Translating Baudelaire’s “La mort des amants”

“A translation is like a woman,” my friend quipped; “she cannot be both beautiful and faithful.” It is a truism to say that translating poetry is especially difficult, but when I saw the following translation of Baudelaire by one Michael Field, I couldn’t help but try my hand.

La mort des amants

Nous aurons des lits pleins d’odeurs légères,
Des divans profonds comme des tombeaux,
Et d’étranges fleurs sur des étagères,
Ecloses pour nous sous des cieux plus beaux.

Usant à l’envi leurs chaleurs dernières,
Nos deux coeurs seront deux vastes flambeaux,
Qui réfléchiront leurs doubles lumières
Dans nos deux esprits, ces miroirs jumeaux.

Un soir fait de rose et de bleu mystique,
Nous échangerons un éclair unique,
Comme un long sanglot, tout chargé d’adieux;

Et plus tard un Ange, entrouvrant les portes,
Viendra ranimer, fidèle et joyeux,
Les miroirs ternis et les flammes mortes.

“The Death of Lovers”

There will be beds, full of light odours blent,
Divans, great couches, deep, profound as tombs,
And, grown for us in light magnificent,
Over the flower stand there will droop strange blooms.

Careful of our last flame declining
As two vast torches our two hearts shall flare,
And our two spirits in their double shining
Reflect the double light enchanted there.

One night, a night of mystic blue and rose,
A look will pass, supreme, from me to you,
Like a long sob, laden with long adieux.

And later on, an angel will unclose
The door and entering joyously relight
The tarnished mirrors and the flames blown to the night.

Why did I disapprove of this version? I didn’t like its excess, its melodrama, and its straining too hard to meet its rhyme scheme. Such cloying words as “blent” and “enchanted” have been added out of nowhere just to fill up space. “Divans” and “couches” is an unnecessary redundancy, as is “deep” and “profound” (both pairs in the same line, even worse, when there is not a single repetition in Baudelaire’s line). “Blooms” is an awkward noun here, especially with the assonance of “droop”; the end of this line seems to jam up against its prescribed confines and fails to evoke a pleasant feeling.

A counting of syllables explains exactly why this translation sounds like it has too many words. As you might know, the French counterpart to English’s classic iambic pentameter (10 syllables) is the alexandrine (12 syllables). Whereas we tend to write our sonnets in iambic pentameter, the Gauls do it in alexandrine, and a skim through Baudelaire’s work shows that this meter is his workhorse too. (As you might also know, by convention, terminal e‘s are counted as syllables unless they fall at the end of a line.) Yet “La mort des amants” is written in lines of only 10 syllables apiece, and each of the fourteen lines adheres to this reduced length, producing a sonnet that is especially tight and distilled. Michael Field, however, sticks with the standard 10-syllable English line for his translation, with the following exceptions (and exceptions to meter should mean something):

– His second quatrain is 9-10-11-10. It makes sense to remove a syllable from a line about “declining,” as though the “last flame” were truly too short of breath to make it through 10 syllables, and insert an extra syllable in a line about “two spirits in their double shining,” as though love were enough to create extra syllables—probably not a clever allusion to reproduction, but at the very least a hint that two lovers’ energies can add up synergistically. This way, the quatrain as a whole still contains the prescribed 40 syllables.

– His final tercet is 10-11-12, which seems a crazy violation of meter. He is likely aiming to give the impression of effusive joy and transcendence of mortal bounds, but really—Baudelaire was able to accomplish this without adding syllables.

My contention is that 8-syllable English lines would be the best choice to represent these 10-syllable French lines.

I sat down tonight with Le Robert micro, a French-French dictionary, to look up all of the words in Baudelaire’s poem. There are several French words here with superb meanings which I don’t believe Field has captured adequately:

Ecloses: the past participle of éclore, which is used both for the hatching of an egg and for the blossoming of a flower. (I am reminded of how a single verb in ancient Greek serves for the sinking of a ship and for the setting of the sun: learning languages in itself can be an act of poetry.) Michael Field’s “Grown” doesn’t cut it.

Usant à l’envi: user is sumptuously defined in my dictionary as “détruire par la consommation,” bringing to mind the Ovidian myth dearest to my heart, that of Semele too sincerely wanting all the beauty of Jupiter. This is inadequately translated by “declining,” which although a more conventional word for death is not what Baudelaire meant. “Declining” is too tame, entirely the wrong tone for à l’envi: the phrase means that the two flames are competing to outdo each other to burn out the fastest.

Esprits: the primary definition in Le Robert is that of “minds,” not “spirits,” and I prefer this.

To Field’s credit, he does well with another word whose definition I thought was lovely: entrouvrir means to open just a crack, and “unclose” is much more in the right spirit than “open” would be.

There are aspects of the French we could not possibly hope to translate well, like sanglot. Look at this word for “sob” and see the roots for “blood” and “throat,” listen to the gurgling choking sound of the “ngl.” I also admire the proliferation of x’s in the Baudelaire sonnet, suggesting mystery, and the kisses of lovers, and a religious connotation (the cross) all in one. Knowing the inherent weaknesses of any translation, though, I still thought I could produce one more defensible than the one that had originally irked me. Here is what I came up with:

We will have beds steeped in light scents,
Chaises deep as mausolea,
And under sublime firmaments
Shelves of blossomed bougainvillea.

Like torches our two hearts shall flame,
Racing to burn out to the last,
Their brightness in double enframed
In minds which are mirrors twin-cast.

One evening, rose and mystic blue,
Like one long sob charged with goodbyes
We will exchange a single flash;

Then an Angel will tiptoe through
And, smiling, reimmortalize
The dull mirrors and mounds of ash.

This has precisely 8 syllables per line, a reduction from the typical 10 that I think best reflects Baudelaire’s reduction to 10 from 12. The impersonal “There will be beds” is replaced by the more faithful “We will have beds.” The redundancy of the second line is removed. Field’s “light” has been replaced by the more faithful “skies,” or rather its synonym “firmaments,” which is more apt since the image of “light” occurs more powerfully later in the poem and should not be repeated this early. “Grown” has been replaced by “blossomed.” The competition between the two torches has been put back in the poem. I like the anapestic gallop of my sixth line which echoes its content. Yes, Baudelaire repeats some synonym of “two” FIVE times in the second quatrain, and Michael Field was faithful to this, but it sounded excessive and I believe I have not substantially changed the tone in reducing this repetition to three. I like the alliteration of “minds” and “mirrors” at the end of the octave, and the way it is echoed in reverse (mirrored!) as “mirrors and mounds” at the end of the sestet. I like the spondaic sustained drumbeat “like—one—long—sob” which enacts what it means. “Flash” is more faithful to “éclair” (whose only definition is “lightning bolt”) than “a look.” I think that “tiptoe through” captures the essence of opening the doors a crack, in sound as well as in meaning. I like how the final tercet begins like a whisper: “Then-an-AN-gel,” suggesting the passage of time before the conclusion.

Criticisms are invited. The best part of this was the process: the thrill of delving deep, deep into Baudelaire; the joy to be found in close reading; the drive to best communicate the sonnet’s beauty to those who don’t know French.

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