The Decadent Movement originated in France during the second half of the nineteenth century, when Decadent writers and artists turned away from social and artistic conventions towards elaborate, esoteric and transgressive forms of artistic expression. By the 1890s the movement had spread across Europe and exerted its influence upon British culture. The power and allure of Decadence influenced some of the most important writers of the period, such as including Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater, Arthur Symons, George Moore, John Gray, George Egerton (Mary Chavelita Dunne), Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson and Michael Field (the pen name of Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper). For these writers, Decadence offered a powerful means of affiliation with an artistic avant-garde. It also provided a set of conceptual tools to explore urgent questions about the meaning of modernity.
As a practical necessity, translation lay at the heart of Decadent writers’ programme of artistic innovation and cultural inquiry. All of the British writers listed above, consumed and, crucially, produced translations in a variety of forms. These ranged from open and credited translation proper to unacknowledged embedded versions of foreign texts. Importantly, this was also true for major continental writers linked with Decadence, including Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, Gabriele D’Annunzio and Hugo von Hofmannsthal.
But translation was also a significant theoretical concern for these writers. As a form of authorship, translation helped Decadent writers to complicate standard accounts of originality in literature. In terms of politics, translation became a means for these writers to engage with foreignness and raise questions of cultural identity. This was particularly important during a period that witnessed both an unprecedented increase in international communication and an entrenchment of national differences.
In this way, translation helped to give a distinctive shared identity to writers associated with the Decadent movement across Europe. It became intrinsic to their thinking about the very nature of writing itself. This new emphasis transformed literary culture, anticipating the international perspective commonly associated with the Modernist movement in the early twentieth century. Studying how Decadents engaged with translation to interrogate their international modernity can help us make sense of similar, crucial questions of national identity and cultural allegiance that we face today.
Image Credit: Édouard Manet, – frontispiece Stéphane Mallarmé L’Après midi d’un faune (1876) – @ University of Glasgow Library 2018