In Baudelaire’s “La fausse monnaie,” which I have rendered as “Fake Money,” the poet is outraged when his companion gives a counterfeit coin to a beggar. Translating the poem, I aimed for a coherent and well-written narrative rather than a literal version.
The phrase la criminelle jouissance in the last paragraph is difficult to translate because we have no English equivalent of jouissance. The standard definition, enjoyment, leaves out the secondary sense of the word, sexual climax. Critical theorists have made much of jouissance and connected the term itself with a transgressive impulse.
My initial solution: “joyous criminality.” Thus, for the French Je lui aurais presque pardonné le désir de la criminelle jouissance dont je le supposais tout à l’heure capable, I had: “I might almost have acquitted him for desiring the experience of joyous criminality that I once supposed him capable of.” This is exact, if clumsy, and on further thought, I concluded the clause with the word criminality and dropped the rest: “I might almost have acquitted him for desiring the experience of joyous criminality.”
All along, I was undecided between this formulation and one that put a greater value on narrative speed. In the end, I decided on the latter: “I might almost have acquitted him of the criminality I have charged him with.” In tonality and succinctness, this is superior, though the gain in clarity sacrifices the concept of “joyous criminality” or perhaps “transgressive joy” that Baudelaire champions in a number of his prose poems (gathered under the title Spleen de Paris). Were I to publish a group of my translations, it would be with notes and an introduction addressing just such an issue as this.
I keep making changes in my translations, even after they have been published, as it is the bane of the translator’s life to keep discovering ways he or she can improve upon what he or she has done. The work is endless. But if we can communicate something of the flavor of a great writer, even at the cost of a significant nuance, the gain is great. —David Lehman, translator of Charles Baudelaire’s “Fake Money” and “Get Drunk”
Ed. Note: For notes by translators of other poets — Pessoa’s Alberto Caeiro, Miraji, Osorio, Guerra, Kahal, Farrokhzad — click here for The Paris Review forum entitled “The Untranslatable.” For “Fake Money,” click here.