The Influence of Form

I have written about my approach to translation from one language to another here.  Recently, it occurred to me that recasting a poem from one form to another in the same language is also a form of  translation. Let me illustrate.

In April of this year, I posted my translation of the introduction to Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil.  The fourth stanza reads as follows:

The Devil holds our puppet strings,
He leads us through the murk and mire
Nearer to Eternal Fire
And makes us like disgusting things.

This simple verse  is shaped by my stated goal, which was to preserve the sense and the rhyme scheme of the original French.   But suppose we decide to express the same concept in another form , say, a cinquain.  Then we get this:

The Devil’s
Fingers pull our
Strings; he make us like the
Vilest things; he carries us down
To Hell.

By eliminating the requirement to preserve the rhyme scheme and changing the form of the poem, we have lost some detail, but we have gained a more natural progression of ideas.

At some point in the future, I intend to do further experiments with this kind of translation.

Variation on a Theme by Baudelaire

The following variation was written a few years later than the Variations I describe  here.   The theme it varies is from the “To the Reader” introduction to Les Fleurs du Mal, or rather from my translation of “To the Reader,”  which I may share at some point.


It’s true, my friend, you have free will
And yet, you are a puppet still.
The Devil’s fingers pull your strings.
He makes you do disgusting things.
He leads you through the murk and mire
Nearer to eternal fire.
But, if you wish, you can escape.
The strings are only stuck with tape.
So yank them off, and turn to good.
Abstinence and brotherhood.
But if you worship womankind,
And if you yearn one night to find
Soft golden hair across your chest,
And touch her softly rounded breast,
And hear her sweet, seductive song,
I guess you’ll have to string along

On Translation With an Example

Elsewhere  I promised to discuss my philosophy of translations.    First and foremost, my goal has always been to produce a satisfactory poem in English that represents to the best of my ability the meanings, nuances and rhythms of the original poem.   If the original poem has an underlying rhyme scheme, I attempt to produce that as well.  A secondary, but very important factor, is my affinity for the poet him or herself.   I have, in my time, tried my hand at translating three important nineteenth century French poets – Mallarme, Rimbaud, and Baudelaire.  My Mallarme translations all remain unfinished; I have one satisfactory Rimbaud translation, which I may choose to share at some point.   Almost all my translations are of Charles Baudelaire, and I have begun to reflect on what my affinity for his work says about me.

Baudelaire’s imagery is overripe; mine sometimes verges on the nonexistent.   Baudelaire was frank about what he called his nostalgia for the gutter; I have tended to suppress and hide my scarier emotions.   As I begin to work with the techniques I have learned from my friend and business partner Cathy Wild , who specializes in helping writers and other artists to bring out their full creative powers, I have come to realize that I have ripeness inside me, and that my scarier emotions can be turned into art,   We shall see in the months to come.

Oh, yes, and here is another example from Les Fleurs du Mal:

A Little Chat

The sky is pink and clear – a perfect day,
But sadness sadness rises in me like a tide,
Which then flows out, and when it’s gone away,
–The stinging taste of bitterness inside.

You stroke in vain my swooning breast,
You search, sweet friend, for a hollow core,
Woman has sunk her claws into my chest,
My hear is eaten; search no more.

My heart’s a palace for crowds to wreck.
They drink and pillage, sack and kill.
–A perfume swims about your neck.

Oh, Beauty, scourge of souls, oh, work your will,
With your eyes of fire, shining like a torch.
The mob has left some scraps for you to scorch.

Another French Translation

This is my translation of the famous introduction to the Flowers of Evil, just as I wrote it some twenty years ago.   My goal was to reproduce the rhyme scheme of the original  ( so much easier in French) and to give the English reader a sense of the poet’s overripe imagery.   You can judge for yourself how well I succeeded.



Tr. Guy Conner

Drunkenness and error, stinginess and vice
Occupy our spirits and make us sweat.
And we feed on our oh-so-sweet regret
Like beggars nourishing their lice.

Our sins are stubborn; cowardly our regret.
Our vows exact a handsome price.
Our innocence makes the muddy road seem nice,
For we believe that tears can make us cleaner yet.

Satan, the Great Alchemist, from Evil’s bower
Enchants our spirits, makes them still
And the rich metal of our free will
Is vaporized by his magic power.

The Devil holds our puppet strings,
He leads us through the murk and mire
Nearer to Eternal Fire,
And makes us like disgusting things.

Just like the whoremonger who’s paid for the night
To suckle a poor martyred breast,
Our clandestine pleasures are carefully pressed,
Like an orange that has shriveled up tight.

Like a million maggots, swarming and packed tightly,
Our brains are filled with demons, and our breath
Breathes into our lungs that greater Demon, Death,
Flowing like an unseen river, groaning lightly.

If rape and poison, the dagger and the flame
Have not yet embroidered our poor fate,
There is a reason! We hang back and wait.
Our lack of boldness puts our soul to shame.

But among the jackals, panthers, monkeys, lice
The scorpions, vultures, serpents and the ape
The monsters crawling, screeching, howling, mouths agape
The infamous menagerie of our vice,

There is one of them, Oh, foulest and least fair!
Although it neither howls nor makes a fuss,
It gladly makes its environment a muss,
And with a yawn, it sucks up all the air.

Boredom! He smokes his hookah; it is the Mother
Of Dreams. Guillotines descend; his eyes are filled with tears.
You’ve known him, Reader, for, lo, these many years.
Hypocrite Reader! My Look-Alike! My Brother!

Second Translation

And this is my second translation from Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal:

Very Far From Here
by C.  Baudelaire
(tr. 1967)

This is the sacred chamber where
That much bejeweled maiden fair
Tranquil and ever-ready there
Raising her breasts to the skies aloft
Hears the drainpipes crying oft.
It is the room of Dorothy,
Then breeze and the water sing to her then
Their song of sighs contradictory,
Caressing her so soothingly.
From tip to toe, her delicate skin
Is drenched and rubbed so carefully
With sweet-smelling oil and benzoin.
Some flowers wither in a bin.


For many years, I have been interested in the art of translation.   In the future, I will post my thoughts on the approach one should take to translation.   Meanwhile, here is the first I  ever did:

The Giantess

(La Géante)

by Charles Baudelaire

Trans 1967

When Nature, with artistic inspiration

Conceived a giantess each day,

Then did I love to live near her creation

Curled cat-like at her feet I lay.

Then did the spirit flourish in her form,

Which grew each time she played her fearful game

Mist danced behind her eyes, mist wet and warm.

I wondered: did her heart conceal a flame?

I felt her bounteous form at ease,

Entwined myself among her knees,

And sometimes in summer, when the suns do their best

To lay her out, fatigued and still.

I sleep unafraid in the shade of her breast

Like a town at the foot of a hill.


You can compare to other translations here.