Thursday, June 11, 2009

A Poe scandal in France

June 11, 1846 marked one of the earliest translations of Poe's work into French — without his permission. From June 11 to June 13, La Quotidienne published a serialized translation of the world's first modern detective story, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." Their title was "Un Meurtre sans exemple dans les Fastes de la Justice: Histoire trouvée dans les papiers d'un Américain." Poe did not grant permission for this, nor did the translation include his name in the byline.

Pirated international works are nothing too surprising in the 19th century but what makes this one different is what happens next.

Shortly after this translation, another French translation appeared. "Une sanglante énigme" was published in Le Commerce, listed by critic E. D. Forgues. Like the June 11 translation, this one did not mention Poe's name. A third newspaper, La Presse, noticed the similarity between the stories in Commerce and the Quotidienne and cried foul. In fact, this newspaper accused Forgues of plagiarism.

In the scandal that followed, Forgues revealed that both publications relied on a prior work, "les Contes d'E. Poe, littérateur américain." La Presse refused, however, to retract its accusation of plagiarism and Forgues sued for libel. The controversy became a national headline due to the strange court case — and "Poe," the American writer, became a household name in France. Forgues's libel suit was tossed out, but he ended up writing a 20-page critical review of Poe's Tales (1845) and gave ample praise to the writer that inspired his scandal-inducing translation.

Poe, of course, was still living at the time (and dealing with a libel suit of his own). It is unclear how much he knew about the controversy but a sudden burst in interest in his work in France led to many new translations in a short time, including "A Descent into the Maelstrom," "The Black Cat," and "The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion." "The Gold-Bug" was translated from a recent translation to Russian. "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and "The Black Cat" in particular caught the attention of French poet Charles Baudelaire.

Soon, Poe became more appreciated in France than in his home country... a situation which arguably still is true today.

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