L’Héautontimorouménos

À J.G.F.

Je te frapperai sans colère
Et sans haine, comme un boucher,
Comme Moïse le rocher
Et je ferai de ta paupière,

Pour abreuver mon Saharah
Jaillir les eaux de la souffrance.
Mon désir gonflé d’espérance
Sur tes pleurs salés nagera

Comme un vaisseau qui prend le large,
Et dans mon coeur qu’ils soûleront
Tes chers sanglots retentiront
Comme un tambour qui bat la charge!

Ne suis-je pas un faux accord
Dans la divine symphonie,
Grâce à la vorace Ironie
Qui me secoue et qui me mord

Elle est dans ma voix, la criarde!
C’est tout mon sang ce poison noir!
Je suis le sinistre miroir
Où la mégère se regarde.

Je suis la plaie et le couteau!
Je suis le soufflet et la joue!
Je suis les membres et la roue,
Et la victime et le bourreau!

Je suis de mon coeur le vampire,
—Un de ces grands abandonnés
Au rire éternel condamnés
Et qui ne peuvent plus sourire!

I, too, occasionally indulge in a bit of self-torment—as when I attempt to translate Baudelaire into English verse. It is not an easy task, and I am never entirely up to it. I always want to adhere as closely as possible to Baudelaire’s grammar, rhythm and vocabulary, but the mere act of translation demands significant departures (and thus sacrifices). Still, there is no benefit to self-torment if it is not performed in public, so I here present my latest (but certainly not last) exercise in self-abuse. Would that it were only self-abuse—Baudelaire is obviously the most unfortunate victim, but my apologies, too, to anyone else who reads it!

The Self-Tormentor

To J.G.F.

I will strike you without ire,
Like a butcher at the block,
As Moses smote the second rock
And your eyelid I will inspire,

In order to water my Sahara,
To weep the waters of distress.
My desire, by hope tumesced,
Will sail on your salty lachryma

Like a vessel far from shore,
And in my heart which they made unsound
Your dearest sobs, they will resound
Like a drum that beats the charge of war!

Am I not a false harmony
In the divine symphony,
Thanks to voracious Irony
Who rattles me and bites at me?

She is in my voice, the furious scold!
My blood is all her dark elixer!
I am the mirror sinister,
Where the jealous one herself beholds.

I am the wound and the cutting knife!
I am the slap and the stricken face!
I am the arms and the wheel’s embrace,
And the victim and taker of life!

I am a vampire of my own heart’s gore,
—One of those great abandoned chaff
Condemned eternally to laugh—
But smile no more!

So why, Michael, would you waste your time translating Baudelaire (badly!) when there are a number of other English translations freely available on the interweb, including several at Fleurs du mal? Excellent question! First, I refer you to that bit about self-torment above. Second, I want to struggle with the actual language his poems, and because I fall far short of fluency in French, there is no better way to do that than to try to translate it into some semblance of sensible syntax in English. Of course, one needn’t try to turn it into tortured verse to wrestle with the French meaning, but doing so helps me to appreciate Baudelaire’s skill, and my own linguistic limitations. Third, each of the English translations I’ve seen fails in some material way to give a fair and accurate representation of Baudelaire’s words, and I wanted to see if I could correct any of those deficiencies. A few more obvious examples, drawn from the translations available at Fleurs du mal:

  • The Aggeler translation is unadorned and reasonably accurate (though one could quibble here and there, say, with “inundate,” “in which the vixen looks,” and “members”), but gives no sense of Baudelaire’s rhythm, and does not rhyme;
  • The Campbell translation is on the whole a valiant effort, but the first stanza is awkward at best, and its abuse of the last stanza—particularly that “Because”—is unforgiveable;
  • The Dillon translation, also a fine attempt, preserves Baudelaire’s rhyme scheme and a sense of his rhythm, but takes far too many liberties (e.g., “This huge Sahara which is I,” which is both horrible grammar and misses Baudelaire’s meaning, and the fourth stanza is at best a “free” interpretation);
  • The LeClerq translation perhaps betters the Campbell translation in the last stanza (though “meanwhile” is garish), but the first line of each of the first three stanzas, and maybe the whole of the second stanza, is awkward enough to warrant trying again;
  • The Schmitz version can hardly be called a “translation”—at best, it is a bit of bad verse “inspired” by Baudelaire, but contains nothing of Baudelaire’s spirit in it;
  • The Shanks version preserves the rhyme scheme and a bit of rhythm, but is too contrived: “barge” is too obvious a compromise in rhyming “charge,” the “Lord” at the end of the fourth stanza is gratuitous, and the “elf” in the fifth stanza is inexcusable.

So there is at least reason to try. The fact that my own version falls short of each of those I criticize above (except the Schmitz version—we are simply working at separate tasks) is secondary; the effort is nevertheless warranted.

But I did struggle. I started by making a straightforward translation similar to the Aggeler translation, to help me preserve the sense and syntax of the original as much as possible. From there, I tortured the phrases into something like rhymes, though it is obvious enough where I failed at that task (note, though, that Baudelaire’s rhymes are sometimes a bit loose: e.g., boucher/rocher, soûleront/retentiront, Saharah/nagera, so translation need not be quite so strict). I tried to avoid too much restructuring, so that my translation mostly tracks the original line by line. There are some departures, of course, but I tried to minimize them. And, where possible, I tried to preserve the nuances in Baudelaire’s word choices—virtually an impossible task in verse translation. Baudelaire’s poem poses some special difficulties in translation, though.

To start, in the first stanza, Baudelaire writes (literally translated): “I will hit you without anger/ and without hatred, like a butcher, / as Moses the rock….” The comparison to Moses contains no verb, which is rather awkward in English without adjustment. More critically, though, the comparison itself is suspect. Moses is supposed to have stricken rock on two, and possibly three, different occasions in the Pentateuch, but none of these instances obviously demonstrates that dispassionate attitude suggested by Baudelaire’s first two lines. So which occasion did Baudelaire mean to invoke?

First, in Exodus 17:6 (perhaps the least well known of the three instances), Moses strikes a rock and water pours forth. The Israelites were wandering in the wilderness of Sin when Moses pleaded with the Lord for help, as his people were ready to stone him for leading them into the desert, where they had no water. The Lord instructed Moses to go before his people with his rod and the Elders of Israel and to smite “the rock in Horeb” upon which the Lord himself would stand, promising that water would then flow from the rock. The book then says merely that Moses did so (in sight of the Elders—presumably they, too, saw the Lord standing on the rock?), without giving any further information about Moses’s state of mind. There is nothing in Exodus to suggest that he was like a butcher, striking the stone out of mere duty, as a task to be completed. Indeed, Moses can hardly have been calm. He was fearful that his people would put him to death, and anxious that they might find water. He was standing before his god, striking the very rock upon which the Lord stood. Can any human have been resolute in such a circumstance?

Second, in Exodus 32:19, Moses breaks the stone tablets upon which the ten commandments had been inscribed (though he does not explicitly “strike” them). After Moses drew the water from the rock at Horeb, the Israelites made war at Rephidem, then came to the Desert of Sinai and camped before the mountain. Strangely, many biblical scholars identify Mount Sinai with Horeb, which would either mean that the Israelites had gone full circle, or the book is decidedly non-chronological. At any rate, Moses received the law, gave it to the people, wrote it down, then went back onto the mountain for forty days and nights to receive additional legal instruction as well as stone tablets with the first ten commandments written upon them. Toward the end of the forty days, the Lord became enraged at the people, who had taken to worshiping false idols in the time that Moses has been on the mountain, and the Lord threatened to destroy them. Moses interceded, placating the Lord’s anger. But when Moses then returned to his people, he, too, became enraged (“Moses’ anger waxed hot”) and broke the tablets. Here, the bible explicitly contradicts Bauelaire’s suggestion that Moses was without hatred or anger, so we can surmise that Baudelaire did not intend to invoke this episode in his poem.

Third, in Numbers 20:11, Moses once again strikes a rock to draw forth water. But this time, he does so apparently against the Lord’s instruction, and as a result is forbidden from entering the promised land. After wandering for years, the children of Israel had come to the desert of Zin, only to find that once again there was no water, and once again the people began to complain to Moses. This time, the Lord told Moses to take his rod and go before the people and merely speak to the rock, which would then provide water. Instead, Moses smote the rock (twice!). Despite Moses’s disobedience, water poured forth anyway. But his defiance displeased the Lord, who punished him by deciding Moses would die before the people made it to the promised land. Here, too, the book does not give much direct indication of Moses’s mood. It is not obvious, however, that Moses was entirely without anger, as he rebuked his own people as he struck the rock, saying, “Hear now, ye rebels; must we fetch you water out of this rock?” Could Baudelaire have meant to invoke this episode? What would have led him to assert that Moses struck the rock like a butcher?

Of these three, only the third might contain any hint of self-torment—Moses willfully disobeyed his god. We may surmise that it was no innocent mistake that led Moses to strike the rock rather than speak to it; Moses’s decision was a rebuke of the Lord, a demonstration of Moses’s lack of faith—at the very least, his god took it as such. Moses appears to have shown a bit of haughty pride before his people, suggesting that he (and perhaps he alone) had the power to draw water from the stones. And for his subsequent punishment to make any sense at all, one must assume not just that Moses recalled the previous episode when breaking the rock had uncovered a reservoir, or even that Moses doubted that merely speaking to the rock would draw forth water (as any naturalist would in his place), but that he knowingly set himself above the Lord before his people. It is his knowledge, and his willingness to disobey the Lord, that suggests a will to self-torment. Not hatred, not anger, but indulgence in a self-destructive impulse: this is what Moses must have shown when he willfully defied his god.

Had I determined that Baudelaire had intended to invoke the first episode, I would have translated the line as “As Moses smote the Horeb rock.” But because it seems to me that the third example was intended, I have instead referenced the “second rock”—perhaps too great a liberty with Baudelaire’s language, but I wanted to make the choice explicit. [Note: in both Exodus 17 and Numbers 20, the location of the watering stone was thereafter known as Meribah, so the only geographic differentiator available for the latter is the “desert of Zin”—I could reference the “rock at Zin” or some such, but “second rock” works an easier rhyme, and is clear enough in its referent.]

A second significant obstacle arises in the fifth stanza, with Baudelaire’s references to “la criarde” and “la mégère”—presumably both references to Irony personified. “Criarde” is often an adjective meaning loud, shrill, or garish, but here is used as a feminine noun. Most translators choose to translate this with some sex-linked perjorative term like “shrew”—perhaps encouraged by the reference to “mégère” later in the stanza. “Mégère,” which was first taken from the name of one of the Greek Furies (Erinyes), is now (at least in its lowercase form) almost always translated as “shrew,” though Aggeler and Shanks both use “vixen,” hearkening back to its older connotations before it took on more modern tones of sexual allure. But even this choice is inappropriately sexed, if not sexist. Baudelaire could not have intended to burden his choice to personify Irony as female with such baggage. And a summary search for alternative terms for “la criarde” and “la mégère” reveals the horrible extent to which we have enshrined Middle-Ages norms into our semi-ossified English language: “shrew,” “vixen,” Campbell’s “jade,” “harpy,” “harridan,” “virago,” “rixatrix,” “jezebel,” “hag,” “biddy,” “crone,” etc., are all reflective of an archaic view of femininity (and supposed departures from it) that cannot characterize the Irony that Baudelaire laments. Aggeler’s choice of “termagant” is perhaps less objectionable, in that it was at one point a gender-neutral term (though possibly originating in a caricature of the Muslim faith), but even it has now taken on overtones of sexism. I would favor using “fury” for either French term, particularly given the origin of “mégère,” but it leaves little room for rhyme, and is trochaic rather than iambic. In compromise, I landed on “furious scold” as “scold” brings with it a slightly less gendered modern meaning (but seerixatrix“!) and still captures the essence of “la criarde.” For “la mégère,” I settled for “jealous one.” Another compromise, but it, too, at least captures part of the Magaera type.

Other choices were less difficult. I chose “water” for Baudelaire’s “abreuver,” despite the repetitive “waters” in the next line, because that is what “abreuver” means. Aggeler’s and Dillon’s “inundate” carries too much—I do not read Baudelaire as suggesting that his “Saharah” will be flooded or deluged; Campbell, Schmitz and Shanks all chose “slake,” which probably captures Baudelaire’s intent a bit better, but doesn’t work well grammatically: under modern usage, water typically “slakes” thirst, not aridity. “Irrigate” would have been my second choice, but that is “irriguer” in French, which Baudelaire did not use. Similarly, “membres” means “limbs,” particularly in connection with a Catherine wheel; Campbell and Shanks got this right; Aggeler did not. I chose “arms,” which I thought fitting in light of my resort to the “wheel’s embrace,” a liberty driven by rhyme and my inability to craft a more artful phrase.

The last line of Baudelaire’s poem is reminiscent of Poe’s The Haunted Palace, and likely inspired by it, so I have endeavored to echo Poe’s line here. As a result, the last stanza is more awkward and less rhythmic than I would otherwise like, but the price is worth the homage, I think.