In -Other- Other Words: Considering Translation

This really is a pretty scene
But could you ask your kid to smile, please?
Sorry, what exactly do you mean?
Can you say it English?
– Joe Jackson, “Jet Set”

Now and then, I think about how it is that language is both a prism and a blind. It’s language that enables art in verbal expression. The facets and nuances of language – how we sense words in meaning, sound and feel – enable us to create and feel poetry, for example. The beauty of words, the musicality of syllables, the tension created by what is left unsaid – give a pulse, a thrill, to dumb data. Through our language, the ray of a thought refracts and plays, sometimes marvellously, on whatever blank wall we choose.

But only if we speak the language. Otherwise, all we have is a string of ciphers. Even with a technical grasp of a language, without a native speaker’s feel for the idiom, our ability to feel the full beauty of a piece of literature is heavily compromised and even perverted.

And it’s this barrier of language, the living quality of how we speak and write, that led me to wonder: How much do we owe to translators for the beauty of a work? More than that, is translation itself an art worth celebrating? Should we praise talented translators as much as poets or novelists?

Until a few weeks ago, I’d have to say that I’ve taken the skill of translation for granted. Intuitively, I knew there must be an art to it. Translation is much more than simple transcription. Otherwise, we might all be speaking one language now anyway, no work would ever be translated into a given language more than once, and BabelFish translations wouldn’t have become the Internet equivalent of a parlour game. If translation were straightforward, there’d be one edition of the Bible, no questions asked.

But there are questions asked.

The touchstone for my inquiry was a book of poems. A while back, in an effort to practice a little more of what I preached about reading poetry, I bought a copy of Les Fleurs du Mal, by Charles Baudelaire. This edition, a 1987 Picador Classics edition reprinted from a 1982 Harvester Press edition (Pan Books, London, 1987), contains the translated English versions followed by the original French versions.

In the foreword, translator Richard Howard discusses his approach to translation. To start with, he set out to remain loyal to meter, but not to rhyme. He acknowledges others’ views of forsaking rhyme, citing another writer who observed that translation without retaining rhyme was like a tightrope walker stretching his wire along the floor. But his view was that there were other, higher purposes in Baudelaire’s work, and it was those to which he was more committed to staying true. He writes of different casts of ‘Baudelairean’ – “a sensational Satanism, is of course not the same thing as… a fashion of convulsive and confessional energy”.

Which all sounded logical and noble, but I wondered whether the distinction might be arbitrary - the translator feeling that rhyme was too constricting and not so important, but meter was significant. Perhaps, then, the translation might be pinched between retaining the meter and the meaning. Then I noticed that, for one poem I’d particularly enjoyed, he’d actually changed the title – from Bénédiction to Consecration. That, to me, seemed a liberty on the translator’s part.

So I thought I’d look up some other translations of the poem. This search was so easy that I realised my epiphany is no news at all. But what news really is news?  It’s still an epiphany to me, and it needed exploring.

There is at least one site dedicated to this particular volume – – and it contains four separate English translations of “Bénédiction”, from 1936, 1952, 1954, and 1958. (The original poem was first published in 1857.) The first thing I noticed is that, in contrast to Howard, all four of these translations retain the title’s cognate, Benediction. After that, though, the versions diverge greatly.

In this discussion, I look only at the first two stanzas. This cursory glance cannot support or sustain the philosophical heft, nor the experience, insight or talent, that Howard brought to the translation. Furthermore, they may lead me to outright erroneous conclusions about the translators’ works themselves. But they illustrate my point for the sake of this essay, and they minimize my imposition on the reader.

Here’s the original, in French (and yes, the Picador Classics edition and render it identically):


Lorsque, par un décret des puissances suprêmes,
Le Poète apparaît en ce monde ennuyé,
Sa mère épouvantée et pleine de blasphèmes
Crispe ses poings vers Dieu, qui la prend en pitié:

«Ah! que n’ai-je mis bas tout un noeud de vipères,
Plutôt que de nourrir cette dérision!
Maudite soit la nuit aux plaisirs éphémères
Où mon ventre a conçu mon expiation!»

William Aggeler (The Flowers of Evil, Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954), it appears, took a literal approach.  Based on my textbook knowledge of French, he appears to have translated verbatim:


When, after a decree of the supreme powers,
The Poet is brought forth in this wearisome world,
His mother terrified and full of blasphemies
Raises her clenched fist to God, who pities her:

“Ah! would that I had spawned a whole knot of vipers
Rather than to have fed this derisive object!
Accursed be the night of ephemeral joy
When my belly conceived this, my expiation!”

There’s nothing of rhyme or meter here; in places, it reads awkwardly to me, like a tourist squinting into a phrasebook, trying to order lunch.

Howard’s Picador/Harvester version, by contrast, goes for blank verse: he generally retains the original iambic pentameter, but ignores the abab rhyme scheme. The title change, I think, is significant – a consecration is somewhat more serious (or pompous) than a benediction, or blessing:


When by an edict of the sovereign powers
the Poet enters this indifferent world,
his mother, spurred to blasphemy by shame,
clenches her fists at a condoling God:

‘Why not have given me a brood of snakes
rather than make me rear this laughing-stock?’
I curse the paltry pleasures of the night
on which my womb conceived my punishment!’

He uses richer vocabulary and adjusts meanings, which clearly alters the colour and tone of this anguished rant of a poem: “indifferent” for “wearisome”, the active voice and alliteration of “I curse the paltry pleasures”. There’s more beauty and life to this version, but the vocabulary is a strange mix: we have the semi-colloquial “rear this laughing-stock” and the abstruse “condoling”.

Roy Campbell’s version (Poems of Baudelaire, New York: Pantheon Books, 1952) appears to be the only one that appeared not in a re-rendering of the original collection, but in a more general anthology. Campbell has kept the rhyme as well as the meter (with exceptions) in his version:


When by an edict of the powers supreme
A poet’s born into this world’s drab space,
His mother starts, in horror, to blaspheme
Clenching her fists at God, who grants her grace.

“Would that a nest of vipers I’d aborted
Rather than this absurd abomination.
Cursed be the night of pleasures vainly sported
On which my womb conceived my expiation.

Campbell wanders further afield from literal meaning (“this world’s drab space” as opposed to “this wearisome [or bored] world”), and even contradicts it (“aborted” versus “spawned”).  Arguably, the original “mis bas” – “put down” – could be read as “aborted”, though it sounds as though the others read it as “laid down” or “spawned”. He keeps that vexing word “expiation”; but, unlike Aggeler’s version, Howard’s reading provides the context that would allow a general reader to infer the meaning of expiation. This version is, to me, coherent, eloquent, and powerful by comparison.

Jacques LeClercq’s rendition (Flowers of Evil, Mt Vernon, NY: Peter Pauper Press, 1958) is looser in metric exactitude, but is thoroughly lyrical and retains the rhyme:


When by decree of the almighty powers,
The Poet walks the world’s wearisome sod,
His mother, blasphemous and fearful, cowers,
Clenching her fist against a pitying God:

“Ah, would whole knots of vipers were my spawn
Rather than this woeful abomination!
Cursed be the sweet swift night and evil dawn
Wherein my womb conceived my expiation!

The last half of the second stanza recasts the night and adds the morning after, but this passage, even with its lofty expression – sweet swift night and evil dawn is particularly seductive – stays fairly true to the original literal meaning (except, notably, that the Poet isn’t merely born: he’s walking already).

Edna St. Vincent Millay (Flowers of Evil, NY: Harper and Brothers, 1936) also keeps meter and rhyme, but she changes the shape – she changes to past tense, moves elements between lines (note the first two lines, for example – the “harassed world” is in line 1, and “decree of the high powers” is in line 2), adds another foot to each line, making iambic hexameter – and uses the extra space to magnify the rhetoric:


When, on a certain day, into this harassed world
The Poet, by decree of the high powers, was born,
His mother, overwhelmed by shame and fury, hurled
These blasphemies at God, clenching her fists in scorn:

“Would I had whelped a knot of vipers — at the worst
‘Twere better than this runt that whines and snivels there!
Oh, cursèd be that night of pleasure, thrice accurst
My womb, that has conceived and nourished my despair!

Of all the versions we’ve considered, Millay’s – with its “runt that whines and snivels there” – is possibly the most vivid in its expression of the mother’s catharsis. It’s certainly the one in which the translator exercises the greatest flourish. Is it what Baudelaire meant? Again, I wonder – is that the central question?

Which translation of these two stanzas reflect Baudelaire’s original the most accurately – and which make the best reading? I felt the Aggeler version, while the most literal, was opaque; it didn’t charm me. I originally hadn’t been concerned with Howard’s not rhyming – but the others have demonstrated so well that rhyme is no impediment to retaining (or refracting) the poem’s soul. The remaining three all moved me, and I’d choose either the Millay or the Leclercq as my favorite.

What does this exercise reveal to me?

First: Translation isn’t a mundane mechanical exercise, but an art like writing.  It can attract writers and literati of the very highest calibre (at least for work of the quality and éclat of Baudelaire’s). After having formed my opinions, I looked a bit into who these translators were. The results are more than humbling:

Richard Howard

Howard studied French literature at the Sorbonne, won a Pulitzer prize for poetry in 1970, and won an American Book Award for the very volume that prompted this essay. He’s also won a PEN Translation Prize. And the French Government made him a Chevalier of l’Ordre National du Mérite.

Aggeler, in addition to his translation of Les Fleurs du Mal, has written several articles on Baudelaire and a scholarly book, Baudelaire Judged by Spanish Critics, 1857-1957.

Campbell, a poet from South Africa, was highly regarded by some of the most renowned of modern poets: T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, and Edith Sitwell thought him one of the Twentieth Century’s best.   Jorge Luis Borges said his translation of the poems of St. John of the Cross were in some ways an improvement on the originals.  He knew C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, and they took very different, enthusiastic views of him. Blacklisted from publication for some unpopular political stances, Campbell is less widely known than he might have been.

LeClercq was the godson of Georges Clemenceau, Premier of France (he carried his godfather’s name as his middle names), but became an American citizen early in life (graduated from Berkeley and taught at Columbia, among other credits). He published poems under the pseudonym Paul Tanaquil and was known for his translations of poetry.

Millay was a Pulitzer Prize laureate as well – one of the first women to win a Pulitzer – and a recipient of the Frost Medal for lifetime contribution to American Poetry. Thomas Hardy once said that the skyscraper and Millay’s poetry were America’s two greatest contributions to the Twenties.

Second: Meaning isn’t always lost in translation, but it can certainly be gained.  Whether that’s a good or bad thing depends on the translator’s purpose. It wouldn’t be so good, for example, for military orders or technical instructions, but here we’ve seen several different routes (not all of them successful in my view) to the same end.

Third: Translation isn’t necessarily transparent, and transparency may not even be the translator’s goal. In sport, it’s often said that the best referee is one whose presence isn’t noticed. I used to think that the same applied to translators, but going through this exercise has changed my mind; I’ll pay a lot more attention in future to the quality of a translation, and I’ll know not to judge the poet by the translator.

Last: It’s clear to me that a translated poem is not the same as a poem; it’s an interpretation of a poem. In retrospect, that’s obvious.  Given how much time I spend listening to music, where cover versions can vary so completely and interpretation can be just as interesting and enthralling as the original composition, this point shouldn’t surprise me at all.  But it does.

And that’s the thing with epiphanies: sometimes they’re a matter of finally understanding – really getting – something you already know.

I’d like to close with a poem written, in English, by Mark Wakely at AbsoluteWrite. He eloquently expresses the complementary position, that sometimes translation is a bridge too far – no, you can’t say it in English.   What I hope to see now is translation as what it is – either an interpretation or an approximation, and to appreciate its value in a big world.

Chinese Poets Paint

Chinese poets paint words with
learned brushwork that capture
precise images in miniature
our translations fail to reveal.
Pots of paint, a cup of water,
paintbrushes– some with but
a few shaved hairs!– in wise hands
seize the poet’s vision in characters
that defy English, deride it.
But still we try to render
the images, our language tools
sterile and thoroughly inadequate.
All we’re left with is the ghost
of the poem, its hollow bones,
not enough to know how
birds taking wing in winter that
disturb the snow on frozen branches
can fill our hearts with joy or sorrow
like the poet’s when the poem
was composed.

6 Responses to “In -Other- Other Words: Considering Translation”

  1. Translator Says:

    Only a native speaker is a good translator! I totally agree!

  2. William Haskins Says:

    excellent piece, rob. thank you.

  3. Cathy Harris Says:

    Rob, No translation needed for my comment.



  4. magdalen Says:

    Will be back to read in full, but I have to say this is GREAT! Of course Baudelaire has been near and dear to me for ages, but I hadn’t seen some of these translations so great excitement a-flutter here, now. Later!

  5. Diane Dooley Says:

    So I’m not the only one who geeks out over translations.

    Lovely essay!

  6. Jamie Mason Says:

    Finally, I’ve had the time to read this as it ought to be read. Wonderful essay, throughout, but I was won in the first paragraph, particularly the bolded clause -

    The beauty of words, the musicality of syllables, the tension created by what is left unsaid – give a pulse, a thrill, to dumb data.

    Translation would seem a specialist skill along the lines of dowsing or criminal profiling – part art, part nuts-and-bolts knowledge. To be fair, though, I’ve read plenty of things that felt as refreshing and vital as water, but I can’t say I’ve run across the poem-as-criminal yet. Clearly, I need a translator for my metaphor.

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