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

Jan Owen's translations from Les Fleurs du Mal by Charles Baudelaire (1821-67) comprise the sort of book from which contemporary Australian poetry can greatly benefit. Of course, there is Robert Frost's depressingly accurate "Poetry is what is lost in translation", but we have to press on. We can't afford not to. Likewise, it's not enough to read classic collections, such as Les Fleurs du Mal, in what are often yellowing and stilted translations from other parts of the Anglosphere.


Something of Owen's achievement may be sensed by comparing a fragment of a 1935 translation of 'King of a Land of Rain' (by George Dillon and Edna St Vincent Millay) with Owen's version. Here is the earlier version: "The ladies of the court, attending him, to whom / He, being a prince, is handsome see him lying there / Cold as a corpse and lift their shoulders in despair". Here is Owen's version: "The ladies love a prince and flirt with gloom, / flaunting their flimsy gowns, yet none beguile / the crass young skeleton to crack a smile". There's not much argument about which is the snappier. And it's not just because Owen has sensibly scaled the six-beat alexandrine back to a pentameter.

One important explanation for Owen's dexterity as a translator is that, in the past 30 years or so, she also has emerged as one of the most accomplished Australian poets of her generation.