A Christmas Carol

By Charles Dickens

You know what? I’d never actually read this one before. Like everybody who’s ever been obliged to watch the telly on Christmas eve or Christmas day, I’ve seen the various televised plays, the movies and the Disney cartoon. But reading, that’s another matter. Funny really, how Disney persists in stealing really good stories, thereby pushing the original over the brink into oblivion. If someone did to Disney, what Disney did to Dickens, he’d be sued to an inch of his life.

  • Author: Charles Dickens
  • In: Christmas Books
  • Publisher: Collins Clear-Type Press
  • Published: Ca. 1900
  • Place: London & Glasgow
  • Pages: 486

I’m not sure when my copy of Christmas Books was published; it doesn’t contain an introduction, neither by Dickens himself, nor by a later editor. I guess about 1900, though, give or take twenty or thirty years either way. I’m reader who has a lot of books, not a bibliophile, I’m afraid.

Anyway, pleasant as it is to hold a book that’s bound so well that it’s still readable in bed after about a century, it’s not what I wanted to talk about.

I took this book from the shelves to see whether I could ad-lib a translation into Dutch to read out to my children. That doesn’t work, I’m afraid I have to admit. Dickens’ English is quite well-crafted, and it’s almost impossible to find the equivalent mot juste on the spur. Another thing is that it’s quite long; 96 pages in my edition.

But when I read out the first few pages to Irina, in English, I immediately knew that this is a book that works when read aloud. And that it isn’t at all a sweet little children’s tale. Good, ripe stuff.

It’s only when I read on, and arrived at the first ghost that I suddenly realized that there is very little actual conflict inside Scrooge’s mind. As soon as he’s seen a bit of his past, he’s already full of remorse. The present and the future seem quite superfluous — and I am hard put to believe that Scrooge didn’t know it was him, who was dead.

But this is mere quibbling, and we’re not supposed to quibble with old classics like these. Except that when my grandmother was very old, so old that most of the family never disagreed with her, she was relieved when Irina and I were prepared to actually discuss things with her, to treat her opinion as if it were valuable. So I’m going to treat this book as if its contents aren’t just quaint and archaic, but interesting and relevant. After all, it’s a book that through its watery adaptions has formed the conciousness of a lot of people in the western world.

“If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

A sentiment that still resounds strongly in our world, I’m afraid.

God bless us every one!

Rather less, especially if you put some more emphasis on the every.

On a final note — I was struck by the exclamations (‘hollo’) and so on — and immediately had to think of Tom Bombadil…

The Concise Pepys Diary with an Introduction by Stuart Sim

By Samuel Pepys

I have two editions of Pepys famous diary; that is to say, I have got two volumes from the Everyman edition, and I’ve got the Concise Pepys Diary. The Everyman isn’t complete, of course, and it wouldn’t be complete even if I had all volumes. The Concise Pepys is a cheap Wordsworth reprint of the original 1825 abridged publication.

  • Author: Samuel Pepys
  • Title: The Concise Pepys Diary with an Introduction by Stuart Sim
  • Pages: 804
  • Published: 1997 (1825)
  • Publisher: Wordsworth Editions
  • ISBN: 1 85326 478 4

When someone keeps a diary for ten years, the result closely approaches the definition of infoglut, and it’s not a Bad Thing, therefore, to abridge. Boring bits have to go, the interesting bits can stay.

What’s interesting and what’s boring is very dependent upon the eye of the reader, though. The original editor, Baybrooke, was mostly interested in the historical relevance of Pepys. The more homely details of Pepys’ life he values rather less, and the salacious bits he skips altogether, being a C19 man, and not a son of the sixties.

The modern reader will most often deplore those choices; nowadays preferences are most often completely reversed. Sex first, then personal details, and boring politics last. And that was my position, too, when I first encountered the diary, about ten years ago. Then there was a period where I preferred reading about the homely bits, the ordinary life of a gentleman. (Interesting is the way Pepys gets richer and richer. Almost all his income he is able to save. Daily life seems to cost little or nothing; only extravagances like clothes or eating out eat into his budget.)

This time, I consult Pepys for the political bits. How does one achieve high office? Where is the money coming from and going to? What does a king need to do to keep the loyalty of his bureaucrats? Very useful for the work-in-progress.

You can follow Pepys’ unexpurgated life at: www.pepysdiary.com in blog form — some domain squatter has grabbed www.pepys.com, so don’t go
there. You can also get the whole text from Project Gutenberg.

The Analects of Confucius

By Arthur Waley

As Dorothy L. Sayers has a woman say in Gaudy Night, once I was a scholar. I went to the University of Leyden to study sinology, capping my studies with an attempt at comparative linguistics of the Tibeto-Burman area. During my five years in Leyden, I acquired, amongst others, this translation of the Analects. I never quite got round to reading it — I always preferred Mencius to Confucius.

  • Author: Arthur Waley
  • Title: The Analects of Confucius
  • Pages: 268
  • Published: 1988 (1938)
  • Publisher: Mandala books (Unwin paperbacks)
  • ISBN: 0-04-440223-6

However, I came across a reference to the Analects in Halssnoer en Kalebas, and besides, the evil sorcerer in my current work-in-progress badly needs some evil underpinning, and I’d already plundered the Pragñâ-pâramitâ-hridaya-sûtra for the underpinnings of the sorcery itself. So I grabbed this handbook for the perfect gentleman. At least, that is the conclusion that follows necessarily from Waley’s argument in the introduction.

Waley is one of the great, grand old men of Sinology. Together with Legge, Couvreur, Needham, Wade and Giles — and Waley has the unique distinction of being a poet, too. (His translation of the Nine Songs is delightful.)

In his introduction, Waley explains that he is translating the texts as they stand, working from the best known version (the textual history of the Confucian classics is confused to say the least. The texts have survived at least one book burning and innumerable edited version.), and not as they were used in the Confucian tradition that developed since the Song dynasty, which was more concerned with finding metaphysical hints in the texts.

His argument is cogent, perhaps a bit arrogantly stated, but very convincing. And then what we’re left with is mostly a Miss Manners for Chinese knights. Which is exactly what Yusham Zizuran needs.

De Vertroosting van de Filosofie

By Boëthius

It’s Lent, and I thought I’d give this book another try. And again I foundered.

  • Author: Boëthius
  • Title: De Vertroosting van de Filosofie
  • Pages: 192 + notes
  • Published: 2000 (1990)
  • Publisher: Ambo/Amsterdam

Not because Boëthius is unreadable or unsuitable or anything. I do not have an opinion on the Consolatio Philosophiae. I still haven’t read it. I haven’t read it because the translation I have is horrible.

Boëthius’ Latin is beyond my meager skills, so I am dependent upon a translation. R.F.M. Brouwer, Classics teachers at a well-known high school in Amsterdam, the Vossius Gymnasium, is the worst kind of translation I can imagine.

He is pedantic and he has a very stilted style; I also have a feeling that he is inimical to his author. The stilted style makes is hard, or even impossible, to progress much beyond the horribly rendered poetry at the beginning. The pedanticity is clear from his using accents acutes over all the stressed syllables in those bits of poetry. This is a work by a schoolmarm.

In his very pedantic, very stilted, very formal foreword Brouwer thinks it necessary to stress that Boëthius wasn’t a Christian, fortunately, so we can still read his work, even though those foolish Christians have thought that Boëthius was a Christian. In this, Brouwer is a true child of Compte and White.

More fool to him.

But I’m still stuck with an unreadable translation of a book I need to read. I guess I’ll try the Penguin Classic next. Perhaps that one will be better. Or the online translation by W.V. Cooper.

Anabasis — De Tocht van de Tienduizend

By Ξενοφον

It is seldom that I read a classic work from beginning to end, every page without skipping. The Anabasis is one such work. It’s the story of how the author, Xenophon, managed to get command of ten thousand Greek soldiers (and their slaves, wives, boyfriends and cattle) and lead them around Anatolia back to Greece.

  • Author: Ξενοφον
  • Title: Anabasis — De Tocht van de Tienduizend
  • Pages: 218
  • Published: 1988
  • Publisher: Ambo Klassiek
  • ISBN: 90 263 0808 6

I have little Latin, just enough to read the easier Medieval Latin texts on our shelves, but even less Greek. So I have to depend on translations when I want to read in the classics. Fortunately, the Dutch publisher of translations from the Classics, Ambo, had a sale a few years ago, and I bought a shelf of the nice red hardcovers. I think Ambo has gone belly-up since then, which is quite understandable. Most of the translations they published were by grammar-school teachers who were only interested in accuracy and pedantry.

That didn’t hold for the translators of the Anabasis, Gerard Koolschijn and Nicolaas Matsier. They have produced a very readable translation that, if it errs, errs on the side of excessive colloquialism. It’s hard to give a concrete example, but when reading the text, you have very hard to look for the pride Xenophon must have felt when writing down his memoirs. It’s all so very casual, a matter of standing up, giving a little speech. Just marching through mountains, perhaps being bombarded with babies by mothers who then throw themselves at the Greeks. Rather horrible, that event, but that’s life. That’s the tone.

Xenophon’s army was a democracy, and a rabble of plundering bandits, who’d happily steal a village’s food, a village head’s son, and make a bum-boy of him. (And he had a very loyal friend of the boy, Xenophon notes.) So it was excellent source material for the novel I’m currently working on.

The edition I review is the Dutch translation by Gerard Koolschijn and Nicolaas Matsier. Loeb has a parallel Greek-English edition. Of course, the Anabasis is also available online, both in Greek and English, with annotations and from Gutenberg.


By Homeros

A fresh and fun read about a ferocious battle.

  • Author: Homeros
  • Title: Kikvorsenmuizenstrijd
  • Pages: 62
  • Published: 1996
  • Publisher: AMBO Kleine Klassieke Bibliotheek
  • ISBN: 90-263-1467-1

This translation of the Βατραχομυομαχια is quite old — the translator notes in his preface that he wrote it during his army service days, fifty years ago. But it’s fresh, reads like the proverbial express train and shows that the ancient Greeks had a sense of humour that’s not to far from ours.

If you want to read a very old-fashioned, unpoetic translation into English, go to Sacred Texts.

Het Romeinse leger — Handboek voor de generaal

By Flavius Vegetius Renatus

I’ve already done a review of the text of Vegetius Epitoma Rei Militaris, so this is merely a review of the Dutch translation by Fik Meijer, Professor Oude Geschiedenis at the University of Amsterdam.

  • Author: Flavius Vegetius Renatus
  • Title: Het Romeinse leger – Handboek voor de generaal
  • Pages: 175
  • Published: 2003
  • Publisher: Atheneum – Polak & Van Gennep
  • ISBN: 90 253 5880 2

The Epitoma Rei Militaris is almost an outline of the novel I am writing; and therefore pretty useful to me. But I didn’t need the Dutch translation at €19.95 (a price that used to command at least a hard-back only a year ago, instead of a flimsy paperback) for that. The English translation would have sufficed. And the Latin is sufficiently easy that I would have been able to use that, in a pinch.

However, the translation Fik Meijer has prepared is smooth, very smooth. Sometimes it does read as if Wilt Idema, a professor very infamous for his stilted, archaic Dutch, has translated it from Classical Chinese, but on the whole, the text just flows.

What’s more, sometimes (for instance with the translation of Gregory of Tours I’ve been reading recently, or the translation of Boethius I got as a birthday present in 2001 and still haven’t finished), you get the distinct impression that the translator Does Not Approve of the text and the author he’s working with. It’s perhaps difficult to grasp if you’ve never translated a text before, but sometimes that just happens: while working, you suddenly conceive of a distaste for the author. The trick is, of course, not to let that impair your translation. Anyway, what I wanted to say: Fik Meijer treats Vegetius with a lot of respect.

Vegetius might have been a hack, but he did care about what was happening to has country, his empire, and he did what he could to stem the tide. Throughout the book, you get the feeling that he has done his utter best to make as clear as possible the only way Rome could be saved.

And who knows? He might have been right. Of course, the economic circumstances had changed beyond recognition since the Punic wars, but the technology of war hadn’t. Not enough to matter anyway.

Anyway, this is an accurate and readable translation of an interesting book. It’s too expensive for its size and binding, but that cannot be helped. Damn the euro anyway. I wish we were still on the solidus.

There’s another review, by Maarten van der Werf that is pretty useful, if you can read Dutch.

The publisher, Atheneum — Polak & Van Gennep, operates a website on the classics: www.klassieken.nl with background information on the books they publish [ETA: sadly gone now]. But even though they advertise this website on the back-blurb, it hasn’t got information on Vegetius. Silly buggers. The other Dutch publisher of translations of the classics, Ambo, does not have a web presence. Indeed, I don’t know whether they still exist.

Mediaeval Latin Lyrics

By Helen Waddell

Not having benefitted from a classical education, I have never been able to teach myself enough Latin to read anything but the simplest books a vue — the Legenda Aurea or the Vita Karoli Magni and the easier bits from the Colloquia. So, when the Holy Nicholas of Myra presented me with a bilingual compilation of Medieval Latin verse, I was tickled to death.

  • Author: Helen Waddell
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics
  • Published: 1962 (1929)
  • Pages: 352

And not for nothing. Finally I have a compilation of Latin verse where even I, with my meager knowledge, can correct the translator. When Ausonius writes olim regum et puerorum nomina, it is surely essential to get the contrast that is caused by the juxtaposition of kings and children in the translation, and not merely give up with “once bewailed names of kings.” The Dutch translation that springs to mind is “eens de namen van koningen en kinderen”, but I have to admit that I cannot so readily phrase that in alliterating English.

There are other places where Helen Waddell, who is otherwise about as far above my touch as a person can be, is busy rhyming instead of translating. A pity, since I now cannot use the volume as a crib to aid my own imperfect understanding.

The usefulness as a crib is further diminished by the printing of the Latin text in a slightly smaller font than the translation. It does not succeed in its apparent goal of focusing attention on the English, and means that English and Latin line up even worse than usual. Add to that that English is usual wordier, and the outline of the problem will be clear.

As to how her translations fare as poetry in their own right: even though they do not always accurately transfer the sense of the original, they are nice, as poems go. But I do think that the original authors generally produced a stronger bit of poetry, with more meaning, oomph and espieglerie to it. Even if they wrote in a timid, half-articulate Latin, as Helen Waddell reminds us in the preface.

Of course, in the end, this is a very famous and very class compilation that I just happened to stumble against (or rather, that Sinterklaas) stumbeled against — and criticism about seventy years after the fact is a bit silly. But I’m still glad I caught the kings & kids’ names.

Errantes silva in magna et sub luce maligna
inter harundineasque comas gravidumque papaver
et tacitos sine labe lacus, sine murmure rivos,
quorum per ripas nebuloso lumine marcent
fleti, olim regum et puerorum nomina, flores.

Piramus en Thisbe — Twee Rederijkersspelen uit de Zestiende Eeuw

By Dr. G.A. van Es
A Bronnenstudie en tekstuitgave by Dr. G.A. van Es.

This 2002 Sinterklaas present brings together the two oldest Dutch plays based on Ovid’s immortal Piramus and Thisbe story. Notes, reprints of illustrations and manuscript and of course the delightful story material combine to form a very pleasant package.

  • Author: Dr. G.A. van Es
  • Publisher: Zwolse Drukken en Herdrukken voor de Maatschappij der Nederlands Letterkunde te Leiden
  • Published:1964

One of the most curious phenomena in the history of the Dutch language is the rapid swing from being almost a calque of German to becoming a calque of English. The introduction to this book, published in 1964, is written in a heavily Germanized Dutch that is sometimes slow to read. By contrast, the sixteenth century Dutch is a breeze.

Nevertheless, since I have always thoroughly enjoyed the various spoofs of the Piramus and Thisbe story in Kees Stip’s Zes Variaties op een Misverstand, this book provided a lot of background. It even gives the sources for the reproduced plays from the Gesta Romanorum and the Bible des Poètes.

These plays are so-called Rederijkersspelen. This particular genre has been long maligned, but the sheer fun that speaks from them, even four centuries after, is infective. The authors of the plays, the people who wrote them down in the collected plays for the Haarlemse Rederijkerskamer and surely the people who acted the plays must have enjoyed them a lot.