First English

SALOME | A TRAGEDY IN ONE ACT
TRANSLATED FROM THE FRENCH OF OSCAR WILDE
FIRST ENGLISH EDITION, one of 500 copies
[Author’s collection]

EARLY TRANSLATIONS OF OSCAR WILDE’S SALOMÉ

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 were unexpectedly derailed by the Lord Chamberlain who deemed the drama too decadent to be staged. One presumes that incestuous and homoerotic desire, murder and necrophilia were a tad more taboo in those days—and the autocratic aristocrat refused to grant it 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 was grammatically unsatisfactory, and the composition artistically unsuited to an English version. Little wonder that Wilde, who had himself received native assistance with the finer points of the argot, did not translate his own work himself, and never repeated the experiment.

So it might be a more sympathetic view of then Douglas translation to accept that literary style is notoriously difficult to render harmoniously at the best of times—never mind the complications 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?

“Mais non!” I hear scholars protest, “c’est pas possible?”

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