Wednesday, July 18, 2012

darkness visible: an homage to a phrase, and the art of translation

            I'm guessing that I'm not the only writer who feels this way, but I like to imagine that words and language have a sort of life and intelligence of their own.  That words contemplate, breed, die, ache, and chat over tea (or scream recriminations at one another).

            Darkness visible.
            Beautiful phrase, even though (or because?) it refuses to articulate its meaning on casual encounter.

            In the midst of this and other such savoury conversation, they quitted the tent, to examine some snares they had laid; in which amusement the day soon elapsed, and was succeeded by the night, which did not appear so serene and composed as it might have been expected at that season of the year, which was midsummer, but along with it came a certain darkness visible, which greatly assisted the design of the duke and dutchess.  (Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes, trans. Tobias Smollett.  Modern Library 2001 edition, p. 809.)

            I first met the words in the 1989 memoir by William Styron.  Darkness Visible: a Memoir of Madness.  In the book, Styron carefully and hideously details his descent into depression, and what he found lurking in the pit.
            Strange to meet the phrase in a 17th century Spanish novel.  For a moment, I wondered if it had come into English from Spanish, through the Quixote.
            But then I remembered, some long-ago-learned detail:  the phrase "darkness visible" entered the English language with Milton.  Note that in the following quote, the "he" is Satan:

            At once as far as Angel's ken he views
            The dismal Situation waste and wild,
            A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round
            As one great Furnace flam'd, yet from those flames
            No light, but rather darkness visible
            Serv'd only to discover sights of woe,
            Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
            And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
            That comes to all; but torture without end
            Still urges, and a fiery Deluge, fed
            With ever-burning Sulphur unconsum'd.  (Paradise Lost, John Milton.  Book I, lines 59-69)

            But Milton's poem was published in 1667, over fifty years after the second half of the Quixote.
            Enter the translator, Tobias Smollett.
            It suddenly dawned on me that Smollett, translating Cervantes' novel almost 150 years after it was published in Spanish, and nearly 100 years after Milton's poem, chose this phrase as his translation of an entirely different phrase in Spanish (would that I could read Spanish and locate that phrase).  In his book Is that a Fish in Your Ear?, David Bellos states, "all utterances have innumerably acceptable translations."  This of course does not mean that any translation of a given utterance is acceptable, but it does mean that the ways an "utterance of more than trivial length has no one translation."
            In the scene following, Don Quixote and Sancho meet "Merlin," as well as several other "inchanters," and a Dulcinea who is actually a young, attractive man in drag.  All being pulled along on a cart by oxen with candles made to look as though they are growing out of their horns.  It strikes me that the Pythons might have read Cervantes.
            If words have a life and intelligence of their own, then I think here Smollett's words are undoubtedly poking at Milton's, and saying something along the lines of, "Hey!  Don't take yourself so seriously!"  


  1. I used to tell myself that a translated poem is like an explained joke. All the facts are there, but the magic is just gone.

    But in recent years, I've come to appreciate the art of translation very much. When it's good, it's really good. The translations from the Italian by William Weaver really made Umberto Eco's early novels sing.

    I read a different translation of DQ (Edith Grossman's) and liked it very much, but I'm delighted that you've pointed out the extreme cleverness in Smollett's use of Milton. Thank you for this!

  2. Thanks, John. I, too, used to be highly averse to translations. I think it came from watching French films, and understanding enough to know the subtitles were a waste of the beauty of French (not to mention English, a jumbled-up language which nevertheless has its moments). But then I tried translating some French poems that I loved so dearly in French. The experience was daunting, and fun. Way more fun than I'd expected. I realized that a whole new "poem" was possible in a sense.

    Smollett was a great translator, but someday I'd like to try the Grossman translation as well. From what I've heard of her, she sounds like someone I'd like.

    1. You know Grossman is also Gabriel Garcia-Marquez's translator, yes? And he considers her an apt partner. When you're ready to read that translation, let me know. You can borrow mine.