“L’invitation au voyage” by Charles Baudelaire, translated by Richard Wilbur

Title page to the first edition of Les fleurs du mal with notes by Baudelaire.

Translation can be a controversial topic, and poetry translation is even more so. In any act of translation, the obstacles posed by the two languages’ differing histories, cultural contexts, and nuances of meaning can be almost insurmountable. Add to that the fact that the very existence of a poem depends on its being intimately involved with the features of its own language. Sound, rhythm, denotation, connotation, and even the histories of individual words or phrases can all carry meaning. To move a poem from one language to another and keep the poetic aspects of it is nearly impossible. Some believe that it is impossible. I personally prefer to take a more optimistic view: will Baudelaire in English ever be the same as Baudelaire in French? Of course not. Can we hope that some intrepid Anglophone might create for us, if not the same thing, at least something similar to the experience of Baudelaire in French? I think so.

Wilbur in the 1960s.

An ideal poetry translator should, as far as he is able, respect the form, sound, and wording of the original poem. At the same time, he should make it pleasant to read as English verse. One translator who succeeded marvelously at that was Richard Wilbur. A two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and former Poet Laureate of the United States, Wilbur is justly heralded for his original poetry, but he has also translated dozens of poets from French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Russian. He never, to my knowledge, published a book dedicated solely to translations, but scattered throughout his collections are gems like “L’invitation au voyage,” works that, without completely sacrificing lexical and formal fidelity, still capture some of the original’s beauty in English.

First, here’s the poem as originally published by Baudelaire in Les fleurs du mal:

“L’invitation au voyage”

Mon enfant, ma soeur,
Songe à la douceur
D’aller là-bas vivre ensemble !
Aimer à loisir,
Aimer et mourir
Au pays qui te ressemble !
Les soleils mouillés
De ces ciels brouillés
Pour mon esprit ont les charmes
Si mystérieux
De tes traîtres yeux,
Brillant à travers leurs larmes.

Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme, et volupté.

Des meubles luisants,
Polis par les ans,
Décoreraient notre chambre;
Les plus rares fleurs
Mêlant leurs odeurs
Aux vagues senteurs de l’ambre,
Les riches plafonds,
Les miroirs profonds,
La splendeur orientale,
Tout y parlerait
À l’âme en secret
Sa douce langue natale.

Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme, et volupté.

Vois sur ces canaux
Dormir ces vaisseaux
Dont l’humeur est vagabonde;
C’est pour assouvir
Ton moindre désir
Qu’ils viennent du bout du monde.
— Les soleils couchants
Revêtent les champs,
Les canaux, la ville entière,
D’hyacinthe et d’or;
Le monde s’endort
Dans une chaude lumière.

Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme, et volupté.

And now Wilbur’s English version, from 1988’s New and Collected Poems.

“L’invitation au voyage”

My child, my sister, dream
How sweet all things would seem
Were we in that kind land to live together,
And there love slow and long,
There love and die among
Those scenes that image you, that sumptuous weather.
Drowned suns that glimmer there
Through cloud-disheveled air
Move me with such a mystery as appears
Within those other skies
Of your treacherous eyes
When I behold them shining through their tears.

There, there is nothing else but grace and measure,
Richness, quietness, and pleasure.

Furniture that wears
The luster of the years
Softly would glow within our glowing chamber,
Flowers of rarest bloom
Proffering their perfume
Mixed with the vague fragrances of amber;
Gold ceilings would there be,
Mirrors deep as the sea,
The walls all in an Eastern splendor hung —
Nothing but should address
The soul’s loneliness,
Speaking her sweet and secret native tongue.

There, there is nothing else but grace and measure,
Richness, quietness, and pleasure.

See, sheltered from the swells
There in the still canals
Those drowsy ships that dream of sailing forth;
It is to satisfy
Your least desire, they ply
Hither through all the waters of the earth.
The sun at close of day
Clothes the fields of hay,
Then the canals, at last the town entire
In hyacinth and gold:
Slowly the land is rolled
Sleepward under a sea of gentle fire.

There, there is nothing else but grace and measure,
Richness, quietness, and pleasure.

The French language poses some interesting challenges for poetry translators. Not only do the French measure lines differently than we do in English (counting syllables instead of beats per line), they also have far more rhymes than we do. There is a clear and tight rhyme scheme in Baudelaire’s original, but the limitations of English often mean that translators either have to forgo rhyming altogether or else say something strange and unwieldy to get the rhymes to work. (For example, the beginning of Roy Campbell‘s translation of the same poem: “My daughter, my sister, / Consider the vista / Of living out there, you and I, / To love at our leisure, / Then, ending our pleasure, / In climes you resemble to die.”) Part of the brilliance of Wilbur is that he’s able not just to imitate the meter of the original but also to preserve the original rhyme scheme without feeling forced or unnatural.

Of course, this requires that some adjustments be made to the wording. Even so, whatever changes Wilbur makes still strive to match the spirit and the ideas of the original. For instance, an interview he gave in 1988 has him defending his use of the word “kind” in line 3: “Were we in that kind land to live together.” The original French line, translated literally, reads, “Of going there to live together.” There’s no equivalent word for “kind.” Wilbur explains:

What I’ve done there has been to reach down into the rest of the poem where Baudelaire talks about this land which would mirror the soul and anticipate that idea by the word “kind,” which suggests “akin.”

The land is kind not just in that it pleases the speaker but also because it is of the same “kind” as him. A sort of kindred spirit with him. It, in a way, has its own personality and its own soul that seem to complement his. He has the feeling that this is where he truly belongs.

This ideal land of Baudelaire’s was apparently inspired by his travels in Holland. (Photo by Eddie Hooiveld)

One of the trickier lines to render in this poem is line 6: “Au pays qui te ressemble.” A literal translation of that line could read either “in the country that resembles you” or “in the country that is like you.” Taking the line out of its original context, either translation would work because “ressemble” can refer to similarities either in physical appearance or in character and behavior. So, when translating to English, the question is which sense did Baudelaire mean to use? Or did he want to evoke both? And if he did, how to represent that in English?

Some translators go with the closest etymological cousin of “ressemble,” which of course is “resemble”: “in that land that resembles you” (Keith Waldrop). This, however, flattens the comparison, locking it into the realm of the visual only when there are other, more interesting possibilities available in the French word. That’s why Wilbur’s choice of “image” for “ressemble” is so brilliant: “image” keeps the idea of a shared physical beauty at the fore, but it also suggests a spiritual similarity between the woman and this country. Think of the phrase “he’s remaking [x] in his own image”: this doesn’t mean that x looks like this person, but rather that it now reflects his ideas and values. Similarly, the Christian/Jewish idea that humans bear the “image of God” does not mean that human beings are visual facsimiles of God per se, but rather that they share spiritual attributes in common with him.

So “image” has more to say than “resemble.” If the land “images” the lady, she, like the narrator, is “akin” to it, sharing not just its outward beauty but also its mysteriousness (Wilbur, lines 7-11), its storminess (9-12), and perhaps sometimes its “grace and measure.”

Another Wilburism that especially stands out is at the end of the fifth stanza:

The sun at close of day
Clothes the fields of hay,
Then the canals, at last the town entire
In hyacinth and gold:
Slowly the land is rolled
Sleepward under a sea of gentle fire.

In the original French, translated as literally as I know how:

The setting suns
Clothe the fields,
The canals, the entire city
In hyacinth and gold;
The world falls asleep
In a warm light.

As you can see, the language, especially of those last couple of lines, is not quite as ornamented as Wilbur’s verse. And yet, I think the ornamentation serves this poem well. Of course, “Sleepward under a sea of gentle fire” is much more interesting and much more memorable than “In a warm light,” but Wilbur never adds to poems unless he believes the addition is justified by the poem itself. In this case, I think we can see that it is.

Sketch of Baudelaire by Edouard Manet, 1862.

The first stanza introduces us to a couple in love, but it also gives us reason to wonder what goes on behind the scenes. The speaker has a tender regard for this woman, calling her—in an echo of the Song of Songs—“My child, my sister.” The mention of “treacherous eyes” lets us know that, despite this regard, she has hurt him in someway in the past, perhaps through infidelity. She too must have some cause to be unhappy in the relationship if her eyes are “shining through their tears.”

And yet in spite of this unhappiness, they stay together. The speaker even says that he wants to spend the rest of his life with her: “There love and die.” They don’t want to give each other up, even if the result causes them pain.

So it is a deep love, but not an untroubled one. Passionate, but with the kind of passion that hurts both the lover and the beloved. It is a “sea of gentle fire.” How can fire, so destructive to everything in its path, be “gentle”? How can two people love each other and still make each other unhappy? With this new metaphor, Wilbur touches ever so briefly and elegantly on the paradox inherent in this poem.

That’s all for now. Let me know in the comments what you thought about this poem, and of my analysis of it. If you can recommend me any other pretty French poems (originals or translations), mention those too!


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