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Nothing New in the West




Limp Trysts was the headline for the Village Voice play review I read sometime in the summer of 1987 about a promiscuous homosexual man and his many passionate but fleeting and ultimately unfulfilling assignations. It’s such a scrumptiously clever example of the plasticity and playfulness of the English language, and I always think of it when I need reminding of the power and joy words have and hold for us. 

 

A few years later I was working for an advertising/design firm in Milan called Epierre, mostly translating VHS videos and related promotional material into Italian. I worked closely with two native writers, who happened to be husband and wife – and my main job was essentially to introduce them to the subtleties, the almost-always positive intent and wide-open, unapologetic phuhquew-ness of American culture. They, along with the rest of the design team, had a hard time not only understanding the ballsy, quixotic attitude towards life incarnate in our colorful idioms and pop-culture squawk, but they also had an equally hard time coming to terms with my own wiseacreage and gone-Borneo depravity.


I’ll give you an example: one of the movies that crossed my desk at the time was Driving Miss Daisy, which was kind of small-worldish for me because I was living in Atlanta when they were filming it a few years before, and had been on the set a couple of times, accidentally and mostly unwelcome, which I’ll tell you about another time. Anyway, we had a meeting to discuss it and I tried to explain the different meanings of the title – how the negro Hoke ferries the proud Jewess around, but also drives her to be a better, more enlightened person. The title they went with, which I voted vehemently against, was A Spasso con Daisy, which is a laughable insult of Uhry’s original intent, to the movie and everyone else’s diminishment. I suggested in all seriousness ‘Sto Cazzo con Daisy instead.


Another movie was a 1990 buddy cop action comedy directed by Richard Benjamin and starring Forest Whitaker and Joey "Pants" Pantoliano. I remember several meetings where I was trying to explain why the movie was called Downtown, where it came from, and what it meant, and why it was a joke/spoof. We went through many, many rounds of ideas like "Stada Sporca" and eventually ended up calling it Downtown for the Italian release since culture, word-play, humor and irony are almost impossible to translate.


While I’m riding this particular hobbyhorse, I’d like to mention All Quiet on the Western Front, one of the finest books about war, and one of the finest books about anything of the twentieth century, period. It’s a masterful straight-from-the-trenches muckdog bark of world-weary wisdom and deadpan humor, littered with heartbreaking ennui and alienation. I was living briefly in Hamburg (a hotdog in Hamburg!) several years after the Italian job and happened to see this book at a friend’s house. I didn’t recognize it at first because the title in German is Im Westen Nichts Neues, and he was surprised I didn’t know it. I told him what it was called in English, and I think he winced, even though it’s sometimes hard to tell with Germans.


It was an unhappy yet luminous epiphany for me – what I would translate as Nothing New in the West – a blasé, tossed-off official communiqué at the end of the novel that was intentionally chosen as the mocking title, has been made unaccountably poetical and romantic in the English translation. Erich Maria Remarque’s tale of the extreme physical and mental stress of endless, senseless slaughter, the no-name, insignificant, and carelessly remembered battles told with the bland detachment of a psyche devastated by the daily terror and numb to hope, wrecked by some puny and probably over-educated Little, Brown and Company noodge editor in New York trying to move a few more units.


I’m not usually one to judge a book by its cover, but Nothing New in the West is a different beast than All Quiet on the Western Front. Whenever I think about this, I actually get angry because it’s a criminal bait-and-switch that wrecks everything about this heartbreaking work and that war for me.

 

Trying to tack back to the ancients, and some sort of relevance to the task at hand, i.e. “The Classics,” I’ll cite one more example, this time from one of my favorite philosophers, Aristotle, a Greek, at least. I’ve been using his quote, “Wit is educated insolence” as a tagline on my website for years – it’s the definition of recalcitrance, in my opinion, and I love it. That said, I was reading something somewhere recently and saw this cherished quote of mine rendered: “Wit is well-bread insolence.” What? I had to take a deep breath and think about that. For a long time. “Well-bred” is certainly different than “Educated,” and carries the implication of upbringing versus schooling. Hmm. I’m going to stick with “Educated” because I’ve been using it for years, and I like the subtle difference implicit in the hard work and choice of “well-read” as opposed to the perhaps undeserved and underserved privilege of “well-bred.”

 

Which brings us back to the beginning and the Odyssey, and the challenges of translating an almost 3,000 year old song, essentially, part of a vital, centuries-long oral tradition that was only meant to be heard, into a book, written in modern English. As Alexander Pope said: “Homer makes us hearers, Virgil leaves us readers.” I think there’s a lot of truth to that, so I’ve tried to approach Homer with my ear more than my undeniably myopic and parochial eye.

 

Looking over my notes, I’m realizing that to delve into the Odyssey correctly and in good conscience (what’s that?) I’d really have to discuss the Trojan War in depth first, and that means tackling the The Iliad. Have you seen that monstrous tome lately? It could easily replace a Danforth in a Force 10 off Tierra del Foowaygo, baby. I’m not joking: it’s 12,000 or so lines of dactyl pentameter, and I’ve already told you about how impenetrable that scribbled, wibble/dribble is. Yeah, you know about the infamous horse of course, and Helen’s face, the one that proverbially launched a thousand ships, and Ajax, the bronze-helmeted hero, but to do the gods, the heroes, Homer, and you justice I’d have to go back to the beginning:


“Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles...”


Which is fair enough, except where do we go from here?

 

 

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