Joost Daalder: Salomé, Confusion & Misattribution

[The following article originally appeared as a downloadable document on the earlier oscholars site hosted at, where it may still be found.  It is now published on line for the first time, with some typographical errors corrected. – Editor, THE OSCHOLARS]

Confusion and Misattribution Concerning the Two Earliest English Translations of Salome

Joost Daalder
Flinders University

This brief article is intended to whet the reader’s appetite for my longer paper, ‘A History of Confusion: The Two Earliest English Translations of Oscar Wilde’s Salome’, Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand Bulletin, Vol. 26, No. 3 & 4, 2002, pp.134-75, due out in February 2003. Information about BSANZB is available from the editor Ian Morrison, Curator of Special Collections, Baillieu Library, University of Melbourne, Vic. 3010, Australia, e-mail

Joost Daalder

As is well known, Oscar Wilde’s Salome was originally written by its author in French and published, as Salomé, in 1893.1 It is also common knowledge that an unsatisfactory translation of the play into English, by Wilde’s beloved ‘Bosie’, Lord Alfred Douglas, appeared in 1894. What has not been realised, however, is that this translation has been persistently confused with a later, drastically overhauled version—virtually a new translation—which was first published in 1906 and almost certainly prepared by Robert Ross, Wilde’s life-long friend, and his literary executor after his death in 1900.3  More than one publisher has, probably unknowingly, offered readers this later version as though it was the original one prepared by Douglas. More generally, it needs to be observed that that those who have known the 1906 text have apparently not realised that the 1894 version differs greatly, and vice versa.

The confusion involved is perhaps at its most striking in two paperback anthologies of Wilde’s plays published by Penguin Books (Harmondsworth). The first of these appeared as Oscar Wilde: Plays in 1954.4 It was reprinted in 1986, in exactly the same form, under the title Oscar Wilde: The Importance of Being Earnest and Other Plays, and as such is still in print. However, in 2000 a new Penguin volume was published, edited by Richard Allen Cave, with the same title, but including, as an addition, A Florentine Tragedy and extensive editorial material. I shall discuss the Salomé text in each of these paperbacks in turn, starting with the anthology which was first published in 1954 and has been sold in large numbers for almost 50 years.

The 1954 volume states inside the front cover: ‘Salomé, which was written in French, is here reprinted in the English translation made by Lord Alfred Douglas.’ That sounds unequivocal. Furthermore, on p.315 the play is announced as ‘Salomé —IN THE TRANSLATION OF LORD ALFRED DOUGLAS’. This, again, would seem to leave no room for doubt as to just which text the Penguin anthology includes. Indeed, p.5 tells us that the English translation of Salome, ‘made by Lord Alfred Douglas’, appeared in 1894.

However, a comparison between the Penguin Plays and the 1894 text5 soon reveals that the Penguin Plays contains many different readings.

The very first stage direction in the 1894 text says: ‘The moon is shining very brightly’. By contrast Penguin has the simple ‘Moonlight’ (p. 319), which accurately translates Wilde’s ‘Clair de lune’. The 1894 text is obviously over-imaginative in this instance. The second speech in the Penguin text, by the Page of Herodias, includes ‘You would fancy she was looking for dead things’, while the 1894 original starts this sentence with ‘One might fancy . . .’ Here a difference in style rather than meaning is involved: the text presented by Penguin is often less formal and stilted, opting for a more ‘normal’, ‘modern’ effect. To select just one more example from these early speeches, at the end of p.319 the Penguin text has ‘The Tetrarch has a sombre look’, while 1894 has ‘aspect’ instead of ‘look’.

Differences of this nature are very frequent throughout. But there are also many far more significant variations. For example, at the end of her long speech starting, in the Penguin text, on p.345 and concluding on p.347, Salome says: ‘the mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death. Love only should one consider.’ The arresting final sentence translates Wilde’s ‘Il ne faut regarder que l’amour.’ In the 1894 text, however, it is omitted altogether.

In general, the Penguin version has the advantage of being closer to Wilde’s French and offering more idiomatic English, but it is not, as the publishers have claimed, Douglas’s translation which is offered.6

Extensive comparison of each of the two early translated texts, 1894 and 1906, with that in the Penguin 1954 anthology shows without any doubt that the Penguin version is not a reprint of Douglas’s 1894 original, but, directly or otherwise, of the 1906 publication which first appeared as Salome: A Tragedy in One Act Translated from the French of Oscar Wilde. This edition does not offer Douglas’s text, but a thoroughly revised version of his translation. In general, this new version is much closer to Wilde’s French, and even for that reason alone (whatever one thinks of the style offered in the 1894 text) is certainly preferable to Douglas’s very defective rendering. It is most probable that Robert Ross, who was Wilde’s literary executor in 1906, was responsible for the appearance of this much-improved English translation by not only sanctioning its publication, but also by undertaking the revision himself.7 My concern here, however, is not so much with the exact nature of the changes in the 1906 text, or who was responsible for them, but with the curious fact that Penguin, in this anthology of Wilde’s plays first published in 1954, has for almost half a century presented the 1906 text as though that was identical—as it most certainly is not—to that of 1894.

In order to get an idea of how Penguin may have come to do this we need to consider the way Ross proceeded to publish his revised version in 1906. He evidently did not want to draw attention to the many changes he incorporated. In fact, he tried to cover his tracks in case someone discovered the alterations. And he used subtle methods to do so. In the 1894 text, Douglas’s name did not appear on the title page, but in a dedication: ‘To my friend Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas the translator of my play’. This dedication was simply omitted from the 1906 publication, which has the title page ‘Salome: A Tragedy in One Act Translated from the French of Oscar Wilde’, but which does not mention Douglas anywhere. This omission had the advantage that, whatever readers thought of the translation offered, no one could claim that Douglas was its translator, or for that matter that anyone else was. It in effect made the translation seem anonymous, which was no doubt Ross’s intention. However, it is reasonable to assume, and seems to be borne out by subsequent developments, that in general those who saw this translation believed it to be Douglas’s, as they were offered no evidence to the contrary.

Thus was initiated, in this 1906 publication, a long-lasting process whereby a substantially new translation was offered in such a way that no one could immediately know that it was new, and that it was not by Douglas, even though the 1894 dedication in which Douglas was mentioned as the translator had disappeared. Ross published this same (1906) translation again in 1907, and in later editions. He also produced a yet better—more thoroughly revised—version in 1912, which is not to our immediate purpose.8 It is, however, interesting to consider the possibility that the attribution in the 1954 Penguin text derives from one particular edition of the 1906 text, published in 1910. In vol. vi of what Mason calls the ‘Ross edition’, which was issued for America, Salome is included with the half-title ‘Salomé: translated from the French of Oscar Wilde by Lord Alfred Douglas’ (Mason No 457).9  One suspects that this phrase may have influenced later publishers who used similar expressions to designate that the translation which they printed was Douglas’s while what they were publishing was, in fact, Ross’s revised version.

The recent publication of an updated, edited version of the 1954 Penguin volume offers an intriguing instance of further confusion of Douglas’s and Ross’s versions. Published in 2000, under the title which had been used since 1986, viz. The Importance of Being Earnest and Other Plays, the new version of the anthology has now been edited by Richard Allen Cave. As I already knew of the fact that the 1954 text derives from Ross’s 1906 text when I became aware of Cave’s edition, the most interesting matter to inspect in it was, for me, his handling of the text of Salome. My curiosity was therefore aroused by a statement on p.xxvii of Cave’s edition: ‘The original Penguin text of Salomé has been collated with and corrected against the first edition of the English version published by Mathews and Lane in 1894’.

Let us suppose, as this statement encourages us to do, that the original Penguin text, which is based on Ross’s 1906 text, has been collated with Douglas’s 1894 text, on the assumption that the 1894 text had to be followed for the 2000 edition. Obviously, that process of collation would inevitably result in massive revision of the 1954 Penguin text: we would find, in Cave’s 2000 text, everything that sets the 1894 text apart from that of 1906.

However, Cave is mistaken. He has, in fact, not corrected his text in the light of collation with the 1894 translation, but has, instead, consulted some version or other—it is impossible to decide which—of Ross’s 1906 text, and in the event the text in the new Penguin anthology is almost the same as in the old. Furthermore, Cave’s over-dependence on the 1954 Penguin text is clear from the fact that he even preserves several of its unique mistakes. The Penguin edition of 1954 is of a high standard, as a version of Ross’s 1906 text, but it does include the following substantive errors: p.327, JOKANAAN (speech 2), ‘beatings ‘for 1906’s ‘beating’; p.333, A THIRD JEW: ‘He is what is good’ for 1906’s ‘He is in what is good’; p.335, FIRST NAZARENE: ‘Yes, sire’ for 1906’s ‘Yea, sire’; p.341, HEROD (speech 3): ‘bring you’ for 1906’s ‘bring thee’. Of these errors Cave, in his 2000 edition, corrects only the last. Thus his text is not only not based on the 1894 text, as he claims it is, but also shows little evidence of a careful comparison of the 1954 Penguin text with the 1906 version.

My point here is not so much that Cave has misled us (though that is certainly an effect of his procedure), but that—I would conjecture—he has allowed himself to be prompted into thinking, like so many people before him, that when he saw Ross’s work he saw Douglas’s. The result is that, unknowingly, he presents (continuing Penguin’s previous practice) not Douglas’s work, as he states he does, but Ross’s. If he actually had consulted the 1894 text he no doubt would not have made this mistake: he might have offered either Ross’s text or Douglas’s, but he would have known which one he was choosing. I add that it is very easy to keep the two texts apart if one has inspected them. As we have seen, substantive differences are apparent from the very beginning.

In fairness to Penguin Books Ltd., it must be admitted that the Penguin anthology, in its various guises, is certainly not the only text to contain a reprint of Ross’s English version which is mistakenly described as Douglas’s. The more ‘official’ edition, so to speak, which many scholars have used when referring to Salome in English, has in particular been the Collins Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, first published in London in 1948, about which the publisher at present informs us on the cover: ‘Continuously in print since 1948, the Collins Complete Works of Oscar Wilde has long been established as the most comprehensive and authoritative single-volume collection of Wilde’s works available’, to which he adds that it contains the plays and other works ‘in their most authoritative texts’.10

On the face of such a statement, one would expect the Collins volume to include Douglas’s 1894 translation of Salome, rather than any later text. Indeed, the 1948 edition presents the play as ‘Translated from the French of Oscar Wilde by Lord Alfred Douglas’, and we are still told the same in the current Centenary Edition. Given this fact, it is not surprising that countless readers have assumed that the Collins text of Salome offers them Douglas’s translation. However, as in the case of the Penguin anthology, it is not Douglas’s text which we are given, but Ross’s 1906 version.

I have extensively and thoroughly compared the Collins text both with Ross’s 1906 version and the Penguin text, and have been able to conclude that the Collins version follows its original more literally than does Penguin.11 However, the fact remains that the English version which appears in the Collins Salome is not Douglas’s but Ross’s.

To say that Collins, too, is guilty of giving us the 1906 text when it claims to present that of 1894 is not to say that, as publishers, Penguin and Collins are equally at fault in what they have done. Not only is the Collins text at least the more accurate of the two as a reprint of Ross’s 1906 text, but it also does not pretend to the level of scholarly accuracy and new labour which Cave’s 2000 edition does. Cave, after all, claims: ‘The original Penguin text of Salomé has been collated with and corrected against the first edition of the English version published by Mathews and Lane in 1894’ (p.xxvii). With respect to Cave’s edition, even more than the 1954 Penguin, we really do need to ask with strong emphasis: ‘Why does Penguin misleadingly claim it offers us Lord Alfred Douglas’s 1894 translation of Wilde’s Salome?’

Finally, we briefly need to consider where publishers and editors should go from here. Some scholars have used the 1894 text for their editions, for example (quite recently) Isobel Murray and Peter Raby.12 These scholars do not appear to be aware of the 1906 text, and that many comments made by various critics over time are based on that text rather than Douglas’s 1894 translation. While they reproduce the 1894 text faithfully, they do not realise that they might have instead presented the 1906 text, which Wilde would no doubt have preferred. Wilde’s disapproval of Douglas’s version is on record, and it teems with errors. By contrast, the 1906 text is much closer to Wilde’s French, and unintentionally publishers like Penguin and Collins have done us a service in making it available to large numbers of readers and theatre-goers. However, any publisher using the 1906 text should of course make that fact plain, and now should no longer continue to behave as though that text was the one published in 1894 as Douglas’s translation. The two texts are significantly different literary works, and should no longer be confused.

Ultimately, the version which Ross produced in 1912 appears to me to offer the best early translation of the play, but I shall devote a separate article to that text at a different time. My preoccupation here has been with the confusion of the 1894 and 1906 texts, and particularly with the fact that even the 2000 Penguin, though offered as a fresh edition, still—and misleadingly—produces the 1906 text as though that presents Douglas’s work.


1. Oscar Wilde: Salomé: Drame en un Acte (Paris: Librairie de l’Art Indépendant, and London: Elkin Mathews and John Lane, 1893). This book, which is very rare, is described in some detail as No 348 by Stuart Mason in his Bibliography of Oscar Wilde (London: The Bodley Head and T. Werner Laurie, 1914; new ed. London: Bertram Rota, 1967). Whenever I cite Wilde’s French version I do so from Robert Ross’s first collected edition of the Works (London: Methuen, 1908), as reproduced photolithographically under the title The First Collected Edition of the Works of Oscar Wilde, 1908-1922, in 15 vols. (London: Dawsons of Pall Mall, 1969). Salomé is part of vol. 13 (though of vol. 2 in the 1908 version). I use the English form Salome instead of the French Salomé wherever the texts cited make it possible for me to do so, and also when I refer to the play in general terms.

2. Salome—A Tragedy in One Act: Translated from the French of Oscar Wilde: Pictured by Aubrey Beardsley (London: Elkin Mathews and John Lane, and Boston: Copeland and Day, 1894). This, again, is an extremely rare book (No 350 in Mason). The 1894 text does not bear Douglas’s name, but does include (on p.viii) an acknowledgement: ‘To my friend Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas the translator of my play’.

3. Salome: A Tragedy in One Act Translated from the French of Oscar Wilde (London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, and New York: John Lane Company, 1906). This book is described by Mason as No 352, who points out that it was reprinted in the form he describes in 1908 and 1911. An upgraded version of the 1906 publication—No 355 in Mason—had meanwhile appeared with the date 1907 (though published in September 1906): Salome: A Tragedy in One Act Translated from the French of Oscar Wilde, with Sixteen Drawings by Aubrey Beardsley (London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, and New York: John Lane Company, 1907). The text of the play remained unaltered from the 1906 publication, though some significant material was added.

4. Salomé (to use the form preferred by Penguin), together with A Woman of No Importance and An Ideal Husband, had previously been published by Penguin in one volume in 1948.

5. For details of the 1894 text, see note 2. As many readers would have considerable difficulty accessing copies of the rare nineteenth century original, I quote instead from the widely available unabridged republication, reproduced from a copy held at the Free Library of Philadelphia, by Dover Publications, New York, in 1967.

6. I list the differences as completely as I can, and discuss their nature, in a lengthy article: ‘A History of Confusion: The Two Earliest English Translations of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé’. Bibliographical Society of Australia & New Zealand Bulletin, vol. 26, no. 3 & 4 (2002), pp. 134-75.

7. For detailed arguments and evidence to support this statement I must refer the reader to the article mentioned in note 6. Here, I merely note that Ross published De Profundis (London: Methuen, 1905) in a heavily expurgated form, and that Ian Small, the General Editor for the Oxford English Texts edition of Wilde, has informed me (in an e-mail communication) that in his view the changes which I have discovered in the 1906 text, which he had been unaware of, have parallels with other works, particularly some of the changes made by Ross to The Importance of Being Earnest.

8. For the publication details relating to the 1907 edition, see note 3. The 1912 version—which incorporates many further revisions—was published in London by John Lane, The Bodley Head, and in New York by John Lane Company, under the title Salome, A Tragedy in One Act Translated from the French of Oscar Wilde.

9. See Oscar Wilde, Salome, A Florentine Tragedy, Vera (Authorised Edition; Boston: John Luce & Co, 1910).

10. I quote from the cover of the Centenary Edition (Glasgow: HarperCollins, 1999). When first published, the Collins Works was edited by G.F. Maine, under the title The Works of Oscar Wilde (London and Glasgow: Collins, 1948). A new 1966 edition (called The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde) was introduced by Vyvyan Holland (Wilde’s son) in 1966, and another in 1994 by Merlin Holland (Wilde’s grandson).

11. For example, on p.543 of the 1948 text Collins prints’ the beating of the wings of the angel of death’, following Ross’s 1906 text, where, in the same speech, Penguin mistakenly prints ‘beatings’ (cf. 1954, p.327; 2000, p.77).

12. Isobel Murray, ed., Oscar Wilde: The Major Works (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989; rev. ed. 2000), p.614; Peter Raby, ed., Oscar Wilde: The Importance of Being Earnest and Other Plays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995; repr. 1998).


see also

Joost Daaldar: “A History of Confusion: The Two Earliest English Translations of Wilde’s Salomé.”  Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand Bulletin, 26, 3 & 4 (2002), pp. 134-75.
—“Robert Ross on Salome: An Important Passage  Re-discovered.” Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand Bulletin, 27 (2003), 1 & 2, p. 108.
—“Which is the Most Authoritative Early Translation of Wilde’s Salomé?”. English Studies (2004),  85, 1, pp. 47-52.


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