Text: Gary Wayne Harner, “Edgar Allan Poe in France: Baudelaire's Labor of Love,” Poe and His Times: The Artist and His Milieu, Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1990, pp. 218-225 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 218, unnumbered:]



In Fleurs du mal Charles Baudelaire often writes about the same themes and subjects as Edgar Allan Poe, no mere coincidence since Baudelaire saw in Poe a kindred spirit. Indeed, the Frenchman spent some seventeen years translating the works of the American, often neglecting his own writing to do so. In 1852 he had written in a letter to Sainte-Beuve: “Il faut, c’est-à-dire je désire, qu’Edgar Poe, qui n’est pas grand-chose en Amérique, devienne un grand homme pour la France.”(1) Baudelaire more than fulfilled this task and his obsession was important in furthering the popularity of Poe in Europe — his translations were read throughout the continent as the definitive renditions of Poe’s work.

Some critics even claim that Baudelaire’s translations enhance the originals? His translations are surely excellent, but one would be hard pressed to prove that they are actually “better” than the originals. The possibilities of a translation are numerous: in its rawest form it is merely a reproduction, an attempt to convey the sense or give the equivalent of a word or entire work in another language. It can also be much more. Although rules in a given language often govern the choice, order and structure of the words in a translation, the translation, at its best, turns a foreign composition into the new vernacular so as to capture the spirit of the original, both in meaning and connotation.

To examine the quality of Baudelaire’s translations, one may compare a representative segment from Poe with Baudelaire’s corresponding translation. Such a comparison reveals that the Frenchman’s translation, rather than enhancing the originals, in general, faithfully duplicates them. Comparing the climactic moment in “The Tell-Tale Heart” with the rendition from Le coeur révélateur will illustrate Baudelaire’s methods of translation. Following are the English and French versions of the last paragraph, with corresponding lines numbered to facilitate reference.

No doubt I now grew very pale; — but I talked more fluently, and with a heightened voice. Yet the sound increased — and what could I do? It was a low, dull, quick sound — much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I gasped for breath — and [1] yet the officers heard it not. I talked more quickly — more vehemently; but the noise steadily increased. I [page 219:] arose and argued about trifles, in a high key and with [2] violent gesticulations, but the noise steadily increased. Why would they not be gone? I paced the floor to and [3] fro with heavy strides, as if excited to fury by the [4] observation of the men — but the noise steadily [5] increased. Oh God! what could I do? I foamed — I raved — I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew [6] louder — louder — louder! And still the men chatted [7] pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God! — no, no! They heard! — they suspected! — they knew! — they were making a mockery of my horror! — this I thought, and this I think. But anything was better than this agony! Anything was [8] more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die! — and now — again! — hark! louder! [9] louder! louder! louder!

“Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the deed! — tear up the planks! — here, here! — it is the beating of his hideous heart!” (M3: 797)

Sans doute je devins alors très pâle; — mais je bavardais encore plus couramment et en haussant la voix. Le son augmentait toujours, — et que pouvais — je faire? C’était un bruit sourd, étouffé, fréquent, ressemblant beaucoup à celui que ferait une montre envelopée dans du coton. Je respirai laborieusement. [1] — Les officiers n’entendssent pas encore. Je causal plus vite, — avec plus de véhémence; mais le bruit croissait incessamment. — Je me levai, je disputai sur des niaiseries, dans un diapason très élevé et avec [2] une violente gesticulation; mais le bruit montait, montait toujours. Pourquoi ne voulaient-ils pas s’en aller? — J’arpentai çà et là le plancher lourdement et à [3] grands pas, comme exaspéré par les observations de [4] mes contradicteurs; — anais le bruit croissait régulièrement. [5] O Dieu! que pouvais-je faire? J’écumais, — je battais la campagne, — je jurais! j’agitais la chaise sur laquelle j’étais assis, et je la faisais crier sur le parquet, mais le bruit dominait toujours, et croissait indéfiniment. Il devenait plus fort, plus fort! — [6] toujours plus fort! Et toujours les hommes causaient, [7] plaisantaient et souriaient. Etait-il possible qu’ils n’entendissent pas? Dieu tout-puissant! — Non, non! Its entendaient! — ils soupçonnaient! — ils savaient, — ils se faisaient un amusement de mon effroi! je le [page 220:] crus, et je le crois encore. Mais n’importe! quoi était [8] plus intolérable que cette derision? Je ne pouvais pas supporter plus longtemps ces hypocrites sourires! Je sentis qu’il fallait crier ou mourir!-et maintenant encore, l’entendez-vous? — écoutez! plus haut! — plus [9] haut! — toujours plus haut! — toujours plus haut.

Misérables! — m’écriai-je, — ne dissimulez pas plus longtemps! J’avoue la chose! — arrachez ces planches! c’est là! c’est là! — c’est le battement de son affreux coeur!(3)

Some passages are closely equivalent translations; some may be considered embellishments or improvements; and others represent losses or inadequacies. The bulk of Baudelaire’s translations closely resemble Poe’s version; therefore, let us first examine this group. In line (l. 1) one easily sees the difficulties standing in the way of an absolutely literal translation. Since it is impossible to translate “I gasped for breath” word for word or in the same word order, the French translation must make a transposition. Baudelaire represents the verb of “I gasped” with a verb and an adverb. The prepositional phrase “for breath” disappears, but this slight loss is offset by the combination of the verb and adverb. Thus Baudelaire’s translation, “Je respirai laborieusement,” literally rerendered, would be something like I breathed laboriously or with difficulty. This close equivalent is neither an embellishment nor a loss.

Line (l. 3) illustrates even closer transfers. Baudelaire translates “I paced the floor to and fro” as “j arpentai çà et là le plancher.” The French do not usually say “arpenter le plancher” (to pace the floor) but simply “arpenter” (to pace or stride along). To achieve as accurate a translation as possible, Baudelaire employs a direct transfer by borrowing a foreign syntax with a close translation of its elements. He uses “çà et là” (here and there) to express the idea of “to and fro.” This stylistic choice gives an effective equivalent.

Baudelaire’s translation of “It grew louder — louder — louder!” (line 6) maintains Poe’s tonality: “Il devenait plus fort; — plus fort! — toujours plus fort!” There would have been an obligatory dilution in the French because the language does not have a single word to express “louder.” To counter this dilution and effect a close rendition, Baudelaire uses the word “toujours” (still, yet) to elevate “plus fort” to the equivalent strength of “louder.” Thus the extra word, used to achieve the emphasis, as well as the two needed to express “louder,” results in this excellent equivalent translation, although it is longer than the original.

These closely equivalent translations represent the bulk of Baudelaire’s renditions of Poe, and they achieved his aim, for in explaining the character of his translation of another Poe tale, [page 221:] “Mesmeric Revelation,” he maintained that he tried to be as literal as possible: “It is necessary to follow the text literally. Certain things would have become otherwise obscure if I had paraphrased my author, rather than sticking strictly to the letter. I have preferred a rather painful and sometimes baroque kind of French so as best to bring out the philosophical mode of Edgar Poe.”(4)

Having made this decision, Baudelaire gives a solid rendition of Poe’s work. His translations are, for the most part, on the same level of meaning and competence as the originals. Among all the French translations of Poe, “Baudelaire’s version,” says Curtis Hidden Page, “has remained the standard. He has followed Poe . . . line by line, and almost word by word . . . and yet has made of his translation a living work. That it possesses all the qualities of an original is sufficiently proved by the influence it has exerted.”(5)

Indeed, there are passages that “possess all the qualities of an original,” for Baudelaire’s translations, in some instances, actually enhance Poe’s texts. There are instances where Baudelaire employs a word or words that clarify an idea generalized in the original version; that is, he enriches the phrases in that the translation expresses a precision merely implied in Poe’s version. These “improvements” usually come when Baudelaire employs a word other than the obvious synonym or literal translation. The word “niaiseries” in line (l. 2) exemplifies a word well chosen. It means “nonsense” or “foolishness,” and it evokes the meaning of “trifles” much better than the other possibility, “vétilles” (“mere nothings”). This is an excellent embellishment.

Line (l. 5) is an interesting translation because the particularization is not necessary, but rather stylistic. Poe’s “of the men” becomes Baudelaire’s “de mes contradicteurs” (“of my contradictors” or “opponents”). Baudelaire conveys the idea that the narrator of the text believes the officers to be not mere “men” but truly his “opponents” or “interrogators.” It is a compensation that effectively emphasizes the increasing paranoia and desperation of the narrator. By line (l. 9) the tension and despair have become quite unbearable for the narrator: “l’entendez — vous? — écoutez!” The English version, “hark,” may be economical, but there is a significant gain in the French translation. Through his considerable amplification through two verbs, Baudelaire strengthens the impact of Poe’s lone expression “hark.”

Obviously, Baudelaire embellished Poe’s original text He enriches phrases from time to time by expressing a precision merely implied in the Poe text. Patrick Quinn writes: “One of Baudelaire’s modern editors, Yves Le Dantec, after a careful study of the poet’s methods as translator, sums up his procedure as follows: fast, a literal translation, sometimes quite feeble; then, careful and sensitive retouchings; and, [page 222:] finally, a masterly transposition onto his own keyboard.”(6) Baudelaire’s changes are striking and generally ameliorate the original text. Before anyone else proclaims Baudelaire’s translations superior to the originals, however, one must note instances where the translations do not effectively express the full idea or feeling of the original. Furthermore, in some rare cases the sense of Poe’s text is even absent in the translation.

To put these “inadequacies” into perspective, one should first be aware of Baudelaire’s command of English. Although Baudelaire learned that language early in life from his mother, he never became fully bi-lingual: “When he realized the extent of the work cut out for him by his desire to make Poe a great name in France, he regretted that his abilities in English were not much better than they were” (Quinn, p. 47). He greatly improved his English for and through his translations, but he never developed complete fluency in it.

Baudelaire used a bi-lingual dictionary for translating. For a while he was forced to work with editions of Poe’s works containing misprints, sometimes leading him to make some incorrect translations. He finally acquired the definitive edition of his day: The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe, published by J. S. Redfield.(7) With this excellent text Baudelaire prepared the bulk of his translations.

To complicate Baudelaire’s dilemma, there was the immense diversity of Poe’s writing. For example, in “The Gold-Bug” Poe displays his knowledge of the dialect of the Black slaves of the nineteenth century. Not understanding some words and unable to find them in his dictionary, Baudelaire assumed that they were typographical errors and would sometimes translate them incorrectly. In his introduction to Seven Tales, W. T. Bandy illustrates Baudelaire’s difficulty.

A typical example is found in “Le Scarabée d’or” (The Gold-Bug) where the Negro servant, Jupiter, is asked about his master’s health and replies, in Poe’s text, “Him pale as a gose.” Not finding “gose” in his English-French dictionary, which he kept ever at hand, Baudelaire assumed he was faced with a typographical error and came up with “pâle comme une oie [or pale as a goose].”(8)

Poe’s prose and poetry abounds with modifications of American syntax and vocabulary, plus imitations of dialect. Such language doubtlessly fascinated Baudelaire; it also caused him problems.

Some of the difficulties appear in “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Line (4) in the last paragraph is significant because Baudelaire chooses to translate “as if excited to fury” by “comme exaspéré” (“as if [page 223:] exasperated”). Exasperated may be synonymous with furious, but it fails to express the idea of being excited to fury. Thus the loss of the original meaning is not sufficiently compensated. The translation does not succeed in faithfully recreating the original.

Line 7 is another case in point: “And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled” (“Et toujours les hommes causaient, plaisantaient et souriaient”). Most of the sentence is translated literally. The exception is “pleasantly,” which Baudelaire renders as “plaisantaient” (‘joked”). Is this a change of meaning by Baudelaire and a bad translation? Possibly not; it could be a stylistic choice, a substitution of verb for adverb. More probably, Baudelaire simply is mistaken, fooled by the misleading similarity of “plaisanter” and “pleasant.” Thus, the translation would literally mean: “And still the men chatted, joked and smiled.”

The most striking example of a translation that fails to express the idea of the original is line (l. 8). Poe writes two phrases that have the same meaning and that convey the same idea: “But anything was better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this derision!” Baudelaire omits an entire sentence in this case and creates a substantial loss because he omits the idea of “anything was better than this agony.” He employes a negative question to try to capture the gist of the original: “Mais n’importe! quoi était plus intolérable que cette derision?” (“But no matter! what could be more intolerable than this derision?”). This remains a weak translation, probably because Baudelaire ran into trouble with “agony.” It is one of the rare instances where the sense of Poe’s text is missing from the translation. Some, however, feel that this translation may not necessarily be the fault of Baudelaire. In his notes commenting on Baudelaire’s translations of Poe, Jacques Crépet suggests that Baudelaire’s posthumous editors made a mistake in judgment:

Supposons maintenant que Baudelaire, qui revisait ses textes, même après qu’ils avaient paru en librairie, — se soit aperçu de son omission et en vue de la réparer quelque jour, en ait marqué l’endroit sur son exemplaire, — celui-là même qui dut venir aux mains de ses éditeurs posthumes, — au moyen du signe conventionnel d’intercalation. En quoi consiste ce signe? Essentiellement en un trait vertical. Et où devait-il être porté pour répondre au but envisagé? Exactement après ‘n’import,’ c’est-à-dire à l’endroit précis où le texte de 1869 montre un point d’exclamation. Voilà l’origine de celui-ci, selon toute vraisemblance.”(9)

It seems that Baudelaire’s original translation was “Mais n’importe quoi était plus tolérable que cette derision!” (“But anything was more [page 224:] tolerable than this derision! ”). Crépet argues that the editors never took the trouble to check the English text. If so, they were not aware of the confusion they had committed. Believing that Baudelaire’s mark to spot the place for correction was intended to be an exclamation point, they placed the exclamation point after “n’ importe.”

Crépet concludes that the editors were now faced with another problem: what to do with the rest of the phrase, “quoi était plus tolérable que cette dérision” (“what was more tolerable than this derision”), a translation “que présentait un sens exactement contraire à celui qu’exigeait le context? — Ils se tirèrent de la difficulté par l’adjonction du préfixe négatif in (intolérable) et du point d’interrogation final” (p. 376). Thus a phrase which Baudelaire had possibly wanted to correct himself was botched up by his editors after his death. Theoretical as to the poor translation given by Baudelaire, it is plausible when one considers the care with which Baudelaire translated and revised these texts.

In the final analysis, Baudelaire’s translations attain a healthy balance: the majority of the passages in Poe are literal or equivalent translations, although the remainder are a mixture of slight improvements and losses (it must be noted that the former outnumber the latter). Thus, in their entirety, Baudelaire’s translations are not so much an embellishment of Poe as a faithful homage to him and an effort to recreate him in French with as little interference as possible.

Baudelaire’s obsession with Edgar Allan Poe paid off. He successfully brought the spirit of Poe to France through his translations. One of the most original writers of his time, Poe continuously fascinated the French. The power of his imagination, his command of a rich and fluid language, and his tendency to dwell on the macabre captivated his European audience. Metaphysical in thought and often using symbolism to intensify his stories, Poe, though distinctly American, became cosmopolitan in reputation and influence.

Baudelaire, as translator, had license to enhance, undermine or merely reproduce the text. Indeed, the contribution of any translator is generally so significant that it might be difficult to determine whether a final translation should be considered the work of the translator or the originator. For Baudelaire, it is one and the same. Baudelaire himself was not able to make the distinction because he saw Poe as a double of himself, a kindred spirit: “Savez-vous pourquoi j’ai si patiemment traduit Poe?” he wrote to a friend. “Parce qu’il me ressemblait. La premiêre fois que j’ai ouvert un livre de lui, j’ai vu avec épouvante et ravissement non seulement des sujets rêvés par moi, mais des phrases pensées par moi et imities par lui, vingt ans auparavant.”(10) The popularity of Poe in France suggests that the French appreciated his subjects, his obsessions, his style — in essence, his art. In translating [page 225:] Poe’s work so well, Baudelaire has forever blended the style, form and spirit of Poe with the literature of France.

[page 225, continued:]


1.  Jacques Cabau, Edgar Poe par lui-même (Paris, 1960) p. 40.

2.  See, for example, Thomas Steams Eliot’s comments, Library of Congress Lecture, 19 November 1948; published in HudR, 2(1949), 327-342.

3.  Edgar Allan Poe, Nouvelles histoires extraordinaires, transl. Charles Baudelaire (Paris, 1965), pp. 112-113.

4.  Pierre Cambiaire, The Influence of Edgar Allan Poe in France (New York, 1927) p. 96.

5.  As quoted by Cambiaire, pp. 36-37.

6.  The French Face of Edgar Poe (Carbondale, 1957) p. 128.

7.  3 vols. (New York, 1850).

8.  (New York, 1971) p. 8.

9.  Oeuvres complètes de Charles Baudelaire, translations, Nouvelles histoires extraordinaires par Edgar Poe, notes and remarks by J. Crépet (Paris, 1933) p. 376.

10.  Op. cit., p.17.





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