être etonné c’est un bonheur: baudelaire’s modernization of poe
One other thing from the Paris trip – something I’d rather not get lost unread at the bottom of an overly long photoessay. Just as we were leaving the Jardin des Tuileries, we came upon this, an installation described in more depth here. You can probably guess who translated the Poe bit above. It’s from Baudelaire’s translation of Poe’s “Morella.” But the funny thing is that it’s a mistranslation. The first paragraph of the original goes this way – I’ve bolded the bit that is painted on the wall above:
With a feeling of deep yet most singular affection I regarded my friend Morella. Thrown by accident into her society many years ago, my soul from our first meeting, burned with fires it had never before known; but the fires were not of Eros, and bitter and tormenting to my spirit was the gradual conviction that I could in no manner define their unusual meaning or regulate their vague intensity. Yet we met; and fate bound us together at the altar, and I never spoke of passion nor thought of love. She, however, shunned society, and, attaching herself to me alone rendered me happy. It is a happiness to wonder; it is a happiness to dream.
But wondering and being astonished are two very different things, are they not? I feel like I’ve seen this slippage in translation before, and now am wondering myself whether there’s not something else to this. Baudelaire was actually quite preoccupied with that phrase of Poe’s – the calculation and recalculation of the relationship between astonishment and happiness can be found throughout his work. Here’s one very clear example, where he literally retranslates the passage, from “Salon de 1858”:
Je parlais tout à l’heure des artistes qui cherchent à étonner le public. Le désir d’étonner et d’être étonné est très-légitime. It is a happiness to wonder, “c’est un bonheur d’être étonné” ; mais aussi, it is a happiness to dream, “c’est un bonheur de rêver”. Toute la question, si vous exigez que je vous confère le titre d’artiste ou d’amateur des beaux-arts, est donc de savoir par quels procédés vous voulez créer ou sentir l’étonnement. Parce que le Beau est toujours étonnant, il serait absurde de supposer que ce qui est étonnant est toujours beau. Or notre public, qui est singulièrement impuissant à sentir le bonheur de la rêverie ou de l’admiration (signe des petites âmes), veut être étonné par des moyens étrangers à l’art, et ses artistes obéissants se conforment à son goût ; ils veulent le frapper, le surprendre, le stupéfier par des stratagèmes indignes, parce qu’ils le savent incapable de s’extasier devant la tactique naturelle de l’art véritable.
Baudelaire’s insistence on sticking with this mis-translation here is somewhat remarkable. At least with his version of “Morella,” the reader wouldn’t have the source-text at hand, and thus the license that he’s taking would go unnoticed. I suppose that one explanation would be that he doesn’t realize his mistranslating the phrase – perhaps he’s make a leap from “a wonder,” that is an astonishing thing or occurence, to a verbal form that it doesn’t really fit.
But in the end, whether Baudelaire was aware of what he was doing or not, whether this is a kind of translational parapraxis or intentionally distorting paraphrase, I’m tempted to say that what we see here is something like Baudelaire’s forced modernization of the darkly romantic Poe. He takes the self-involved wondering and jams it outside, transforms it into external shock.