In the Teeth of the Gale

A.D. Nuttall

  • The Oxford Book of Classical Verse in Translation edited by Adrian Poole and Jeremy Maule
    Oxford, 606 pp, £19.99, October 1995, ISBN 0 19 214209 7

‘Traduttore traditore,’ the translator is a betrayer. In other words, every translation is an act of treachery against the loved original, a stab in the back. If this Italian proverb is right, the translation I have just offered of the proverb itself must be just one more betrayal. Indeed, the case against me is strong. The Italian phrase gets much of its force from the jingling assonance of the two words, but one finds swiftly that it is no good trying to reproduce this with the weaker assonances available in English: ‘translator traitor’ and the like. Yet by a bald rendering something is achieved: the point or burden of the proverb really can be set out in another language. One is tempted to draw a conclusion of premature simplicity: matter is translatable, manner not. Therefore, jokes, puns (apart from lucky accidents), allusive titles and, above all, poetry will translate less well than, say, motorists’ manuals, left luggage information and realistic novels. It has been said that the natural unit of the ‘transparent’ novel is the event, set in a sequence of other events, while the natural unit of the poem is the word, in association with other words. That is why Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are read all over the world while Pushkin, despite the efforts of John Fennell, Antony Wood. DM. Thomas and Vladimir Nabokov, remains primarily a writer for readers of Russian. The myriad imperfections of rendering in any translation of a novel do not seriously impede what looks like genuine literary enjoyment: we weep for Anna Karenina and tremble at Raskolnikov. Don Quixote found readers everywhere: centuries later Lorca remained trapped in the brilliant liberty of his native Spanish.

The moral of this is that all the poets should, so to speak, be refused passports. We should cease to pretend that they can be translated. The reader of the new Oxford Book of Classical Verse in Translation can only be relieved that the English poets represented in it had never heard of that rule. Jonson, Dryden and the rest, like the bumble-bee who has never understood that his flight is contrary to the laws of physics, produce translations which take to the air successfully because they are unaware of the impossibility of what they attempt. As Virgil wrote, possunt quia posse videntur, meaning (if translation is after all permitted) ‘They can because they think they can.’ One must add, however, that just occasionally, although they think they can, in fact they can’t. Cowley’s Pindar is a case in point. The infant Hercules from the Greek ode becomes a Brobdingnagian monster: ‘The big-limm’ed Babe in his huge Cradle lay.’ This has affinities with the consciously coarse-lined, gigantesque drawings which Giulio Romano did for the Palazzo del Tè in Mantua, but it has little to do with Pindar. Elsewhere, when a certain grossness is needed, the chance is missed. Both Sir Robert Stapylton (1647) and Henry Fielding (1743) have a go at translating Juvenal’s ferocious account of the profligate Empress Messalina working as a prostitute in a Roman brothel and both suppress Juvenal’s reference to gilded nipples (‘papillis ... auratis’). As G.K. Chesterton once remarked, if a thing’s worth doing it’s worth doing badly. The rich variety of translations offered in the Oxford Book score hundreds of misses but thousands of hits.

If the sage, pusillanimous doctrine of abstention had been applied we would never have had from A.E. Housman (and from Horace) ‘The snows arc fled away,’ a poem which discovers in the coming of spring – in the opening leaves and the first warm suns of the year – sheer, terrifying despair. I have named the poem by giving its first line. This is a translation into five words of English of two words in Latin, ‘Diffugere nives’. A good Latinist will feel in the very first syllable, Di-, which is a mere prefix to the verb, ‘have fled’, a marvellously economic reference to the way snow melts variously, first here then there, lingering in shadowed places – roughly the force of the prefix in the English word ‘dis-tribute’. Latin is thought of as a heavy, architectural language, but here we have at once a lightness of reference which English simply cannot match. So, it might be said, Housman ran into the real impossibility of translation before he had completed his rendering of a single word. Housman wrote ‘fled away’, which has in it a late Romantic enjoyment of vacancy (or vagueness) which is not present in ‘diffugere’, but the sense of vanishing is utterly appropriate to the poem taken as a whole.

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