Sunday, 30 December 2018

Translating, and ‘Browning’ versions

Christmas duly arrived, and departed. We didn’t haul the tree down from the loft; I bought flowers instead, an antidote to glitter, tinsel and trash. 
 I don’t know why Christmas has become such a burden, but it hit hard this year. In 2019, if travel deities, and the airlines and airports, allow, maybe we should try to escape the joyless consumerist hell. The idea of being a ‘snowbird’ is tempting, migrating south to another sun. However, perhaps the gloom was not wholly down to seasonal affective disorder (SAD) but the looming impact of parting from Europe. The day before Christmas Eve bright yellow sunlight and blue sky briefly lifted the mood a shade or two. But then our early northern darkness falls, and despondency, the winter guest, returns.

However, an enforced 12 days of leisure means I can catch up with a few BBC programmes on the iPlayer. One was Mary Beard’s TV interview with Clive James – who will be 80 in 2019. He is one of an Aussie group of four, including Germaine Greer, the so-called ‘Rebels of Oz,’ who emigrated to Britain in the sixties. The man’s still sharp as a flint, even if he believes he isn’t, but what emerged overall was the sense of a carefully edited ending. Being James, he self-deprecatingly remarked on how the New Yorker printed ‘Japanese Maple’ one day when its paywall was down. The poem, picked up by Mia Farrow and others, went viral.
  It’s strange, how poetry is neglected and yet endures. As a medium and an art form it goes back way before Homer; it’s weathered more than just time. And it’s still mined for funerals. A better choice than that awful banal dirge, ‘My Way,’ blasting out from a CD player at the back of a crematorium’s chapel – sorry, ‘memorial’ space. (I forget how many are non-religious these days.)
 Poetry’s thought to be ‘difficult.’ It isn’t. It does require an inner ear, a certain kind of sympathy, and a functioning imagination uncontaminated by generic screen images. But Clive made me smile, saying how obscurities and difficulties are down to T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. That no one was buying published poetry in their time, so the notoriously obscure pair decided opacity was okay. This is likely a fiction, but believable. I didn’t find E. & P. testing – but it helps if readers recognise the references, and the clever-clever use of throwaway lines and random quotations, e.g., il miglior fabbro,’ (Dante, Canto 26, Purgatorio). When Eliot and Pound were writing, the average school pupil still received a basic grounding, however rudimentary, in classics, history, literature, music and art. These lend human richness, depth and understanding,
Allegorical portrait of Dante Alighieri, 
by Bronzino – Uffizi, Florence.
and a life is incomplete without them. At least, the life of the mind is.
This likely marks one as an unreformed élitist with undesirable opinions to boot.   
 But why should the arts be dismissed, ignored or, worse, viewed through a modern anachronistic lens? It’s not simply a twenty-first century problem. What Todd Gitlin described, two decades ago, in The Liberal Arts in an Age of Info-Glut, is as valid now as it was then. Our disposable social media culture of consumerism, instantly-gratifying superficial self-reflecting obsessions, will provide few material records from which historians might provide translations of the past – more accurately, versions of the past – in the future. 
Translating is an art, and IT and software won’t cut it. If writing a thesis on the figure of Orpheus has taught me anything, it’s that one should never rely on translations. ‘Learning Greek only teaches Greek, and nothing else: certainly not common sense, if that have failed to precede the teaching’ – Robert Browning, in the Introduction to his (in)famous 1877 word-for-word transcription of the Agamemnon of Aeschylus. (I preserve the poet’s quaint Victorian English.) I cite this because my research has stumbled over a quantity of undiluted rubbish on the Internet concerning Orpheus, and it confirms that serial murder’s been committed over centuries. For example, an online ‘update’ of the Hymns of Orpheus is more than merely suspect; its author asserts that Pergamon is in Bodrum. I have travelled between these two separate locations; I can only surmise the rest of the woman’s ‘facts’ are all equally fictitious. 
 Poor Orpheus. You must be revolving in your grave – or one of them. (The Thracian’s remains were claimed by various ancient places, including Dion and Lebeithra in the area of Mt. Olympos.)

Nota bene: I idly investigated living abroad après le déluge, the threatening evils of Brexit. It appears it can be done, within certain means and parameters. And why not? As somebody commented in the Financial Times, elderly greys who voted to leave the EU because of immigration may well hypocritically emigrate to European sunshine before the cut-off date. They should remain in the UK. They wanted to sever us from the Union. Let ‘em dwell in their envisaged ‘paradise,’ with its crippled NHS, food shortages, lack of workers and civil unrest?

Bonne année, et bonne chance. L’avenir est presque là.

Picture credits : baubles ©™; Dante Alighieri, ©; February, 2016.

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