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?


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.


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.


One is great
Who faces fate
Before it’s late,
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.


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.]


Forgotten Verse

28 02 2009

redwoodsIn 1960, I was attending St. Bernadette’s Catholic School in Stockton, California, now closed, alas. My teacher was my very favorite over all the years, and I had many teachers I adored.But most beloved was Sister Mary Gerard.

 I have always loved memorizing poetry. When I drove regularly to Tulsa, Oklahoma as a publisher’s representative, I would get on the Indian Nation Turnpike, which was a straight drive up from Texas with nothing in the way in between, and hardly any exits. First I would sing a verse of Woody Guthrie’s “Oklahoma Hills”: 


Woodie Guthrie from Oklahoma State Capital

Woodie Guthrie from Oklahoma State Capital

“Way down yonder in the Indian Nation
Ridin’ my pony on the reservation,
In those Oklahoma hills where I was born.
Now, ‘way down yonder in the Indian Nation,
A cowboy’s life is my occupation,
In those Oklahoma hills where I was born.”


Then I would proceed to memorize poetry. Usually it was something by Robert W. Service. I would prop the book on the steering wheel, look down, get one line in my head, and repeat it aloud until I felt I knew it. Then I would go back and repeat all the lines I had already memorized, and I would do this over and over until I thought I was ready for the next line. “A bunch of the boys were whooping it up at the Malamute Saloon…” It was still the West, but Oklahoma and the Yukon were a bit different. The lines I love the most by Service are:   

Robert W. Service in the Yukon

Robert W. Service in the Yukon

 “Were you ever out in the Great Alone, when the moon was awful clear,
And the icy mountains hemmed you in with a silence you most could hear;
With only the howl of a timber wolf, and you camped there in the cold,
A half-dead thing in a stark, dead world, clean mad for the muck called gold;
While high overhead, green, yellow, and red, the North Lights swept in bars? —
Then you’ve a hunch what the music meant . . . hunger and might and the stars.” 

   To parapharase Service himself, “My God, but that man could write!”

 One of the things I loved about Sister Gerard was she had us memorize poetry. That was swell. There was one poem we memorized that stuck in my head and my heart, just a bit of it, but I never forgot. 


“Within my heart I long have kept

A little chamber cleanly swept,

Embroidered with a fleur-de-lis,

And lintel boughs of redwood-tree…” 


I have carried this bit of verse with me for 49 years. This was all I could remember, and I hadn’t the slightest idea who wrote it. As soon as search engines were invented I began looking. Sometimes I would forget, and years would go by without a search, but always I came back. And I honed my search skills over the years, until this week I did it right. I found my poem and I found my poet. 

 Clarence Thomas Urmy wrote the poem. I have yet to find any biographical material on him, but the poem was published in a volume called A California Troubadour in 1912. Urmy must have been well-known in his day. At the end of this I have appended the credits from the book. He was in Atlantic Monthly, Cosmopolitan, and Harper’s Bazaar, to name only a few. Who was this man whose poetry has remained with me for so long? Well, I looked for this poem for almost half a century. I suppose I can spend a little time looking for Mr. Urmy.1

 The poem is called “Blondel” and concerns a legendary minstrel, perhaps the minstrel of King Richard the Lionhearted. I have also appended part of a Wikipedia article on Blondel and Richard. Now that I have the entire poem, more lines come back to me and seem familiar and I can see dear Sister Gerard. She was a large woman with an even larger smile. “A bed, a book, a crucifix…” Thank you Sister.



by Clarence Thomas Urmy

 WITHIN my heart I long have kept
A little chamber cleanly swept,
Embroidered with a fleur-de-lis,
And lintel boughs of redwood-tree;
A bed, a book, a crucifix,        
Two little copper candlesticks
With tapers ready for the match
The moment I his footfall catch,
That when in thought he comes to me
He straightway at his ease may be.        
This guest I love so to allure—
Blondel, King Richard’s Troubadour!

He often comes, but sings no more
(He says his singing days are o’er!);
Still, sweet of tongue and filled with tales        
Of knights and ladies, bowers and vales,
He caps our frugal meal with talk
Of langue d’oïl and langue d’oc,
Of Picardy and Aquitaine,
Blanche of Castile and Charlemagne,        
Of ménestrel, trouvère, conteur,
Mime, histrion, and old harpeur—
Small wonder that I love him well,
King Richard’s troubadour, Blondel!

 Still, as he comes at candle-light        
And goes before the east is bright,
I have no heart to beg him keep
Late hour with me when wooed by sleep;
But one request I ever make,
And ever no for answer take:        
He will not make the secret mine,
What song he sang at Dürrenstein!
Sleep, troubadour! Enough that thou
With that sweet lay didst keep thy vow
And link thy name by deathless art        
With Richard of the Lion Heart! 


By 1260, Blondel’s name had become attached to a legend in the highly fictionalised Récits d’un Ménestrel de Reims; this claimed that, after Richard I of England was arrested and held for ransom in 1192, he was found by the minstrel Blondel, whom he saw from his window, and to whom he sang a verse of a song they both knew. Later versions of the story related that Blondel went from castle to castle, singing a particular song, and that the imprisoned Richard replied with the second verse – thus identifying where he was imprisoned. Then, Blondel either aided the king’s escape or reported his position back to his friends. Blondel finally found Richard at Dürnstein; in fact, there was no mystery about Richard’s location.

‘Blondel’ is a common surname on the Channel Island of Guernsey. It is recorded that King Richard I granted a fief on the island to a vassal named Blondel, but it remains uncertain as to whether this has any connection with the legend, or whether the legend has any connection with the known trouvère.


[The original book cites these sources. As this editor did not know from whence came “Blondel” all are listed]

The verses in this volume originally appeared in Appleton’s, The Atlantic Monthly, The Bookman, The Century, The Cosmopolitan, East and West, Everybody’s, Harper’s Bazaar, The Independent, Appincott’s, The Munsey, The Outlook, Peterson’s, Putnam’s, The Reader, The Smart Set, Sunset, The Times Magazine, Vogue, and The Youth’s Companion


1 I did find a bit about Urmy. His papers are at the California State Library in Sacramento. This information was available on line:

“Clarence Urmy was a California poet born in San Francisco, July 10, 1858. He was educated at Napa College, and lived for most of his life in San Jose. He published three books of verse and used the pseudonym Feliz Jose. He was the drama critic for the San Jose Mercury and a teacher at San Jose Normal School. He was also the organist at Trinity Episcopal Church in San Jose. Urmy died June 2, 1923.”