The Waste Land28 February 2009 at 4:27 AM | Posted in News | 3 Comments
The most familiar example of a poem using non-mother tongue words is, of course, T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (1922), which has, among other non-English lines, the famous “‘You! hypocrite lecteur! — mon semblable, — mon frère!'” Eliot, as we all know, did not trust his readers to recognize the allusion and, therefore, provided the source of the quote as “V. Baudelaire, Preface to Fleurs du Mal.”
Reams have been written about this line (Google lists more than 6,000, though that includes double entries), including learned dissertations about Baudelaire’s influence on Eliot, but not much about whether Eliot could have achieved the same effect had he translated the line into English.
Was Eliot just showing off? Was he trying not to infringe on the intellectual property of Baudelaire by not translating without permission? Or was he doing something that he could not do in English? Do we have to be fluent in French to understand this line, or can a French-English dictionary do (since the French words are pretty close to their English equivalents anyway)? Is it too much for a poet to call us readers hypocrites to our face, or does the use of the French words make the insult a bit easier to take? Is he insulting us not just by the literal meaning of the words but by insinuating that we do not know French? Or is he flattering us by assuming that we know French and Baudelaire and poetic irony? Or is it only Stetson who should care? Questions, questions!