translating baudelaireIntroduction

1. Adopting the poet's vision.

2. Rephrasings to avoid difficult or non-existent rhymes.

3. Learning from previous translations.

Le Voyage: Section One, Stanza 1

As an important poem by an important poet, Le Voyage has been widely translated, though not over-successfully. The French text can be found on FleursduMal, {1} and here we look at 3 of its 35 stanzas, starting with the first in section one, a relatively undemanding quatrain. The French is:

Pour l'enfant, amoureux de cartes et d'estampes,
L'univers est égal à son vaste appétit.
Ah! que le monde est grand à la clarté des lampes!
Aux yeux du souvenir que le monde est petit!

Which machine translation (Babylon) renders as:

For the child, in love with cards and of prints,
the universe is equal to its vast appetite.
Ah! that the world is large with the clearness of the lamps!
With the eyes of the memory which the world is small!

Most renderings bring over the meaning well, but vary considerably as verse.

Will Schmitz

For kids agitated by model machines, adventures hierarchy and technology
The indulgent reins of government sponsorship/research can quell their excitement.
How enormous is the world to newly matriculated students
Compared to the voices of their professors that only
Itch to sound slights. {1}

A modern rewriting in unlovely prose.

William Aggeler 1954

To the child who is fond of maps and engravings
The universe is the size of his immense hunger.
Ah! How vast the world is in the light of a lamp.
In memory's eyes how small the world is! {1}

No rhyme, rhythm is of prose.

Geoffrey Wagner 1974

For the child, adoring cards and prints,
The universe fulfils its vast appetite.
Ah, how large is the world in the brightness of lamps,
How small in the eyes of memory! {1}

No rhyme, rhythm closer to prose.

James Huneker 1919

The wide-eyed child in love with maps and plans
Finds the world equal to his appetite.
How grand the universe by light of lamps,
How petty in the memory's clear sight. {4}

Only lines 2 and 4 rhymed, adds 'clear'.

A.S. Kline 2001

For the child, in love with globe, and stamps,
the universe equals his vast appetite.
Ah! How great the world is in the light of the lamps!
In the eyes of memory, how small and slight! {2}

Rhymed, adds 'stamps': 'slight' is not the right word.

Edna St. Vincent Millay 1936

The child, in love with globes and maps of foreign parts,
Finds in the universe no dearth and no defect.
How big the world is, seen by lamplight on his charts!
How very small the world is, viewed in retrospect. {1}

Rhymed, adds 'charts' and 'no defect': lines of unequal length: 5/6/5/6.

Roy Campbell 1952

For children crazed with postcards, prints, and stamps
All space can scarce suffice their appetite.
How vast the world seems by the light of lamps,
But in the eyes of memory how slight! {1}

Rhymed, rhythm changes in lines 3 and 4, adds 'stamps': 'slight' is not the right word.

Robert Lowell

For the boy playing with his globe and stamps,
the world is equal to his appetite—
how grand the world in the blaze of the lamps,
how petty in tomorrow's small dry light!{3}

Rhymed, a pleasing rhythm: adds 'stamps' and 'dry'.

A great deal more could could be said on all these versions, which show the fashions of their periods. I'd suggest we go back to strict verse, accept 'stamps', and replace 'small' by 'stale and petty' — aiming for something with quiet phonetic patterning and less of the declamation typical of French poetry:

The child enamoured of his maps and stamps
has universe enough for appetite,
but those vast lands beneath the blaze of lamps
are stale and petty in remembered light. {10}

Section Four Stanza 3

The opening stanza was fairly easy. A simple rendering gave the rhyme words immediately, and we had simply to make pleasing verse. The third stanza in section four has given more trouble, however. The French is:

Les plus riches cités, les plus grands paysages,
Jamais ne contenaient l'attrait mystérieux
De ceux que le hasard fait avec les nuages.
Et toujours le désir nous rendait soucieux!

Which machine translation renders as:

The richest cities, the greatest landscapes,
Never did not contain the mysterious attraction
Of those which chance made with the clouds.
And always the desire returned to us concerned!

Looking at the translators in the same order:

Will Schmitz

The mining of every physical pleasure kept our desire kindled
Even though sensation is a manure the world provides in overabundance.
But really, your views would be ours if you'd been out.
Look at these photos we've taken to convince you of that truth. {1}

As before, a prose rewriting that says something different.

William Aggeler 1954

The richest cities, the finest landscapes,
Never contained the mysterious attraction
Of the ones that chance fashions from the clouds
And desire was always making us more avid! {1}

No rhyme and 'avid' is a transitive verb: otherwise quite pleasing.

Geoffrey Wagner 1974

Never did the richest cities, the grandest countryside,
Hold such mysterious charms
As those chance made amongst the clouds,
And ever passion made as anxious! {1}

No rhyme, rhythm clumsy in line.

James Huneker 1919

"The loveliest countries that rich cities bless,
Never contained the strange wild loveliness
By fate and chance shaped from the floating cloud—
And we were always sorrowful and proud! {4}

A little stilted, rhymed aabb: lines 3 and 4 depart from original meaning.

A.S. Kline 2001

The richest cities, the greatest scenes, we found
never contained the magnetic lures,
of those that chance fashioned, in the clouds.
Always desire rent us, on distant shores! {2}

Rhymed, rhythm awkward in lines 3 and 4, adds 'magnetic (not the right word) and line 4 departs from the original meaning to get a partial rhyme.

Edna St. Vincent Millay 1936

Truly, the finest cities, the most famous views,
Were never so attractive or mysterious
As those we saw in clouds. But it was all no use,
We had to keep on going — that's the way with us.. {1}

Accomplished rhythm in lines 1 and 2: banal in lines 3 and 4.

Roy Campbell 1952

The richest cities and the scenes most proud
In nature, have no magic to enamour
Like those which hazard traces in the cloud
While wistful longing magnifies their glamour. {1}

Rhymed, awkward rhythm in line 4: meaning distorted by rhyme needs, 'glamour' is not the right word.

Robert Lowell

No old château or shrine besieged by crowds
of crippled pilgrims sets our souls on fire,
as these chance countries gathered from the clouds.
Our hearts are always anxious with desire. {3}

Rhymed, pleasing rhythm, introduces 'crowds' to get the 'clouds' rhyme.

The verse quality has fallen, and even the lines of accomplished versifiers like Edna St. Vincent Millay and Campbell do not run on with that inevitability of rhythm we expect. But it's not simply a matter of verse skills: we have to go beyond understanding the French and begin to empathize with the poet and his themes {5-6} — perhaps as in the quatrain that follows, though I have had to introduce 'solemn' and subtly recast the last two lines:

Not fabled lands or cities packed with crowds
of pilgrims, ever set our hearts on fire
as can those solemn mysteries of clouds
where chance so anxiously evokes desire.

In short, we have to recreate the poem as a poem, employing as much of the original as we can to make something that is independently a pleasure to read. Here the 'solemn mysteries' develop from the 'fabled' and the 'crowds of pilgrims' — though all constitute a good deal more than Baudelaire wrote. Robert Lowell made the departure to get the crowds/clouds rhyme, and we've taken it further to make (I hope) a balanced and satisfying stanza. As the clouds are ever changing, by the hazard of weather conditions, so our shifting circumstances create vague desires over which we have little control. That, I think, is what Baudelaire is implying, and it's that meaning other renderings have often missed.

Section Seven Stanza 2

The last stanza is one of the most seminal in modern literature, and has spawned a long line of inwardness, which extends from the Symbolists to today's radical criticism.


Verse-nous ton poison pour qu'il nous réconforte!
Nous voulons, tant ce feu nous brûle le cerveau,
Plonger au fond du gouffre, Enfer ou Ciel, qu'importe?
Au fond de l'Inconnu pour trouver du nouveau!

Engine translation (Google Translate)

Pour us your poison to comfort us!
We want, as the fire burns our brains,
Plunge into the abyss, Hell or Heaven, so what?
At the bottom of the Unknown to find something new!

Will Schmitz

Death, Old Captain, it's time,
Your hand on the stick,
Send us out beyond the doldrums of our days.
We hanker for space. You know our hearts
Are cleft with thorns. Agonize us again!
Shoot us enough to make us cynical of the known worlds
And desperate for the new. {1}

Two verses run together: a reworking in cliché.

William Aggeler 1954

Pour out your poison that it may refresh us!
This fire burns our brains so fiercely, we wish to plunge
To the abyss' depths, Heaven or Hell, does it matter?
To the depths of the Unknown to find something new!" {1}

Unrhymed and rather clumsy: the original says 'comfort', not 'refresh'.

Geoffrey Wagner 1974

Pour on us your poison to refresh us!
Oh, this fire so burns our brains, we would
Dive to the depths of the gulf, Heaven or Hell, what matter?
If only to find in the depths of the Unknown the New! {1}

Rather similar: breathless rhythm, ending clumsy.

James Huneker 1919

O pour thy sleepy poison in the cup!
The fire within the heart so burns us up
That we would wander Hell and Heaven through,
Deep in the Unknown seeking something new! {5}

A little stilted, with the abab rhyme replaced by aabb.

A.S. Kline 2001

Pour out your poison, and dissolve our fears!
Its fire so burns our minds, we yearn, it’s true,
to plunge to the Void’s depths, Heaven or Hell, who cares?
Into the Unknown’s depths, to find the new. {2}

Awkward in rhyme and rhythm, departing from meaning to get a partial fears/cares rhyme.

Edna St. Vincent Millay 1936

Pour us your poison wine that makes us feel like gods!
Our brains are burning up! — there's nothing left to do
But plunge into the void! — hell? heaven? — what's the odds?
We're bound for the Unknown, in search of something new! {1}

Clumsy and banal, departing widely from the meaning.

Roy Campbell 1952

Pour us your poison to revive our soul!
It cheers the burning quest that we pursue,
Careless if Hell or Heaven be our goal,
Beyond the known world to seek out the New! {1}

Clumsy and banal, again departing from the meaning in first three lines.

Robert Lowell

Only when we drink poison are we well —
we want, this fire so burns our brain tissue,
to drown in the abyss — heaven or hell, who cares?
Through the unknown, we'll find the new. {3}

Clumsy and over declamatory: the rhymes unconvincing.

Part of the problem is Baudelaire himself. The final stanza of the poem is tacked on, not developing out of the preceding lines, and not rounding the poem off in any logical way. Then there is 'réconforte', clearly introduced to rhyme with 'qu'importe'. To judge from his work as a whole, Baudelaire is not claiming these comforting poisons refresh us, or make us gods, or revive the soul, or anything else translators have read into the stanza. The poisons numb rather than refresh, and it may better to use 'numbing' rather than 'comforting':

Pour on your numbing poisons, make us well,
who want as fire burns brains to plunge on through
to abysses that may be Heaven or Hell:
in the depths of the Unknown find the new!

But that's probably going too far in a translator's wish to do the best for a client. The last line also has its problems. A literal rendering — 'At the bottom of the Unknown to find the new!' — seems a little bald and it it seems better to use 'depths', invoking the mystery of the unknown, perhaps seeing it as the unconscious, a view that was gaining currency in Baudelaire's time. A rendering that keeps more closely to the text, though changing 'brain' to 'thinking', is:

Pour on such poisons as relieve as well,
for we, as fire burns thinking, plunge on through
to deepest abysses of Heaven and Hell,
and in those depths of Unknown find the new!

After much trial I have removed the usual 'the' from 'Unknown', partly to retain the strict metre, but more to give the word oddness and emphasis.

Concluding Thoughts

Le Voyage naturally throws up more translation problems than this introduction covers, but the overriding need, I think, is to get inside the poet's skin and see the world as he portrays it. Though that may be easier when one is young — I find the poem now rather self-indulgent — we do have to make the poet's vision a compelling one, which is a requirement for any successful work.

The complete poem can be found in the free pdf book Diversions published by Ocaso Press. The first section runs:

The child enamoured of his maps and stamps
has universe enough for appetite,
but those vast lands beneath the blaze of lamps
are stale and petty in remembered light.

We leave one morning with a fevered mind,
our hearts weighed down with bile and enmity,
but freed to rhythms of the waves we find
infinities are lulled to finite sea.

Some joy to leave their native skies,
some fear their birthplace, some events
foretold by drownings in a woman's eyes,
or Circe's tyrannous and dangerous scents.

Escaping that bewitchment, men embrace
new light, new heavenly latitudes arrayed
in fire, where sun and tonic winds efface
the wounds that incandescent kisses made.

The truest travellers are those that sail
for travel's sake, undeviating, gone on
destinies as light balloons prevail
that find no answer in their floating on.

But those with lusts as vague as cumulous,
as raw recruits suppose is cannon flame,
will dream of vast unknowns, voluptuous
and changing, which the spirit cannot name.

A 568-page free pdf ebook on practical verse writing is available from Ocaso Press. Click here for the download page.

Notes and References

1. Charles Baudelaire's Fleurs du mal / Flowers of Evil: Le Voyage À Maxime du Camp. FleursduMal. French text, links, information and English translations.

2. Baudelaire: Eighteen Poems translated by A.S. Kline. Poetry in Translation 2001.

3. The Voyage From Baudelaire: Le Voyage by Robert Lowell. Atlantic Unbound. June 2003.

4. The Poems and Prose Poems of Charles Baudelaire with an Introductory Preface by James Huneker. Project Gutenberg.

5. Voyage To Modernity The Poetry of Charles Baudelaire by A.S. Kline. Poetry in Translation 2005. Extended essay on Baudelaire, Romanticism and our contemporary world.

6. Charles Baudelaire 1821–1867 by Kathryn Oliver Mills. Poetry Foundation. Thoughtful article with analysis of themes and list of translations.


The final version is included in Diversions, a free pdf collection of translations published by Ocaso Press.


Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if cited in the usual way.