An Invitation, but to What Exactly, Monsieur Baudelaire?

I was with a few non-French-speaking friends recently when the following tagline (apparently signature in French, a nice repurposing of the term) for a French specialty cheese drew our attention: Invitation à un voyage sensoriel.

First came an explanation of the allusion hovering behind the phrase, a reference to the French poet Charles Baudelaire’s rightly famous poem “Invitation au voyage,” the title usually being translated as… “Invitation to the Voyage” (I have my doubts about that rendering and return to it below). “Invitation au voyage,” the title at any rate, is immediately recognized by most French-speakers and hence is not unheard-of in advertising copy. Hunting around for English equivalents, I can think of Keats’ “On Chapman’s Homer” (true title: “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”), or Frost’s “Stopping by Woods” (again the complete title is “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”), which are generally familiar to people in the United States, although I suspect that English-language advertisers haven’t been falling over themselves in their rush to capitalize on poem titles.

The more enlightening discussion, however, had to do with sensoriel, which you could English as “sensory.” To take an example close to our cheese noodling here, the concept of sensory marketing is called le marketing sensoriel in French; it could well be that the French marketing or advertising team had that very usage in mind, consciously or unconsciously, when someone came up with the tagline. In any case, a rough mental first-draft translation might be “Invitation to a sensory voyage.” Why not “sensuous voyage” or “sensual voyage,” my non-Francophone friends wanted to know. Ah, there’s the rub. Sensuous or sensual voyage in French would be voyage sensuel, and that, good members of the reading public, is not what the author or authors wrote. Translator’s gotta translate what’s on the computer screen. That suggestion, however, leads to two observations.

First a bad translator, someone with only a cursory grasp, if that, of the out-of language, might well leap to the conclusion that sensoriel is surely the Frenchman’s way of saying “sensuous” or “sensual”—why the French are always slipping the pleasures of the flesh into most absurd of places, the thinking goes. Not so here, or at least not in the way a bad translator might understand it.

Secondly, and more importantly, an experienced translator normally cannot get away with a turn of phrase like “sensory voyage,” even though it would in fact be an accurate translation. The general reader, encountering something like “Invitation to a Sensory Voyage” on the wrapping of a specialty French cheese, would conclude that the phrase was a bad translation, an utterance that no native speaker or writer would ever make under normal speech conditions.

In the end I would settle for “invitation to a voyage of the senses,” which is strictly in French, invitation à un voyage des sens, but never mind, there is no end to compromise in the translation dodge. Translators are constantly weighing just how far they can go in their target language, looking for what they can reasonably get away with.

One final word about that usual English translation of the title of Baudelaire’s well-loved poem. The great American poet and translator Richard Wilbur, for instance, prudently avoids the problem altogether by leaving the French title at the top of his English translation. The difficulty lies in the use of the definite article. Le voyage could be, for example, “the voyage/journey/trip (that I took over the summer—that is, with any dependent clause that justifies the definite article here). But one could also conceivably render le voyage as “travel,” the general concept of moving over a significant distance for business or pleasure, which we express with the articleless noun (what specialists call anarthrous nouns or substantives). This presents a poser.

The content of Baudelaire’s poem doesn’t in fact describe a particular voyage, journey or trip, or the act of traveling, all of which could justify the use of the definite article: Invitation to the journey (we shall make together to this or that place…) “Invitation au voyage” describes an exquisite, ideal place (Amsterdam was the inspiration here) that the poet would like to reach and inhabit with his beloved. Perhaps a more accurate rendering would be “Invitation to Travel” (and notice how we have dropped the articleless noun for a verb, with the preposition “to” of “invitation” and the “to” of the to-infinitive neatly fusing into one word). Whereas “Invitation to a Journey” doubtless sounds better, and “Invitation Far Away” or “Invitation to a Distant Shore” are immediately—and all too slickly—perceived as “poetic” (a temptation the translator must constantly resist), the most accurate translation in the circumstances, the one that most closely approaches the original sense of the French, would probably be “Invitation to Travel.” After you, Monsieur Baudelaire.

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