In September 2021, we welcomed returning final-year students back to their studies with a series of refresher classes after all the disruptions of 2020-21.
For one set of these classes, we set grammar books to one side and extended the great French poet Charles Baudelaire’s ‘Invitation to a Voyage’ to students. He claims that each one of us has an internal supply of natural opium to inspire and enthral us. In other words, the poet invites us to engage the limitless potential of our imaginations. Taking a leaf out of Baudelaire’s book, this particular class was to be an exercise in creative translation with an emphasis on the imagination.
Students looked briefly at one out of a pair of Baudelaire’s prose poems, namely ‘L’Étranger’ (‘The Stranger’ see English translation here) and ‘Les Fenêtres’ (‘Windows’, available in French and English translation here). They then had 15-20 minutes to produce their own version of it, by imagining their own encounter with a stranger in the clouds or by looking through a window in their mind onto a place of particular resonance for them.
The results are remarkable, a testimony to the innate creativity of our students who have already had to draw on their imaginations to think and be in another language. We also celebrate Baudelaire, who would have turned 200 in 2021, by extending his invitation to a voyage of the imagination.
Here’s the first set of poems based on ‘L’Étranger’:
In the clouds
- Are you alone here in the clouds?
- It is dark, it is raining.
- You are mysterious.
- I am not mysterious, I am afraid.
- You are afraid?
- Of light? Of darkness? Of joy? Of sadness?
- Of the world.
- But look down! The world is bright, the world is happy, the world is for everyone.
- So, why am I up here in the clouds?
- So what’s your gimmick, then, Mr. Woke? Tell me about your family.
- I don’t have any worth speaking of, no parents or siblings.
- No friends then either?
- People come and go, for better or worse.
- And where do you come from?
- Many places, but what of them?
- And beauty?
- I see it everywhere, almost spiritually.
- Do you want riches? And fortune?
- Doesn’t seem to build a good lifestyle.
- So what do you even care for, since you have nothing left?
- Don’t you feel the breeze today? It’s so good to be here, wherever that is.
Les richesses, et la fortune. Le sort. C’est quoi, sans les efforts pour les atteindre? C’est quoi, la vie, quand elle est remplie par les bêtises? C’est quoi, une maison, quand elle manque la porte? Et c’est quoi, une porte, quand elle attend toujours quelqu’un? Mur. Je vis, mais seulement quand les murs me permettent.
En regardant les nuages rosâtres trébucher les uns sur les autres,
Je me demande serai-je jamais content ?
Le bonheur interne qui me manque devrait exister quelque part.
J’en suis sûr. J’en suis tellement sûr que ce néant me fait mal.
Les nuages quittent le ciel, révélant un azur aveuglant,
Avec son soleil fulgurant qui me brule les yeux
Et ses rayons qui embrassent ma peau,
Tout en déchirant mon corps en morceaux de l’intérieur.
Cependant, cette douleur me faire sentir à l’aise,
Elle me rappelle que je suis encore vivant
Soit à contrecœur, soit à dessein.
-My body leaves me, floating in pure darkness. The silhouette asks, what is it like?
-It’s having no sensations, no responsibilities, no existence except from serenity.
-What was life like before? Says the silhouette
-Full of living, of existing, that world is still there but nowhere to be found.
-Is there fear?
-Do you want to leave?
-Here I am a cloud, floating with no feeling, coming and going, sometimes existing, sometimes not.
- Why is there only light?
- Because there is no darkness
- Where is the blue?
- There are only in orange and reds.
- What about words?
- There is nothing to say but to melt like the sun.
- And when does the sun rise?
- It only sets, moving towards the pink dusk.
Il se balade
Ses pas tombent avec soin
Sur le sol qu’il méprise
Plutôt, il préfère le ciel
Les autres, ils regardent leurs pas
Ses pensées sont à Terre
Mais il ne les connait pas
Il ne connait personne
Sauf ses amis nébuleux
Une fois rencontrés, ils disparaissent à jamais
Toujours différents, mais familiers tout de même
Cette amitié, c’est tout ce qu’il lui faut
Car le ciel le reflète
Toujours seul et jamais seul
Le ciel ne le quittera jamais.
His feet tread carefully
Along the ground he ignores
Rather, he prefers the sky
The others all stare at their feet
Their thoughts are of Earth
But he does not understand them
He does not understand anyone
Apart from his friends in the sky
Soon after meeting, they disappear forever
Always different, but familiar all the same
This friendship is all that he needs
Because the sky reflects him
Always alone and never alone
The sky will never leave him.
translated by Emily Maynard
I’m watching the clouds,
They pass like time and life, across an ambiguous sky,
Will they darken and bring rain and life with them,
Or will they burn away and reveal the splendid sun above,
Revitalising, yet cruel.
The clouds intertwine, transforming into faces I once knew
And mesmerising patterns, drawing me further into my reverie…
A swallow soars upwards, undulating in the sky, headed towards the infinite universe above…
I wonder where she is she destined,
Is she returning home, to comfort and familiarity,
Or onwards, to new lands and uncertain skies,
To new ventures and risks,
Through turbulent tempests or over calm seas,
Skimming over waters of far-away lakes and oceans?
I will never know.
I wish her well with a nod of my head
And ponder what I’ll have for dinner…
And to conclude a pair of poems inspired by ‘Les Fenêtres’ (‘Windows’).
The sun bounces off the waves gently, casting a dim shadow in front of me as I look out over the sea. The small beacon of the lighthouse has lit up, a relic of safety from years gone by. We watch as the haze on the horizon creates murky skyscrapers, which rise from the sea as a lost city. Then, they pass, and we are left watching the container ships which have taken their place. Hundreds of goods transported from A to B. A floating island made of metal and oblivious to the numerous voyeurs on the shoreline.
A woman walks past on the beach with her dog, stopping only to pick up stones to throw for him. I wonder how far she has travelled to get here.
The window has a calming glow to it, a lulling sense of safety which beckons as if the warmth of the lowing sun is beating through it.
I rise from my stupor, in the stuffy, shadowy room I call home in Exeter. I move lightly, guided by some deep yearning within me and open my window.
What awaits me is the most bright, bustling, and brilliant sight. My gaze settles on a waiter. His uniform pristine, his face set in a perfect, polite smile. He carries two overflowing flutes of deep golden liquid.
When he lays them on the ornate table bathed in perfect evening sunshine, my attention shifts to the women who grasp these glasses with fervour. Their skin is rosy, pricked by the strength of the sun’s rays.
The bustle softens, the music fades and what is left is the sound of their laughter. What beauty in that joyful noise? What envy to be as carefree as their shrieks of laughter sound?
I leave my room and join them, through my open window. The metal chair feels cool against my legs in this humid plaza in Northern Italy. Cold, bubbling, golden liquid glides into my mouth, leaving a trail of sticky warmth within me. I am boxed in by bold, boisterous buildings. Our table is pressed into a corner and yet I am the freest I’ve ever felt.