Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Intrepid Bun

Lying flat out without stirring himself,
Frollo got the French to equip him,
For that is the way of the French:
Getting their shoes on while lying down.

That’s according to Andrew de Coutances, anyway. The awkwardness of a literal translation is one of life’s little joys. I’m always pleased by an oddity on a Chinese menu, for instance. Asian cultures obviously have a concept which almost but doesn’t quite translate into either “Lucky” or “Happy”. I’ll have The Seven Lucky Golden Wish Vegetables, please. My favourite business name - and it still makes me chuckle to think of it - belonged to a Chinese café down on good old Southsea Parade in Portsmouth. It was called The Intrepid Bun.

Languages are limited; concepts can slip between the words. I suppose that poetry attempts to exploit this: to use words to convey something more than the total sum of those words. But if, for example, you were to imagine that Wallace Stevens’s Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock was a literal translation from something in Mandarin Chinese, it might take on a whole new dimension.

Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
Catches tigers
In red weather.
Oh lucky wish dance!

7 comments:

Peter Burnet said...

OK, we have to talk. I agree that cupcakes are very 2009, but if this is very 2010, what, I tremble to ask, will be very 2011?

I confess, though, I did swoon at "problems such as this kind can be manifold", which echoed Donne's love sonnets.

Brit said...

Very good question, Peter. Gazing into my crystal ball, I confidently predict that 2011 will be the year that cricket becomes America's number one sport.

Gaw said...

Have you read Netherland, which features cricket in New York? I found it disappointing, which is worse really than hating it.

jonathan law said...

The Intrepid Bun sounds like something from Victorian nonsense poetry, or perhaps a companion to Mervyn Peake's Frivolous Cake:

A freckled and frivolous cake there was
That sailed upon a pointless sea,
Or any lugubrious lake there was
In a manner emphatic and free.
How jointlessly, and how jointlessly
The frivolous cake sailed by
On the waves of the ocean that pointlessly
Threw fish to the lilac sky.

I knew that poem pretty well by heart when I was 15 or so: don't suppose it's entered my head for 30years.

Curious to see how odd bits of Lear, Peake, et al read almost like Wallace Stevens -- and vice versa. Not that I draw any conclusion from this. Or anything else.

Brit said...

Ah, thanks for the Cake, Jonathan - I've recently come to believe that Peake's "Rhymes without Reason" has been more important in forming my worldview than any other book.

And yes, it can be a fine line between 'nonsense' and 'serious' verse...

Gaw - heard about it but not yet in my pile of things to read...

Gadjo Dilo said...

Ha, Wallace Stevens as a Chinese menu writer - I like it! (He spent all his life working in insurance, so he should know how to use words to mean something slightly different from what you think they mean.)

Gadjo Dilo said...
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