Wednesday, 6 January 2010


Today I will look at a poem by Charles Baudelaire and two of its English translations. The title of the poem is ‘A une passante’ and I chose to only look at two English versions so as to keep my post rather short and pleasant to read.

‘A une passante’ (literally ‘To a Passer-by’) is a poem from Baudelaire’s poems collection ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’ ('Flowers of Evil') and is from the part called ‘Tableaux Parisiens’ (Parisian Scenes) in the collection which mostly deals with the life of the city. The specific poem I am dealing with is from the 1861 edition, the last version reviewed by the poet himself before he died.

Throughout ‘Les Fleurs Du Mal’ Baudelaire talks about human destiny and his poems, sometimes idealistic, sometimes realistic, mainly deal with the conflict between good and evil. Challenging traditional dualities, he finds beauty in incongruous things and good in perverted ones. In the ‘Tableaux parisiens’ section the poet describes scenes from everyday life, grasping a present often perceived as transient and furtive. In ‘A une passante’ he evokes an unexpected and almost violent encounter with a woman he has furtively seen. Both beautiful and mysterious the woman does not seem to have noticed him. In deep mourning she appears like a flash of lightning in the night and eventually vanishes, leaving him to meditate on the love that could have been.

I will look at the two English versions of the poem given below and comment on the translated verses which struck me the most. The aim is not to judge Roy Campbell’s and Geoffrey Wagner’s translations but to comment on their choices when translating the poem and to point out their two different ways of interpreting the verses. I will put my comments in brackets for a better readability. I also added numbers at the beginning of each line so I can refer to them more easily.

The original version of the poem along with the two English translations were taken from, a very rich website where all the poems from ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’ are available to read online.

Here is the original poem by Baudelaire :

À une passante

1 La rue assourdissante autour de moi hurlait.
2 Longue, mince, en grand deuil, douleur majestueuse,
3 Une femme passa, d'une main fastueuse
4 Soulevant, balançant le feston et l'ourlet;

5 Agile et noble, avec sa jambe de statue.
6 Moi, je buvais, crispé comme un extravagant,
7 Dans son oeil, ciel livide où germe l'ouragan,
8 La douceur qui fascine et le plaisir qui tue.

9 Un éclair... puis la nuit! — Fugitive beauté
10 Dont le regard m'a fait soudainement renaître,
11 Ne te verrai-je plus que dans l'éternité?

12 Ailleurs, bien loin d'ici! trop tard! jamais peut-être!
13 Car j'ignore où tu fuis, tu ne sais où je vais,
14 Ô toi que j'eusse aimée, ô toi qui le savais!

Charles Baudelaire

Roy Campbell’s translation:

A Passer-by

(In the title Campbell decides not to take gender issues into account and does not specify that Baudelaire's passer-by is a woman. In French both the article and the noun differ depending on what gender they refer to so the distinction is easily made between a man passer-by, ‘un passant’, and a woman passer-by, ‘une passante’. Moreover while Baudelaire addresses his passer-by in the title with the preposition ‘A’ (‘to’ in English), Campbell chooses not to keep it. He may have wanted to focus on what the poem is about rather than on the fact that it is dedicated to the passer-by.)

1 The deafening street roared on. Full, slim, and grand
2 In mourning and majestic grief, passed down
3 A woman, lifting with a stately hand
4 And swaying the black borders of her gown;

(In verse 4 Campbell states that the borders Baudelaire talks about are from the woman’s gown. Though it is implied in Baudelaire’s verse, the poet does not mention it and literally talks about a ‘festoon’ and a ‘hemline’ without saying they are from the woman's clothes.)

(Still in verse 4, Baudelaire does not specify the colour of the woman’s gown. However Campbell chooses to talk about the ‘black’ borders of her gown. He might have assumed that, since the woman is in mourning, she must have been wearing black clothes, something which would be quite coherent although Baudelaire does not write it. This raises an interesting point I think: should a translator interpret what the poem says and therefore add some details he considers useful for the understanding of the verses, or should he be more accurate and only keep the details the poet himself decided to give? To me, although translators can try to interpret the poem to produce their translation, adding further details, in that case an adjective, kind of betrays the original intentions of the poet. This is, however, debatable.)

5 Noble and swift, her leg with statues matching;
6 I drank, convulsed, out of her pensive eye,
7 A livid sky where hurricanes were hatching,
8 Sweetness that charms, and joy that makes one die.

(In verse 6 Campbell simplifies Baudelaire’s comparison that says ‘crispé comme un extravagant’, which literally means ‘contorted like an extravagant person’ and summarizes it with one adjective ‘convulsed’. Then, like he did in the first stanza, he adds the adjective ‘pensive’ to describe the woman’s eye, while Baudelaire only talks about her eye. Campbell may have thought that she looked pensive since she is compared to a statue but this remains his personal interpretation)

9 A lighting-flash — then darkness! Fleeting chance
10 Whose look was my rebirth — a single glance!
11 Through endless time shall I not meet with you?

(This stanza is interesting because Campbell makes some noticeable changes. First he modifies the punctuation and therefore the rhythm. He chooses to put the dash, originally appearing after the word ‘darkness’, between ‘lighting-flash’ and ‘darkness’. Thus there is no separation between Baudelaire’s description of light and the rest of the stanza anymore. In Campbell’s version the ‘lighting-flash’ stands on its own while ‘darkness’ now seems to be part of the atmosphere created in the rest of the verses.)

(At the end of line 9, while Baudelaire talks about ‘beauté’ (‘beauty’), Campbell replaces this word with the term ‘chance’. The translator may have wanted to stress the fact that this encounter is made perchance but therefore does not specify that it is the beauty which is ‘fleeting’ in Baudelaire’s words. He further insists on the fact that the encounter was very brief and chooses to add three new words to the poem: ‘a single glance!’.)

12 Far off! too late! or never! — I not knowing
13 Who you may be, nor you where I am going —
14 You, whom I might have loved, who know it too!

(In verse 13 in the original poem, Baudelaire writes that he does not know ‘where’ the woman is going. In Campbell’s translation, the poet does not know ‘who’ the woman is. By changing the interrogative adjective, Campbell also changes the meaning of the verse.)

— Roy Campbell, Poems of Baudelaire (New York: Pantheon Books, 1952)

Geoffrey Wagner’s translation:

To a Woman Passing By

(As suggested by the title in which Wagner specifies that Baudelaire’s passer-by is a woman, the following translation seems very similar to the original poem written by Baudelaire. The impression is indeed given that he recreates the original with a maximum of fidelity in rhythm, syntax and punctuation.)

1 The deafening road around me roared.
2 Tall, slim, in deep mourning, making majestic grief,
3 A woman passed, lifting and swinging
4 With a pompous gesture the ornamental hem of her garment,

(Although Wagner’s version is similar to the original poem in many ways, he still makes a few changes in verse 4. When Baudelaire talks about the woman’s hand, Wagner only speaks of a ‘gesture’ and like Campbell, he specifies that the ‘hem’ Baudelaire talks about is from her ‘garment’. In verse 1, while Baudelaire talks about a ‘street’, Wagner chooses to talk about a ‘road’.)

5 Swift and noble, with statuesque limb.
6 As for me, I drank, twitching like an old roué,
7 From her eye, livid sky where the hurricane is born,
8 The softness that fascinates and the pleasure that kills,

(In verse 5 Wagner also replaces the word ‘leg’ with the term ‘limb’, which to me seems less specific and leaves a space for readers interpretation. Otherwise this stanza is nearly a word-by-word translation.)

9 A gleam... then night! O fleeting beauty,
10 Your glance has given me sudden rebirth,
11 Shall I see you again only in eternity?

(In verse 9 Wagner removes Baudelaire’s dash between ‘night’ and ‘fleeting beauty’ and thus modifies the poem’s rhythm. Contrary to the original there is no silence between the description of light and the rest of the stanza. The transition between the flash of lightning and the sudden darkness is not separated from the rest anymore and is therefore less striking than in the original to me.)

12 Somewhere else, very far from here! Too late! Perhaps never!
13 For I do not know where you flee, nor you where I am going,
14 O you whom I would have loved, O you who knew it!

(Wagner's last stanza is very similar to the original, though Baudelaire lays stress on the word ‘jamais’ (‘never’) and puts it in italic while Wagner does not choose to place emphasis on it.)

— Geoffrey Wagner, Selected Poems of Charles Baudelaire (NY: Grove Press, 1974)

After having reviewed these two versions of Baudelaire’s ‘A une passante’, I will now attempt to make my own translation of the poem. As seen above translators can sometimes choose to recreate the original with a maximum of fidelity but they can also impart their own interpretation of the poem through their translation by modifying syntax, punctuation, or rhythm. For my translation I chose to keep the poem’s original syntax, punctuation, and vocabulary, trying to recreate in English the specific rhythm and atmosphere I felt in the original, that is the one of an unexpected, fleeting and painful encounter. However, since I’m French and therefore not a native English speaker, I understand that I might not always choose the right words and something that sounds good to me in French might not have the same impact in English; this may well be my biggest challenge. But since this is not meant for official publishing, I think it is worth trying! Comments, suggestions, critics or questions are all welcomed.

To a Woman Passing By

1 The deafening street around me roared.

2 Long, slim, in great mourning, majestic grief,

3 A woman passed, with a sumptuous hand

4 Lifting, swaying the festoon and the hem;

5 Nimble and noble, with her statuesque hand.
6 I was drinking, tense as an extravagant,
7 From her eye, livid sky where the hurricane germinates,
8 The softness that fascinates and the pleasure that kills.

9 A lightning flash… then night ! — Fleeting beauty
10 By whose glance I was suddenly reborn,
11 Will I see you again only in eternity?

12 Somewhere else, very far from here! never maybe!
13 For I do not know where you flee, you do not know where I go,
14 O you whom I would have loved, O you who knew it!

To conclude this post I would like to remark that translation is a very frustrating process since you can never fully capture all the specificities and the qualities of the original. Before translating this poem I was tempted to think that recreating the original with a maximum of fidelity was the best way to do justice to Baudelaire’s verses. However, after having read several versions and after having made my own, I now think that the point is not to find the perfect translation. What is interesting is to read various versions of the original so as to consider different ways of recreating a poem in another language and to compare different visions and interpretations of the verses. For that reason I think translation is not only about technique, skill or research, it is also an analytic and creative process.


Anne W. Sienkewicz, "Parisian Dream." Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition (Salem Press, Inc., 2002): Literary Reference Center. EBSCO

"Charles Baudelaire." Critical Survey of Poetry, Second Revised Edition (Salem Press, Inc., 2003): Literary Reference Center. EBSCO

Landers, Clifford E., Literary Translation: A Practical Guide (Multilingual Matters Limited, 2001)

Worton, Michael. "Charles Baudelaire/Baudelaire in English." Translation & Literature 8.1 (1999): 100. Literary Reference Center. EBSCO

Wright, Barbara, "Charles Baudelaire", The Literary Encyclopedia. 29 July 2005.

Useful websites on Charles Baudelaire’s ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’: (an impressive website were all the poems from ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’ are available to read online with their various English translations, along with useful information on the different editions.) (Poems from ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’ with their English translations) (A very rich website about Baudelaire and his art, although it is in French)


  1. The essence of this poem seems to be the erotic impact of a brief glimpse of a woman dressed in deep mourning, slightly manipulating her dress. So however it is translated is it not important to retain or conjure up the erotic moment? Wagner says the woman makes a 'pompous gesture'. Surely this is not erotic? Campbell says she lifts her gown 'with a stately hand'. Stately is not strongly erotic. You say 'sumptuous hand' but can a hand be sumptuous?

  2. I think you're right in saying that the poem is about the erotic impact of a brief encounter. However Baudelaire uses the word 'fastueuse' to describe her hand and in French this adjective refers to something which is full of magnificence and splendour, a richness which is meant to be admired by others. So the word 'fastueuse' could mean that she was exposing her beautiful hand to the poet but could also refer to the magnificence of her hand... Yet it is hard to find a proper adjective to translate all this in English! That is why I think you are raising a very interesting point here: how do we translate something from the French which does not have a proper English equivalent?

    I chose the word 'sumptuous' because, although the all gesture is giving the impression of an erotic moment, it is her hand only which is described as 'fastueuse' and I thought that the term 'sumptuous' was a good way of translating the idea implied in the French adjective.

    However I asked myself the same question as you did: can a hand be 'sumptuous'? The thing is you can ask yourself the same question in French: can 'une main' be 'fastueuse'? I think it sounds odd in both languages but I thought it remained Baudelaire's poetic choice and that it was more an image used by the poet to describe the way he perceived her hand than a direct reference to reality.
    Yet it is hard to decide on a final translation since I could also have chosen the word 'sensuous' or the words 'pompous' and 'stately' which also suit in the context I think. But since I could only choose one word... This confirms the fact that a translation always remains something provisional.

  3. I'm interested in your concluding comments here about the need for creativity and multiplicity in translation - do you know Walter Benjamin's 'The Task of the Translator'? It's in his book Illuminations, and his argument will probably be of great interest to you, not least because Benjamin was a very incisive reader of Baudelaire.

  4. Hi mangrovethroatwarbler, thanks a lot for your comment and your very interesting suggestion. I found Benjamin's 'The Task of the Translator' along with other very interesting articles on translation by Ezra Pound, Vladimir Nabokov, Roman Jacobson and many others in a book called 'The Translation Studies Reader' edited by Lawrence Venuti. I was planning on posting a review on Benjamin's ideas about translation in one of my comming posts. I also looked at Benjamin's 'On Some Motifs in Baudelaire' but thought that for the above post I should rather concentrate on my comparison between various translations. I am currently preparing a post on the French poet Paul Eluard and his poem about 'L'affiche Rouge' so this may have to wait a little bit but will surely appear on my blog very soon.

  5. Gilbert: like you, Walter Benjamin (in his essay 'On Some Motifs in Baudelaire') also believed that the brief glimpse of the woman in 'A une passante' had an erotic impact: in fact he writes that 'What makes his [the poet's] body contract in a tremor - crispé comme un extravagant, Baudelaire says - is not the rapture of a man whose every fibre is suffused with eros; it is, rather, like the kind of sexual shock that can beset a lonely man.' Yet in his essay the hand of the woman is still described as 'fastidious' line 3 in the poem, an adjective which does not sound very erotic to me. Moreover I am not personally convinced that the comparison 'crispé comme une extravagant' suggests the idea of a 'secual shock', although it could be interpreted as such. To me, this comparison reveals that the poet is tense and does not know how to behave in front of this beautiful woman who does not seem to pay attention to him. Anyway I thought you might be interested in confronting your vision with Benjamin's one so if you want to have a look at his description of the poem, his essay in his book 'Illuminations'.

  6. Hi, I have James McGowan's translation, and think that yours, in places, was far more captivating and fitting. I imagine translating poetry is a very difficult process, but I think you did the poem justice.

  7. I'm currently working on a translation of a French Romantic play and was looking up some Benjamin, which led me to your blog. I'm happy to see you looking at translations of Baudelaire (and ambitiously offering your own!). I have given my students English translations by both Richard Howard and Wallace Fowlie -- I tend to prefer Fowlie, both for his translations of Baudelaire and of Rimbaud.

  8. I enjoyed your translation and from the feeling believe it to be the best.
    Sumptuous is not a nice word, resplendent sounds more luxurious.

    Today I cam across this poem and believe it fits to Baudelairs, maybe you enjoy it as much as I did.

    by George Bilgere
    The slim, suntanned legs
    of the woman in front of me in the checkout line
    fill me with yearning
    to provide her with health insurance
    and a sporty little car with personalized plates.

    The way her dark hair
    falls straight to her slender waist
    makes me ache
    to pay for a washer/dryer combo
    and yearly ski trips to Aspen, not to mention
    her weekly visits to the spa
    and nail salon.

    And the delicate rise of her breasts
    under her thin blouse
    kindles my desire
    to purchase a blue minivan with a car seat,
    and soon another car seat, and eventually
    piano lessons and braces
    for two teenage girls who will hate me.

    Finally, her full, pouting lips
    make me long to take out a second mortgage
    in order to put both kids through college
    at first- or second-tier institutions,
    then cover their wedding expenses
    and help out financially with the grandchildren
    as generously as possible before I die
    and leave them everything.

    But now the cashier rings her up
    and she walks out of my life forever,
    leaving me alone
    with my beer and toilet paper and frozen pizzas.
    "Desire" by George Bilgere. Reprinted with permission of the author. (buy now)

  9. Bonjour and congratulations for your superb interpretation of two interpretations of the very poem by Baudelaire my heart likes the most.

    It is a pity, that Gascoyne missed to translate it (or did he somewhere? ), because I can see an impressionist's precursive take on the Elouardian surrealism to come.

    à la vôtre



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