How Absolute a Knave

I stumbled on a poem recently by the Italian poet Sergio Solmi (1899-1981), “Entro la densa lente dell’estate,” whose first line, which also serves as the poem’s title, is a beauty—and a heartbreaker for the English translator, as any wonderful line of verse must be to the translator, aware that beauty and fidelity rarely go hand in hand. Indeed, beauty, being aloof, and fidelity—how absolute a knave—being exact, fastidious, always pursing the lips and pointing out faults, are rarely even on speaking terms. You have to marvel at the varied yet concentrated phonetic play in the above line, the en sound that occurs in three of the first four words, the els that linger in the ear from la to lente to dell’estate (double consonants in Italian should be heard as such and so there is a special drawn-out emphasis on the el sound in dell’estate, as if an English tongue were taking particular care to pronounce “hall light” without running the two words together), the esses, dees and ahs that echo exactly once each, the tees that have the tongue lightly tapping the teeth from beginning to end. Finally, the first three words that repeat the en sound follow this in each instance with a terminal vowel that is slightly higher in pitch than the one before, thus: en-oh… en-ah… en-ey (more or less; a thousand pardons to those who have mastered the International Phonetic Alphabet). And if we were looking to hang some sort of meaning on the phonetic series of those terminal vowels, we could say they suggest the growing light of the early morning, the rising pitch imitating a rising sun. Just a handful of phonemes, nine or ten depending on how you wish to count the values of the ees in lente and estate. It would indeed be nothing short of a miracle if a similarly small number of euphonious sounds lined up in the English words that best reflect the meaning of the Italian ones. O bel compatto mondo (O beautiful compact world) exclaims the poet further on and he might well be praising this dense first verse of his. “Within the thick lens of summer,” a translator might be tempted to get up some internal rhyme by choosing “dense lens” over “thick,” but… we are prevented from doing so. English lenses are thick, not dense. Simple usage trumps any attempt at a phonetic effect.

Like the poem in its entirety, the above verse is written in the classic line of eleven syllables (hendecasyllabic is the technical term), which is the foundation of Italian poetry. In Solmi’s poem, however, there is no end rhyme. Here is the entire poem; my pedestrian translation follows:

Entro la densa lente dell’estate,
nel mattino disteso che già squarciano
lunghi, assonnati e sviscerati i gridi
degli ambulanti, — oh, i bei colori! Giallo
di peperoni, oscure melanzane,
insalate svarianti dal più tenero
verde all’azzurro, rosee carote,
e vesti accese delle donne, e muri
scabri e preziosi, gonfi ippocastani,
acque d’argento e di mercurio, e in alto
il cielo caldo e puro e torreggiante
di tondi cirri, o bel compatto mondo.
Lieto ne testimonia, sul pianeta
erra, nella città Milano, mentre
vaga, di sé dimentico e di tutto,
lungo le calme vie che si ridestano,
— oggi, addì ventisette Luglio mille
novecento cinquanta — un milanese.

Within the thick lens of summer
In the relaxed morning, which the long,
Sleepy and intense cries of the peddlers
Are already rending—oh, the beautiful colors!
Bell pepper yellow, dark eggplants,
Heads of lettuce ranging from softest
Green to sky blue, rosy carrots,
And the women’s bright clothes, and walls
Rough and precious, swollen horse chestnuts,
Water the color of silver and mercury, and on high
The sky, warm and pure and towering
With round cirrus clouds, o beautiful compact world.
Happy, he witnesses the above, wanders the planet,
In the city of Milan, while
Lost to himself, to everything,
A Milanese roams the calm streets that are waking again
—Today, the twenty-seventh of July,
Nineteen hundred and fifty.

One final remark. Of the many effects that the English translation cannot reproduce from the original, there is one at the end of the poem based solely on syntax and word order, on the way the poet can put together a correct utterance in Italian. The last six verses form a syntactic whole, three complete sentences with subjects and verbs (plus a lot of other subordinate stuff, too, but no matter), from “Happy, witnessing the above…” to the end, or in Italian, from “Lieto ne testimonia…” to the end. Because adjectives in Italian agree in number and gender with what they modify, we know from lieto that whatever it is modifying is indeed singular and masculine. However, Italian allows Solmi to place at the very end of the poem after a long build up over four verses the finally specified subject of the main clause, un milanese, “a Milanese” (“…mentre vaga… un milanese”). It forms a kind of humorous anticlimax, a carefully calibrated whimsical touch that is underscored by the echo of mille plus its end vowel and in the next, and last, line milanese and its end vowel. We might call it a key detail deferred, which English word order here just does not comfortably allow.

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Imperfect Constancy

A scholar and friend of mine, a native French speaker whose love of English has left him with a sure mastery of the language and a long familiarity with its literature, had a translation problem that had been nagging him for some time. It was in fact not his translation but his doubts about another’s rendering of an English text into French that was the pebble in his mental shoe, and he tapped me recently to sound out his suspicions.

The text in question was by the eighteenth-century essayist Joseph Addison, writing about Milton’s Paradise Lost and specifically, in the passage under study, about the great poet’s language and its shortcomings in this case. The French translation was by Jacques Delille (known as l’abbé Delille), whose translation of Milton’s epic was published in 1804. It is in his introduction to his translation that Delille quotes Addison. Here is the passage, first in the original and then the one sentence in the good abbé’s French that doesn’t quite cut the mustard:

“…Milton’s Sentiments and Ideas were so wonderfully Sublime, that it would have been impossible for him to have represented them in their full Strength and Beauty, without having recourse to these Foreign Assistances [foreign idioms]. Our Language sunk under him, and was unequal to that greatness of Soul, which furnished him with such glorious Conceptions.” (Addison, The Spectator 297)

Notre langue était insuffisante pour lui,” the French cleric translates, which, if I render word for word back into English, yields “Our language was insufficient/inadequate for him.” My friend justifiably wanted to know where the devil “sunk” had got to. Or was he being too exacting, he asked.

Indeed, he was not. What had become of Addison’s rather striking choice of a verb here? This is not a case of a mistranslation but something more interesting, a failure of will it would seem. The French wording, in a sense, does grasp the spirit of Addison’s critique; the essayist indeed affirms that the English tongue proved wanting with respect to what Milton had to say. This is not a problem of misunderstanding the English verb. And because we are dealing with prose here, one cannot argue that the strict confines of a classical French twelve-syllable verse line forced the translator to boggle and then blunder into the weak phrasing of “was inadequate.” Meter here doesn’t overrule matter. Finally, the French language has a number of verbs that cover some of the same linguistic territory that the intransitive sense of to sink occupies in English. My friend suggested ployer, plier or céder sous, and s’affaisser, without breaking a sweat. This is certainly not a case of a peculiarity in one tongue purportedly not carrying over into another. No, there is not even a hint of that most dimwitted of snowclones: such and such a language doesn’t have a word for this or that.

What we have in this case is a translator showing a loss of nerve. Father Delille seems to be lacking in faith either in his grasp of the out-of language or in the expressive power of his own. Or perhaps, given the eighteenth century’s ideas about decorum, our translator convinced himself that he couldn’t possibly maintain this figurative language in French. Nabokov, in his scholarly notes to his English translation of Eugene Onegin, gleefully excoriates eighteenth-century writers, for example, precisely for their annoying tendency to kowtow to convention, to prize the generic over the specific, to aim to please polite society at the expense of originality or interest pure and simple. When a translator labors under that kind of outlook—it can happen in any century of course—there is a leveling of what is colorful or vigorous or evocative in the original. Thus, Addison’s striking image, which summons a number of other ideas and images (gravitas, the weightiness of Milton’s subject, ideas, soul, the supposed weakness of vernacular English with respect to the poet’s “Foreign Assistances,” and so on), is devitalized into “our language was inadequate for him.”

The opposite can occur as well, naturally. The original may have a glaring mistake, a mixed and mangled metaphor, for instance, or an unfortunate repetition. Does the translator look to reproduce the same? Nabokov again: In his English translation of Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, he renders the final sentence of the “Princess Mary” chapter in this way, “Will there not appear there, glimpsed on the pale line separating the blue main from the grey cloudlets, the longed-for sail, at first like the wing of a sea gull, but gradually separating itself from the foam of the breakers and, at a smooth clip, nearing the desolate quay?”* In a note Nabokov then points out, “Otdelyayushchei, otdelyayushcheisya. It is just like Lermontov and his casual style to let this long and limp word appear twice in the same, final, sentence.” Nabokov shows courage here by refusing to restyle his author as he fits him out in his new English garb.

In my day-to-day work, however, this is not the usual practice. First I should point out that I make a loose distinction between literary or historical texts, i.e., writing whose age or relative importance to the culture places it off limits, so to speak; and journalism, in which I include the critical essays appearing in art catalogs that are the bulk and bane of my professional existence. With the latter I allow myself some leeway. That is, I will probably devise a workaround solution, tipping off the author or no depending on the deadline and several other factors. A recent project is an apt illustration of the above. A short history, handsomely done, of Les Délices, the manor that had once been Voltaire’s residence in Geneva, included both prose and poetry by the eighteenth-century man of letters as well as the prose of the booklet’s two authors. Thus, had Voltaire or one of his correspondents quoted in the text committed some awkward wording or image to paper, I would have dutifully followed the French as closely as possible. As it turned out, there were no such troublesome passages, only one rather obscure turn of phrase (“nous nous mîmes à jouer Zaïre pour interrompre le cercle”: is “interrompre le cercle” Voltaire’s invention or an idiom from the period? And what exactly does he mean?). The expression cried out for much greater research than the deadline allowed. “We set about performing Zaire to break the circle” had to do—and, well, sort of makes sense. Before the high court of sticklers I would plead in my defense that it certainly places an English reader in the same position as a modern French reader before the odd phrase.

On the other hand, the authors of this short history of Les Délices come up with something of a mixed metaphor in this sentence, “Genève vit au rythme de l’effervescence que suscite la foundation de la Croix-Rouge…” A very close rendering would be, “Geneva was living [the verb in French is in the historical present, but that narrative convention, though used in English too, is less widespread, and certainly wouldn’t seem natural here] in time with the effervescence [ferment, excitement] that the founding of the Red Cross had stirred/aroused.” But can one live in time with (literally it would be “at the rate of”) an effervescence, a vivacity, an enthusiasm? The idea of course is that the city was experiencing daily the enthusiasm generated by a new humanitarian enterprise. My first try had been this, “Geneva pulsed with ferment for the Red Cross…” My scholar friend, who happened to be overseeing the project, called me out on this weak translation with a kind of raised eyebrow in the margins of my text, “Mixed metaphor. Is this correct?” I retorted that the French, too, was also mixing metaphors, to be honest, but… alas, he was right, something better surely could be found. I finally proposed this, “…day to day life in Geneva… was alive with ferment for the newly founded Red Cross…”

…Forgive me! Truth is my real goal.
Who that laid hands on that perfect form
Could do other than stay with that in perfect constancy?

So writes Clive Wilmer in “The Translator’s Apology” (with tip of the hat to the blog Laudator Temporis Acti for bringing the poem to my attention). What struck me in this bit of verse is the amusing ambiguity in the poem’s final line, which may not be intentional by the way (the nine lines leading up to these final three show no such wordplay and argue either way. “In perfect constancy,” indeed, or is it also an “imperfect constancy”? And what of the imperfect form? It, too, at times warrants the courage of perfect constancy.


*By comparison, here is the passage in J.H. Wisdom and Marr Murray’s translation, available at This translation was published shortly before the Great War, in 1912, and despite the presence of the very Nabokovian names of Wisdom and Marr, it appears that the oddity of their version is not an invention, or rather is entirely their invention: “… lo! yonder, upon the pale line dividing the blue deep from the grey clouds, is there not glancing the longed-for sail, at first like the wing of a seagull, but little by little severing itself from the foam of the billows and, with even course, drawing nigh to the desert harbour?” Unlike Nabokov’s translation from his mid-fifties on (around the time of his Eugene Onegin), where the oddities and infelicities spring from a willful, even perverse, adherence to the original, the strangeness here seems more rooted in an unsure grasp of the Russian causing Wisdom and Murray’s command of English to wobble as well (the awkward use of “glancing” and “severing itself,” for instance, or “the desert harbour,” which at the very least reads like a mistake for “the deserted harbour”).

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Thoughts Shuffling Round Like Pence

There are perhaps no days of our childhood that we lived so fully as those we believed we left without living them, those that we spent with a favorite book. On Reading, Marcel Proust

For translators and people who dream of acquiring foreign languages the way explorers in another, distant era dreamt of going over terrae that were still incognitae to the mapmakers, there is a kind of reference book that is especially prized: the polyglot book of proverbs, maxims, expressions hallowed by use—in other words, nuggets of wisdom that have come down the ages, displayed in the variegated light of a rainbow of languages. We might more handily dub such locutions index phrases from the way their form and content make you want to raise your index before giving them voice. A stitch in time saves nine. Birds of a feather flock together. Every cloud has a silver lining. Such collections are the exact opposite of those anthologies of exotic terms and phrases that are supposedly untranslatable; I wrote about them a few posts back. In this case, the overarching idea is that human knowledge easily vaults over the towering walls each language threw up with the bricks salvaged from toppled Babel. It is a spirit much more in keeping with the translator’s cast of mind.

Multilingual collections of proverbs and maxims, although a minor genre, have been around for a long time, doubtless based on monolingual collections going back even earlier. I have one I’m very fond of that I picked up in Italy and it lists sources dating back, for example, to 1656 for Italian proverbs; 1559 for Latin (an edition of Erasmus’s Adagiorum Chiliades, the initial version of which dates to 1500); and 1709 for English. The full title of the collection is Dizionario comparato di proverbi e modi proverbiali in sette lingue (Hoepli), and there follows a list of the seven featured languages: Italian, Latin, French, Spanish, German, English and ancient Greek. In fact, that number is greater since the author, Augusto Arthaber, scatters among the entries the odd equivalent discovered in Venetian, Piedmontese, Milanese, Bergamasque, Lombard, Roman, Sicilian, and so on (Italian dialects, it should be pointed out for those unfamiliar with the linguistic reality of the peninsula, have a very long and rich tradition).

Such books naturally contain the megastars of maxims and proverbs, those expressions that have survived generations of use, “a rolling stone gathers no moss,” “pride goes before the fall,” “too many cooks spoil the broth,” “a drowning man will catch at a straw,” and so on. One of the pleasures of thumbing through these kinds of reference works is indeed that of recognition, that feeling of stumbling on an old friend in foreign parts, followed by the excitement of discovery as you piece together on your own how the proverb is constructed in another language you know, know only partly, or don’t really know at all, every page a Rosetta Stone offering a giddy minute of mastery without the years of slogging through grammars and learners’ manuals. Take one of the examples mentioned above. I discover in my Arthaber that the rolling stone business in Italian is pietra mossa, non fa muschio (didn’t know that, and didn’t know that moss is muschio in Italian), but, more amusingly, in Sicilian it is petra smossa nun pigghia lippa. Not that the expression will ever prove very useful, but it makes me wonder if lippa indeed means moss, what its connection with muschio is—a little web research also suggests it might be more accurate to write it lippu—and makes me wonder, too, if pigghia is related to the standard Italian verb pigliare, a more familiar form of the verb to take (prendere). I also learn that Germans say that a Walzender Stein wird nicht moosig and for a few embarrassing moments I am impressed by how much more colorful German is with its “waltzing stone,” until I slap my forehead and twig that walzen meant to roll or revolve long before it was associated with the dance that began to make a name for itself in the mid-eighteenth century. Meanwhile, with the Spanish, piedra movediza, nunca moho la cobija, I find myself, to the consternation or amusement of Spanish speakers, speculating that la cobija is a feminine noun meaning some kind of moss… until I notice that moho can’t be a past participle since la piedra is feminine. Moho must be, well, moss (mousse in French, muschio in Italian, what the devil was I thinking?) and hence cobija is, right, a conjugated verb (cobijar means “to shelter”).

Such are the ways the mind works in these cases. There are lots of little discoveries, some thoroughly misleading, and some moving toward the truth, toward the true meaning of a word, phrase, or grammatical construction. Moho is a noun, not a past participle, dummy (striking my forehead again). In my defense, weak as it is, I had such forms as mojar, mojado and mojó (“to wet” in various forms), as well as mojito, whispering in my too credulous ear. For students, by the way, this is how you go about learning a new tongue. You inevitably make mistakes, but the clever student puts them to good use. They are indeed true portals of discovery, if you know not to lose your way as you venture down the paths leading from them, that is, if you eventually verify your assumptions and commit to memory the correct form or meaning.

Another joy to be had in paging through such polyglot collections is that of coming across the many more expressions that are no longer in use (if they ever were), a sort of pleasant stroll through the language flea market to admire a wealth of tools and gadgets from a very different age, your mental exclamations of “How clever!” and “Look how that fits together nicely!” mingled with “What on earth is this for?” In the middle of my Arthaber, I come across this, Colombo pasciuto, ciliegia amara (literally “feasted pigeon, bitter cherry”). The idea is clear enough, something like the reverse of the fable of the fox and the grapes, whence our expression “sour grapes.” In the case of the pigeon, a full belly leads one to perceive as unappetizing something that is quite edible; in the case of the fox, an empty belly, and the impossibility of filling it, leads one to declare something unappetizing that is in fact appetizing. To round out this portrait of human appetites and psychology, we would have to add, I suppose, the idiom “a dog in the manger,” where someone begrudges others what he himself cannot enjoy (dog in question keeps oxen away from hay, which the dog itself can’t eat).

As for our sated pigeon, Arthaber offers this English equivalent, “Full pigeons find cherries bitter,” along with two variants, one of which, “When the mouse has had enough, the meal is bitter,” is a nearly word-for-word counterpart of the German, Wenn die Maus satt ist, so schmeckt das Mehl bitter. Both of these echo what Arthaber assures us is the Latin equivalent of the expression, Mus satur insipidam dejudicat esse farinam. Meanwhile, Spaniards apparently dispense with animals altogether, Al hombre harto las cerezas le amargan (more or less “to the sated man, cherries are bitter”). Though fleeting, the pleasure is real: turn a page and one is already waxing wise in six different languages (for the French, A pigeon soûl, cerises sont amères)!

Thoughts that shuffle round like pence
Through each reign,
Wear down to their simplest sense,
Yet remain…

as one stanza of Philip Larkin’s “Modesties” puts it.

From the above examples, it’s easy to understand the allure of proverbs and maxims for the multilingual lexicographer or the lover of foreign languages. The concise form of such expressions, coupled with the venerable world they allude to, makes them immediately seem like something that has always been in the language. Which came first, the well-fed German Maus, the English mouse, or the Latin mus? The Maus/Mehl and mouse/meal alliteration could suggest that the Latin was originally a translation of them, but perhaps they in turn were merely an adaptation of the satiated Franco-Italian pigeon and its chary manner before cherries. They are nice dependable solid chunks of language that one can always count on, a rather erudite, content-rich version of stock phrases (interpreters, translators and anyone learning to speak a foreign language adore stock phrases of course), locutions like “so to speak,” “as it were,” “on the one hand,” “in a nutshell,” “truth be told,” “be that as it may.” For the thoughtful translator, by the way, the great temptation—which needs to be carefully weighed and most often cautiously resisted—is to reach for a stock phrase when the original expressions poses a problem of some kind. I recall reading through some lovely liner notes penned by Stravinsky (or at least signed by the composer; it is possible Robert Craft had a hand in their final form) and pulling up short at his striking description of himself as being more of a “topiarist” in his work. I glanced over at the French translation and was dismayed to discover the eloquent image completely lost. The translator had opted for something along the lines of “…j’aime bien couper les cheveux en quatre” (I like to split hairs). Granted, there is some clipping involved in both, but your topiarist would be surprised to find that he also splits hairs. No less surprised than Stravinski would have been to learn that he was a quibbler, one given to making trivial distinctions. Clearly, the translation was a poor one, even if the phrase employed was entirely idiomatic.

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