Dienstag, 30. November 2010

King John

This is a somewhat odd play from Shakespeare, but I think it is precisely its oddness which makes it relevant today. His king is not portrayed as a "great" figure (whether for good or for bad), as one expects from the tragedies and histories. Instead, the plot resembles nothing so much as a family quarrel, played out over the battleground of France. The two queens hatred for one another seems oddly unmotivated; indeed, we learn little about the motivations of the characters throughout the play. King John's death at the end is equally random. It is not the result of an intrigue that has developed throughout the play, or at least not one which we, the audience have been made party to. We simply learn that he has been poisoned, and he comes onstage to die.

Our sympathy instead lies with the ordinary people, those who must suffer from the power struggles and personal feuds of kings, and those from whose perspective, I suspect, the play is presented: the townspeople of Algiers, who close their gates to the kings who are battling over their town like some choice plaything (those who have suffered through a particularly vicious election may sympathize with this decision); Hubert, who must make the choice of obeying the king or acting according to his conscience when asked to kill young Arthur, and whom the king subsequently berates for not preventing him (the king) from giving the order to do so when Arthur's death turns out to have been a bad political decision. And of course the Bastard, who provides an ironic commentary on the events as they happen. Here, too, the royals appear like spoiled children under whose power their subjects must suffer.

Freitag, 12. November 2010

Celan's Jabberwocky Translation

Funklös, so war's, und Glitschodeme
Rotierten und raplantschten rum,
Das Burgtier tat, als ob's sich schäme,
Ein Ratz war laut und einer stumm.
(trans. Paul Celan & Guido G. Meister, 1964)

(the original)
`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

(For comparison with other German translations of the poem, see here.)

Although few would likely wish to call Celan's writing nonsense poetry -- there is little that is playful about his experiments with language -- it is unsurprising that he would have found the work of Carroll and Khlebnikov intriguing. (I'll see if I can find and post a sample of his Khlebnikov translations at some point, although my Russian would probably not be adequate to comment on the original).

What is particularly interesting about this translation is that, as Olschner (from whose study the poem fragment is taken) rightly observes, it is not necessarily immediately recognizable as the opening of Jabberwocky, except for the plethora of neologisms. The situation it describes does not seem to be Carroll's pseudo-pastoral landscape, but something different, particularly in the second half of the quartet.

The sense of a shift in meaning from the original is of course typical of Celan's translations. While he generally maintains the words which appear in the original, and frequently syntactical or rhetorical figures as well, there is often a sense that the poem has been taken apart and put back together in such a way that new sets of meaning come to the surface.

In relation to nonsense poetry, it is significant that this effect can still be produced even when there are few recognizable content words. Carroll provides certain cues -- eg. the "'twas" at the beginning, the inverted word order in line three -- which mimic specific literary conventions and encourage us to read the poem a certain way. Celan departs from his model partly by omitting thes cues, partly by making syntactical changes in the poem. He breaks up the simple coordination of the first line with the "so war's" and again in line three by adding a subordinate clause. In lines three and four he replaces a nonsense adjective and a nonsense verb with actual German words, and adds a contrast in line four where none exists in the original. Incidentally, neither "schämen" or "laut/stumm" are associations that seem likely to occur to an English speaker presented with "mimsy" and "outgrabe". Line two, with its motion verbs and alliteration, comes closest to the effect created in Carroll's poem. Some of the neologisms are quite clever -- "Burgtier" for "borogove", "Glitsch-" for "slithy". One is inclined to conclude that Celan here, as so often, is transforming the poem as much as translating it.

References: Olschner, Leonard Moore. Der feste Buchstab. Erläuterungen zu Paul Celans Gedichtübertragungen. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1985.