I have two, no, three, translation projects, loose change on my desk. One is Yves Bonnefoy, the "Nineteen Sonnets Almost" from his last collection of poetry. The other two are Baudelaire, the impossible Baudelaire (I'll explain) and the possible impossible Baudelaire, which is a little book composed of his prose poems, "Le Spleen de Paris." I love these; they remind me of places and manners I know in Paris: the Luxembourg Garden, the rue Saint Jacques, crowds, the flaneur...here in California they make me feel Paris-nostalgie. Scenes from "Le Spleen" turn up in the poems, in concentrated form.
The possible impossible Baudelaire: a personal selection of his most sensual poems. Impossible 1) because politically incorrect. I, as a woman, should not admit to being seduced by poems in which the woman is an Object. The Muse (shudder). My objection to this pious view of things is that a woman in love or lust is no different from a man; she has just never been allowed to express herself openly. A woman could have written Dante's description of falling in love in "Canzone montanina 5" ("I am not able to flee her invasion of my imagination..") My answer, in other words, isn't "let's have no more women in lacy underwear on billboards"; it's "give me more scantily clad men."
Impossible 2) because Baudelaire's concentration and craft are such that translating his poems, especially his sonnets, is too difficult almost--almost--to contemplate. Only Mallarme is harder. I've spent ten years off and on working on a few translations of Baudelaire. Last week I returned to working on a sonnet called "A Une Passante." Frustrating. You can't get it right. There is no right. Here's the latest draft. A Work-in-Progress. As to the content, my own experience says a woman could write this poem. A version. Comments on the difficulties below.
TO A PASSERBY
All around me, deafening, the street howled.
Tall, slender, swathed in black, majestic grief,
The woman walked by, her sumptuous hand
Lifting, tossing her flounce and her hemline;
Lithe and proud, leg shapely as a statue’s.
Me—tense as a grotesque—caught there drinking
Up her gaze, livid sky, thunderheads building,
Tantalizing mildness: deadly pleasure.
One flash of lightening…then night! —Oh beauty
Whose glance jolts me to life: shall I not see
You again, except in eternity?
Too far away! Too long! Never maybe!
I don’t know where you're going. Nor you me--
You whom I’d have loved—and you knew, Lady!
Overall difficulties: obviously meter and rhyme (Lowell's Imitations of Baudelaire interesting, more later). Next, Baudelaire is hyperbolic (those exclamations!) in tone, which doesn't go down well in American English. How much to update--this is a big problem, which takes us to the question of why an original is always an original and a translation needs to be redone at each generation.
Line 1 problems and solutions. I'm pleased with "howled" for "hurlait," the street noise, which is also what the speaker feels like doing under the circumstances. It has to come, as it does in French, at the end of the line. Order of words took work. I thought of putting "ear-splitting" (more colloquial, more fun) for "deafening" ("assourdissante"), but it needed to be separated from "street," because an "ear-splitting street" is no good ("Ear-splitting, all around me, the street..."). "All" is padding. I would have preferred "Around me," but I'd imposed a 10-syllable line on myself.