Vol. 25 No. 11 · 5 June 2003

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How did they do it?

Donald MacKenzie (LRB, 22 May) misses an essential factor in his analysis of the downfall of Enron: the culpable ignorance of the financial services industry which hyped the company. MacKenzie notes, admiringly, that EnronOnline traded $100 billion worth of natural gas between November 1999 and June 2000. Since $100 buys roughly 1000 cubic metres of gas in the wholesale market, it follows that EnronOnline was claiming to have hosted trades in about 1000 billion cubic metres of gas. The total annual market for gas in the EU was about 450 billion cubic metres, mostly supplied in the form of long-term take-or-pay contracts which never went near a trading floor let alone the Internet. EnronOnline was thus claiming to be trading about four times the annual European market from its start-up. How did they do it? So far as one can see, by churning trades between fictitious agents, selling gas between themselves and, probably, by lying. They also used the cute device of adding the value of trades hosted to their revenue account. Most people in the energy business took Enron's hype with a bucket of salt. Unfortunately, bankers and investment analysts took it seriously – unable, it seems, to do simple sums.

Michael Prior
Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire

Et tu

It is still a surprise and disappointment to be reminded, as Leofranc Holford-Strevens reminds us (LRB, 22 May), that Julius Caesar did not say ‘Et tu, Brute’ as he died under 23 dagger thrusts on the Ides of March. Footnotes to Shakespeare make clear that this phrase was just a stage tag, but what did Caesar say? Suetonius and Cassius Dio give two versions, one that he said nothing, only grunted, the other that he said, as Holford-Strevens reports, kai su teknon. That is, his last words were in Greek. Why? And what did he mean? J.N. Adams, the author of the book reviewed by Holford-Strevens, says that it was a form of code-switching for magical or apotropaic purposes. Clearly, the standard translation, ‘You too, my child’ (in Robert Graves’s version), doesn’t quite convey code-switching for magical purposes, and Marcus Brutus, to whom the words were addressed, was a bit old to be ‘my child’ (Caesar was not his father, despite the rumours). James Russell, whom Adams quotes, argued that the first two words were common in Greek curses and curse tablets of the time, and Caesar and Brutus, both good Greek speakers, would have been familiar with this sub-literary argot. So Caesar may have died with a curse on his lips, and perhaps ‘child’ was meant contemptuously. But how to render that into English? Adams and Russell (and Holford-Strevens) offer: ‘To hell with you too, lad.’ Is this the best the English language can do? Suetonius could have helped: he wrote a ‘Guide to Greek Terms of Abuse’. Sadly, it is lost.

Rex Winsbury
London WC1

Aids and the Polio Vaccine

After nearly half a century, it is not surprising that Hilary Koprowski (Letters, 8 May) does not recall any local technician who would have had knowledge of the procedures for the preparation and administration of CHAT polio vaccine to 215,504 people in the Ruzizi Valley in the Congo early in 1958, or that he dismisses the account of one technician, Jacques Kanyama, as reported by Edward Hooper (LRB, 3 April). Few white researchers paid much attention to their African laboratory assistants, although Paul Osterrieth at least recalls Kanyama, a ‘low-level employee’, ‘with affection’. Koprowski’s memory has proved shaky on many crucial aspects of his early work on polio, both at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia and in the Congo, and his rejection of Kanyama’s account is hardly convincing. Osterrieth also dismisses Kanyama’s recollections, describing them as ‘pure supposition’ and does not remember Philippe Elebe, the other technician Hooper spoke to.

It might jog their memories to look at the ‘unknown African assistant’ who figures in one of the photographs (‘Staff of Stanleyville Medical Laboratory in mid-1958’) in Hooper’s book, The River, or at the photo of the ‘two African assistants dismembering a dead chimp in the small “laboratory" at Camp Lindi in 1957’. These pictures make it clear that ‘African assistants’ were closely involved in many of the procedures carried out by the polio researchers, and that their testimony must be taken seriously.

Osterrieth also claims that, in Kisangani, ‘we had … no means of testing the purity, titre and safety of a viral vaccine.’ Yet his colleague Ghislane Courtois has specified the precise titre of the vaccine used in the Ruzizi mass trial, and that the vaccine was diluted sixty-fold with saline solution before feeding.

David Seddon
University of East Anglia

Do your homework

In his reassuring survey of the implications of developments in biogenetics (LRB, 22 May), Slavoj Žižek’s exuberance carries him too far when he says: ‘Ultimately, biogenetic intervention could render the idea of education meaningless.’ However fastidiously he takes his memory-enhancing drugs, he won’t win any quizzes unless he mugs up on the facts: this will take him less time than his opponent, for sure, but he won’t get away without doing any work. When he says that, ‘in good old Marxist terms, man is the totality of his/her social relations,’ and that ‘mind can emerge only from the network of social relations and material supplements,’ Žižek points up the limitations of what genetic manipulation is able to achieve: social relations, education among them, are beyond its control.

Malcolm Baker

Reactionary Danger

Lorna Scott Fox (LRB, 22 May) is dismissive of Victor Serge’s 1923 writings on Germany, describing them as ‘ultra-left’. Since Serge was writing for the Comintern press his analysis reflected the official line of the German Communist Party; only after revolutionary hopes collapsed did he permit himself some critical reflections in Clarté. The great merit of his writings was that they showed the impact of hyperinflation and political disintegration on everyday life in Germany, as captured in his portrait of the elderly intellectual coming back from the suburbs bent under the weight of sacks of potatoes, who as a result writes no more.

Scott Fox is wrong, too, to claim that in his last years ‘he had written off the working class for the time being.’ In late 1946, only a few months before he died, Serge wrote to the French socialist René Lefeuvre: ‘We shall get nowhere if we seem more preoccupied with criticising Stalinism than with defending the working class. The reactionary danger is still there, and in practice we shall often have to act alongside the Communists.’ Serge clearly still saw himself as an active member of the anti-Stalinist Left.

Ian Birchall
London N9

What Palmerston Knew

As E.S. Turner (LRB, 17 April) writes, the unblemished reputation of Charles Vaughan vanished overnight when the facts about his relationships with his pupils at Harrow were published and his ostensible motive for refusing the See of Rochester – fear of ambition – was exposed as hypocrisy. Vaughan was, however, described on his death as ‘the most useful man in his generation to the Church of England’, chiefly because he was one of the first to see that a degree from Oxbridge or Durham was not sufficient to train a clergyman. When he became vicar of Doncaster, he collected groups of young graduates who came to live with him in the vicarage. They studied New Testament Greek in the mornings and did parish visiting in the afternoons. They became known as ‘Vaughan’s Doves’ and included a future Archbishop of Canterbury. Vaughan’s work led to the establishment of theological colleges at the end of the 19th century.

Alfred Jowett

It has to be prose

In his review of Ciaran Carson’s version of the Inferno, Matthew Reynolds (LRB, 8 May) suggests that Carson does not always render the text neutrally into English but rather makes something out of it. This could not have been put more clearly. Something is indeed being made out of Dante’s poem: somebody else’s poem. We want the Inferno translated, and elegantly, too, but free of omissions and additions, and this English verse cannot do. It is a matter of arithmetic as much as aesthetics. Consider one prose and one verse translation of the second canto of the Inferno, lines 4-6:

ed io son uno

m’apparechiavo a sostener la guerra
sì del cammino e sì de la pietate
che ritrarrà la mente, che non erra.

The grammar gives ‘I was preparing myself’ for ‘m’apparechiavo.’ James Finn Cotter’s prose version gives ‘I readied myself.’ His complete rendering is

I, the only one,

readied myself to endure the battle
both of the journey and the pathos,
which flawless memory shall here record.

This is good, clear English, and does not add or subtract. ‘Guerra’ becomes ‘battle’ rather than ‘war’ because in English we do battle with circumstances. Memory ‘che non erra’, ‘which errs not’, becomes ‘flawless memory’. Only the word ‘here’ intrudes, reminding us that this is the beginning of a narrative by a returned traveller. I do not like ‘pathos’ for ‘pietate’: this is a modern abstraction for the poet’s earth-bound human pity, which Virgil scornfully dismisses as inappropriate in the presence of the justice of God (Canto XX, 26-30). Put back ‘pity’ and it’s difficult to see how the version could easily be improved.

Now consider a verse translation, the diligent terza rima of Dorothy Sayers:


Must gird me to the wars – rough travelling
And pity’s sharp assault upon the heart
Which memory shall record, unfaltering.

This doesn’t read badly, but it isn’t Dante. ‘Gird me to the wars’ is a poetic anachronism. ‘Rough travelling’ is quite wrong. Virgil did warn Dante that he would hear ‘hopeless shrieks’ but said nothing of physical obstacles to their progress (here Sayers is anticipating the narrative). She begins her second pentameter with only ‘pietate’ to translate, so this one word becomes ‘pity’s sharp assault upon the heart’. it’s a vivid phrase but corresponds to nothing in the text. The final word is not well chosen: a faltering memory can in the end arrive at the truth. ‘Unfaltering’ is not the equivalent of ‘unerring’ or of the Dantesque boast of a ‘faultless recall’. The word was chosen to pair with ‘travelling’ because Sayers wants to imitate Dante’s terza rima, a verse form not comfortably at home in a long English poem, and ‘unerring’ doesn’t fit because it lacks a syllable. A translator who has to choose words to fit a given rhyme scheme or metre, or put in words only to fill out a line, is not providing the service we need with a writer such as Dante. What we need, if we are trying to study the Divine Comedy, not skim through it on winter evenings, is a faithful version with notes and commentary. Only prose can do this.

John Glenn
Grantham, Lincolnshire

Hey Ho! The Pope Says No!

Hal Foster and Christian McEwen (Letters, 17 April) list slogans they spotted at anti-war demonstrations earlier this year. Glasgow Caledonian University, recognising the proliferation of such slogans and the value of preserving them, has established a website where anti and pro-war slogans will be collected. A listing of all the slogans sent to the site can be found at www.lib.gcal.ac.uk/researchcollections/antiwar.htm and further slogans can be submitted to the same address. A collection of anti-war songs can also be consulted at polsong.gcal.ac.uk/research/antiwar/anti-war.htm.

John Powles
Glasgow Caledonian University

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