Anne Margaret Daniel

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Oscar Wilde's Salome in French and English
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Aubrey Beardsley, Salome and the head of John

Wilde and Douglas, c. 1893

Lost in Translation: Oscar, Bosie, and Salome

Lost in Translation: Oscar, Bosie, and Salome
by Anne Margaret Daniel


In November of 1891, Oscar Wilde went to Paris. He stayed there two months, and during this time he wrote in French a play, Salome. Beginning it one afternoon, Wilde -- if we are to believe him, always an amusing dilemma with Wilde -- could not stop. Arriving simultaneously at writer's block and hunger, around midnight, he went out to the Grand Cafe, at the corner of Boulevard des Capucines and rue Scribe, and asked the gypsy orchestra there for wild and terrible music, music of a woman who, having slain her lover, danced in his blood. The orchestra obliged with, as Wilde told his friend Vincent O'Sullivan, "such wild and terrible music that those who were there stopped talking and looked at each other with blanched faces." Evidently satisfied, and inspired, Wilde returned home after his music and meal and finished Salome before morning. His friend Sarah Bernhardt, immensely popular for her exotic, "oriental" roles and rhythmic, wildly passionate delivery of lines, accepted the play, tailor-made for her, as part of her 1892 London season. Salome was banned before it could be presented. Not, however, before it could be translated for the London stage and English readers. Lord Alfred Douglas, whom Wilde had met in the summer of 1891 when Douglas was 20, undertook that translation. Douglas's edition is still, unhappily, all too much with us.

What has kept Douglas's deeply flawed translation the most-published version of this least-known and most different of Wilde's plays? The Methuen edition of Wilde's complete works (1908) ignored the translation, then owned by John Lane, and simply printed the French original. Merlin Holland, Wilde's grandson, gave us in 1994 a new edition of Wilde's complete works in one volume, and Salome, as presented there, is a close translation of the original play. However, when the Oxford Drama Library issued its definitive edition of Wilde's plays a year later, the editors staunchly retained Douglas's bad Salome. Wilde's own selection of Douglas as translator, and the connection between the two that remains the best-known feature of Alfred Douglas's long life and work, goes far in explaining the endurance of the Douglas translation. And there is the resistance of Wilde's own French, not always smooth or accurate, and idiosyncratic in its terms and phrases. Finally, Salome is not the glittering, witty drawing-room and country-house drama that most people think of when they think of Oscar Wilde. It is a throwback in some ways to Wilde's obsession with Biblical stories and religion during his Oxford days in the late 1870s, so evident in his poems. It is a tribute to symbolisme, decadence, and the French writers Wilde loved, and that he and others tried, without much success at the time, to make the English common reader love too. It is also a play leagues ahead of its time in its intricacy, artifice, violence, and poetry, written in French well before Beckett thought of converting to same, using loops of repetition in its dialogue before Vladimir and Estragon were born, happily smashing dramatic unities and audience expectations to bits while celebrating -- in any language -- language.

The Salome story was a favorite with Roman decadents, and centuries later with French ones. The late 1880s saw Salome resurgent as a quintessential "symbol of luxury, opulence, and fatal female sensuality" for Flaubert and Huysmans, in the art of Moreau, in poems by Mallarme and Apollinaire. Wilde, ever a magpie in his writings and -- well before T.S. Eliot -- an assembler of fragments to shore against ruins, certainly borrowed much of his Salome from these men he admired. One source largely ignored is a ponderous dramatic poem by an American, J.C. Heywood, who published Herodias: A Dramatic Poem (originally to be called Salome) in 1884, and followed it, a bit confusingly, in 1887 with Salome: A Dramatic Poem. Richard Ellmann years ago "tentatively" offered the later work as a source -- Wilde had reviewed it, and disliked it -- but condemned the source since Wilde's treatment "did not even remotely resemble Heywood's." Well, Heywood's Salome is no influence at all, but his Herodias certainly is. The "orient moon" overseeing the play's scenes, the use of "golden" motion and speech, the incantational repetition of "give me a kiss," and many of Herodias's more memorable lines, such as they are, may all be found in Wilde's Salome. In Heywood's play, it is Herodias who loved John the Baptist, "to a frenzy," and, rebuffed, hates him enough to set her daughter to dance. When he is dead, Herodias, with the head clasped in her arms, exults to John that "thou art mine! I can embrace thee even,/​And weave my lily fingers in thy hair,/​And stroke thy temples, fondle thee, and hate!" The end of Wilde's play is exactly the same, substituting Salome for Herodias; Heywood's queen, saying "Come, let me taste thy virtuous, scornful lips --" presses her mouth to the dead prophet's and pays for this liberty with her life.

Wilde had evidently thought to have his Salome decapitated, at first -- exiled from her country, Salome would wander the world, until one day, as she crossed a frozen lake near the Rhone, she would fall through the ice and the ice would behead her. Those who came to look would see "on the silver plate of the re-formed ice . . . a severed head on which gleamed the crown of a golden nimbus." Rather mercifully, Wilde set aside this out-Wagnering Wagner and cut his play short by having Salome crushed on the spot – like Heywood’s Herodias – in a denouement certainly swifter to write in a one-night stand.

The play was reviewed in England in its French version. The Times found it, applying a favorite noun of Whistler's, "an arrangement in blood and ferocity, morbid, bizarre, repulsive, and very offensive in its adaptation of scriptural phraseology to situations the reverse of sacred." Max Beerbohm, ever the other voice, insisted that if "Oscar would re-write all the Bible, there would be no sceptics." And the young Alfred Douglas, still at Magdalen College, reviewed the play for the short-lived Oxford student publication that would soon figure prominently in Wilde's trials and conviction, The Spirit Lamp. Douglas condemned the Philistinism of an England feeling itself "saved from lasting disgrace" by the ban on an "unwholesome, un-English play." He called Salome a "perfect work of art." W.B. Yeats could not abide the play and termed it "thoroughly bad," yet Yeats could not keep his mind from the image of the dancer and the dance, later admitting it was something of the 1890s, "a fragment of the past I had to get rid of."

Elkin Matthews and John Lane's The Bodley Head (mocked in the pages of Punch as "the Sodley Bed") published Douglas's translation, illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley, in 1894. Wilde was unhappy with both the translation and the illustrations -- the former being so poor, and the latter wickedly fraught with family resemblance. Wilde's own features loom down from the mammoth overseeing man-in-the-moon, fill the pudgy face of the master of ceremonies heralding Herodias's entrance, and -- poorly disguised with a beard -- are drawn as Herod's. Beardsley's Herodias (apart from the bared breasts that Lady Wilde never, to my knowledge, exhibited publicly) looks unpleasantly like the surviving photographs of Wilde's mother, the poet "Speranza" and a dominant force always in her son's life, dressed in her usual garb. Years later, Douglas recalled a friend saying that, "with her towering headdresses of velvet and long gold earrings and her enormous bracelets of gold studded with turquoises," her face hidden by her customary veils, "she produced a rather painful impression[.]" And Wilde thought of his princess as a light, bright beauty and also a bombshell in several senses, "that tragic daughter of passion . . . now dancing for the head of the English public," he called her. Beardsley drew her as a protean figure, now blonde and lovely and nude, now dark and vicious, witchlike and sunken-eyed. In her burial at the end, her pretty uncrushed body is laid to rest my two masked imps in a powderbox. However, Beardsley was an ally to Wilde in disliking Douglas's translation, offering to attempt one of his own as his French was better. When Douglas brought him the English Salome in the summer of 1893, Wilde immediately complained of Douglas's sloppy, schoolboy French, and an infuriated Douglas blamed any faults upon the original. He and Wilde nearly split over the disagreements, and Robbie Ross -- doubtless to his later regret -- made peace between them that fall. Though Wilde tried to fix some of the errors, Douglas raged when he did, and wrote to the publishers that September, "as I cannot consent to have my work altered and edited, and thus to become a mere machine for doing the rough work of translation, I have decided to relinquish the affair altogether." Of course Douglas relinquished nothing, and was finally contented when Wilde dropped his attempts to fix the translation, and dedicated Salome "To my friend Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas the translator of this play." In Reading Gaol, as he wrote the long letter to Douglas now known as De Profundis, Wilde was still galled by “the schoolboy faults of [Douglas’s] attempted translation,” but when he concludes, "I took you and the translation back," one can almost hear the sigh of resignation.

Wilde's original Salome appeared in thick violet paper covers -- "Tyrian purple," he called it -- with his name and hers on the front in silver letters. The Parisian publisher was the Libraire de L'Art Independant, and the only illustration in this first edition is the library logo, a most unencouraging figure of a fanged, cat-eyed, voluptuous woman with wild hair, black wings, and twin fishtails for feet. This bastard mermaid crouches over the scattered bones of her latest meal, above the written warning in Latin that non hic piscis omnium. Wilde the writer regularly fished strange waters, but the decision to write the play in French was an odd one even for an always-experimental stylist and self-described "lord of language." Although Wilde's French was certainly adequate, he "wrote French as he [evidently] spoke it . . . charmingly, but simply and somewhat in the manner of the phrasebook." Why he had written the play in French was immediately questioned, and critics and friends all centered on the likelihood that Salome was for Sarah Bernhardt, who did not speak English. Wilde was horrified at the thought of any performer, even Bernhardt, as a publicly acknowledged influence upon his drama, and in a letter to the Times he insisted he did not write the play for her, that he was an artist and not an artisan. Most people who cared about the matter ignored Wilde's protestations, and Wilde, long a devotee and now a friend of Bernhardt's, did believe that she was the only person who could act Salome. Perhaps Wilde wrote Salome in French to better its chances of being produced in London, with the shock value of the story line coated in foreign language. Perhaps he simply wanted to see if he could. Whatever the case, Wilde's choice of language allowed him to consciously enhance a conception of the feminine in his linguistic treatment of Salome. Having chosen to write the play in French, Wilde completely overloads feminine nouns throughout, particularly when the princess herself is speaking. Much of the feminine sense and sensibility of the original Salome is utterly lost in translation, and Douglas did not, or could not, amend this.

Wilde purposefully, carefully chooses and uses objects, body parts, and natural phenomena that are feminine in French. "Une" is the first word in the play (Fr. 9). "La lune" can only be "elle;" the recurring hands, angel, death, mouth, and head are all "la." When Salome first speaks to Iokanaan (using always the familiar "tu," while with one exception he always addresses her as "vous") her speech of love beginning "Je suis amoureuse de ton corps" is chock-full of feminines: the rose, the queen, the dawn, the moon, the sea. (Fr. 32). This remains true of all Salome's love-speeches to Iokanaan. His mouth is like a band of scarlet on an ivory tower, a pomegranate, a pomegranate flower, a branch of coral from the sea -- all "une" or "la." When Iokanaan denounces and rejects Salome, though, her language turns harsh, and fills with masculines: a wall, a sepulchre, a knot of black serpents (Fr. 32-33). The caressing, melodic flow of the feminine articles and nouns is jarred by Salome's use of "le" and "un." In her unsaying of love for Iokanaan each time he denies her, Salome in fact and effect drops the feminine. Translation into English erases these and other feminine/​masculine distinctions, and Douglas only occasionally compensates for this fact, in easy instances: the moon, for example, is generally feminine in English poetry too.

A marvelous part of the original French is the repetition Wilde uses, recurring words and phrases and images that build lavishly and make the (religious, after all) drama like a litany. Douglas never misses a chance to evade the rhythms of repetition, strange behavior for a poet. Where Wilde repeats that the moon "a l'air tres etrange," Douglas alternates "How strange the moon seems" and "She has a strange look" (Fr. 9; Ox. 65). Salome praises Iokanaan's body for its whiteness, "comme les neiges qui couchent sur les montagnes," and says the phrase twice; once is enough for Douglas (Fr. 32, Ox. 72). Her insistence that she is "amoureuse" for a whole blason of Iokanaan's body parts is sometimes "amorous," sometimes "that I desire" in translation (eg. Fr. 33, Ox. 73). Iokanaan's last words to Salome, "soyez maudite," he repeats. (Fr. 37). Instead of a simple "be damned, be damned," Douglas uses three words for Wilde's two, and translates the phrase first as "cursed be Thou" and then, for good measure, "be Thou accursed" (Ox 74). "Remue" is both "moves" and "stirs," "supplie" is both "beseech" and "pray." (Fr. 81, 63; Ox 90, 83). It is as if Douglas wanted to show the number of words he knew, rather than maintain the incantational sound of Wilde's original.

Wilde's linguistic directness is muted in translation. No one could be as byzantine, baroque, rococo, and otherwise lyrically lavish with words as Wilde when he wanted to be -- think of the laundry lists of temptations made lovely in The Picture of Dorian Gray. t where Wilde is blunt and direct in this play, Douglas lets too many words, and the wrong ones, destroy the sense and impact. "Nouveau-ne," a simple newborn, is in the English an unpleasant, piggish "sucking child" (Fr. 14; Ox 66). "Gros mots" is prettified into "uncouth jargon" (Fr. 19; Ox. 68). "Recule" is lengthened into "steps slowly back" (Fr. 26; Ox. 71). When Salome tells the prophet "Ta voix m'enivre," Douglas leaves aside the intoxicatory qualities for a far less visceral "Thy voice is as music to my ear" (Fr. 30, Ox. 72). Her direct, personal requests to Iokanaan -- "Laisse-moi toucher ton corps!" "Laisse-moi baiser ta bouche" -- become a stilted, formal "Suffer me to touch thy body" and "Suffer me to kiss thy mouth" (Fr. 32, 34, 36; Ox. 72, 74). And the one time Iokanaan consents to tutoyer Salome, in his last lines to her ("Je ne veux pas te regarder. Je ne te regarderai pas. Tu es maudite, Salome, tu es maudite.") is not personalized in any way in the Douglas translation -- she remains "thee" and "thou" -- and the second line is omitted. (Fr. 37, Ox 74). In many places characters are told to shut up. "Faites-le taire" is a wordy "Bid him to be silent"; "Taisez-vous," which Herod shouts at his wife, becomes the weirdly soft "Peace, woman." (Fr. 45, Ox. 77; Fr. 62, Ox. 83). That Iokanaan literally vomits, spews, insults at Herodias makes her hate him, for the truth hurts. Wilde's Herodias complains that "Cet homme vomit toujours des injures," "Il a vomi des insultes contre moi," but this is sanitized into his "hurling" and "covering [her] with insults" (Fr. 45, 72; Ox 77, 86). Why must a simple "cinquante" be "half a hundred"? (Fr. 77, Ox. 88). A "prostituee" lengthen into a "woman that is a wanton"? (Fr. 81; Ox. 90).

Color mattered immensely to Wilde. In one of his earliest surviving letters, written to his mother from the Portora School when he was 13, Wilde tells her that she's sent him the wrong clothes. "The flannel shirts you sent in the hamper are both Willie's, mine are one quite scarlet and the other lilac.” Any other schoolboy would have been content with a red shirt, and perhaps less so with a purple one. Wilde's, though, are quite scarlet, and lilac. Throughout his life he chose carefully the colors he wore, painted his home, used in the binding of his books, and wrote of. Dorian Gray is the antithesis of his colorless surname, as he walks in beauty, with his “finely curved scarlet lips, his frank blue eyes, his crisp gold hair.” For her entrance, Mrs. Cheveley, with her "Venetian red hair," must be clad "in heliotrope, with diamonds" (Ox 167). Her full-blackmail dress in Act III is full of Wilde's very favorite colors; she is "Lamia-like" in a poison-green "and silver. She has a cloak of black satin, lined with dead rose-leaf silk." (Ox 216). The colors of Salome are sadly dimmed in translation. Herod's "yeux de taupe" are indeed the eyes of a mole, as Douglas says, but he loses the sense of color Wilde also imparts (Fr. 19; Ox 68). "Un noeud de serpents noirs" becomes a colorless "knot of serpents" (Fr. 33; Ox. 73). "Les figues vertes" are colorless "unripe figs" (Fr. 57, Ox. 81). "Rouge comme du sang" simply "become[s] as blood" (Fr. 68, Ox. 85).

Simple mistranslation, while not abundant, changes entirely the sense and meaning of some crucial lines and images. Herod's intensely Wildean observation on mirrors and masks, "Il ne faut regarder que dans les miroirs. Car les miroirs ne nous montrent que des masques," came back to Wilde as the directive that, rather than only looking in mirrors, one must not look in mirrors -- a mistake Wilde was able to change. To mistake a lily for a rose is to upend Wilde's symbolic floral universe, and to eradicate the echoes Wilde intended of the lilies of the field and in the hand of Mary, but Douglas does it when he translates "Elle fleurira comme le lis" as "They shall blossom like the rose" (Fr. 14; Ox 66). When the moon is "nue," Douglas prefers "naked" (Fr. 39, Ox. 75).

To conclude with the conclusion. At the end of Salome, just before her own execution, Salome holds the head and kisses its lips. Her last lines are: "Je sais bien que tu m'aurais aimee, et le mystere de l'amour est plus grande que la mystere de la mort. Il ne faut regarder que l'amour." Douglas translated as follows: "Well I know that thou wouldst have loved me, and the mystery of Love is greater than the mystery of Death." Her final, powerful observation that one need only look at love, or, in essence, that love is all you need goes missing.

When Oscar Wilde thought of Salome in Reading Gaol, he remembered his play as a work with pleasure and sorrow “and the note of Doom” as "recurring motifs [that] make Salome so like a piece of music and bind it together as a ballad[.]" Salome was quietly reconstructed to take shape, in its English version, more along these lines before its insertion in Merlin Holland's 1994 edition of The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Errors are silently corrected; the text is far less corrupt than Douglas's version. Yet even this edition identifies the English Salome as Douglas's work, "translated from the French of Oscar Wilde by Lord Alfred Douglas." Finally, a Wilde has managed to mend Douglas's faults and failures without Douglas's fits and fury – and, with a certain grace, lets stand the tribute to the youth who worst, but first, and as best beloved, attempted Salome in English.



Anne Margaret Daniel
Princeton, New Jersey
Copyright Princeton University Library Chronicle 2007

Oscar Wilde's Salome