Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Typo or Hapax Legomenon?

As I translated Auden the other day, I stumbled on a line that read:

“to form some placant sentence”

That was from the first edition of his collection ‘Thank You Fog’, published by Faber and Faber in 1974. Auden is no stranger to neologisms, archaisms and hapax legomena and, although I couldn’t find that “placant” anywhere in my multi-volume OED, I trusted Faber’s poetry editors implicitly and spent the good part of an hour scratching my head and coming up with the most abstruse interpretations of the word. The sense was clear enough of course, but the reason why he – the master of precision – would use that strange term escaped me.

Then it occurred to me that the poem may be included in Auden’s Collected Poems. So it was, and when I turned to the right page I realized that “placant” was in fact a misprint of the more straightforward (by Auden standards) “placent”.

This reminded me of those obscure passages in old poems such as the Divine Comedy, which have come down to us through a number of very different drafts patiently pieced together by generations and generations of critics. For centuries critics have debated the meaning of “Papé Satàn, Papé Satàn aleppe!”, the first line of the seventh Canto of Dante’s Inferno. Especially “aleppe” has troubled the nights of many an established academic in Italy and abroad. In fact, we do not know what Dante actually wrote, and even if we knew for certain that he wrote “aleppe”, then we’d have no idea what he meant by it. Other famous examples in the Inferno are the meaning of “ombra” in “come falso veder bestia quand’ombra” (ii, 48) or “croia” in xxx, 102.

Man is programmed to care about meaning, and must find an explanation for everything. As to my translation of Auden, it’s a shame I had his Collected Poems to hand: who knows, my personal turmoil might have even resulted in a new Italian word. . .

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