Review – Charles Baudelaire, Selected Poems from “Les Fleurs du Mal”, transl. Jan Owen

Owen declares that her aim was “to turn Baudelaire’s French poems into convincing English poems while keeping as close as I could to the original texts.” On the whole she seems to me to have succeeded very well in both aims. Her translations give real pleasure as a collection of poems in English. You don’t need to be able to read the French facing pages to receive a strong sense of Baudelaire’s power. If you can, of course, you’ll be in for pleasures that are probably simply beyond the reach of translation from French into relatively rhyme-poor English. In “Parfum Exotique”, for example, the lovely, lingering effect of the rhyming of “tamariniers” with “mariniers” at the end depends not only on the fullness with which these words echo each other but also on the way they weave together the sounds of the other rhyme words of the sestet. The result isn’t merely a pleasing pattern of sound, it’s an auditory underpinning and acting out of different aspects of the poem’s meaning, both the blending of sight, sound and smell that the sestet describes, and the speaker’s increasing absorption in his dream.

In other ways, the translation of “Parfum Exotique” seems to me highly successful. On the other hand, despite accuracy in representing its prose sense, Owen’s translation of the lovely “L’invitation au voyage” fails to reproduce the poem’s feeling not because she moves too far from the structure of the original but because she tries to stay too close to it. She does so by using very short lines, all rhyming, three quarters of them with the adjacent line. This shows technical skill, but the result is a brisk, mechanical canter, at odds with the lingering, voluptuous, incantatory qualities of the original. I suspect that any translation of this poem that stayed so close to Baudelaire’s own form would strike the same problem because English just isn’t used to such closely packed rhyming except in light verse. The only English version that seems to me to come close to the feeling of the original is by Richard Wilbur. He uses three and five foot lines, instead of Owen’s two and three foot ones. This makes for rhythmical variety and gives the poet space to recreate Baudelaire’s subtly shaded, blurred and melting transitions between images, letting each float for a moment of glittering lyrical suspension instead of being driven on by enjambment.

The more concentrated a poem is, the greater these difficulties will be. Not surprisingly, the most undiluted successes are sometimes in less densely textured poems, like “Musique”. In this startling variation on the sonnet form, Baudelaire writes in alternating twelve and five syllable lines, and gives the whole a shockingly original emotional structure by delaying the volta, or turn, which would normally come at the start of the sestet,  till a quarter of the way through its penultimate line. Here, Owen’s decision to cleave closely to the form of the original is triumphantly vindicated.

This is one of many poems where Owen fuses sense with expressive English sound, honouring  Baudelaire’s essential meaning and supporting it where necessary with sensitive inventions. Her translation of “Avec ses vêtements ondoyants et nacrés” is an example. The first stanza evokes the swaying movement of the woman’s body within her gown and the gown round her body. The rapid run of syllables within the two parts of each line, contrasting with momentary stillness between phrases and at the line ending, suggests the alternation of swinging and suspension as a swing one way reaches its end before reversing itself:

Her undulating gown’s like mother-of-pearl
so even when she walks you’d think she danced,
the way long temple cobras will uncoil
and sway before their handler’s wands, entranced.

The next two stanzas introduce a range of dehumanizing vistas, comparing the woman’s indifference to that of deserts and the sea, her polished eyes to minerals, her whole ambiguously chilling and seductive power to inviolate angel and timeworn sphinx. Owen’s concluding tercet consummately draws together conflicting strands of feeling:

and through that gold and steel and diamond light
glitters the sterile woman’s majesty,
a cold white star contracting endlessly.

In contrast to the effect in my previous quotation, the relentless tread of stresses here and the hard clarity of the phonetic transitions seem to embody both the coldness of Baudelaire’s present gaze and the woman’s own indifference. Placed at the end of the poem and emphasised by the eye-catching rhyme with “majesty”, “endlessly” brilliantly evokes the slow dwindling of the star, the word itself dying away from its strong initial stress so that the whole poem seems to fade into the white space and silence surrounding it. The whiteness of the star and its contracting are Owen’s inventions. Their enduring connotations restore a power that technological change has taken from Baudelaire’s own imagery: if sea and desert no longer seem as terrifyingly vast as they did, the image of a white dwarf star invokes the overwhelming perspectives of astronomical space and time.

The level and completeness of Owen’s success inevitably varies from poem to poem. The task she’s taken on is ultimately as impossible as it’s vital. Overall, though, this book has given me a great deal of pleasure. It’s an excellent introduction to Baudelaire for the reader who doesn’t know him at all, and a valuable addition to the library of someone who does.

I would like to thank Peter and Ann Sansom for permission to reprint this review, which appeared in The North 57.


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