Interviews > Published on October 25th, 2022

Translator R.J. Dent: "You Don't Find Maldoror—It Finds You"

Photo courtesy of R.J. Dent

Many of you have never read The Songs of Maldoror (1868) and it shows. When the French surrealist prose poem was first presented to me by a friend as "the most evil book ever written," it wasn't so much the content that affirmed the claim, but the atmosphere that permeated as I read it—as if the temperature dropped in the room while I devoured every word; words that, in turn, also devoured me. It documents the character Maldoror's misanthropic confession of violent acts and bleak worldview, yet also contains passages of unattainable beauty and unexpected reverence, like the ten pages of "I hail you, old ocean," suggesting the sea is the only thing on the forsaken planet worthy of his respect. Even at its most histrionic, The Songs of Maldoror is a heavier experience than De Sade, who seems comedic in contrast to Lautréamont's delirious blasphemy, removed from the giddy pageantry of the former. 

The new edition, released this month by Infinity Land Press, is a gorgeous update to the masterpiece, with full color artwork by Karolina Urbaniak, and stylish, revealing essays by Audrey Szasz and Jeremy Reed. It's masterfully translated into modern English by R.J. Dent, who has also translated Baudelaire, De Sade, Battaile, Artaud, and Rimbaud for previous works. I chatted with Dent to re-discover The Songs of Maldoror, a book J.G. Ballard called, "... the Black Bible... almost the basic dream text of surrealism." 

What is your history with and attraction to The Songs of Maldoror? Was this a personal long-time goal to update its translation or something that fell into your lap?

I read Maldoror in my twenties. The first version I read was the Penguin Books edition. That particular English translation always seemed a bit imprecise to me, and consequently some of the book’s meaning was lost or obscure. Also, I didn’t realize that the translator had not translated Maldoror in its entirety; in that particular translation there are over fifteen significant paragraphs missing from Lautréamont’s original text.

A few years later, when I wanted a project to follow my English translation of Charles Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil, I considered attempting my own translation of The Songs of Maldoror, and, probably inevitably, wondered if I could translate it in a way that made its meaning clearer. So yes, it was a personal long-time goal to take Lautréamont’s text and bring it into the twenty-first century. No matter when it was written, it’s a twenty-first century text.

...a very dark and very disturbing novel in which he described a whole range of paraphilias and horrors, including sadism, masochism, necrophilia, rape, bestiality, and murder, in the most celebratory tone possible.

I’ve seen book translations go three ways: 1.) The literal word for word approach— which often makes for a clunky read like some attempts with Bataille, 2.) An emphasis on poetics, which can sometimes be misleading and undermine the author’s intentions, and 3.) A conscious effort towards concision, which, after comparing this new version with a couple older versions of Maldoror, seems to have been your approach. What was your personal aim with this translation project?

With my translation of Maldoror, I tried to stay as close to Lautréamont’s original text as I could, but I also tried to translate the text into the English text that Lautréamont might have written if he had written Maldoror in twenty-first century English.

There were four English versions of Maldoror when I started translating it: John Rodker’s (1924), Guy Wernham’s (1943), Alexis Lykiard’s (1970) and Paul Knight’s (1978). I had to thread my way between all four of them using my own vocabulary, mainly because, as you may have noticed, they each used quite old-fashioned language, full of archaic phrases and words, many of which have fallen out of use. Paul Knight’s version is over forty years old and was the most recent translation until mine.

I start the translation process with a sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph conversion. When I finish it, that’s the first draught. Even then, certain words or phrases from nineteenth century French won’t translate because the meaning has been lost over time, or there are too many choices available in English. When that happens, and it happens regularly, I tend to choose the word or phrase in English that is the most modern, and which has the most resonance.

An example of this is in a short piece of text I translated from a story by the Marquis de Sade. The story had someone stating that once a person mentioned something, then fairly soon, the thing they had mentioned would put in an appearance. The sentence was: “Quand on parle du loup on en voit la queue,” which is: “When we mention the wolf, it is not long before we see its tail.” It’s an old French saying, once literal, now figurative, which derived from a phrase that was once used in shepherding communities. I had to decide whether to keep the phrase as it was, but in English, or to change the whole phrase into something more contemporary – and more familiar for English readers. I’m not going to reveal what my final choice was, as that particular story is not yet in print, but that’s the kind of decision I frequently have to make during the translation process.

I initially heard of Lautréamont when my first editor was looking over my manuscript. The next day he bought me a copy of Maldoror, presenting it as “the most evil book ever written.” In the afterword to this new edition, Jeremy Reed’s writes Lautréamont “was by nature a psychic terrorist and certainly the most dangerous writer the 19th century was to produce.” What is your take on these pervading claims?

I’m not sure Maldoror is "the most evil book ever written," but it is a book that has a lot of evil acts described in it. The narrator describes his evil acts in great detail. The author does not flinch from writing about them and his tone is celebratory. That sensibility is apparent in the book’s illustrations. Karolina Urbaniak has created 37 full color illustrations for this book – her photos look like paintings and they really capture the darkness and the despair of Maldoror, as well as tap into the savage beauty that is at its heart.

I really like Jeremy Reed’s afterword; it’s entertaining and very informative. His claim that Lautréamont "was by nature a psychic terrorist" is interesting in light of the effect that Maldoror has on some readers, as is the fact that the Surrealists discovered and championed Maldoror. Another way in which Lautréamont can be seen as "a psychic terrorist’ is due to Lautréamont being the pseudonym for Isidore Ducasse, a young man who wrote The Songs of Maldoror, a very dark and very disturbing novel in which he described a whole range of paraphilias and horrors, including sadism, masochism, necrophilia, rape, bestiality, and murder, in the most celebratory tone possible.

As for Lautréamont being the nineteenth century’s "most dangerous writer," I think Jeremy Reed is right about that. A few years ago, someone said: “Once you’ve read Maldoror, you’ll never forget reading it – and you’ll never recover from reading it.” Having read it several times, and having now translated it, I totally agree with that – it is an unforgettable reading experience, and it’s a book which, once read, changes the reader in the same way that reading The Room by Hubert Selby Jr., will change the reader.

Because so little is known about his life, Lautréamont is assumed or rather imagined to be like his character Maldoror. Yet once the book came under fire, Ducasse may have pandered to pressure when he said, “I have slightly exaggerated the pitch so as to do something new in the direction of this sublime literature which sings of despair only to oppress the reader and make him desire the good as a remedy.” Do you really believe this was his intention, or could he have been avoiding simply standing by its brutality?

One should only trust the work, and not the author’s claims about the work. Lautréamont was the pseudonym that Isidore Ducasse used when he published The Songs of Maldoror, therefore, nothing Lautréamont says is true, or rather, everything that Lautréamont says is fiction. I also feel that there needs to be a very clear distinction between Isidore Ducasse, who published his first book, The Songs of Maldoror, using the pseudonym Le Comte de Lautréamont, and Isidore Ducasse, who published his second book, Poésies, under his own name. It’s the age-old dilemma – author intention. We can never know what Lautréamont intended – and even if we could have interviewed him, he may have had answers specifically prepared and designed to promote the book.

Do you think Lautréamont may have been stung by the darkness he tapped into, and it could have actually terrified him? When he said in 1870 with the publication of Poésies, “I have completely changed my method, to sing exclusively of hope, optimism, CALM, happiness, DUTY,” it contrasts heavily with Maldoror’s negativity.

The sentence you have just quoted is from one of Ducasse’s letters and it's complicated by the fact that it is Isidore Ducasse, the author of Poésies, who is making that claim about Maldoror. He wrote that letter a year after Maldoror was published and it can therefore be read as an exercise in damage limitation. He was also trying to prepare the way for his second book, Poésies, which he was then writing. He would go on to present Poésies as a polar opposite to Maldoror, with Poésies as the white, good, yang book, and Maldoror as the black, evil, yin book. So, no, not stung by the darkness; more a case of wanting to make sure potential readers knew that Maldoror and Poésies were opposite sides of the same literary experiment.

It’s also useful to remember that Ducasse considered cutting some of the more extreme passages from Maldoror. In the letter you quoted from, he said: “I could in later editions cut out some of the passages that are too powerful.” It’s very fortunate for us that Isidore Ducasse did not do that. Some writers continue to revise their work their whole lives – Walt Whitman is a famous example; he never stopped revising, editing and adding to Leaves of Grass; the 1855 edition is very different to the 'deathbed’ edition. Many believe that the 1855 edition is the more powerful collection – and they may have a point as that’s the edition that launched Whitman’s career in poetry. Later editions are considered weaker. It’s terrible to think that if Ducasse had successfully cut the passages that he considered to be "too powerful," Maldoror may had become weaker, perhaps even lost to us forever.

How would you interpret Audrey Szasz’s quote from her foreword, “You don’t find Maldoror—he finds you.”?

I think that that’s a reference to the character of Maldoror, rather than the book itself. I think it’s probably true, but with one minor revision: I think the quote should be: “You don’t find Maldoror – it finds you.” The book finds its way to some readers. Not everyone encounters Maldoror. It only appears in the lives of certain people. It is most definitely not for everyone. It has been around since 1868 and yet only a few people have read it. The litmus test is: Do you know four people who have read Maldoror?

I like the fact that, at the beginning of his book, Lautréamont warns his readers to stop reading Maldoror, as it is most likely not for them and could harm them if they continue reading: “It is not right that everyone read the pages that follow; very few will be able to taste this bitter fruit without danger. Consequently, stop, turn around, go no further. Listen to what I say: stop, turn around, go no further…”

Lautréamont’s warning, which some have suggested is actually a dare or a challenge, is clear enough – Maldoror is not a book for everyone. It is dark, depraved and deranged. It is a dangerous book to read. It leaves readers bruised. Changed. The Songs of Maldoror is very much a subterranean classic of French literature. There’s nothing else like it.

Get The Songs of Maldoror at Infinity Land Press

Learn more at  R.J. Dent's official website

About the author

Gabriel Hart lives in Morongo Valley in California’s High Desert. His literary-pulp collection Fallout From Our Asphalt Hell is out now from Close to the Bone (U.K.). He's the author of Palm Springs noir novelette A Return To Spring (2020, Mannison Press), the dispo-pocalyptic twin-novel Virgins In Reverse / The Intrusion (2019, Traveling Shoes Press), and his debut poetry collection Unsongs Vol. 1. Other works can be found at ExPat Press, Misery Tourism, Joyless House, Shotgun Honey, Bristol Noir, Crime Poetry Weekly, and Punk Noir. He's a monthly columnist for Lit Reactor and a regular contributor to Los Angeles Review of Books.

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