23 December, 2008

Macaronic Frühneuhochdeutsch, anyone?

One passage of many such, from the 1883 Weimar Luther, volume 34 of 127; in this instance, from the 'text' of a sermon delivered on the evening of 11 April, Easter Tuesday 1531.
Audivimus de poenitencia et remissione peccatorum. Das hab ich umb der kurtz wyllen uberlauffen et tamen clare, expresse. Das wyr aber das fest bschlissen, wollen wyr ein stuck odder ii vor uns nhemen. Der Her hat uns vorgemalet, was er vor eyn geberde furet unter seynen jungern, quod in medio illorum progrediatur et salutet illos ita, ut terreantur discipuli. Die selbige erschreckung wyl er nicht leyden, quia non vult estimari spiritus, qui non habet carnem et ossa. Er bekennet, das die geyster alßo erscheinen, tum non habentes carnem et ossa. Diß ist eyn sonderlich bylde pro impiis conscienciis. Der teuffel hat auch die arth, das er offentlich zw uns durchs worth odder heymlich durch gedancken zw uns kumme, uff das er hoc malum, das man heist ein falschen Christum. Satan hat auch die art, quod venit ad nos offentlich und heimlich, 1. per praedicationem, 2. per cogitationes potest etiam dicere: 'bonus dies' et 2. conscientiam terrere et sic hominem irr machen, ut nesciat homo, Christus sit necne, semper vult simia esse dei.
A translation of which would look something like this:
We have heard about repentance and the remission of sins. I wanted to run over that briefly and yet clearly, expressly. To conclude the feast, let's have a look at one or two passages. The Lord has shown us what gesture he makes among his disciples, for he goes among them and greets them thus, as the disciples are frightened. He does not want to suffer the same fearfulness, for he would not be thought a spirit without flesh and bones. He acknowledges that the spirits appear thus, not having flesh and bones. This is a peculiar image for impious consciences. The Devil is of like disposition, that he comes to us openly through words, or secretly through thoughts, such that, on account of this evil, one calls him a false Christ. Satan is of like disposition, that he comes to us openly and familiarly, 1. by spoken words (or, more specifically, 'by preaching, prophesying'), and 2. can also say 'good day' by thoughts alone, and 2. can frighten the conscience and thus make a man mad, so as not to know if Christ exists or not; always would he be the ape of God.
Luther is alluding to the narrative in Luke 24.36-39, where Christ appears to his disciples after the resurrection. In the Vulgate: 'Iesus stetit in medio eorum et dicit eis pax vobis ego sum nolite timere / conturbati vero et conterriti existimabant se spiritum videre / et dixit eis quid turbati estis et cogitationes ascendunt in corda vestra / videte manus meas et pedes quia ipse ego sum palpate et videte quia spiritus carnem et ossa non habet sicut me videtis habere.' And in the KJV: 'Jesus himself stood in the midst of [the disciples], and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. / But they were terrified and affrighted, and supposed that they had seen a spirit. / And he said unto them, Why are ye troubled? and why do thoughts arise in your hearts? / Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.'

The function of Satan is always to burlesque God, that is, to imitate him in reverse; he is found as the 'ape of God' (simia dei, Gottes Affe) throughout Luther's sermons and commentaries. (Alfred Adam traces the motif to the Cistercian hagiographer Caesar of Heisterbach.) Like Christ, Satan strikes awe into the soul, but where Christ makes his presence manifest, Satan makes a man forget whether Christ exists.

So that's the theology taken care of. But what's going on with the languages? It seems highly unlikely that Luther should have delivered a sermon in hybrid German-Latin, even to a small circle of intellectuals. Some of the Latin fragments play on the Vulgate, but they are not direct quotations, and others have no obvious provenance. Malcolm Parkes writes:
The evidence indicates that the scribes [in Luther's circle] translated the essentials of what they had heard in German immediately into Latin, and then set down the discourse in Latin in order to use the customary methods of abbreviation in that language, which enabled them to record spoken discourse more quickly. Only when the process of instantaneous translation was too difficult, or when the German phrases were particularly striking, did the scribes write down Luther's own words. Subsequently the "reportator" translated the text back into the original language, expanding both the simplified forms and abbreviated thought in such a way as to make the record more readable.
Did the scribes omit to re-translate, in this instance? Or was the Weimar editor using an odd source-text? In any event, the German and Latin seem to play against each other, the one sometimes half-repeating the other, or elaborating upon it, like the interaction between a God and his Ape.

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.]

04 December, 2008

Schällen der Leidenschaft

As a student of history, of sorts, I know only too well that all ages, almost all, have seen their own as an age of cultural decline. Even Homer was longing for the good old days, even Plato, in his golden aura of genius, never to be rivalled, wistfully looked to Sparta, Egypt, the Age of Kronos. Coming to understand the universality of this sentiment cannot help but challenge one's own innate sense that fine culture has gone to the dogs. And yet, one goes to the gallery, the theatre, the bookshop or poetry recital, and one cannot shake that sense. This, I think, is truly the most poignant break in the historian's psyche.

I go to a recital. (I open a book of verse. I flick through the New Yorker. Somewhere, other than in my own Documents folder, there must be some good poems. If only by the law of averages. Repeatedly is my search frustrated. Usually on a low simmer, my loathing of modern poetry comes to full boil now and then, when I make the attempt to challenge my dismissal. It cannot be said that I do not try.) Listening to a woman in her sixties describe, in graphic detail, a bout of rough sex, listening to a man, only a little younger, describe, in graphic detail, his own masturbation, read from a page, and read, mind you, while the audience titters and looks about in embarrassment, watching a rotund fellow, maybe thirty-five, make hand-gestures as he serenades the number 58 bus-route, and a wee girl not much older than me recite, from an imaginary diary, bullet-points about an ex-boyfriend and self-esteem issues, an assortment of people using rude words as if it were still the 1960s, and raising their eyebrows to deliver the last line of their poem, as if to say, Pay attention now, this bit's clever, listening to all this, I wish I could turn off my own ears, or at least concentrate on some work. Most of all of course I wish I could meet someone, or even hear someone from afar, who actually knows how to use words, who actually likes words, or even, at a push, someone who, while not brilliant with words, has something in their brain worth letting out of their mouth, something more than feeling, descriptions, endless and endless concrete banalities, enumeration of detail itself so utterly conventional—not even clever because well-observed—as to merit swift oblivion. Why are poets so incapable of telling us what they know?

There is a look on a poet's face when she is reading, or about to read. It says all sorts of things. It says, Quiet now, this is poetry. We are here to listen to poetry. It also says, I humbly offer my audience just something I sketched out the other day. Perhaps, it isn't finished, or, I'm still working on this and would appreciate your feedback. Of course she does not want your feedback, except to say, I really liked the bit about the sky. That image, what was it, 'the sky was blue as azure', it's such a beautiful image, don't you think, really captures the blueness of a blue sky? The atmosphere at such a recital, in other words, must be simultaneously deferential to the magic of poesie, and relaxed enough to accept it all as a bit of a joke. This is a light piece, she might say. Before each poem she will say, 'This one's called—' or 'This one's about—'. Gravity never comes from the words themselves, but only from the temple of excuses and explanations erected around them. Or better, gravity never comes at all, for it is easier to make a crowd laugh with the word tits or a silly voice, and have them say, afterwards, I enjoyed that, it made me smile, as if making someone smile should be the purpose of poetry.

One comes away wanting to profess, with an air of thoughtfulness and high critical dignity, that some poems were good, others less so. One would be fair and even-handed, and admit that even if that piece is not one's cup of tea, still, one can see the merit in its earnestness or eye for detail. It feels wrong, deeply wrong, ignorant, primitive, lacking in sensitivity and sensibility, to think, this is all bad, and not only bad, but entirely bad; this is all, literally, worthless. I confess that I have never been brave enough to say this in public. There are ways not to lie, or to lie less, as you well know. Poetry isn't my thing. I'm more into novels. They smile benignly, accepting that not all mortals are built to appreciate real beauty. It is no better with the stuff printed in books by famous people. This was penned by a well-respected Etonian with a big heart:
A lot of people have been looking at me recently.
Oh, she's too disgusting. I see you've changed your
hairstyle again. Why don't you kill yourself next time?
I'm cutting down on mirror checks - 100 an hour
is about average - tv screen, microwave, people's
glasses, a knife while eating, if I can eat anything.
I wanted to cut myself into little pieces, then everything
would be all right and I would pass the audition.
I know some readers will quibble this claim, but I do not like to rant. Those who feel as I do cling to a single poet they like, as proof that they are not Neanderthals. Or they say they do not like poetry and leave it at that, as if it were simply alright not to like poetry, as if not liking poetry were the same as not liking cauliflower. I do not like to rant, and prefer to criticise. But sometimes there is too much steam and smoke for criticism, too much clamour of mock subtleties to be heard simply speaking, and one must cry out instead. A considerate man who will not let himself be angry, just a little, and even at those who mean well, damn their pens, is only half a man.

[Update: Avva comments. In Russian. One of his own commenters observes that I have not properly adjusted the case of 'Schällen' for my title: true, perhaps, but then, if I had altered it, Herder would have been obscured.]