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In Conversation with Jan Owen

Posted by Arc, 14th May 2015

A tremendous translation of one of France's greatest poets.
Wearing the interpretable French Mask of Charles Baudelaire...


Jan Owen's Baudelaire brings the French conjuror closer to me than any version I'd ever read. I admire her versions deeply. Les Murray

Jan Owen is an award-winning Australian poet, translator, teacher of creative writing and editor, now resident in Adelaide. Her debut collection Boy with a Telescope (1986) won the Ann Elder Award. In addition, she has been awarded various other awards including; The Mary Gilmore Prize and the Gwen Harwood Poetry Prize.

Q: Let's begin with your background. Did you grow up surrounded by poetry? Was French spoken in your childhood home?

A: I loved poetry from an early age, largely because of the children's poetry books that I was given, and others that I came across in libraries and in my grandparents homes. When I was ten, my mother gave me a copy of Arthur Mee's Book of Everlasting Things where I came across Coleridge's 'The Ancient Mariner', which captivated me so much that I learnt it off by heart.

French was not spoken at home - we were an average Australian family - but my father had learnt French at school and this stood him in good stead when his plane was shot down over France towards the end of the war. He was wounded, and had grateful memories of the French nurses in the Paris hospital who hid him from the retreating Germans. I remember his story of being carried on a stretcher through rejoicing crowds when Paris was liberated. So this gave me enthusiasm for learning French from Year Six at school, and I would spend my pocket money on Paris Match. Later I studied French for three years at university as part of an arts degree.

Q: Your translations are terrific, the way you've managed to transfer Baudelaire's sense of anguish, irony and vigour. Did you feel a certain amount of responsibility for keeping intact the Baudelaire spark?

A: Thank you, I am very glad you feel the translations work. I felt a mix of uncertainty and adventure along with the duty to make no dreadful mistakes and to serve the spirit of Baudelaire's poetry. The assurance and energy are so intrinsic to the French poems that I did not really think of shouldering responsibility, that seems to imply control, and for me it was a tentative step by step process. Early drafts could be flat or wordy and rhythmically bumpy. As I edited, which I did painstakingly over many drafts for most poems, increasing succinctness and precision tended to energize the English text. Make-do phrases could be sharpened or changed in later drafts to come closer to the original and to sound smoother. It seemed to me that it was the fine-tuning of revision that allowed more of Baudelaire's voice to come through.


Q: Do you recognise yourself in Baudelaire's work? Has he influenced your own writing?

A: Charles Baudelaire is a poet of passion, honesty and daring, and this generosity lets me relate to his culture and his personal situation. The emotional charge in his work resonates with many of my own life experiences. However, keeping a certain distance rather than emotionally identifying is advisable, I think, for translators. You are translating the poem rather than the person, after all.

I hope I might write more precisely and clearly as a result of working with Baudelaire's word and thought patterns; and his originality and daring are certainly inspirational - it would be great if even a little of that translates back to my work.


Q: Was the process of translating the poems exciting? Terrifying?

A: The process was too long and arduous to be uniformly exciting, but at moments when I solved a syntactical difficulty, or found an apt rhyme, or sharpened up a draft there was a sense of satisfaction and even exhilaration. It was nota terrifying process but the prospect of starting a new poem was certainly quite daunting and I would often sit staring blankly back and forth from poem to blank notepaper thinking 'this one, I cannot manage!'. But my rule was no coffee break till a few timid rhymes had been led in by something resembling iambic pentameter. Eventually it seems to become a shared experience or a joint venture,and a particular mindset did gradually develop; this meant that the later translations were easier than the first. After my initial response to a poem, I needed to focus on the detail of the text, not my emotional reaction or some hoped-for effect of the translation. It gave me a lift, though, to read one of the French poems aloud and then my own almost finalized version; at that stage I could hear remaining bumps and blurs in the English and, with luck, fix them. I lost track of how many dozens of times I reworked 'L'Invitation au voyage';other poem versions seemed to slip into place on the day I began them.


Q: At what point in your career as a poet did you become interested in translating? How did the adventure of translating begin?

A: I became interested in translating after I finished my first rather stodgy draft of Baudelaire's 'Les Plaintes d'un Icare'. I had begun it idly because I was thinking of a trip to France, but the challenge became addictive and I kept going with a second poem, then a third, and so on.


Q: Has poetry ever become a political project for you?

A: No, but I have come to appreciate more and more strongly just how important translation is for the transmission of ideas and information, as well as culture generally, and poetry specifically.


Q: Do you think if you had met Baudelaire you would have worked well together? Would you have wanted to meet him?

A: I can't see Baudelaire working readily or easily with anyone, let alone an Australian woman: I would have irritated him exceedingly, I'd say. But how extraordinary it would have been to meet that fascinating, infuriating genius. I think of 'La Géante' in which he dreams of living with a young giantess like 'a cat twining round the feet of his queen', so I could more safely imagine myself to be the cat draped along the top of the sofa and purring as the master writes.

Q: When you were translating was it a very intimate experience? Did it reveal a hidden character within the poet?

A: Yes, it was a shared and yet introspective experience. Translation is a strange double game: you are in two minds as it were. There is a sense of the author's presence, and I quite often asked myself how Baudelaire would have rendered some problematic phrase into English. When there was a temptingly literal translation possible as well as a variant further from the French but more musical or tonally closer, then he-and-I would usually choose the latter.

The close attention to the text did help me to pick up subtleties of tone, irony and ambivalence. Simply becoming more familiar with a wider range of Baudelaire's poems brought across to me his complexity and hypersensitivity. His gentler side became more apparent as I translated poems such as 'Le Balcon', 'Les Petites Vieilles', or 'La Servante au grand coeur'. I discovered a more vulnerable, even childlike, side to his personality, an affecting depth which balances out the solipsism of certain lines in the love poems.


Q: What are your thoughts on the French poetry scene of Baudelaire's time? Was there anything in particular which drew you to it?

A: Well, Baudelaire's poetry drew me to it. When I began translating I only knew the French literary scene of that time through Hugo's poetry and Balzac's novels, and had only a basic knowledge of French history round 1848. It was an interesting period, culturally and socially, and the background reading I did for the translation work was a real pleasure.


Q: What do you think Baudelaire would have made of today's poetry scene? What do you make of it?

A: I like the pluralistic nature of the current poetry scene, from language poetry to performance poetry, while preferring the middle ground. But I reckon Baudelaire would have delivered an acerbic judgement on some modern and post-modern poetry, as he did on much of the poetry of his time. He was a discerning but unforgiving critic.


Q: Do you find French poetry more accessible than English?

A: Well it depends on the poem but In general I find English poetry easier to read, partly because of the language, but also because French poetry is often more abstract.


Q: Does each poem expand during the translation process? Do you find yourself exaggerating or trivialising certain images or phrases?

A: I did find myself exaggerating the tone in the early drafts of certain poems, especially the more vehement passages in, for example, 'Voyage à Cythère' and 'Femmes Damnées', but I looked to correct this in editing. Conversely, a diminishing effect towards the end of some poems, a softening of tone or statement, was a flaw I aimed to revise out. Occasionally, I had to generalize and lose an image, or, conversely, express a French abstraction with a Baudelairean-type image in order to keep rhyme, rythm or tone intact.


Q: What other projects do you have on the horizon? Would you like to spend more time with Baudelaire in the future?

A: I've no further translation plans at the moment, but I may well be drawn back at some stage, though probably to contemporary poetry rather than the traditional verse of Baudelaire or Mallarme'. I will be concentrating now on writing a collection of my own poems.