Thursday, 5 August 2010

Correcting genius

It's not necessarily genius, of course, but we tend to think that the work of an author is, in some ways, sacrosanct - except, that is, to the wise editor, who may be there during the development of the work in a, possibly, advisory role, or to the good literary friend, or partner, to whom the author reads the work in its various states. For others, it is beyond modification. However influenced and modified the final work the sense of ownership resides with the author.

It is the sense of ownership that is sacrosanct. People - people I have never met - have sometimes sent me half-baked work, work with no real hope of publication, along with a note to explain how keen they are to stress the copyright. Ownership is vital to them.

The phrase 'Homer nodded' is adapted from the Latin poet Horace, who recognized that even genius can slip up. Maybe genius is not a matter of perfection then, but of something else, that is if it makes sense to talk of 'genius' at all. Prodigy, virtuoso and master or maestro are some of the possible synonyms (not that, as a poet, I believe in synonyms) for genius. The online etymology dictionary gives its origins as:

...late 14c., from L. genius "guardian deity or spirit which watches over each person from birth; spirit, incarnation, wit, talent," from root of gignere "beget, produce" (see kin), from PIE base *gen- "produce." Meaning "person of natural intelligence or talent" first recorded 1640s.

The first instance of its modern use is cited in the huge OED, also known as Murray's English Dictionary, the full thirty-five volume set of which I picked up second hand for a knock-down price several years ago, comes from 14th century John Gower (O Genius min own clerke Come forth and here this mannes shrifte) but I am not here to quibble etymologies. I am here to consider the evidences of Márai nodding.

Nabokov had a healthy distrust of translators, even, one might argue, a fear and contempt of them. Given half a chance they would, he felt, mess up his beautiful text, 'rearranging Scheherazade's chamber', as I recall he put it. They had to be kept in order. 'Take heed, sirrah; the whip!' as Lear admonishes his Fool. Fool, we must assume, knows the whip.

But Márai does nod. Those great coloratura arias of his where a theme is lent massive wings are often sung as part of rather creaky stories on a stage where props sometimes fall to pieces. It should be stressed that the mechanism of the plot is very much secondary to the quality of the music, and particularly of the arias, and that if a stage door drops off its hinges, or a plywood 'antique' cabinet collapses when leant on, it is to be overlooked. Nevertheless it is, Maestro, less than perfect.

I have spent several days trying to get the inconsistent chronology of the next Márai into some kind of order. It isn't the first time. Each of the books I have translated of his had its share of inconsistencies, but this new one has more than most, and more conspicuously.

Is it my job then to correct these? If the furnishings of Scheherazade's chamber are badly made, do I have the right to mend the broken chair leg or clean the stain off the magnificent rug? If Homer nods, do I nudge him posthumously? Márai's own editors of the time did not do so. Do I stake my 'genius' against his then? As a poet I may be granted some genius, if only in the very basic sense of the word that means I am the poem's author, that my authorship is sacrosanct, and that once I have submitted the poem for publication my authorship is defended by law. Woe betide the miscreant who dare change my text thenceforth!

As a translator though, I am not a genius. I am not worthy! as Wayne keeps repeating in Wayne's World.

But Márai is dead, the copy editor notes the inconsistency and, in effect, takes it for mine. Chronology! Márai's bane! Well, I bridle, I am just the translator. Let the editors put things right. In any case I feel a little mischievous, meddling in the carelessness of genius. Genius has amplitude, I think. It is a kind of largeness and if it contradicts itself, very well, it contradicts itself. You told me the gentleman was thirty-two, but now you seem to be saying he was forty-three! Pah! That is not art, that is Lego!

Very well, I will rise on my genius hind-legs to correct genius and, who knows, it is not impossible, genius might nod back and say, 'Thanks for fixing that.'

1 comment:

dana said...

I find myself in this position too, except I'm not dealing with works of art. Although sometimes it is scholarly reports and articles, but those are usually drafts and authors are happy for copyediting help. Your case is very different. Sounds as if Marai actually messed up his dates, instead of trying to be magical or something? I suppose in this case a translator's note would be a propos.