Tuesday, January 15, 2019

their yearnings unsung

Playing his piano, Norwid’s Chopin manifests the perfection that Poland is unable to realise; the completeness of Pericles, or of Orpheus on his lyre, a perfection that comes into the world through a physical effort that is superhuman but also tempered, attentive, “softly”:

… like when boys battle boys –
– The keys still resisting
The source of their yearnings unsung
They softly push back on their own.*

When he separates “one moment” from “one moment,” with his comma, Norwid gives the poem something that it doesn’t have anywhere else, an indissoluble capsule of time where one of the actions he imagines (the otherworldly spirit of perfection perpetually existing) can really belong. If “one moment” can live on its own then it has Pericles inside it. I am only writing this because the missing comma in that one translation still bothers me more than other one-word or one-punctuation mark things that have stopped me recently, like “nozzle” for a goat’s nose in William Carlos Williams’ The Desolate Field or the impression I had during page thirty-one of The Blue Octavo Notebooks, that the translators must have been happy when they found the right words for a cute and boring line Kafka copied from the Jewish monthly Der Jude on December 11th, 1917: “The Bible is a sanctum, the world, sputum.” Kafka, on his own, doesn’t write this sort of banality-cloaker. When he plays with repetition he does it to create a paradox by putting two or more things in tension. “We hold the world fast and complain that it is holding us.” But the partnership of “hold” and “holding” looks straightforward for the translators compared with sputum and sanctum, and my thoughts about the heroism on page thirty-one had nothing to do with what the line meant.

*tr. Jerome Rothenberg and Airie Galles


  1. This made me think of Lydia Davis translating Proust. Davis writes those countless aphoristic pieces, most of which trade heavily with clever wordplay. I think she must've been sorely tempted during the Proust project to be clever, to try her hand at turning phrases if she thought she could enliven passages that seemed too flat. "Why not?" she'd ask herself, giving her cat a scratch behind the ear. "Who's to say Proust wouldn't approve of the improvement?"

    I have done very little translation, but enough to claim that one feels a triumph at finding the English mot juste, sometimes even if it's at odds with the spirit of the original work. Look what I've done. That's fine, yes.

  2. And yet her Proust is the coolest Proust of all the English Prousts. He's the first one who sounds like a modernist. Davis knocked years off his age.

    1. "Coolest" as in "calm, has a low temperature," not as in "fashionable."

  3. It's a real pity she only translated one volume.

    "knocked years off his age" is good; I will probably steal that when I write my novel about a translator in a couple of years. I apologize in advance because I will believe, when I use that line, that it is my own invention (in this context of translation).

    1. A complete Davis Proust would have been terrific to read next to Moncrieff. You could put them next to one another and tell everybody to be amazed by the ventriloquism. Two voices, one mouth: watch that spectacle.

      I look forward to being recycled.