Review: Selected Poems From 'Les Fleurs du Mal'

Review: Selected Poems from Les Fleurs Du Mal
by Norman Shapiro
Translated from Charles Baudelaire's French.

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In our age where most poets are wary of rhyme in their own work (to say nothing of translations,) where readers are generally suspicious of rhymed translations on the grounds that the translator may have taken liberties with the original and therefore produced pages of somewhat uncertain paternity, it is refreshing to see that a scholar like Norman Shapiro has the proverbial balls to offer us form-true, rhymed, metrical translations of foreign poetry. Shapiro's collection of Baudelaire selections has a few real gems (not the least of which is the added bonus of David Schorr's gorgeously ghoulish engravings throughout.) which often reward the English-speaking reader with good poems.

I suspect that part of the general solidity of his translations is that they are a work of cohabitation and obsession. In the translators introduction, Shapiro describes how he originally translated some Baudelaire more or less as a challenge to himself and then the project gradually took on a life of its own, resulting in more and more translations as Shapiro was drawn further and further into Baudelaire's œvre. And it shows. I have wondered if it is this obsession which has given Shapiro a sense of license to take liberties in order to preserve his personal internalization of Baudelaire in English. Indeed, the bilingual reader will often note the somewhat transformative nature of certain passages, where paraphrase has been used liberally, skewing or rearranging the semantic or syntactic elements of the original, in order to preserve the tone and tune while retaining something of the essential message or meaning.

Take, for example, the first 4 lines of Elevation:

High above valley, mountain, wood and pond,
Above the seas, the clouds, the ether vast;
Out past the sun itself, the stars; out past
The very limits of the great Beyond...

And now the original French (with my own prose gloss underneath for non-Francophone readers)

Au-dessus des étangs, au-dessus des vallées,
Des montagnes, des bois, des nuages, des mers,
Par delà le soleil, par delà les éthers,
Par delà les confins des sphères étoilées,

(Above the lakes, above the vales, the mountains, the woods, the clouds, the seas, beyond the sun, beyond the ether, beyond the bounds of the starred spheres.)

These two passages are very different, especially in the last two lines. The enjambment of line 3, the more densely packed nouns of lines 1 and 2, along with the liberal inventiveness of line 4 all make for a somewhat different texture in English. But the latter especially has a rather Baudelairian ring to it (if one makes allowances for the stench cliché of the word great in great Beyond, but then even the original French has a slight cliché ring to it outside the context of the original) for the French poet does use capitalized abstractions in such ways, even if he didn't do it in this precise poem. To me, at least, these lines, for all their liberties, are rather convincing- convincing because it does give the impression Baudelaire might have made a few (though not all) of these selfsame choices (such as the rhyme pond/Beyond) had he been writing in English. Shapiro is a natural scholar, and this has no doubt helped him develop a stylistic sense of the Baudelairian.

Above this, though, deserves ample credit for not trying to "naturalize" Baudelaire in translation. Too often, modern 20th century English translators have gotten it into their heads that Baudelaire in English should sound like a 20th century English-speaker, or that 20th century English poetry had/has the same effect on 20th century English speakers as 19th century literary French on 19th century French readers. Shapiro, recognizing that this is not so, has opted for a rather more stylized English than we would come to expect. He gives us postpositive adjectives ("ether vast" for "vast ether"), use of the word "wise" with the meaning "fashion" (as in the line "the owls align in ordered wise/ like alien gods"), and a few other devices from the traditional English poets' toolkit which fell out of fashion when the Romantic tradition was broken up by Yeats and Eliot.

These translations are also interestingly divergent from modern trends in that they make liberal use of the English possibility for neologized compounds, a lovely morphological quirk which happens to be one of English's most priceless Germanic heirlooms. Throughout the book, one finds such things as a "witchery-beguiled" heart , a "slant-rayed sun", a "moon-abhorred graveyard", and "flame-written lore" among countless others. This possibility for compounds is one of the most ancient poetic devices in English and their proliferation in a translation of 19th century French poetry takes features from somewhere by the synchronic frontiers of our poetic language and plants them squarely in the diachronic heartlands. This is especially true where they are used in close proximity to achieve effects not present or even possible in the original French but which make up for what is lost in translation as in this superb passage from For a Créole Lady:

Dawdling in crimson arbor's lush recess,
In country sweet-perfumed and sun-caressed,
 Fronds drippping eyefuls of pure idleness,
I've known a Creole lady, beauty-blessed.

For the most part, these de-naturalizations of modern English readers' expectations (i.e. compounds and deviations from modern idiom) have the useful effect of reminding us that Baudelaire is of a different time and place, showing us something new that we would not get from today's poetry, which, after all, is part of the point (even if sun-caressed is in other contexts cliché and sweet-perfumed is pushing it.) A translation should give us something new, otherwise I as a reader would be right to ask why the original justified the translator's attention, and why the translation should justify mine. Something is indeed lost in translation but Shapiro shows, time and again, that new things can just as easily be found there too. "Found in translation" is not just a cliché, or the title of the website you are now reading, but a real thing.

Yet, for all the merits that make this book buy-worthy, I cannot agree with many other reviewers who see the book as nearly flawless, for it is oh-so-not. There are countless times when reading a translation of poetry, particular when the translation is rhymed or music-striving, where I get the uncomfortable feeling that the translator probably doesn't write much poetry of their own. Or hasn't even tried. Such, alas, is the case with Shapiro who, time and again, comes across in these translations as more elbow-padded scholar than verbally deft poet. Although I respect him immensely for this book's merits, the qualities that make him a successful translator can also be a huge liability when left unchecked. He often goes too far with his skewed syntax, enjambment and paraphrase. At times, it can even sound absurd, as in the following case:

I'm beautiful, O mortals, as might be
A sculpted dream; my bosom fine- whereof,
Bruised, all would suckle- fires the poet's love:
Silent as stone, fixed as eternity.

Leaving aside the fact that Baudelaire himself would have never permitted himself the kind of enjambment that results in using "whereof" as a rhyme-word (whose use in and of itself reeks of forced-rhyme) or the copular "be" in this position, the first three lines of this quatrain are so skewed as to require multiple readings just for the English-speaker to be able to parse the grammar. The postposed adjective of "bosom fine" might be tolerable on its own, but when followed by the semi-parenthetical "whereof, bruised, all would suckle" it is likely to cause the reader to pass out from syntactic overdose (does "bruised" refer to "all" or to "bosom"?) Moreover "fires the poet's love" is not only a cliché, but this time it is a cliché with no redeeming qualities at all. As if that weren't bad enough, does it really make sense within the aesthetic framework being employed here, to describe a woman of sensual beauty as lactating? To make matters even worse, the French lines that this is supposed to be a translation of are in a somewhat prosey word-order, with an elegance appropriate to a poem titled "Beauty":

Je suis belle, ô mortels! comme un rêve de pierre,
Et mon sein, où chacun s'est meurtri tour à tour,
Est fait pour inspirer au poète un amour
Eternel et muet ainsi que la matière.

(I am beautiful, O mortals, like a stone dream; and my breast, where all have bruised themselves in turn, is made to inspire in the poet a love as eternal and silent as matter.)

With the slight (and I do mean slight) exceptions of the first two lines, the word order here is that of prose. Also, there is no suckling, no "firing love" and really very little in the way of artifice in the original. How truly, unbelievably different the French is from Shapiro's English! In this case, as in a few others, Shapiro has given us an illustration by example of how not to translate poetry.

But, all in all, such aesthetic farts are outnumbered by the many cases where Shapiro acquits himself usually well and often marvelously.

Final Grade: B-

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