Four Translations from Les Fleurs du Mal by Charles Baudelaire

Translator’s Note

In translating Baudelaire, I kept to traditional verse form because rhythm, musicality and pace are intrinsic to Baudelaire’s poetry. However, I settled for iambic pentameter rather than alexandrines, which can seem laboured in English. Though persevering with traditional verse form is time-consuming and frustrating, translation does bring a sense of camaraderie — when I faced a difficult choice of words, out on a limb for a rhyme, it helped to imagine Baudelaire as a somewhat sardonic presence behind my left shoulder.

Charles Baudelaire, 1855
BY Félix Nadar
PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

“It’s Always So” addresses Apollonie Sabatier. “A Little Chat” and “The Fine Ship” were written for the actress Marie Daubrun. The second quatrain of “A Little Chat” suggests Baudelaire’s painful relationship with Jeanne Duval.

“It’s Always So” as a title for “Semper Eadem” seemed sensible since Latin is less well-known now. The tenderly world-weary tone, as well as the exigency of rhyme, justify, I think, the formal phrase “as lief.”

“A Little Chat” as a title does not fully capture the lightly balanced irony of the French “Causerie.” How sound qualifies meaning! The two contradictory heart images presented a difficulty. The juxtaposition of the metaphors of the heart — devoured, in one line, an invaded palace in the next — seems less odd in French, with its penchant for the abstract. Perhaps the distance between tenor and vehicle and the distinction between two conflicting metaphors are both more clearly kept in mind by French readers. A very literal translation seemed to be cognitively dissonant in down-to-earth English, so I imply the narrator’s heart with “all you are searching for” and name it only in the palace metaphor.

In “Le Beau Navire/The Fine Ship,” the run of provocative images is an energizing and surprising feature. Baudelaire writes in Fusées of the “infinite and mysterious charm that lies in contemplating a ship, especially one in movement.”

The most challenging line to translate was “Ta gorge triomphante est une belle armoire,”; “your bosom is like a beautiful wardrobe” would not do. I began to resent that wardrobe!

Then I remembered Gaston Bachelard’s La Poetique de l’espace (1957). He found “armoire” one of the greatest words in the French language, and saw its interior as a space of intimacy and memory, a “white event.” Baudelaire’s image seemed more and more appropriate. The echo of “a moi” is gently apt too. I considered retaining the French word, but “cabinet,” with its earlier meaning of “small private room,” fitted the tone well enough, I hope — and the meter better!

Le Guignon/Bad Luck” was originally titled “L’Artiste inconnu” or “Les Artistes inconnus.” The idea of persistently bad luck owes much to Edgar Allen Poe, and there are overt borrowings from Hippocrates, Longfellow and Gray. Sisyphus endlessly pushing his boulder back uphill convincingly suggests the unrecognized artist.

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