according to rhythmic groups, à la française, and make perfect sense that way. But it seems -- to me -- that this moves English poetry closer to prose, which is certainly not the effect it has in French.

Wallace Stevens avait tort lorsque il a écrit “French and English constitute a single language.” À un niveau simple, c’est vrai, il y a des similarités, mais les différences sont profondes. Une traduction apparemment facile peut se dissimuler derrière des miroirs doubles, des fleurs peuvent cacher un serpent.

I understand what you mean about this translation's feeling of modernity. A French person reading Baudelaire's poem today will experience historical distance in the poem (though not as much distance, I believe, as an American/British reader looking at an English poem from the same period). My translation loses that, I agree, in the interest of directness and simplicity.

But a French reader contemporary with Baudelaire (I'm speculating, how can one really know?) would have experienced this little poem as a simple and intimate moment in Les fleurs du mal, with less rhetorical flourish than most of B's poems and certainly less than most other French poetry of the time.

Which of these two experiences should the translation try to recreate? -- even knowing beforehand that it isn't possible to recreate either precisely, and that the pauvre anglophone traducteur probably doesn't really understand the poem as well as any native French speaker?

These questions do not have final answers, and it may be that they try to make distictions that aren't even possible.... But that's the fun of translating poetry, isn't it? That's why it is so difficult and I approach it with fear and trembling....

Roxana said...

I am sorry I reply so late to this answer of yours. "French and English constitute a single language." this makes me laugh so much :-) I don't want to be harsh, but this is... ok, I don't find the word so I'll just keep on laughing :-)

are you familiar with the functional translation theories? like Katharina Reiss's Skopostheorie? that one should first determine the function, the role the translated text has to play, and then translate accordingly. so the big question is: for whom do you translate, to what aim? I agree that the language must have sounded familiar to a French contemporary of Beaudelaire, but I still think that when one translates for American contemporary readers one should try to convey the feeling that it is a 19th century poem and not a contemporary one. because the poet belongs to a certain age, a certain cultural trend with its own specificity and sensitivity and this historical anchorage is a constitutive element of the work. which doesn't mean, of course, that your translation is not good or that I don't like it :-) on the contrary.

anhaga said...

Roxana: Je crois que nous sommes d'accord, vraiment. I was trying out a new idea, but really, it is impossible to recreate the same effect a French reader might have experienced in 1856, because one can't truly know that. In fact, I don't think I can even recreate the experience of an American 19th century person reading, say, Emily Dickenson (or Blake). I don't know 19th century English, and people in France don't know 19th century French, so everything is already a translation, isn't it.... The desire to get past these barriers or losses is a (one) source of poetry, I think (Rilke's Orpheus), and it is another example of what I think you have called, in a post on your blog, the desire for the "past conditional contrary to fact."

I will take a look at Katharina Reiss's Skopostheorie. You are always such a good source of interesting ideas!

Wallace Stevens really did say that, about French and English. I give you permission to be harsh about it :-).... Stevens is a great poet, but this one thing was a dumb thing to say. I an guessing he didn't know French as well as the thought he did.