Friday, January 30, 2015

Cyrano's Ballade

An interesting discussion grew up in the most recent introductory post for the Fortnightly Book, Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac. In one of the most famous episodes in the play, in Act I, Scene 4, Cyrano gets into a duel with the Viscount de Valvert, in which he composes a ballade on the spot. And I noted that the edition I was reading has an insert with Rostand's original French version of Cyrano's ballade and seven English translations ranging from 1897 to 1953. And so MrsDarwin and I started discussing how to translate it.

So how do you start a project like this? There are several choices to make; one of the points the insert made was that translators have generally tried to keep the ballade form in their translations. There are variations; Chaucer, whose ballades are probably the most important in the English language, uses several different kinds, some longer, some shorter, some given slightly different structure. But the traditional short ballade, of which Cyrano's is an example (and which in English is probably best represented by some of G. K. Chesterton's most popular poems), has several distinctive features:

(1) Three main stanzas and a shorter envoi.
(2) A strict rhyme scheme: ABABBCBC for the main stanzas and BCBC for the envoi.
(3) The envoi is properly to be addressed to the Prince, although sometimes the poet will substitute another addressee.
(4) Each line has eight syllables (although this tends to be less strictly followed than the others).

(There is no strict metric requirement for the ballade itself, because it is a form found in both French and English, which tend to use different meters.) A translator also has to consider sense, however, and translators of poetry are generally faced with the straightforward fact that poems are, of all things in any language, the most elusive to translate accurately. Ideally, you'd keep the form and the sense, but you're necessarily going to have to prioritize. Like most translators I was willing to nudge sense slightly to keep something of the form. But there are different ways of doing this. Translation, particularly of poetry, depends in part on what you treat as the primary unit of sense. You could choose the word; this tends to give the kind of translation we call 'wooden', but also is sometimes quite handy. In poetry one most often focuses on the line or the stanza. Choosing one or the other will yield very different results. Stanza-focused translation is easier to make flow, but it is also necessarily looser. It's pretty clear that, while they made some effort to keep lines intact, most English translations of Cyrano's ballade take the stanza as the primary unit of sense. There are many advantages to this, not least of which is giving more flexibility with respect to rhyme, but my own preference is generally for taking the line as the primary unit of sense. This doesn't mean of course, that one ignores the stanza, or avoids shifting things about when useful, but it means that one wants each line in particular to convey something in particular derived from a corresponding line in the original. And it particularly made sense to focus on the line, because the conversation had originally been started by MrsDarwin noting that none of the first lines I had given from the insert had the same structure as the original. That will happen, of course, particularly in trying to keep a rhyme scheme intact, but it meant that we were already focusing on what would fit the lines best.

Since I was primarily working line by line, and the short ballade form has twenty-eight lines consisting entirely of three rhymes, and I wanted to keep the rhyme scheme, I had to choose rhymes carefully; so I made it easy on myself by picking three sounds that in English are very common in final syllables: 'air', 'o', 'ie'/'y'. (I got the idea for the 'air' one from MrsDarwin, who had already proposed a first line that ended with 'care'.) And so it started, and we went on from there. (MrsDarwin's final result is now up at her blog; she also has the original French, for those who want to compare.) The final result on my end was as follows:

Ballade of a Duel in the Hotel Bourguignon
Between Monsieur de Bergerac and a Good-for-Nothing

I dash my hat with dashing air,
abandon I with motion slow
this mantle that I often wear,
and draw my ready sword to go:
like Celadon in graceful glow,
like Scaramouche, so swiftly spry
that, Myrmidon, I this foreknow:
at envoi's end, your pride will die!

As neutral you would better fare;
Where, turkey, should my lardoon go?....
In the side, beneath sleeve there?....
Your blue ribbon with your heart below?
Like bells the hand-guards clang each blow!
My rapier vaults: a fly!
And thus...the belly will take the blow
when, envoi's end, your pride will die!

I seem to lack a rhyme for 'air'...
You fall back, a starchy pallor show?
The word you give to me is: scared!
--I parry--Tac!--the stroke you throw
by which you hoped to lay me low,--
I carve the joint, the split I tie,
rough Laridon, I skewer slow:
at envoi's end, your pride will die.

Beg God, O Prince, His mercy show!
I turn, I skirmish, swordwork ply,
I strike, I feint, and ha! Thus so!
At envoi's end, your pride will...die!

There are the inevitable liberties throughout, in which I cheat a little, and some weak points that could probably be strengthened, but I think this ended up being a remarkably close rendering of the original -- much closer than most other translations. Some notes:

Stanza 1: Once I thought of the 'dash' and 'dashing' pair, I just had to use it. There are perfectly good stricter ways to translate the line, but it fits, and works well in English. And it gives the English reader exactly what the poem needs: we start with a bit of obvious wit that sets the tone for the whole poem. One of the immediate questions that comes up is what to do with Celadon, Scaramouche, Myrmidon, and (later in the poem) Laridon. You could carry them over, so that you end up having a lot of obscure names in your poem that very few Anglophones will recognize. And they are each three-syllable names taking up a lot of space in your line. You could, alternatively, substitute more recognizable names instead, sacrificing the original allusion for a different allusion that approximates it. And the other option is shift to description -- drop allusion entirely and simply try to convey some of the sense of it in context. Or you could drop it entirely, for something that would fit the line in other ways. Translators have taken the whole gamut of options:

Carry Allusion Over
Thomas & Guillemard, for Scaramouche
Kingsbury, for Celadon and Scaramouche
Wolfe, for Scaramouche
Bissell & Van Wyck, for Celadon, Scaramouche, and Myrmidon
Renauld, for Celadon and Scaramouche

Substitute Proxy Allusion
Thomas & Guillemard, for Celadon (substituting Phoebus)
Hooker, for Celadon (substituting Lancelot) and Scaramouche (substituting Spartacus)
Wolfe, for Celadon (substituting Alcibiades)

Shift to Proxy Description
Thomas & Guillemard, for Myrmidon (Sir Spark) and Laridon (Sir Scullion)
Hooker, for Myrmidon (dear jackal)
Wolfe, for Myrmidon (scum and lees) and Laridon (poor dastard)
Bissell & Van Wyck, for Laridon (scullion)
Renauld, for Myrmidon (pygmy) and Laridon (you dog)

Eliminate Allusion
Kingsbury, for Myrmidon (changing the address to the very different 'my friend') and Laridon
Hooker, for Laridon
Untermeyer, for Celadon, Scaramouche, Myrmidon, and Laridon

I decided to carry them all over: Cyrano is a learned man, and makes obscure allusions throughout the play. As long as the rhyme scheme is maintained, it quite literally harms nothing to keep them, and conveys Cyrano himself perfectly.

The single most important element of the poem, however, is the last line of each stanza: At the envoi's end, je touche. Je touche, of course, is a fencing term. Ideally, one would keep it in, or at least keep something like it in, because it is in a sense the whole point. As you see, I sacrificed it; this is the single least satisfactory thing about my translation. (Were the poem fully serious it might be impossible to keep; but since it is comic poetry, and thus has a much wider range of options, there are certainly ways one could go about keeping it. Look at MrsDarwin's versions for one way.)

Stanza 2: MrsDarwin pointed out what I would likely have otherwise missed, namely, that the second stanza involves Cyrano making a parallel between his sword and a larding needle; the 'dindon' is not a random insult, since turkey is one of the most common things anyone uses a larding needle with. And once one recognizes this allusion, one sees that much of the poem gets its overall tone from the combination of high-flown language, practical reference to the fencing match that is going on while the poem is being proclaimed, and comic references to the kitchen. (This is, in fact, an important element of the play; one of Cyrano's friends, for instance, is a poet who makes a living by running a bakery/kitchen.) So I thought I needed to keep the reference to larding; a 'lardoon' is a less common name for a larding needle.

Stanza 3: The third stanza is one of the most important for the rhyme scheme, since in it Cyrano flails (or pretends to flail) for another word that ends with "eutre", thus setting up his joke in the second and 0third lines that his own opponent has kindly helped him find the obvious rhyme he needed: "pleutre" (coward). (Pleutre is actually the second insult in the poem by which Cyrano has suggested that his opponent is spineless or cowardly; the first is with a different word in the title, which I have translated here a bit more generically as 'good-for-nothing'. Both words seem to be fairly generic insults, but could, and in this context certainly do, imply that a man lacks manly valor.) Of course, every translator has to substitute the rhyme they are actually using, or shift the sense of the first line and lose the joke in the third. I really didn't plan carefully on this point, but 'air' does give us a rhyme suggesting cowardice, 'scared', which maintains the link between the second and third lines; so that pairing was pretty much unavoidable. The fourth line makes use of a change suggested by MrsDarwin; the French begin with 'Tac!', and I had kept that, but she pointed out that moving it inward would improve the flow of the line.

Envoi: I was adamant about keeping the address to 'Prince', which is ironic here. The envoi, which ends in the actual touche, has a number of other fencing terms. I think the envoi in particular shows that my choice for the repeating line, while able to convey something of the sense, nonetheless does not work as well as it should; it really would be better if it were made clear what happened with the last word of the poem, which my translation does not really do.

Translating poetry works a lot like engineering: you have some essential goals, and a range of materials from which you can choose, which will usually have both weaknesses and strengths, and will, even if very appropriate, never actually work in an ideal way; you have to try to select your materials and organize them in a way that meets those goals well.

Dred God, Do Law, Love Trouthe and Worthinesse

Lak of Steadfastnesse
by Geoffrey Chaucer

Somtyme the world was so stedfast and stable
That mannes word was obligacioun,
And now it is so fals and deceivable
That word and deed, as in conclusioun,
Ben nothing lyk, for turned up-so-doun
Is al this world for mede and wilfulnesse,
That al is lost for lak of stedfastnesse.

What maketh this world to be so variable
But lust that folk have in dissensioun?
For among us now a man is holde unable,
But if he can by som collusioun
Don his neighbour wrong or oppressioun.
What causeth this but wilful wrecchednesse,
Taht al is lost for lak of stedfastnesse.

Trouthe is put doun, resoun is holden fable,
Vertu hath now no dominscioun;
Pitee exyled, no man is merciable.
Through covetyse is blent discrecioun.
The word hath mad a permutacioun
Fro right to wrong, fro trouthe to fikelnesse,
Taht al is lost for lak of stedfastnesse.

Lenvoy to King Richard

O prince, desyre to be honourable,
Cherish thy folk and hate extorcioun.
Suffre nothing that may be reprevable
To thyn estat don in they regioun.
Shew forthy they swerd of castigacioun,
Dred God, do law, love trouthe and worthinesse,
and wed they folk agein to stedfastnesse.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Common Doctor

Today is the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, Doctor of the Church! Here's Giovanni de Paolo's painting of St. Thomas Aquinas Confounding Averroes:

Giovanni di Paolo St. Thomas Aquinas Confounding Averroës

Here's a passage from De Regno 1.13, in which he lays out the seven essential goals of good government. (My translation.)

Thus taught by divine law, [the king] should set himself especially to study how the many subject to him may live well; which study is divided into the three parts: as the first is to institute a good life in the many subjects, the second to conserve what is instituted, and the third to move what is conserved forward to what is better [conservatam ad meliora promoveat].

And for good life for one man two things are required, one principally, which is acting according to virtue (for virtue is that by which one lives well), the other secondarily and as it were instrumentally, which is sufficiency of bodily goods, whose use is needed to act virtuously. But the unity of that man is caused by nature; while the unity of the many, which is called 'peace', is procured through the industry of the ruler. Therefore for the instituting of good life for the many three things are required. [1] First of all, that the many be established in the unity of peace. [2] Second, that the many united by this bond of peace be directed to acting well. For just as a man can do nothing well unless a unity of his parts is presupposed, so a multitude of men, lacking the unity of peace, by fighting among themselves are impeded from acting well. [3] Third, it requires that through the industry of the rulers there be present a sufficient abundance of things necessary for living well.

So when the good life by the duty of the king is established for the many, it follows that he must set himself to conserving it. But there are three things which do not allow public good to last, of which one arises by nature. The good of the many should not be instituted for only one time, but should in some way be perpetual. Yet men are mortal; they are not able to abide perpetually. Nor, while alive, are they always vigorous, because they are subject to many variations of human life, and thus men are not able to perform their duties equally throughout their whole lives. And another impediment to conserving the common good, proceeding from inside, consists in perversity of will, in that some either are lazy [sunt desides] in performing what the commonweal requires or, beyond this, are noxious to the peace of the multitude, in that by transgressing justice they disturb the peace of others. And the third impediment to conserving the commonweal is caused from outside, in that through the incursion of enemies the peace is dissolved and sometimes it happens that the kingdom or city is scattered.

Therefore to these three a triple charge is placed on the king. [4] First, that he prepare for the succession and substitution of those who fulfill diverse duties; just as through the divine government of corruptible things, which cannot abide forever, provision is made that through generation one should take the place of another, so that the integrity of the universe is conserved, so also is the study of the king to conserve the good of the many subject to him, in that he concerns himself attentively to fill with others places that are empty. [5] And second, by his laws and precepts, penalties and rewards, he should force [coerceat] men subject to him away from iniquity and induces them to virtuous works, taking God as example, who gives law to man, favoring those who observe it, repaying with penalty those who transgress it. [6] Third, a charge is laid on the king to restore safety against enemies to the many subject to him. There would be no use in eliminating internal dangers if one could not defend from external ones.

And then for the instituting of the good of the many there is a third thing belonging to the duty of a king, [7] that he attentively move it forward, which is done when, in each thing noted before, he studies to perfect it, correcting what is disordered, supplying what is missing, and doing better what he can.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A Philosophy in the State of Infancy

The only right method to be followed in philosophy is, undoubtedly, that which starts from facts; and to have proclaimed this method and rendered it universal is the merit of the modern school. On the other hand, passing over certain facts and building upon incomplete observations, are its continual defects. To know how to observe all the facts, to seize even upon those which most easily escape notice, as for instance those of our own spiritual feeling and consciousness, and then to accept impartially the legitimate consequences of the same, these are the qualifications of a true philosopher. To this end, a most vigilant and continual reflection upon oneself is necessary. That observation which is only able to take note of what happens externally to ourselves, of the impressions received by our corporeal senses from the action of matter, is observation of the grossest and most vulgar kind. It produces, not a mature philosophy, but a philosophy in the state of infancy. Such is the philosophy of Locke, of Condillac, of Destutt-Tracy, etc.

Antonio Rosmini, Theodicy, volume 1, Signini et al, tr., p. 139n.

Music on My Mind

I try to avoid bunching up Music on My Mind posts, but this one has also been very much on my mind.

Jenni Vartiainen, "Minä sinua vaan". I like Vartiainen -- I mean, for additional reasons other than the fact that she is a Finnish-speaking brunette with blue eyes who can sing, and thus by that alone at least eighty percent of the way to Approximately Perfect Woman -- but it's always hit-or-miss whether I like any particular song. This one is very definitely hit.

The song itself is quite clever, since it is set up like a riddle: the most important word is the one that is never said. The main sentences are missing their verb, and the title means literally something like "I Just You": minä is the nominative case first person pronoun, sinua is the partitive case second person pronoun (partitive case is, among other things, used for the object of verbs expressing emotions or states of mind, which is what is in view here), and vaan is a conjunction usually translated as 'but' but here probably better translated as 'only' or 'just', as in 'none but'.

In the first stanza the riddle is set up: it says, paraphrasing a bit to avoid getting mired down beyond my limited Finnish, that people keep repeating it like a mantra, but what if that weakens its force -- she wouldn't want to wear the word out, not by speaking it or even writing it down. And then we get the chorus:

Like a she-bear her cubs and the Creator his creatures,
so I just you;
if we had no more bread, or water too, one thing would remain even then:
I just you.

From which the word she will not say should be obvious enough.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Two Poem Drafts

Both in very rough stages.


There are pleasures all around, for this world has many charms
and distractions it can give;
but the man who cannot ache for God or the woman in his arms
has never learned to live.
Like the deer in search of stream, our hearts pant for higher things,
the dreams that startle us awake:
The things for which the world will shake are the things for which we ache,
the things for which our hearts can break.

Two Sisters

Two sisters danced under cherry tree -- let them dance, leave them be! --
one as dark as a midnight sky -- with jet-black hair and ebon eye --
the other as bright as the light of day -- with hair as gold as sunlight's ray.
The gold one mocked the midnight one -- as siblings do, only half in fun --
for ugliness like ash and coal -- which falsehood was in part and whole.
And then anon a strapping man -- strong of arm and shoulder's span --
upon the road did pass them by -- and maidens catch a young man's eye!
He watched them dance under cherry tree -- let them dance, leave them be!
To the darker girl he lost his heart -- and therein every trouble starts --
and asked her hand to share his life, to be his love and loving wife.

Two sisters sailed in a cedar boat -- great beauty on the sea afloat! --
and the gold one pushed the dark one in -- for envy is a sibling's sin.
The dark one cried for helping hand -- for they were far from rock and land --
but the gold one sat and watched her drown -- the sunlight gilt her like a crown.
The dark one soon was cold and dead -- the gold one later haply wed --
for the strapping man, a golden wife -- for sinners oft have a happy life.

One sister sighed on an evening drear -- for the sky was cold and without cheer --
and wished for music light and gay -- as she once had danced in joyful play.
A harpist passed on the lonely road -- and the sky did growl, and the wind forebode.
A harp he had of the finest wood -- its maker was both wise and good--
and strings of hair like blackest jet -- the waves had washed them, cold and wet --
and he sought for her a gladsome song -- with a harper's hand the never went wrong --
but the mighty harp in language spoke -- when the harper's hand its voice awoke --
and "Murderer" was all it said, in a voice of sea and sister dead.

Music on My Mind

Lauren O'Connell, "The Daylight Here".

Aristotle and Absolute Space and Time II

I've noted before that space and time, or at least 'where' and 'when', in Aristotle are defined as relative, not absolute -- 'when' is relative to a clock or cycle, and 'where' is relative to a container or boundary. Aristotelians did think that there is something that is privileged both as clock and as container -- the primum mobile -- but 'where' and 'when' themselves were understood in relative terms. I see that Nick Huggett and Carl Hoefer note another way in which Aristotle can be understood to have a relative rather than absolute understanding of space, although not as clearly, in their article on absolute and relational theories of space and motion:

If the center were identified with the center of the Earth, then the theory could be taken to eschew absolute quantities: it would simply hold that the natural motions of any body depend on its position relative to another, namely the Earth. But Aristotle is explicit that the center of the universe is not identical with, but merely coincident with the center of the Earth (e.g., On the Heavens II.14): since the Earth itself is heavy, if it were not at the center it would move there! So the center is not identified with any body, and so perhaps direction-to-center is an absolute quantity in the theory, not understood fundamentally as direction to some body (merely contingently as such if some body happens to occupy the center). But this conclusion is not clear either. In On the Heavens II.13, admittedly in response to a different issue, Aristotle suggests that the center itself is ‘determined’ by the outer spherical shell of the universe (the aetherial region of the fixed stars). If this is what he intends, then the natural law prescribes motion relative to another body after all — namely up or down with respect to the mathematical center of the stars.

In fact, I think the position they note in the last two sentences is Aristotle's account; in an astronomy based on the geometry of circles, the center is just defined by which circle you are using, so the only question is whether there is a privileged circle, a circle that encompasses all the rest, whose center is the center of everything. But the center itself is always going to have to be the center defined relative to at least some significant circle.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Reason Alone and Blind Chance

Of a truth, it is purely a matter of accident that an individual should have received from nature a larger or smaller amount of mental vigour. This amount, always an unknown quantity to him, is in no way dependent on him, and is just so much as nature has bestowed, not a fraction more. How, then, can any one prudently abandon himself to the guidance of his reason alone? Is not this the same as committing one's destinies to blind chance? Some may perhaps wonder at my saying that the amount of our own mental vigour "is always an unknown quantity to us, and in no way dependent on us;" yet, singular as it may appear, it is none the less a simple, undeniable fact.

The power of the instrument by which we know all other things always remains, and by the nature of the case must always remain, hidden from our knowledge. We cannot measure the power of our intelligence. How could we do so except by means of another intelligence? And if there are two intelligences in us (an absurd thing to say) by what will the power of the second be measured ?

Antonio Rosmini, Theodicy, volume 1, Signini et al, tr., p. 34.