Saturday, January 3, 2009

Aimless Reading: The B's, Part 7

Baudelaire, Charles
The Flowers of Evil


This particular book contains translations by many, many writers, some of them famous poets like Robert Lowell and Stanley Kunitz -- a nice idea that here fails the material terribly. Baudelaire is so specific that he needs that same kind of specificity in translation. At least reading the translations of a single translator you can come to learn what kinds of decisions that translator makes in relation to the original. Having to wade through so many poems that are the products of so many individual sets of decisions makes it impossible to enjoy them in English, much less to understand them.

(Note: I find Gary Sullivan's translations of Ernst Herback very useful in this regard, as he appends a brief note to the end of each one detailing some of the decisions he had to make in translating the poems from the German. This recognition that the translation is a product of these kinds of decisions to me is closer to what translation is or should be than just presenting it is a finished product or facsimile of the original. Visit them at: http://herbeck.blogspot.com/)

Glancing through this volume again yesterday made me depressed my French isn't better -- no matter how good the English translation, Baudelaire's poetry doesn't get through very often. Here's an example of how mixed a single poem can be:

Le Guignon

Pour soulever un poids si lourd,
Sisyphe, il faudrait ton courage!
Bien qu'on ait du coeur à l'ouvrage,
L'Art est long et le Temps est court.

Loin des sépultures célèbres,
Vers un cimetière isolé,
Mon coeur, comme un tambour voilé,
Va battant des marches funèbres.

— Maint joyau dort enseveli
Dans les ténèbres et l'oubli,
Bien loin des pioches et des sondes;

Mainte fleur épanche à regret
Son parfum doux comme un secret
Dans les solitudes profondes.

Ill Luck

So huge a burden to support
Your courage, Sisyphus, would ask;
Well though my heart attacks its task,
Yet Art is long and Time is short.

Far from the famed memorial arch
Towards a lonely grave I come.
My heart in its funereal march
Goes beating like a muffled drum.

— Yet many a gem lies hidden still
Of whom no pick-axe, spade, or drill
The lonely secrecy invades;

And many a flower, to heal regret,
Pours forth its fragrant secret yet
Amidst the solitary shades.


(Trans. Roy Campbell)

I think he does a nice job of translating the second stanza.

Far from the famed memorial arch
Towards a lonely grave I come.
My heart in its funereal march
Goes beating like a muffled drum.


This does a nice job of carrying over both the sound and the sense of the original:

Loin des sépultures célèbres,
Vers un cimetière isolé,
Mon coeur, comme un tambour voilé,
Va battant des marches funèbres.


Both accurately render the solitary sound of the beating drum.

But

-- try sounding out the last two stanzas of the French, then read them in English. Campbell here is trying to get some of the sound-sense of the poem over into to English by rhyming "invades" with "shades," but compare that to the original in which Baudelaire rhymes "sondes" and "profondes." The "ondes" sound echoes long after you sound it out, while "ades" seems to wither away and die. 

That said, my hat is off to good translators. It's a fedora, or maybe a beret. Nah, just a baseball cap. I tip it to them.

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