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Selected Poems of Charles Baudelaire trans. Jan Owen (Arc Publications)

Selected Poems of Charles Baudelaire trans. Jan Owen (Arc Publications)

The arrival of a new translation of Baudelaire is always a moment of real interest and this recent publication which appeared last month is no exception. The Australian poet Jan Owen introduces her translations by highlighting what it was that drew her to Baudelaire’s work in the first place:

‘I was drawn to Baudelaire not through any intrinsic resemblance but by his ‘sorcellerie évocatoire’: the distilled power and daring images, the combination of intensity and grace, and the unpredictable mix of formality and intimacy. Those memorable first lines and resonant last lines, that shifting emotional terrain between!’

This is a fine introductory comment and I turned to one of my favourite ‘Spleen’ poems to see how the power and unpredictability came over. The poem, ‘Quand le ciel bas et lourd pèse comme un couvercle’ always seems to be to be a good test of a translator’s sensitivity. It is the poem written about by the great Erich Auerbach in an essay titled ‘The Aesthetic Dignity of the Fleurs du Mal’ where he talks of the temporal clauses describing a rainy day with low, heavy hanging clouds; a sky like a heavy lid closing off the horizon ‘leaving us without prospect in the darkness’.

The opening of Jan Owen’s version is very effective:

‘When the long low sky weighs down like a lid
on the spirit groaning with disgust and doubt,
and in at the far horizon rim is poured
a day that’s sadder than the darkest night;

when earth is changed to a narrow, fetid jail
where Hope, a frantic bat, twitching and reeling,
scrapes her timid wings on every wall
and knocks her head against the rotted ceiling’

I like this much more than the Richard Howard poem I have become used to from 1982:

‘When skies are low and heavy as a lid
over the mind tormented by disgust,
and hidden in the gloom the sun pours down
on us a daylight dingier than the dark;

when earth becomes a trickling dungeon where
Trust like a bat keeps lunging through the air,
beating tentative wings along the walls
and bumping its head against the rotten beams’

The alexandrine metre of the original French makes it clear that this is a solemn poem, to be spoken in grave tones. It includes allegorical figures written with capital letters and the reader is trapped between the lofty tone of the exclamation and the indignity of the emotional imprisonment. Reading Jan Owen’s version I like the drawn out lines with their beat of emphasis, nails in a spiritual coffin, and I like the merging of ‘disgust’ with ‘doubt’. The second two lines of that first stanza provide an interesting image of the day being poured in as if from a jug to a dish whilst the Howard version lacks that visual precision. In the second stanza Jan Owen’s bat (Hope) twitches and reels with a sense of the frantic prisoner trapped inside the cell of a room as opposed to Howard’s more nightmare-like noise of the bat ‘bumping its head’.

In his 2007 notes on ‘Some aspects of poems and translations’ Jeremy Prynne suggested that ‘Teachers of a foreign language often say to their students, if you can read and understand poems written in the foreign language, then you will have insights into the very heart of another culture; but the tasks are often very hard, and also frustrating, because it is mostly not possible to know whether an attempted understanding of a poem has been successful or not.’
He also suggested that translation is a noble art’ making bridges for readers who want to cross the divide between their own culture and those cultures which are situated in other parts of the world.’

Jan Owen’s translation of Baudelaire is a noble attempt and it is already becoming for me the version which I want to recommend to others.

Ian Brinton 10th July 2015

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