Ragged but Right | Letters | Chicago Reader

Ragged but Right 

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Dear editors,

I well understand the impatience of your 7/16/99 cover story's subjects with less than brilliant translations. In my 20s I was introduced to the French The Song of Roland and the Norwegian novel Pan by Knut Hamsun. The latter translation (by James W. McFarlane) I have read three times and have memorized his first paragraph along with chapter eight. As for Frederick Luquiens's translation of The Song of Roland, I once had 300 lines between my teeth. I have trotted out portions in bars and coffeehouses, blurted them over the airwaves (Milt Rosenberg's talk show) and announced their music to women I wished to impress. Once I recited them to my sixth-grade class and after 20 lines asked if they understood everything. "No," they answered, "but keep reading, it sounds great."

I became aware of other translations (than Luquiens's) by Dorothy L. Sayers and W.S. Merwin, the "important" poet (you could darken a skyscraper simply by papering its windows with all the New Yorker pages carrying Mr. Merwin's "verse"), but upon inspection found them only serviceable.

But imagine my surprise when upon calling Borders last year to order a gift copy of my preferred translation, they told me it was out of print. "What!" I bellowed into the phone. "What book and its translation have more truly captured the percussive clash of battle, the heartbreak of its aftermath, comradeship in arms!" (Or words to that effect.) Indeed I couldn't have been more shocked if The Tempest or Macbeth had been removed from Shakespeare's oeuvre.

A month later, pulling a copy of Pan from Barbara's shelves, I found the wording changed. Sverre Lyngstad was the new translator. I checked familiar passages. The magical words of McFarlane had been replaced by the ordinary ones of Lyngstad (albeit a more politically correct Scandinavian name). Yet everything that had drawn me to the original now left me cold in its successor.

What is going on here? Perhaps it is the media who report on writers, relating everything but literary merit. Not long ago the Chicago Tribune wrote of a man who got a multimillion dollar advance for his first novel. Nearly all the text involved contract negotiations. Boxed beside the article stood an excerpt of the novel, words, to my eye, that might have been penned by any college freshman.

And yet every day, it seems, some new writer is touted in the media as the next Hardy, Hopkins, or Shakespeare, and perhaps to some deconstructionist, rendering the latter three irrelevant.

I don't think so. As a matter of fact, let me issue a challenge. Although many of the noted poets laboring today forge an occasional stanza of some brilliance, I am yet seeking a single poem (written in the last 30 years) that is throughout either cohesive and/or powerful. Please don't tell me, "Oh, ------ is a wonderful poet!" No, give me the title of one of their poems. And then ask if you have memorized it and do you sometimes recite it aloud.

Probably not. Come to your senses. Please craft and recraft something before submitting it. Otherwise you merely repeat one of nature's travesties. There the drab cowbird deposits its eggs into the smaller warbler's nest, and later the duller species nudges the more brilliantly colored one to the ground, while the undeserving offspring are nurtured to maturity. Sometimes I feel that the more puerile and stupid a literary work is, the better chance it has of being published today.

Incidently, some 30 years ago I saw a movie titled The Good Soldier Schweik based on the novel. I thought it quite funny, even more so on second viewing, and believed it to be one of the top dozen movies ever made. It apparently has disappeared from sight, unlisted in either Facets' catalog or Ebert's guide.

Were the film resurrected it may perhaps make publishers look more seriously at the new, more worthy translation.

Richard Younker

W. Grace

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