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“I say this world will go down burning …”

May 27, 2010

I say this world will go down burning,
You, with a frost.
From what I know of stomach-churning
Lust, I go with saying ‘burning’.
But if our world was doubly lost,
Why, loathing is familiar too:
I know for ruin-making frost
Would also do
For making ghosts.

Ring any bells?

One of the many challenges brought up by Prof. Hofstadter in Le Ton Beau de Marot (a book I have mentioned before) is that undertaken most famously, and most comprehensively, by Georges Perec and his translators – that of writing without the letter e. Perec, of course, started from a blank slate, and therefore had relative freedom; those who translated his work, however, found themselves in the tricky position of having to respect both form (e-freeness) and content (the actual plot). Hofstadter gives a selection of passages where the latter had to go in the interests of the former; in one case, a solo wolf in the French becomes multiple chipmunks in the English.

I was a little sceptical of such loosenesses of translation; surely, I thought, it couldn’t actually be that difficult? There was, of course, only one way to find out, and that was by doing it. My French being pretty bad these days, I went for just finding a text in normal English and de-e‘ing it; and, to keep things manageable, I picked a very small text – nine lines.

Having done it, I can confirm that trying to get all the e‘s out of English text whilst trying to preserve even the slightest semblance of what it originally said is ridiculously, unreasonably, unfairly difficult.

The ‘translation’ is the poem that begins this post. The original was “Ice and Fire” by Robert Frost, which goes like this:

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To know that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Compare the two: they’re quite different.

I managed to retain the poem’s metrics whilst removing all the e‘s, and most of the rhyme (it went a bit squiffy at the end), and the main points of the content, but beyond that … no. Instead of a rumination on general mores (Some say …) it becomes a dialogue (I say …/You say …); the subtle and many-layered desire is gone, replaced by the rather more specific (and cruder) lust; and the image of making ghosts has appeared out of nowhere.

I’m reasonably fond of my version, though, and it was certainly an intriguing challenge. Thoughts?

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