Of the four English translations of Les Chants de Maldoror by Comte de Lautréamont now available the reader new to the book might wonder which one is best. The first thing I would suggest is, regardless of which version you choose, grab a copy of the original French text, which is available for free in ebook format. Even if your French is as poor as mine, you will want the original to get a sense of Lautréamont’s style and to check for word choice, not to mention the many peculiar phrases you will come across in any version. With even a rudimentary understanding of French, you will see that Lautréamont is a strange and at times difficult writer, and you’ll be able to appreciate the challenges that face anyone brave or foolhardy enough to translate this book.
Lacking fluency in French I do not claim to have anything more than a sense of Lautréamont’s style; however it is not an insubstantial sense; moreover, I have a strong affinity for his themes and, more importantly, for his emotional responses to those themes, and so I am keen to the deployment of these matters in seemingly interminable sentences constructed of clause after clause separated by a series of commas and/or semicolons (and often burdened with parenthetical phrases, either offering a tangent in shocking tonal contrast or adding a joke—as if the addition of a feather could actually decrease the weight of a load!), the whole effect of which is designed to keep the reader, fed on the pabulum of popular culture, on his tiny trembling toes. Indeed I need as much help as I can get, so I’ve read and compared all four versions, checking dozens of words and passages against the original. Although I am not the most qualified reader to say which one is most accurate, I have some thoughts on how they read as English texts, and how well they convey the spirit of Maldoror, as I understand it.
All four versions have strengths and weaknesses. In comparing passages to the original I have found myself, by turns, agreeing with any one of them more than the others. Sometimes I’ve made note of different word choices that seemed equally valid in two, three or all four cases. Other times I’ve recognized the validity of differences, but have preferred one choice over the others. This process has convinced me that translating a book becomes the paradoxical and nearly impossible task of creating one’s own version of it in another language in a style that somehow mimics or evokes the original. Cultural differences involving colloquialisms come into play, and this becomes increasingly complex with an older text. The first complete text of Maldoror appeared in 1869, making Lautréamont a contemporary of Rimbaud (it is unlikely they knew of each other). He most certainly read Baudelaire, most certainly did not read Whitman (it would be valuable, in another post, to compare Maldoror to Leaves of Grass). He was steeped in the Marquis de Sade and Gothic Romances, but his work appeared just as Modernism per se was emerging as a recognizable aesthetic.
The Paul Knight version, published by Penguin in 1978, is the wordiest and most prosaic of the four. This has something going for it. Lautréamont is a wordy writer, whose rhetorical effects often depend on long compound sentences. But somehow it seems Knight has sucked some of the poetry and lyricism out of Lautréamont’s prose with his plain, ‘nothing but the facts’ approach. Still, his version has an overall consistency that I respect. I’m not as sure about his decision to number the sections of the cantos. If the electronic version is any indication, Lautréamont did not do this (the other three translators have not numbered them). While giving the text a modern look it may give readers the impression of a sequential progression that does not exist. The book also comes with Knight’s translation of Poésies, as well as good introductions to both works, but its cover, a detail from a lame painting called Buried Alive by Anton Wurtz, mars the current edition. It’s the kind of image that would grace a YA edition of Poe, and bears no resemblance, in any way whatsoever, to Maldoror. To add insult to injury, my copy, from 1988, has the author’s name misspelled on the spine. Strangely enough, the original Penguin edition of this translation came with a reproduction of Joshua Shaw’s The Deluge Towards its Close, 1813, a very dark and bleak painting that evokes the feeling of many of the scenes of Maldoror. If you were to purchase Knight’s version, I’d recommend this edition.
Joshua Shaw, The Deluge Towards its Close
Alexis Lykiard’s version was published by Allison & Busby in 1970. The current edition is distributed in the USA by Exact Change and has going for it supplementary material not found in the others. My copy is the 1983 edition and does not contain the extra material. But since the current edition is marketed as “the complete works” I am supposing it may contain some of the material in Allison & Busby’s 1978 edition of Poésies. This volume is a side-by-side bilingual edition of the work, along with all of the known letters and miscellanea by Lautréamont—essential reading.
Unfortunately, Lykiard’s is my least favorite of the four translations of Maldoror. I find his style awkward and sometimes stilted. The book opens:
Plût au ciel que le lecteur, enhardi et devenu momentanément féroce comme ce qu'il lit, trouve, sans se désorienter, son chemin abrupt et sauvage, à travers les marécages désolés de ces pages sombres et pleines de poison;
Lykiard: May it please heaven that the reader, emboldened, and become momentarily as fierce as what he reads, find without loss of bearing a wild and sudden way across the desolate swamps of these somber, poison-filled pages.
One will notice that Lykiard does not preserve Lautréamont’s syntax, for there is a semicolon after the word “poison”—the sentence goes on. We are on the very first sentence of the book, and of the four translators, Paul Knight is the only one to remain true to Lautréamont’s syntax. Moving on to Lautréamont’s song to the ocean:
Je me propose, sans être ému, de déclamer à grande voix la strophe sérieuse et froide que vous allez entendre.
Lykiard: I propose, without my being upset, to declaim in loud tones the cold and sober stanza you are about to hear.
Why not “without emotion”? Why the clumsy phrase “without my being upset”?
Lykiard translates the repeated salutation to the ocean, Je te salue, vieil océan! as, “I hail you, old ocean!” It’s accurate, but bland. I prefer Guy Wernham’s choice: “I salute you, ancient ocean!” In nearly every instance of a repeated phrase in one of Lautréamont’s songs, I find Lykiard’s choice to be unmusical.
Il s'enfuit!... Il s'enfuit!... Mais, une masse informe le poursuit avec acharnement, sur ses traces, au milieu de la poussière.
Lykiard: It hurtles . . . hurtles past! But a misshapen mass chases doggedly after, in its wake, amid the dust.
Knight: It is disappearing! . . . It is disappearing! . . . But a shapeless form is madly pursuing it, in its wake, amid the dust.
Dent: It races… races by… But an amorphous mass runs after it, chasing it amidst the dust.
Wernham: The omnibus rushes on . . . on . . . but a formless shape is pursuing it desperately amid the dust.
Lykiard wins for accuracy, but his words do not role off my tongue. Here is how each interprets Une tête à la main, dont je rongeais le crane:
Lykiard: Holding a head whose skull I gnawed
Knight: Gnawing the skull of the head which I held in my hands
Dent: Gnawing the skull of the head I held in my hands
Wernham: With a head in my hand, gnawing the skull
Lykiard is not the worst of the four, but here Wernham is most immediate and visceral. Considering that the phrase is repeated, Wernham understands, here as well as elsewhere, the importance of immediate and rhythmical phrasing.
And that is, in a nutshell, why I like Guy Wernham’s translation, even though I recognize that he is not, at times, as accurate as Lykiard or Knight. The other thing the Wernham version has going for it is that it’s a beautiful book, published by New Directions. It’s got a great cover, graced with a photograph of Marino Marini’s sculpture Dancer, a work that, over time, I have come to associate closely with Maldoror.
The figure is carved and scarred, rough and both primitive and modern looking—characteristics that I associate with Maldoror. Moreover, the figure is as perturbingly ambiguous as Maldoror himself. His arms are raised, but in an offensive or a defensive posture? Is he jeering at someone or something as he looks into the sky, or is he protecting or even about to harm himself? He is ancient, having stood in this position for generations, and this is in keeping with a book that can open an astute reader’s eyes to the primal man within. The layout of the book is also beautiful: 3X5 inch blocks of text sitting handsomely within a 5X8 inch page, with an attractive typographical symbol separating the sections. The edition includes a translation of Poésies.
R. J. Dent’s version is the newest and it’s not an unattractive paperback; it’s got some heft, and the cover is decorated with Dali’s intriguing Imaginary Portrait of Lautréamont.
Readers might be tempted to buy this version to have on hand Dali’s Maldoror etchings, 20 of which are reproduced here. Be warned, these are very small low-resolution reproductions, and as a lover of art books I consider them to be of little value. I have seen the etchings firsthand. They are extremely finely rendered and nowhere is it more apparent that the art of Dali is in the details.
Overall Dent’s version is not bad, but there are problems. They become impossible to ignore in the third canto. The passage in which Lautréamont spies on the hair that has fallen from the creator’s head is one of the most eye opening in the whole book. It’s ironic then that there seems to have been an equally shocking lapse in editorial observation in this section of Dent’s text. Bad typos litter the text, but they aren’t the only problem. For example, Dent settles on “tortured by a torturer” for “torturé par un bourreau”.
I wanted to like this version more than I did. I have read and enjoyed Dent’s novel Myth and was looking forward to how an artist would transpose Lautréamont’s French. Unfortunately, I have to say his work was not ready for the presses. But what really ruins this edition for me is the ridiculous Afterword by Jeremy Reed. Reed presumes, as others have done before him, that Lautréamont was homosexual, based on certain passages from Maldoror. I find the arguments utterly baseless, but won’t bog this lengthy post down with them. But Reed doesn’t stop there. He imagines a whole scenario in which Lautréamont is murdered as a result of what we would today call a hate crime. There is not one speck of evidence—not one—that would begin to lend support to this fantasy. It may be an interesting story, but it belongs in fiction, not an edition of Maldoror.
All four translations have strengths and weaknesses, but I suspect the definitive English version of Maldoror has yet to be written. Based on my limited understanding, Paul Knight and Alexis Lykiard have given us the most accurate ones, but the former is wordy and bland and the latter is clumsy and, for my taste, not a pleasure to read. Dent’s version needs work, and comes with an inappropriate and distasteful Afterword. Guy Wernham’s version is perhaps the least accurate, yet it is the most lyrical and beautiful, in my opinion, and in addition is by far the most beautiful of the four books. In short, I recommend buying the Wernham or Knight versions, and skip the Lykiard version in favor of his translation of Poésies, which contains the supplementary material.