August 24, 2010

The Owl and the Poussiquette

Edward Lear goes multilingual

Being fond of a good nonsense read myself, I was pleased to come across the following quote from Carolyn Wells’s introduction to an anthology of nonsense writing (via Kenneth Gangemi, an author, also an engineer and a bartender, from Bronxville, New York who is so cult I hadn’t even heard of him until my friend Nick told me about him, in a great interview in Gargoyle magazine).

"On a topographical map of literature, nonsense would be represented by a small and sparsely settled country, neglected by the average tourist, but affording keen delight to the few enlightened travelers who sojourn within its borders." syndetics-lc

Besides Lewis Carroll, my favourite nonsense writer is Edward Lear, not the limericks -- perhaps too antique for my taste -- but the “story” poems. I find it fascinating, or maybe I mean heartrending, how this depression-prone, epileptic, lonely man who earned his living painting watercolours of rare birds, was also the creator of wild and exuberant poems about Pobbles who swim the Bristol Channel with their noses wrapped in scarlet flannel (my all-time favourite), Jumblies going to sea in a sieve, and the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo.


But the emotion inspired by the man is not the reason I love his poems. I love them because of how it’s impossible to read them silently, at least for me. Last night I spooked my family because I was rereading “The Owl and the Pussycat” and they thought I had gone crazy whispering away to myself at the kitchen table at midnight. But how can you not? “And there in the wood a piggy-wig stood, With a ring at the end of his nose, his nose, his nose…” syndetics-lc

A couple of years ago I stumbled on a website which everyone who ever loved having “The Owl and the Pussycat” read to them as kids, or reading it to their kids, or both, should visit. You have to know that in the 1950s or 60s an American named Francis Steegmuller, one of the most famous Flaubert scholars of his time and translator of Madame Bovary, translated “The Owl and the Pussycat” into French. It was published in The New Yorker and is probably the most felicitous translation of a poem I have ever encountered.
The flair is there right from the start when he rhymes Owl (hibou) and kitty (minou), but the refrain is pure genius, when he comes up with “Poussiquette” for a perfectly scanned “O Poussiquette, comme tu es rare!” for “What a beautiful pussy you are!”

 I’ve never been able to find out any more details about the translation beyond the fact that it only took one afternoon to do and that Francis Steegmuller bought a Rolls Royce with the money it earned. This leaves me free to imagine that it happened in Capri, where Steegmuller and his wife, the writer Shirley Hazzard, had a villa. They made friends there with Graham Greene, who also had a villa in Capri, after Shirley broke the ice by supplying the missing line in a Robert Browning poem Greene was trying to remember over a drink in the Gran Caffe'-- I am thinking not coffee -- with a fellow Englishman (I know about this from having read her memoir Greene on Capri).


I like to think it would have been over a long lunch and vodka gimlets with Graham Greene and Yvonne Cloetta that the translation took form. “They dined on mince and slices of quince… I’m damnedly becalmed here, Graham.” And the tormented Catholic novelist would have taken a sip of his gimlet, leaned back in his chair, and produced a Lent-inspired “Ils firent un repas de maigre et de gras” -- "They had a meal of lean and fat".

The website

You can read Steegmuller's (and Greene's?) "Le Hibou et la Poussiquette" on a ridiculous but fantastic -- or maybe we could just say nonsensical -- website dedicated to "The Owl and the Pussycat" translations, which includes versions in Volapuk, an invented language which only 22 people in the world speak (I googled it), and… Morse Code. It grew out the collection of a Mr. Hugh Stewart and all in all it contains over a hundred translations.

For many of the languages, including Morse Code, you can hear the poem read aloud, or in the case of Morse Code, I suppose I should say transmitted. I listened to some of it just to see if it were at all possible to tell it was poetry -- it wasn't. I recommend trying the Russian (a Flemingesque KGB-spy-in-tight-skirt-posing-as-a-translator-type voice) and also the Cornish (local historian/pub poet), whereas the Latin is great on the page but an unpleasant read offered up by a know-it-all schoolteacher type.

The Italian translation was contributed by Domenico, an employee of an Italian restaurant in England. “Ah, just a couple of doubts here”, as Graham might have said. The piggy-wig has become a pigeon, and the turkey who lives on the hill has become a Turk. It reminded me of how I once said something about the Persian blinds at our bedroom window to my (Italian) husband, and made the word masculine instead of feminine, thus calling them “Persian men” instead of “Persian blinds”. I still have the funny picture he drew me of dozens of little men with Persian headdresses swarming at the window glass.

Try it now! www.bompa.org.

Ditulis Oleh : tosca // 03:30
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