They were coming very near the upper air,
And a sudden madness seized him, madness of love,
A madness to be forgiven if Hell but knew
How to forgive; he stopped in his tracks, and then,
Just as they were just about to emerge
Out into the light, suddenly, seized by love,
Bewildered into heedlessness, alas!,
His purpose overcome, he turned, and looked
Back at Eurydice. And then and there
His labor was spilled and flowed away like water.
—From "Orpheus and Eurydice," Virgil, Georgics, IV, II trans. David Ferry
I have been so dislanguaged by what happened
I cannot speak the words that somewhere you
Maybe were speaking to others where you went.
Maybe they talk together where they are,
Restlessly wandering, along the shore,
Waiting for a way to cross the river.
—From “That Now are Wild and Do Not Remember,” David Ferry
Where is it that she I loved has gone to…?
—From “Soul,” David Ferry
The theme of David Ferry’s talk at MIT on November 4 is bereavement and its many figures.
He begins with a reading from “Orpheus and Eurydice.” The poem is his translation from Virgil’s Georgics, and appears in his 2012 book of poems and translations, Bewilderment. Bewilderment, in Ferry’s translation of Virgil, is the first warning sign that Orpheus will lose Eurydice. Perhaps there was no other option but loss, Ferry suggests. The story is “a metaphor, but it is more than a metaphor.” He likens the story to the process of translation, “trying to recover and bring [something] back to life and always [Orpheus] has to look back and always he fails.”
Loss is inevitable, as much in translation as in life. But loss is also a scene of addition. Ferry is an award-winning translator who has translated Horace and Virgil, but in Bewilderment, he prints these translations alongside his own original poems. In Ferry’s originals, Orpheus appears again, but this time in a restaurant in New Jersey, where Ferry describes almost glimpsing his father’s ghost. Here, loss is figured by the divide between the living and the dead, a place where language can’t exist and where conversations go unfinished.
“Virgil said, when Eurydice died again,
'There was still so much to say' that had not been said
Even before her first death, from which he had vainly
Attempted, with his singing, to rescue her.”
Life exists in words, and in the things that people say. Ferry says that as a writer and translator, he uses words that already exist, and this usage constitutes a dialogue. But there’s an exception to this rule: the word “dislanguaged,” which appears in his poem “That Now are Wild and Do Not Remember.” He invented the word himself, and it’s an interesting addition. It seems to have a paradoxical nature: why create a word to describe a place where language itself cannot exist? But in Ferry’s poems, language is both the site of loss and the medium of alleviating loss: Orpheus sings, and Ferry writes. Bewilderment is dedicated to Ferry’s late wife, the literary critic Anne, whom he describes in his talk as a “great reader and writer.” It’s hard not to think that in these exquisite poems, he is addressing her. Loss is presence and absence. It dislanguages us and it brings forth language.
In a time when many words are spent on communication that is meant to be erased or forgotten, translation suggests that we can have a clearer dialogue with the ideas and words of the past. But the process is not simple, as Ferry shows. Words are often incomplete. We are always looking back.
Anika Gupta is a graduate student in the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT. Before joining MIT, she worked for several years as a science and technology journalist in New Delhi, India. She has written about travel, literature, entrepreneurship and technology for publications around the world. She grew up in Rockville, Maryland.