Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Two thoughts on translation

From an old college paper on A.E. Housman's version of "Diffugere Nives":
We don’t like being preached at in verse—there is no tradition of 20th cent didactic verse in English—but are willing to overhear a sermon and listen to it seriously as long as it is addressed to someone else. In general, we are willing to accept much in a translation that we would consider intolerably silly in an original English poem, and this is what gives translation some of its power to alter the linguistic climate. [...] What Housman has achieved is a poem that sits squarely in the English tradition but is, at the same time, not quite an English poem. The objective of this type of translation is to make the poet speak good English, but not house-train as regards structure or subject matter. (A parallel that comes to mind is the Ascot scene in “My Fair Lady.”)

From the preface to my final project:
These poems are meant to bear the same sort of relation to the original as an umbrella does to the dome of St. Paul's: they are roughly the same shape and serve a similar purpose.


windwheel said...

Bizarre. No tradition of didactic poetry in English? There is nothing else in the ars dictaminis of literary English as opposed to the oral tradition of ballads and sea-shanties and such.
What kids did at Public School and Uni, was compose poems on the classical models coz this was character building. Let's say you're a 14 year old boy translating Catullus or composing an Anacreontic so as to avoid a beating from the usher.
With the help of a crib and the class swot, you swiftly versify an invitation to buggery or broach the matter of a Bacchic orgy in the best approved style, so as to get back to cricket and a bean feast.
What you might ask is didactic about Catullus? Well, though his subject was sodomy he played with a straight back- this is virtue ethics. And Anacreon too was a straight shooter not a pathetic drunk rolling in the gutter.

Indeed, that's why English's hegemony over Indian languages worked such mischief. Previously, though the Indian poet mechanically composed manuals of erotics or divans wine-poetry or whatever, while remaining chaste and sober, still, the aim was some mystic afflatus not bloody character building and keeping a stiff upper lip and passing first into the IAS or IIT or something.
Still, the umbrella and St.Pauls is a nice line. Post up some of your poetry why don't you?
Feast then thy heart, for what thy heart has had
The fingers of no heir will ever hold.
Great blog BTW.

Zed said...

Thanks! Perhaps the remark about English verse lacking a didactic tradition makes more sense if you note the adj. "20th-cent."? The tradition had dried up by Tennyson and poss. earlier, and was definitely not accessible to Housman in his own work. (The OED entry for "sententious" is quite telling.) This is what D.S. Carne-Ross argues in the introduction to "Horace in English" and I've always found his case entirely compelling.

I do think that there's something impossibly muddled about seeing Tennyson or Swinburne or Yeats as preachers of uplift! The Victorian poetic tradition is at a great distance from Thomas Arnold and Rugby. (The anomaly here being Kipling.) But I'm afraid I know virtually nothing about 19th-cent. Indian poetry so cannot comment on the influence of public schools on it.

windwheel said...

Sorry, misled by your tag, I thought you might be from my part of the world.
My own feeling is that English poetry, turning its back upon its origins in the gloaming of the Saxon Gods which lends to ST. Augustine's 'mirror of the book' or, indeed, to 'speculation' (i.e. meditation upon one's own image as uniting one to God)a crimson rather than vinous tinge- this is the procession from 'the Dream of the Rood' to Langley via the vast eremitical literature amongst whose stars were Walter Hinton and Julian of Norwich etc, to reappear in borrowed clothes or euphuistic form in Mallory, Spencer, Browne's numinous darkness, Burton's melancholy, till, though an Augustan era supervenes, Beddoes and then Swinburne seek to recover what was lost, but do so in a snobbish way- Foster's Universal Education Act of 1870 making this necessary.
What remains of English poetry? You have pedants and University wits- Milton was both- making hay after the best imported models, but only so as to better upholster a manger they were dogged to exclude English's true Christ from.
Essentially, English poetry is didactic in two respects-
1) it has to be learnt. It isn't natural. Its authority derives from being foreign and imported. Its syntax and imagery are not open to defeasible reasoning. They are shibboleths.
2) it exhibits a moral superiority based upon a privileged sensibility- the Head Master, or School Inspector's, sarcastic and anankastic personality which judges all but admits of no standard by which it can itself be judged.

Notice that when something new- like Whitman, or Black Mountain projectivist poetry, appears on the horizon, English poets use it as stick to beat each other with. Kipling prescribes a course of Whitman to the young Chesterton- tho' both gain currency by allegiance to the old ballad form. J.H. Prynne, at the present time, has praise lavished on him, people think he might actually know some Economics or Geology or whatever, but it wouldn't do to call him on it- he has exhibited a superior sensibility. That by itself is didactic in the sense of perpetuating the crazy notion that poetry has to do with passing exams, gaining credentials, and then mercilessly looking down one's nose at everyone else.

Yeats, whom you mention, was simply an impostor- his was a presentment of Irishry at a time when the British Empire sought to placate Ireland by according it 'literary genius' and India by conceding that its idiot and deeply parochial Godmen were actually 'evolved souls' and other such Theosophist crap.
The whole of English poetry is a didactic fraud- real poetry aint saying something jejune after the pattern of some foreign model.
It's not about a superior sensibility making an exhibition of its Canute-like stoicism at not having been able to turn back the tide of the great unwashed.

Personally, I've nothing against 'poets of uplift'- we had them here in London- they wrote Music Hall songs like 'Daddy won't buy me a bow wow' and 'were did you get that 'at?'- the point is uplift aint something hermetic and crepuscular- its actually... uplifting!


windwheel said...

The point about Housman is that, like Walter Pater, he had a bit of Cockney in him- he visits Shropshire by 'day-return', I suppose Theocritus wasn't any better, but both are Cockney poets- like Keats- in that they saw how working class people were using the language. Shaw, w.r.t Pygmalion, remarks the utterly illiterate and declasse love of language characteristic of the Costermonger.

Some years ago, on British Tv, there was a program called 'in bed with me dinner' (In bed with Maddona) where an excerpt from a documentary on 'knockers' (fraudulent door to door salesman) was shown. The subject, a cockney, wishes to show that he is unemployable and goes to a building site with the TV crew and is turned away pretty sharpish. His monologue beginning 'warra palaver,' has to be heard to be believed. There is alliteration, there is assonance, there is a Shakepearian sufflaminandus erat quality, it is luxurious, it is excessive- but it isn't poetry, it isn't oratory- why?
Some Head Master or School Inspector said so.

I do see where you're coming from.
But, that place is Limbo. Poetry, even in English, moves in the reverse direction.

You're sure you aren't Indian? No. You couldn't be. You're too young. It was people of a generation even than mine, who wrote so correctly and with such acute judgement.

Great blog.