Friday, November 10, 2017


Emendation, Translation, and Interpretation of an Inscription

John Hollander (1929-2013), "Early Inscription," Tesserae & Other Poems (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1993), pp. 47-48:

[NIEMAND'S TRANSLATION: We are all born and we all die]

(NIMMERWAHR, 1868) Niemand's suggested emendation, as well as his translation based on it, will plainly not do; among other things, the plain uninterpretability of the text, which alone constitutes its significance, is thereby beclouded.

(SCHWARTZWEISS, 1869) Significance, indeed! "Sing if-"icance, only an easy transposition away, puts Nimmerwahr's whole flimsy matter more accurately. Mere lyrical hypothesis gets us nowhere.

(NIRGENDSWO, 1869) The text is quite clear, and if seemingly "uninterpretable" (thus Nimmerwahr!), only because it is merely so much a commonplace as to be trivial. Niemand's conjecture is, of course, quite sound.

(STILLSCHWEIGEND, 1870) Sound? Sound!!!??? A ridiculous suggestion, all the more dangerous in that it invites the ill-considered judgment to agree with the reductively positive Schwartzweiss, who is, as always, incapable of grasping critical nuance.

(LINDSAY-WOLSEY, 1902) There is something uncanny about Niemand's suggested syllable, which represents, after all, the only intelligible morpheme in the inscription; it is, in the Eastwest dialect, the word for "life." Niemand of course knew nothing of this, and his suggestion is as worthless as is the controversy it has elicited. Still, the very fact that he should have introduced it, sheds some ironic light not on the "meaning" of the text but on the meaning of the conditions generating its mode of reception.

(QUACKENBUSH, 1973) The very power of this fragment to elicit such particularly heavy and humorless debate from nineteenth-century German scholars usually known for their light-handedness and grace in controversy is in some way a function of the resonance of its assertion, particularly in view of the fact that it is now believed to be impossible to assert just what that assertion might be. I am reminded of how ...

(BERTOLDO, 1974) Quackenbush leads us—ha! ha!—into a quackmire. The text says what it says; the English translation from Niemand will do as well as any.

(PETERSCHREIER, 1988) Merely to quote this sentiment [Niemand's "We are all born and we all die." Ed.] is outrageous. We??? This means, as usual, humans, and the whole utterance manifests the worst sort of species-ism. The assertion is an affront to other species who can't be said to "know" that they will die. It is a slippery slope from boasting of the ultimate human knowledge to asserting, vilely, mankind's hegemony over "the garden of Creation."

(VRUN-LÜGNER, 1990) As we now know, Niemand went wrong in not realizing that the inscription falls into two parts that are actually in two different dialects; EIDLLA EW is in the lingua franca of the North, and NROBLLA ERAEW in the form used for inscriptions in the South. Whatever the words may mean, each "half" is a paraphrase of the other. Each says the same thing. Whether, at some level, Niemand's erroneous translation might be a tautology is not for us to consider.
Hat tip: Ian Jackson.

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