Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait

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if youth but knew

Last February, I went to a small Spanish town of Girona, to share with PhD students my own experiences doing a PhD in the early 2000s.

The town was full of young people, local students and visitors alike.

Perhaps because of this youthful crowd, or of nostalgia of my distant student years, or perhaps of my looming birthday, I could not stop thinking of a Russian saying, Если бы молодость знала, если бы старость могла (“if youth only knew, if age only could”).

Wait, suddenly said my inner linguist, but where does this saying come from?

It turns out, it is a translation of a French saying si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait, which was attested in the 16th century.

The source is Henri Estienne (1528 or 1531 – 1598), also known as Henricus Stephanus, a 16th-century French printer, humanist, philologist, and Classical scholar. His most celebrated work is the five-volume Thesaurus graecae linguae, or Greek thesaurus, published in 1572 and still in use today.

In 1594, he published a collection of epigrams related to proverbs and other sayings, called Les prémices, ou le premier livre des proverbes épigrammatisés, ou des épigrammes proverbiales rangées en lieux communs. Epigramme Nr 191 refers precisely to the French saying si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait.

An accomplished philologist, Etienne not only explains the meaning and the usage of the French saying, but analyses its equivalents in Ancient Greek, where a similar saying existed: exploits to the young, advice to the old:

quelques autres languages ont des proverbes correspondants à celui-ci: & notamment le grec: disant,

νέοις μὲν ἔργα, βουλαὶ (ou βουλὰς) δὲ γεραιτέροισιν.

C’est à dire, aux jeunes les exploits, aux vieux les conseils.
Ils ont encore une autre semblable à cestui-ci.
Mais il me souvient aussi d’un tiers, auquel il est fait mention de ceux qui sont entre deux âges. & quant aux vieillards, il ne fait mention que de leurs souhaits. Car il dit aussi:

ἔργα νέων, βουλαὶ δὲ μέσων, εὐχαὶ δὲ γερόντων

C’est à dire, les exploits des jeunes, les conseils de ceux qui sont de moyen âge, les souhaits des vieillards. Mais il est certain que de ce proverbe n’est pas authentique comme l’autre.

Now, what is the source of the Greek saying? It turns out, Estienne quotes Souda, or Suda, a 10th century Byzantine encyclopedia, a compilation of  30000 entries, many of them using Ancient sources that have since been lost. A lexicographer himself, Etienne must have known and consulted the Suda lexicon.

In fact, the proverb figures in one of the Suda’ entries: Νέοις μὲν ἔργα, βουλὰς δὲ γεραιτέροισιν (young men should act (but) their elders advise). An English translation explains:

A truncated version (also in Appendix Proverbiorum 4.6) of an axiom attributed by Hyperides (fr. 57 Jensen) to Hesiod: ἔργα νέων, βουλαὶ δὲ μέσων, εὐχαὶ δὲ γερόντων , “Young men’s acts, the middle-aged’s advice, old men’s prayers”.

Here you are. From Russian, to French, to Ancient Greek, with probably some steps lost in between: for example, how a quotation from a learned work in French became so popular in Russian?

Curiously, on English, there is an expression ‘youth is wasted on the young’, but its meaning is different, and I don’t like it. The only English phrase about age I use frequently is ‘old age is not for sissies’, which is the title of a funny book my friends gave me for my 30th birthday.

Ruth Speirs

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in the bookshop’s window

I have written before about one of my favourite Latvian poets, Aleksandrs Čaks (1901-1950), a poet of the city, of whimsical metaphors, and exuberant imagination.

When I was looking for English translations of Čaks to introduce his poetry to my friends, I came across a slim volume published in 1979, translated by a certain Ruth Speirs. Her translations were so wonderful, so faithful to the original yet enjoyable in their own right, that I wanted to find more about the translator.

I did some research then, and have resumed my search now. Now as then, not much information was available.

A page at the Latvian literature portals gives several spellings of her name (in Latvian, foreign names are phoneticized) – Ruth Speirs, aka Ruta Spīrsa, Ruta Speire, born Ruta Tīfentāle. She was born in 1913 or 1916 in Jelgava, a town in Latvia. The portal mentions she had studied English at the English Language Institute in Riga, married an English professor, and left with him for Cairo in 1939.

This quote from a review of her translations of Rilke summarizes what is known about her later life:

she … married the medieval historian John Speirs, spent the Second World War in Cairo – where she knew Bernard Spencer, Lawrence Durrell and other writers associated with the journal Personal Landscape, in which her Rilke translations first began to appear – and died in Highgate in 2000. Her papers were left to the University of Reading.

The University of Reading archive mentions Ruth Speirs Collection, and gives some additional biographical details:

After the war John Speirs returned to England with his wife to live in London and work in the University of Exeter. Ruth continued to publish translations of poetry from both German and Latvian. After John died in 1979 she had some financial difficulties but continued to find enough work to live on. Ruth Speirs died in 2000.

The Reading collection includes her letters, lists of her translations, and books with her work.

As she translated from both German and Latvian, I would assume that Latvian was her mother tongue. She was probably familiar with German from early days, as it was often the case in the early 20th century Latvia. What surprises me is her mastery of English, the language she learned relatively late yet in which she spent most of her life, first in Egypt, then in Britain. English is the target language of her translations, which have been praised “of the most supple, patient, responsive and exact versions” of the original.

Finding out more about this extraordinary person is the project I would like to embark upon once we can travel again.

Meanwhile, enjoy one of the Čaks’ poems in Ruth Speirs’ English translation, and in the Latvian original.

Three books

I published a beautiful book
on eternity
art
and the sol,
I published it, but
all the bookshops
in unison
sternly
rejected
my book.

Did I plunge into grief?
No!

I published another,
written with fervour –
a book
on brotherhood,
helping one’s neighbour,
the grandeur of culture,
and the future of man.

In vain
did I look for it, though,
in the bookshop’s windows,
among novels sumptuously bound,
modernistic inkstands
and lean-limbed stars of the screen,
in vain.
And then,
When I entered the shop
and asked for my book
which I wrote with such fervour,
the salesgirl, fragrant
like a noble cigar
and with gentle madonna-like features,
smiled:
“Mister, this isn’t a charity
nor a society for the protection of animals.”

And then,
on that foggy autumnal evening
when under the lime-trees on boulevards
no longer the flowers
but streetwalkers
scented the air,
when cars rushed out of the dark,
two shimmering suns on their fronts,
I,
coming home,
pulled off my boots and threw them out of the window,
and sold my coat to the landlady
in lieu of rent for my room,
and sat down
and
started to write:
“Practical hints
for men who rob the exchequer,
murders,
couples living in sin,
inexperienced writers,
students who fail their exams,
drivers of cars,
and people awkward at dancing.”

Twenty tycoons
fought as bitterly over my book
as over a government grant.

And when it was published
thousands
of bright
lights
proclaimed its title
to all the nation.

Side by side
with world-famous Dunlop tyres,
exciting Houbigant powder
and Chlorodont toothpaste,
in every corner and hoarding,
in every showcase,
there loomed before you
my face
shrunken and lean
from sleepless nights
and meals only eaten in dreams.

The publisher’s agents
promoting my book
shouted:
“Three cheers!”

Seeing my picture,
idlers and schoolboys
wondered: “Is he a yogi,
has he broken all hunger-strike records,
is he wanted for murder,
or is he a boxer, a Japanese
who’ll be fighting Jack Dempsey?”
While all the girls sighed:
“He is the saviour, ah, of our souls!”

But
a progressive
tobacco firm
put on the market
a high-grade cigar
made of their poorest tobacco
and gave it my name.
Trīs grāmatas

Izdevu grāmatu
skaistu
par mūžību,
mākslu
un dvēseli,
izdevu,
bet visi veikali
asi
kā viens
atteicās
no manas grāmatas.

Bet vai es noskumu?
Nē!
Izdevu otru es
grāmatu —
grāmatu kvēlu
par brālību
palīdzību
cilvēces nākotni
un viņas kultūras cēlumu.

Tomēr velti
es meklēju viņu
veikala logos
starp romāniem brīnišķos sējumos,
modernām tintnīcām
un kinoskaistulēm liesām,
velti.
Un, kad es,
iegājis veikalā,
prasīju grāmatu,
savu grāmatu kvēlo,
jaunava smaršaina
kā pirmšķirīgs cigārs
ar maigu madonnas sejiņu
smaidīja:
— Kungs, te nav patversme
vai kustoņu glābšanas biedrība. —
Un tad
šinī miglainā rudeņa vakarā,
kad zem liepām uz bulvāriem
ziedu vietā
smaršoja tikai vairs
ielu meitenes
un auto drāzās no tumsas
ar divām kaistošām saulēm sev priekšā,
es,
mājās atgriezies,
norāvu zābakus, izsviezdams viņus pa logu,
pārdevu saimniecei mēteli
par savu istabu,
sēdos
un —
rakstīju darbu:
“Praktiskie padomi
valsts kases apzadzējiem,
vekseļu viltotājiem,
slepkavām,
nelaulātiem,
rakstniekiem iesācējiem,
caurkritušiem abitūrijā,
auto šoferiem un
deju nepratējiem.”

Divdesmit grāmatu magnāti
kāvās ap viņu
kā ap valsts pabalstu.
Un, kad šī grāmata iznāca,
tūkstošiem
mirdzošu
gaismas reklāmu
raidīja tautā
manas grāmatas vārdu.

Blakus
slavenām Dunlopa riepām,
Hlorodontpastai
un Hubigan brīnišķiem pūderiem
no visiem stūriem,
stabiem un vitrīnām
rēgojās pretim
jums mana seja,
šaura un liesa
pēc bezmiega naktīm
un pusdienām, ēstām tik sapņos.

Firmas
pieņemtie aģenti — kliedzēji
sauca:
— Lai dzīvo! —

Klaidoņi, skolnieki prātoja,
skatoties ģīmetnē svešā:
— Vai tas kāds jogs,
jauna badošanās ilguma rekordists,
varbūt bokseris japānis,
nākošais Dempseja pretinieks,
vai arī nenoķerts slepkava? —
Jaunkundzes dvesa:
— Ak, mūsu dvēseļu glābējs! —

Bet
viena moderna
tabakas fabrika
izlaida
no visu sliktākās tabakas
ar manu vārdu
savus labākos cigārus.

Too bad

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we walk on them / quietly like cats

In the early 2000s, I participated in the International Poetry Club. We would meet every couple of months in someone’s house, share food, and recite poetry in different languages. Each session had a topic, and each of us would present a poem related to that topic, in the original and in English translation.

Several times I presented poems by Aleksandrs Čaks (1901-1950), a famous Latvian poet.

His poetry is a mixture of modernism, futurism, and absurdism, but above all, he is an urbanist. Whereas most of his contemporaries were singing the beauty of Latvian countryside, he was singing the hustle and bustle of a city. More precisely, the city, his Riga, where now a central street, always busy and at places seedy, bears his name.

Čaks is one of my favourite poets. I like his humour, his extravagant comparisons and unusual metaphors, unexpected, even absurd turns and twists.

This poem is entitled Slikti, meaning ‘Too bad’, a title rather appropriate for the current situation.

Too bad:
I, Latvian poet
What shall I sing about?
My heart
Is dry and thin
Like worn out leather
of an armchair.

Were I a black poet,
I would sing songs
About lips,
Dark and warm,
Like nights in July,
Without stars and wind,
Would sing songs
About flesh of girls,
Brown and strong like the earth,
Would sing songs
About freedom far away,
Like clouds in the air,
Were I a black poet.

But now?
Now we have
Bad freedom,
Skinny girls,
who paint their tiny lips like cloth,
Radio towers,
Rubber soles,
We walk on them
Quietly like cats,
Feel quietly,
Think quietly,
And die quietly.

 

Slikti
es, latviešu dzejnieks,–
par ko lai es dziedu?
Sirds mana
sausa un plāna
kā izkopta āda
atzveltnes krēslam.

Būtu es nēģeru dzejnieks,
dziedātu dziesmas
par lūpām,
kas tumšas un siltas
kā jūlija naktis
bez zvaigznēm un vēja,
dziedātu dziesmas
par jaunavu miesu —
brūno un stingro kā zemi,
dziedātu dziesmas
par brīvību tālo,
kā mākoņi gaisos —
būtu es nēģeru dzejnieks.

Bet tagad?
Tagad mums:
brīvība slikta,
jaunavas liesas,
kas lūpiņas krāso kā drēbi,
radiotorņi,
gumijas zoles,
ar kurām mēs ejam
klusi kā kaķi,
izjūtam klusi,
domājam klusi,
un nomirstam klusi.