Flowers of Bad by David Cameron

Ugly Duckling Presse, 2007
A translation is a formidable thing, and not just for the reader.  Difficult in any medium, it must be especially so in poetry where the translator feels, properly, a sense of loyalty not only to the correct word or even the correct sense, but to the voice of the original author.  The pressure to be true to this voice must weigh heaviest when dealing with a figure such as Charles Baudelaire, someone whose oeuvre and subjects are familiar to even those with only a remote interest in poetry.  In the foreword to his 1982 translation of “Fleurs de Mal,” the poet Richard Howard acknowledges this challenge from the start:  “The adjective formed from his name joins that extreme company – Platonic, Byronic, Rabelaisian, Freudian – of words that suggest a world without our having had to read the writers who have bestowed such qualifiers upon us.”  Despite that, he goes on to say, “it is in any case the translator’s responsibility, and his doom, to engender a notion – the better for being the more conscious – of what the implications might be, though he himself cannot say what they are.”  In explanation of his own approach, he writes, “I have endeavored to serve them by an attempt to leave them alone, to get out of their way rather than to domesticate them.” 

Serving the poem is a fine description of the translator’s task.  But in his collection of false translations, “Flowers of Bad,” the poet David Cameron embarks on a different sort of vocation.  These poems as false translations are exactly that – purposefully wrong. 

On the book’s web site, Cameron defines a false translation as “a translation made without the intention of translating the literal meaning of the original. This leaves open the possibility for almost any aspect of a poem to determine the meaning or direction of its translation, whether it's the meaning as understood or misunderstood by the translator, the poem's sound, the shape or look of the words in the poem, or some other aspect that contributes to the translated poem.”  In other words, Baudelaire’s poems and Cameron’s poems are playing telephone and the results are as outlandish and nonsensical as one might expect.

For readers interested in the process of false translations, Cameron provides an Afterword with a lengthy discussion of his methods, an evolving combination of mostly self-directed approaches.  In his footnotes, he references his connection to the Oulipo, a group of writers who set themselves writing objectives so specific and constrained as to be almost like mathematical equations or puzzles.  (One of Cameron’s early methods was to type the poems out in French and allow spellcheck to suggest a word in English).

Fans of Baudelaire looking for a new incarnation of the poet’s explorations of melancholy, beauty and pain will not find it here.  At least, not in quite the way they might expect.  What they will find are odd, often funny poems that link the familiar with the strange in unexpected ways.   

The poem Spleen (LXXVI) evokes the world Cameron is doomed to engender quite vividly:  “I’ve got souvenirs like if I walked a million miles/ A giant marble shattered in a billiard game,/ A sea filled with two bullets in it, one filled with a butcher shop, one with romance novels.”  What follows and continues to permeate the collection is a catalogue of these souvenirs:  plastic yellow roses, cheap perfume, bizarre characters, random episodes.  These are certainly not Baudelarian images of gothic decay - worms, dusty gowns, dead roses – but everyday junk.  “. . . the crayons I’ve collected are melting underneath the couch.”  The landscape here is worse than evil, it’s chintzy.   

Though they revel in the absurd and non-literal, at times the poems do seem to capture Baudelaire’s empathy for the poor and ruined.  This works well in the strangely moving “Fer Yelluh,” an ode to a dying, or possibly dead, dog.  In this poem a colloquial, yet formal voice is able to find some tenderness in the coarseness and filth:

O the fur on this cur covers an ulcerated heart
Worn down by vengeance shouldered against traitor dogs who pissed on his plot.
My dear doggy!  Your broken teeth, your gnawed on ears,
Your paws are callused!  Youth will not come to you again . . .

The overall effect is similar to certain mountain ballads where a pleasing melody belies violent lyrics.  At other times, the translations produce some truly comic moments:  “Marry me!  Death awaits us, and she is well read,” or “There isn’t one flake of cereal in all my cabinets that doesn’t tremble for you,/ That doesn’t cry out:  O my darling Anti-Christ, je t’adore!” 

Lovers of Oulipian writing, absurdist literature, or Sudoko will no doubt find great pleasure in the poems and the methods employed to create them.  Baudelaire devotees, neo-Victorians, and unhappy teenagers may have mixed reactions. 

One question that might arise while reading the book is why anyone would want to embark on a false translation in the first place?  In the Afterword there is a clue in the section on the “Anagrammatic” method of false translation.  The poet writes, “I also felt that composing false translations had often been a way of finding entry into a poem from which I was otherwise excluded.”  This seems a worthy and interesting goal, though when the translations themselves are a bit obscure, a reader may be forced to do his or her own false translation of the false translation and there would never be an end to it.

Mr. Cameron has a web site devoted to his book containing links to more information about Baudelaire.  The “Quotations Page” brings one to an intriguing comment made by the French poet, “The world only goes round by misunderstanding.”  Perhaps then these false translations are the truest of all.   

ALLISON ELLIOTT lives and works in New York City. She is an assistant poetry editor at the online journal 42opus.