19 December, 2008

Two Plays in One Fitts

In 1955, Dudley Fitts published a translation of Aristophanes' Frogs for Harcourt & Brace; in 1957, of the Birds. The two versions were issued separately by Faber in London, and, in 1959, paired in a new edition for the Heritage Press; the matching pale red and pale blue original Faber octavos have graced my shelf for years now. I bought the one on the basis of the other, and the other—the Frogs—on the basis of a single verse:
Ah the logotomy! Verb breasting adverb, the cristate nouns
plunging 'gainst pavid pronouns. Let the bull stylistic
(husband of cows) rise up and whirl his whiskers!
Ah the lambent raiding of verse, the (my God!) tripsis
of boant anapests leaping in lucent line
against the skiaphagous luculent ululant
phalanges of the foe!
At the time I had been sipping Nashe and books on Joyce; you will readily understand the flash of recognition here. (Fitts himself compares Frogs to Joyce: it 'is almost as rich as Finnegans Wake in literary allusion and rhetorical parody—indeed, it is a haunted text'.) Fitts' passage bears little resemblance to the original:
estai d'ippolophōn te logōn koruthaiola neikē
skhindalamōn te paraxonia smileumata t' ergōn,
phōtos amunomenou phrenotektonos andros
rhēmath' ippobamona.
phrixas d' autokomou lophias lasiauxena khaitan,
deinon episkunion xunagōn brukhōmenos hēsei
rhemata gomphopagē pinakēdon apospōngēgenei phusēmati.
The mock-Homeric grandeur of which, in some dull sense, is better captured by the clunking hyphenese of Matthew Dillon's translation at Perseus:
There will be the helmet-blazing strife of horse-crested phrases;
Axle-splinterings as the chisel-working fellow defends himself
against the horse-galloping utterances of the mind-building man.
Bristling the shaggy-necked mane of his natural-hair crest,
Knitting his terrible brow, bellowing, he will launch
bolt-fastened utterances, ripping them apart board by board
with gigantic blast of breath.
To depart so radically from the original takes balls. But Fitts knew what he was doing. This was a gold still moment in the self-realisation of late (American) modernism, a full ripening on the tree, before the pecking sparrows and necrosis of postmodernism. Nothing new arrived between 1955 and 1960; but the dust settled. When Fitts and his friends turned to criticism, they could write with an air of authority, of a Matthew Arnold, only their accepted truths were now those of formalism and the New Critics. The mood was erudite, philological, good-humoured, word-oriented, and concerned, most of all, with the nature of poetic authenticity. In his little bookling, The Poetic Nuance (1958), Fitts dismisses Nabokov's violently-annotated prose translation of Eugene Onegin—a popular bugbear of the time, at least among poets:
A tireless writer of footnotes, I find this concept endearing; but I am not sure that it is anything more. The trouble is that such a translation, though it might give the prose "sense" of the original together with an explanation of whatever goes to lift the prose sense above itself and transmute it into a form of art, might also provide no evidence beyond the saying so that the art was art in the first place. . . We need something at once less ambitious and more audacious: another poem. Not a representation, in any formal sense, but a comparable experience.
How Nabokov would have sneered at such cant! Fitts is merely reproducing Cleanth Brooks on the 'heresy of paraphrase' [NB: please to observe the Wikipediast's literalistic wit, bottom]. Like a good on-message poet (or critic) of his age, Fitts assumes that poetry is irreducible, that a poem without the Poem is nothing, or, worse, a betrayal. Like so much modern dogma, this is essentially a romantic absolutism. The same thinking leads him to equally conventional remarks on the translation of jokes, conceived as the most difficult of idioms:
A joke can be a nuisance. Nothing is more inert than a witticism that has to be explained. Topicality, the recondite allusion, special jargon—these are matters that can not be handled even in Nabokovian footnote without inviting the embrace of death.
To illustrate this point, Fitts discusses one of his own choices, from his Frogs of three years past. The cowardly Dionysus is being taunted by his servant Xanthias, on the existence of the hellish monster Empusa, before the latter winds down his prank, assuring his master that the beast is gone: 'As Hegelochos would say, ek kumaōn gar authis au galēn horō.' The Greek means, literally, 'After the storm I see again the polecat.' Here comes the Nabokovian death-embrace: Aristophanes is alluding to a line of Orestes, mispronounced by the actor Hegelochos: the word galēn, depending on stress, can mean either 'calm at sea' (from galēnē) or 'polecat' (from galeē). The translator is therefore faced with a classic untranslateable pun: what to do?

The dread hand of Nabokov would translate, 'After the storm I see again the polecat', and spend half a page in 9-point explaining the allusion. Such, precisely, was the pre-Romantic approach. Thus a 1785 version by the cleric Charles Dunster offers: 'I see a weasel rising from the storm', and, true to form, clarifies the joke in a footnote. By the time we reach Benjamin Rogers' 1914 Frogs, Romanticism has already set in, and the pun is not preserved but re-imagined: 'Out of the storm there comes a new fine wether.' The only problem is that 'wether' cannot be a mis-pronunciation of 'weather': as a satire on Hegelochos' delivery, it fails. Fitts, at any rate, offers a similar solution: 'After the storm I see the clam again'. (Dillon, straining, has 'calm-ari'.) He justifies his decision thus:
It is a hoary one, certainly, but only a cad would object to it. . . there are still customers who will suspect the whole thing of being an enigma or a typographical error, and these people must be led through some such process as the one we have just traversed.
And so we get, if we look in the back, unprompted by any little digits, an explanatory note. A Fittsian modernism is therefore a softened and saleable doctrine. He would preserve the art qua art, and gloss it still, so as to reassure the sceptic that it is, after all, art. Proust had written 'une oeuvre où il y a des theories est comme un objet sur lequel on laisse la marque du prix', a literary work with theories is like an object with the price-tag still attached. He had written this, a bit of theory, in his great literary work, the Recherche, thus contradicting himself even as he wrote. But this dictum remained the essence of High Modernism, whether or not it reflected practice. A poem should not mean, but be. By the time of Fitts there is some forgiveness.


Fitts dedicates his Frogs to his younger friend John Ciardi, the great translator of Dante. Ciardi was a card-carrying New Critic, editing an annotated anthology of verse in 1959 with the almost cartoon-formalist title, How Does a Poem Mean? In the introduction he insists, smelling of Empson, against a 'high-minded appreciator', that poetry is to be understood as a feat of engineering and formal invention. The ultimate modernist-romantic, he asserts, 'The pretty, by a first law of art, is never the beautiful. The two cannot coexist. . . all greeting cards are pretty and therefore no greeting card is beautiful.' For his dedication, appositely, Fitts chooses a sliver of Dante, the conclusion of Inferno VI:
Ed egli a me: 'Ritorna a tua scienza,
Che vuol, quanto la cosa è più perfetta,
Più senta il bene, e così la doglienza,

Tuttochè questa gente maledetta
In vera perfezion giammai non vada,
Di là, più che di qua, essere aspetta.'

Noi aggirammo a tondo quella strada,
Parlando più assai ch'io non ridico:
Venimmo al punto dove si digrada:
Quivi trovammo Pluto il gran nimico.
Ciardi himself has this, in his 1954 Inferno, on which Fitts remarked, 'This is our Dante. . . a shining event in a bad age':
And he to me: "Look to your science again
where it is written: the more a thing is perfect
the more it feels of pleasure and of pain.

As for these souls, though they can never soar
to true perfection, still in the new time
they will be nearer it than they were before."

And so we walked the rim of the great ledge
speaking of pain and joy, and of much more
that I will not repeat, and reached the edge

where the descend begins. There, suddenly,
we came on Plutus, the great enemy.
The context is this: Dante and Vergil are discussing the judgement of the damned at the Second Coming. Dante wonders if those in Hell be better or worse off after this point: 'When the great clarion fades / into the voice of thundering Omniscience, / what of these agonies?' His master replies that since they will recover their flesh and bodies, they will, secundum Aristotelem, be more perfect, and so they will feel more pain.

For the dedication of his Birds to his disciple and collaborator, Robert Fitzgerald, more famous for his Aeneid, Fitts chooses a morsel not of Vergil, but of Erasmus, from the Lucianic colloquy 'Charon':
Alastor. Sed quid opus est triremi? Charon. Nihil, si velim in media palude rursus naufragium facere. Al. Ob multitudinem? Ch. Scilicet. Al. Atqui umbras vehis, non corpora. Quantulum autem ponderis habent umbrae? Ch. Sint tipulae, tamen tipularum tanta vis esse potest, ut onerent cymbam. Tum scis, et cymbam umbratilem esse.
To translate:
Al. But what use is the trireme? Ch. Nothing, if I want to wind up shipwrecked in the middle of the swamp again. Al. On account of the throng? Ch. Naturally. Al. But you transport shades, not bodies. And how little must the shades weigh? Ch. They are only crane-flies (tipulae), but crane-flies can have enough weight to sink a skiff. You know, too, that the skiff itself is shadowy.
In neither instance is explanation given: the reference is hermetic, like in the good old days of Pound and Stevens. One might reasonably suspect, given the chthonic setting of both passages, that Ciardi and Fitzgerald were dead. But both were in the prime of health, dying within a year of each other, just under thirty years later. In each case we have a dialogue, a guide and a pilgrim. Surely Fitts claimed for himself the role of the cicerone in hell, a role at the core of the modernist worldview. Pound had begun his masterpiece by translating a translation of Odysseus's katabasis; Williams booted his own career with a work entitled Kora in Hell; Eliot guided his reader not through hell but through the Wasteland, its fertility latent but real; Leo Bloom is given a whole chapter for his own nekuia, and H. C. E. an entire book; and before them all, the forefather of modernism, James Frazer, had turned his own opus on a symbol representing safe passage through the underworld. The poet is the acknowledged legislator: the trireme weighed with the tipulary souls of men, not only the true dead, but those still feeling of pleasure and pain. Fitts, conservative 'in a bad age', explicitly shares the pain of a conservative Aristophanes, who, in the Frogs, 'now regards the War, desperate as it is, as only another symptom of the disease of his time'. This from a man who, according to David Slavitt, rated student papers 'PB (pretty bad), NTB (not too bad), NB (not bad), and NAAB (not at all bad)'. Only a very few, the last generation of American modernist-humanists, were eligible to walk with Fitts himself.

[Update: Dave Haan, on a forum thread on translation, links. A respondent calls my post, bizarrely, a 'paean to etymology': no wonder he finds it unpersuasive! Said respondent also seems to believe that I argue that 'one person or group has a monopoly' on knowledge, and that I have something against Nabokov's Onegin, or even Nabokov in general. I do not, I do not, I do not.]


Raminagrobis said...

The lines you quote from the Frogs translation are magnificent. They read like Gerard Manley Hopkins…on acid! (Sorry.)

Fitts’s attitude towards poetic translation may be ‘conventional’ ‘modern dogma’ and ‘a romantic absolutism’, but it’s quite right, isn’t it?

Before Cowan gets here, let me point out that there’s something wrong with the French in your quotation of the Proust.

Excellent post, thanks.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Whoops, corrected (in two places); I was over-hasty in quotation. Thanks. On Fitts's attitude, I am not unsympathetic, but remain in doubt. Its danger is one of over-familiarisation of the text.

Language said...

Fitts’s attitude towards poetic translation may be ‘conventional’ ‘modern dogma’ and ‘a romantic absolutism’, but it’s quite right, isn’t it?

Just what I dropped by to say. Could you expand on the danger of over-familiarisation of the text? Because it seems to me that the danger of reducing poetry (or art in general) to plain prose "sense" is far greater than whatever you're thinking of.

Greg Afinogenov said...

I do think that the translator's goal is to preserve and convey whatever metaphysical Poetic Substrate is present in the original work--even if my own translations aren't particularly up to the task. So in that sense, I agree with Fitts.

But at the same time, I think I see what Conrad is getting at. It can often be worthwhile and aesthetically justified to transmit the text in its otherness, as it were. We can never resolve the gap between a native speaker's reading of a poem in the original and a foreign reader's experience of it in translation; the question is, what do we do with the gap? Do we try to paper it over with ersatz (like poorly translated puns)? That's one way of doing it, certainly. But another is to heighten the foreign reader's awareness of the distance that separates her from the work--to make the translation beautiful but simultaneously alien and inaccessible.

Doubtless there are some poets whose work is better suited to the former method (Tsvetaeva, Prévert), and others who I think can only be understood through the latter (Afanasiy Fet, Bonnefoy). That's a matter of opinion, of course, and I've never managed to translate Fet with any degree of success.

Greg Afinogenov said...

Actually, I wrote Fet, but he's not really all that great of an example. Velimir Khlebnikov is the best one I can think of.

John Cowan said...

Cowan is here, absolutely disclaims any expertise whatsoever in French, and says that every time he opens his gueule another gender error flies out of it, this being traditional for anglophones (Le Mort Darthur and all that).

Cowan deftly refers to Hofstadter, fellow detester of Nabokov's Onegin, on the subject of translation and "transculturation": translation is good, but we do not want a history of France written in French and translated into German, to become a history of Germany! Translation, says Cowan, is a delicate balancing act between translating too little and too much; furthermore, he says, humor being a binary property (things are either funny or not), the first duty of a translator of Aristophanes is to be funny. To Cowan's taste, Fitts is indeed funny, but Arrowsmith and Parker are overall funnier: the latter says "Athens must suggest America, but it must not be America", thus prospectively referring to the as yet unwritten Hofstadter work with the French title, which while reading it I was constantly addressed in French by random strangers, thus having to explain repeatedly that only the title is French, thus looping back a la the Worm Ouroboros to the opening claim.

Conrad H. Roth said...

LH, I have been debating how to answer this question. To some extent I can adduce this old post, where I summarised the theology of the Pseudo-Dionysius in relation to the aesthetics of Schleiermacher, and wrote:

"It is better to represent the 'Deific Principles' by such lowly images as the worm or the corner-stone, than by lofty images like 'Light shining forth unclouded and intelligibly' (John 1:5)—because the latter are more likely to be mistaken for the truth than the former. It is essential for the religious man to understand that the textual and pictorial symbols of the divine are merely symbolic, just as it is important for any reader to remember that a translation is a translation."

It would be fair to say that I had a rather theological, that is, absolutist, aesthetics myself. I don't, ultimately, believe in the possibility of poetic translation, and so while I can appreciate the re-imaginative efforts of a Fitts for their own sake (and indeed, have had a go myself), I have little interest in them as translations. I prefer a version, qua version, that explains while holding at a distance, like a microscope.

I think the key phrase for Fitts, therefore, is "comparable experience"--and I would deny such a thing possible. (To be fair, he is sceptical himself.) Nor do I believe in the "metaphysical Poetic Substrate", to use Greg's phrase, any more than I accept the existence of the soul, or chi. If a rainbow, explained, is the more beautiful, so should a poem be:

"Adding semantic content to an object--Newton explaining the physics of the rainbow, or a rabbi interpreting a line in the Torah--is always, I think, to add beauty to it."

But, of course, I am only telling you about me, not about poetry.

A.J.P. Crown said...

The lovely John Ciardi used to broadcast on NPR's Morning Edition in the 1980s.

May said...

Being an Italian native speaker, I find the translation from Dante a bit far from the original. But I guess it happens with most translations.