28 June 2009

Walt Whitman and Jonathan Ross

Picture of Walt Whitman
Two names you never expected to see in the same heading? Me neither. So listen while I tell the story.

Jonathan Ross is well known as one of the most active celebrity tweeters. He's also one of the best at it. He genuinely shares his enthusiasm and interests, and comes across really well as a funny, generous, garrulous, family-loving man. I've always quite liked him - especially compared to his atrocious brother - and that's grown into a real admiration, even if I still can't bring myself to watch his tv show.

A few weeks ago, he began an informal book club, based around Twitter, but now with its own forum site. It seems to have originated from a wish to share opinions on books - just another aspect of his compulsive need to communicate. And this week's book is Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. What a bizarre choice! Any poetry would be risky, but this is obviously a personal favourite, which he wants to share. I didn't know about the choice until this afternoon, and it's been a long time since I read any Whitman. But I'm really glad he's sent me back to look at it online. Keeping it simple, I looked at the probably overdone poem "I Hear America Singing". Oh, can't you hear William Carlos Williams there? And even Ez seems infected by that extreme openness to all kinds of voices.

Over at the forum, there's a distinctly mixed response to Whitman. Difficult and long, seem to be the key objections. For me, after my recent brush with Ez, there's little difficulty even if there is length - which is easy to overcome: just dip! And it's nice to sense a really wonderful person behind the poetry. Not a very academic conclusion, but still.

24 June 2009


On the other blog, I intended to have a Corneille thread going, but nothing so far has come of it. I stopped work on Corneille when I started on Ezra Pound. Anyway, it would fit better here, now I've broadened out from Ez to literature generally and translation studies in particular. And part of one of the courses I'm considering gives quite a lot of attention to Le Cid, so I may well come back to it.

Meanwhile, Racine is popping up because his Phèdre is on at the National Theatre soon, and I'm going to see it. The big draw for tickets is Helen Mirren, and she has singlehandely demolished the English distaste for French classical theatre. I'm going to see it on 18 July.

But I am worried because the translation is by Ted Hughes. A fine poet, obviously, but worlds apart from Racine. Rupert Christiansen in the Times (who looks disconcertingly like the Actor Kevin Eldon) discusses this, pointing out that
We expect poetry to be rich in words (Shakespeare uses something like 30,000), whereas Racine is parsimonious (he uses around 3,000).

The numbers seem a bit plucked from the air, but the general drift is true. And he puts it well when he says that Racine is "intensive and exclusive". Ted Hughes is - for all the work he's done on translations - supremely English in his poetry, and has the vigorous - extensive, inclusive - roughness of Shakespeare. While it's hard to imagine how he could submit to the tightly limited range of language that would match Racine, it'll be an interesting contest.

I'm reading Phèdre (in French) again in preparation for the performance, and will have more to say later. You can read the work in progress here.

16 June 2009


Flaubert: Emma se penchait pour le voir, égratignant avec ses ongles le velours de sa loge.

Eleanor Marx-Aveling's translation:Emma leant forward to see him, clutching the velvet of the box with her nails.

Adam Thirlwell's translation: Emma leaned forward to see him, scrunching with her nails the plushness of her box.

Egratigner simply means to scratch. The entry at ATILF gives several examples, including this one, and scrunching is never a good substitution. Then again, neither is clutching. Both translations give an explanation of why Emma's nails are scratching the velvet, which Flaubert doesn't give. Clutching and scrunching are both more deliberate actions than égratigner. I'd be inclined to say her nails were digging into the velvet, or possibly plush (but not plushness). I'm tempted to add upholstery but that would be adding explanation.

What neither translation does is to render the tense. When I searched for this passage, my initial search was for Emma se pencha, the aorist tense of a single action. The tense in French is the imperfect, denoting more than a single action. The sentence comes during a description of Emma's reaction to an opera performance. It may be that the continuous nature of this passage is signalled elsewhere, but it's not here.

In the French, Emma merely leans. In English merely leaning doesn't happen: one always leans in a particular direction. So both translations understandably add forward. But we can't be sure: she may have leant a bit sideways to get a better view. But Flaubert has the option of leaving that ambiguous.

There's another ambiguity in the French: pour le voir might mean to see him (the performer); it might also mean to see it (the performance, the action). It probably means him, given the context. It's not crucial.

So let's put my mouth where my mouth is: As she leaned forward to see him, Emma's nails dug into the velvet of the box.

It's not easy, this translation business.

Edit (28/7/09): I've found (in this exciting resource) another sense for égratigner: Travailler une étoffe avec la pointe d'un fer pour lui donner une certaine forme. Égratigner la soie. Égratigner du satin (Ac.) (to work a fabric with the point of a tool to give it a certain form). And with that meaning being specific to fabric, it's surely likely that fastidious Flaubert meant at least to connote it. So it's a very visual effect. There may be a specific word in the vocabulary of textiles to translate it, but in the meantime, we could translate it to stress the result of the action - a kind of embossing.
As she leaned forward to see him, Emma's nails scratched a pattern of lines in the velvet of the box.

Further thought (22/9/09): the use of a term from industry in a context of high culture must also be significant, suggesting a woman out of her native sphere.

15 June 2009

Adam vs Adam

After typing the previous post, I googled Adam Thirlwell and found this brilliantly corrosive review by Adam Mars-Jones of his most recent book, Miss Herbert. Ouch! I didn't know anything about Thirlwell before, certainly not that he is a self-proclaimed authority on translation. But I'll completely go along with Mars-Jones when he says the one bit of actual Flaubert translation in the book is not that great:
Thirlwell quotes a single sentence from Eleanor Marx-Aveling's translation of Bovary, and offers his own improvement. Her sentence is: 'Emma leant forward to see him, clutching the velvet of the box with her nails.' His goes: 'Emma leaned forward to see him, scrunching with her nails the plushness of her box.' He adds, 'It isn't perfect; but it's a start.'
Well, far from perfect. As Mars-Jones points out, 'scrunching' is just wrong.

Mars-Jones also points out Thirlwell's tendency to make broad statements that are either meaningless or palpably untrue. In the Queneau article we found this (emphasis added):
The novelist's subject is always real life. But real life doesn't exist. It only exists when it has been embodied in a style.
Which is either nonsense or needs a lot more explanation. And we saw his utter misuse of the word 'literal' and now that I think of it, to describe OuLiPo as 'tricksy' in a fairly dismissive way is at best inadequate.

So, though I haven't got a lot of time for Adam Mars-Jones - largely because he was hailed for years as a great young British novelist without actually writing any novels - I'm inclined to trust him on this one.

14 June 2009

Do you know Queneau?

Once again, the Author Author article in the Guardian Review might have been written for me. If I were so inclined I could imagine the editor is sending me secret messages. This week, Adam Thirlwell writes about Raymond Queneau, and particularly about Barbara Wright's translations into English. I love Queneau but I've never read the translations. Perhaps I ought to, since they must encounter fascinating difficulties. Here's an extract from the article:
The first sentence of Queneau's story "Anglicismes" sounds, in his Franglais, like this: "Un dai vers middai, je tèque le beusse et je sie un jeugne manne avec une grète nèque et un hatte avec une quainnde de lèsse tressés." But in Wright's Englench, because it is a literal translation, this story is now called "Gallicisms", and its first sentence sounds like this: "One zhour about meedee I pree the ohtobyusse and I vee a zhern omm with a daymoorzuray neck and a shappoh with a sorrt of plaited galorng."

Thirlwell calls this "a literal translation". Well, it isn't. I'm not sure what it is, but I don't think a literal translation is possible. The text has broken the model of translations. (It's dead funny, by the way.)

Thirlwell ends with the thought that
A novelist who thinks only about novels in his or her own language is no more a novelist, I think, than one who doesn't think about other novelists at all.
One translation I have read is Gilbert Adair's A Void, the brilliant rendering of Georges Perec's La Disparition, in which the phrase "un mauvais roman" is translated as "a Dick Francis". Somehow this is OK - so why am I upset when someone translates "cien metros" as "a hundred yards"? Translation theory looks like more fun than you might imagine.

06 June 2009

The birth of imagism

Here's an interesting review in today's Guardian. It looks as if the reviewed book shows what happens when you look at Ez with commonsensical eyes, which isn't necessarily a good or a bad thing. But this sentence, I think, shows why any fascination I have for Ez will never change into fondness:
Pound believed in the Great Man theory of history - and he was one of the Great Men.
Actually, it's pretty useless as a review. The reviewer has his own axe to grind, but I get no real idea of what line the book takes. The most useful part is the factual statement (or warning) that the book has 976 pages.

02 June 2009


One has two n's the other has three. There may be more than this to distinguish them. I wrote earlier about Ashbery's skipping over the denotation stage. He doesn't always do it, by the way, but Ez does, and so, I suppose, does T S Eliot. Is there some distinction between the community of those who can understand a denotation - essentially those who share the language - and those who can share a connotation? Clearly there is, and this must be a key reason modernist poetry is seen as elitist. Is that (a) inevitable and (b) regrettable?


I've found a site called Casa Fernando Pessoa, linked to the house itself in Lisbon where Pessoa mainly lived. It now houses a permanent exhibition of Pessoa's life, a library, and occasional muscial and literary events. The website seems to have a comprehensive collection of Pessoa's verse online, organised according to the names of the heteronyms, and there are plenty of them.

I know that Álvaro de Campos is one of the main ones. Surprisingly, he wrote a series of five sonnets entitled Barrow-on-Furness, too long to look at here. Here's a shorter poem, O Futuro (the future):

Sei que me espera qualquer coisa
Mas não sei que coisa me espera.

Como um quarto escuro
Que eu temo quando creio que nada temo
Mas só o temo, por ele, temo em vão.
O mistério da morte a mim o liga
Ao brutal fim do meu poema.

My translation:
I know that some thing waits for me
But I don't know what thing waits for me.

Like a dark room
That I fear when I believe I fear nothing
But just to fear it means I fear in vain.
The mystery of death for me is linked
To the brutal end of my poem.

I'm not sure about the translation especially the 'just to fear it' line. I suspect this isn't one of the best. But maybe here the point is that the poems of de Campos build the author.

Anyway, more of this later. The real point of this post is to note the resource.

Edit (later that day): I should point out, once again, my stupidity. The list of heteronyms is no such thing. It's a list of poets whose work is available at the Casa, some of them from many centuries past. Actually, thinking about it, it's unlikely the collection of Pessoa's poetry is comprehensive. He wrote a hell of a lot.