On Translating Baudelaire

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R J Dent's essay on translating Charles Baudelaire's French poetry into English.

Submitted: April 14, 2016

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Submitted: April 14, 2016



On Translating Baudelaire

by R J Dent


One of the frustrations, the challenges, the problems – and probably the joys – of translating is choosing the correct idiom to translate into. Taking the words, sentences, phrases, lines, from the language of one country and translating them into the corresponding or equivalent language of another country is the type of work that can be done by almost anyone.

However, choosing the absolutely perfect cultural, social, geographical, spatial, historical, temporal and linguistic framework to put the translated words onto is another matter entirely, and will very much depend on the translator’s intentions and the receptive vocabulary of the proposed readership.

And when it’s poetry that is being translated, the task becomes even more complicated; the problems suddenly multiply. Should the poetry be translated into a poetic equivalent? Prose? Should it be made to rhyme? Should it not? Should it be of its time? Of the translator’s? Of the future? Should the loyalty be with the original poet? With the reader? Both? Neither? Should it be accurate? Should it be faithful? Should it try and convey the meaning? The ‘spirit’? The tone?

Having answered all of the above, and using Borges’s comment that ‘The original is unfaithful to the translation’ as a mantra for concentration, the translator can then proceed. The lines are found:

Toi qui, magiquement, assouplis les vieux os
De l’ivrogne attarde foule par les chevaux,

They are translated as:

You who, magically, make supple the old bones
Of the after-hours drunkard trampled by the horses.

They have also been translated as:

Thou who, magically, dost make supple the old-bones
of the late-walking drunkard trampled by the horses,

and as:

You who, by magic, make supple the old bones
of the belated drunkard, trampled by the hooves of horses,

and as:

Thou who by magic softens the old bones
Of loitering drunks by horses trampled down,

and as:

Whose magic gives a strength to ancient bones
Of drunkards trampled on the cobblestones,

and as:

Whose magic mollifies the drunkard’s fall
When flying horses kick him in the skull,

and as:

You rescue winos from the stunning pace
of traffic arrowed for a red-light race.

As can see be seen, the translator in each case has chosen a specific idiom which the lines have been placed into. ‘Poetry,’ as Robert Frost observed, ‘is what gets lost in translation’. In the translating process, much of the poetry does indeed get lost; it is during the same process that much wonderful poetry gets found. There are, as can be seen in some of the above instances, specific loses and significant poetic gains.

‘Not a translation – only taken from the French’, said Sheridan, and this also is worth keeping in mind, as is Roy Campbell’s comment that ‘Translations (like wives) are seldom faithful if they are in the least attractive’, which suggests that total accuracy may have to be sacrificed for the sake of poetic beauty. If the translator’s task is one of trying to capture the era in which the poem was written, which is really a job for historians, then a fairly literal translation is the correct one to try and achieve. If one is trying to bring beautiful old lines of poetry into the present day and retain their beauty and their validity, then a radically different method is required.

One of the real joys of translating poetry is the choice – the huge number of words and phrases available to the translator. There are so many possibilities. It is a very creative medium, for although a translation can only ever be one translation – unless it too is translated, it can be, and often is, one version of many. Poetry is what gets found in translation.

Ultimately, the best way to translate poetry is to read the original, then put it away and write your own.



On Translating Baudelaire

Copyright © R J Dent (2007 & 2016)


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