Like Mallarmé translator of Poe, or Gide translator of Shakespeare, Claudel devoted himself to what he considered a “beautiful art”. He began by tackling Greek tragedy with a very personal version of the Aeschylean Oresteia. He also occasionally translated some English-language poets. He devoted his mature years and old age to the Latin of the Vulgate.
Claudel is above all the translator of the trilogy that Aeschylus had performed in Athens in 458 BCE. Combining both literalism and creative work, his translation of the Oresteia is an integral part of Claudel’s dramatic work.
Claudel undertook the translation of the first part of the ancient trilogy, Agamemnon, at the beginning of his career. Begun in late 1892 or early 1893 on the advice of his friend Schwob, himself a translator – among others – of Hamlet, the translation was completed in 1895. It occupied Claudel during his first stay in the United States, where he made his diplomatic debut, in New York and then in Boston. The aspiration to a geographical change of scenery which Claudel sought as a reader of Rimbaud was answered by the experience of cultural and aesthetic decentering that constituted for him this plunge into the archaic universe of Aeschylus. It is indeed in the mirror of Greek tragedy that Claudel’s dramatic poetics was sought and forged. He also found the prosodic training he was looking for. There are many resonances between Agamemnon and the dramatic texts on which the translator then worked: Tête d’Or, The City, The Exchange. The Claudel translation of Agamemnon was published in 1896 in China, where Claudel had just arrived as manager of the Fou Tchéou consulate. A copy was sent to Mallarmé as a tribute.
Aeschylus seemed forgotten when in 1912 Claudel proposed to the director Lugné-Poe to give the Agamemnon to the Théâtre de l’Œuvre after The Tidings Brought to Mary. The playwright then thought of having the ancient tragedy performed at the Chorégies d’Orange. These two projects did not come to fruition, but they encouraged the translator to complete the trilogy. The meeting of a man, Darius Milhaud, and the discovery of a place, the Art Institute in Hellerau, Germany, also played an important role in this return to Aeschylus. The Libation Bearers was completed in 1914, The Eumenides in 1916, while Claudel worked on his own trilogy, The Hostage, Crusts, The Humiliation of the Father. Darius Milhaud, whom the poet had met in 1912, composed the music to accompany the plays, which provided material not only for the correspondence between the composer and the translator but also the playwright’s reflection on the function of music in drama. In the Claudelian Oresteia, music intervenes periodically in the Agamemnon. It is more widely present in the Libation Bearers. The Eumenides is a veritable opera. The work on the last two parts of the ancient trilogy coincides with Claudel’s first stage experiences (performances of The Tidings in France in 1912, then in Germany, in Hellerau, in 1913). “Such is the work which transported me with admiration in my youth, and whose patient study, in the form of a translation, was the occupation of many years of my middle age,” Claudel wrote of the Aeschylean trilogy. Claudel’s Oresteia was premiered at the Berlin Opera in 1963.
On a much more ad hoc basis, Claudel also translated some poems from English: plays by Coventry Patmore between 1901 and 1911, a text by Thomas Lowell Beddoes (1930), “Leonainie” by Edgar Poe (1905) and a poem by Sir Philip Sidney (1944).
Claudel assiduously read the Bible in the Latin version of the Vulgate elaborated by St. Jerome at the beginning of the fifth century CE. From this intimacy of the poet with the sacred texts were born texts very freely inspired by the Psalms that appear in the Old Testament. They were published in various collections : Prière pour les Paralysés followed by Quinze Psaumes graduels (Ed. Horizons de France, 1944), Les Sept Psaumes de la Pénitence (Seuil, 1945), Paul Claudel répond les psaumes (Ed. Ides et Calendes, Neuchâtel, 1948). This is how the modern psalmist presents them: “It is not beautiful. I’ve re-read all this pile of psalms that I’ve been scribbling for three or four years, and no, sacrebleu, it’s not pretty! This is not literature!” No doubt we should not take the word of the author of these lines seriously. But it is true that these texts read in the Latin of St. Jerome have nourished the meditation of the Christian more, perhaps, than that of the poet. Presented as the analogue of the responses in the liturgy, they are intended above all to reproduce the intimate and familiar conversation of the faithful with God. Setting aside any concern for accuracy and formal beauty, Claudel claims to bring a very free echo to the original, a bitter and violent prayer. It is in this same spirit of dialogue with the divine word that the exegete sprinkles his biblical commentaries with very personal translations offered on the occasion of a particularly striking passage. Creation and translation are inseparable in Claudel, whose work offers a veritable, and very modern, kaleidoscope, of all writing practices. Translations, especially those from Greek and Latin, have nourished Claudelian creations, especially the theatre. They also represent themselves a work of literary creation in their own right.