Tafelmusik

An Illusory Intertwingling of Reason and Response

Literary: Anything waxing literary and Classical goes here. Occasionally I’ll put up a post which is entirely or largely a poem. Those go in Poetry. I even sometimes (though I would be the first to tell you that “literary criticism is bunk”) post some critique.

Tafel :: literary :: poetry

Monday, February 19, 2007

Translation of Baudelaire's "Harmonie du soir"

Debussy's "Prelude from Book I, No. IV", "Les sons et les parfums ournent dans l'air du soir", is in interpretation of Charles Baudelaire's "Harmonie du soir", from Les Fleurs du mal. I recently heard the piece performed by Oni Buchanan as part of her "Poetry in Piano" tour, and was highly disappointed to find that, of all the English translations available, not one was both poetic and true to the spirit of the original.

Of course, it's always better to read literature — particularly poetry — "in the original Klingon"*; however, Broca's speech area of the brain being what it is, this is regrettably seldom possible for all but a small subset of readers.

Thus, translations. However, a translation must remain true in every way possible to the original work. This is doubly important in poetic works, since subtleties of language often carry immense gravity.

For instance, in the poem below, "Harmonie du soir", mystico-sacred imagery is mingled with a nearly Classical æsthetic and a profoundly-disturbing picture of death. Much of the interplay between these three themes is carried on the connotations of words, rather than their literally-translatable definitions.

I've taken the liberty to approach this piece with lexicon and poetic sense in hand, and no particular education in French literature and the exegesis thereof, and propose that the translation below, while departing slightly in wording from a literal translation, remains truer in spirit to to Baudelaire's original both in form and meaning.

“Harmonie du soir”

From Les Fleurs du mal, by Charles Baudelaire

Voici venir les temps où vibrant sur sa tige
Chaque fleur s’évapore ainsi qu’un encensoir;
Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir;
Valse mélancolique et langoureux vertige!

Chaque fleur s’évapore ainsi qu’un encensoir;
Le violon frémit comme un cœur qu’on afflige;
Valse mélancolique et langoureux vertige!
Le ciel est triste et beau comme un grand reposoir.

Le violon frémit comme un cœur qu’on afflige,
Un cœur tendre, qui hait le néant vaste et noir!
Le ciel est triste et beau comme un grand reposoir;
Le soleil s’est noyé dans son sang qui se fige.

Un cœur tendre, qui hait le néant vaste et noir,
Du passé lumineux recueille tout vestige!
Le soleil s’est noyé dans son sang qui se fige . . .
Ton souvenir en moi luit comme un ostensoir!

“Evening Harmony”

From Flowers of Evil, by Charles Baudelaire; Tr. Keith Beckman

Now twilight, when, shivering on its stem,
Ev'ry blossom, censer-like, smoulders;
Sounds and odours turn in the evening air;
Melancholy waltz! Languorous vertigo!

Ev'ry blossom, censer-like, smoulders;
The violin quivers as a love-afflicted heart;
Melancholy waltz! Languorous vertigo!
The sky is sad and beautiful like an immense tomb.

The violin quivers as a love-afflicted heart;
A gentle heart, hating the vast and black Void!
The sky is sad and beautiful like an immense tomb;
The sun has drowned in its own thickening blood.

A gentle heart, hating the vast and black Void,
Of the luminous past hoards any vestige!
The sun has drowned in its own thickening blood . . .
Your memory shines in me like a sacred urn.


Just a few notes on the translation. First, lines one and two are departures in wording from the literal French. However, the meaning is identical, and the imagery comes across more accurately in English such, than in a literal translation.

The same goes for the double-exclamation in lines four and seven: "Melancholy waltz and languorous vertigo!" is much less evocative than the equivalent French. "And" is such a weak word . . .

"Love-afflicted heart"? Well, the French literally translates to "a heart one afflicts", meaning "another's heart afflicted by one's spurning of its love". I'm still toying with this stanza, because no English translation (this one as well) keeps the personal grasping-point of "a heart one afflicts".

Line eleven is perhaps the greatest departure from previously-published translations. "Reposoir" is almost always rendered as "altar", in keeping with the religious imagery of the piece. However, this rendering has the unfortunate effect of confusing its interpretation by implying a sacrifice of the sun. One literal translation comes closer to the goal by using simply the coldly descriptive "resting-place". Rendering "reposoir" as "tomb" brings across the original idea of a dead sun leaving the dolorously-lovely night in his place.

The final line is a difficulty. An "ostensoir" is nothing but an urn or vessel holding the Eucharist for consecration: in English the Catholic term is "monstrance". However, few besides a large minority of Roman Catholics have heard and could define "monstrance". Likewise, "Host", used by two translations, falls on unperceiving ears more often than otherwise. While I still think it seems overly objective and lacking the colour of the rest of the piece, "sacred urn" is a rendering which both communicates the true meaning of "reposoir" to as large an audience as possible, and yet is immediately recognizable as the Monstrance to a well-versed Catholic.

If you have any comments on my translation (which is rather quick-and-dirty — I only gave it ten minutes), I'd love to hear them.

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