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This question is directly inspired from this one on French Language stack exchange.

To summarize it, the OP is wondering about the good translation for "chimiste" in Baudelaire's opening poem Au Lecteur. This poem can also be found here with some translations of it.

I have tried to provide an answer, but, as non specialist, I feel it can be considered as opinion-based.

So, my question here is double:

  • What to think about this particular case ("chemist" or "alchemist")?
  • And more globally what is the good way to forge an opinion in such a case?

(I've read these questions and answers (1, 2) but I think this is not totally a duplicate of them)


Following the comment of Hamlet, I try here to explain my reasoning about this translation (but my English is poor and saying all this is not self evident... sorry about that).

I think Baudelaire could have chosen the word "alchemist" if he though it was the good/appropriated one. But he did not.

Surely there is the alexandrine aspect, and due to that we can not have:

Sur l'oreiller du mal c'est Satan Trismégiste

Qui berce longuement notre esprit enchanté,

Et le riche métal de notre volonté

Est tout vaporisé par ce savant alchimiste (13 syllables).

And we can't either have

Est vaporisé par ce savant alchimiste (because we lose here the two hemistichs)

But (even if less pleasant), it can be:

Est tout vaporisé par ce grand alchimiste (12 = 6 + 6 syllables... even if Trismégiste is already "three times great"...)

Or any other formulation that surely Baudelaire was able to elaborate.

On another plane, there is the meaning aspect:

The first one is near context "riche métal" ("rich metal") which recalls gold, added to "enchanté" ("bewitched") et "vaporisé" ("vaporized")... which all could tend to alchemy.

The second is the overall poem context: Baudelaire is talking about our human condition, something totally real which is not related to false beliefs (alchemy). And presuming Satan is part of this reality (or simply an allegory), he is surely skilled enough to make usage of a real science.

So, to summarize, my opinion is "chemist" is more appropriate. But I'm in hope to find here a more accurate and expert explanation.

  • Why, then, if he did not mean to refer to alchemy, did he use, Trismégiste, which can only refer to Hermes Trismegistus, the alchemical Smagdarine tablet and so on and so on? – kimchi lover Sep 16 '17 at 23:09
  • @kimchilover, a hypothesis: because we're as flying with the allegory but then fall back to the hardness of reality with the last verse. – lemon Sep 17 '17 at 7:33
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This only applies to some of the translations, but there's actually a very simple reason: chemist does not rhyme with Trismegist, while alchemist does.

The word chemist has the stress on the first syllable, and would require a double (or feminine) rhyme like menaced—which is still only a very good near-rhyme (I actually can't think of any perfect rhymes for chemist). On the other hand, alchemist has secondary stress on the third syllable and can be rhymed with Trismegist and resist (both of which are used for rhymes in at least one of the translations on this website). A different translation uses the word scientist, which avoids both the inaccuracy of alchemist and the fact that there are no perfect rhymes for chemist.

And also note that an unrhymed translation on that website does use the word chemist.

  • 2
    Premised, the past tense of the verb premise, might be hard to work into a poem, but it is a perfect rhyme for chemist. – user14111 Mar 30 '18 at 8:32
  • @user14111: Wonderful! – Peter Shor Mar 30 '18 at 9:17

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