Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Gigantic Arabs

One of my favourite blogs is Some Landscapes, written by Andrew Ray (a.k.a. Plinius), which should be a regular port of call for anyone with an interest in landscape and landscape-related art. Andrew is very well-informed, writes well, and is wide-ranging and generous in his discussions of current exhibitions and the work of contemporary landscape artists as well as the artists and writers of the past, not least those of China and Japan, areas in which he appears to have a special interest.

One of his recent posts concerned the heartfelt complaints confided to her journal by Marie Bashkirtseff, a talented painter of Ukrainian extraction living in late 19th century Paris, lamenting the way conventional expectations of the behaviour of a respectable young woman placed an intolerable constraint on her ability to move about freely in the locations she longed to paint. It's an interesting post, but what caught my eye was his remark that a passage from her diary entry on 20th June 1882 is rendered slightly differently in two different translations. In one, by A.D. Hall (1908), it reads:
So there is nothing to do but deplore my sex and return to dreams of Italy and Spain. Granada! Gigantic Arabs, pure sky, brooks, rose laurels, sun, shadow, peace, calm, harmony, and poetry!
Eh? In the other, by Mathilde Blind (1890), the "gigantic arabs" have been translated as "gigantic vegetation". Which is odd, to say the least. As I know a bit of Russian, I was curious to learn what word had led to this confusion. So, having established that her "real" Russian-style name was Mariia Bashkirtseva, I managed to track down an online text of what I took to be the original of her journal ("dnevnik" in Russian), here. When I found the relevant entry, I was puzzled to see that the ambiguous passage had been omitted. The entry ends, "Итак, остается оплакивать свой пол"; that is, "So there is nothing to do but deplore my sex". No dreams of Italy and Spain, no Granada, no giant arabs, nothing. Which was intriguing, and also made me begin to suspect that there might be something a little racy going on here that had been edited out, as well as perhaps clumsily bowdlerised by those early translators.

The most accessible fluent Russian speaker I'm aware of is Stephen Dodson of that other estimable blog, Language Hat (no relation). So I took the liberty of dropping him an email, wondering (a) whether he might have access to a fuller edition of Bashkirtseva's Dnevnik, or (b) if not, what Russian word might possibly be translated as either "arabs" and/or "vegetation"? Stephen replied that he couldn't help, not least because, in fact, it seemed the original text was in French, Mon Journal. Ah.

I discovered that Bashkirtseff's Journal had been through various editions and redactions, as Marie had died very young of TB, and her family had sought subsequently both to maximise the monetary and minimise the scandal value of her written legacy (not to mention falsifying her age, to make her seem more of a prodigy). This was starting to look complicated – no French edition appeared to be available online – and, to be honest, less interesting, and certainly not worth a trip up to London to visit a library with a substantial 19th century French collection.

But, as a last throw of the dice, I had a look in the catalogue of "my" library [1] and was amazed to find we had an abridged edition in French. Not only that, but – despite having shrunk from the original 16-volume job down to a single pocket-sized volume – the entry for 20th June 1882 was there. Now, I have no idea how close this edition abrégée (Paris: Nelson, 1938) is to Marie's original diary. She may well have indulged in a little exotic erotic fantasy on the 20th June, which her editors discreetly bowdlerised. Given the nature of her complaint about the treatment of young ladies in the 1880s that would be ironic, n'est-ce pas? But here is the mystery passage, as found:
Donc, il n'y a qu'à déplorer mon sexe, et à revenir aux rêves d'Italie et d'Espagne. Grenade! Arbres géants, ciel pur, ruisseaux, lauriers-roses, soleil, ombre, paix, calme, harmonie, poésie!
Which translates exactly as above, apart from the crucial ambiguous phrase, which turns out to be, bathetically: arbres géants, "gigantic trees". So it seems one translator, Blind, had a wooden ear, but the other, Hall, made a bizarre slip of the sort my teachers would have called "a howler", or possibly even of the sort we have come to know as "Freudian".

1. Despite having retired, I think dedicating 30 years to the maintenance and flourishing of an institution entitles one to a degree of "ownership". More prosaically, I do also have a reader's ticket.


David Brookes said...


What the French call lauriers-roses (here translated as rose laurels), we know as oleanders - a much more evocative word in this context.


Mike C. said...


Thanks, I'm not big on plants, so hadn't spotted that. Not quite in the same league as "arbres = arabs", but these guys obviously lacked a decent dictionary! I'll have to find out when the first modern French-English dictionary was published.