Colette in translation

I am grateful to Michèle Roberts for having pointed out two small errors in my translation of Colette’s Cheri and The End of Cheri (June 17). Fortunately, such minor errors can and will be easily corrected in future printings. Immeasurably harder to correct would have been deviations from Colette’s famously economical style; But since a primary goal of my translation was to reproduce her style as closely as possible, I will not have to revisit this task.

Regarding the question of style, I do not believe that a translator’s “allow[ing] himself poetic license” (as Roberts says of Roger Senhouse and his 1951 translations of the books) is quite defensible in the case of Colette, who worked extraordinarily hard to strip away every excess from her sentences, to find the mot juste. How these works were written mattered very much to Colette, and it should matter just as much to her translators and readers. Roberts has, I believe, missed an opportunity. She could have chosen to write more substantively about issues of importance in evaluating a literary translation (and here I am paraphrasing Veronica Esposito, in her well-reasoned and illuminating Words Without Borders article “On Reviewing Translations”, from 2011): has the translator’s language captured what was original about the source text? Does the translation sound as if it was originally written in English? Are words and images that the author employed as motifs recreated consistently and well? Are sentence cadences and punctuation used in a way that reflects the intentions of the original text?

Esposito’s criteria can perhaps be summed up: has the translator reproduced the author’s style in well-considered, well-written, idiomatic English? Roberts acknowledges the exceptional difficulty of this goal in the case of Colette, but says nothing about whether my translation has achieved it.

Rachel Careau
Hudson, NY

Defining a coup

James Colby (Letters, September 2) should not need “the courts to decide” if there was an attempted coup in the United States on January 6, 2021. We saw an attempted coup on television and in votes and speeches in Congress that day. We saw rioters, some armed, try to stop the counting of the electoral votes that gave Joe Biden a majority, and a handful of senators and representatives vote to do the same thing. Rioters and seditious members of Congress hoped that Donald Trump’s friends could manufacture replacement votes. Trump encouraged the attack (and may have planned it) and did not discourage the violence for over eighty minutes. An abundance of details illuminating what we already knew was presented by the House investigation committee this summer. There’s no need for courts to do anything but continue to try the accused.

There was an attempted coup. What is puzzling is why many of Trump’s admirers (and others) deny there was an attempted coup on behalf of a defeat.

Joseph A. Devine
Houston TX

Carlo Levi

Brian Moloney (Letters, July 8) explains that Carlo Levi’s Cristo si è fermato a Eboli is not a memoir because he wanted to focus attention on the poor peasants of the highlands of Basilicata (which was Mussolini’s newly named Lucania when Levi was there, but reverted to the original in 1947), who were living medieval lives in the 1930s, beyond the railway (which stopped in Eboli). He refers to the village of Aliano, where Levi was supposed to be exiled.

In 1964, on behalf of the documentarist William McClure, head of the London office of CBS Reports, I met Carlo Levi, then a Communist Party senator in Rome, to ask him if he was willing to be filmed about his book in Basilicata. He readily agreed, so we drove a long way beyond Eboli (which is in Campania) to the village of Aliano, then further up the slopes to Alianello Nuovo, a smaller and even poorer sub-village (frazione) of rudimentary houses built after an earthquake in 1925, where he was actually supposed to be exiled. The carabinieri were more indulgent with the high-bourgeois Levi than with the working-class Communists, who were forced to stay in their assigned place of exile, no matter how remote, and to live off their meagre government allowance.

In 1964 the peasants still descended each day with their donkey carts to work their lands in the valley below, and returned each evening hungry for their pasta, which they come without tomato sauce, an industrial product they could not afford. The only public work in Alianello was a stylish prefab concrete Mussolini gift, a vespasiano (a pissoir). In other words, Levi did not exaggerate the pre-1945 poverty he had seen, indeed the opposite, to avoid offending the peasants’ dignity.

Levi is commemorated in Aliano with a fine mausoleum and picture gallery.

Edward N. Luttwak
Chevy Chase MD

What are you like?

Charles Foster (Letters, September 2) quotes Thomas Nagel’s qualifying footnote that the “like” in his “what it’s like” formula refers only to “how it is for the subject himself”, with no implication of resemblance; but that doesn’t remove the difficulty.

“How was it for you?” is a question about the quality of an experience, and a quality is just an attribute in respect of which one item is identified as like or unlike another. If likeness, then, as Professor Foster agrees, can’t exist for non-linguistic animals, I think he must also agree that what the quality of an experience is for a bat is not merely inaccessible to us, but actually meaningless.

Foster is no doubt right that consciousness studies is a broad church, but the “what it’s like” formula from Nagel’s 1974 essay appears, without qualification, as the definition of a field of study in The Blackwell Companion to Consciousness (2007). It is quoted, also without qualification, to characterize the “subjective aspect (of) experience” by David Chalmers in his widely referenced essay “The Hard Problem of Consciousness” (1995), reprinted in the Blackwell Companion. In The Oxford Companion to the Mind edited by Richard Gregory (1987), Daniel Dennett uses the formula in his entry on “Consciousness”, again unqualified.

These publications are from reputable sources and are clearly intended to be representative. The continued currency in them of such a peculiar phrase over such a long period exposes the whole consciousness studies movement to this kind of critical comment.

Christopher Eddy

Christopher Eddy (Letters, August 19/26) says “bats have no language in which to formulate the concept of likeness”, but this isn’t the only problem with the question “What is it like to be a bat?” Humans do have a concept of likeness, but it is impossible for us to answer the question “What is it like to be human?” in a general sense, since we have no experience of being members of any other species. We might approximately describe our experience of being a particular type of human, but it is difficult to compare it to that of other types of human by means of similes: to what type of person is being a white male middle-class pensioner living in the east of England comparable, except another person of the same type? Since the answer to “What is it like to be X?” is necessarily tautologous, the question has no meaning.

Peter Bendall

TS Eliot and William Hazlitt

I am grateful to Steven Epperson (Letters, September 9) for reminding me of Tom Paulin’s interesting speculation that Hazlitt was the source of TS Eliot’s theory of the “dissociation of sensibility”, a source about which Eliot kept mum. I certainly see the broad similarity of the argument that things had gone downhill since the seventeenth century. But I should have thought the implications of such a thesis for the two would have been radically different as hardly to constitute the same thesis. For Eliot, the dissenting republican Milton, one of Hazlitt’s heroes, was at the heart of the trouble – a case that Eliot propounded only a few years before declaring himself “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion” (For Lancelot Andrews, 1928), a formulation that pretty much sums up everything Hazlitt was not. Of course it is another question whether there is anything in the first place to the idea that something catastrophic happened to the English imagination in the mid-seventeenth century. FW Bateson cast wise doubt on the idea in Essays in Criticism in 1951, and I should say it emerged mortally wounded from Frank Kermode’s account of the doctrine in Romantic Image (1957).

Seamus Perry
Balliol College, Oxford

What We Owe the Future

If Regina Rini, in her review of William MacAskill’s What We Owe the Future (September 9), had not taken Nietzsche’s dictum about the death of God so seriously, perhaps her critique of the book could have been shorter. She could have been tempted to quote the old adage: “If you want to make God laugh, just tell him your plans.”

Sam Milne
Claygate, Surrey

Bond continued

Tom Williams suggests that Kingsley Amis, rather than Sebastian Faulks, was the first established author to “take on” Bond (September 9). I wonder if that honor doesn’t belong instead to Cyril Connolly, whose “extravaganza” “Bond Strikes Camp” was published in the April 1963 issue of the London Magazineeven if the story was parody rather than homage.

John Goodwin
London SW3

The Queen’s reading

This seems an appropriate moment to reflect on Queen Elizabeth II’s connection to literature. Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader was based on the premiss that the Queen was not well read. I can refute that. In December 1975 at Riba, the Queen presented Michael Scott, the best known architect in Ireland for much of the twentieth century, with a Royal Gold Medal in commemoration of European Architectural Heritage Year. Her Majesty said, “Oh, Mr Scott, how interesting. You live in the Martello tower that for a time was the home of my favorite author, James Joyce”.

Scott himself told this story to my mother, Betty Chancellor, actress at the Gate Theater Dublin. Scott was the architect for the rebuilding of the theatre. He used to own the Martello tower at Sandycove, where Joyce spent six nights, though Scott lived in a house he built next door.

Rory Johnston
Hollywood CA

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