Tag Archives: Translation

My Heart Laid Bare by Charles Baudelaire

Rainer Hanshe, in his informative and engaging introduction to his translation of My Heart Laid Bare, describes Baudelaire’s purpose in writing this odd journal of sorts:

As an apodictic work of aphorism, maxim, note and extended reflection, it is the arc of thought, the play of a mind in its everything breadth that is bared. It contains Baudelaire’s exhortations on work, faith, religion and politics, excoriating sociological analyses, diatribes on literature…, the arts, love (women, prostitution, sadomasochism, erotics en generale), and adumbrations of his concepts of the Dandy and the Poet.

This edition contains, in addition to a translation of My Heart Laid Bare, a selection of Baudelaire’s other scattered writings, ideas, fragments and aphorisms. The selections range in size from single sentences, to pieces that are two or three pages . Sometimes Baudelaire just writes a list, such as this one (I especially liked Baudelaire’s colorful use of Latin in this entry):

Portrait of the Literary Rabble
Doctor Estaminetus Crapulosus Pedantissimus. (Estaminetus, a crappy little, very pedantic doctor= my translation) His portrait made in the manner of Praxiteles.
His pipe.
His opinions.
His Hegelianism.
His filth.
His ideas on art.
His bile.
His jealous.
A pretty picture of modern youth.

Similar to someone keeping a journal or a diary, Baudelaire writes about whatever is on his mind on any particular day so there is no particular order or progression to the writer’s thoughts. Certain recurring patterns of topics that weigh on his mind, however, do emerge from the text. On a personal level, he writes about money and the stress of not having enough income to support himself. There is a sense of loneliness that also pervades his entries with many brief comments like this one: “Feeling of solitude, since my childhood. Despite the family,—and among my comrades, above all,—feeling of an eternally solitary destiny. However, a very keen taste for life & for pleasure.”

Another common thread that is related to his sense of loneliness is his struggle with his work as a poet and a translator. He is happy when he mentions Edgar Allen Poe, from whom he takes his title My Heart Laid Bare. There are countless passages in which he talks about the value and honor of work. But Baudelaire, who was always poor and liked to engage in various debaucheries, was not known for his work ethic. These entries felt to me more like he was trying to convince himself rather than his reader that hard work is important in a man’s life: “Do every day what duty and prudence want. If you work every day, life will be more bearable. Work six days without relent.”

As Hanshe mentions in his introduction, one of Baudelaire’s greatest struggles—if not his greatest—is with women and by extension love and relationships. He often equates the opposite sex with images of Hell and Satan and even a female writer like George Sand he doesn’t consider very smart or worthy of the title of author. There is an array of what I found to be amusing sections of his thoughts on the fairer sex. For example, “Woman does not know how to distinguish the soul from the body. She is simplistic, like animals.—A satirist would say that it is because she has nothing but a body.”


Woman is the opposite of the Dandy.
Therefore she must inspire horror.
Woman is hungry and she wants to eat. Thirsty and she wants to drink.
She is rutting and she wants to be fucked.
Beautiful merit!
Woman is natural, that is abominable.
Thus, she is always vulgar, that is, the opposite of the Dandy.

As a result of a woman’s nature, love is oftentimes described as a torment. In one of his longer entries he writes:

I believe that I have already written in my notes that love has a strong resemblance to an act of torture or to a surgical operation. But this idea can be developed in the muost bitter manner. Even if two lovers enamor one another very much and are full of reciprocal desires, one of them will always be calmer or less possessed than the other. He or she is the surgeon or the executioner; the other is the subject, the victim. Do you hear those sighs, the preludes of a tragedy of dishonor, those groans, those cries, those rales? Who has not uttered them, who has not irresistibly extorted them?

He also equates love with prostitution in more than one entry:

What is love?
The need for self-abandoment.
Man is a worshipping animal.
To worship is to sacrifice and prostitute oneself.
Therefore all love is prostitution.

Finally, my concentration for activities like reading is still not what it was since lockdown and transitioning to online teaching. But reading My Heart Laid Bare was the perfect book to take in and absorb a little bit at a time, in the same way that Baudelaire composed it. Speaking of pandemics, there are two final passages I would like to share that seem relevant to the current situation around the world. Baudelaire writes about politics and journalism. Both quotes I am sharing have no need of comment and I will let them stand on their own:

On Politics:

Need I say that what little remains of politics will struggle painfully in the clutches of general animality, and that those who govern will be forced, in order to maintain themselves & to create a phantom of order, to resort to means that would make our present-day humanity although so hardened, shudder?

On Journalism:

Every newspaper, from the first to the last line, is only a tissue of horrors. Wars, crimes, thefts, impudicities, tortures, crimes of princes, crimes of nations, crimes of individuals, an intoxication of universal atrocity. And it is with this disgusting aperitif that civilized man accompanies his every morning meal. Everything, in this world transudes crime: the newspaper, the wall, & the face of man. I do not understand how a pure hand can touch a newspaper without a convulsion of disgust.


Filed under French Literature

John Galbraith Simmons and Jocelyne Geneviève Barque: An Interview with Translators of Sade

Aline & Valcour is an epistolary novel written by Marquis de Sade in 1786 while he was locked in the Bastille. Contra Mundum Press has, wisely, decided to break up the novel into three volumes which are beautifully and expertly translated by the husband and wife team of John Galbraith Simmons and Jocelyne Geneviève Barque. I had the pleasure of interviewing them about their translation and their process as a team via email in February 2020.

1. You both have very interesting and different backgrounds as far as your careers are concerned. Can you describe how you came to the decision of translating Sade’s Aline & Valcour together?

Jocelyne: It started a long time ago, not long after we moved from Paris to New York. In 1996, at the Brooklyn Public Library, I came across a copy of Aline et Valcour. I’d never read Sade (I knew John had) but I found this particular novel extremely interesting. In long parts it read like a page turner, which was unexpected. There was a visual quality to the way Sade wrote this novel, a theatrical quality. Then, too, Sade himself seemed to invest parts of himself in every character, even though they express diverse points of view. Especially interesting was the appearance of a major character, Léonore, in the latter part of the book. She lends the whole novel a liberating quality. She’s modern in the sense of being assertive, anti-religious, unwilling to be seduced but willing to take chances. Overall the novel had a powerful effect on me. Then in 2007, we were looking for a new project. I didn’t know the book had never been translated, but John did. That was when we started.

John: I’d been involved with Sade’s work since the late 1980s, and I knew something about his increasing significance as a literary icon across the 20th century; and it seemed to me he was exceptionally relevant today, in a time of political and social turmoil. I’d read his novel Juliette very carefully, making an index of its themes and characters. But I only actually read Aline and Valcour when we translated it. I was astonished by its coherence, by Sade’s attention to character and to the wealth of ideas that they express. It’s not at all didactic like Rousseau can be in his fiction, nor is it a libertine tale like Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Rather, as he states, it’s a philosophical novel that takes you through a complex story weave from beginning to end.

2. Can you describe the process and methods you used in order to translate together as a team? What sort of challenges arose for you while working together?

Jocelyne: We’ve always worked the same way. I translate a first draft, John edits that draft. Then we reconcile, more than once, usually. We have no trouble working together. We stop to solve problems such as voice and vocabulary. In terms of challenge, the process with Aline and Valcour was not always simple and direct. We went through the book several times, sentence by sentence, which is not easy with a novel that’s more than 800 pages long. But we didn’t have a deadline, so it could be done.

John: People would ask if we argued over words or phrases. No, we didn’t. It just took effort to find the right translation. We would return to various puzzling passages and sometimes had to investigate etymologies of words, or historical aspects of the text. We benefitted from the wealth of knowledge on the Internet, but in revising the text we always worked from the book in French and the manuscript on paper.

3. As I was reading and writing about Sade’s novel I got very extreme views about his life and writing. Readers adore and appreciate his work or think he was a vile person whose writings should be forgotten. What types of reactions did you get as you were working with Sade’s text?

Jocelyne: We were not much exposed to the critics of Sade. Most of our friends are translators or educators in one way or another. So they understand enough about Sade to know he was not all about cruelty and sexuality.

John: There’s a literature of denigration around Sade, and it flows out of and into the popular imagination. The only thing was that after we received a grant from the NEA, we were attacked by the right-wing press.

But you should realize that Sade is a major thinker who was long neglected, especially in the Anglo world. His sulfurous works were translated in the sex-drenched 1960s, mainly by Austryn Wainhouse, and to considerable acclaim, yet in the popular press he was still tarred as a pornographer.

4. The three-volume translation of Aline & Valcour is incredibly smooth and flows beautifully. Sade seems to translate well into English. Were there any parts of the novel, however, that you found particularly challenging to render into English?

John: Here was where our collaboration counted. Sade translates cleanly into English if you take the time with his vocabulary and sentence constructions, some of which are very long indeed, to see and hear what he’s after, which is usually quite precise. I had a good grasp of Sade’s underlying ideas, and Jocelyne could critique the English formulation and phrasing to avoid unnecessary baggage. When I would hear her say, of a tentative translation, “C’est lourdingue,” which she did often (meaning “clumsy, heavy, annoying”) I knew we were in for a discussion about how to rephrase and rework.

5. Why do you think that Sade is an author who is still relevant in the 21st century and why should we still be reading and thinking about his work?

John: Like Lucretius and Spinoza, Sade is an atheist. He effectively belongs to what Jonathan Israel has delineated as the radical (as opposed to moderate) Enlightenment. His relentless materialism has a good fit with science and the real world as it has come to be characterized in the past 200-plus years, in ways that such thinkers such as Hume and Voltaire do not. In the wake of the Holocaust and in the presence of an interconnected world, Sade is more relevant than ever.

6. What translations projects are you both currently working on?

Jocelyne: We are finishing translation of an autobiographical account of a well-known thief, Rédoine Faïd, who specialized in robbing armored trucks, like Brinks. He’s currently in prison. When that’s done we’ll start Ce qui n’a pas de prix, a terrific cultural critique by Annie Le Brun, who is in fact a Sade specialist.

7. What authors–writing either prose or poetry in any language—are you currently reading that you would recommend?

Jocelyne: My reading is mostly in English. I’ll just mention Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, which I admired for the beauty and skill of the writing and the incredible story he tells. Another is Frank Norris’s McTeague. On a lighter note, I’ve enjoyed reading the series of crime novels by Jean-Patrick Manchette.

John: I’m reading now, for the first time, Stéphane Mallarmé’s Divagations and am enjoying Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia. I still read a lot around Sade, so now too Jürgen Osterhammel’s The Transformation of the World and Andrea Pitzer’s One Long Night, a history of concentration camps. On a daily basis, I read Lautréamont. The black humor of Les Chants de Maldoror always resets my mood to good, especially helpful in times like ours.

For more information about this unique novel I have written a blog post for each of the three volumes published by Contra Mundum:

Aline & Valcour Volume I

Aline & Valcour Volume II

Aline & Valcour Volume III


Filed under French Literature, Opinion Posts

Comparing Translations of Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities

It just so happens that I started to read Musil’s magnum opus, The Man without Qualities, in the Sophie Wilkins translation which was widely available in paperback when I bought my copies.  I was also lucky to find a first edition set of hard copies at a bookshop in Boston.  When a few of my fellow bloggers and readers on Twitter shared their copies of the Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser translations which feature the Egon Schiele covers, I decided to buy these as well and compare translations.  A few of my favorite selections that I am discussing here are from Volume I of the Sophie Wilkins translation and from Volume II of the Wilkins/Kaiser translation.

When Diotima and Arnheim, who are in love with each other but can’t decide how to move forward in their relationship, have a discussion about their feelings, Diotima says in the Sophie Wilkins translation:

Words can do much, but there are things beyond words.  The real truth between two people cannot be put into words. The moment we speak certain doors begin to close; language works best for what doesn’t really matter; we talk in lieu of living.

And in the Wilkins/Kaiser translation:

The word can accomplish great things, but there are things still greater! The true truth between two people cannot be uttered. As soon as we speak, doors close.  The word does better service to the unreal communications.  One speaks in those hours when one does not live.

In this first example I prefer the Sophie Wilkins translationsfor a few reasons.  The Wilkins/Kaiser use of the polyptoton “true truth” seems awkward in a prose translation, and “real truth” seems to flow better.  In addition, the translation of the second sentence in the Wilkins/Kaiser translation seems unclear: “The word does better service to the unreal communications.”  The Sophie Wilkins translation is more eloquent and makes the meaning of the sentence much more apparent: “Language works best for what doesn’t really matter.”  Finally, I think that the semicolons that Sophie Wilkins uses make the entire sentiment of the paragraph flow better whereas the periods in the Wilkins/Kaiser translation make the writing feel more disconnected in what is supposed to be discussion.

Next is a comparison of Musil’s satire of the media which I mentioned in a previous post.  Sophie Wilkins renders the paragraph as:

If he were alive today, Plato—to take him as an example, because along with a dozen others he is regarded as the greatest thinker who ever lived—would certainly be ecstatic about a news industry capable of creating, exchanging, refining a new idea every day; where information keeps pouring in from the ends of the earth with a speediness he never knew in his own lifetime, while a staff of demiurges is on hand to check it all out instantaneously for its content of reason and reality.  He would have supposed a newspaper office to be that topos uranios, that heavenly realm of ideas, which he has described so impressively that to this day all the better class of people are still idealists when talking to their children or employees.  And of course if Plato were to walk suddenly into a news editor’s office today and prove himself to be indeed that great author who died over two thousand years ago he would be a tremendous sensation and would instantly be showered with the most lucrative offers.  If he were then capable of writing a volume of philosophical travel pieces in three weeks, and a few thousand of his well-known short stories, perhaps even turn one or the other of his older works into film, he could undoubtedly do very well for himself for a considerable period of time.  The moment his return had ceased to be news, however,  and Mr. Plato tried to put into practice one of his well-known ideas, which had never quite come into their own, the editor in chief would ask him to submit only a nice little column on the subject now and then for the Life and Leisure section (but in the easiest and most lively style possible, not heavy: remember the readers), and the features editor would add that he was sorry, but he could use such a contribution only once a month or so, because there were so many other good writers to be considered.  And both of these gentlemen would end up feeling that they had done quite a lot for a man who might indeed be the Nestor of European publicists but still was a bit outdated, and certainly not in a class for current newsworthiness with a man like, for instance, Paul Arnheim.

And the Wilkins/Kaiser translation:

Plato—to take him as an example, because he, among a dozen others, is commonly referred to as one of the greatest thinkers—would, if he were still alive, quite definitely be enchanted with that world of ‘news’ in which every day a new idea can be created, exchanged for another, or refined, in which a mass of reports comes pouring in from all the ends of the earth, at a speed he never dreamt of, and where a staff of demiurges waits in readiness to test it all immediately for the quantity of reason and reality it contains.  He would take a newspaper office to be that topos uranios, that heavenly realm of Ideas, of whose existence he wrote in such details and so impressively that even nowadays all the better sort of people are idealists when talking to their children or employees.  And of course, if Plato were today suddenly to walk into an editor’s office and prove he was really that great author who died more than two thousand years ago, he would cause a tremendous sensation and be offered the most enviable contracts. Supposing he were then capable of writing a volume of philosophic travel-impressions inside three weeks, as well as a few thousand of his well-known short stories, and even perhaps sell the film-rights of one or the other of his older works, he would certainly do pretty well for quite a time.  As soon, however, as his return ceased to be topical and Mr. (as he would be now) Plato tried to put into practice yet another of his well-known ideas, which never really came into their own, the editor would merely urge him to write a nice little feature-article on the subject now and then for the woman’s or the book page of course not in that difficult style of his, but as light and readable as possible, with the paper’s readers in mind, and the feature-editor would add that he was sorry he could not use such a contribution more than once a month at the most, because there were, after all, so many other good men to be considered.  And after that both these gentlemen would have the feeling that they had done a great deal for a man who, although he was the father of European publicists, was nevertheless a little out of date and as regards topicality simply not in the same class as, for instance, Paul Arnheim.

In this example I prefer the Wilkins/Kaiser translation because of a few subtle differences that enhance the satire and humor: their capitalization of Ideas, for instance, and their aside in parentheses explaining Mr. Plato (as he would be now).  The Wilkins/Kaiser  use of the word “travel impressions” seems much more humorous, especially in relation to the great philosopher Plato, than the “travels pieces” that Wilkins uses. And finally, the Wilkins Kaiser use of “woman’s or book page” instead of “Leisure Section” is not only funnier, but is more fitting for Musil who goes on to satirize authors as well (he is especially disgusted with so-called “popular” authors and books.)  The Wilkins/Kaiser translation also uses a minimal amount of punctuation in the large, run-on sentence that makes up the bulk of the paragraph which, I think, lends to the hyperbole of the writing. As a side note, I did appreciate Sophie Wilkin’s use of “Nestor” in the final sentence, but this is a very specific Homeric reference that many readers might not appreciate.

One final comparison is a translation of Musil’s satire involving authors.  The Sophie Wilkins translation reads:

Meaning no offence, but dogs prefer a busy street corner to a lonely cliff for their calls of nature, so why should human beings who feel the higher urge to leave their names behind choose a cliff that is obviously unfrequented? Before he knows it, the Great Author ceases to be a separate entity and has become a symbiosis, a collective national product in the most delicate sense of the term, and enjoys the most gratifying assurance life can offer that his prosperity is most intimately bound up with that of countless others.

And the Wilkins/Kaiser translation:

Be it said without offence, where their natural needs are concerned bogs prefer a busy street-corner to a solitary rock; and how then should human beings, who feel the higher need to leave their name publicly behind them, fail to choose a rock that is noticeably solitary?  Before he knows that is happening the superman of lettersis no longer a being to himself, but a symbiosis, in the most delicate sense the product of national cooperation, and experiences the most exquisite assurance that life can give—namely that his own prospering is most intimately bound up with the prospering of countless other people.

In this final example I don’t have a preference as I equally enjoyed both translations.  The biggest difference between the translations is their rendering of the very thing that Musil is satirizing: Sophie Wilkins uses the “Great Author” with capital letters while Wilkins/Kaiser use the superman of letters.  Both serve their purpose and are humorous.

So in my final analysis I would say that we are lucky to have two excellent English translations of Musil’s The Man without Qualities.  I will continue with the Sophie Wilkins translation for the final four-hundred pages of the novel since I began with this one.  But when I reread Musil I will happily use the Wilkins/Kaiser rendition.  My analysis is not meant to critique the literal translation from English to German as I do not read German.  These are simply my aesthetic views and preferences as someone who has read well over a thousand pages of Musil in translation.  If you have a preference for one of these translations I would be delighted to hear about it.



Filed under German Literature

Why I translate Ancient Languages

μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί’ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε’ ἔθηκε,
πολλὰς δ’ ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς Ἄϊδι προί̈αψεν
ἡρώων, αὐτοὺς δὲ ἑλώρια τεῦχε κύνεσσιν
οἰωνοῖσί τε πᾶσι, Διὸς δ’ ἐτελείετο βουλή

Wrath—sing goddess, about the wrath of
Achilles, son of Peleus, a destructive
wrath that brought unbearable grief to
the Achaeans, and which sent many brave
souls of heroes to Hades, and left their
bodies as carrion for dogs and vultures,
the will of Zeus was carried out.

These first five lines of the Iliad are, to me, some of the most profound, beautiful, emotional and simple lines in all of classical literature. When I mentioned on Twitter that I was translating Homer, someone commented, “The field is already populated with several translations. What are they missing and what is new yours is bringing to the table?”

First, “several” translations is an understatement.  Homer has been translated by countless people since Ancient Greek was rediscovered in the Middle Ages!  I have no intention of sharing a full translation of my work because, for me, translation is a very personal matter. I oftentimes print out the text and make notes or jot down bits of translations on a notebook or scraps of paper. Oftentimes I translate silently to myself, or out loud when I ask one of the other two people I know who also know Ancient Greek what they think of a particular translation.  My translations, I guess, are truly ephemeral.

And what I saw in a text like Homer, when I first encountered him at the age of nineteen, is very different from how I experience his works now.  Very different.   But the point of the exercise  for me is to interact with the text. Nothing focuses my attention—especially when I am sad or stressed out, etc.—like an ancient text. The cases, the word order, the verb tenses, the vocabulary—it is an all-consuming experience for me. The few translations I do share on my blog are, once again, very personal renderings of some of my favorite ancient texts, but certainly not read by a wide audience. Every once in a great while I will do a translation on request for someone; and even more rarely I will do a translation for a particular person as a sort of gift. But, once again, these are personal exchanges and experiences, usually only done for an audience of one.

So, what are other translations missing?  Well, not necessarily anything. But they aren’t my own….


Filed under Opinion Posts

Oh Gracilis Puer! Translations of Horace Ode 1.5

Horace’s Ode to Pyrrha can be interpreted in many ways, but I’ve always detected a note of jealousy over a woman and a love that eluded him. He has put aside his relationship with the woman who is now engaging in a tryst with a man he, rather condescendingly, calls a gracilis puer (simple boy.) He then accuses Pyrrha of being vain and shallow and believes that only those who truly know her realize that her beauty is skin deep. If he doesn’t care for her anymore, if he is so relieved to be free of her, then why protest so much? Why insult her?

I offer here two translations, one is my own and one is by a fellow classicist. We had great fun exchanging and critiquing (arguing over) one another’s translations. I won’t identify them, but one translation is very traditional, closer to the grammar of the original text and the other is more colloquial and captures the spirit of the poem without being as literal.

Translation #1:

So who’s that pretty boy, soaked in cologne,
grinding against you in the rose bushes
near that pleasant grotto, Pyrrha?
Is it for him that you do up your blonde hair,

stylishly simple? Ah, how often
he will be in anguish over fickle faith
and fate, and be caught off guard – astounded –
as if at the sea abruptly churned up by a dark gale.

He may be enjoying you now – your radiance –
always believing in your easy-going love, unaware
of the deceptive way the wind blows.

Miserable are they who’ve never basked in your glow.
As for me – see my dripping clothes hanging on the holy temple wall as an offering
for the powerful god of the sea? Well, they show that I’ve survived that particular storm.


Translation #2:

What simple boy, having doused himself in perfume,
hems you in on a bed of roses under cover of a pleasant
cave? For whom do you, Pyrrha, simple in your
elegance, arrange your golden locks?

Ah, how many times will that boy cry over fickle
faith and fickle fortunes and, in his insolence,
will stand aghast at the oceans made rough by
black storms;

That trusting boy, who now enjoys
you in all your magnificence and who always hopes you
are available and always hopes you are loveable,
is ignorant of your false charms.

Wretched are those to whom you appear glamorous
without knowing your true self. A sacred wall shows that
I have suspended my wet clothes there as a votive
prayer for the powerful god of the sea.

Which do you prefer?

(As a side note I showed both of these translations to my students and it sparked an interesting and lively debate about the art of translation. They were able to pick out which translation was my own. They are my Vergil students, most of whom I have had for five semesters of Latin, so they are all too familiar with my style, quirks, approach to translation, etc.)


Filed under Classics