Archive for the ‘translation art’ Category

Antigone grieving over her brother’s body lying there in the sun, all exposed (Juliette Binoche, translator Anne Carson, director Ivo van Hove)

As the fourth soldier of the group endures what is done to his body by an exploding buried bomb, and fifth, a buddy administers morphine, the two begin to realize they are in minefield (Tom Williams and Paul Katis’s Kilo Two Bravo, the US title)

Dear friends and readers,

I had just been thinking to myself how egregiously pandering are most movies in theaters just now and (paradoxically) grateful for the development of HD broadcasts which could potentially make great plays done well available in my area, when this weekend I found myself caught up in two extraordinary productions. Both take up ultimate issues of life and death in terms the ceaseless war and impoverishment, immiseration inflicted on a huge percentage of people across the globe since the 1950s (Back to before WW2; Tactics, etc.).

Ivo van Hove, the director has shaped Anne Carson’s deeply meditative translation to produce an unusual trajectory for Antigone. I have seen the play in two different versions. One long ago on the stage, and a number of times as a film, part of three play series made by the BBC called the Theban plays (Paul Roche, the translator, Juliet Stevenson, Antigone). In these a traditional dramatization was presented. The first 3/4s of the play are done as highly dramatic clashes, characters talking using strongly rhetorical gestures and tones, all reaching a crisis, until the threatened death of Kreon’s son, Haiman, persuades Kreon he must compromise — but it is too late. The last quarter was done as a form of deep mourning, lyrical ritual grief played out as each character is found dead until we reach the body of Kreon’s wife, Eurdike. The emphasis was political: the right of a citizen to protest an unjust amoral law (using an inward knowledge of God’s ethics as criteria) versus the right of a leader to demand obedience on behalf of stability, order (or because he says so for everyone’s safety and his desire for power).

It was not done that way here. As I’ve seen before the stage-director used movie techniques: across a screen in the back we saw Antigone crossing a desert to where her sister, Ismene was waiting (as in Sophocles’s text whoever the translator) but then instead of this strong outward set of demands, anguished refusals, debates, the whole tone and the words chosen made the play into something inward, psychologically motivated: at first it’s just Antigone and Ismene who are grief-struck but as the play progresses and decisions are made, individual character after character is shattered by memories, by what happens when another character acts out of fear, horror, grief, love for self or another.

A scene from Antigone by Sophokles, directed by Ivo van Hove with Juliette Binoche, in a new translation by Anne Carson, at the BAM Harvey Theater on September 24, 2015. Actors: Juliette Binoche-Antigone Obi Abili_Black man Kirsty Bushell_Ismene_young women in skirt Samuel Edward-Cook_Haimon- Young bald man Finbar Lynch_Teiresias_Small thin wiry Patrick O'Kane_Kreon_bald man in suit Kathryn Pogson_Eurydike_older woman Nathaniel Jackson_dead body Credit: Stephanie Berger
Guard (Obi Abili) terrified he will be tortured reports to Kreon (Patrick O’Kane) that Antigone has buried her brother, Polyneices

The chorus’s lines were broken up and they spoke of their helplessness, they pleaded with Kreon to follow compromise, to give in, to forget, not to desecrate bodies, sweep across blood ties. They cannot accept what is happening and side with Antigone, even if it means forgiving, forgetting traitorous acts. They debate what is patriotism (in effect). Kreon’s way is utterly destructive. An interesting aspect of the direction is how often Kreon seems affectionate to Antigone (I’d never seen that before)

Kreon trying to appeal to Antigone’s ties to him (Patrick O’Kane was dressed as a modern dictator, bald, in a suit and tie)

Tiresias’s speech then reinforces this turn from a debate over how a state should be run: the cause is in Kreon. As Kreon folds and cracks, I had the distinct impression the director’s idea was Sophocles long ago was giving the Greek people a rare treat to see their tyrant brought low. It was as if someone would write a play today where we could all enjoy George W. Bush writhing on the ground. The point seemed to be to make this all=powerful politician a broken man.

Antigone’s appeals to Ismene (Kristy Bushell) and explanations to Haimon Samuel Edward-Cook) emerge as some kind of whistleblower who is surrounded by informers (Ismene) or people who will give in to whatever is the latest turning of the populace:


but Haimon is better than this. He tells his father despite his father’s incensed rage that the people are against him before fleeing before his father’s edict to join Antigone in her walled up grave.


Of course she is mad too. She will not let Ismene get any credit for dying. She makes the argument that a brother means more than a husband or father because you cannot get another.

Katharine Pogson who played Eurydice (and chorus) stood out for the power of her utterances. All the actors but Binoche and O’Kane doubled as choral voices.

A choral moment: there was above the players a moon or a sun on and off

Obviously the play was done in such a way as to speak home to us today, 2015. It was often very quiet: Antigone’s line: “I’m a strange new king of ‘inbetween thing, aren’t I?/Not at home with the dead or the living” seems to be about the plight of many people today hit hard by war or disease (cancer?) or just not sure what life is or about. The actors spoke their lines against a quiet backdrop of changing scenes evocative of the modern world, mostly in deserts, but by the end in a great metropolis at night. When the play ended each of the characters was back at a desk or structure, typing, looking at a computer, intent on some task. There was little overt movement throughout except at moments of high climax. And then they shouted. They were positioned in parallel ways.

Anne Carson is a great poet, a great translator — I’ve read her poems to her brother (who died alone and far from her) which she did as a kind of play upon Catullus’s love poems.

Through foreign seas and over foreign lands,
Brother, to your sad graveside I have come
To lay the gifts of death with my own hands
And speak, too late, some last words to your dumb,
Unanswering dust. Poor brother, who was torn
Brutally from me by ill fortune, take
All I can give you now-these few forlorn
Offerings made for ancient custom’s sake
And wet with a brother’s tears. There’ll be no other
Meeting; and so hail and farewell, my brother.

Atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale is so famous. Literally it means “And forever, brother, farewell forever.” So Carson could be also writing about her relationship with her brother.

I admit I noticed this was a Barbican play. I was not so envious of those who saw Bernard Cumberbatch as Hamlet there these past weeks. London productions do occasionally come to the Kennedy Center. I was aware that a couple of people nearby fell asleep; one of them I spoke to briefly; he was puzzled by the whole play, didn’t know anything about these characters to start with. The program notes provided full explanations but he had not read them.


It’s even harder to do justice to Kajaki: as this site shows, there will be a tendency to present the film as an action-adventure war movie, heroism everywhere, sacrifice, apocalyptic violence. It’s anything but that sort of thing. The thing to take notice of is the producer/distributor who was at the Cinema Art theater with Gary Arnold this past Sunday where I saw the film, with its US title, Kilo Two Bravo (the code name of the unit used in electronic communication), knows very well that he has not made a stupid glorification of war or death.


The film opens with a British soldier swimming in the sea; he is shot at and frantically begins to swim for shore; he makes it, and jumps onto the sand to find himself confronted by two young Afghan boys and an older man; they have powerful rifles but it was not they who shot at him. His ferocity of anger at them shows how terrified he was — rightly — to lose his life. He begins to walk back to his unit and two men like him with even bigger weapons than the Afghans had join him. They are all part of a unit of British soldiers establishing itself on a mountain top in Afghanistan. They walk off and he tries to hitch a ride, but is laughed at by other soldiers from other units riding past him.


When he reaches where his group is settled, we watch the different men adjusting to life there; settling their places, taking on their jobs, receiving mail, and get to know them. A couple are more intelligent or educated and reading books; most of them have these sex-magazines; they curse a lot, kid a lot, eat and drink. There are officers who can be distinguished only because they tell the others what to do. There is medic (a doctor) who is given respect. They survey the landscape, and see Afghan people driving by; watch one set of Afghan people extort money from another, women and children are seen. The next day they are to go on some kind of mission. One problem the film has is the dialects of the Brits are so thick that I for one couldn’t get all the details of what exactly was being said, but since no one was especially subtley articulate this didn’t matter much. Still subtitles would help as they were bitter and ironic references to leaders like Blair, to lies told they now are aware of, to their own lives intimately.

So the next day they walk down to wherever they are going and what happens is in a flat circle area one of them steps on a bomb. It explodes and it is deeply terrifying as the computerized cameras, sound and other equipment make you feel the shock and instead of just showing the person at a distance we see him writhing and his body deeply maimed — it’s horrible and distressing. Then someone else steps on a bomb, same result.

They begin to realize they have inadvertently stepped into a minefield left by the Soviets perhaps in 1980s, perhaps in 1950. The men do not desert one another: they follow a protocol for saving one another’s lives. They walk on the same line others have walked to try to avoid bombs, they use techniques of looking at the sand. Several gather around each man – by how there are four lying in profound pain. A couple of people have morphine, the medic is sent for, and the drama ensues. Insofar as this can be done in real time it is. In huddled groups they try to help one another, but before the episode is over, about half the group is lying out there half-destroyed, bleeding, screaming, moaning and then turning quiet as the others try to help.


They sent word through their electronic equipment and people from other units begin to show up – they do not walk in that area where the men are. American accents are heard, Australian. A heliocopter gunship comes within ten minutes but frantically the medic forbids it to land. We feel its power by the strong noise, the sand moving over everything. It has no equipment but itself and if it lands it can blow itself and them up. They must have an evacuation helicopter. Some of the men who are not hurt clearly would like to leave but dare not; they are angry at the medic for insisting on the evacuation vehicle. In the film time this takes over 40 minutes, representative of about 3 hours. We see them talk and realities of their lives emerge. For some their bodies begin to rot before our eyes; they begin to sink. They need more morphine and run out. They are running out of water. are variously desperate, brave, self-harrowed, pitying, mocking. The script is brilliant, deeply involving. We see little domestic dramas. There is humor as they joke, a kind of parody of making the best of things which continually breaks down.

It reminded me of Danger UXB which I’ve now watched twice through. In the 1970s this 13 part mini-series (written by the best writers of BBC dramas at the time, the best directors doing them) follows the adventures and lives of a bomb disposal unit in World War Two: it is as profoundly an anti-war film as I’ve ever seen. The way tension is built up is in each episode at least one bomb is disposed of and it’s done in as real time as they dare. The tension and fear and difficulty of the task are enacted and sometimes the man is killed. Unlike this new film, when death occurs, the camera moves away and we only see the explosion from far, and then we only see the body under a blanket with only the face shown, and sometimes it’s been cleaned up (supposed) by the time we see it. They didn’t dare or couldn’t for TV programs for the BBC show the realities of what we mean when we say someone’s body and mind is wounded.


In Danger UXB the soldiers are clearing out bombs inside the UK, so we see no overt war. In Kilo Two Bravo what we are being shown is how war is conducted in the year 2015. The opening scenes, what they see by their binoculars as they watch for the 2 hours (they could be killed by a sudden assault) tell us war in Afghanistan is not open battles. It is competition through technology in slow motion but when the action happens you are as hideously or partly wounded and killed as you were in open battle.

6th July 2007 Kajaki, Helmand Province, Afghanistan A Chinook helicopter brings much needs supplies of food, spares and mail to the soldiers at a remote base in Kajaki, Helmand province, Afghanistan on the 6th of July 2007.
Above is a photo of a real helicopter arriving in Kajaki, Helmand Province, Afghanistank, bringing food, spares of all sorts and mail to the soldiers at a remote base (6 July 2007)

Finally the evacuation helicopter arrives and with it two specially equipped trucks with long range platforms they are stick out over the ground. All of this clearly built with mines and bombs in mind. One at a time a powerful man on a chain is let down from the helicopter and either brings an iron long basket into which the other soldiers put the wounded man, or he himself somehow puts his arms about the man and hugs him tight and the chain is pulled up again. This is done for each of the wounded. For those who are still whole they are helped to make it into the trucks. Everyone flies or drives away; no one is left behind. The medic is seen in a kind of catatonic prayer body posture for a moment when all are gone; then he is seen in the helicopter too. He was obeyed throughout and his self-control saved them all — insofar as he could.


I noticed as I watched that some of the audience began to leave; when the film was over, I’d say half the audience left. I don’t know what that meant: did they not want to hear any talk about this movie; they had sat through it. They were mostly older people so I don’t think boredom was the problem. Don’t go to it if you are expecting fast action (see this Hollywood reporter). I was a rare person in my section to scream and writhe (I couldn’t control it) each time someone stepped on a bomb and it exploded. It came home to me that violence should be distressing; there is something morally deeply wrong when violence is not distressing. I had a hard time staying about 3/4s of the way as I began to worry whether the evacuation ship would make it, or if they’d be shot to death or what. Apparently this is a well-known incident in the UK so UK watchers might know that the group was rescued.

I said “insofar as he could.” As the plane took off and the film was coming to an end, you got a five minute or so series of inter-titles telling you what happened to each man. Most of them lived — not all, two died. The photos of the real people the actors played were displayedAlas, there was an emphasis on how they returned to fighting (!) for those who did, but if you counted, many did not return; some we were told went to work for charitable organizations. We were not told if any began to work against these wars. This reminded me of the ending of Danger UXB where our hero who is badly wounded comes back to duty at this same bomb disposal unit and we are to cheer over this. He now feels useful — though for most of the hour he has been talking of the waste of the men who died, of the uselessness of all the destruction in Britain he has seen, all the terror. That is not forgotten nor in this film is the central hour and 3 minutes.

The whole unit (or cast) of Danger UXB: within the film they all pose for a group of local people to take a photograph of them as “heroes”

I admit that in the discussion time afterward when I instanced Danger UXB as a precursor, I was pleased when Gary Arnold replied that Danger UXB was one of his favorite films. He said he agreed with all I said of it. Do we ever get over liking to have the “authority” figure praise us?


Anthony Ashe after a bomb has exploded and someone has been killed (Danger UXB)

Speaking for myself since Vietnam I have regarded helicopters as fearful machines which can drop napalm bombs and destroy people from the air with the people helpless to defend themselves or strike back in any way. Groups of these machines flying over the Pentagon or anywhere else are ominous. I know that the way they can land makes them hospitals or supermarkets coming to anywhere in the world where they will not be shot down. The helicopter gunship is the first helicopter to arrive and we can see it’s a weapon with guns to protect and kill any “enemy.”

This is an important film because it shows the person watching what this war is like for the people fighting and the people near them. Of course these men volunteered, and if they had not volunteered to fight (which means they are trained to kill and do kill) for whatever delusion, they would not be in danger. Maybe they fell for the thrill of adventure and war. Let’s not forget that. They are not innocents. I taught for many years in senior colleges and over half my students by the end of my time there had been in the military, many had also volunteered because they said that was the best or only job they could find. Or the military offered to school and train them. The US gov’t will not put money into much else — so we see soldiers used in first aid crises. The soldiers in this movie were not shown to know much about this war they were fighting

To see Kilo Two Bravo as an expose of the horrors of using bombs would be absurdly narrow (one way Danger UXB has been marketed). To talk about it as about sacrifices turns it into a kind of senseless religious propaganda, a modern Kreon play. I did find one apposite review in the Guardian.

Kilo Two Bravo is a film that may be said to show why the UK should not go to war — for no reason that helps anyone but arms manufacturers and the powerful and wealthy. It is a semi-documentary intended to make people see, experience, realize, think, and perhaps like Antigone draw back and say no, we are not going to do this or do it to others, or allow these things to be done to us.

I did love Binoche as the nurse in The English Patient


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Dear friends and readers,

As felicitously translated by Frederick Randall, Confessions of an Italian, edited, introduced and annotated by Lucy Riall, Confessioni di un italiano (or Confessioni d’un Ottuagenario or Confessions of an Octogenarian), a profound and extraordinarily instructive 19th century novel about the risorgimento became our summer project on Trollope19thCStudies. We didn’t mean it to become that, but the book is very long, not susceptible to skimming, and so complicated, meandering in its storyline, and going through so many revolutions in so many different areas of Europe from the 1790s to nearly 1859 that it took time. It began as a suggestion by me after I read and sent to the listserv group an essay by Tim Parks, “Revolutionary Italy: The Masterwork,” NYRB (April 2, 2015) which praised the book so highly and did not honestly tell some of its flaws and problems.

It does live up to Parks’s promise in this way: it is a sort of alternative to Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi, which those who read 19th century novels will have heard of, and perhaps read, an equally long novel set in the 17th century, a sort of cross between Walter Scott and Victor Hugo. Unlike Nievo’s novel, it is set in the past, and does not begin to touch on revolutionary issues openly. Nievo’s book was published posthumously, and because it was radical in its approach (even to call yourself an Italian was problematic), it never achieved the circulation, much less the translations Manzoni’s work did. Randall’s translation may be the first to make the book readable to an English reader. See Angela Scordo-Polidori, “Beyond good and evil: Pisana and the birth of the Italian nation.” Italica 91.3 (2014): 343+, an essay on why, how the book was repressed, retitled, marginalized.

19th century Italian history painting – probably a depiction of Garibaldi

Here are a group of reviews which do justice to its finest qualities as well as suggesting that you do need to have an interest and some knowledge of Italy, the 19th century world of revolution, and willingness to meander, a love of meditative reading to enjoy it. One offers a summary which I’m going to attempt (briefly I promise) too. Dacia Maraini, a good 20th century novelist, lists and describes it as among the great novels of 19th century Italy, in the way that Trollope used to be discussed for 19th century English novels. And a Thackerayan blogger (who must have patience if he reads Thackeray’s lesser known historical fiction, to say nothing of Pendennis which I never finished) found it something of a chore: Wuthering Expectations.

I admit that each time I put it down, having finished the very long chapter or (as we got towards the end) couple of chapters for the week before, was not enthusiastic to start up again, as I didn’t feel compelled by a forward thrusting story nor did I become intensely involved with individual characters who lasted sufficiently — I kept preferring characters who would be killed off, or twisted into repressed people (like Clara, turned into a nun), or who’d disappear into flight or exile. It was too masculinist: women, our narrator asserts, exist to give birth to men, love to be nurses to men, all self-sacrifice, and their surprisingly free sexual lives must be kept hidden by him (for fear not just of the contemporary reader at the time, but as part of a code of not telling truths about women’s lives today). But I was startled to learn the heroine, who I didn’t like much, was a TV character in a program on Italian TV, is today the source of feminist controversy about the book: La Pisano is seen as standing for Italy itself. See Stephanie Hom Cary, “‘Patria’-otic Incarnations and Italian Character: discourses of nationalism in Ippolito Nievo’s Confessioni d’un Italiano.” Italica 84.2-3 (2007):214+.


Then each time I’d pick it up, I’d become involved again, interested, wanting to read Carlino’s thoughts, learn more of this ancien regime world (to which we kept returning) as the Castle of Fratto in Venice. A world recreated and evoked ironically and so vividly in Lampedusa’s The Leopard, which I read in the Italian as Il Gattopardo. Lampedusa’s novella might be read as an ironic coda to this book of revolution: here’s what the people turned to afterward. And then the revolutionary struggles, and then Napoleonic (a sort of Stendhal Julien Sorel world is evoked in some of Italy), and then the rigorismento and then reactionary regimed world of failed wars (Byron turns up, we spend time in Greece and Turkey). At each turn each group which ended up in charge (and it felt like musical chairs) turned out to be utterly self-centered, corrupt. The few idealists (like Garibaldi) were wished away, not helped deliberately. I’d soar with his meditations: thoughts on shadows of the mind, imagination, time and memory — to the point I bought myself the edition in a Pleiade-like Italian text (with much fuller and better notes, and an introduction by Marcella Goria which made the book pertinent today).

Arguably there are twelve different novels at least trying to get out, sometimes for a stretch a story which should have taken far more pages to come to life, or deep anguish is there and passed over. The first volume sets the scene at length: the world of the castle the boy grows up in, the destructive legacy. The second volume, the large perspective of the cities and movements across Italy, with the new arrangements of the 1830s, all collapsing ending in many deaths, exiles, women married off, gambling, in nunneries. Volume 3, the reaction and concluding wars and resolutions of the 1850s, including a long section taking place in America (south) where we see colonialism from the standpoint of settler colonialists. The author returned to war and died before he could revise. He is writing out of fear he would soon be killed. He saw all these people around him being ferociously slaughtered – and he records this fictionally. He wishes he could live to 80 but does not think he can and the book is his wish-fulfillment to live.

Castello di Tricano

A few notes:

The narrator is an old man of 80 looking back to where he grew up as a child. He was a menial servant, a bastard nephew (his mother’s marriage a kind of Jane Eyre story where she dies in the streets after rebelling against an arranged marriage) in a great castle-house in the land just outside Venice. All the facets and types of the great house and its liens. There is a sophisticated in his understanding of the underbelly of political groups in charge, of the under-groups for position n household, in larger offices, in the countryside, and we are shown how in the end it’s the individual’s personal interests that makes him decide to do this or that.

I cannot begin to survey the characters. One of my favorite characters was Lucilio Vianello, a well read sensitive type, a reader, whose father makes him a doctor, and who eventually has to flee to England to remain alive (perhaps modeled on Mazzini) — his story early on has a biting satire on medicine at the time. Gradually a three sets of lovers emerge, and they (like Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time, change with an era, play different but not unexpected roles, have children and their children children. The book’s undertow is deeply melancholy. We see how the Venetian curia and other Italian regional leaders retained power through their use of violence, prisons, egregious taxes; how the church kept its stranglehold on thought, families their place by ruthless use of arranged marriages. The matriarch spends her life gambling. A story of a smuggler, someone who began by trying to evade the horrendous taxes, harassed and hounded by the judiciary, the thugs who are looking for a Scott-like mysterious person on a horse, he dwindles into a hanger-on at the castle, who understands the tightening nooses around others and is protected not because he’s personally liked, but again for what he stands for. The way of life in the cities and great houses, in the peasant countryside, and why people cling to it, of Italian catholicism and its hypocrisies, a sharp sceptical light playing over everything (from gambling casinos to inward passionate natures. How men with groups of thugs backing them up is finally the basis for much local power, given legitimacy by laws, prisons. Some of the analogies with what happens are with today’s military oligarchy, its use of torture, with Austria-Hungary as the colonialist power.

Again and again Nievo has in mind an Italian great book, or poem, and is writing a story or producing a character which is a modern revitalization of the older type — Dante, Ariosto, Tasso, Foscolo, then minor types too, like Melusine. In the 19th century — and today too — poor people’s children led hard lives. We have this deeply romantic sequence of the boy escaping to the landscape and his dreams of himself as a hero with an utterly transgressive and endlessly deceitful) La Pisano as his beloved, a twist on the Daphnis and Chloe, Paul et Virginie scenario. We hear of the English romantic poets in their lairs too. This is the romantic period.

La Pisano is an Armida where we are shown the hypocrisy of the Venetian culture. Yet Carlino appears to accept the marriage of La Pisano to an old corrupt man and accept her liaison with an officer, Miniato. Then he rejoices when she leaves these people out of boredon and also disgust at their political behavior. She flees to him and they have a renewal of days of love. More troubling: he insists not only has she remained a virgin since marriage (or chaste), she has never fucked. I must use that word because there is every indication that lots of foreplay is what she repeatedly has indulged herself, all the men she has known, and Carlino too. This sick point of view that without genital intercourse sex doesn’t matter and one remains chaste is what we have seen in our own culture publicly more than once (if fucking is deniable) and is found in books from Richardson’s Pamela to the worst porn. When she visits Clara she lies endlessly. Carlino talks about honor and propriety as a surface thing so their living together is shameful only if it’s known. Elena Ferrante’s choice of anonymity has a long historical context.

19th century Italian school

The relationship between Carlino and his father is as problematic for a 20th century reader: the man deserted him, and first turns up well into Volume 2; it seems that is just what happened, no close parental nurturing is expected; the father is still this numinous figure partly because he comes across with money, partly because he enacts physical bravery. Children were expected to abase themselves; this is one of several areas Nievo never questions personally as Carlino. There are epistolary sections to carry us back and forward in time in these kinds of sudden non-explorations. The final section includes a long diary-journal. It’s a book which crosses waters and lagoons.

It’s structured as Carlino emerging from and then returning home, and then emerging again to join this and that group, a brief arduous quest, meeting world-historical people (from Napoleon to then famous generals and political leaders), and then collapse. On and off in the book he and La Pisano live together; at one point to save their lives they must flee to England, he is badly wounded, weak, so she turns into a beggar-prostitute to support them, and grows ill (TB) and dies. She has persuaded him into an arranged marriage, which at first seems equable but his wife is anything but an idealist, and their several children lead very different lives (from utopianist, to entrepreneurial careerist, to someone in retreat as a close son, a daughter, an exile who keeps slaves and dies abroad), only 2 out of 6 surviving to the end ….


One of the novel’s romantic covers

In one section close to the book’s end: Count Raimondo (this is the heir to Castle of Fratto) finally writes a book that has been long in birth: A Historical Analysis of Venetian Trade. The whole section is unusually comic, especially to someone who has written anything today, published or self-published a book, endured all the joys and trials and tribulations of the early writing, the attempts to obtain a publisher and their grating refusals, and then somehow publish it. In Raimondo’s case he finally self-publishes (does it by subscription). Then he reads reviews of it, and discovers most of the reviews hardly bothered to read it (at least with any care), that the reviewers copy one another and not to accurately so that by the ninth copied-out half-review the book’s real tone and interests is wholly lost. Few are interested in anything but what happens today so eventually people say they’d like to read it for help in modern trade. The title is a satire on Venice’s power. What struck me most was how little has changed since the mid-19th century — I could recognize so many behaviors I’ve seen today.

I am a very unusual reviewer not necessarily for reading a book, but reading it carefully and writing a genuinely descriptive and analytical review. I sometimes think in self-satire that I do this because I’ve nothing better to do with my life. I didn’t have the problems of publishing — that came from the famous person Raimondo couldn’t seem to harness (in my case John Letts) but much of the rest of the process I experienced. Tyler wrote: “I loved all the stuff about Count Rinaldo trying to get his enormous book published – I wondered whether Nievo was trying to prophesy about how his own book’s publication would go … Some experiences haven’t changed much in the book publishing world in the last 150 or so years [since the rise of a literary marketplace and all its types of people]. We have the author presenting an indirect mirror of the way he supposes his book might get into print and be treated. Alas he didn’t live to do it – and as he seems to fear his own death there is poignancy in this section too.


A statue of Nievo in Mantua

The book is more relevant to us today than Tolstoy’s War and Peace to which I’d compare it. Its strength is its candour about how power works, who has it, groups of thugs as behind it, and in the end its depiction women. The history. Tyler wrote: “It almost reads like a long dream, nearly a nightmare, from which we eventually hope to awake and find a unified Italy.” It’s a much darker and despairing book than is being structured into the plot-design. It needed revision to bring out its more nihilistic apprehensions. Nievo wants a unified Italy but no where is there any sense that any place or group of people who will support this. Its great weakness is its important characters are insufficiently realized.

This from a 1906 enthusiastic review of the book by Kennardon (Italian Romance Writers, Brentano, 159-92):

Each phase in the life of Carlo Altoviti answers to an historical period; each stage of the national evolution corresponds with a crisis in his life. His childhood is spent in the midst of the obsolete feudal Venetian world, in the Frioul … No history could present a more accurate or more vivid description of the political and social life in the Italian Venezia, during [the] early years of the nineteenth century, than this romance of Nievo’s…. But it is more than a history of a political movement, more than a vivid picture of the social life of the times. [It may be read as] a psychological study; full of reality, power, and modernity. It lives!”

Germaine de Stael was the first writer to produce a treatise arguing that a particular text (say a novel) mirrored and explored, was a piece of the national culture it came out of. Before that people didn’t think of or discuss texts in that way. Another innovative aspect of Nievo’s book is he is doing just that (for more on this Nicolaek Iliescu, The Position of Ippolito Nievo in the Nineteenth-Century Italian Novel, PMLA, 75:3 [Jun., 1960]:272-282).

The listserv we read the book on being one usually devoted to Anthony Trollope, I’ll conclude: we might think of Trollope’s short story about the “Last Austrian who left Venice” as another coda to this novel. It takes place towards the close of the Austrian occupation and during its short span, a revolution is fought, and the Austrians ejected. Our heroine who decides she loves an Austrian officer must leave with him if she is to be his wife. Her brother and mother stay in Venice, loyal to their new national and old Venetian identities. If Lampedusa ironically shows us the same upper class groups are still in charge, and everyone still loving the old castle-countryside culture, Trollope brings home to us how important it is that different peoples forced to live together in an militarily occupied country genuinely come together, and that individuals hold fiercely to a social identity even when they see how it is imposed while resisting the thwarting of individual fulfillment. Nievo’s modernity is in line with Trollope’s.

A 19th century image of the occupation of Venice


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… it is the words into which she is translating, not those from which she is taking her leave, that create her problems … [she] must keep the receiving language even more in mind than the original one …Horace is one of my favorite poets, though I frankly prefer to read him in translation — Burton Raffel, How to read [and write] a translation,” The Forked Tongue

‘Speech,’ she said, ‘is but broken light upon the depth
Of the unspoken — George Eliot, The Spanish Gypsy

A translation is an acceptable match for an utterance made in another tongue — [but then what is a match, acceptable, & what must the text crucially match] — Bellos

A pre-Internet multilingual translation dictonary — useless because it contains too few words from particular languages, sold to bargain-hunting people not serious translators, who don’t understand the art of translating for real

My copy of Roget’s Thesaurus, which I’ve owned since age 13, recovered twice, and is the one book I have I could not do without; words are grouped into terrains

Dear friends and readers,

As the year draws to a close, I know there have been several books I read important to me, that helped change the way I think about reading, writing and life too, but I’ve not blogged about them because often it’s precisely such books whose significant matter is hardest to convey. One such is Franco Moretti’s Atlas of the European Novel (it enabled me to write a proposal for a paper on Trollope’s imagined maps); another egan to be John Desmond’s Adaptation: Studying Film and Literature. Meant for students, this one had directions for essays that enabled me to push students into comparing films and books on a concrete literal basis, no impressionism and I was beginning myself to learn and teach before I was cut off from teaching.

I hope Bellos’s has a happier fulfilled conclusion. It’s a third. David Bellos’s Is that a Fish In Your Ear? is not just brilliant but fun (fun to read). In a way he doesn’t say much beyond what I intuitively would agree with and might even get to think myself, but he explains why most talk and expectation about translation is still so wrong. (We are improving on our understanding of film adaptations of books.) I’ve been wanting to write a blog on his book because many of his insights are these sudden utterances with accompanying paragraphs that I’d like to keep in mind and refer to. The book is there but not in my mind in a state that’s useful to me, only on my desk physically. And to go through the book this way is to make nonsense of it, asking to looking for sparkling needles in a haystack

David Bellos’s Is That A Fish In Your Ear is thus hard to grasp — like his title, apparently an allusion to a line in Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe which include a Babelfish: if you put a babelfish into your ear, it instantly translates all languages into whichever one you want. When I bought it, partly attracted by the witty title, I thought he was referring to how when you machine translate a phrase you can come up with utter nonsense since the context of an utterance is central to how we understand its meaning, both literally and suggestively, how we use it to.

An outline of the book’s story or argument moves through the topics of general areas of prevailing misunderstandings of what translations are, how they function, what is a good translation, how one goes about translating, laws and customs governing publishing translations. He begins with the idea that we can’t avoid translations most days of our lives and that we don’t most of us know what a translation is, nor why it is that a given utterance can have many different translations (use different words using the same receiving language) and yet all be valid as translations. There are at least 7000 languages in the world; in practice many of these small groups of people also know one of 80 vehicular languages, a language learned by a larger group of people which enables them all to communicate with one another. Nine of these are spoken by a large majority of people; add 4 more to get to 13 and you’ve covered most of the people of the world.

Learn 13! One of these is English, the second most common French and after that German — the three most translated-into languages in the world.

He then goes on to make the obvious observation (but important) that different kinds translation are appropriate for different texts and situation (say a legal report versus a poem; or a subtitle in a movie versus a novel). At the end of this section he offers a translation of a poem and asks us why we call it a translation since if you look carefully most of the words have been changed into words of another language that have a different literal content — so the above dictionary would not have gotten you to them. A thesaurus would be much more helpful. Groups of words occupying the same terrain of meaning. And the book has barely begun.

His highway (main argument) offers information on why the particular languages most texts have been into and when, why these choices. Not only are translations influential (and still invisible — we pretend we have read Tolstoi when we read Constance Garnet) and can change the language translated into a (target or receiving language) but the language which has been translated (source language). “Continuing waves of translated works in particular fields leave the receiving language … in a different shape” (p. 187). Consider the impact of the translated Bible on Shakespeare and the Elizabethans.

It matters whether you are translating a text into a dominant language (up) or less prestigious language (down). Translations into prestigious languages (up) erase the source’s foreignness; translations into less prestigious languages (the less widely disseminated vehicular) try to keep a residue of the source.

More important to me — who can only translate into English and only from French and Italian anyway — are the paths that move away from and return to the road. In these he drops remarks and demonstrates important truths not paid sufficient attention to. What I want to do is go through the book typing out the brilliant convincing passages or utterances (as he might call them). Partly it would be good for me to have these nuggets before me as I study, evaluate or write about translations. Bellos gives me courage and helps me know my views are valid even if in most places I read contradicted by what others assert, including (especially perhaps) academic circles where the crib is still what’s wanted and thought to be the aim of a translation. He offers me insight into how to go about it too. Look at translation as a equivalent, a replacement text, originally creative in its own right with its own language’s arts. …

Film adaptation a particular kind of translation

To offer a few:

How should the foreignness of a text best be represented in the receiving language? (p. 41). This depends on the nature of the languages you are translating from and into. If it’s from English to French, w/o being perceptively anomalous, give a sense of the French phrases in the source by some literalness P. 50)

Our first learned language is the one we begin to speak when very young; it’s conveyed by the people who surround us intimately when very little. Our operative language is the language we speak when we go to school, read, learn to write to be comprehended by others.

An adequate translation reproduces the meaning of an utterance made in the foreign language (p. 67) it should contain not just the information you need to grasp not so much what is actually or literally said but what is going on in the saying of it (p. 69). Meaning does not inhere solely in specific words. (My paraphrase: you relive the utterance in the receiving tongue at its strongest even if that does not literally correspond to the source tongue; indeed differences in language means you often cannot or should not try to literally correspond.) What is literally said is only a fragment of what is going on (p. 72)

How can you tell if an utterance is meaningful. Chomsky said you can make grammatical sentences which are not meaningful: “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” but students wrote paragraphs which explicated the phrase. Bellos: you can see whether an utterance has a meaning by testing whether it can be translated into another language (p. 80).

The lack of exactly matching words is not a problem for a translator because words are not at bottom names for things or ideas. The idea that words are names of things or ideas comes from dictionary making. Yes he fingers the 18th century as a century which produced dictionaries which solidified the idea that words are names for things (despite Swift’s satire). We use words to stand for classes of things and ideas (like the word “head”), and there are many things, ideas, groups that have no specific name. We often use one word for another to explain it; translators are finding the other word in another language (pp. 8589). It’s hard to say what a word is. They are not just units in social practice. He suggest that “to know a language is to know how to say the same thing in different words [with ease]” (p. 102, my addition)

There is no such thing as a literal translation. None can be that. You can word a text, word for word as they come but it will appear gobbledy-gok except for those who know the source language (that’s my paraphrasing Bellos (p. 117) Nabokov’s famous demand is him dissing translation.

Translations can be scary: when induced by powerful people to genuflect (pp. 131-32) However, we must adapt to circumstances and context and what the translation is for (this is called adaptive translation). No language is an island (p. 203). This is the business of translating from an intermediary translation and yet producing a readable living text (Marco Polo) (p. 204)

For a few more insights and elaboration, see comments.

He has charts: I have a hard time understanding charts. One on books translated between 7 dominating languages (p. 210): Swedish, Chinese, Hindi, Arabic, French, German, English. Top four source languages: English, French, Russian, German (p. 216)

All very puzzling so let me say just that English is the medium as source or target for 75.12% of all translation acts (p. 217) and culture of translation (and publishers) are concentrated in France, Germany, Britain and US.

Important realities: French has been the most widely taught foreign language in the English speaking world. France has tradition of openness to foreign cultures (will translate). Germany a cross-raods for little studied languages. Middle Ages the lingua franca was Latin, and Arabic pivotal for Greek and Hebrew; while Japanese a relay language for translations of Russian into Chinese (a prestigious language). (pp. 218-20)

It’s not a coincidence that I found a French thesaurus some years ago but can find no Italian one: Le Robert has no section from English to French (which is such a waste), it’s all in French & as in Roget’s English Thesaurus it’s families of words, words inside a terrain. It’s become an important book for me.

Example study: “To translate seemed to me a beautiful thing to do: Translation as Matching Creative Act”.

The Wool WinderPussycat1759forYahooblog
Detail from Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805), The Wool-Winder’s [touching] Cat (1759): her poor ear isn’t in good shape and her body frail, wispy

What I’ve loved to do best is translate Italian poetry by women with a French intermediary text. Part of the joy is this vehicular text (Italian is not one of the world’s 13 vehicular texts) because know French better and love it more. A while back I found on the Net Elsa Morante’s Italian poem, “Minna la Siamese”. I also found an English translation which presented itself as the whole poem but left off the final stanza and was somewhat inaccurate. I did put it on my old life-writing blog because my cats are comforting creatures when trouble arises and bought a book said to contain this poem. When it came I discovered it had several poems on cats, and the language facing the Italian texts was French. Well with an intermediary text in French by Jean-Noel Schifano I produced my own translation, using my cat’s name:


I’ve a small beast, a cat named Clary.

Whatever I place on her plate, she eats
Whatever I pour into her bowl, she drinks.

Onto my knees she comes, gazes at me,
turns, sleeping tranquilly, so I forget
she’s there. If, remembering, l name her,
sleeping, her ear quivers, trembles, this name
then casts a dark shadow athwart her rest.

Blitheful, she has by her a muffled
tinkling stringed instrument, crinkling thanks
so sweet in play, I pet and I scratch her
turning neck & small upheld head, nudge, nudge.

If I consider history, time, things
separating us, disquiet comes. Alone:
of this she knows nothing. If then I watch
her play with string, her eye color tinted
by the sky, I yield. Laughter re-takes me.

When days off, for people, for us, make time
festive, pity comes to me for her who can’t
distinguish. That she too may celebrate,
for her meal I give her canned tuna fish.
She doesn’t understand why, but blissful
with her sharp teeth snips, gnaws, swallows away.

The Gods, to offer her some weapon, have
given her nails and teeth, but she, such her
gentleness, has adopted them for games.
Pity comes again for her whom I could
kill with impunity, no trial, no hell
thought of, no remorse, prisons. Just not there

She kisses me so much, licks and licks, I’ve
the illusion that she cherishes me.
I know another mistress or me to her
is all the same. She follows me about
as if to fool me that I am all to her
but I know my death would graze her but lightly …

It needs improvement but Bellos’s book has made me feel my translation is finer poetry than the one on the Net and not because mine is more accurate and includes the last stanza. I’ve made a vow to myself I shall translate all her cat poems.

Bellos doesn’t mention it but I know that when western men were taught Latin, western women were taught French (and in the 19th century Italian); that women began to publish through translation as masks


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Irene Soames (Gine McKay) as old Jolyon (Corin Redgrave) comes upon her in the grounds of Robin House for the first time (2002 Forsyte Saga, Part 5)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve not had time to blog here again since Saturday. I’ve been off-line from Hurricane Sandy: I hope all who read this blog and are in the area affected by the vast intense storm. are now safe and have access to power again or know when they are going to have access and in the meantime have somewhere to go for sleep, rest, comfort, and food. And that eventually you are compensated and helped out of your losses again insofar as this is possible.

And for been weeks busy with my own tales of upstairs/downstairs (house improvements DIY). Not to omit writing some portraits (Henry and Eliza Austen, Aunt Jane) and about Austen’s letters on Austen Reveries.

I’ve a new plan I hope to go through with. Preparatory to the third season of Downton Abbey, I will at least post my blogs on the episodes from last season, culminating in the Christmas special, as well my continual watching of the two Forsyte Sagas, both 1967 and 2002, a pleasurable and instructive comparison: both are superb. I mean to return to serious film studies, to go through the first and second; the still at the head of this blog is one of Irene Soames shortly after the death of Philip Bossiney, her lover, and her escape from Soames. She wanders in the idyllic Robin House grounds where the idyllic interlude with the old man begins.

I’ve been reading Gaskell (Mary Barton, North and South), Trollope (Castle Richmond), Dickens (Bleak House and now Little Dorrit), not to omit Charlotte Smith (Ethelinde, and just finishing her first novel, Emmeline, or, The Orphan of the Castle), and about historical fiction. I do hope to share some of this with you, as well as translation studies and foremother poets to come.

Where I spill my life, much I love close at hand, near to heart

from Ellen and Jim

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In the long winter of 1784, which I passed in Normandy, this little Novel fell into my hands … for their amusement, I translated [into English] as I read [the French], the most striking passages of the story; which appeared to me so interesting that I was induced to translate the whole; or rather to write it anew in English — Charlotte Smith, from her preface to her Manon

The idea of making a name for myself in the Republic of Letters animated all my faculties — Victorine de Chastenay, on first beginning to translate Radcliffe’s Udolpho

Pierre Arnaud’s recent translation of The Romance of the Forest

Dear friends and readers,

You will instantly recall that last month under a similar heading, I wrote about how I was working on a proposal to give a paper at this coming summer’s Chawton conference on women and translation: I didn’t fall asleep over my book after all (!). Well I did a good deal of reading and sent along two different options.

I discovered that Charlotte Smith really changed Prévost’s Histoire de Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut (1731) and Gayot de Pitaval’s Causes Célèbres et Interessants (1734-44) to bring into the English imaginary explosively transgressive reality-based material from sexual and familial life. In Smith’s Manon L’Escaut, or the Fatal Attachment, Prévost’s enigmatic text intended to justify amoral decisions for aristocratic male readers becomes a story genuinely focused from the point of view of a pro-active heroine with a realistic pragmatic consciousness. I also found that her Ethelinde, or the Recluse of the Lake (1790) her first fully poetic landscape novel was translated into French by M. De Montagne, who made of it a romantic “paysage.” Montagne’s romantic translation is really melodious, I loved the sounds of the French, it was like verse in prose. Smith turned gothic and sentimental romance into vehicles for critiquing the ancien regime as it was experienced in the UK at the time. Montagne helped make these sort of landscapes an accepted mode in France.

Lidia Conetti’s recent Italian translation of Radcliffe’s Udolpho: sometimes it’s better than Radcliffe or Chastenay

When I went back to Chastenay’s 1798 translation of Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) I discovered Chastenay resembles Radcliffe in her reformist radical agenda, in her case much modified by her family’s devastating experience of the revolution (including imprisonment, lose of property, and her father having nearly been guillotined). She also identifies with Emily St. Aubert, Radcliffe’s heroine. What Chastenay loses in subtlety, she replaces in much more social understanding of real life experiences of unjust imprisonment, familial abuse, murders, and harrowing hostage experiences. She carries over Radcliffe’s sheer sensibility of into a focused forceful romantic paysage which adds to Radcliffe’s nightmare scenarios of dreams of nervous distraught pursuit and chase, and perhaps remembered experiences of near rapes (incest?).

A later 19th century cover to Chastenay’s translation shows an awareness of the depth of inward strangeness in Radcliffe-Chastenay

Nonetheless, I wanted to suggest that reading these texts (as people still do) as sheer female gothic obscures their critiques of the social, economic and political order which are valuable in themselves, which influenced other important books (e.g., George Sand’s Consuelo/La Comtesse de Ruddolstadt, influenced by Radcliffe through Chasteney).

Alas, I think I wrote about this more clearly here than I did in the official mandarin-type proposal. I am just so much better at writing casually in letter style. I thought by having two sets of texts I could make my argument about the value of these translated texts more strong. I would not present an analysis of each text as that would take far too long but just my findings. It interested me too that Smith’s Manon was suppressed — perhaps people thought her strong amoral heroine dangerous — and people are still today unaware of how she alters that text to make Manon the center and an active heroine (at least in Manon’s mind). Montagne’s Ethelinde is also a nearly anonymous and thus disrespected text. So they make a neat comparison with Chastenay’s whose text is still read in France and countries where French is read. There are on the Net still the frontispieces for the volumes of her 1798 text. I saw a popular copy in a good bookstore when I was in Paris for 2 weeks once. Hers also has prestige and is well-known and yet I think there is but the one article by Dorothy Medlin on 4 (!) different translations of Udolpho into French and only one small part is on Chastenay text.

A frontispiece to a French text of one of the memoirs, life-writing, travel books to emerge from the French revolution & Napoleonic wars

On the other hand, it would be fun to to expand more on Udolpho and on Mémoires de madame de Chastenay, 1771-1815 (written between 1810 and 1817, published 1896). Chastenay lived to the mid-19th century; she knew and spoke with Napoleon (who treated her with respect); she translated Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village as Le village abandonne as a genuinely protest text. I’d really like to tell more people, expand on what I’ve already written about Radcliffe’s A Journey Made in the Summer of 1794 (published 1795) (see my Nightmare of History in Radcliffe’s non-fiction Landscape). Radcliffe is so beautifully well-read in art books, architecture, cultures, and she is a sort of Girondist (rather like Madame de Roland), a serious reformer who means her novels to be taken in the way other novels of her era were which critiqued society. In her case the ancien regime.

Using Smith’s Prevost, Montagne’s Smith and Chastenay’s Radcliffe, a configuration of the three texts, I’d write and talk about translation. If I study Radcliffe & Chastenay’s lives, life-writing, travel, I’d write and about the two women writers, though the centerpiece would be a comparative translation study.

My larger goal is to call attention to a large body of work still ignored, to which these translations belong. When these books are studied the arguments often resemble those film adaptations once had to contend with: evaluation and judgement based solely on a one-to-one literal comparison with the assumption the first text is necessarily the most important and better. I want to show micro-analysis is still at the core of translation study but when we change our assumptions how much we have to learn and how many new and fascinating texts to read.

Hubert Robert’s Hermit in a Garden

I really enjoy reading and doing translation. It’s a real urge as such. One sits with books and books, dictionaries, thesauruses, different previous translations. Sheer language endeavour. Poetry as such. Books I’m interested in from this terrain include Isabelle de Montolieu’s influential translations of Austen into French (both of which I just bought from Amazon, complete with prefaces): Raison et Sensibilite (someone retyped the whole text, four columns a page), and La Famille Elliot, ou L’Ancienne Inclination (a facsimile, the volume labelled I contains the whole text). When Montolieu writes her prefaces to her translations of Austen, she assumes in the first no one will ever hear of Austen a decade from now nor S&S, and in the second her respect has grown enormously (she’s read Emma and MP) and feels she must translate more strictly but her sense of Austen’s place does not come near how she regards Smith (she translated one of Smith’s Solitary Wanderer‘s tales and provides a preface again).

I have written on and just delighted in Felix Fénéon’s gem, Catherine Morland (1898/99, reprinted by Gallimard 1946), and recently bought Pierre Goubert’s serious literary biography of Austen, a rare treatment in French (biographies of Austen do not abound outside English, not in French either); he translated her earlier novels and wrote about them in the Pleiade. I’ve read one of two 1807 translations Stael’s Corinne, ou L’Italie into English (one read and much admired by Austen), and it’s a cross between Radcliffe and Austen! have wanted to try Isabel Hill’s 1884 Victorian and did read thoroughly the brilliant Corinne or Italy by Sylvia Raphael (often unmentioned, she died young, her book printed as an Oxford Classic, 1998).

And I do want to read more translation studies. On my TBR pile is Belllos’s Is that a Fish in Your Ear? and Suzanne Levine’s The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin American fiction. I need some outside goal, deadline, to help me do all this for if it’s so pleasurable, it’s hard work.

My proposal was turned down. I think probably most unfairly. To do myself justice and also keep my thoughts where I can find them again and share them with others, I’ve put my proposal on my website. “To translate seemed to me a beautiful thing to do: Translation as Matching Creative Act”. I’ve at least done myself that much justice. (Freedom the press and speech belongs to the woman who has a website.) As you know if you ever read my Sylvia blog I’m just an honorary Duchess aka ex-adjunct lecturer.


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It is plausible that no translation, however good it may be, can have any significance as regards the original — Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” Illuminations

One must distrust the almost-the-same (sodium is the same as potassium, but with sodium nothing would have happened), the practically identical, the approximate, the or-even, all surrogates and all patchwork — Primo Levi, “Potassium,” The Periodic Table

Eugene Atget (1857-1927), The Petit Trianon

Dear friends and readers,

My theme: I’ve returned to an old love to do a new project: French-to-English and back again translations in the 18th century. I begin with Walter Benjamin and my own experiences, then cover Beebee’s book, Clary on the continent, Prevost’s different Clevelands, and various different telling individual cases (different Tom Joneses, Radcliffe’s translators); I end on Renato Poggioli’s “The Added Artificer” which deserves to be much better known.


I have a hard time remembering when I was not fascinated by translations. I think it began back in high school when at age 16 I read a probably poor translation into English of Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre-Dame. I loved the book and wanted to know more about it, and especially I wanted to read it in French. Later on somehow reading a book in one language and then reading the same book in another gave me an experience of two weirdly interdependent books and thus worlds. When I was in college, I took French for all the years I could, extending my non-major following of it with one-credit courses: such courses met twice a week, but for one and one-half hours of sheer talk in French allowed using our books. We’d take turns using its conversations. Then in graduate school, I took a course in Italian over one summer to fulfill the language requirement (one had to pass two tests in two languages), and just loved the language, again enjoyed so much lining up a text in Italian aligned with its source or target text in English.

Anne Finch when young

During the 1980s I re-taught myself to read French and read French novels, and then for over 20 years starting the middle 1980s I taught myself to read and to translate Italian and translated Vittoria Colonna and Veronica Gambara’s poetry and then wrote an essay on Anne Finch’s translations out of the Italian though the French. Just what I had done at first for Colonna (and what I’ve done since for a poem by Elsa Morante I found in the original Italian with French text facing it).

So when over the past week I dropped one of my projects for this fall term, the paper on Paranoia and Infamy, I naturally turned to the proposal I wanted to send to Chawton, and was happy, even eager to reread some of my books on translation (Lawrence Venuti, The Translator’s Invisibility, The Scandals of Translation, Sherry Simon’s Gender in Translation). Did you know that over 90% of translations into the world are transations into English? how little translators are paid? How women’s writing begins in translation, how they express themselves through its covering medium?

I discovered my old folders filled with essays on translation, some read, some not read, and books and essays just on translation in the 18th century, the 19th and more recently.

Charlotte Smith by George Romney (1792)

My idea was Charlotte Smith’s translation of Prevost’s Manon Lescaut, or some study of intermediary texts between her later novels and Prevost and Rousseau, but to tell the truth I was not sure I could find something to extrapolate out of a tight narrow comparison. I do have Isabelle de Montolieu’s translation of one of Smith’s Solitary Wanderer’s Tale (Corisande de Beauvilliers, and all of M. Montagne’s (whoever he is) French translation of Smith’s Ethelinde, or the Recluse of the Lake, which I also own in English. And of course Montolieu’s translation of Sense and Sensibility (with her preface) and soon will have her translation of Persuasion.

So I went about to look for previous work on individual books I’d done. I’ve now remembered my careful comparative reading of the opening of Radcliffe’s Udolpho with Victorine de Chastenay’s translation of the same text into French, something of Chastenay’s life (she was imprisoned during the terror and lost family members and emerged somewhat shattered and depressed, and various essays on 18th century translations of classics (Riccoboni and Davaux’s Tom Jones, a French and a Dutch translation of Prevost’s Cleveland contrasted to the French texts) and of course Prevost’s Clarisse.

Victorine de Chastenay (translator into French of Radcliffe’s Udolpho)

And I’ve read away and reminded myself of what I once knew. So, I spent Tuesday I spent yesterday reading translation studies and then how women in particular use translation: how the earliest women writers began (felt they had license) by translating, how it works to free, a way to express what is otherwise forbidden (that’s how I see Smith’s translation of Manon Lescaut), a way of declaring love and wanting to share (Chastenay’s Udolpho).

Jean-Antoine Watteau, unnamed shepherdess

I read Mirella Agorni’s poignant, The Voice of the ‘Translatress’: From Aphra Behn to Elizabeth Carter Author, The Yearbook of English Studies, 28 (1998 Eighteenth-Century Lexis and Lexicography): 181-95, and I compared a literal translation of Ovid’s Oenone to Paris with Aphra Behn’s translation/adaptation. In her case (as is not uncommon among men as well as women) she did not have any Latin, so someone gave her an intermediary crib. Behn turned the poem into erotica — on behalf of Oenone, a nobody. Since reading Germaine Greer’s persuasive debunking of all the myths growing up around Aphra Behn, including that she was an aristocrat (born on wrong side of blanket), supported herself sheerly by her playwriting (when it seems rather she combined being men’s mistresses with playwriting and verse, including translations, and pop novellas), I can see why she’d identify with Oenone.

Behn is worth remembering and this unashamed revelling in idyllic
pastoral too. Some of her most moving verses defend her as a translatress:

I by a double right thy Bounties claim,
Both from my Sex, and in Apollo’Ns ame:
Let me with Sappha and Orinda
Oh ever sacred Nymph, adorn’d by thee;
And give my Verses Immortality.

Jane Austen died declaring her immortality in defiance against everyone spending their afternoon so trivially.

‘Oh! subjects rebellious! Oh Venta depraved
When once we are buried you think we are gone
But behold me immortal!


The Abbe Prevost (1697-1763) translated all Richardson and Frances Sheridan’s Sidney Biddulph

Speaking very generally, as the century progressed and the novel achieved more respect, translations became more ostensibly faithful. Paradoxically at the same time (especially if you are working on the literal old model that a good translation is a sort of excellent crib — rather like those who go to movies and critique a film adaptation by how “literally” like it seemed to them to the book), translations became more creative. You can see how the author expressed her or himself through the medium.

Some of the best general essays written thus far on translation are general philosophical ones. A particularly rich one is by Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator”. He opens with what may seem a strange idea: “It is plausible that no translation, however good it may be, can have any significance as regards the original.” The analysis in defense of this is brilliant and rich with ideas. One train of argument suggests that any translation is about the encounter of the two languages and two cultures. I find this to be so in my experience of translation. I don’t own the words I use and must use the words of my time and culture and watch them interact with the words and cultural assumptions and whole world view of the other language — French or Italian. He says the desire to translate comes partly from a love of a certain language. Again I know this is so.

Lovelace just before the rape: Simon Brett’s late 20th century illustrations for the Folio Society edition

I reread some of Beebee’s Clarissa on the Continent, about 18th century to modern translations of Clarissa — and abridgements. I know now the Broadveiw edition provides a new edition of the 3rd edition of Clarissa, thus replacing the now out-of-print 4 volume Everyman.

Beebee’s book includes a close reading of two contemporary translations of Clarissa: Prevost and Michaelis’s. He compares these two texts to Richardson’s 1st and 3rd editions of Clarissa (which are themselves different, though both think they must Frenchify the text from the point of view of French taste and ethics). Beebee teaches us how to read translations. He has a chapter where he surveys later translations and abridgements. Particularly of interest to me was Dallas’s abridgement as Trollope wrote a critique of that; it was the book 19th century readers knew Clarissa. After Dallas when some 19th century person says she’s read Clary it’s probably Dallas’s Clary.

In last chapter of Beebee’s book he compares Sherburn’s 1970s and Burrell’s 1950s abridgements. Most of the time today Clarissa is read in an abridgement in the US. In France they read Prevost’s translation (quite different in a number of ways from Richardson); in the US when I was in college (1960s) we read Burrell’s abridgement for Modern Library; the last decade or so students read Sherburn’s abridgement for Rinehart. Margaret Doody has a long article lambasting Sherburn (by the way).

I had been really delighted to come across for the first time ever a close reading and discussion of Burrell. I was not sure of his full name. His edition had never been acknowledged or described in print as far as I knew. I had read Doody and Stuber’s exposure of Sherburn’s abridgement as a far too personal, rigid, a narrow take with interjections by Sherburn (!), but never came across any commentary on Burrell.

Lovelace attacking Clarisssa (Simon Brett again)

It was Burrell’s abridgement of Clarissa that I first read at age 18-19 and was riveted by. I had the not uncommon experience of not being able to put the book down, of being gripped to read on and on into the wee hours of the dawn. The most vivid memory I had though was of disappointment; somehow or other I had missed the rape. I still remember hunting around the text the following morning (after a little sleep) and not finding it. Later false memories began to tell me I had found it later, but now I realize that in fact I must’ve read the rape for the first time in the Everyman reprint of Richardson’s 3rd edition.

Well, guess what? Burrell omitted it! He censored out the scene. It was in the Everyman I realized that Lovelace raped Clarissa in front of the other women; there I first read the famous passage where Clary says she will be his, just give her a bit of time right here, right now.

Nonetheless, I believe that Burrell’s edition influenced me & strongly; Burrell produces a romantic (vexed word I know, but I’m trying to use it in the common sense way of overwrought individualistic emotionalism and rebellion) text. Burrell will omit much surrounding matter here and there which qualifies Clarissa’s subjective interpretations and outcries. I’ve never read Sherburn so didn’t realize he actually interjects his own interpretation and sometimes himself imitates Lovelace — falls into Lovelace’s vein. Beebee shows how both men cut the book in ways which erase some of the worst aspects of Lovelace’s character. Reading them, though, against Richardson’s books teaches us what was most deeply meant to be expressed in the original — especially after you have studied a variety of translation and adaptations.

Final duel (Brett)

I probably loved Clarissa, was more grabbed by it in Burrell’s edition than I would have been in Richardson’s whole text. Burrell omitted much of the long fourth volume, especially all the Job passages and the gruesome and to me egregiously spiteful nasty dramatizations of the deaths of wicked people. He kept Lovelace’s agon, time at the assembly ball, the lead-up to the duel. (See how vicious the Deity can get; watch out is my gut response to these Burrell thought them in bad taste.) Burrell also turned Clary into a pre-Byronic heroine and softened the presentation of Lovelace.

So I was at long last vindicated. 40 years later I learned I didn’t miss the rape after all. I had not fallen asleep over my book.


Samuel Palmer (1805-81), A Dream in the Appenines (1864)

Some of the best studies I read yesterday were about the clash between cultures, languages, created worlds through languages though having the same literal stories and denotative word content, and even syntax (at times). You do have to read more than one language to do translation studies and as the central hegemonic languages in the 18th century for new literary movements were French and English, these are the languages most studies are in. I went into Annie Cointre, Alain Lautel and Annie Rivera’s La Traduction
romanesque au XVIII siecle
, especially a long essay on Prevost’s
Cleveland — in French and English and Dutch versions. It brings home so many issues, including the way history was more valued than fiction and historians paid more, how this book applied to a naive desire to read history made easy and salacious (as in our time). This was by Ellen Ruth Moerman.

Abbe Prevost reading Manon Lescaut aloud to group of admirer (1856 painting by Joseph Caraud)

To do a translation study you must do book history. Prevost had several translators; his book came out in more than one edition and it was censored differently in different countries. The Dutch translator was quite content to translate anti-Catholic church commentary, but the Catholic French one was not. All of them stigmatize the Quakers (everyone dislikes quakers because people resent general non-conformity with the larger group). Then Prevost wanted partly to delude his British audience into thinking his book was really a history, really written first in English and had the English copy published before the French. There are two different prefaces: one published in English opens with a solemn discourse on the uses of history; the other in French is more tongue-in-cheek and he defends himself for writing a preface (what is this hypocrisy that prefaces are to be apologized for; they are needed) and insinuates if you enjoyed the Man of Quality, you’ll find him in this book again.

The 1997 BBC Tom Jones understood how important Fielding’s presence can be in the novel for the reader who wants over self-conscious wit, self-reflexive mockery

Two essays on the translations of Tom Jones, one by Kristina Taivalkoski-Shilove and another by Annie Rivara (on Riccoboni’s Amelie)
very worth while. It was fascinating to discover that the freer early translation by La Place was the Tom Jones most French readers knew and preferred; that it was a labor of love Davaux did when he translated faithfully and carefully and included all the opening narrator chapters. In the 20th century Tom Jones is reprinted in popular editions without these opening chapters. For me the book is ruined; much of the deep pleasure comes from the presence of the narrator. But apparently not for a mass readership who are said to lose “interest.” Amelia was not popular, and Riccoboni’s choice to do it came out of her deep engagement with its story of unhappiness in years of marriage.

From Christopher Cave I was delighted to learn that Andre Morellet, humane philosophe who translated Beccario’s treatise demonstrating that torture turns up no valid information translated Radcliffe’s Italian. He found in her a congenial reformist spirit, but he continually rationalized her prose. She produces a super-abundance of description which cannot depict reality so many experiences are piled into one. He choses a line of description that’s clear and readily pictured. What makes for her original depth psychologically and pictorially vanishes. It’s true you can’t make fun of her text and it’s no longer what some find tedious. I just love myself getting lost in labyrinths with endless doors and locks.

Piranesi, I Carceri (opaque)

Piranesci, I Carceri (clarified)

And I spent time with my old love, Renato Poggioli’s “The Added Artificer” (in a marvelous anthology put together by Reuben Brower, On Translation). Like Venuti, he shows that a translation is another text, and one that is creative in a different way. The translator (like an illustrator) can transcend the first text by transposing another personality into the key of his or her own. You strive after self-expression by looking into a pool of art. Instead of a translation being pouring new wine into an old or previously extant bottle, the translator is taking older wine and making a new bottle with it. The translator is herself a living vessel saturated with a sparkling spirit and recreates the container someone with whom he or she has an affinity has given a previous embodiment to. A good translation may be read for itself, without comparing it to the original work.

Eugene Atget, Grand Trianon, Pavillion de Musique (1923-24)


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Giovanni (Christopher Maltman) and Leporello (Erwin Schrott) awaiting the Commendatore (Anatoli Kotscherga)

“If the joke against him [Macheath, here Giovanni] is that he is vain to adopt the grand manner of the genteel rakes he at least stands their own final test; he has the courage to sustain it” (Empson, “The Beggar’s Opera,” Some Versions of the Pastoral)

Dear friends and readers,

Lately high art has once again been taking refuge in versions of the pastoral: last week Izzy and I saw Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, this past summer, she, I and the admiral saw Benjamin Britten’s The Beggar’s Opera; and yesterday we went to see in HD form at a local “center for the arts” (renovated movie and play theater) Claus Guth’s 2008 Don Giovanni done before a full audience, all dressed up (as we could see — no dressing down there as we see increasingly in the US) at the Salzburg theater in Vienna (Austria).

The production is a masterpiece, at once suggestively of wide application, and locally (in the narrow story and characters) rooted. I would say for the first time I was made to realize why this opera is said to have such depth and interest.

Claus Guth set the action in a dark wood. Everything happens on a stage which is decorated as a simple rugged ugly forest and by the end of the opera it’s filled with torn garments, dying trees, and garbage from parties (cans, wrappings, dirty food, spoilt clothes — from blood). It opens with a few leaves on trees; mid-point the trees have gone bare; the last third, it’s snowing, as Don Giovanni and Leporello defy the Commendatore (who is digging the Don’s grave just behind their picnic)


We were in a modernist take on an 18th century art work which was a kind of anti-pastoral — and in this it reminded me of Gay’s Beggar’s Opera.

Christopher Maltman as the Don and Erwin Schrott as Leporello came across on one level as two sordid fools, a kind of Vladmir and Estragon who can’t think of what to do with themselves but chase women and fight pettily with one another. They are a homoerotic pair continually squabbling.

As in Saturnalia we have Leporello in the don’s costume with the ever bleeding don laid out in semi-hysterical exhaustion.

The play’s anti- ancien regime subtext came out strongly for the Don need only say he’s the Don and Leporello shuts up — as does everyone else. The women profess to adore him: Maltman is attractive, muscled and is made to behave sort of vampirishly (he drains everyone too), but it’s his position, that he’s my lord that matters. His face is wry and twists with feelings of noblesse oblige (a pretense his pain does not matter). I was also reminded of Faust: how naive these enacted self-glorifications how narrow and silly.

As many will doubtless recall, Empson identifies the pastoral by its level-headed bringing down to reality. Through its distorting x-ray mirror, individuals can be exposed for what they are.

Waiting for the bus

This is a opera where the women want sex with the Don, only on their own terms of power over him. Donna Elvira (Dorothea Röschmann) gets drunk when blindfolded and led away to think Leporello is the Don. Zerlina (Ekaterina Siurina) (this is the usual interpretation) prefers the don over the brutal jealous probably boring Masetto (Alex Esposito).

Elvira fooled by a glum Leporello

Zerlina on swing, Don below

At the opening of the play we see Donna Anna’s father shoot (pistols – modernized everything) and inflict a mortal wound in the center of the Don’s stomach (perhaps to the side a little). Thus Maltman is dying slowly throughout and, refusing to acknowledge so much as the blood itself, spends the opera making jests of his pain and anguish.

Stilling the pain

This is a version which sympathizes with the Don by making him half-mad, sick (a neurotic promiscuity is the idea). Bleeding throughout and he gets blood all over Zerlina’s white dress.

The best single singing moment was the tenor Octavio (Pavel Breslik) with his aria wanting peace with Anna (Svetlana Donev). It was poignant and he no macho male. (Everyone sang marvelously I don’t mean to say they didn’t but Octavio was transcendent). Here the “new” interpretation came into play by having Anna and Octavio attempt to drive through the wood in a not-so-recent cheap-looking car that promptly broke down. The Don looks into their motor as an excuse to get at Anna. The characters go in and out of the seats. Much stage business comedy. Octavio’s aria is undercut by having her inside the car smoking moodily away as he sings his heart out. It’s clear she’s bored. Jim said he felt for Octavio for the first time.

Donna Anna apparently unaware gives her hand to Giovanni

It’s also nihilistic. Like other performances I’ve seen the last chorus is dropped — people often take this coming on stage at the end as providential. See Giovanni is punished. It’s also things are going on as usual, for in the words Zerlina is planning to go off and live with Masetto and have children, Leporello at least free (but now without a source of money) to the tavern, Octavio and Anna to bury and carry on their upper class lives. Only Elvira is stranded but she is justified. All this was dropped in any event. I was glad for I find it grating.

It is however also very much an 18th century play. Donna Anna does not go off with a gun (presumably to kill herself) for love of the Don. In this production she does not pay much attention to Octavio — she grieves intensely for her father now and again.

Anna grieving over her father’s remains

The importance of the father reminded me of Clarissa, of The Marquise of O, of Tom Jones. At the close the father comes back and the drunken, half-dead Giovanni falls into the grave the old man has been digging for the last moments of the opera. The centrality of sex is very 18th century and the exploration of its underside too.

It’s comedy and hard comedy at that. The characters are mad egoists charging about like they do in a Ben Jonson or Moliere comedy.

The sidekicks, that hilarious don and his Sancho Panza servant, Leporello

They cling while they prey on one another

I liked the jokes with clashing anachronisms, the snazzy and prosaic street costumes and stage business. The Don puts on a Burger king crown towards the end; the dancing is modern club so no one really interacts with one another.

The characters live in disconnected worlds, apart from one another.

Finally, it was a relief from the Met’s crassness this year where the general manager thinks to impress us (and put bums on seats) by overproducing and making things ultra-Broadway like. There was nothing overdone, trashy, neon-lit about it the way the Met is often. The women were all relatively young and attractive, but no push-up bras and extravagantly (grotesque) sexy outfits. (American productions go over the top in tastelessness and vulgarity, I think, because at the same time the US remains a fundamentally religious country, as fervently anti-sex for women especially as ever.) I admit I missed the Met host (or hostess) behind the scenes, the interviews, and cameras staged behind the curtain so the audience can watch scene changes inbetween acts. But we did see lovely Salzburg, enough of the inside of the theater to get a sense of its size and feel (it reminded me of Carnegie Hall).

This is the first European production I’ve ever seen (I’ve seen English ones in London but their Anglo-ness connects them to US ones); and I liked it very much. I could make out the Italian words easily (partly because of the subtitles, but the enunciation was clear). It seemed far more tasteful than what is seen in the US, less commercialized somehow, more sharp and clean, no compromises. The stage had a strange beauty — far more so than last week’s Alice because they didn’t try so hard, didn’t overdo:

Leporello and Giovanni before a broken rotted tree, which stands in for a marble statue at the play’s close

A meaningful afternoon. We were charged $13.50 at half-price tickets. The H Street Playhouse (Washington, DC) is in a gentrifying neighborhood we’ve been to before — to another nearby theater to see Marat/Sade and to this one to see Orpheus and an In-series performance. The proprietor was there to introduce the movie and tell us to behave :), doubtless to persuade us to feel good about the experience and tell others. Jim felt word was not getting out: he had just happened upon the ad. But then no long previews, no clutter.

Simplicity Empson said was the byword for pastoral, simplification, getting into contact with the mysterious forces of nature

The finale: dance-like bowing of group holding hands before audience


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