If Frank Ocean’s scream of devotion to something terrible is the key sound of the contemporary, it’s not altogether something horrible. It’s melodramatic and as such partakes of melos, the pure honey glucose of poetic pleasure. Like how Lana Del Rey plays Jackie Onassis. That being said, the translator always risks particular forms of contamination by becoming porous in the act of reading the writing which precedes the translation. Whether it’s some ugly contingency in the text, or the residual effect of indigestible material meeting an indigestible socius (represented by the translator’s body), or even the translator’s own wickedness, writing (as Socrates knew before Burroughs) is a virus. And however painful the struggle might be for the translator to make her translation, it’s just as hard to make it disappear.
Recently I visited a class at Columbia University taught by the amazing Dorothea Lasky. Her students were thoughtful, careful readers. One asked me what crystals signified in my book The Poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus and if they signified something sexual. I was embarrassed to say I had no idea where crystals even were in the book. We found them, though, and I recalled translating the poem in question, the 62nd in the corpus of Catullus.
The poem is a dialogue between young men and women about to celebrate a wedding, rich with misogyny and patriarchal tropes, punctuated by the ritualistic evocation of Hymen! Hymenaee! As I was translating the poem I reflected for a while on how fucked up it was and how lame Catullus was and life. And I started thinking about the Crystals, a terrific group, who sang the pretty morbid “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss).” That seemed to sort of relate to the poem by Catullus, its seamlessly horrific picture of the traffic in women and the particular violence his poem lent to that (incredibly fucked up and lame) tradition. Once the Crystals entered the translational economy of the poem, it was an easy jump to “Da Doo Run Run,” a less ambiguously terrific Crystals song. And, I guess, crystals themselves.
Instead of narrating this in class, I tried to read the translation on its own terms. I thought maybe the crystal could serve as an allegory for the translator’s body, distributing glamour across its parts, privileging breadth over depth. But on the other hand a crystal is deep too, and always hides a secret. In any case, embarrassed at the particular secretions of this poem in this context, it was tempting to pronounce a soft dismissal of the imagery, and by metonymy my whole project. You know how those weird whales double as floating homes for parasites? That’s like translation, a killer magnet for contaminants. And after all, no matter how perverse and wrong the things I said in my book were, I didn’t lose my vision like Stesichorus of Himera. Do you know this story?
Stesichorus (632-556) was one of the nine canonical lyric poets of Greek antiquity. While most of what remains of his work are extremely damaged fragments, he was obviously widely read in the ancient west. 650 years after his death Horace wrote an ode ranking him with Pindar, Simonides, and Alcaeus. But, curiously, perhaps what he is best known for today is the fact that he wrote a poem which caused him to go blind. Several sources, including the Suda, Plato, Pausanias, and Isocrates, refer to the tale. Stesichorus wrote a poem about the historical Helen, the kidnapped consort of Menelaus who was blamed for starting the Trojan War and making countless men bite the black dust or whatever. Helen, actually a goddess (oops!), got so pissed that she made Stesichorus blind. This prompted Stesichorus to write the first known palinode in the West. Palinode literally means something like “reverse-poem.” Close to our English word “recantation,” which has “cant” in it the way “palinode” has “ode.” Strikingly, this tradition suggests that Homer’s proverbial blindness was the result of an insufficient devotion to the Muses. I.e. had he loved the Muses better, he wouldn’t have insulted Helen and had his sight redacted. Snap!
The palinode was used by poets after Stesichorus in Greece and classical Roman poetry and prose, in late Latin, in the Romance tradition, in English, in Arabic, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find something like it in many other traditions independent of Stesichorus’s “discovery.” The basic fact of writing’s aspiration to permanence and, therefore, writing’s risk of permanent infection of a given readership, makes the formal development of recantation almost obvs.
Palinodes typically feel a little rhetorically insufficient in relation to their original. If Ovid wrote Cures for Love as a palinodic attempt to balance the scandal associated with his Art of Love, it didn’t fucking work (he died in bitter exile.) After a hundred pages of his own strategies for persuading the lover, Ibn Hazm leaves us with a couple very unconvincing pages at the end of his Neck Ring Of The Dove, which assert that despite the profundity of his work, no pious person should ever follow his advice.
In Chaucer’s “recantation” at the end of Canterbury Tales, he expresses great repentance for having written much of his work, including Troilus and Cressida and many of the Tales themselves. And yet he takes special care to apologize for one important part of his work as a writer, “And so I meekly beseech you for God’s mercy, that you pray for me, that Christ have mercy upon me and forgive my trespasses, in particular my translations.” (emphasis mine)
The palinode, or at the least a kind of dominant palinodic logic, is central too to the history of translation in the West. Nobody knows who coined the Italian pun, now proverbial, “traddutore, traditore” (translator, traitor), but I’d bet it was a translator. Translators never tire of not only denigrating the aesthetic practice known as translation but especially their own work. From Stephen MacKenna’s infamous note that he had “transformed reading into a crime” to countless “translator’s notes” bewailing the impossibility of their “task,” the mood around this practice is saturated with heavy remorse and grief.
So in the spirit of resisting not only the logic of mastery that calls for “robust” thinking in the realm of translation, as well as an apology for the work no matter how “accurate,” it’s good for translators going forward to pass on the palinode and demolish all exterior demands and interior concessions to apology and remorse for your art, no matter how nasty it gets!
But, that being said, allow me to conclude my tenure here at Harriet with a concession. Because I’d be remiss not to finish telling the story of Stesichorus. Recognizing the reason for his sudden blindness, as I said he wrote the first palinode. Socrates quotes from it in Phaedrus the lines addressed to Helen, “that story is not true / and you did not go on the well-benched ships / and you did not reach the citadel of Troy.” The palinode, finally, is part of a vibrant alternative tradition of the Helen story, in opposition to Homer’s, which says that Paris didn’t kidnap Helen but only Helen’s shadow. A phantom Helen for whom the men bit the black dust and whatever. The real Helen went to Egypt and had a whole host of other adventures. In any event, the palinode worked, and Helen restored the poet’s sight. I dunno about you, but I would have done the exact same thing.
Brandon Brown is the author of The Persians By Aeschylus, The Poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus, and Flowering Mall. In 2012, his debut play Charles Baudelaire the Vampire Slayer was staged at Small Press Traffic’s Poet’s Theater. He publishes small press materials under the imprint OMG! and lives in Oakland. In...