Saturday, January 02, 2010


Elaborate Defence of Howlers

Seafarer 81 (tr. Ezra Pound):
all arrogance of earthen riches

ealle onmedlan eorþan rices.
Hugh Kenner, introduction to Ezra Pound, Translations (New York: New Directions, 1963), pp. 11-12:
Since he doesn't translate the words, he may deviate from the words, if the words blur or slide, or if his own language fails him. 'Eorþan rices' doesn't mean 'earthen riches' but 'kingdoms of the earth'; 'kings' in the next line enforces however an alteration, and the available synonyms for 'kingdoms', such as 'realms', have the wrong connotations: 'royaume' for example implies something too settled, too sumptuous. Hence the recourse to 'riches', a sort of pun on the word in the text, which has a slightly wrong meaning but a completely right feeling.
Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), p. 484:
In 1911 he had become the Seafarer-poet long enough to write The Seafarer, which, pedantry assures us, is not at all "a translation."
—wuniað þa wacran ond þas woruld healdaþ
—Waneth the watch, but the world holdeth.
But stop, healdaþ is plural and woruld accusative; wacran isn't "watch" but "weaker" [sc. folk]; wuniað isn't "wane" but (cf. Ger. wohnen) "dwell": "A weaker sort survive and possess the earth." Similarly Pound's splendid phrase "The blade is layed low" derives from a phrase ("Blæd is gehnæged") which sounds as if it ought to treat of blades, but means "glory is humbled." He was interested chiefly in the 9th-century sounds.
Compared with intellectual giants like Pound and Kenner, I'm a mental pygmy, ignorant of Old English, but a small, irreverent voice within me nevertheless keeps asking, "Could Pound simply have made a mistake? Is it possible that the Emperor has no clothes, or at least a rip in the seat of his pants?"

Cf. Ian Thomson, Primo Levi: A Life (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2003), p. 440 (on Raymond Rosenthal):
Rosenthal was a curmudgeonly if lovable seventy-three-year-old, embittered by life, though—like many New Yorkers—warm, wistful and open-hearted. Levi then asked him to list the howlers he had made during his early days as a translator. One of these Levi particularly enjoyed: selvaggina ('wild game') rendered as 'little savage'.
No one is infallible. "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23), even giants. My favorite candid admission of this sort is Samuel Johnson's, as recorded by Boswell:
A lady once asked him how he came to define Pastern as the knee of a horse: instead of making an elaborate defence, as she expected, he at once answered, 'Ignorance, madam, pure ignorance.'
As an explanation of certain lines in Pound's translations, 'pure ignorance' seems to me more convincing than an 'elaborate defence' like Kenner's.

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