Tag Archives: translation

White Pink: Lycidas

The white Pink, and the Pansie freakt with jeat
— John Milton, Lycidas, ln 144

Dianthus carthusianorum

Dianthus carthusianorum. Johann Georg Sturm, 1796.

“Pink,” like many words for color, has a long fascinating history. I’ll spare you the full account; you can pull it up and read the sixteen entries and pages and pages of etymology in the OED for yourself–nine nouns, two adjectives, four verbs. Here, in “Lycidas” the word “pink” is a noun. Yes, sometimes “pink” is a verb, I can think of only a couple color words used as verbs, “black” and maybe “purple” (see “Lycidas” line 141, “purple all the ground”) or someday “green,” but in most cases the action finds its roots in the color itself. “To pink” is closer to “pinch” than it is to the color midway between white and red. But here, “pink” is a noun. Sure, all color words can be and are nouns, but again, this is a case in which the color word operates apart from its place on the spectrum. In fact, the “pink” to which Milton refers may be the noun that predates the color. Pinks are flowers in the Dianthus genus, a genus that includes over 300 species. Of these, the Carnations, the Sweet Williams, and the Pinks are the most familiar. I prefer the Sweet Williams, they’re easier to grow, flashier, and sweeter. Also, like Sweet Peas, Sweet William is easy to breed for new colors and forms; one can play with the spectrum between scarlet and white, the number of petals, and (to some extent) the habit.

But back to pink … garden Pinks look best planted en masse in borders (carnations for the cut-flower trade are typically grown in green houses), as a common garden flower, they bloom (here in Indiana) in May. Right now, there are several homes on my street with Pinks, in bloom, edging the sidewalks. Were these the Pinks that Milton knew? Probably not, but it doesn’t really matter … all Pinks have pinked (frilled and pinched) petals. And that is what matters, here. He did, however, have to distinguish the white Pink from the pink Pinks, so he (or the poet from whom he borrowed these lines) paused a bit. A little thought, not this “pink,” but that “pink.” Which is to say: why “white Pink” and not “pink Pink”? No pink a funerals?

This little juxtaposition (“white” against “pink”) reminds me of the challenges of translation. (Although, to read these words in English and not know “pink” as a flower might itself be a failure of translation.) What is a translator to do? Finding the common name for D. plumarius or D. caryophyllus in your language of choice might be an option, a labor intensive option. I am betting, therefore, that most will wimp out and translate without blinking the word for “white” adjacent to the word for the color “pink.” But finding translations of Milton’s “Lycidas” also proves to be labor intensive. Where are the translations of “Lycidas”?! I have retrieved three, mostly old efforts … and a fourth which is not a translation at all. Here they are, if you know of others, please share:

Milton, John. Emile Saillens, trans. Lycidas ; Sonnets. Paris: Aubier-Montaigne, 1971. [French]

Line 144 translated as: “Œillet blanc et pensée aux jaspures de jet” … that is, literally, a “white eyelet” … “oeillet” being the common name for Dianthus, see: http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C5%92illet_commun

Milton, John. Simon Grynaeus, trans. Johann Miltons Wieder-erobertes Paradies nebst desselben Samson, und einigen andern Gedichten wie auch einer Lebens-Beschreibung des Verfassers. Basel : verlegts Johann Rudolf Imhof, 1752. [German]

Line 144 in prose (I have trouble with the old German script), approximately: “Die weisse Nagelblume, Die schwarz besprengte Drensaltigfeitsblume,” … I believe that’s literally “white nailflower” (Working from my memory of Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s poem “Supernatural Love“, I am going to guess that “nailflower” is an older German name for Nelken.)

Milton, John. T.J. Mathias, trans. Licida di Giovanni Milton. In: Mathias, Thomas James. Poesie liriche toscane. Milano: Vincenzo Ferrario, 1812. Pgs. 187-212. [Italian]

Line 144 loosely translated as: “Il pieghevol verbasco, e ‘l biancheggiante / Garofano, e ‘l giancinto” … again, “garofano” is the common name for dianthus, carnations, and cloves, see: http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dianthus

Milton, John. Justa Edouardo King naufrago, ab amicis moerentibus, amoris & mneias charin. Cantabrigiae : Apud Thomam Buck, & Rogerum Daniel, celeberrimae Academiae typographos, 1638. Early English books, 1475-1640 ; 761:3. [Not a translation, but a volume of poems, many in Latin, honoring the deceased Edward King, which includes Milton’s poem … in English.]

Here is another one, recommended by the Milton-L list, but I’ve yet to retrieve it:

Milton, John. Fernand Henry, trans. Les petits poèmes. Paris: E. Guilmoto, 1909. [French]

A librarian I consulted asked me if I expected to earn a PhD with this minutiae. The truth is, silly diversions like these kept me from earning a PhD. (I also have less silly diversions too, such as the obligations eating what’s left of my limited intellect.) A better topic for a short dissertation might be (as one diversion leads to another): what are the factors which make translations of “Lycidas” so rare? Perhaps a comparative literature scholar with an expertise in linguistics and economics could answer the question after five years of research and writing. I’ll skip all that and wing it:

1. “Lycidas” is a minor poem. Is it? Milton is a major poet, isn’t he? I think I can find several English translations of minor poems by Dante.
2. Much is translated into English; less is translated from English. We Anglophones expect others to read English and to do us the service of translating into English. All else will be ignored.
3. Milton in translation is ho-hum, just another treatise on this-or-that. Perhaps Milton’s verse is great, not in its subject, but in its language. (I doubt this and many poems are great in their language; translators persist, see Dante.)
4. Milton is not the “major” poet we, the Anglophones, think he is; or, that is, he is not a “world” poet. If this is true, what does it take? Who are the “world” poets? Homer, Dante, Virgil?

I am not convinced. “Lycidas” needs translators.

[Note: This is the fifth post in a series. See also: The Flowers in Milton’s “Lycidas”, Primrose: Lycidas, Tufted Crow-toe: Lycidas, and Pale Jasmine: Lycidas.]


Rereading Michaux

Michaux: a writer I have tried to dislike–self-absorbed, self-fascinated, tripping on mescaline, driven to the semi-silence of the sign, flippant, sliding in and out of mockery, in and out of savage honesty, cloud writer of seamless syntax, a shape shifter, flight straight out of costume, writing the human nude.

Michaux. I am reading Michaux again.

If you are new to Henri Michaux, two translations of selected writings are readily available. David Ball’s Darkness Moves (U. of California P, 1994) provides a wide selection, including excerpts from the mescaline chronicles and a couple of notes on ideograms and art. Ball can be more accurate and more plain spoken, but I still prefer Richard Ellmann’s Selected Writings: The Space Within (New Directions, 1968). New Directions Paperbooks are the perfect size for my poetry reading habits. Unassuming white, black, and gray tone covers; 5×8 inches, and less than an inch thick; this is the measure of a book that you can carry around, one thumb in the spine, until the pages come unglued. I also enjoy the en face translation; with the French on the left page and the English on the right page, the reader can be a full partner in the translation … or at least, one can presume to be one. A left eye for the French, a right eye for the English, a nose for the bridge.

Ball’s Darkness Moves is a fine translation, and it’s not his fault, but I hold a grudge against California Press for having rendered Mallarmé’s Collected Poems as a coffee table book. Like the cover, the translation is full of pastels and cloying sentiment. Although not nearly as large as the Mallarmé book, Darkness Moves is also too big and likewise burdened with too much commentary from the translator. I prefer poetry at a slow walk and Ball’s translation is just too unwieldy for a single hand. It’s a read-it-on-the-couch book. Ball can be too serious as well. It’s a difficult quality to put your finger on, but it’s there, a wooden tone. The diction is fine, but Ellmann’s translation is warmer. Ball reports the poems in English; Ellmann lives them.

The beginning of Michaux’s “Intervention”:

Autrefois, j’avais trop le respect de la nature. Je me mettais devant les choses et les paysages et je les laissais faire.
Fini, maintenant j’interviendrai.

Ball’s translation of the above:

In the past, I had too much respect for nature. I would stand before things and landscapes and let them do what they wanted.
That’s over and done with: now I will intervene.

And Ellmann’s translation:

In the old days I had too much respect for nature. I put myself in front of things and landscapes and let them alone.
No more of that, now I will intervene.

I read French with a dictionary, which is to say, I do not read French. So, maybe the original shares Ball’s want of humor. How would I know? And why should I care? Sometimes, however, Ball wins for clarity. From the beginning of “Nuit de Noces”:

Si le jour de voces Noces, en reentrant, vous mettez votre femme à tremper la nuit dans un puits, elle abasourdie. Elle a beau avoir toujours eu une vague inquiétude…

Ball’s translation of the above selection, “Wedding Night”:

When you come home on your wedding day, if you stick your wife in a well to soak all night she is flabbergasted. Even if she had always been vaguely worried about it…

And Ellmann’s, “Bridal Night”:

If on your marriage day, returning home, you set your wife in a well to soak for the night, she will be dumbfounded. No comfort to her now that she has always had a vague uneasiness…

So Ellmann is stranger and Ball is plainer. At any rate, if you want as much Michaux as you can get in English you’ll need both translations. Ball retranslates only “thrity-three pages” from the Ellmann book and leaves much of the early Michaux writings (the really fun stuff) untouched.

Not many people can be a Richard Ellmann, but I hope, someday, an equal talent will take on a few of the single Michaux volumes and translate them as entire books. If you’re reading this and you think you can write, please start with Mes propriétés (1929). By my count, Mes propriétés includes fifty-nine poems. Ball and Ellmann together translate only twenty-four of these. “Intervention”, quoted above, is from My Properties and so are many of my favorite Michaux poems. Because I’m lazy (“The soul loves swimming”, see Michaux/Ellmann’s “La Paresse”/”Laziness”) and I’m getting tired of this, I’ll end with a few sentences from “A Dog’s Life”, also from My Properties, the Ellmann translation, of course:

As for books, they wear me out like nothing else. I don’t leave a single word in its own sense or even in its own form.
I trap it and after some struggling I uproot it and turn it finally away from the author’s flock.
In a single chapter you have thousands of words all at once in front of you and I have to sabotage them all. I feel I must.


Michaux, Henri. Darkness Moves: An Henri Michaux Anthology, 1927-1984. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. WorldCat | Amazon
Michaux, Henri. Selected Writings: The Space Within. New York: New Directions Pub. Corp, 1968. WorldCat | Amazon
Mallarmé, Stéphane, and Henry Weinfield. Collected Poems. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. WorldCat | Amazon
Michaux, Henri. Mes propriétés. Paris: J.O. Fourcade, 1929. WorldCat