Monday, March 28, 2011

Three Translations of Baudelaire's "L'Albatros" (Accidental Poetry Month, Part 19)

I've mentioned before that I like comparing translations -- indeed, I've done two such posts recently. In this case, however, it's different for me, because I can actually read the original.* At the same time, it's foreign enough for me that I really appreciate a good translation as well. So in a lot of ways this is, for me, a multiple treat -- the original reflecting on the translations, and then vice-versa, each increasing the pleasure in the other.

But before I present three translations that I really like, here's the original:

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.

-- Charles Baudelaire
I was trying to think of how to order the translations -- most to least favorite, or vice-versa? -- when I realized that I couldn't decide which I liked best, either. So I'm going to present them in rather random order here.

First up is a translation which I found in a book called Selected Poems From Les Fleurs du Mal: a Bilingual Edition, which has "English renderings" by Norman R. Shapiro, and well as engravings by David Schorr and a forward by Willis Barnstone (which may have been what drew my attention to the book in the first place).
The Albatross

Often will sailors, for their sport, ensnare
The albatross, flying with languid sweep--
Sea-bird companion, soaring on the air--
Behind their boats, plying the bitter deep.

Scare are they thrust on deck than those proud kings
Of azure climes, awkward and mortified,
Let droop, pathetically, their vast white wings,
Like two oars, trailing useless by their side.

How clumsy this winged voyager! How weak
Comic, and ugly! He, so fair of late!
Some, with their clay pipes, taunt him, jab his beak;
Some ape the esrtwhile flier's limping gait.

So too the Poet, like that prince of space,
Who haunts the storm and scorns the archer's bow:
Mocked, jeered, his giant's wings hobble his pace
When exiled from his heights to earth below.

-- Translated by Norman R. Shapiro

Next a translation by Richard Wilbur, one of the great translators of our time I (and not only I) think -- particularly from the French. (Although in this case I do think that Shapiro is just as good.) Here's Wilbur:
The Albatross

Often, for pastime, mariners will ensnare
The albatross, that vast sea-bird who sweeps
On high companionable pinion where
Their vessel glides upon the bitter deeps.

Torn from his native space, this captive king
Flounders upon the deck in stricken pride,
And pitiably lets his great white wing
Drag like a heavy paddle at his side.

This rider of winds, how awkward he is, and weak!
How droll he seems, who late was all grace!
A sailor pokes a pipestem into his beak;
Another, hobbling, mocks his trammeled pace.

The Poet is like this monarch of the clouds
Familiar of storms, of stars, and of all high things;
Exiled on earth amidst its hooting crowds,
He cannot walk, borne down by his giant wings.

-- Translated by Richard Wilbur
And finally a translation by A. Z. Foreman, who I've already posted translations by twice this month, and whose site was one of the things that lead me to go so crazy with poetry this particular March.
The Albatross

Often for sport the crewmen will ensnare
Some albatrosses: vast seabirds that sweep
In lax accompaniment through the air
Behind the ship that skims the bitter deep.

No sooner than they dump them on the floors
These skyborn kings, graceless and mortified,
Feel great white wings go down like useless oars
And drag pathetically at either side.

That sky-rider: how gawky now, how meek!
How droll and ugly he that shone on high!
The sailors poke a pipestem in his beak,
Then limp to mock this cripple born to fly.

The poet is so like this prince of clouds
Who haunted storms and sneered at earthly slings;
Now, banished to the ground, to cackling crowds,
He cannot walk beneath the weight of wings.

-- translated by A.Z. Foreman
If you click this link, you can hear Foreman read the original French.

There are a lot of other translations too -- this site has five more, for example -- but those three are definitely my favorites among the ones I've come across.

* Yes, I can. My French is too poor to read any random text without much trouble; but when I've read the text enough times, then I get it.


Unknown said...

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Unknown said...

Just found this page. I really love Baudelaire's poem, but I find most translations try too hard to create something flowery and rhyming, and miss a lot of the real meaning in the process. So I tried to create my own translation, borrowing a couple of handy words from other translations, but trying to stay as faithful to the original as possible. Here it is.

To amuse themselves, mariners often
Catch albatrosses, those huge seabirds
That indolently accompany the ship on its voyage
As it glides over the bitter deep.

Once they have been placed on the planks
These kings of the sky, now clumsy and shameful
Let their great white wings
Drag pitifully beside them like oars.

How weak and ungainly is this winged voyager!
Lately so beautiful, how comical and ugly he is!
One taunts his beak with a clay pipe;
Another limps to mimic the cripple who once flew!

The poet is like this prince of the clouds
Who haunts the tempests and laughs at the bowman's arrow;
Derided and in exile on the ground,
His giant wings prevent him from walking.

Transcription services cape town said...

A Classic: The Albatross!

A man goes into a restaurant on the sea coast. The restaurant advertises that it has a beautiful view of the ocean over the cliffs. The man goes inside and sits down. When he looks at the menu, he sees that they offer albatross soup, and he orders it. When the soup comes he takes one bite and puts down the spoon. He then leaves the restaurant and goes out to his car without payinging. He gets into his car and drives off the cliff into the ocean below, killing himself instantly. Why did he drive off the cliff?

You might have heard of the story before, but I encourage others to try to figure it out. It's really fun.

Anonymous said...

I like Wilbur’s translation best but I would change the last sentence to “his giant’s wings” not his giant wings to emphasize that Baudelaire considers the poet to be a giant, not just to have giant wings as in large wings. It’s a subtle point but it is clear in the French version (“de geant”). I learned this poem when I was a kid and still love it.