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Barry Moser vs. Aubrey Beardsley: Salome

December 29, 2011

Text need not be the only part of translation.  Illustrations can matter too.

University of Virginia Press last month issued a new translation (by Joseph Donohue) of Oscar Wilde’s Salome with illustrations by Barry Moser.  The more familiar version of Salome was an amateur translation done by Wilde’s boyfriend, Alfred Douglas, with illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley.

Here is the story as related by Joseph Donohue:

In June of [1892], while Lady Windermere’s Fan was still running and well before Salome was published, the famous French tragedienne Sara Bernhardt and her company were rehearsing a French-language production of Wilde’s tragedy, as a kind of epilogue to her current London season at the Royal English Opera House.  Before it could open, the performance was barred by the Lord Chamberlain on the advice of his censor, E. F. Smyth Pigott, the Examiner of Plays, officially on the grounds of a long-standing prohibition against biblical characters on the English stage.  Unofficially, in a note to a colleague, Pigott had condemned the play as “a miracle of impudence, … half-biblical, half-pornographic.”  Pigott would later be described by Bernard Shaw as a “walking compendium of vulgar insular prejudice,” but for the moment the damage had been done ….

Under these less-than-propitious theatrical circumstances, the translation of Salome into English … by a young post-Oxford student, Wilde’s friend and clandestine lover Lord Alfred Douglas, appeared in print [in] 1894…. Notorious from the moment of its existence, thanks to the unsavory reputation of the French original, Douglas’s English version was accompanied by a series of illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley that sensationalized Wilde’s play even further and effectively mischaracterized it as well.  Wilde’s own view was that Beardsley’s illustrations had transformed something quintessentially Byzantine into something oddly Japanese….

A new translation should be complemented by its own set of illustrations. At the very least, these illustrations should have nothing in common with those very “Japanese” pieces Beardsley had contributed to the first English translation, published more than a hundred years ago. It also seemed crucially important that they be more in keeping with the style and subject matter of Wilde’s original play than were those earlier, curiously arch images, the product of a coy insider, suggestive primarily of Beardsley’s own eccentric, self-conscious brilliance and his knowing take on contemporary salon life. Who might achieve such insight? I knew of no one more likely to capture the spirit of Wilde’s play than the American artist and illustrator Barry Moser. Barry’s immediate expression of interest was all that I needed to put my speculations to the test.

I wanted to use this post as a chance to compare the vastly different illustration strategies of Wilde and Beardsley, but when I looked again at Beardsley illustrations, I have to say I was scandalized.  Even to a 2011 viewer, they push the envelope.   (If you wish to view them, though, you can find them here.)  I found a pair of Beardsley Salome illustrations that were somewhat less prurient, and show them here juxtaposed with Barry Moser’s illustrations:






Here is Donohue on his translation strategy:

In its own day, Douglas’s rendering of Wilde’s French Salome created a text, at once wooden and rarefied, reminiscent of Swinburne’s Atalanta in Calydon and other pseudo-Shakespearean closet dramas of the Victorian age and which now, to our ears, seems rendered in a moribund language having in common with Wilde’s oracular prose….

As I contemplated the frequent republication of the Douglas translation and its seemingly inevitable choice as the basis for revivals of the play, I continued to wonder what might happen if a translation more attuned to the English spoken in the United States in the late twentieth century or (as time went on) the early twenty-first were prepared….  One purpose of the experiment was to find out whether or not an up-to-date, colloquial yet spare English translation of Wilde’s consciously stylized French – an invented dialect permanently at odds with the the lofty standards of the Académie française – required a King James biblical lexicon to do it justice….

In its time Douglas’s intentionally archaic language, so familiar, so safe, had the effect of shielding his audience behind a certain protective bulwark of cultural comfort, masking to an extent the radical tendencies of the drama.  The more colloquial, familiar, up-to-date idiom I sought to achieve would sure close off that kind of convenient esthetic refuge, forcing my audience into direct confrontation with some vividly unorthodox characters – most especially the strong-willed teenage princess of Judea – and with some unwelcome, uncomfortable, or even intolerable truths, as well.

For example, consider the point later on in the play were Wilde’s exasperated, desperate Herod, completely out of patience with his wife Herodias’s incessant interruptions, says to her, “Taisez-vous.  Vous criez toujours.  Vous criez comme une bête de proie.  I l ne faut crier comme cela.  Votre voix m’ennuie.  Taisez-vous, je vous dis.”  Douglas’s stilted, overly repetitive, colorless rendering – “Peace!  You are always crying out.  You cry out like a beast of prey.  You must not cry in such a fashion.  Your voice wearies me.  Peace, I tell you!” – badly needed replacement by something much more peremptory and blunt, while also capturing the audible undertone of Herod’s weakness and ineffectuality.  Wilde’s deliberately repeated “criez/criez/crier” works in French but proves awkward in English….

My answer, then, to the challenge of effectively rendering Herod’s speech reads as follows:  “Stop it.  You’re always mouthing off.  You sound like a predatory animal.  You just can’t talk like that.  Your voice makes me crazy.  Stop it, I’m telling you.”  This approach replaces the awkward repetition of Douglas’s “crying/cry/cry” with the more natural, anglophone variety implicit in “mouthing off/sound like/talk like” while still capturing a certain more subtle repititiousness in “You’re/You/You/Your” and “like/like,” and also surround these locution with the peremptory, coda-like repetition of “Stop it/Stop it.”

6 Comments leave one →
  1. December 29, 2011 5:27 pm

    Fascinating! I’ve been a huge Beardsley fan for many years, and about ten years ago discovered Moser. I purchased his beautifully illustrated Bible (after seeing the film about it’s creation public television) and it’s something I love to take out and … absorb. He is one of my favorite illustrators and IMHO should be declared a national treasure. 🙂 Thanks so much for this wonderful post!

  2. December 29, 2011 5:36 pm

    COSS: Thanks for the kind words.

    Those who are not familiar with Moser’s Bible may find this article useful.

    The television program you mentioned is available here. A blurb for the movie explains:

    Moser’s visually stunning, intensely personal interpretation of Western civilisation’s central text is fascinating. Many of the Old Testament stories are never told because of the terrible “travails of the human spirit and human warts” found in the Bible. Moser does not shy away from these stories and indeed enjoys illustrating the blood and gore described in the Bible. His images of the characters in the Bible are arresting and original; for example, his model for Jesus is a chef in an Italian restaurant!

  3. December 30, 2011 9:59 pm

    Wonderful post, Theophrastus!

    Here’s a gallery of Aubrey Beardsley’s Salomé illustrations:

    Here’s Barry Moser on Barry Moser (before he’d completed the drawings for the Joseph Donohue translation):

    Donohue’s comparisons and explanation make his translation philosophy and practice pretty compelling:

    “Taisez-vous. Vous criez toujours. Vous criez comme une bête de proie. I l ne faut crier comme cela. Votre voix m’ennuie. Taisez-vous, je vous dis.”

    “Peace! You are always crying out. You cry out like a beast of prey. You must not cry in such a fashion. Your voice wearies me. Peace, I tell you!”

    “Stop it. You’re always mouthing off. You sound like a predatory animal. You just can’t talk like that. Your voice makes me crazy. Stop it, I’m telling you.”

    But I like how Richard Ellmann’s Herod sounds off even better (in the Ellmann translation of 1982, the year he passed away):

    “Silence! You are always screaming something. You cry out like a beast of prey. You must not scream like that. Your voice annoys me. Silence, I tell you….”

    (Alas! no illustrations for the Ellmann edition.)

  4. December 31, 2011 8:57 pm

    Ha! You gave the same link I did for the Beardsley Salome illustrations.

    The weird thing about translating Wilde’s French is that reportedly Wilde wasn’t very good at French! In fact, his play had to be rewritten and rewritten, and still apparently sounds “foreign” to native speakers. (I’m not 100% sure what is meant by this — does it sound “foreign” in the style that Joseph Conrad sounds, or “foreign” in the style of Everything is Illuminated, or something else?) So even if Wilde’s boyfriend was a rank amateur at translation, maybe he amateurishness caught something.

    However, having recently read both Donohue and Douglas, I think Donohue is the more entertaining version to read.

  5. J. K. Gayle permalink
    January 1, 2012 9:38 am

    Ha, and now I see that too.

    Knowing Wilde I do wonder if his Salome is like Jonathan Safran Foer’s foreign-sounding first effort. A Herod speaking a tourist’s or immigrant’s French. 🙂

    Have you read Ellmann’s translation? I think you’d like it.

  6. September 27, 2013 1:58 am

    Wilde did not write French all that poorly. His stylized manner is intentional and he had the play reviewed by several of his French poet friends before it was published.

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