Text: Richard H. Haswell, “Poe and Baudelaire: Translations,” Poe Studies, December 1972, Vol. V, No. 2, 5:62-63


[page 62, column 1, continued:]

Poe and Baudelaire: Translations

Edgar Allan Poe. Seven Tales, with a French Translation and Prefatory Essay by Charles Baudelaire. Ed. W. T. Bandy. Schocken Books: New York, 1971. 245 pages. $10.00.

This slim volume, compiled by the noted Baudelaire scholar W. T. Bandy, reprints a group of Poe’s tales (recto) with Baudelaire’s translations (verve): “The Black Cat,” “Mesmeric Revelation,” “Ligeia,” “The Man of the Crowd,” “The Oval Portrait,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “The Purloined Letter.” Of course few translations of any sort are more accessible to the American student than Baudelaire’s Poe. In this edition, however, Bandy provides the materials for a more scholarly assessment of the accuracy of Baudelaire’s famous translations. The English text is the Redfield edition of 1850, which Baudelaire used, and the French text is the 1862 printing of Les Histoires extraordinaires, which incorporated Baudelaire’s final corrections. As Professor Bandy says in his introduction, “Since in this volume the reader has both texts before him on facing pages, he can see for himself how well Baudelaire mastered his task.”

It is perhaps unfortunate that Bandy does not allow the reader the same advantage of multiple texts in his own translation of Baudelaire’s essay, “Edgar Allan Poe, sa vie et ses ouvrages,” included in this volume without the original French. How well does Bandy master his task? The task is not an easy one, since more than two [column 2:] texts are involved. It was Bandy himself who discovered in 1953 that more than half of this essay (published by Baudelaire in 1852) had been plagiarized word for word from two articles in The Southern Literary Messenger, an obituary by John R. Thompson and a review by John M. Daniel. But how does one go about translating such an essay once the plagiarism is recognized? Bandy’s solution (“frankly experimental”) is to restore Daniel’s and Thompson’s text where Baudelaire plagiarizes. The result, this reviewer feels, is misleading in two ways. In the first place, Bandy gives no textual indication when he is translating Baudelaire and when he is untranslating Daniel and Thompson. Bandy’s translation, in effect, is a perpetuation of Baudelaire’s plagiarism — one might add, a perpetuation as well of the obscurity which for over a century has hidden these two little-known Americans who, after all, especially in Daniel’s case, contributed not a little to one of the most powerful influences of modern literary history. But especially for the student of Baudelaire, the use of some editorial device to separate Baudelaire from the authors he translated would be valuable. Consider the following simple instances, where I have added italics to Bandy’s text to indicate what is original to Baudelaire:

Those accustomed to self-consciousness and mental analysis, who have often glanced backward to compare their past with their present, know that nearly all the images of memory and passion are gathered in the years when the child approaches the youth A man’s character, genius, and style are formed by the apparently commonplace circumstances of his early youth. It is then that the idiosyncrasy receives its peculiar tinge, genius its individuality, and expression its ground-colors.

[Poe’s parents] came to Richmond in pursuit of their profession. They both died there — of hunger, destitution, and poverty [Daniel wrote “of consumption”].

The tone [of “The Raven” — which Baudelaire probably had not read] is grave and supernatural, like ha/f-waking thoughts. The lines fall one by one, like monotonous tears.

In the second place, Bandy’s decision to restore the original English text forces him to make editorial decisions which, by the very nature of the decisions, sometimes are misleading. For when Baudelaire deviates from his text, as he frequently does, the editor, forced to choose one or the other text, must base his choice upon a judgment of intention. With Baudelaire, especially with his book knowledge of English in 1852, this judgment is difficult to make — as in the last example cited above where Baudelaire “translated” Daniel’s word “supernatural” as “quasi-surnaturel.” Although in his introduction Bandy sets forth the problem clearly, in his translation he relies in some instances too heavily upon the original English texts, excising ideas and attitudes that form part of Baudelaire’s unique conception of Poe. For instance, Daniel wrote, “Mr. Edgar Poe was remarked as the most dissolute and dissipated youth in the university.” Bandy retains this text. But Baudelaire wrote: “M. Edgar Poe se distingua parmi tous ses condisciples par une ardeur encore plus vive pour le plaisir” — not the same thing. Bandy also retains Daniel’s description of Poe’s style of dress: “He dressed uniformly in good taste, simple and careless, the attire of a gentleman.” But this omits Baudelaire’s emphasis: “Il s’habillait avec bon gout, mais un peu negligemment, comme un gentleman qui a bien autre [page 63:] chose a faire.” In describing Poe’s relationship with his mother-in-law, Bandy again returns to Daniel’s text, referring to it as an “attachment,” whereas Baudelaire uses the phrase “immense amitie” in order to advance a view much more sympathetic toward Poe’s “personne spirituelle.” Considering these editorial decisions, and others like them, it is difficult to accept completely Bandy’s assertion that his translation is “a reading which, at times, does not exactly conform with what Baudelaire said but probably conforms with what he intended to say.” All in all, preferable would seem to be the translation of the essay by Lois and Francis Hyslop, Jr., in Baudelaire on Poe (Bald Eagle Press: State College, Pa., 1952), which, although made without knowledge of the plagiarism, remains strictly faithful to Baudelaire’s text.

The question of the intention of specific passages is of course involved with the intention of the 1852 essay as a whole. Like some other Baudelaire scholars faced with the fact of the plagiarism, Bandy in a worthy way seeks to exonerate rather than to blame. But when in his introduction, which otherwise sets forth the complex facts surrounding Baudelaire’s first “discovery” of Poe with exemplary clarity, Bandy vouches for the “purity of [Baudelaire’s] intentions,” one wonders if some of the editor’s own intentions have crept in. Bandy rightfully points to the frequency of “literary piracy” in an age when there were no international copyright regulations, but without mentioning the moral odium that was attributed even then to such a practice and that respectable authors such as Coleridge and De Quincey, and Samuel Johnson before them, were so anxious to avoid. Bandy’s further assertion that Baudelaire’s motivation for writing the article involved neither money nor literary ambition, but was “fundamentally altruistic” (“to enhance Poe’s reputation”), is simply one that denies the complexity of the circumstances, of Baudelaire’s character, and of the essay itself. What such an argument hides, as the nature of Bandy’s translation also helps gloss over, is the fact that Baudelaire’s 1852 essay, while containing the seeds of his worship of Poe is also a slovenly piece of hackwork, a hasty botch of quotations and quotations from quotations, sometimes acknowledged but more often not, sometimes from works and authors Baudelaire had never read. Daniel, Thompson Nathaniel Willis, Longfellow, Emerson, Tennyson, E.-D. Forgues, Petrus Borel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, “The Poetic Principle,” “William Wilson,” “The Raven,” are all quoted with some degree of duplicity on Baudelaire’s part. The hack/charlatan side of Baudelaire should not be hidden from readers, since it was not hidden entirely from Baudelaire himself, to his self-disgust — just as a similar side to Poe was undoubtedly recognized by Baudelaire. When Baudelaire cites what he calls an “odious” American proverb, “‘Make money, my son, honestly if you can, BUT MAKE MONEY!’” it will help the reader understand Baudelaire if he knows (as Bandy does not tell him) that Baudelaire quotes it in English, that he lifted the phrase (as Jacques Crepet points out) from an article published in a Parisian periodical in 1842, and that it was a concept perhaps odious but not foreign to Baudelaire, even at the moment he was writing the words.

Richard H. Haswell, Washington State University





Associated Article(s) and Related Material:

  • None


[S:0 - PS, 1972]