06 January, 2006

A new rendering of Aeneid 6.204

The feebleness of translators' efforts continues to irritate me. Back in the 16th and 17th centuries, translators made full use of the English vocabulary, coining and reviving words, and turning new and unusual phrases to fit their purposes; the most famous example of this is the King James Bible. It was their willingness to experiment that provided so many of our memorable expressions, as well as radically increasing the richness and prestige of our beloved language. Now we are content to draw on existing materials. . . it is no wonder our lexicon is becoming impoverished, no wonder long, jewelled words are becoming mere museum-pieces. One example of this contemporary flatness was revealed to me at the end of last year, when I was writing an essay on Vergil and his medieval commentators for a non-degree Latin class here at Arizona State. The Aeneid, Book 6, line 204, when Aeneas first sights the famous Golden Bough:

discolor unde auri per ramos aura refulsit

There are two important factors here. Firstly, the play between 'auri' (gold) and 'aura' (breath, wind, spirit, gleam), which indicates the kinship between the matter and the sensory appearance of the Bough. And secondly, that difficult word 'discolor', which indicates that the gold stands out from its green setting as a strikingly different shade. Here are some English renderings of this compact, elegant line, taken almost at random from the huge multitude:

Dryden: Thro' the green Leafs the glitt'ring Shadows glow
Mandelbaum: The gleam of gold was different, flickering / across the boughs
McCrorie: a second color, gold brilliance, shone through the branches
Lind: Where the glitter of gold flashed distinctly along the branches
Humphries: where the off-color / Of gold was gleaming golden through the branches
Fitzgerald: the two-hued tree / Where glitter of gold filtered between green boughs

Come on chaps, this is poor stuff! Concession to poetry seems limited entirely to alliteration on gold, gleaming, glittering. At least Humphries has provided a slight lurch between 'gold' and 'golden', but I'm clutching at straws. There is no sense of the scope of 'aura', which is reduced to the sense of a 'gleam'; 'discolor', meanwhile, has become limply bowdlerized as 'second color', 'off color', 'two-hued', and worst of all 'distinctly'—which has the unfortunate ring of Edwardian conversational emphasis: "I must confess, his expression was distinctly underwhelming."

I present here an alternative. Why not render the Latin 'discolor' with the English. . . 'discolor'? It is (or was) an authentic adjective, used in Victorian biology textbooks: check the OED, sense b: "Of a different colour from some other (adjacent) part or organ". Why not make good use of it? It has the additional effect of giving the Bough some semblance of naturalistic life. I too have not resisted the temptation to alliterate, although I wanted to carry it a step further. 'Gleamed' and 'glittered' are cheap, idle words; 'glowed', on the other hand, picks up the whole force of 'gold' and carries it forward. 'Discolor' has been placed afterwards as an attributive adjective with almost nominal force; replace the word in my line with 'green' or 'blue' to perceive fully the intended effect. Anyway, here it is:

from which a breath of gold glowed discolor through the boughs

Nothing earth-shattering: just one line in one ancient poem. Who cares? I hope that the principles at least are worth attention. The language should be kept different, alien, resistant. The unsettling effect of the original Latin 'discolor', written about by Robert Brooks, I hope finds its parallel in my own choice to retain it. Sure, it's more difficult, harder to read—but aren't there people out there who actually want that from a work of literature?


John Cowan said...

No, this will not do. "Discolor" is not a difficult Latin adjective, though it is difficult English; even the facile lexicon Lewisi lists it. Translating plainness by obscurity inverts the order of values.

You remind me here of William Morris translating léode as 'leeds' in Beowulf, which as Tolkien says both fails to translate léode and fails to recall 'leeds' to life.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Ah, finally! Thanks, John, and apologies for clogging up your feed-reader. (Do you know how I can reformat old posts without feeding them out again?)

As for the sentiments, however, I disagree, but ultimately this is just a matter of personal taste. We're talking about translation, not explanation, and it is not the function of translation to turn obscurity into plainness. I like translations which are in some sense 'incomplete', which resist the switch and retain fragments and traces of the original language. I think this creates something culturally and linguistically interesting. Otherwise you might as well call it a 'retelling'. So good for Morris, bad for Tolkien. (This fits in with my ranking of these two figures anyway, though I know you're a Tolkien fan!)

John Cowan said...

I don't mind seeing one of your old posts now and again, and my feed-reader easily lets me dispose of the cases when 35 of them appear all at once.

I quite agree that a translator should not render obscurity by plainness, but "discolor" simply isn't (or wasn't) obscure.

And yes, translation across a huge cultural gap like this one must confront (as simpler cases may avoid confronting) the necessary straddle between translating nothing (useless) and translating everything (e.g. a history of Germany written in German and "translated" into French as a history of France!) One must translate enough but not too much: as Douglass Parker says, the Athens of Aristophanes must remind us of modern America without becoming modern America.

Brett said...

You mention that in the 16th and 17th centuries translators were even brave enough to coin words.
What are the criteria in translation that would sanction a neologism?
What would your translation of this line sound like if you invented a word? I'd love to see your efforts.

Conrad H. Roth said...

John: agreed.

Brett: thanks for your comment; that's a difficult question. Possibly neologism can only work in a 'total' context; by which I mean, analogously, one line of Finnegans Wake wouldn't be enough--it would be silly--where 600 pages are reasonable.

However, there are more definite criteria for neologism in translation; if you're interested, I'd recommend you to R. F. Jones' splendid Triumph of the English Language, which discusses the worry among English writers of the 16th century that the native vocabulary was just insufficient to render Latin (and to a lesser extent Greek). Philemon Holland, the last of the great translators (excepting the divine Urquhart), and who particularly interests me as he translated Plutarch (1603), has exactly this problem. Richard Trench, who wrote a book on etymology for the masses in 1851, also had a book on Plutarch, in which he lists all the words Holland coins--some of them are still foreign words to him (atomi, enthusiasmus, heliotropium, hypotinusa, Nilus, praedicatum, psalterion, rhythmus, spondaeus), while others are still difficult English in 1603 (anniversary, apology, colleague, flatulent, horizon, isthmus, lassitude, mercenary, reverberation, symptom, tautology). These words were ported straight from classical texts, to fill up a (perceived) deficiency in the language. I suppose I'd revive 'discolor' for the same reason: semantically and rhythmically it works perfectly here. That's the marvelous thing about the English language: part of translation is just absorption, a megalomaniacal appetite.

This would be taken to ridiculous extremes in Urquhart, who would casually invent Greco-Latin words in the fabric of his English prose (amblygonospherical, disergetic, oppocathetal, quoquoversedly, spectabundal, etc etc.). I mean, I love this stuff, but it's an acquired taste.

As for the Bible, in which I presume you're especially interested, there are no neologisms as such--unless you count the fragments of Aramaic in the NT--although there is considerable syntactic and semantic wresting from the Hebrew and Greek, a good example being 'host', or stock phrases such as 'he answered and said', etc. The KJV was archaic even in 1611--and on that account has fabulously enriched the language.

I must concede however that most translative neologism comes in prose, and particularly in philosophical / technical writing. It is less suited to poetry, because a neologism will tend to interrupt a line of verse. 'Discolor' is probably as close as you're likely to come--not perfectly new, but so dead as to be practically new again.

Brett said...

Thanks for your insightful and generous response.

I especially enjoyed the examples you provide from Urquhart. I'll be trying to use "spectabundal" in a sentence today!

Raminagrobis said...

Conrad, your philosophy of translation appeals to me immensely. I hate a translation that is excessively exegetic, that demands to be read in the stead of the source text, rather than as a complement. George Steiner rears his head…

English is perhaps the only language that can cope with the Greco-Latin neologism in the way you describe. When Du Bellay commended the introduction into French of neologisms in imitations (but not translations – although he did it himself in his translations of Virgil and Ovid), he meant it as a means to an end (the ‘illumination’ of the French language was a process than could be more or less completed) rather than a creative principle of continual linguistic renewal. And once something like ‘l’altitonant plasmateur’ has become a stock epithet of Jupiter, it isn’t really a case of translator responding creatively to texts, it becomes nothing more than a specialist vocabulary that limits rather than liberates. Well, in theory anyway: Du Bellay’s own translation practice is in fact much more ‘energetic’/‘energic’ than that.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Yes, "each language has a something proper to itself alone, of which if you strive to express the nativeness in another language, observing the law of translation, which is not to expatiate yourself beyond the limits of the author, your diction will be constrained, cold, and ungraceful", it says here (rather poorly translated, ironically). Perhaps John would agree!

Still, I haven't read Du Bellay's own translations, but given that it's central field for you, I'm sure you're right.

John Cowan said...

I do.

Teju said...

I for one enjoyed what you did with this line and your reasons for doing so.

It's all about the music.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks, Teju.

Mencius Moldbug said...

I realize that I'm a year and a half late and a dollar short, but this simply will not do.

I have no objection to neologisms. Or even to palaeologisms. Archaisms, however, drive me crazy.

First, I am with Cowan: "discolor" in modern English is a verb, and carries a pejorative connotation, as of a stain. A strong line can certainly redefine any word, but the payoff needs to be there.

But what really gets my goat is the word "bough." This is simply not modern English. Worse, it has horridly poetic connotations. When you see a bough, you expect a unicorn to be disporting beneath it, or some such.

I do like your "breath," however. But again, "breath of gold" is an archaism. So I would go with:

Where a gold breath flashed against the trees

And that's my final answer :-)

Conrad H. Roth said...

"Archaisms, however, drive me crazy."

Why? At any rate, if you took thee and thou as standard archaisms, you might admit that 'discolor' is in the archaism-neologism nomansland. Added to which, its place in the sentence clearly separates it from its verb-form.

Your dislike of 'bough' surprises me. After all, this is the Golden Bough! Not the Golden Twig, the Golden Branch, the Stick with Golden Bits On--it is and always will be the Golden Bough. Thus the usage seems perfectly justified in this instance.

Myself, I find 'gold breath flashed' to be too many stressed syllables in a row--it sounds very clunky. Added to which, there are no sounds holding the thought together, as in my version. The connection of sense by sound is the very essence of poetic craft, no?

Mencius Moldbug said...


I'm afraid our Aeneid translations would look very different!

I simply adore clunky sounds and triple stresses. But then again, I am basically a Poundian. "May I for my own self's song's truth reckon" - okay, a quadruple stress is a little harsh. But the sound of English is harsh. Try to turn it into Latin and you ruin it.

(The KJV is a wonderful case in point, because it does such a nice job of translating the harshness and repetition of Hebrew into English. Which reminds you more of the KJV? Pound's Seafarer, above, or Paradise Lost?)

Moreover, a triple stress is exactly what's called for in this line, because the sight of the golden bough takes Aeneas's breath away. It has punch. It needs punch. Sonic mimesis is exactly what it is. And embedding your metaphor, which unlike in Latin has no auri/aura pun to carry it, in the middle of the triple stress, forces the reader to inhale the word, as it were, with minimal conscious consideration.

The problem with "bough" is exactly that. It makes me think of Joseph Campbell. It doesn't make me think of Aeneas' actual sensory experience. Presumably Aeneas, after all, had not read Campbell - he was experiencing the event for the first time. "Bough," besides being an archaism, drags in all these intellectual associations which we actually want to exclude, if simply conveying Aeneas's perspective to the reader is the goal.

Of course the trouble with my take on this is that it's very, very conventional. It violates the whole point of your piece, which is that we are inundated with boring verse in the plain style, a view I heartily agree with.

And I even like "discolor." You could fit it in after "flashed" in my line, for example. The problem is just that I like "breath" better, and I think the line only has room for one such invention. But of course this depends on what's before it and what's after it...

Mencius Moldbug said...

Also, I feel it's worth pointing out the quasi-alliterative quality of "gold breath flashed" - note that the g, b, f initial consonants seem to follow from each other, as they move from the back to the front of the mouth. Again a very Anglo-Saxon sound.

Mencius Moldbug said...

And yes, the Golden Bough is Frazer, not Campbell. Serves me right for trusting my phony erudition - Google is the great friend of the dilettante.

Conrad H. Roth said...

"I simply adore clunky sounds and triple stresses. But then again, I am basically a Poundian. "May I for my own self's song's truth reckon" - okay, a quadruple stress is a little harsh. But the sound of English is harsh. Try to turn it into Latin and you ruin it."

English and Old English are hardly the same thing! Modern English has an incredible sonic flexibility--can be harsh or smooth, clunky or elegant--to a much greater extent than Latin and OE. So of course, there's a place for your molossus in poetry. In English verse it tends to come with heavy alliteration.

"The KJV is a wonderful case in point, because it does such a nice job of translating the harshness and repetition of Hebrew into English."

I adore the KJV, but firstly, from all reliable sources it does not render the great variety of tone in the original Hebrew, and secondly, it is. . . prose! I don't quite understand your Milton/Pound dichotomy; neither particularly remind me of the noble simplicity of the KJV, but then Milton does more because he incorporated KJV-isms into his verse.

Let's not misunderstand each other: I have nothing against harshness and repetition.

Time's run out here. More to follow.

Mencius Moldbug said...

Modern English and OE are hardly the same thing - indeed!

But Pound's point (which he made, in typical Poundian fashion, by going utterly overboard with it) is that the parts of English with Germanic roots carry more immediacy and impact, simply because we use them much more often.

Milton and the KJV were a bad and confusing example. My point was just that the KJV, besides its lovely Hebraicisms, as a basically Elizabethan product partakes more of the Germanic plain style than the classicizing mellifluous tradition of the Augustans onward. And in particular it owes much to the interplay between Hebraicism, Germanic English and Romance English.

All of this is dancing around the question, which is: how should the Aeneid be translated for modern readers? "Breath of gold" or "gold breath," "branch" or "bough"?

While I think it's a great pity that there is no longer an audience trained to read "breath of gold" as normal diction - that is, who had learned at an early age to practice a kind of code switching when reading poetry, so as to be able to read forms no longer used in spoken English without any loss of immediacy or connotation of archaism - this audience is dead. Quite literally!

For example, I know Keats is a great poet. I understand, intellectually, why people admire Keats. But I simply cannot read Keats for pleasure in English, because I am not a fluent speaker of the mannered poetic dialect in which his readers expected their verse to be packaged. I actually find Shakespeare more pleasurable, because Shakespearian English is closer in diction and vocabulary to the language I speak than Keatsian poetic English is.

I realize that there is some distance between diction like "breath of gold" and "bough," and, say, asking the reader to pronounce "crowned" as a two-syllable word. But the distance is not enough for me. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Apologies. . . I hate using internet cafes, but it is all I have at the moment.

"Pound's point" is a common theme in literary history--it was particularly popular as a debating point among the Elizabethans--but for all that I don't think it is true. Different types of word have greater or lesser impact depending on context: in the abstract you can't say a great deal more than that.

"no longer an audience trained to read "breath of gold" as normal diction"

Why on earth would someone write poetry for an audience? I happen to find 'breath of gold' not particularly archaic, mind.

As to your larger point, which is of course merely a statement of personal aesthetic, I in fact agree. Wordsworth famously said he wanted poetry to be written in normal language, only heightened--for me he didn't go far enough. (And was a bad poet, but that's another matter.) The problem is how you define 'heightened'. I'd define heightening as creating one's own syntactic peculiarities, and my aim in this Vergil line was to create force and effect by novelty (which 'discolor' essentially is) together with tradition (eg. 'bough')--to impress upon the ear my own voice, which is substantially different, I think, to the precious patterns of Ye Olde Verse. I've just posted a new poem, so you can compare that if you like.

"It makes me think of Joseph Campbell [Frazer]. It doesn't make me think of Aeneas' actual sensory experience."

This is an interesting point, and one I wouldn't dispute. (It was Dryden, I believe, who coined 'Golden Bough'.) My response is that the Aeneid is simply much more interesting post-Dryden, post-Frazer (and all the rest of the commentators). I actively want my Aeneid to be a complex cultural encrustation, not a Quixotic attempt to capture what it would have sounded like to Maecenas in 19 BC.

Mencius Moldbug said...


I can't argue with most of this - it strikes me as perfectly sensible. Certainly if a texture of literary allusions is what you want, "bough" is exactly the ticket. I haven't seen your latest yet, but your other verse is certainly anything but Ye Olde. I wouldn't say there is a real danger there.

Personally I think the world needs both - a vigorous modern Aeneid and an allusive Sidonian one. The translation I've read is Mandelbaum, which I found serviceable if maybe not stellar.

I do find your audience a little contrary. I suspect you're responding to an implicit suggestion that the plain style makes verse accessible to, as we say in my trade, a larger user base. I suppose this is what most people would mean if they wrote what I wrote, so the confusion is quite pardonable.

But of course this is a democratic fancy with which I'd hate to be associated. Words are nothing if they're not read, but what matters is not the size of the audience but its quality. My reason to prefer more familiar diction over less familiar diction has nothing to do with the impossible task of trying to write poetry for the masses.

I think my statistics on root usage in English come from John McWhorter's Power of Babel - an extremely fun and wonderful book. I forget the actual numbers, but the Germanic substrate certainly is more used - by Germanic I mean Scandinavian as well as Saxon. BTW, how do you feel about Bunting and his Northumbrian Nordicisms?

Mencius Moldbug said...

And as for "breath of gold", suppose you had something else made of something else - a chair, let's say, made of copper. I think in speaking you would call it a "copper chair" rather than a "chair of copper."

Conrad H. Roth said...


It's decent, I suppose. Some swear by Stanley Lombardo, but I find him too slangy. I don't think there is a great English Aeneid, like the Golding Ovid, or the Lang/Leaf Homer.

"I do find your audience a little contrary."

Oh, I know you of all people weren't advocating democracy; I was only joking.

As for Bunting, I don't know him.