Les chats puissants et doux, orgueil de la maison

In mind because my cat has taken to sphinxing all day at the window by my desk.  Baudelaire’s Les Chats from Fleurs du Mal.  I made my own translation and annotated below my sometimes intentionally contrarian rendering decisions.

Les Chats

Les amoureux fervents et les savants austères
Aiment également, dans leur mûre saison,
Les chats puissants et doux, orgueil de la maison,
Qui comme eux sont frileux et comme eux sédentaires.

Amis de la science et de la volupté
Ils cherchent le silence et l’horreur des ténèbres;
L’Erèbe les eût pris pour ses coursiers funèbres,
S’ils pouvaient au servage incliner leur fierté.

Ils prennent en songeant les nobles attitudes
Des grands sphinx allongés au fond des solitudes,
Qui semblent s’endormir dans un rêve sans fin;

Leurs reins féconds sont pleins d’étincelles magiques,
Et des parcelles d’or, ainsi qu’un sable fin,
Etoilent vaguement leurs prunelles mystiques.

Impassioned lovers and austere scholars
alike love in their matured* age
cats powerful and soft, the pride of the house,
who, like them, are timid** and, like them, fixed of habit***.

lovers of discovery and delight
They seek out silence and the shadows’ terror;
Erebus would have adopted them for death’s messengers****
If to service they were able to submit their pride.

They take as they dream the noble poses
of great sphinxes stretched to length in the heart of solitudes,
who seem to drowse in a dream unending;

Leurs reins féconds are full of bewitching glimmers,*****
and specks of gold, like exquisite sand-grains,
sparkle obscurely in their enchanting eyes.

*I take mûre saison as ripe/mature like other translations I’ve seen, but mûre does have the idiomatic meaning ‘drunk’ so I think you could legitimately take the whole phrase as a pun equivalent to ‘when drunk’ rather than a reference to time of life.

**Everyone else I’ve seen takes frileux as ‘sensitive to cold.’  Which certainly does apply to cats – but so does the alternative sense ‘fearful, timid.’  And this latter works better with savants and can be pushed to apply to amoureux (fervents notwithstanding).

***Again, everyone else goes for the most literal sense of sédentaires but I don’t see why lovers, scholars, and cats are not equally as well described by the word’s other sense – ‘fixed of habit’

**** L’Erèbe can be either the place or the deity and I’m not certain which is intended, though possessive ses further on in the line argues the latter.  Coursiers I take as messengers rather than steeds because I don’t think there’s the suggestion they’d be hooked to death’s chariot, and messenger is in line with the existing tradition of cat as witch’s familiar.

***** English can’t handle this line with decency.  Leurs reins féconds – fertile flanks, rich loins.  Dropped. Other efforts are here – https://fleursdumal.org/poem/155


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s