Baudelaire as a Translator

Nowadays, most people, among whom students and scholars, are not aware or have forgotten that Charles Baudelaire was indeed a translator. He is mostly remembered and studied for his volumes of poetry, despite the fact he was first reputed for his critical works and his translations during the nineteenth century. Baudelaire started to translate many works by Edgar Allan Poe when he was already a renowned art and literary critic. He translated Extraordinary Tales, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque as well as the Prose Tales.

What are the reasons why he decided to translate one of his fellow writers from across the ocean and to become his official translator? Let’s try to understand why Charles Baudelaire chose to become a translator. This post is based upon the work of Claire Hennequet. She wrote her master’s thesis on the translations Baudelaire made of Poe and how they influenced his work as a poet.

The main reason why Baudelaire decided to translate Poe is because of his enthusiasm for his work. The first time he read Poe, it was a shock and a revelation. He was deeply marked by this reading. The enthusiasm shown by Baudelaire was both aesthetic and personal. In Poe’s stories, he discovered a strange beauty he really liked and which probably reminded him of his own views on beauty. Indeed, Baudelaire himself had a weird and twisted, but unique, vision of beauty. In an article of 1863, “Le peintre de la vie moderne” (“The painter of modern life”), Baudelaire had distinguished the modern artist from the traditional artist by his ability to make himself master of the most anodyne and the least noble of subjects. The modern artist is an alchemist who turns mud into gold. This very expression was used by Baudelaire himself regarding his volume of poetry Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil). By this expression, he meant that he was able to make something beautiful out of something ugly, sometimes truly horrifying and morbid, something eternal out of banality and ephemerality. The best example of it is without any doubts the poem “Une Charogne” (“A Carcass”). In this poem, Baudelaire describes a decaying carcass with morbid and creepy precisions:

« Les mouches bourdonnaient sur ce ventre putride, / D’où sortaient de noirs bataillons / De larves, qui coulaient comme un épais liquide / Le long de ces vivants haillons. »

“The flies buzzed and droned on these bowels of filth / Where an army of maggots arose, / Which flowed with a liquid and thickening stream / On the animate rags of her clothes.”

The poem is actually an ode both to poetry and to the woman the poet loves. The poem ends on the statement that poetry will make her and their love eternal. It won’t decay like this awful carcass precisely because poetry transcends reality and people, it turns them into eternal radiant gold:

« Alors, ô ma beauté ! dites à la vermine:/ Qui vous mangera de baisers, / Que j’ai gardé la forme et l’essence divine / De mes amours décomposées ! »

“Ah then, o my beauty, explain to the worms / Who cherish your body so tine, / That I am the keeper for corpses of love / Of the form, and the essence divine!”

Charles Baudelaire found a deep likeness and a strong affinity regarding his own writings while reading Poe. He insisted on it explicitly and very often, as he did in 1864 in one of his article about Poe: “Pourquoi n’avouerais-je pas que ce qui a soutenu ma volonté, c’était le plaisir de leur présenter [aux Français] un homme qui me ressemblait un peu, par quelques points, c’est-à-dire une partie de moi-même ?” (“Why wouldn’t I confess that what strengthen my will was the pleasure to introduce to them [to the French] a man who was a little bit like me, by some points, that is to say a part of myself?”) Baudelaire was also very fond of Poe, as a writer and as a man. He never met him, but he read a lot about him in newspapers and reviews. Baudelaire developed a true empathy toward Poe. He often read that he was described as a sad and solitary man who was an alcoholic. Baudelaire was deeply moved by this difficult and tortured life, not very different from his own tormented life. He himself wrote about Poe’s life in his first article about him in 1852, “Edgar Allan Poe, sa vie et ses ouvrages” (“Edgar Allan Poe, his life and his works”).

This enthusiasm alone seems to have been the primary reason why Charles Baudelaire wanted to translate Poe in the first place. Because he liked him so much, he wanted to spread his work, he wanted French readers to discover these amazing writings he admired so much. He wanted to share his admiration and his enthusiasm. Translation was the only way to reach this goal, the only way to make it accessible to a public mostly unable to read in English. It is interesting to underline that Baudelaire never really wrote any scholar commentaries about Poe. It is strange, given that he was a respected literary and art critic. Because he had such an authority, his comments would have enabled him to establish Poe as an important writer, as he wanted to do. Surprisingly, he didn’t. Patrick F. Quinn thought it was precisely because of Baudelaire’s enthusiasm: “Baudelaire was never able to examine Poe with any degree of critical detachment. (…) That so gifted a critic should have become a tongue-tied on the subject of his greatest enthusiasm is an indication of how deeply implicated in Poe’s work Baudelaire felt himself to be.”

The will to translate is not always driven by noble motivations and passion, but also by more practical reasons, such as financial ones. All his life, Baudelaire had financial troubles. As a young man, he rapidly spent all his father’s heritage and had some serious debts. As it was the case for someone like Honoré de Balzac, the financial troubles disturbed Baudelaire and affected his creative process. He was not able to concentrate properly on his work. Also, Baudelaire had to live from what he wrote. His critical articles and his translations were an easy and good way to make money, more than his poems. Because of the scandalous nature of some of them, many newspapers were simply afraid to publish them. His translations were a real success. In 1868, the sixth edition of Extraordinary Tales was published.

Baudelaire didn’t confine himself to translate Poe. In his own work, Les Paradis Artificiels (Artificial Paradises), he translated The Confession of an English Opium Eater and Suspiria de profundis by Thomas de Quincey. Actually, it is a very loose translation, as well as a summary filled with comments by Baudelaire himself. He cut some passages and choose the most interested ones. His translation is very different from the original work.
If money was also a motivation, Claire Hennequet doesn’t think it was that important, even if it is undeniably mattered a lot. Baudelaire translated both Poe and De Quincey because he liked what he read and saw the potential in this works. He wanted them to be available to French readers and to discussion inside the Parisians salons.

However, translation was part of a bigger plan. Baudelaire wanted to establish Poe as a great and important contemporary writer. In order to do that, he became the only and official translator of Poe. By doing so, he appeared to be the only one who really knew Poe’s writings and their true value, which enabled him, and him only, to translate these writings in the best possible way. Baudelaire was not only the translator, but the only person who reached the true meaning of Poe’s works, the only one capable of a deep and true understanding. Helped by his status as a reputed critic, he gave himself authority. Even more than before, he was considered capable of knowing which work was interesting and which one was not. Baudelaire created a very clever strategy, acting out of a certain self-interest. Through Poe, he created himself a spiritual brother and endorsement. By showing the value of Poe, he prepared the French audience to see the value of his own work (The Flower of Evils were published after he started to translate Poe) because of the similarities shared by the two authors that Baudelaire himself deeply underlined. He laid the groundwork so the readers will be ready to receive his own vision of poetry and beauty.

Baudelaire used translation to promote his own career as a poet and as a critic. Of course, it was not the only reason, only one among others, such as admiration, enthusiasm or financial support. The will to translate is part of a bigger and coherent project. Thanks to Baudelaire, Poe’s stories were available and accessible in France. The translation allowed the two men, Poe and Baudelaire, to reach a certain level of fame and to become two of the most important writers of the XIXth century.

*Charles Baudelaire was born in 1821 in Paris. His father was a civil servant and an amateur artist. He died when Baudelaire was only six. One year later, his mother, Caroline Baudelaire, married Jacques Aupick, an army officer. The family then moved to Lyon, where Baudelaire began school. In 1836, he was sent back to Paris in order to go to Lycée Louis-le-Grand. There, he studied law, but he was rapidly dissatisfied with this choice. He began to drink daily, to hire prostitutes and to run up considerable debts. Upon graduating in 1839, he chose not to pursue his studies in law. Instead, he turned to a career in literature. He adopted a dissolute lifestyle and attempted to support himself through journalism. In 1841, his stepfather, Lieutenant Colonel Jacques Aupick, sent him to India, hoping the trip will redirect his stepson’s energy and senses. This voyage made a strong impact on his artistic views.

When he returned to Paris, Baudelaire became friends with various authors and artists. He soon began to publish his writings. He published his first work in 1845, an art review called Salons, which attracted immediate attention. Baudelaire then wrote a second art review in 1846 which established him as a well-respected and fine critic of Romanticism.Baudelaire struggled with poor health and financial difficulties, due to pressing debts, his whole adult life. He moved frequently to escape his creditors, making it very difficult for him to write. He did manage to produce translations of many stories by Edgar Allan Poe, whose work he admired deeply and greatly.

In 1857, Baudelaire published his first and most famous volume of poems, Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil). The poems found a small, but enthusiastic audience which gave him notoriety. However, his work was highly controversial. Some of the principal themes of sex and death created a public scandal, as well as other themes such as lesbianism, metamorphosis, depression, urban corruption, lost innocence, alcohol and drugs. Baudelaire, his publisher and the book’s printer were punished for offending public morality. Baudelaire had to remove the most provocative poems which were censored. He published a second edition in 1861 without these six poems, but which contained thirty-five additional poems and a new section.
Baudelaire next worked on a loose translation of Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater. In the years that followed, he published Petits Poèmes en Prose (Small Prose Poems) and critical studies of Gustave Flaubert, Théophile Gautier and Honoré de Balzac.

By 1859, Charles Baudelaire was suffering from a number of chronic conditions, brought on by stress and his long-term use of laudanum, a form of opium. He was also suffering from syphilis. His financial difficulties eventually drove him to leave his home. In 1864, he decided to move to Belgium, hoping he could raise enough money to pay off his debts. He suffered a massive stroke in 1866. He spent the final months of his life in a semi-paralyzed state in Brussels and Paris, where he died on August 31, 1867. He was buried in Montparnasse Cemetery, in Paris. Many of his works were published posthumously, allowing his mother to finally resolve his debts.


Work cited:

HENNEQUET Claire, “Baudelaire traducteur de Poe” (2005) URL: Page consulted on 02/20/2017.


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Sandip Ghimire

Informative insights. Baudelaire was just a poet for me.