Sunday, March 29, 2009

Because of his or her great wings

I stumbled across this online a little while back, and was immediately reminded of my (brilliant, but socially challenged) friend, The Poet.

As so often with these Internet postings, I'm afraid the translator is unidentified.


Often to pass the time on board, the crew
will catch an albatross, one of those big birds
which nonchalantly chaperone a ship
across the bitter fathoms of the sea.

Tied to the deck, this sovereign of space,
as if embarrassed by its clumsiness,
pitiably lets its great white wings
drag at its sides like a pair of unshipped oars.

How weak and awkward, even comical,
this traveller but lately so adroit!
One deckhand sticks a pipestem in its beak;
another mocks the cripple that once flew.

The poet is like this monarch of the clouds
riding the storm above the marksman's range;
exiled on the ground, hooted and jeered,
he cannot walk because of his great wings.

Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867)

My "personal search engine", JES, kindly informs me that this translation is by someone called Richard Howard. I gather his version (another one for my wish list!) of Les Fleurs du Mal is widely considered a masterpiece, and won the American Book Award In Translation when it first appeared in 1983.

Here, belatedly, is the original French text (source, with 5 other English versions).

Souvent, pour s'amuser, les hommes d'équipage
Prennent des albatros, vastes oiseaux des mers,
Qui suivent, indolents compagnons de voyage,
Le navire glissant sur les gouffres amers.

À peine les ont-ils déposés sur les planches,
Que ces rois de l'azur, maladroits et honteux,
Laissent piteusement leurs grandes ailes blanches
Comme des avirons traîner à côté d'eux.

Ce voyageur ailé, comme il est gauche et veule!
Lui, naguère si beau, qu'il est comique et laid!
L'un agace son bec avec un brûle-gueule,
L'autre mime, en boitant, l'infirme qui volait!

Le Poète est semblable au prince des nuées
Qui hante la tempête et se rit de l'archer;
Exilé sur le sol au milieu des huées,
Ses ailes de géant l'empêchent de marcher.


JES said...

That is, I think, Richard Howard's translation. Which I think only because Google Books led me straight there. (I'm assuming you can even GET to Google Books from there. Can you???) Before seeing it here, I didn't know the poem at all: an outstanding selection (not that I know your Poet).

Froog said...

Thank you for doing the legwork for me (again). Why do I need Google when I have JES?!

Froog said...

A great link! But not actually a link to the Baudelaire....

Conspiracy or cock-up?

Kirby said...

Charles Baudelaire......

The chinese version of this poem is taught in some chinese high school now.

I even Googled a teaching plan for that class.Just try to translate one paragraph bellow:

Ask:Who can summarize the main idea of this poem?
(Should) answer:This poem mainly disclose and criticize that capitalist society and its losers not only disrespect elites with immaculate ideal and excellent talent,but also exclude and denigrate them.Meanwhile,this poem expresses deeply sympathy with these ordinary losers.

What a ludicrous stupid ideological education!

Froog said...

Wow, thank you, Kirby. I knew there was still quite a lot of ideological bias in the Chinese education system, but to find it grafted on to an appreciation of a poem that is really quite a straightforward comparison between a bird and a poet - that is quite amazing. And disturbing.

JES said...

Oh, that's hilarious. Cock-up for sure. I'd saved that URL to share with some librarian types online and must've gotten tangled up in the Windows Clipboard or something.

Here's the right one.

The librarians would have been roundly confused if I'd gotten tripped up in the other direction.