A while ago, I came across Charles Baudelaire’s famous poem À une passante in an American journal article that was discussing the evolution of the city during the 19th-century. The poem is often referenced in this context–the new, impersonal city that emerged in the West at this time–because it’s considered one of the first works of metropolitan art. It concerns the poet’s encounter with, or rather the poet merely sighting, a woman passing by on a city street. Of course, this being from the poet of Les fleurs du mal, this apparently banal episode is not given the Andy Williams’s treatment.Sure the women in questions is tall and slender (Longue, mince) but she also happens to be dressed in mourning and exhibiting ‘magnificent sorrow’: (‘en grand deuil, douleur majestueuse.’) Already, the cogs are turning–we can imagine the scenario, the trophy wife has just returned from the graveside of her plutocrat husband. The observer, who is probably not too flush in the cash department, is struck by this vision of liberated beauty, and is left as frustrated as Tantalus.Anyway, the poem soon works up a head of steam. But what I want to focus on here is that when I compared the original text with the translation the article’s writer provided, I thought, even given my rudimentary French, that the translator had been a little too free in his English version. But this is nothing compared to the variations I discovered on a web site devoted to Baudelaire: fleursdumal.org. Three different versions reveal that it’s impossible to agree on even the title. Should it be: To a Passer-By, A Passer-by, or even (acknowledging the feminine noun absent from English) To a Woman Passing By?
Even more ambiguous lines prompt even stranger interpretations. The admittedly opaque lines:Agile et noble, avec sa jambe de statue.Moi, je buvais, crispé comme un extravagant, Are rendered as :Agile and graceful, her leg was like a statue’s. Tense as in a delirium, I drank Or:Noble and swift, her leg with statues matching; I drank, convulsed, out of her pensive eye,Or:Swift and noble, with statuesque limb.As for me, I drank, twitching like an old roué,Twitching like an old roué? Where did that come from? But then to be honest, a phrase like ‘crispé comme un extravagant,’ probably only has significance in the original.
I suppose if you want to draw any conclusions from this brief survey it might be a) learn the language if you want the real deal or b) be aware that when you are reading any text, particularly when it’s poetic, in translation be aware that additives and colouring have been introduced. Very profound, I know.However, I want to end this rambling with something slightly unusual. A competition. What famous quotation should the above digression bring to mind? A clue: Kinbote.The first person who makes a comment with the correct answer and why the clue is relevant will, if they include their address, be sent the princely sum of 5 euro, out of my own back pocket.Let’s see if this doesn’t boost readership!