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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Good One

posted by on May 23 at 13:44 PM

Guy Davenport’s translation of a fragment by the pre-Socractic philosopher Heraclitus:

By cosmic rule, as day yields night, so winter summer, war peace, plenty famine. All things change. Fire penetrates the lump of myrrh, until the joining bodies die and rise again in smoke called incense.

How superior it is to Kathleen Freeman’s translation of the same fragment:

God is day-night, winter-sumer, war-peace, satiety-famine. But he chances like (fire) which when it mingles with the smoke of incense, is named according to each man’s pleasure.
Sense can not be made of the last sentence, and Davenport’s “by cosmic rule” is so much better than Freeman’s “God is.”

Now, what is it about selection and approach that makes one writer better than another? More importantly, how is it that the choices a writer made in another context, another language, culture and time, can be recognized by us as poor or rich, bad or good? As with Parmenides, one suspects that literary change might be an illusion. The real (the good) might always be the same, always the one.

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Since I can never seem to relate to anything you have to say, I'll reply with something completely random (but not, since the word Zoo is involved!).

What the fuck is it with Berlin and baby Zoo animals? Why is this news? Why do I keep seeing reports on baby Polar Bears and Elephants? Who the fuck cares?

Posted by Mr. Poe | May 23, 2007 1:55 PM

What is translation? On a platter
A poet's pale and glaring head
A parrot's screetch
A monkey's chatter
And profanation of the dead.

C'mon, Charles, I thought you were a Nabokov fan. If the translator's job is to write a new passage, write a new passage, and make it as pretty as you want to. If your job is to convey the exact meaning of the original, you're probably screwed, but the best you can do cannot be judged by how lovely it is or isn't in the new language.

"God is" and "By cosmic rule" do NOT mean anything like the same thing. Which did Heraclitus mean?

Posted by Fnarf | May 23, 2007 2:03 PM

Thank you, Fnarf. I was hoping someone would point that out. Bonus points for digging up (or reciting from memory?) the Nabokov verse. Like much of his stuff, it's a doozy.

Posted by indeed | May 23, 2007 2:28 PM

I don't have it handy -- what's the Greek?

Posted by ap | May 23, 2007 2:32 PM

Not from memory. Nothing's from memory. I have to write down my home address these days. I even remembered this backwards, "a poet's pale head upon a platter". But google can find lots of things even when you've muddled them up.

Posted by Fnarf | May 23, 2007 2:43 PM

I like cosmic rule. Since it is pre-Socratic, "God" hadn't been born yet.

At least now I know what myrrh is.

Posted by elswinger | May 23, 2007 2:51 PM

"one suspects that literary change might be an illusion."

All your theory courses and readings, as incense, up in smoke.

Posted by Indeed Moreover | May 23, 2007 3:21 PM

anyone know which fragment that is?

Posted by ehd | May 23, 2007 3:37 PM

fnarf, i agree with you and God, Nabokov. my issue here, however, is not the translation but simply style. one is better than the other. i really don't care about the original.

as for ehd, in the freeman book the fragment is 67.

Posted by charles | May 23, 2007 3:47 PM

Perhaps, in the second translation, 'chances' should be 'changes.' Then we have a good description of "God" (or the cosmic rule, if you prefer the first quote for that):

But he changes like (fire), which (when it mingles with the smoke of incense) is named according to each manís pleasure.

I've changed the punctuation there in order to make clear how I read it.

I particularly like (fire) in parenthesis, for reasons having to do with a peculiar theory of mine -- Prometheus didn't give man fire, he gave man "divine fire," the spark of life, which I'm told is a different word in ancient Greek.

I've always thought that Heraclitus was saying that the entire world is alive, not that it's being burned alive. (Not reading Greek, modern or ancient, I admit that my judgement is completely uninformed...)

Posted by J. Lasser | May 23, 2007 3:58 PM

well, the original definitely says "god is." if the translator and the reader intend to communicate and receive what it is that heraclitus thought when he wrote it down, freeman's translation is not better. on the other hand, in its own right, it is. but what is its "own right"?

Posted by ehd | May 23, 2007 3:59 PM

i beg your pardon. please substitute "davenport" for "freeman".

Posted by ehd | May 23, 2007 4:48 PM

Ok... here the greek (from here):

    ὁ θεὸς ἡμέρη εὐφρόνη, χειμὼν θέρος, πόλεμος εἰρήνη, κόρος λιμός (τἀναντία ἅπαντα· οὗτος ὁ νοῦς), ἀλλοιοῦται δὲ ὅκωσπερ (πῦρ), ὁπόταν συμμιγῇ θυώμασιν ὀνομάζεται καθ΄ ἡδονὴν ἑκάστου.

So the greek litterally is "God is ..." and then the pairs of opposites. Moreover, the allegory following this sentence doesn't have much to do with Davenport's translation.
However, I disagree with translating "καθ΄ ἡδονὴν ἑκάστου" as "according to each manís pleasure" as well. This, in my opinion, is more exact:

    but he takes (ἀλλοιοῦται) various shapes, just as (ὅκωσπερ) fire (πῦρ), when (ὁπόταν) it is mingled (συμμιγῇ) with different incenses (θυώμασιν), is named (ὀνομάζεται) according (καθ΄) to the savour (ἡδονὴν) of each (ἑκάστου).

Meaning that each incense give fire its perfume.

Honestly, I don't know what it is that Davenport tries to translate, but apparently he hasn't read the fragment in question.
As for making sense of God, I guess you'd have to read Heraclitus's work to get it right. Otherwise there are millions of ways to understand it. Instinctively, I'd say he's fire (cf. frag. 65) and the principle of change.

Posted by Mokawi | May 23, 2007 7:42 PM

It's hard to believe that a philosopher from a polytheistic society would use the phrase "god is", let alone "God is". It begs the question "Which god?"
Is it possible that the "God" meaning came about at some point between Heraclitus and Constantinople?

Posted by dirge | May 23, 2007 8:28 PM

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