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

Jan Owen is a South Australian poet whose recent work has been published in England and Australia. She has participated in international poetry festivals like the Festival Franco-Anglais de Poesie and the Maastricht International Poetry Nights, where a group of her poems in Dutch was published by Azul Press. Most recently, she has translated Les Fleurs de Mal (1857) by Baudelaire.

Of course, a poet so versed in English and French would be a good translator, even if she agrees with Robert Lowell that translation should be a modernising of the original. Her take on Baudelaire's French shows great vividness of language and an ability to finesse his rhyme schemes.

The first poem in the book is the famous "Au Lecteur" ("To the Reader") which Owen starts with tremendous élan:

Folly, error, stinginess and vice
consume our thoughts and prey upon our flesh
It gratifies, the fine remorse we nourish
As beggars fatten up their fleas and lice.

"It gratifies" may be redundant but does avoid the most clunky literal translation of the line "And we nourish our lovable remorses." For the fourth line, which is "As beggars nourish their vermin", Owen specifies "fleas and lice," a nice touch. "Lesine" as "vice" rhymes with "vermine" ("lice"). At the poems end, the line usually translates as "- Hypocrite reader - my counterpart - my brother" is here changed only in that "brother" has become "twin" (to rhyme with "chagrin"). "En fumant son houka" becomes "a hookah-sipping gallows dreamer." These changes propel the poem forward.

Mostly, the word choices sharpen the original - for example in "Le Gout du Neant" ("Death Wish") where, in the first line, "amoureux de la lutte" ("amorous of struggle") becomes "so keen to stay the course." The title in French means "The taste for Nothingness" (perhaps more subtle than "Death Wish"). The last line's literal meaning is "Avalanche, would you carry me away in your fall?" Owen writes, "Avalanche, sweep me away from the world of men!" This command is more forceful but "the world of men" might be a bit weak.

In "Spleen," there is a slight error, when "souris" ("mouse") is translated as "sourire" ("smile"). The image is one of pulling out a mouse from a skeleton, the subject of many a marble tomb sculpture in France.

One of the most touching poems is "The Little Old Women," which Owen translates so well; it becomes at least as fine in English as in French. It is Baudelaire's poem to decrepit old women who once were beautiful and famous: "They trot along like marionettes in shawls; / like wounded animals, they drag their feet; / they dance despite themselves, poor little bells / pulled by a pitiless demon."

I had forgotten how many poems in Les Fleurs du Mal are about "clochards" - homeless people living on the trash heap of life. Baudelaire even manages to write a poem about a drunkard who kills his wife - as an act of love ("Le Vin de L'Assassin"). I'm struck by how much Baudelaire was a nineteenth century Patrick Modiano, restlessly walking the changing streets of Paris and empathising with its loneliest inhabitants. Jan Owen restores this novel in verse to vibrant life.