Of Egyptians, Candide, and Sappho

12 04 2010

“He who has once drunk of Nile water will forever yearn to be by the Nile again; his thirst cannot be quenched by the waters of any other land.” Sinuhe The Egyptian by Mika Waltari, translated by Lynda S. Robinson.

Finnish dust jacket

There has been much talk around me, as of late, ranging from fellow workers to my sister-in-law, about the fine book, The Egyptian by Finland native Mika Waltari. This is a book dear to my heart. I even liked the kind of god-awful movie starring Victor Mature and Jean Simmons. It was a poor-man’s Ten Commandments. The film changed the intent of the book but as a kid I adored it. Now it’s “Meh.”

Anyway, all this foofarah has re-whetted my appetite for a good Egyptian tale and so I downloaded the audio version to my iPod, and listen whilst I travel. Charlton Griffin reads it with a fine English accent and he does adults, children, and women, all really well. Ha, laborers and other low classes including the young Horemheb when he first meets Sinuhe, all of these folks have cockney accents.

Mika Waltari

The thing I notice most is the very fine writing. But I do not recall the quote at the top as having been written in quite the same way, although I read the only English translation in existence until 2002, and that was done by Naomi Walford and it was an abridgement.

Using Amazon as a source I compared the prose of the new translation to the audio book and I believe they are one and the same. Audible.com does not give translator attribution.

Charlton Griffin

Now to the heart of the matter. As I was toodling along beside Lake Sammamish this cloudy Seattle morning I found myself enrapt by the prose being spoken. This was swell writing. I was quite young when I read the Walford translation and I have given away every copy I have ever owned including a first edition hard cover, so the Walford text eludes me. By-the-way, the Walford version of The Egyptian was the number one best selling novel of 1949, and the number one selling novel translation of all time until it was surpassed by Umberto Eco with The Name of the Rose…sometime in the 1980’s, I think. I was working for Warner Books at the time and sold the book into the wholesale market.

The Name of the Rose

Now, where was I? Oh yes, cruising along beside a long and beautiful glacial lake and listening to Mr. Charlton Griffin read the words of, presumably, Ms Lynda S. Robinson, a resident of Texas, possessing a doctorate in Anthropology and author of a number of Egyptian whodunits. So listening to this very fine prose as you may find an example of at the top of this blog, I said to myself, “Self, is this fine prose the result of the translator’s excellent translating skill, the result of a very fine novel so well written that it almost translates itself, or half-way between and both?” Self answered, “Both, I do very much suspect.”

So I turned off the lovely voice of Mr. Charlton Griffin and began to cogitate. What other books do I admire, having only read the translation? First up was Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. I adore this book and have read it many times. And I only read the Bantam edition so I am reading the translation by Hilda Rosner. I like this one so well I am kind of afraid to read any other. I am beginning to think that the translator plays a huge role in my reading enjoyment.

Look at it this way: Take your favorite English language novel, I have so many, I will just choose one, and so let us choose The Death Ship by B. Traven. Ha, funny that my old brain should pick that one seeing as how Mr. B. Traven, also known as Ret Marut, Traven Torsvan, and Hal Croves, to name a few, wrote in German whilst living in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century.

But I digress. So suppose someone decided, just for the heck of it, to rewrite The Death Ship? It would still be in English and still tell the same story but it would be using someone else’s words. That makes it a different book, neh?

Siddhartha

So I guess I really like Siddhartha by Herman Hesse and Hilda Rosner. And I fell in love with The Egyptian by Mika Waltari and Naomi Walford, but now, being fickle as only a human can be, I have transferred my affection to The Egyptian by Mika Waltari and Lynda S. Robinson.

Other translations? Ah, I dearly love Candide and I first read the lovely translated words of Voltaire in a Norton Anthology in college. I have no idea who the translator was, but it was love at first read and I am still head over heels mad for the English version of Monsieur Françoise-Marie Arouet de Voltaire’s opus. And now I dearly love the hard cover volume issued by Modern Library to mark their 75th anniversary, Candide being the first book Modern Library published. It is illustrated by Rockwell Kent and translated by Peter Constantine. So here is a book that has provided two lovers. For, both translations I do love, indeed.

Candide is expelled from the castle

And now to a translation that might be unique, and which is certainly more famous than the work it purportedly translates. Edward J. Fitzgerald offered his “translation” of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam. It became almost instantly beloved, read, and quoted. But scholars often say “pish tosh” to this translation. Perhaps the flowery imagination of Mister Fitzgerald saw words that Omar the Tentmaker never wrote. I have read several translations and there is a difference and I always prefer Fitzgerald.

Literal:

Signs of destiny have always been
Those hands inscribed both good and mean
What was written, came from the unseen
Though we tried without and worried within.

Meaning:

One is great
Who faces fate
Before it’s late,
Appreciate
The destined state
No matter how much we debate
Oppose, engage, or calculate
Even try to accelerate
Fate only moves at its own rate.
Futile is worry, anger and hate
Joy is the only worthy mate.

 Fitzgerald:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.
[Thanks to Shahriar Shahriari]

Over the span of my life, I vaguely recall two or three major translations of Homer and always each would be declared definitive. I am not a huge fan of reading Homer, or at least I have yet to try an edition which does not also try my patience. If only I could read the original Greek. Alas.

Sappho at Leucate

My final thought on translations, at least for the nonce, regards Sappho. I took a Greek history course in college and the text book contained translations of two poems by the lady from Lesbos. The book is long gone, probably sold for beer money at the end of the semester, and I know not the translator. But, romantic that I am, I memorized both poems. I have seen different translations of each over the years, but nothing so satisfying as the ones in my history text. My memory of one poem is:

“It seems all heaven here, to sit beside you, listening lover-wise to your sweet voice, and sweeter yet, your laughter’s witcheries. But oh why beats my heart so wild, one look at you and swift as thought, I am as tongue-tied as a child. Words die in my throat.”

And I guess I will have to get hard copies of both translations of the Egyptian and compare them. Oh, and speaking of translations, if anyone ever finds a copy of Waltari’s “A Nail Merchant at Nightfall” let me know.

“With the approach of age the soul flies like a bird back to the days of childhood. Now those days shine bright and clear in my memory until it seems as if everything then must have been better, lovelier than in the world today.” The Egyptian by Mika Waltari and Lynda S. Robinson and Charlton Griffin. [Gee, the professional reader makes such a difference, I might not have noticed Robinson’s stellar prose were it not for the splendid delivery of Mr. Griffin.]

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