The Stranger

The Stranger (L’Etranger)

A Short Short, by Charles Baudelaire  (Trans. Kent H. Dixon)

"Whom do you love the best, enigmatic man? Tell me. Your father, your mother, your sister or your brother?”
—I have neither father nor mother, nor sister, nor brother.
—Your friends?
—You help yourself to a word there whose sense leaves me clueless to this day.
—Your country then?
—I don't even know which latitude it resides in.
—Beauty, capital B? I would love her willingly, were she a goddess and immortal.
—I hate it as much as you hate God.
—Well! What do you love, extraordinary stranger?

“I love the clouds, ... the clouds that pass, comme ci, comme ça…above and beyond…  

the marvelous ineffable clouds!"



"Qui aimes-tu le mieux, homme énigmatique, dis ? ton père, ta mère, ta soeur ou ton frère ?

- Je n'ai ni père, ni mère, ni soeur, ni frère.

- Tes amis ?

- Vous vous servez là d'une parole dont le sens m'est resté jusqu'à ce jour inconnu.

- Ta patrie ?

- J'ignore sous quelle latitude elle est située.

- La beauté ?

- Je l'aimerais volontiers, déesse et immortelle.

- L'or ?

- Je le hais comme vous haïssez Dieu.

- Eh! qu'aimes-tu donc, extraordinaire étranger?

- J'aime les nuages... les nuages qui passent... là-bas... là-bas... les merveilleux nuages !"


This was published in Transference, Vol. 3, Fall 2015, and I have to plug that magazine. It’s based in the Department of World Languages and Literature, at Western Michigan University, and it “ . . . features poetry translated from Arabic, Chinese, French, Old French, German, Classical Greek, Latin, and Japanese into English, as well as short commentaries on the process and art of translation.” These are really fun to read—other translators and their tribulations—and they’re even more fun to write. To wit,



L’Etranger, by Charles Baudelaire – In  Le Spleen de Paris

‘Stranger’ is a disappointing translation of l’étranger, though the only one I’ve ever seen. This stranger is the stranger in Mark Twain’s Mysterious Stranger, begun, one should note, some 50 years after Baudelaire’s stranger, under the title ‘Chronicles of Young Satan.’ Baudelaire’s outsider is alienated from either everything, or almost everything depending on how you read là-bas… là-bas… in the last line.

I did this translation for a reading, whose majority audience would be students, and ‘stranger’ cut more to their core, I felt, delivered more adolescent spleen, was closer to home (I’ve read their journals for 30 years), than did ‘outsider’ or anomie or Young Satan. And with luck, there’d be a few French majors there, familiar with Camus’ Meursault.

‘Closer to home’ would be my next point. Baudelaire couches his colloquy in the familiar tu/toi. He’s talking to himself, is a fair reading, even if, perhaps, he surprises himself in his last line—which I will get to. But the aimes-tu interrogative in the first line, followed immediately by the colloquial nudge of the imperative dis (dites-moi would suit the polite authority of the interrogator, or even dis-moi), and then, the tone set, is carried in lines 3 and 5 by the possessive pronouns—tes, ta—only to run headlong into the I’s formal use: vous vous servez de, ‘you avail yourself of.’ That’s a nice collision: subtly, it makes us, we auditors of this dialogue, slightly on guard, defensive, as well it should, for by the next vous, our stranger is telling his questioner that he, the questioner, hates God: I hate gold like you hate God.

That donc in the penultimate line, is the French corner stone for rationality (je pense, donc je suis); it is argumentative and so so Gallic. And so is the extraordinaire, which has all the French irony of a formidable. How to get to those flavors in my mixt: the Gallic shrug, the lower-lipped bof!   The English ‘therefore’ (donc) seemed lame, so I put it into the voice’s emphasis: what do you love (then, therefore), and the very French Eh!, recoiling from the you-hate-God, helped me along:  Well (eh, eh bien), what do you love (…then, if you’re going to be so nasty about it)?

And finally he replies: he loves the clouds, the passing clouds . . . là-bas... là-bas...  

Eh bien, = there, and bas = low, down low, at/on the bottom. Put ‘em together, you get

‘over there’, ‘at a remove,’ ‘far off,’ ‘remote,’ and so remote, I think, that it’s a kind of you-can’t-get-there-from-here overthere. The merveilleux, I believe, actually plays down the ‘faraway’ of là-bas repeated. It’s a minor note, almost a grace note, to end on, a demi-cliché high up on the abstraction ladder—‘wonderful’, ‘amazing’—that in its obviousness sends you back in the sentence for meatier stuff. Except in French the irony comes through because of the triteness.

I therefore tried to have it all three ways: the Gallic shrug, the indifference (in my comme ci, comme ça), the enhancement of là-bas in ‘above and beyond,’ and the boosting of the cliché ‘marvelous’ with an illegitimate directive ‘ineffable.’ So in my version the irony of the clouds’ inaccessibility runs across the whole line, not just slyly oozing out of Baudelaire’s là-bas’s.

Finally, translator’s shame, I’ve probably made a mistake in the line on Beauty:

- La beauté ?

- Je l'aimerais volontiers, déesse et immortelle.

That déesse is a noun, meaning of course goddess, or stunningly beautiful woman, and a precise translation of the line would be: I would love her willingly, goddess and immortal. But I got hung up on the conditional in j’aimerais (I would love)—calling for, I felt, a conditional if-then clause, which often sets up a kind of subjunctive: I would love her willingly if she were (a) goddess and immortal. Inotherwords, in my translation, she’s not. She’s a sham, a bad place to set up your altar. I didn’t notice this my significant and probable glitch till I was reading it to the audience, but it’s in keeping with all the other negatives, including as much as you hate God, so, I like it and have kept it. Translator’s shame spun into arrogance: I know what he meant, even if he missed his chance at it, and then again, who’s to say he did?

Published in: Transference, Vol 3, Fall 2015

Annual Publication of the Department of World Languages

And Literature at Western Michigan University