Baudelaire’s Spleen Defies Translation, There Do the Foolhardy Tread

Charles Baudelaire
Charles Baudelaire

In 1968, The Sunday Times in London ran a competition to translate the poem Spleen, by the famous French poet Charles Baudelaire. Upon learning of the contest, Nicholas Moore, who had once been one of Britain’s most celebrated poets, decided to have a little fun and also prove a point. In Moore’s opinion, poetry was untranslatable. He submitted 31 different English renditions of Spleen to the British newspaper, attributing each to a different colorful pseudonym. George Steiner, a literary critic and essayist, who was judging the contest, immediately discerned that the 31 entries had all been penned by the same person. Steiner eventually tracked their authorship to the eccentric Moore, who was in poor health and hadn’t produced a book of his own poetry since 1950.

In 1973, Moore’s 31 entries were compiled into a book, titled Spleen, in which he defended his thesis that poetry defies translation. There he delivered a compelling argument for this stance. Here is an excerpt:

[A poet] does not communicate. He creates. His language is his own, and untranslatable. It may, of course, contain a mixture of the currency of his own time, references, borrowings, “translations”, but it is not these that make it untranslatable — these the historian or the historian of language may deciper. It is [the poet’s] own personal idiom that makes the poem, whatever its kind or type, his own. It is the grammar of his being — as indeed is the language each man speaks, the less as well as the more articulate — and it is this that is untranslatable.

Nicholas Moore, Spleen 1973

A Fledgling’s Attempt

I learned of Moore’s cheeky experiment while taking a literary translation class several years ago, offered by NYU. Our instructor, Alison Dundy, asked that we read through the 31 separate interpretations and produce a version of our own. It was a refreshing exercise. Normally, translations leave no room for refinement or creativity. The translator must faithfully try to reproduce the meaning, style, and tone of the original writing in the target language.

Baudelaire by Corbet
Charles Baudelaire by Gustave Corbet, circa 1848

Below I share my tongue-in-cheek version of Baudelaire’s Spleen alongside the original French version. I also provide a side-by-side comparison of Baudelaire’s Spleen and a well-regarded English translation, by William Aggeler, from 1954. If you’re unfamiliar with Baudelaire, it’s important to know that throughout his life, he regularly suffered from profound depression. He coined the term “spleen” to signify a debilitating mixture of undesirable feelings—anger, melancholy, frustration, and boredom—stemming from man’s inability to attain an ideal state of being. Baudelaire actually wrote 4 separate poems titled Spleen, all of which appeared in his masterful collection, Fleurs du Mal. The third of these was the focus of The Sunday Times‘ contest.

Spleen III

Spleen
Par Charles Baudelaire
Done
A translation by Carol A. Seidl
Je suis comme le roi d’un pays pluvieux,I’m like the drug lord of a fogged-over wasteland,
Riche, mais impuissant, jeune et pourtant très-vieux,Rich but stripped bare, who while still young has hastened,
Qui de ses précepteurs méprisant les courbettes,To burn out, dissing wiseguys, bootlicking tipsters,
S’ennuie avec ses chiens comme avec d’autres bêtes.Bored with the pitbulls and the smack-shooting hipsters.
Rien ne peut l’égayer, ni gibier, ni faucon,Nothing rocks his world, no hot chick, no queen of drag,
Ni son peuple mourant en face du balcon.No dealers sworn, nor runner def rouse his stagnant swag.
Du bouffon favori la grotesque balladeA jive-givin’rap, from a hip-hop’n dad-dyo,
Ne distrait plus le front de ce cruel malade ;Can’t jack his jaded gaze from the bricks of his patio.
Son lit fleurdelisé se transforme en tombeau,His star-spangled headboard commemorates the lost,
Et les dames d’atour, pour qui tout prince est beau,And foxy pole-dancers, for whom each trick is boss,
Ne savent plus trouver d’impudique toiletteNo longer find a grind in their lap-dancing game,
Pour tirer un souris de ce jeune squelette.To pull the slightest smirk from his bag-o-bones frame.
Le savant qui lui fait de l’or n’a jamais puThe street-savvy huckster that fits him in gold chain,
De son être extirper l’élément corrompu,Fails to kick the quease that contaminates his brain.
Et dans ces bains de sang qui des Romains nous viennent,And the bloodbaths of gangs that break on any block,
Et dont sur leurs vieux jours les puissants se souviennent,Like cock-and-bull of codgers, long since cease to shock.
Il n’a pas réchauffé ce cadavre hébétéNo way to light the fire of this crash tested dude,
Où coule au lieu de sang l’eau verte du Léthé.His bloodless veins flow with green, anti-freeze imbued.
La Fleur du mal
La Fleur du mal, by Asgar Jorn, 1946
Spleen
Par Charles Baudelaire
Spleen
Translation by William Aggeler
Je suis comme le roi d’un pays pluvieux,I am like the king of a rainy land,
Riche, mais impuissant, jeune et pourtant très-vieux,Wealthy but powerless, both young and very old,
Qui de ses précepteurs méprisant les courbettes,Who condemns the fawning manners of his tutors
S’ennuie avec ses chiens comme avec d’autres bêtes.And is bored with his dogs and other animals.
Rien ne peut l’égayer, ni gibier, ni faucon,Nothing can cheer him, neither the chase nor falcons,
Ni son peuple mourant en face du balcon.Nor his people dying before his balcony.
Du bouffon favori la grotesque balladeThe ludicrous ballads of his favorite clown
Ne distrait plus le front de ce cruel malade ;No longer smooth the brow of this cruel invalid;
Son lit fleurdelisé se transforme en tombeau,His bed, adorned with fleurs-de-lis, becomes a grave;
Et les dames d’atour, pour qui tout prince est beau,The lady’s maids, to whom every prince is handsome,
Ne savent plus trouver d’impudique toiletteNo longer can find gowns shameless enough
Pour tirer un souris de ce jeune squelette.To wring a smile from this young skeleton.
Le savant qui lui fait de l’or n’a jamais puThe alchemist who makes his gold was never able
De son être extirper l’élément corrompu,To extract from him the tainted element,
Et dans ces bains de sang qui des Romains nous viennent,And in those baths of blood come down from Roman times,
Et dont sur leurs vieux jours les puissants se souviennent,And which in their old age the powerful recall,
Il n’a pas réchauffé ce cadavre hébétéHe failed to warm this dazed cadaver in whose veins
Où coule au lieu de sang l’eau verte du Léthé.Flows the green water of Lethe in place of blood.

An Interesting Conundrum

What do you think about translations of poetry? Can a translator transform a classical piece of poetry such that contemporary readers relate to it as the original author intended? Are the words as important as the sentiments conveyed? I look forward to your thoughts in the comments below.

Other Resources

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, French to English translator, mother, and lover of: books, travel, history, cultures, art, cooking, fitness, nature.

10 Comments

  1. Your translation of Spleen brings to mind Emily Wilson’s recent translation of The Odyssey into contemporary English idiom and syntax, bringing to life a vivid, gripping tale the narrative power of which had been diminished by more literal translations that read as archaic.

    • Good to know, Julie. Thanks for your comment. I find the literal translations really fall flat–especially when they neglect the meter or rhyme. Moore also weighed the question of whether a poet can do a better job of translating poetry.

      On the one hand, he felt that a good translator could “put himself into the mind and place of the poet”. But a poet, he said, “is not that kind of person.” A poet would instead transfer the sentiment of the poem to fit his own circumstances. It’s a tricky business. 🙂

  2. CAS the Rapper—who knew? Unburdened by a sufficient reading knowledge of the original, I found your “translation” a sheer delight. And I agree: Aggeler’s is lifeless.

    As to your question, I think such translations are worthy efforts that are difficult to effect. But in the hands of a gifted translator-poet, some might surpass the original. I can’t, however, think of an example to back up my opinion.

    • I agree Annie that translations of poetry are still worthwhile even if flawed. Maybe the interested reader, however, should seek out a handful of different translations to get a better feel for the original. I noticed that on the Fleursdumal site, which provides all of the poems from Baudelaire’s masterwork, they present the original French and then follow it with a few different English translations.

      Aggeler’s version is dry but if you consider each line, he accurately conveys the despair behind the writing, just none of the beauty.

      I feel that my version falls short on despair. I had too much fun writing it. Glad you enjoyed it.

  3. How fun! I hope you got a great grade for yours, loving it!

    • Thanks Emma. Yes, I got a good grade. However, your opinion, as a translator and native French speaker, means as much. Thanks for stopping by.

      Have you ever had to translate poetry?

  4. Although I’m far from fluent in French, I could follow Baudelaire’s original here well enough to be amused by your modernizing, er, poetic license. And, of course, to see that Aggeler was apparently going for a strictly literal translation, almost word-for-word, with hardly any pretense of trying to produce something that would be poetic in its own right.

    What do you think about translations of poetry? Can a translator transform a classical piece of poetry such that contemporary readers relate to it as the original author intended?

    I think that poetry always loses a great deal in translation, and that the degree of loss is connected with how different the two languages involved are. I’m very aware that the majesty of Classical Arabic poetry almost never comes across well into English — not surprising because those two languages are completely unrelated and work very differently, particularly in terms of how words are formed from roots, which affects how words in a poem resonate with each other. I have heard that there is a fairly good German translation of Shakespeare, but English and German are very closely related, and the English of Shakespeare’s era was more similar to German than modern English is. I’m still dubious that many of the nuances would come across well. French-to-English translation is an intermediate case, since French is related to English, but not very closely. I’d be surprised if it were possible, for this poem, to stick really close to the original meaning and yet keep the poetic rhythm and quality of the original.

    Of course there’s also the problem that different languages tend to go with different cultures which use different references. Many modern Americans would be hazy on what the fleur-de-lis represents, and most would not know what Lethe refers to. Again, the greater the cultural differences, the larger this problem looms. One could substitute modern, own-culture references of comparable meaning, as you did with “star-spangled” for fleurdelisé, but this inevitably wrenches the poem out of its time and cultural context (of course I know you were going for a tongue-in-cheek effect), and where the cultural differences are too large, it simply does not work because there aren’t real equivalents. Even the best translations of Classical Arabic poetry usually end up needing footnotes to explain all the cultural references which would be completely alien to modern Americans. I suppose one could translate Lethe as “river of forgetfulness” or some such, but that would miss the ancient Greek resonance that Baudelaire was going for. There’s almost never an option that satisfies on every relevant level.

    Thanks for tackling an interesting language problem here.

    • That’s an excellent point regarding the similarity of the target language to English, Infidel. I’ve taken a look at some of the epic poems from Persia and India that have been translated to English and it’s immediately apparent that I’m woefully far from appreciating/understanding the original. Are you fluent in Arabic? Baudelaire’s French is quite advanced so bravo for being able to discern the way in which my version mimics his–I bet most people would miss the fleur-de-lis and star-spangled comparison.

      Yes, cultural references pose an even greater challenge because there often are no equivalents. I think mysticism plays a much greater role in the literature of certain cultures than in the west. There can be all kinds of implications when a higher power or well-known spirits are thrown into the narrative. It is often impossible to elegantly translate such works into English without making a total mess of the artistic form.

      So glad to have your input. Thanks for weighing in.

      • I can’t claim to be fluent in Arabic (I wish), but back in my academic days I knew Classical Arabic well enough to appreciate its poetic qualities. When reading poetry in translation, I always like to have the original available if it’s in a language I have any knowledge of at all, to give me a sense of what the translator was doing, since there are so many different interpretations and strategies possible for translation.

        It struck me that Baudelaire here seemed to be using a lot of fairly basic vocabulary, not much in the way of weird or complicated expressions. I’d guess I can understand about 60% of it, or probably quite a bit more if I looked up unfamiliar words — but not with enough confidence to attempt a serious translation. French is unusual in that English has so many loan words from it that an English-speaker can often make a reasonable guess based on similarities — I had never previously seen égayer, balcon, or extirper before, for example, but especially in context, they’re not hard to decipher.

        My favorite example of culture-specific references is actually a cartoon I saw years ago, at a time when there were a lot of scandals involving TV evangelists. It was captioned “the garden of televangelism” and showed a tree with a snake coiled around one branch, and the grass around the tree littered with dozens of apple cores (that is, apples that had been eaten). The cartoon worked because everybody in the West knows the story of the Garden of Eden, the serpent, Eve, and the apple representing temptation. To someone from another culture unfamiliar with that story, it would be incomprehensible. All Western cultures have a shared “library” of references — Lethe is not so familiar today, but there’s the river Styx, the tortoise and the hare, and hundreds of others that we all still recognize. Classical Arabic poetry often has allusions to the Koran or to even older poems which were well known in the medieval Middle East, things like that which Westerners would never catch.

        I wonder what Baudelaire would have thought of these translations. One hopes he would have been amused, despite his perennial depression.

        • I’d love to be able to understand even a little Arabic. Alas, I don’t anticipate ever finding time to study it. Comprehending 60% of the Baudelaire poem is very good. If I could understand 30% of the Arabic I saw, I’d be thrilled.

          What Baudelaire might have thought about translations of his work could well have depended on the amount of opium he’d smoked before reading.

          Your Garden of Eden reference is an excellent example of cultural fluency. Thanks for sharing.

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