Baudelaire and the Translation of Modernity

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INVOLVING questions of fidelity and distance, and the reduction of the foreign to the familiar, translation enacts an ethical relation. Perhaps because of its potential to provoke ethical questioning, translation--as both an instrument of comprehension and a self-reflexive discovery of alterity--preoccupied Charles Baudelaire throughout his career, from his early rendering of Edgar Allen Poe into French to his "retranslation," in a larger sense, of modern life in his move from poetry to prose. Etymologically derived from trans (across) and latus (the past participle of ferre, to carry), translation evokes the idea of transportation or transfer. In the Middles Ages, for instance, the notions of translatio studii and translatio imperii carry with them this sense of transfer, the transfer of knowledge and political power from one civilization to another, respectively. In its more common usage, translation conveys the transmission of meaning from one language to another. In a wider sense, however, translation is more or less synonymous with the activity of interpretation: to translate is to make something comprehensible, accessible in terms of something else. As such, translation includes the act of rephrasing within a single language, as well as the use of one medium to reinterpret concepts expressed in another. This broader definition opens up a space for a consideration of form: what is communicated becomes inseparable from how it is communicated.

This essay explores Baudelaire's engagement with translation as a means for unsettling understandings about poetry and reality and, more urgently, for thinking differently about the experience and framing of modern life. Beginning with an analysis of Baudelaire's art criticism and profound attraction to the visual arts, especially painting and caricature, I will examine the insights into modernity that each genre provided him, insights that he sought, in turn, to translate into poetic language. (1) I will then turn to the ethical dilemmas of translation that increasingly concerned Baudelaire, especially in his later prose poems, which betray a growing attention to what can be described as the limits of translatability.

In painting, no artist, for Baudelaire, surpassed Delacroix's imaginative and powerful depictions of the human condition. The poet's unqualified admiration for Delacroix is evidenced by his many laudatory remarks regarding the painter's works in the Salons. As early as the Salon de 1846, Baudelaire asserts that "Delacroix est universel," (2) placing him alongside two masters of literature, Dante and Shakespeare: "Delacroix affectionne Dante et Shakespeare, deux autres grands peintres de la douleur humaine; il les connait a fond, et il sait les traduire librement. En contemplant la serie de ses tableaux, on dirait qu'on assiste a la celebration de quelque mystere douloureux" (OC 2: 440). The translation metaphor (translation as imaginative interpretation) is telling since it underscores the literariness of Delacroix's art (establishing a "correspondence" between his images and their texts), as well as his creative (free) approach to the originals, which stand out themselves as excellent translations in their own right. Delacroix's retranslation of Dante and Shakespeare--his artistic interpretation of their own poeticized perception of the human condition--is not an act of duplication or slavish fidelity, but an imaginative practice in itself. Translation creates as it transfigures the original, and it is this act of poiesis that Baudelaire admires and will seek to imitate. But what is perhaps most significant here is what brings these three figures together: "la douleur humaine," or more specifically, the painting of "la douleur humaine." By describing Dante and Shakespeare as "grands peintres de la douleur humaine," Baudelaire complicates not only the notion of fidelity, but also the priority of any one medium over another, troubling any straightforward understanding of "originals" and "translations. …