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être etonné c’est un bonheur: baudelaire’s modernization of poe

with 26 comments

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.

Written by adswithoutproducts

October 31, 2009 at 6:34 am

Posted in baudelaire

26 Responses

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  1. Nice catch. And I don’t think there’s any question that this is a pretty dramatic distortion. The tense change alone tells you that–“To wonder” being an infinitive, and “etre etonne” not. A translation-shift like that requires some serious consideration (especially for a phrase Baudelaire repeats).

    On the other hand, it is also a really difficult thing to translate. Where does one go, if not to etonner? Penser? S’emerveiller? Am I forgetting a good, intransitive verb in French that works like wonder?

    Either way…wish I had found it first (but I may still use it–with proper attribution, of course)


    October 31, 2009 at 11:13 pm

    • “être étonné” is an infinitive…

      The problem for Baudelaire is he is forced to chose between two meanings of the verb “to wonder” – only one of which seems to be mentioned in the comments. To wonder means both “to marvel at” and “to think to oneself”.

      GIven the context, two independent but related clauses punctuated by a semicolon – “It is a happiness to wonder; it is a happiness to dream” – it seem entirely likely that Poe intended “It is a happiness to marvel (at the world)” rather than “It is a happiness to think (to onself), but both, of course, are possible interpretations of the English. In French, there is no possible verb which encompasses both meanings, so Baudelaire’s translation seems to me entirely apposite.

      Since French offers no direct cognate for ‘to wonder’, and that the verbs “s’etonner” and “s’emerveiller” are transitive, and having no object, he is therefore forced to use “être étonné” or “être emerveillé”


      November 3, 2009 at 8:23 pm

      • I think you’ve come up with the right one: s’emerveiller is just right. Etre etonne moves the activity to the outside – the emphasis is on the thing doing the astonishing….

        It’s sort of the difference, to my mind, between saying “was hit” and “is injured.” Does that make sense? I think the important thing is that Baudelaire’s moving the event in the line, whatever it is, outside of the individual….


        November 3, 2009 at 11:09 pm

  2. That’s a good point actually. Réfléchir seems too pedestrian and ruminer too brooding. Maybe mere wondering is an anglophone infection…


    November 1, 2009 at 1:31 am

  3. Getting wonder as a verb wrong is a classic mistranslation, and one that would have been more likely to go unnoticed in Baudelaire’s day. I think the second passage demonstrates he wasn’t aware of the slippage.


    November 1, 2009 at 5:20 am

  4. That’s a good point actually. Réfléchir seems too pedestrian and ruminer too brooding. Maybe mere wondering is an anglophone infection…

    But either of those would have been more appropriate (and much less incipiently modernist) than what he came up with!


    You’re right – eventually the disjunction between wonder and etre etonne does come back in that paragraph, doesn’t it? But in not registering it upfront, it shifts the paragraph into a sort of performance of the tension that he’s created.

    If I write this up, I’m going to have to find a way to cite all three of you.


    November 1, 2009 at 9:35 am

  5. Poe probably meant ‘wonder’ in a sense close to Baudelaire’s, is my guess. As an intransitive verb it is still sometimes used to mean ‘to marvel at’ or ‘to be surprised by,’ and in a slightly poetic usage like the above he could certainly drop the object. It also seems to have been the more common use in Poe’s day; here is the definition of the verb in Webster’s Dictionary, 1828:

    WONDER, v.i. To be affected by surprise or admiration.
    “I could not sufficiently wonder at the intrepidity of these diminutive mortals.”
    “We cease to wonder at what we understand.”

    By the 1913 edition of the same dictionary it’s starting to (re-?)acquire the modern meaning (“I wonder, in my soul, What you would ask me, that I should deny”) — this citation is from Shakespeare.


    November 1, 2009 at 10:09 pm

  6. Dave,

    Excellent – very helpful. But the short answer is that Webster’s definition is incomplete. A short search through any key American texts of the period (I just did Moby-Dick) will indicate that the verb was used both ways, even during the 1850s. But generally it’s clearly marked (usually, though not always, by an “at”) when it means “to be astonished.” It’s not entirely clear in the Poe what he’s on about, and it may be a bit Rorschach, but to my eye and ear “to wonder” and “to dream” are set in reiterative apposition. Baudelaire wants to (or simply does) break them apart (clearly visible in the “Salon” essay)…


    November 1, 2009 at 11:05 pm

  7. Point taken on the possible use of ‘wonder’ either way, which I suspected might be true but didn’t have time/inclination to confirm (my largest academic sin, I now recall, was always pressing my point a bit too far). I think you might be right about Poe’s use, but of course that resonance of an alternate use of ‘wonder’ carries through. “Vague intensity” — something to, in equal parts, wonder at and wonder about.


    November 1, 2009 at 11:15 pm

    • I wonder if Baudelaire was using a dictionary. This is getting interestinger and interestinger.


      November 1, 2009 at 11:18 pm

      • We knew he translated Poe directly, so he must have.


        November 1, 2009 at 11:25 pm

      • Er, we *know*.


        November 1, 2009 at 11:26 pm

      • But I mean which one in particular. Wow. We’re doing scholarship! On- line! Academic presses take note!


        November 1, 2009 at 11:30 pm

      • I’ve yet to find a historical French-English dictionary online, but perhaps someone who doesn’t have an essay to write tonight could hunt in my stead.


        November 1, 2009 at 11:50 pm

      • Ha! No we’re almost definitely going to need a library for that!


        November 1, 2009 at 11:51 pm

      • No we’re not 😀 See my comment above!


        November 1, 2009 at 11:54 pm

      • I’d be surprised if scholars didn’t know which dictionary(ies) exactly B. used. Might be worth trying a Baudelaire forum – I say it’s the Internet all the way.


        November 1, 2009 at 11:56 pm

    • Are there historical websters online?


      November 1, 2009 at 11:18 pm

      • Historical Webster’s:
        You can search the 1828 and 1913 editions here (I included a link above, but it doesn’t seem to be working for me now):
        You can also search the 1911 Roget’s Thesaurus at the same link.


        November 1, 2009 at 11:47 pm

      • Lovely Dave! Thanks!


        November 1, 2009 at 11:51 pm

      • This is largely a geeky point, but I think Worcester was as big as Webster in the late 19th cy. Also Baudelaire might not necessarily have used an American English dictionary to get his own translation (depends how rigorous he was, I guess), so that’s a separate question too.

        More thrillingly in terms of solving this question, Nugent’s French-English/English-French was widely published on both sides of the channel throughout the period, and the 1901 version online suggests s’étonner / etre surpris for wonder. Go to p. 274!


        November 1, 2009 at 11:53 pm

      • I’m sorry I meant p. 703 below. Not sure what happened there.


        November 1, 2009 at 11:56 pm

  8. Can of worms! I’ve long suspected that a lot of what is known here, on the left side of the Atlantic, as “French theory” harbours any number of similar semi-inexact translations. In English, we tend to simply use the foreign word, such as cathexis or jouissance, and leave it to the dear reader to do the follow-up; the French, not so much.


    November 3, 2009 at 4:59 am

    • Because you are silly monocultural bastards who won’t and can’t translate texts to save your bloody lives.

      Was that too harsh?


      November 3, 2009 at 8:14 am

      • I’ll grant you that we are monocultural bastards, but “silly”–that goes too far.


        November 4, 2009 at 12:22 am

      • Yeah, sorry – I must have minstranslated it in my head.


        November 4, 2009 at 9:33 pm

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