Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Reckless Translations, Issue 2.

Not enough people love Charles Baudelaire as the composer of prose poetry. Poet of Les Fleurs du Mal, he's got breathless fans; art critic, he's got erudite exegesists. But as the Picasso of French prose style? Not so much. Le Spleen de Paris: Petits Poemes en Prose fell, as David Hume once described his own work, stillborn from the press; even the government didn't pay attention. And today it's the poetry that gets taught in the schools, and the criticism that gets critical attention--because all that formal innovation stuff is so hard to get excited about. Well, some of Baudelaire's prose poetry is pretty damned cool.

Below the fold, a reckless translation of poeme en prose number 16, "The Clock," which features one of the nastiest shatterings of the fourth wall I've ever read.


The clock

The Chinese see the time in the eyes of cats.

One day a missionary, walking in the suburbs of Nanking, realized that he forgot his watch and asked a little boy what time it was.

This urchan of the Celestial Empire hesistated at first; then, changing his mind, he responded, “I’ll tell you.” A few moments later he reappeared, holding a big fat cat in his arms. Looking at it right into its eyes, as the phrase goes, he declared without hesitation: “It’s almost noon.” Which was right.

In my case, if I lean towards the lovely Feline, so well named, who is at once the honor of her sex, the pride of my heart, and the perfume of my spirit, be it night or day, full daylight or opaque shadow, at the bottom of her adorable eyes I always see the time distinctly, always the same, one vast time without divisions into minutes or seconds—an immobile time not marked on clocks and yet light as a sigh, swift as a wink.

And if some annoying person came to disturb me as I gazed at this delicious dial, if some dishonest and intolerant Genius, some contrapunctal Demon came to me to say, “What are you looking at so carefully? What are you looking for in the eyes of this creature? Do you see the time there, prodigal, worthless mortal?” I would reply, without hesitation, “Yes, I see the time; it’s Eternity!”

Would you not say, Madame, that this is a truly excellent madrigal, just as emphatic as yourself? Really, it was such a pleasure to embroider this pretentious gallantry that I won’t ask anything in return from you.


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