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Translation

            Wilde wrote Salomé in French deliberately; much of the effect of the plays unusual language, sensual atmosphere, and allusions to the French writers and artists Wilde was inspired by come as a result of this choice of language. Thus “obviously, the best version of Wilde’s text is that which he himself wrote in French.” (Daalder 47) Yet most people read the play in English, and  “the fact that [Wilde] allowed Douglas to translate Salomé show that he wanted the publc to have access to an English version as well” (Daalder 47).

However, the story of Salomé’s translation into English in confused and complicated, and leaves much doubt as to which is the most “official” version. Strangely enough, Wilde did not translate his own play into his native language; instead, he commissioned the young Lord Alfred Douglas to do it for him. This translation, however, greatly displeased Wilde; Lord Douglas’s French was mediocre at best and the translation contained many basic misunderstandings, such as the translation of “On ne doit regarder que dans les miroirs’ as, ‘One must not look at mirrors’ instead of ‘One should look only in mirrors.’” (Ellmann 330) Next Wilde asked the illustrator of his book, Audrey Beardsley, to do a translation, which Wilde liked even less. Wilde returned to Douglas’s version for the published edition but, according to Lord Douglas, Wilde drastically altered Douglas’s translation, and the version published in 1894, though dedicated to Lord Douglas as his translator, was mainly the work of Wilde himself.

Holbrook Jackson, in his introduction to a 1945 edition of the play using the 1894 translation, agrees with Douglas’s version of the story. He claims that there is a

“close resemblance of the style of the ‘translation’ to that of Wilde’s normal style. ….  The French of the original is so simple and direct that a literal translation was almost inevitable. The difficulty was with texture and cadence. Salome was translated out of a foreign language into the normal language of an author whose style was known and had to be reproduced. Translation would thus become creation. Wilde’s style has been reproduced successfully even to its characteristic echoes of other writers…” (Jackson 11)

Jackson concludes that “in these circumstances it is safe to assume that the (1894) English version of the play is lagely if not entirely Wilde’s” (11).

Joost Daalder, in a 2004 article in English Studies, disagrees. In his search for the most authoritative early translation of Salomé, he concludes that

the 1894 translation is an interesting historical curiosity; a text showing the very inaccurate rendering by Douglas which we know Wilde did not like but reluctantly agreed to see published. It cannot and should not be presented to readers as an authoritative or adequate translation.” (Daalder 52)

He does not consider the published 1894 version to have been the work of Wilde; instead, its numerous faults indicate it to be mostly the mistranslation of Douglas. Yet it is the only translation published in Wilde’s lifetime, and thus bears some mark of approval by him. Daalder claims that more “authoritative” translations exist which can also claim a direct tie to Wilde, those by Robert Ross in the 1906 and 1912 editions of the play. Ross was a close friend and confidant of Wilde’s, the final executor of his estate. His translations took the 1894 text as a base, yet corrected numerous faults, omissions, and additions to create a work closer to the French text. Daalder points out several of these differences:

“’the perfumed garden of spices of the Queen of Arabia (correctly omitted in 1912, p. 25; wrongly included in 1906, p. 21); ‘’she shows herself naked in the sky (om 1912, p.33; incl 1906 p.27) ‘he is a holy man’(om. 1912, p. 41; incl. 1906, p. 34) ‘take it away’(incl 1912, p.36) ‘you will be reasonable, will you not? “incl 1912); ‘I am sure that he comes from God’ (incl 1912)” (Daalder 51)

Other differences between the French version and the various English translations can be seen. In the 1894 version, in Jokanaan’s first speech he proclaims that the solitary places “shall blossom like the rose,” which the 1912 version corrects to “lily,” the word used in the French. In the 1894 version Salomé says that the dead Jokanaan’s tounge “says no more words,” which the 1912 version translates as “says nothing now,” more faithful to the French “ne dit rien maintenant.” In Salomé’s final speech in 1894, she asks “what matter? What matter?” whereas the 1912 version translates the French “qu’importe?” as “what of that?”

“What of that?” might also be an appropriate reaction of the reader faced with this textual quibblings. Few if any of the differences seem to have a dramatic impact on the play or its interpretation. One must decide whether the authority of the 1894 version which Wilde published outweighs the accuracy of Ross’s revised translations. No matter which translation chosen, it is clear that reference to the French original remains key to understanding the play, something that is sorely missing in many modern analyses.

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Compare 1894 text and French original, side by side in frames

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