The Waste Land (04) – translating foreign language lines


I’m spending the next 6 months reading The Waste Land and exploring it, its meaning, its references, its context and its place in (modern?) culture.

In my last post I outlined my plan for approaching this project, noting there are some basics to cover. This post therefore looks at translating the foreign language lines throughout The Waste Land. We don’t here yet explore what the meaning of the lines is or the wider work from where they’re taken, nor why Eliot chose to use foreign language to express them.

A note on process: where Eliot makes specific reference to the foreign language lines in his notes, then I have allowed myself to find a relevant copy of the text online. My thinking here is that I could as easily find a copy of the given title in a library, but physically accessing a library would extend the project by several months! Where, though, there is no reference in Eliot’s notes then I have not simply searched for it. This goes back to part of my original reason for undertaking this project: “to create some space, focus and flow for myself in one tiny area of the physical and mental worlds”.

Now, to the translations.

The epigraph

I’m actually going to deal with the epigraph in a separate post. It’s in Latin and Greek, and is not alluded to in any of Eliot’s notes. Part of the challenge I’ve set myself in this project is not simply to Google an answer – there must be a process of discovery – so I am trying to find a translation of the epigraph and from where it’s taken via separate means.

 For Ezra Pound

il miglior fabbro

This Italian translates as “the better maker” and refers to the fact that Ezra Pound supported Eliot closely in how he structured the poem, and indeed gave it its title. I discovered this through reading Peter Watson’s A Terrible Beauty, which I realise now is where I first substantively came across The Waste Land.

(A note for later study is to understand better the role Ezra Pound played in the creation of The Waste Land.)

Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aust Litauen, echt deutsch (12)

Not referred to in Eliot’s notes, I assume that Eliot wrote this himself and have translated this line myself to be: “I am not Russian, but Lithuanian – true German”

Frisch weht der Wind / Der Heimat zu / Mein Irisch Kind, wo weilest du? (31-34)

Cited in Eliot’s notes as being lines 5-8 of Act I of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. A common translation has these lines as:

Fresh blows the Wind

towards home

My Irish Child

where are you now?

(A note for later study is to find out more about Tristan und Isolde)

Oed’ und leer das Meer

Also cited in Eliot’s notes as being from Tristan und Isolde – line 24 of Act III, translating as:

Desolate and void the sea!


“You! hypocrite lecteur!–mon semblable,–mon frere!” (76)

Cited in Eliot’s notes as being from the (poem) preface to Baudelaire’s Fleurs de Mal (Flowers of Evil), this translates as:

you — hypocrite Reader — my double — my brother!




Et O ces voix d’enfants, chantant dans la coupole! (202)

I could have had a stab at this French – children’s voices singing somewhere or other. Fortunately, Eliot notes the source in his notes: Verlaine’s poem Parsifal. It translates as:

And, O these children’s voices singing in the dome!

Although we are not yet exploring the meaning of these foreign language lines, we should note here in the rest of Parsifal an explicit reference to the Holy Grail (“As priest-king and guardian of the sacred treasure / In golden robe he worships that sign of grace / The pure vessel in which shines the Holy Blood”). Parsifal is also the name of another Wagner opera (as is Tristan und Isolde) – there’s much here to get into later.


Datta (402), Dayadhvam (412), Damyata (419) (and again together at 433)

The translation is given by Eliot himself in his notes as:

Give, sympathise, control



Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina (428)

Cited in Eliot’s notes as being from Dante’s Purgatory, line 148 of canto 26, and translates as:

Then, in the fire that refines, he hid


Quando fiam uti chelidon (429)

Eliot’s notes cite this line from Pervigilium Veneris and he probably meant to refer to the translation as:

When shall I become like a swallow


Le Prince d’Aquitaine a la tour abolie (430)

Again, my secondary level French may well have sufficed for this one (a Prince, a destroyed tower), but Eliot kindly provides a note to point us in the direction of El Desdichado by Gerard de Nerval. The translation is:

The Aquitaine Prince whose tower is destroyed


Shantih shantih shantih (434)

Given by Eliot in his notes to mean “The Peace which passeth understanding”.

So we have a literal understanding of what the foreign language lines of The Waste Land mean – a good start. We’ve also begun to create a reading list of sources from which Eliot drew direct inspiration (Wagnerian opera, Dante’s Divine Comedy, some Sanskrit texts). Before we explore their specific meanings, what the meanings of the works they’re taken from is, and why they’re used in a foreign form, we’ll carry on looking at some other basics, too, continuing next with the characters referenced throughout.


The Waste Land (03) – outline plan


I’m spending the next 6 months reading The Waste Land and exploring it, its meaning, its references, its context and its place in (modern?) culture.

After outlining my reflections from a first read – summarised into themes and dimensions – now is the time to plan on how to approach the rest of the project.

As I noted before, I would feel most comfortable getting into the dimensions of The Waste Land: considerations such as structure, rhyme, languages, perspectives etc. But form follows function, and it feels like I’d be taking the more straightforward route if I focused on these (relatively) easier dimensions rather than grapple with Eliot’s meaning. I must, therefore, start with meaning and themes and then seek to understand how the rest magnifies these.

Before this, though, there are some basics to cover. There are lines in foreign languages (the epigraph is in Latin, the dedication in Greek, passages in French and German, and a smattering of Sanskrit) to be translated. There are characters to understand (at least in the first instance; for example, who are Belladonna, Tiresias, Phlebas the Phoenician, Philomel, Cupidon) and what does Eliot mean by invoking them? And there are locations to place (Starnbergersee, the London locations, Carthage, Margate).

Some time should first be spent, therefore, building this basic knowledge.

From there, it feels most natural to work through Eliot’s own notes to further elucidate his meanings. This will particularly require reading “From Ritual to Romance” by Jessie L. Weston (cited by Eliot as the inspiration for the title, plan and much of the symbolism of The Waste Land), as well as “The Golden Bough” (a book I’ve heard of, at least, if not read or know much about).

I think we’ll be getting somewhere if we do these things, and will also generate a better idea of what to pursue in light of the results. Off we go!

The Waste Land project (02) – first read


“It’s all Latin to me.”

“No no. I think you’ll find it’s also Greek, German, French and Sanskrit.”


So formally begins my project to spend the next 6 months reading The Waste Land and exploring it, its meaning, its references, its context and its place in (modern?) culture.

I knew enough to understand this was going to be a personal challenge – why set the task of the project otherwise? – but a first detailed reading shows just how long and steep this climb is going to be.


As we approach the end of June (one month gone already! There’s been a lot happening, which goes to show how difficult the pull of news and events and life can be, especially when a further intention of this project is specifically to create some space, focus and flow for myself in one tiny area of the physical and mental worlds) I have read The Waste Land in detail three times. After my first read I wrote down the themes and dimensions of the poem that I could see, all of which have many questions associated with them.

To try and provide some structure to how I’ll get into The Waste Land, below are these very initial notes and some associated questions.


Themes, or meaning

Knowing what The Waste Land means is the whole point of this, really, so I can’t expect myself to capture and understand all of the themes and meaning of it in one go! The themes I have detected so far, though, are:

  • Time and seasons
  • Geography and nature
  • Reality and mysticism
  • Our everyday lives against the tide of humanity

There will be others.

There’s not much point expanding on these just now, so I won’t.


These feel to me more like the technical aspects of the poem – how it achieves its effects and conveys its themes. They seem to include:

  • Perspectives and relationships – it’s hard to know exactly who is talking or is being talked about at any given point of the poem. Who are the characters? Why are the characters? What do the different perspectives bring?
  • Structure – why is The Waste Land structured as it is? What is the purpose of this and what effect does it create? How does this compare to other poetry of the time?
  • Rhyme and repetition – sometimes there, sometimes not. Why?
  • Language(s) – there are at least six languages used in the poem. What are the translations? Why are different languages used? What does a different language add that the English equivalent couldn’t convey? What motivates the inclusion of an additional barrier to understanding the poem?
  • Humour – unexpected, but definitely there. To what end?

What next?

It’s not much, but it’s a start.

It is probably to be expected, but I feel more comfortable in thinking about the dimensions of The Waste Land rather than its themes. As someone with an untrained eye for poetry (and literature more generally) there is an element of comfort in questioning the practicalities of the poem rather than grappling with its themes. This, alas, will have to change.

But for now this will suffice. The question in my mind, though, is how to progress now? – a question I’ll return to in a further post.




The Waste Land project (01)

The Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Today I am starting a new personal project: the Waste Land project.

I know very little about The Waste Land. It’s a Modern poem by T.S. Eliot and, well, that’s about it. It keeps cropping up in various other things I’ve read over the last few years, so it must be important in some sense or another; I just have no real feeling of what that sense might be.

And so the idea came to me to spend a set period of time reading The Waste Land and exploring it, its meaning, its references, its context and its place in (modern?) culture.

The idea is to spend the next 6 months – until Christmas – reading pretty much only The Waste Land and things associated with it. As much as possible I will explore it myself, by which I mean I won’t simply search straight away for what other people have said about it, nor buy the Norbury Critical Notes that achieves everything I’m seeking to do through this project.

This belies a final reason for undertaking this project: to create some space, focus and flow for myself in one tiny area of the physical and mental worlds. Physical, in the sense that I’ll do it mainly amidst the noise and selfishness of train journeys; mental, in the sense that it will be a focus away from the well-known sinks of time I’ve reflected on before.

I will try to document the project as I go. It’s worth noting that I don’t have any particular eye or training when it comes to poetry and literature; I’m also quite a poor completer/finisher. By making this project relatively public, then, there is both risk (of being stupid in public) and reward (a benign motivation that comes from the possibility people may be reading this).

Finally, you are of course very welcome to join in. Please do leave thoughts, links, questions, provocations in the comments or via Twitter – I tweet @rich_w and will try to use #wasteland throughout the project.

Solidarity amongst the Grapes of Wrath

I first read the Grapes of Wrath when I was 17. Re-reading it now I realise how little I understood it then but that, at some level, it must have helped to form a sense of anger at the injustice and inequality in the world.

Of the many causes of this injustice and inequality, I was struck this time by Steinbeck’s description of the anonymity of the banks and companies causing so much misery, and the way in which they are somehow more than the people who make them up:

The Bank – or the Company – needs – wants – insists – must have – as though the Bank or Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them. These [men] would take no responsibility for the banks or the companies because they were men and slaves, while the banks were machines and monsters all at the same time.

Steinbeck skewers the supposed helplessness of individuals who work within these monsters (in a way that, to be frank, brings to mind what we often hear people who work in large public sector bureaucracies say):

‘It’s not us, it’s the bank. A bank isn’t like a man. Or an owner with fifty thousand acres, he isn’t like a man either. That’s the monster…’

‘… Yes, but the bank is only made of men.’

‘No, you’re wrong there – quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.’

What’s worse, the anonymity of the banks and companies is combined with a lack of understanding of the land, histories and culture their actions are displacing. This picks up a theme Steinbeck covers in a series of seven journalistic essays he wrote in 1936, The Harvest Gypsies, which provided much of the research and material for The Grapes of Wrath. There he notes:

Having been brought up in the prairies where industrialization never penetrated, the [migrant farmer families] have jumped with no transition from the old agrarian, self-containing farm where nearly everything used was raised or manufactured, to a system of agriculture so industrialized that the man who plants a crop does not often see, let alone harvest, the fruit of his planting, where the migrant has no contact with the growth cycle.

There is a sense of hope, though – represented most directly in the character of Tom Joad and more mystically through Rose of Sharon. The contrast between “I” and “we” –

This is the beginning – from ‘I’ to ‘we’… the quality of owning freezes you forever into ‘I’, and cuts you off from the ‘we’.

– provides through communal effort a basis on which Man will always, somehow, progress:

This you may say of man – when theories change and crash, when schools, philosophies, when narrow dark alleys of thought, national, religious, economic, grow and disintegrate, man reaches, stumbles forward, painfully, mistakenly sometimes. Having stepped forward, he may slip back, but only half a step, never the full step back.

There is solidarity amongst the grapes of wrath.

Tom Joad is often portrayed as the hero of The Grapes of Wrath, and is given this famous speech (in both the book and 1940 film adaptation):

I think the real hero, though, is Ma Joad. Steinbeck describes her like this:

She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. And since old Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt or fear, she had practice denying them in herself. And since, when a joyful thing happened, they looked to see whether joy was on her, it was her habit to build up laughter out of inadequate materials. But better than joy was calm. Imperturbability could be depended on. And from her great and humble position in the family she had taken dignity and a clean calm beauty. From her position as healer, her hands had grown sure and cool and quiet; from her position as arbiter she had become as remote and faultless in judgment as a goddess. She seems to know that if she swayed the family shook, and if she ever really deeply wavered or despaired the family would fall, the family will to function would be gone.

She herself describes the role of women compared to men like this:

This seems to me right, and why, perhaps, people “is aimed right at goin’ on… Jus’ tryin to live the day, jus’ the day.”

Decompression: a personal appraisal

In conversation with a colleague they mentioned in passing they had been in their current role for 11 years. It was at that point I realised I had been working only for 9 years in total – I don’t celebrate my ten-year work anniversary until June 2015.

This provided a useful perspective and set off a series of interconnected, personal thoughts about where I have been, where I am and where I’m going.

Orson Welles, when asked about why he achieved what he did in making Citizen Kane at the age of 26, said it was due to arrogance and ignorance. He didn’t know what was and wasn’t achievable in film and so simply went about achieving what he wanted to.

There is a whole literature dedicated to age-achievement curves, broadly considering at what age significant contributions to different disciplines are made. In a paper on age and scientific genius, Jones, Reedy and Weinberg[1] note that the median age of “great achievement” (typically Nobel prize-winning contributions or equivalent) is 37 in maths, 40 in physics, 43 in engineering, and 45 in surgery and psychology.

Age-achievement curves

Exploring these differences in more detail, it is noted:

people who excel in abstract fields, like art or physics, tend to be younger than those who win prizes in fields that require more context, like history or medicine.

Even within abstract fields there are variations: theorists generally make their greatest contributions earlier than those who are “experimental” by just over 4.5 years.

If we look to the humanities we see that great contributions tend to come later in life: the average age of Nobel laureates for literature is 65 and for economics is 67.

Nobel laureate ages

There are basic reasons for these age-achievement curves:

The most obvious factor is education: Scientists spend ages 5 through 18 in school, and then ages 18 through 30ish getting their academic degrees. Then a few years of learning on the job… Meanwhile, scientific breakthroughs tend to be less common in old age because we invest less in learning as we get older, and our skills gradually become less relevant.


The most important conceptual work typically involve radical departures from existing paradigms, and the ability to identify and appreciate these radical departures may be greatest shortly after initial exposure to a paradigm, before it has been fully assimilated.

Is there an equivalent age-achievement relationship in public services and the public officials who run them? It is difficult to know because arguments can be made either way – for people being younger or older when they make/made a significant contribution – and I don’t think there’s a literature that has considered this question[2].

My feeling is that people are probably older when they make significant contributions to public services. Assuming it is possible to attribute changes to the effects of one particular individual, making that change happen requires things like seniority, the ability to persuade others, and having the chance to build a reputation over time – characteristics that come, mainly, with age.

What does this mean for how I feel now?

As a younger man I was in a hurry, partly because I’d been a late starter. Now I am much less so. The ignorance and arrogance of youth – the things I didn’t know I didn’t know – carried me so far; the ability and leeway to ask questions or offer challenges that other people didn’t was present. This, coupled with a strong work ethic, meant some progress on things I was involved with could be made.

Experiencing things for the first time in the world of work was a blessing. I had fresh eyes. There was no sense of the routine, no jaded feelings from having been here before. There was no chance to say: “I remember when…” or inclination to lament: “We’ve tried that before…”. By definition, the things I was then involved with and at what level I operated weren’t as sophisticated or complicated as they are now, and so lent themselves to a progress of sorts.

In the earlier stages there had been no seeing behind the curtain and realising the Emperor is at best only partially clothed. I was optimistic, not cynical. Cynicism or the (temporary) loss of hope or optimism is one of the hardest new realities to deal with. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” “We must become the change we want to see in the world.” These are all true and yet none of them are true.

Things change.

Political HorseshoeWork-wise the issues are more complex, more nuanced, more serious; less easy to solve, less easy to understand and less easy to address. The decision points become finer, the judgments more balanced, the action less direct and the influence more subtle. The implications are bigger – for people, for staff, for policy, practice and precedent. The room for mistakes is larger; the margin of success slimmer. It is said that political ideology most resembles a horseshoe; I’ve always found this interpretation compelling, and it may not take much to jump the gap, perhaps even before you realise you’ve done so.

And these changes in work happen at a time when there are changes in a personal life. Relationships, family, children, health, balance, perspective; a slowing down, a different pace, an accrual of experience; perhaps a sense of where the limit of your ability might lie; understanding what got you here won’t get you there.

What does this mean for how I feel about the future?

All of the above are phenomena that need time and space to consider. Taking this time, decompressing experience, so that it stretches out, feels important. In doing so there are more opportunities for reflection, to think about what something might mean and to think of implications in many directions. To think of why? as well as what? and how?

There are plenty of future times. To make the most of the fact things have happened or been tried before, of history, of documented experience, is a benefit. It’s a chance to learn, change what needs to be changed, keep what needs to be kept and work with the people who need to be worked with.

In taking time to truly know where I am now – of undertaking a personal appraisal – there is more chance to absorb experience and to fill in the gaps that ignorance and arrogance left behind, and of equipping myself for a more balanced future.


[1] – “Age and Scientific Genius” (pdf), National Bureau of Economic Research. A fascinating paper by Dean Simonton summarising what is known about age and outstanding achievement, including methodological questions, is available here (pdf).

[2] – For example, try easily finding the average age of all local authority chief executives.

“Failure all the way down”

“Fail better,” Samuel Beckett commanded, a phrase that has been taken on by business executives as some kind of ersatz wisdom. They have missed the point completely. Beckett didn’t mean failure-on-the-way-to-delayed-success[.] To fail better, to fail gracefully and with composure, is so essential because there’s no such thing as success. It’s failure all the way down.

– Stephen Marche, writing in the New York Times