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Review: Selected Poems from Les Fleurs du Mal, by Charles Baudelaire

Les Murray endorses Jan Owen's translation of Charles Baudelaire's Selected Poems from Les Fleurs du Mal (1857) on the book's back cover: 'Jan Owen's Baudelaire brings the French conjuror closer to me than any version I'd ever read.' Although we could take umbrage to the term 'conjuror' being used in relation to Baudelaire, it is, on closer reflection, quite apposite. In fact it may apply to the French poet as well as his Australian translator, for both are magicians in their own way.


The result is a collection that translates Baudelaire's experiments with voice, texture and form across language and time in what constitutes a palimpsest of imaginary engagements with the originals, and ultimately, a loving re-creation of the poems.


Owen's sense of rhythm and choice of images wonderfully convey the death, despair, solitude, squalor, murder, and disease evoked in Baudelaire's world. The oft-quoted 'J'ai plus de souvenirs que si j'avais mille ans', transposed as 'Memories ... if I'd lived a thousand years', and 'Je suis comme le roi d'un pays pluvieux' as 'I'm like the rich young king of a land of rain', are especially memorable lines in the translation. I admired the choice of the phrase 'of rain' instead of the obvious 'rainy' in the translation of 'pluvieux.' The short lyrics 'A Carcass' and 'The Vampire', though differing in texture from the originals, are gorgeous recreations.


Owen's translation does lend credence to her own poetic credo, one that involves a searching dialogue between one text and an Other. And it's a labour of love. For the reader, it is certainly a wonderful experience to have the original text and its translation on opposite pages.

'It is not every day that the world arranges itself in a poem', wrote Wallace Stevens in his book of aphorisms. Today it does, as Jan Owen's rhythms and cadences and images playfully redress my delicate memory of Baudelaire's verses, and 'You, / dear reader, know this delicate monster too - hypocrite reader - my counterpart - my twin!'