Tuesday, February 9, 2010

This one hour, now spun and gone - a lawn ornament saddens the Italian clowns

A bit more of Fêtes Galantes, the shortest poem from the two translations I read.

The Faun

An ancient terra cotta faun
Laughs on the green: sign, probably,
That something will rain woe upon
These moments of serenity

That led us here, and led us on,
You, me - nostalgic pilgrims, we -
To this one hour, now spun and gone
Midst tambourines' cacophony.

This is Norman Shapiro's version.  Martin Sorrell's version is a bit more literal but abandons rhyme and sound.  Shapiro not only rhymes but successfully mimics some of the internal assonances (although "Qui m'ont conduit et t'ont conduite" is an unmatchably lovely bit of French).  Plus, his version is a better English poem.

Without the surrounding poems in Fêtes Galantes, the reader would not know that Verlaine's poem is in the same Harlequin world as yesterday's "Fantoches."  Only the "turning flight of the sound of the tambourines" reminds us of the commedia dell'arte characters.  But the context lets us put the you and me, the melancholy pilgrims, in carnival costumes.  In the line of French up above, the adjective endings tell us that the "me" is male and the "you" female (that's right, yes?), a distinction lost in English.  So the French has a little more sex in it.

The laughing statue takes us back to Rome, or Greece, back to the pastoral poetry of Theocritus, perhaps.  Why is his laughter out of place, why does it sadden the poor shepherds after their hour of dancing and music and so on?  He reminds them of the passage of all things, I suppose.

One word in the French is a curiosity to me.  Shapiro has "Laughs on the green" for "Rit au centre des boulingrins."  My little dictionary does not contain "boulingrins," but a moment of puzzling revealed its meaning and gave me a little laugh.  At least, unlike "parking" and "week-end," the French adopted their own spelling for "bowling green."


  1. that's right, yes?


    At least, unlike "parking" and "week-end," the French adopted their own spelling for "bowling green."

    "Boulingrins" is great. Much better than "stationnement" and "fin de semaine" as well (you gotta go to Quebec these days for that sort of thing).

    Thinking about poetry translation sort of gives me hives though. The warring between the literal and aesthetic sides of my brain is too much.

  2. I think you have identified part of the appeal, to some, of translating poetry. The poems are like aesthetic puzzles. Keep trying and maybe you'll find the solution.

    Michael Hamburger has been translating Hölderlin for over fifty years, every little scrap, with multiple versions of many poems. It's a 100,000 piece puzzle.

  3. I almost bought this book in French yesterday! Alas, I had too many things in my basket & was forced to put some back.

    Also, I was responding to your comment on Churchill over at Rebecca's blog & it was getting obnoxiously long, so I thought I'd better hop back over here to post it, thusly:

    @Amateur Reader: Actually, Burckhardt is exactly who I was thinking of! He makes huge generalizations about large groups of people (the Venetians, the Florentines) without backing up his assumptions with much in the way of investigable sources, and makes all kinds of moral and value judgments which ring strangely in modern ears. In places he extrapolates from one or two anecdotes and applies his extrapolation to an entire city-state. I'm not arguing that he's not a great writer or stylist - I really enjoyed The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy - but his approaches, to modern sensibilities, seem pretty out-of-date. Which is all I was saying - historians of previous eras shouldn't be judged by modern standards of rigor.

    And I think there are lots of academic historians writing for public audience today - exactly the biographers that Rebecca was referring to, with the big footnote section at the ends of their books. Just in literary biography, Hermione Lee, Richard Ellman, Mark Bostridge, Kathryn Hughes & Ron Powers all leap to mind - they have all held or still hold academic posts, but write for the general (literary) public.

  4. Is this really an argument about standards of citation? Then I defer. But Burckhardt was writing a historical essay. Historians still write historical essays, synthesizing work. They don't refer every generalization or conclusion to an outisde authority. The historian is the authority.

    I fear that I have completely misuderstood the point about the clubbiness or cliquishness of earlier historians. Of course some academic historians write for larger audiences today. Most write for a tiny handful of fellow professionals. Burckhardt was writing for the larger audience! He made assumptions about what that audience knew and did not know. Every writer does that. So I'm missing the point.

    The original discussion is here. If anyone has good recommendations for big picture histories of England, please direct them there.

  5. No, I don't think it's only about citation, although I do think that's a relevant symptom - a lack of what we now call "transparency." I'm trying to articulate what I mean about the amateurish feeling. I was NOT intending to say that Burckhardt et al should be considered amateurs in their own context.

    So, here's an example: you're right that historians still write historical essays, and Stefanie just wrote a post about a piece of technological history that goes off on a rant toward the end claiming that email/computers have "taken over our lives." The author takes anecdotal evidence (that paragraph she quotes), and uses it to extrapolate an epidemic of hermitic computer-users. In a modern historian this comes off as amateurish, especially since, as Stefanie demonstrates, there are data from actual scientific studies that conflict with his claim. If he wanted to argue that the internet is actually changing the way we live and think, he should have at least acknowledged the complexity of the argument, the fact that some people disagree, and recognized those study findings, in order to build a stronger case.

    But Burckhardt pulls this same trick all the time. He says, for example (in the chapter on the Republics) "Sabellico, born in the neighborhood of Tivoli, and accustomed to the frank loquacity of the scholars of his day, remarks elsewhere with some astonishment, that the young nobles who came of a morning to hear his lectures could not be prevailed upon to enter into political discussions: 'When I ask them what people think, say, and expect about this or that movement in Italy, they all answer with one voice that they know nothing about the matter.'" He goes on to assume that the reason the young scholars didn't speak was because of government repression and subject conformity, without considering any other possible explanation. Maybe they didn't talk because it was early in the morning. Maybe there was a current of hostility towards outsiders. Maybe it was stylish for young Venetian nobles to affect boredom. Etc. I think a responsible modern historian would feel the need to argue for this as evidence a bit more than Burckhardt does.

    Not to mention statements like "These slender fair- haired men, with quiet cautious steps and deliberate speech, differed but slightly in costume and bearing from one another." Where does he get this information? He doesn't tell us, but he does base an entire theory of Venetian character on similar "facts." I mean, maybe they are facts! Maybe not! Who knows? In any case, in a modern history I feel like such a suspiciously convenient generalization would be defended, rather than casually offered as fact.

  6. Emily, what you call a trick looks to me like interpretation. It's what I expect the historian to do.

    I fear, though, I am missing something else. Much of the history I read or look at - almost all of it - resembles Burckhardt in just the sort of ways you describe, with strong generalizations about mentalité and so on. The history I read is, almost always, synthetic, big picture stuff, sometimes mixed with original research, sometimes not.

    If it's any help, I'm thinking of historians like Peter Gay, Daniel Howe, David Landes, Paul Johnson, Peter Green, Fernand Braudel. Pekka Hämäläinen, the author of The Comanche Empire does the same thing. He forcefully argues for a specific interpretation of limited evidence. Much of what he argues is probably wrong. The boldest claims he makes are exactly those that cannot be supported with citations.

    So I suspect you're thinking of someone else, some other kind of historical writing. I'd love to look at an example.

    I wonder if I am overreacting to the word "amateurish." Standards have changed in every field. Are, then, Darwin, Newton, or Adam Smith amateurish? I don't see what that word gets us, but it is likely an unimportant difference, a quibble that I have blown up.