Saturday, 24 April 2010

Difficulties of translating courtly poetry

Much of the piquancy of courtly poetry arises from word play involving elite customs and modes of speech. The fact that courtiers often employ a sort of hypertrophied courtesy involving exaggerated protestations of devotion that draw upon a sort of fossilised ceremonial language increases the scope for the courtier poet to display his status as 'an insider' who understands the origins of certain customs and rituals that the parvenu finds puzzling.
However, this presents a grave problem for translators and calls into question the status of courtly poetry as representing a truly universal art form. 
Take the following quatrain- 
Not punctilio, merely, methinks she softens to my suit
Might not etiquette beget true affection's  fruit?
For the formulaic postscript to her epistle dismissive
Reads- 'bugger not the bearer of this missive!'
How many modern day English speakers would know that 'bugger not the bearer' - though employed here in a purely conventional and formulaic way, like 'may this letter find you in good health'- is actually a survival of the love poetry of an earlier era? In this case, a Master Poet had depicted the paramour of the King as using this phrase to express three different sentiments or shades of meaning viz-
1) she knows her letter will greatly arouse the amorous passion of the King and this excites jealousy in her against even her own means of communication with him.
2) the mystical concept that the intermediary, or go-between, gains status by so doing and in some sense becomes part of a Trinity.
3) the suggestion that the King may seek to increase the frequency of her letters by sodomising the postman- thus attributing a naive mentality to the King for the hidden purpose of showing how badly Love has disordered her own mental faculties. 
By the time the quatrain, quoted above, was written, however, the phrase 'bugger not the bearer' had become just a meaningless formula. Thus we have a picture of a well bred lady ending a letter dismissing the importunities of the courtier with a formula which implies passionate love rather than (as she would imagine) a salutary warning of a hygenic type. 
How does one translate a poem whose fundamental premise is that translation is not possible even within its own milieu and idiolect?
Now, in the above case, the lady in question did recognise the allusion and replied in kind with this erudite little couplet-
No cock but all arse-hole, you give tongue to your wit
Brown nosing Archbishop, helping others to shit! 
The literary reference here being to a ecclesiastic of an earlier time who, famously, had an anal sphincter larger than his body; a fact much commented upon by mystics and theologians of a via negativa type. However, the true pungency of the line arises out of the fact that the venerable author of the quatrain did in fact have a very small penis. However, no personal disappointment, arising from this circumstance, and contrary to what some gossips aver, motivated my decision to leave  India in 1977, nor do I rake up the matter- now the parties to it are all dead and that milieu vanished- save to throw light upon the difficulties of translating courtly poetry in this levelling age.

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