FLOWERS OF BAD: A FALSE TRANSLATION OF CHARLES BAUDELAIRE'S LES FLEURS DU MAL by DAVID CAMERONALEXANDER DICKOW Reviews
Flowers of Bad: A False Translation of Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal by David Cameron
(Unbelievable Alligator/Ugly Duckling Presse, 2007)
Flowers of Bad: A False Translation of Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal. How could I not review a book with such a title? As a transgressive “translator,” the lopsided splendor (the highest and perhaps the only form of splendor, in my view) of David Cameron’s title instantly, how do you say, carried off my adhesion. As a bilingual poet in French and English, how could I not relish the idea of seeing Baudelaire’s excessively revered poetic monument deflated (although something tells me Charles would join in the fun without a second thought)?
My very high expectations, as one might expect, were at once disappointed and fulfilled: I did not necessarily find what I imagined, nor always what I desired, but I did find a good deal worth talking about, and as a poet, worth talking to (poetry being a kind of conversation).
As is unfortunately often the case, in my experience, with “experimental translation”(1) —if not experimental writing in general—the processes David Cameron used to produce his false translations are sometimes as compelling as the resulting poems (which does not necessarily mean uncompelling). Cameron describes these processes in his afterword, which recounts the hilarious story behind the creation of Flowers of Bad, meanwhile rendering homage to Cameron’s former teacher, dedicatee and admired model Jackson Mac Low.
Because of Cameron’s faulty (as he himself admits) French, many of these translation processes are automatic in nature: that is, undertaken according to predetermined “rules” à la Oulipo,—such as Cameron’s anagrammatic transformations of Baudelaire’s poems (notably the virtuosic “A.M. Sequel,” which purportedly took Cameron three-and-a-half months to create)—or according to the word-associations sparked by partially understood or opaque French words (according to their sound, spelling or meaning). In both cases, the poet as conscious composer is somewhat removed from the equation. The results, too often for my taste, tend to resemble Tristan Tzara’s more or less random word-jumbles. For example, Cameron’s “Two Good Sisters” translation method yields the following stanza:
Knock hard on your view the object symptomatic of farmers of livestock
This morning in a boat the quarry.
The water tower after the sentry’s watch ended, his fly undone and quail
eggs falling forward
On the blazing wheat fields or some blue
Cameron explains that the “Two Good Sisters” technique was developed somewhat late in the game (he presents his methods in the order in which they were “discovered”), and the reader’s eventual fatigue with these kinds of dadaist nonsense-poems perhaps reflects the fatigue Cameron admits he felt towards the end of the Flowers of Bad project (see Afterword, 211). On the other hand, those who have actually read all of Baudelaire’s original Fleurs from cover to cover may find it difficult to hold Cameron’s impatience against him—having themselves lived through the ennui of reading Baudelaire’s poem over and over again. (Think you can’t relate?...Remember reading Leaves of Grass all the way through? Yeah, like that bad, man). In any event, fans of real Surrealist poetry, however, will not find aleatory word-music bothersome, and even Surrealism’s harshest critics will admit that automatic writing techniques create the occasional miracle, so that the game is worth the candle, shall we say. For instance, one of Cameron’s freer compositions leads to this amazing tour-de-farce:
Cowards! Chimpanzees each interview
Bluffing fell-out crash investigators
Over soups. Whores matching grasslands
With thuggery, lisp astride me as gulls pass!
A “false” translation which advertises itself as such immediately begs the question of how we should approach it. Does it stand alone as an entirely original work? Or should we compare the mistranslation to the original, in effect measuring its distortion (parodic or otherwise)? The jury’s permanently out on the matter, of course. As a single member of this very large jury (although soon to be struck from the roster, perhaps), I felt divided myself concerning David Cameron’s work: on the one hand, the examples above already demonstrate that these poems bear a greater resemblance to just about anything post-Tzara, than they do to Baudelaire’s rigidly disciplined classicism. The contrast would suggest that Cameron’s poems should be read on their own terms, without reference to Baudelaire. On the other hand, as a reader familiar (i.e., to the point of nausea) with good old Chuck, I couldn’t help but find myself most attracted to those pieces which engaged in more direct forms of parody, or which somehow resembled or responded to the Fleurs. My favorite of these is another nonsense-poem, one of the most striking in Cameron’s collection, developed by replacing the words of Baudelaire’s poem with a set of predetermined words, according to matching initial letters and grammatical function:
Below the embers, below the ventilators,
Medications, backgrounds, naiads, medications,
Beyond the salamander, beyond the embers,
Beyond the checkrooms of existential salamanders,
My ember, you mirror with accomplishment...
By preserving Baudelaire’s tightly controlled syntax and the French language’s high concentration of latinate words (ventilator, existential...), Cameron has produced a poem that sounds exactly like Baudelaire. Likewise, Cameron’s limited predetermined lexicon results in symmetrical repetitions that perfectly mimic Baudelaire’s own obnoxiously tiny lexicon.
Results like these produced enormous hysterical laughter chez moi. Revisiting old favorites or tired-out anthology pieces, I was pleased to discover such familiar incipits as “Je suis la pipe d’un auteur” (= “I am the pipe of an author”) rendered in equally Freudian terms as “I am the exhaust pipe of my mother’s car” (“The Pipe”). I eventually realized Cameron’s prunetree corresponded to the Baudelairian prunelle (=pupil—of the eye), and that bells had a strange tendency to involve very attractive women (and in Baudelaire’s poetry, that makes for more of a din than Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Bells”) (see “Beauty”). Oh, and Death happens to be a guy named Mort—short for Mortimer (“Le Voyage”). Though not aimed at Baudelaire per se, I also welcomed Cameron’s occasional mockery of the French language, for instance in this silly stanza:
If you go Madame, to a true country of gloire
‘Neath the docks on the Seine, or by the green Loire
Doorbells will ding in the stately manoirs.
(“A Woman Cried Olé,” author’s italics)
Cameron’s burlesqued version, while above all comic in intention, has the merit of pointing out how stylized and conservative were Baudelaire’s poetics. As Cameron’s ornate-sounding French rhyme suggests, Baudelaire indeed prefers a stylized, “poetic” language, a tediously “noble” poetic diction (even when treating so-called “modern” themes, often already exploited by earlier French Romantics). David Cameron, in fact, does a much better job than Baudelaire of infusing Les Fleurs du Mal with the ruckus and dirt of urban life:
The old Paris is no more (the form of a city
Changes too quickly, I have broken another heel getting drunk in a motel) [...].
Breaking a heel on the way home, not to mention the Laundromat addressed in the same poem, are a far cry from Baudelaire’s tiresome, mythologized Prostitutes. Cameron doesn’t neglect these either, but not without thoroughly deflating Baudelaire’s misogyny, revealing it at last as thoroughly trashy:
You put the universe under your thumb
You bitch! The mood has been torn apart by your cruel donuts.
-- From you, vile animal, fall the wages of tragedy!
What big teeth you have! How subtle your idiocy!
To conclude: David Cameron deflates or critiques Baudelaire’s misogyny, his Romantic bad taste, his rigid classicism and his boring lexical palette. In short: David Cameron improves Baudelaire.
And on their own terms, without reference to Baudelaire and his weaknesses? Well...aside from the aforementioned excesses of Surrealist automatic writing, David Cameron is funny, as must already be clear from the above examples. The subtitle of “Don Juan in Furs,” an allusion to the translator’s frustrations, had me literally in tears:
(what the fuck is mugissement?)
(The answer is almost as funny as the question: it literally means mooing, but is sometimes used in reference to the sound of the ocean.)
In homage to David Cameron’s noble enterprise, I offer him, in closing, my own false translation of Stéphane Mallarmé’s “Brise Marine,” translated using a flexible variant on my “Thesaurus Method.”
The chair is sad, alas! and I’ve interpreted all the lingerie catalogues.
To leak! To leak off that-a-way! I can smell that the birds are shit-faced
Among the unidentified spew and the upper atmosphere!
Nothing, not even elderly gardens reflected in eyeballs
Will hamper this heart skinny-dipping in the sea,
Oh nights, neither the unoccupied intelligibility of my machine-gun
Across the vacuous term-paper defended by pastyness,
Nor the juvenile spouse suckling her toddler.
I’m getting outta here! Oh clam rejecting your mast,
Erect your anchor for a foreign temperament!
One last Boredom, upset by bloodthirsty expectations,
Still believes in the supremacy of hankerchiefs’ goodbyes!
And, perhaps, the mast inviting storms for dinner
Is like those that a fart wilts on shipwrecked vessels,
Fallen, mastless, mastless and bereft of juicy islets...
Yet, oh my heart, comprehend the pirates’ sea-chantey!
Footnote 1: The terms for translinguistic writing practices are as infinite in number as they are inadequate to describe the vast diversity of practices involved. This diversity cannot be subsumed under any single term.
Alexander Dickow writes poetry in French and English, which has been published in journals such as Sitaudis, Il Particolare, RealPoetik and MiPOesias. He maintains a blog called Voix Off, and is working towards his PhD in French at Rutgers University. He also grew up in Idaho.