First English

FIRST ENGLISH EDITION, one of 500 copies
[Author’s collection]

Wilde’s play Salomé was published in the 1890s in two languages, and the bane of each was a lordly limitation.

First was the original work that Wilde wrote in French—albeit with a little help from his friends. Rehearsals in 1892 for a London production based on the French draft starring Sarah Bernhardt were unexpectedly derailed by the Lord Chamberlain who deemed the drama too decadent to be staged. One can only presume that incestuous and homoerotic desire, murder and necrophilia were a tad more taboo in those days—and so the autocratic aristocrat refused to grant Salome a license for the theatre. Undeterred, Wilde proceeded into print and the play appeared in book form as Salomé: Drame en un acte — or what is now referred to simply as the original French edition (1893).

Next was the troublesome task of translating the text into English. This time the noble impediment was altogether more predictable because it was Wilde’s paramour and translator of the play himself Lord Alfred Douglas—or Bosie to his friends if he had any friends left after characteristic bouts of squabbling and fraught correspondence about his lingua franca with all concerned.

“Schoolboy” Translator
Romance Linguistics

Owing to the personal discord between various participants and the 23 year-old Douglas, his work on the translation has often been maligned in mainstream commentary. But such a conviction conveniently overlooks the fact that Wilde’s conversational French to begin with was grammatically unsatisfactory, and its composition artistically unsuited to an English version. Little wonder that Wilde, who had himself required native assistance with the finer points of the argot, did not translate his own work and never repeated the experiment.

So it might be a more sympathetic view of the Douglas translation to accept that literary style is notoriously difficult to render harmoniously at the best of times—never mind the complications of converting Wilde’s repetitive symbolist subtleties from the gendered Gallic into the neutered syntax of stodgy old Anglo-Saxon.

In any event, the task was clearly a tall order for his willful lily-like lordship, and, consequently, authorial corrections and editorial diplomacy were requisite to Wilde’s French play eventually being Anglicized about a year later as Salome: Tragedy in One Act, or the First English edition (1894).

So we have the French and the English editions, and these twin pillars of publication have provided an orthodoxy accepted by all studies of Salome to date, namely that the Douglas translation of 1894 marked the first time the English-reading world had been privy to Wilde’s controversial French play.

So far so good; but not so fast.

What if a hitherto unheralded full synopsis of the play and a partial translation in English was already in the public domain long before Bosie got his hands on Oscar’s feminine nouns?

Moreover, would it not be a noteworthy addition to the bibliography of Salome if such an English translation not only existed prior to Douglas’ ‘First English’, but also that it appeared in print on the very day after the French edition was published?

Scholars might wonder: “c’est pas possible?”

A Page Out Of History

You may recall my recent post Rediscovered which featured a long-forgotten photograph of Oscar Wilde in a full-page article in the May 10, 1893 issue of the London newspaper The Westminster Budget.

It turns out that the page is remarkable for more than just carrying the rare photograph—the extraordinary context is itself a forgotten piece of Wildean history.

The title of the article is “Mr. Wilde’s Forbidden Play”—which is journalese for the fact that the French version of Salomé had been banned the Lord Chamberlain. In attempting to reveal (and ultimately challenge) what the authorities might have found so objectionable en français, the newspaper provides an entire condensation of the plot along with chunks of translation. What is remarkable is that this translation was made almost a year before Douglas’ so-called “First English” edition.

To be precise about the date, we can actually go back a little further into history. The Westminster Budget was a weekly illustrated paper—hence the photographs. But the article actually first appeared (with sketches instead) a couple of months earlier in the Budget’s daily sister paper The Westminster Gazette on February 23rd, 1893.

Here, then, is the Gazette version and it represents the earliest known publication in English of the synopsis and partial dialogue of Wilde’s French play:

The Westminster Gazette, February 23rd, 1893, p. 3.

This earlier iteration in the Gazette, on February 23, merely serves to thicken the plot because it brings the publication date back to the very day after the release of the French Edition in book form.

This extraordinary timing is, I suggest, no coincidence—but what does it portend?

First let us fix the newspaper translation in the otherwise notoriously vague and historically disputed chronology of events between the two book publications. It resides one day after Wilde’s French edition and one year before Douglas’ authorized ‘First English’. Here are those two book versions as bookends in the timeline:

—February 22, 1893: Salomé: Drame en un acte (French edition)
—February 23, 1893: ‘Mr. Wilde’s Forbidden Play’ (English newspaper)
—May-July 1893: contract for the English edition proposed
—August 3, 1893: Wilde signs contract with Lane & Matthews for an English version
—August 30, 1893: Douglas finalizes his translation
—September to November, 1893: Wilde/Douglas quarrel over wording
—c. November, 1893: Probability of textual emendations by Wilde
—c. November, 1893: Possibility of an alternative translation by Beardsley
—November 25, 1893: Questions of authorship vs. dedication resolved *
February 9, 1894: Salome: Tragedy in One Act (‘First English’ edition)

* Without entering into the personal politics and diplomacy behind this agreement, Douglas was given a fly leaf dedication rather than a title page credit.

Fly leaf dedication to Douglas as the translator.
[Author’s collection]
The Day After

How much significance can we attach to the fact that the translation appeared on the day after the original French edition became publicly available?

It is natural to suspect that with the work now in print the newspaper was permitted to quote from it—and perhaps that is what article means when it says “the text…has now been published”. This is a tempting idea because it would be no surprise if the press had taken the earliest opportunity to give its monolingual readership some scandalous indication of why the play had been banned.

But we must be careful not to place too much emphasis on the overnight availability of the French text. It is true that the article refers to the edition’s purple bindings and dedication, but it is too much to imagine that a member of the Gazette staff picked up a newly printed copy from Hatchard’s, hurriedly absorbed the plot, made translations of key passages, and then got up article in time for the presses the next day.

It is reasonable, therefore, to assume that someone must have had prior knowledge of the French play. Fortunately, for our case, this is not unlikely.

We recall that rehearsals in London with Sarah Bernhardt for the play in French had ceased almost six months before the Gazette translation. So there is the possibility that actors’ copies or a prompt copy of the play existed, allowing access to it somewhat earlier. Alternatively, the press may have been sent an advance or pre-issue copy of the French play for review.

Either way, this notion of a cognoscenti at work is supported by the curious fact that there are stage directions and descriptions in the article that are not in the French nor in the English editions—and some of the notations appear to have been discernible only from having access to the rehearsals. One might begin to wonder whether there were Wildean cogs in the publicity machine.

In fact, prior knowledge of the play may have been intentionally predetermined in the form of a press leak. And the most likely source for such an idea would be the person for whom the date of release would be the most propitious: namely the publisher John Lane, intent on increasing sales of the newly issued French edition.

If so, where better for his purpose than The Westminster Gazette?

The Westminster Gazette

Newspapers have long had political leanings, and in 1893 the The Westminster Gazette was no exception.

Founded by Liberal publisher George Newnes, just a month before the Salome translation appeared, the first issue carried well-wishes from the Liberal prime minster, Gladstone and other members of his cabinet. Its editor was E. T. Cook whose erstwhile tenure at the Wilde-friendly Pall Mall Gazette was cut short the previous year when Cook and his political staff were forced to resign after the paper was sold to W. W. Astor, who changed its politics.

Another point of liberalism I should note for decadent Wildeans, is that The Westminster Gazette was innovatively printed on green paper! This they did in consultation with an oculist with the hue designed ostensibly for more restful reading. However, in its first issue, the Gazette described its choice of color as the ‘tint of the fields’—which conjures up either a contemplation of green carnations or the gradients of the grassy knoll, according to your suspicions.

Less conspiratorial, however, was the Literary Notes section. While the Gazette was wont to carry reviews and advertisements for Mathews and Lane publications, can it be a coincidence that an advertisement for the French Salomé appeared in the paper the very next day?

The Westminster Gazette, February 24, 1893
American English

If The Westminster Gazette translation is the rightful ‘First English’, what is the second?

In this pursuit we should discount repetition of the same article, e.g. the subsequent copy in the Budget, and, for some reason, in Nottingham (UK) newspapers on February 25, 1893—incidentally, I have found no other reprinting of the Westminster article.

Instead, we should be looking for a separate attempt or, in other words, a different translation. Could there be possibly be another?

Surprisingly, and constituting another revelation, a second translation was in fact made in the American newspaper The New York World. This appeared a couple of weeks later taking up more than two full columns of The World‘s Sunday edition of March 12, 1893. It is a completely disparate article and a distinct translation.

To illustrate the nuance, here are two simple examples showing the difference between lines of dialogue in the two newspaper versions and the authorized First English:

Gazette (1893): Make him hold his peace. He is always absurd.
World (1893): Make him cease. He is always saying absurd things.
Douglas (1894): Make him be silent. He is always saying ridiculous things.

Gazette (1893): the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose.
World (1893): I am not worthy even to undo the string of his shoe.
Douglas (1894): I am not worthy so much as to unloose the latchet of his shoes.

Not only does the version in The World translate the same dialogue in different ways, it translates different passages, gives a different reading to the synopsis, and in aggregate translates more of the play.

Why All This Matters

Unlike the drafting of the original French work for which three manuscripts and a typescript exist, the English translation is shrouded in mystery. There is little or no textual documentation about its composition.

What we do have is a frustrating lack of insight into the infamous disagreement between Douglas, Wilde, and Lane about the competence of the authorized First English. But with the discovery of these newspaper translations several factors emerge.

First we have a contemporary touchstone with which to evaluate Douglas’ work.

Second, does not the pre-existence of reasonably competent translations by two unidentified news correspondents make a charade of the literary elite’s months-long inability to agree on wording?

One more thing. The newspaper translations also have a historical value in providing a contrast with later English translations that appeared in the twentieth century. This last consideration is a topic in itself which, in the interest of completeness, I shall cover in the future article: Full English.

© John Cooper, 2021

The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde: Volume V: Plays I: The Duchess of Padua, Salome: Drame en un Acte, Salome: Tragedy in One Act. Edited by Joseph Donohue

I am grateful to my learned counsel: Merlin Holland, Matthew Sturgis, and Michael Seeney for their knowledge and encouragement in the preparation of this article.

2 thoughts on “First English

  1. I haven’t read the original French, but I will say the journo translation has rather a different…syntactic approach…than the authorized English translation. A little less rigorously subject- verb-object. It is said of Casanova that his French was vastly Italian in construction; I wonder what people said of Wilde’s French?


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