A une passante
La rue assourdissante autour de moi hurlait.
Longue, mince, en grand deuil, douleur majestueuse,
Une femme passa, d’une main fastueuse
Soulevant, balançant le feston et l’ourlet;
Agile et noble, avec sa jambe de statue.
Moi, je buvais, crispé comme un extravagant,
Dans son oeil, ciel livide où germe l’ouragan,
La douceur qui fascine et le plaisir qui tue.
Un éclair... puis la nuit! — Fugitive beauté
Dont le regard m’a fait soudainement renaître,
Ne te verrai-je plus que dans l’éternité?
Ailleurs, bien loin d’ici! trop tard! jamais peut-être!
Car j’ignore où tu fuis, tu ne sais où je vais,
O toi que j’eusse aimée, ô toi qui le savais!
A Passing Glance
In the midst of a deafening roar, svelte
And tall, and dressed in black from head to toe,
She passed me, wreathed in majestic sorrow,
Jewelled hand lifting the hem of her skirt,
Ladylike, and graceful, and statuesque.
I shook like a fool, drinking from those eyes
Tempestuous as ashen, angry skies
A deadly joy, a sweetness full of risk.
Lightning – gone dark! Slipping away from me,
Beauty that offered life in one quick glance –
Life seen no more, before Eternity?
Elsewhere…too far! too late! Never, perchance…
For you ignored me – or pretended to –
Who could have won your love, as you well knew!
--Walter Martin (2007).
Three more versions
Baudelaire has over the years attracted many English translators, and I’m not about to attempt a comprehensive survey of them (especially since he’s the sort of poet that often attracts bad translators). But I’ve been casting my eye over a few different versions of the ‘A une passante’ sonnet from Les Fleurs du Mal, prompted by the recent publication in paperback of a new translation by Walter Martin (Fyfield, 2007).
Martin substitutes decasyllabic lines for Baudelaire's alexandrines, and preserves the rhyme scheme – an impressive feat, I must say, although he does have recourse to some pretty off-rhymes to do it: ‘svelte’ with ‘skirt’? Natural stress displaces the voulu rhyme of ‘head to toe’ with ‘sorrow’, and it is completely unlike the rime riche in ‘majestueuse’/’fastueuse’. I’m nitpicking. I like translations of poetry that actually observe formal constraints, and from what I have seen, these do the job very nicely.
Roy Campbell’s 1954 translation, which is handily reproduced at fleursdumal.org, had also stuck to decasyllables and observed a rhyme-scheme (though not Baudelaire’s), and so to me – but not only for that reason – it seems the best of the three versions given on that site.
The opening line poses quite a few problems: ‘La rue assourdissante autour de moi hurlait’, with its double hiatus and preponderance of that French ‘u’ sound, is extremely difficult to english. None of the translations here quite manages it.
‘The street about me roared with a deafening sound’ is too prosaic; ‘The deafening street roared on’ is truncated to accommodate the run-on into the next line and the rhyme, and it seems to come from nowhere (why ‘roared on’?). You can see what the translator was trying to do with ‘The deafening road around me roared’, but… well, it just doesn’t work, does it? Why didn’t he just go the whole hog and make it ‘the rumbling road around me roared’? It’s awful, yes, but at least it’s unashamed about its awfulness.
Martin’s translation is workmanlike, but it makes a sentence into a clause ‘In the midst of a deafening roar’, and that clause is made to modify the wrong subject (‘In the midst of a deafening roar…She‘; whereas: ‘autour de moi‘).
Here’s a truly awful version of the second line of the second quatrain: ‘as for me, I drank, twitching like an old roué’ (G. Wagner, 1974). Quite apart from the translationese of ‘as for me’ to render the disjunctive ‘moi’, the version diminishes the force of ‘crispé comme un extavagant’ to conjure the image of a dirty old man masturbating onto the polythene-covered seat of a porno cinema.
Martin fragments the syntax in the second part, and the multiplication of commas in the first five lines seems appropriate. By far the most infelicitous of the choices he has made comes in the final couplet – first with the penultimate line, inexplicably rendered as ‘For you ignored me – or pretended to’. ‘Car j’ignore où tu fuis, tu ne sais où je vais’ cannot possibly mean this, and even allowing for some degree of compensation or semantic overspill from the following line, there is no justification at all for it. Having said that, this is a deceptively simple line, and it’s very difficult to put into a natural sounding English rhythm. What about rejigging it like this: ‘For what draws you on escapes me, my path eludes you’? Not entirely satisfactory.
Keith Waldrop’s translation (2006) is a pretty literal version, in a weird kind of poetic prose – but is quite successful for that, I think. Only one major problem with it: ‘a woman passed me, one hand ostentatiously lifting in balance her scalloped hem.’ – she’s lifting and swinging her hem (‘soulevant, balançant’), not balancing it. ‘Nevermore’ is appropriate enough, I suppose, given Baudelaire’s (inexplicable) admiration for Poe.
The deafening street roared about me. Tall, slender, in deep mourning, majestically sad, a woman passed me, one hand ostentatiously lifting in balance her scalloped hem.All of which proves that the only difference between poetry and prose is, as they say, that with poetry the author decides where the line-breaks go; with prose the typesetter does.
lithe, noble, legs statuesque. Absurdly on edge, I drank in from her eye – that livid, hurricane-weather sky – a fascinating tenderness, a murderous pleasure.
A flash of lightning…then night! Fugitive beauty, in whose glance I was suddenly reborn, will I see you nevermore, save in eternity?
Elsewhere! far from here! too late! perhaps never! As where you went I don’t know; so you don’t know where I go. You whom I would have loved. You who knew it!
A translation of a different order, if such it can be called, might be furnished by Ezra Pound’s poem ‘The Garden’, which substitutes London for Paris and translates Baudelaire’s urban Romantic aesthetic into a very different idiom, as the flâneur’s sigh becomes a modernist sneer:
Like a skein of loose silk blown against a wall
She walks by the railing of a path in Kensington Gardens,
And she is dying piece-meal
of a sort of emotional anaemia.
And round about there is a rabble
Of the filthy, sturdy, unkillable infants of the very poor.
They shall inherit the earth.
In her is the end of breeding.
Her boredom is exquisite and excessive.
She would like some one to speak to her,
And is almost afraid that I
will commit that indiscretion.