Baudelaire Translations

Reblogging “A Week of Reading”
From Zeteo: The Journal of Interdisciplinary Writing

[One in an ongoing series of posts. For the full series see Zeteo is Reading (ZiR)]

[pdf of English translations appearing below]

11 August 2013: L’héautontimorouménos

My hobby this summer has turned out to be translating lines from Baudelaire. This is both an engaging hobby and an absurd one, insofar as it puts one in touch with the fact that poetry is untranslatable. Or rather, a struggle to translate a poem puts one in touch with the fact that even our understandings of our best friends’ words are adaptations at best, and not infrequently misreadings. (The phrase “close enough” comes to mind, and we might imagine a friend or lover answering, in the heat of a battle, “Not close enough!”)

As regards poetry, a case in point is Baudelaire’s “L’héautontimorouménos.” “The Man who Tortures Himself” or “The Self-Tormentor,” this might be translated, or alternatives that were tempting me today: “Taking My Own Life” or “Taking My Own Life at Its Word.” In any case, Baudelaire’s words and their superficial meanings are not a great challenge and offer delights. The best-known penultimate verse along with its successor, quickly converted to English:

I am the wound and the knife
The slap and the cheek
The spokes of the wheel
Victim and executioner

Vampire of my own heart
One of the great forsaken
Condemned to the hilarity of hell
But no longer able to smile

All this seems well and good to me, and perhaps even heartening insofar as personally I feel that, as of this summer at least, I am still retaining the capacity to smile. But the poem has an “abba” rhyme scheme which serves as a counterpoint to the savagery of the imagery and reinforces its absurdity. For one, it takes work—seven verses following a consistent rhyming scheme, to say nothing of the rhythm (which is further untranslatable because French does not have tonic accents like English does and instead has longer and shorter vowel sounds, and thus, syllable-counting notwithstanding, . . . it ain’t the same rhythm). So, sticking with the rhyme scheme, among other things it introduces an ironic distance; the poet is in fact not taking his own life or unable to smile. He is, rather, scribbling possible lines and rhymes in his notebook, and quite possibly taking a good deal of pleasure in his mastery of poetic forms. The opening lines (with my rudimentary translation farther below):

Je te frapperai sans colère
Et sans haine comme un boucher ;
Comme Moïse le rocher !
Et je ferai de ta paupière,

Pour abreuver mon Saharah !
Jaillir les eaux de souffrance.
Mon désir gonflé d’espérance
Sur tes sales pleurs nagera

Comme un vaisseau qui prend le large, . . .

How might one pull this off (this rhyming and these verse-spanning paragraphs). My first pass (and enough for one day!):

I will strike you without anger
Like Moses against the stone!
Without hate, like a butcher.
I will make you moan

And water my dead fires
With a fountain of suffering.
My hope-inflated desires
Ploughing your salty crying

Like a boat heading out to sea . . .


  • Drawing of Baudelaire and swan is by Yann Legendre, from the Paris Review Daily blog: Portfolio: A Moveable Feast, 24 June 2011. Perhaps later in this week of reading we will get to the relevant poem, “Le cygne,” the swan escaped from his cage, pawing a Paris sidewalk with his webbed feet. . . . “Paris that keeps changing while my melancholy does not move an inch!”
  • Meanwhile, to read the full “Héautontimorouménos” in the original French, visit Les grandes classiques site (their tagline: “1er site français de poésie”).
  • The poem/translation that launched my summer hobby, was “L’Abyss.” My prose poem English version may be found by clicking here.


12 August 2013: L’invitation au voyage

The problem arises that a translator is not likely a better poet in his or her mother tongue than, say, Baudelaire was in French. In my case this problem is redoubled insofar as, with the occasional prosy effort notwithstanding, I am not a poet at all! It might be asked whether I or another translator would do better to dutifully, flatly replicate, with the help of too many dictionaries, the flights and excavations of Baudelaire’s verse, or should we, born aloft on greater wings, leap into the poetic air, not so much like fledgling birds as like paratroopers, prepared to hit the excavations running?

Among the solutions with which I comfort myself—

(1) It may be that the best translation is, let’s call it, an invitation to a voyage, which may lead others to seek out the original and also give them one among many ways of exploring it.
(2) Prose; don’t try to write lyrics like a great lyric poet.

Thus and herewith my translation of “L’invitation au voyage,” which will be followed by Baudelaire’s French original.

Invitation to a Voyage (trans. by Wm. Eaton)

My dear child, my friend,

Just think what a pleasure it would be to go and live there together! To make love when and as we wished, to love and die in a country like you! With its wet suns and jumbled skies, for me it offers the mysterious charms that shine through your deceitful tears. A land of nothing but order and beauty, luxury, sensuality and peace.

Furniture brightly polished by the years would decorate our love nest, and the rarest flowers would mingle their fragrance with hints of amber, with ornate ceilings, deep mirrors, the splendors of the Orient. Everything there would whisper secrets to the soul in its sweet mother tongue of order and beauty, luxury, sensuality and peace.

See on the canals the sleeping boats dreaming of departures. From the ends of the earth they have come to satisfy your every desire. The twilight comes again and again to clothe fields, canals and town in hyacinth and gold. And the world dozes off under the hot sun of order and beauty, luxury, sensuality and peace.

L’invitation au voyage (Charles Baudelaire)

Mon enfant, ma soeur,
Songe à la douceur
D’aller là-bas vivre ensemble!
Aimer à loisir,
Aimer et mourir
Au pays qui te ressemble!
Les soleils mouillés
De ces ciels brouillés
Pour mon esprit ont les charmes
Si mystérieux
De tes traîtres yeux,
Brillant à travers leurs larmes.

Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme et volupté.

Des meubles luisants,
Polis par les ans,
Décoreraient notre chambre;
Les plus rares fleurs
Mêlant leurs odeurs
Aux vagues senteurs de l’ambre,
Les riches plafonds,
Les miroirs profonds,
La splendeur orientale,
Tout y parlerait
À l’âme en secret
Sa douce langue natale.

Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme et volupté.

Vois sur ces canaux
Dormir ces vaisseaux
Dont l’humeur est vagabonde;
C’est pour assouvir
Ton moindre désir
Qu’ils viennent du bout du monde.
— Les soleils couchants
Revêtent les champs,
Les canaux, la ville entière,
D’hyacinthe et d’or;
Le monde s’endort
Dans une chaude lumière.

Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme et volupté.

Credit, Links & a Quote

The image is from Le Spleen de Paris (hommage à Charles Baudelaire), a series by the Italian artist Barbara Monacelli.

The Fleurs du Mal website claims to contain every poem of each edition of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal, together with multiple English translations. It certainly offers multiple translations of L’invitation au voyage.

While I was working on my translation I happened to receive from a philosopher-poet, Kelly Dean Jolley, a copy of his poem on “Reading Husserl”, from which I quote the following:

. . . it may be
that the books of
the great poets have
yet to be read, and that because only a great poet can read them


13 August 2013: L’harmonie du soir

Evening Song (trans. by Wm. Eaton)

Now on the rustling branches
Each flower offers up its incense
And sounds and sweet smells twirl the air;
A melancholy waltz, a heady laziness!

Each flower offers up its incense;
The violin trembles like a tormented heart;
A melancholy waltz, a heady laziness!
The sky a lonely altar, sad and lovely.

The violin trembles like a tormented heart;
A tender heart that hates the vast, empty night!
The sky a lonely altar, sad and lovely;
The sun gone down in motionless blood.

A tender heart that hates the vast, empty night
Gathers every trace of the sunlit past!
The sun gone down in motionless blood
While your memory, like a golden bowl, shines on

Harmonie du soir (Charles Baudelaire)

Voici venir les temps où vibrant sur sa tige
Chaque fleur s’évapore ainsi qu’un encensoir;
Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir;
Valse mélancolique et langoureux vertige!

Chaque fleur s’évapore ainsi qu’un encensoir;
Le violon frémit comme un coeur qu’on afflige;
Valse mélancolique et langoureux vertige!
Le ciel est triste et beau comme un grand reposoir.

Le violon frémit comme un coeur qu’on afflige,
Un coeur tendre, qui hait le néant vaste et noir!
Le ciel est triste et beau comme un grand reposoir;
Le soleil s’est noyé dans son sang qui se fige.

Un coeur tendre, qui hait le néant vaste et noir,
Du passé lumineux recueille tout vestige!
Le soleil s’est noyé dans son sang qui se fige…
Ton souvenir en moi luit comme un ostensoir!

Credit and Footnote

The image is of a monstrance or ostensoir, in this case from one of my hometowns: St. Louis, Missouri, from the St. Francis de Sales Oratory there. The reason for choosing this image may be seen by looking at the last word of Baudelaire’s text. Why did I translate his ostensoir as a “golden bowl” rather than as a “monstrance”? “Monstrance” was going to hit the ear, and perhaps the mind, too hard, and be inscrutable to those who are not Catholics or art historians. And un ostensoir is to contain the host, as indeed a bowl might. But . . . Certainly I have taken liberties. Other possibilities? Bejeweled chalice, glittering cross, precious relic, . . . ?

The four translations offered by have the following closing lines:

  • Your memory in me glitters like a monstrance! (William Aggeler, 1954)
  • And, monstrance-like, your memory flames intenser! (Roy Campbell, 1952)
  • And like a Host thy flaming memories flower! (Lewis Piaget Shanks, 1931)
  • Like the Host shines O your memory in me! (Geoffrey Wagner, 1974)

The moral remains: Translating poetry ain’t easy!


14 August 2013: Don Juan aux enfers

We shall try not to get distracted today by the fascination and centrality of the Don Juan story, and all the many versions of it, and Delacroix’s painting, Mozart’s sublime score, . . . And my sense this morning, reflecting in the shower, was that the association of Don Juan with sex and seduction is putting us off the scent. The most prominent, influential, breathtaking and frightening Don Juans of our times, the people who do not recognize any higher authority and would live by no codes but their own, tend to be scientists, investment bankers, entrepreneurs. (And I would suppose that some of them have quite active sex lives and some no sex lives at all, and most in between.)

In any case, I would focus today on the last two lines of Baudelaire’s “Don Juan aux Enfers” (Don Juan in Hell):

Mais le calme héros, courbé sur sa rapière,
Regardait le sillage et ne daignait rien voir.

These are challenging lines, both for a translator and for our sense of Don Juan. The question becomes how did Don Juan, or Baudelaire’s Don Juan, respond to being condemned for his pride, ambition and amorality, his unwavering commitment to being himself, to pursuing his interests—any higher authorities and others’ limitations be damned?

I am tempted to take this a step further: Supposing a man in our early twenty-first century were to stand up and say, “I would be the man I am.” And the community condemned him precisely for that—for his arrogance and autonomy—and thus, eventually, his isolation became so complete as to seem eternal: How we would expect such a man—or such a woman?—to react?

In Baudelaire’s poem a boat is taking Don Juan and his valet across the river Styx, and the verses offer scenes that would have moved another man.

Montrant leurs seins pendants et leurs robes ouvertes,
Des femmes se tordaient sous le noir firmament, . . .

Breasts hanging out of their open robes
Women writhed under the black sky, . . .

Frissonnant sous son deuil, la chaste et maigre Elvire,
Près de l’époux perfide et qui fut son amant,
Semblait lui réclamer un suprême sourire
Où brillât la douceur de son premier serment.

Trembling with grief, the chaste and hungry Elvira
Close by her treacherous seducer
Seemed to implore a final smile
Soft and bright as his first promises

“But,” Baudelaire, concludes,

Don Juan was calm, looking at the wake,
Alone with his sword, not stooping to see.

Link & Credit

Don Juan aux enfers” complete, in the original French and with several English translations.

Image is from an advertisement for a 2011 production of Don Giovanni by the Tulsa Opera.


15 August 2013: La cloche fêlée

The Cracked Bell (trans. by Wm. Eaton)

It is bittersweet, winter nights,
To sit by a fire that flares and smokes
And listen to old memories slowly awake
With the ringing of distant church bells.

Happy is the full-throated bell
Which, though old, remains fit and alert
And faithfully sounds the call to prayer
Like an old soldier still there at his post.

Myself, my soul is cracked, and when oppressed
Would like to fill the cold night with song,
But often its voice falters and groans,

Like a man wounded and forgotten,
Who under a pile of bodies and blood
Dies motionless, though straining.

La Cloche fêlée (Charles Baudelaire)

II est amer et doux, pendant les nuits d’hiver,
D’écouter, près du feu qui palpite et qui fume,
Les souvenirs lointains lentement s’élever
Au bruit des carillons qui chantent dans la brume.

Bienheureuse la cloche au gosier vigoureux
Qui, malgré sa vieillesse, alerte et bien portante,
Jette fidèlement son cri religieux,
Ainsi qu’un vieux soldat qui veille sous la tente!

Moi, mon âme est fêlée, et lorsqu’en ses ennuis
Elle veut de ses chants peupler l’air froid des nuits,
II arrive souvent que sa voix affaiblie

Semble le râle épais d’un blessé qu’on oublie
Au bord d’un lac de sang, sous un grand tas de morts
Et qui meurt, sans bouger, dans d’immenses efforts.


Image is of the top of La tour Saint-Jacques in Paris.

For 16 August 2013: La mort des amants

The Lovers’ Death (trans. by Wm. Eaton)

We will come to rest with gentle scents
On beds soft and deep, like tombs
With ledges full of exotic flowers
That bloomed for us alone under a bright heaven.

Luxuriating in their dying heat
Our hearts will be two great torches
Whose twinned light gleams
In the twinned mirrors of our souls.

And on a magical night of violet and roses
We will catch one another’s eyes—
A last long sigh freighted with adieux.

And later an angel, faithful and joyous,
Will open the shutters and reawaken
Time-darkened reflections, the dead light.

La mort des amants (Charles Baudelaire)

Nous aurons des lits pleins d’odeurs légères,
Des divans profonds comme des tombeaux,
Et d’étranges fleurs sur des étagères,
Ecloses pour nous sous des cieux plus beaux.

Usant à l’envi leurs chaleurs dernières,
Nos deux coeurs seront deux vastes flambeaux,
Qui réfléchiront leurs doubles lumières
Dans nos deux esprits, ces miroirs jumeaux.

Un soir fait de rose et de bleu mystique,
Nous échangerons un éclair unique,
Comme un long sanglot, tout chargé d’adieux;

Et plus tard un Ange, entr’ouvrant les portes,
Viendra ranimer, fidèle et joyeux,
Les miroirs ternis et les flammes mortes.


Image is from a reproduction of Man Ray’s 1936 painting “Observatory Time: The Lovers.”

For 17 August 2013: L’albatros

A translator may ask, too, if at times a poet has had to bend what he had wished to say to meet the demands of rhythm or rhyme. And does the translator then bend further to meet stylistic demands come to him, or to her, or to reproduce faithfully poem rather than poet? Or does the translator listen to callings of his imagination, flattering himself that he is now able to say what the poet really wanted to say? I mention this here in reference to this line in the first verse of Baudelaire’s poem, “Le navire glissant sur les gouffres amers”. These gouffres amers (bitter troughs) I confess to finding inscrutable—or are they a sort of superfluous jab at life?

L’Albatros (trans. by Wm. Eaton)

Often, for entertainment, the sailors
Took hold of albatrosses, immense sea birds,
Which lazily accompanied the lonely boat
Making its way through the bitter swells.

Hardly had the men set the birds on deck
Than these kings of the sky, awkward, pitiful,
And ashamed, let their huge wings droop
And drag by their sides like white oars.

The winged traveler became listless and maladroit,
Its great beauty transformed to comic ugliness.
One sailor troubles his beak with a short-stemmed pipe,
Another, with limping, mocks the crippled bird.

The poet is like the prince of the clouds
Who shadows thunder and at the archer laughs.
Exiled on land amid a jeering crowd,
His giant wings prevent him from walking.

L’Albatros (Charles Baudelaire)

Souvent, pour s’amuser, les hommes d’équipage
Prennent des albatros, vastes oiseaux des mers,
Qui suivent, indolents compagnons de voyage,
Le navire glissant sur les gouffres amers.

À peine les ont-ils déposés sur les planches,
Que ces rois de l’azur, maladroits et honteux,
Laissent piteusement leurs grandes ailes blanches
Comme des avirons traîner à côté d’eux.

Ce voyageur ailé, comme il est gauche et veule!
Lui, naguère si beau, qu’il est comique et laid!
L’un agace son bec avec un brûle-gueule,
L’autre mime, en boitant, l’infirme qui volait!

Le Poète est semblable au prince des nuées
Qui hante la tempête et se rit de l’archer;
Exilé sur le sol au milieu des huées,
Ses ailes de géant l’empêchent de marcher.


Photo is by the Belgian photographer Etienne Hermand, accessed via TrekEarth, the tagline of which is “Learning about the world through photography.”


{The End}

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