Wyatt Mason on Weinberger.

Wyatt Mason (a favorite of our late compadre jamessal) has a review essay in the latest Harper’s (archived) that focuses on Eliot Weinberger’s The Life of Tu Fu, which has come out in a new edition (see this LH post on a previous one) but goes in various interesting directions. Here’s the start:

Translation is an irresistible subject that better writers would do better to resist. It’s too easy to rhapsodize over, theorize onto, sentimentalize at (pick your preposition). There are very few excellent books on the practice that meaningfully address its rich complexity. My favorite heftier entry is The Craft and Context of Translation, edited by William Arrowsmith and Roger Shattuck, published in 1961 by the University of Texas Press. The anthology grew out of a symposium on translation held in Austin in 1959, and it features essays by Arrowsmith, Shattuck, Richard Howard, Kenneth Rexroth, and D. S. Carne-Ross.

In his essay, Carne-Ross, who has no Wikipedia page but warrants a bronze statue in the cultural commons, kicks things off by planting a flag, offering up the term transposition as another conception of what translators might do. In his view, transposition is an activity that walks midway between the literal crib—which would seek for every word its exact-ish equivalent in another language, syntax and style in the destination language be damned, subsumed beneath the so-called allegiance to accuracy—and a practice that attends less to the particulars of definition than to the quiddity of the original. Transposition, for Carne-Ross,

occurs when the language of the matter to be translated stands close enough to the language of the translator—in age, idiom, cultural habits and so on—for him to be able to follow the letter with a fair hope of keeping faith with the spirit.

Carne-Ross’s metaphorical phrase “stands close enough” offers an essential, physical conception of the translator’s work: it’s an act of reportage.

I have (somewhere) a copy of The Craft and Context of Translation, which is indeed a fine collection, and D. S. Carne-Ross has long been a familiar name to me — so much so that I was shocked by that “who has no Wikipedia page.” Sure enough, he doesn’t, and there’s not much information on him online, though I did find this rogueclassicism post quoting the Boston Globe obit at length. LibraryThing knows only three books by him, and only a handful of members own them. Ubi sunt… At any rate, Mason talks about Carne-Ross for quite a while, including this snappy quote:

During the war I heard an Italian woman give a long, circumstantial and very dramatic account of an air-raid which had taken place a few days before, and it struck me at the time that this was the raw material out of which the ancient dramatists fashioned the convention of the messenger’s speech. The Anglo-Saxon, in similar circumstances, doesn’t make a speech; he simply swears and tries to put the fire out.

He eventually gets to Weinberger, about whom he has much to say, and you won’t go wrong by reading the whole thing, which is by no means hagiographic (“I couldn’t accuse it of chinoiserie, as Weinberger does of a few of the translations of Wang Wei, but it does at times bring with it a whiff of Deep Thoughts”).


  1. Lots here of interest, but what struck me was the reference to the “quiddity of the original.” Yes, translators seek to transfer the essence of a work from the original into a target language, but it seems to me that what they’re trying most to capture is not the quiddity, but the haecceity of the original. The former refers to a general essence, the latter to the essential qualities that make a thing distinct from others like it.

  2. Great, now I have a headache.

  3. Don’t blame me, blame Duns Scotus.

  4. When I read The Life of Tu Fu, I found it quite disappointing. Like Mason says, it can come across as precious. Certainly, it does not seem to do justice to the incredible variety—and just downright weirdness—of the real Tu Fu’s life experiences.

  5. Stu Clayton says

    …so what they’re trying most to capture is not the quiddity, but the haecceity of the original. The former refers to a general essence, the latter to the essential qualities that make a thing distinct from others like it.

    So we have a general essence and a specific essence. Hmmm … I think I prefer quidditas and haecceitas, whose meanings are decently obscured by the learnèd language. Duns was no fly-by-night, he wrote for posterity.

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