Thursday, April 9, 2015

Homer in the Original Esperanto

Ĉu esti aŭ ne esti?
There was a joke made in the movie Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country that Shakespeare was best “in the original Klingon,” which was probably playing off of the claims made by German scholars that Shakespeare was better in German translation than it was in the original English, with the further claim that Shakespeare had a “German spirit.” I bring this up only because in a letter to the Sun on April 8, 1906, John Fogg Twombly, the secretary of the American Esperanto Association made the claim that the Iliad was better in Esperanto than it was in English.

After some hunting, I managed to find both the Esperanto translation of the Iliad and the Esperanto translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, which was also cited by Twombly. Twombly is bringing up great works of literature translated into Esperanto in response to a editorial which appear in the Sun on April 4, 1906. There, the future of Esperanto was described in terms of sophomores turning out translations of the poems of Tennyson and Browning.

When you’re secretary of the American Esperanto Association, you cannot let snark like this stand unchallenged. The Sun published Twombly’s rejoinder on April 8, 1906.

Beauties of the Esperantoed Shakespeare and Homer, Surpassing the Originals.
To the Editor of The Sun—Sir: In The Sun a day or two ago you wrote: “We may expect before the year is out to read the works of Shakespeare, and perhaps the poems of Tennyson and Browning translated by some philanthropic sophomore into the beauteous Esperanto.” As a matter of fact, you can to-day read “Hamlet” in Esperanto, rendered by Dr. Zamenhof himself. Moreover, the translation is really a credible performance, for instance, it is fully as good as the French version. Owing to the similarities of general structure and rhythm, the Esperanto versions of the “Iliad” and of the “Æneid” are mutch better, both in spirit and in form, than any English version yet produced.

Really, why should not Esperanto be available for literary purposes, and especially for translation of European poetry? The vocabulary of the language has been taken bodily from the European tongues; its vowel sounds are full and harmonious; its grammar, though extremely simple, permits of great flexibility in the construction of sentences; its accentual system and its termination of words by vowels are practically those of the Spanish and Italian languages—acknowledged to be the most harmonious tongues in Europe.

Allow me to give you the Esperanto version of the first four lines of the Iliad. The vowels are pronounced as in German or Italian; the accent is always on the penultimate syllable:

Kantu, diino, koleron de la Peleido Aĥilo
Ĝin, kiu al la Aĥajoj kaŭzis mizerojn sennombrajn
Kaj en Aidon deĵetis metegajn animojn kuraĝajn
De herouloj kaj faris korpojn iliajn akiro
Al rabobirdoj kaj hundoj

“J” in Esperanto is the sign of the plural, and is pronounced as English “y.” “Chu” indicates that the sentence is interrogative in form. Nouns end in “o,” adjectives in “a,” infinities in “i,” the present indicative in “as,” the past in “is” and the imperative in “u.”

Bearing these few points in mind, let your readers pronounce aloud slowly the extract, and the compare it with the original. I think that they will be surprised to discover how successfully Esperanto comes out from this ordeal.

I shall always be glad to hear from those interested in Esperanto.
J. F. Twombly,
Secretary American Esperanto Association, Boulevard Station, Boston.
Brookline, Mass., April 6.
The transcription of the Esperanto was a total mess, and so I’ve spared everyone the mistakes of the Sun compositors, who couldn’t tell gin from ĝin, it would seem. For further edification, the first four lines of the Aeneid in Esperanto (La Eneido) are:
Armoj mi kantas kaj viron, unua el bordoj Trojanaj
Kiu elvenis, fatale puŝita, kaj ĝis Lavinujo,
Lando Itala, longtempe tra tero kaj maro vagadis,
Dia de volo; ĉar lin persekutis Juona kolero.
Also, the Sun couldn’t resist the temptation to add a snarky subhead. Their claim that Shakespeare and Homer in Esperanto surpass the originals is not what John Twombly said. He said that the Esperanto translations of Homer and Virgil are better than the English translations. I have my doubts on Zamenhof’s translation of Hamlet (I haven’t curled up with it). Zamenhof had limited knowledge of English, and so he probably used the German translation as he basis, violating the translator’s rule to not further translate a translation. In any case, Twombly said it was as good as Hamlet in French.

The Iliado is a fairly early work of the Esperanto movement, with a publication date of 1895, and it comes out of Nuremberg. The translator, A. Kofman, was likely a member of the Nuremberg Esperanto Society. The Eneido is a production of the “French Period,” and was published in Paris in 1904 (or perhaps 1906). The translation was done by the French Esperantist Henri Vallienne.

But what of John Fogg Twombly? I’ve wanted to write about him for a while, since he has the distinction of being a founding member of both the Boston Esperanto Society, one of earliest local groups in the United States, and the American Esperanto Society, the short-lived effort to launch a national organization. He was not, shall we say, a native Bostonian, as his father was born in Maine, his mother in Connecticut, and he was born in Shanghai, China. There has to be a story there, but it hasn’t come to light yet.

In 1906, when he wrote the letter, he was a thirty-six year old lawyer. Well-travelled too, as one of his passport applications was filed in Athens, Greece. He had been married for ten years, and as recently as four years prior, the couple lived with Mrs. Twombly’s parents. At some point, the two divorced as in 1925, he is living alone in New Rochelle, New York, later living with a nephew, and he was divorced. He died in June 1959.

Within the Esperanto movement, Twombly was something of a mixed bag. William Gray Nowell spoke kindly of him in August 1907, noting that
John Fogg Twombly of Brookline, Mass has been secretary from the start, and we hope will always be willing to undertake the responsible and laborious duties of that office
This was not to be. A year after Nowell wrote his letter to the Sun (it’s always the Sun, which made amazing coverage of the early period of the Esperanto movement in the United States), Twombly was ousted as secretary with the dissolution of American Esperanto Association, and Edwin C. Reed was in.

Early on, Twombly was an ardent supporter of the Esperanto movement. The first sign of moving away was a long letter in the January 1909 Amerika Esperantisto advocating certain reforms, much along the lines of the Ido reformers. In the same issue, there’s a lengthy piece decrying the Ido reformers.

Twombly caused a bit of a stir at the 1910 Universala Kongreso by suggesting that the three Volapük congresses be added to the numbering, making the 1910 Universala Kongreso de Esperanto the ninth World Congress of International Language. Dr. Zamenhof, talking warmly of the achievements of Father Schleyer, quashed the proposal. *Amerika Esperantisto reported in parallel text (I’m quoting only the English):
On the proposal of Messrs. Twombly and Scott, Sro. Chavet explained that the permanent Committee of the Congresses was of the opinion that it would not be proper to call our Sixth Congress the Ninth International, and that, as Sro. Schleyer had always the esteem of the Esperantists, there was no reason for giving it special expression.

Dr. Zamenhof explained, in a few words, the opinion of the Permanent Committee on the proposals of Messrs. Scott and Twombly. He said that in fact Sro. Schleyer has always the esteem of the Esperantists, who cannot forget the great service which he rendered to the idea of an international language, but that there is really no sufficient reason for giving it special expression at this time.
It’s not clear when Twombly left the Esperanto movement, though a December 1918 article has a lengthy list of people no longer active in the movement, with the hope that they could be enticed to return. It’s family names only, but the list includes Baker, Payson (a former EANA president), Reed, and Twombly. The Esperanto movement was running out of steam. Further, a July 1920 item lists him among those who are former supporters of Esperanto, with the supposition that those listed no longer read Amerika Esperantisto. The 1918 effort must not have been successful.

His last record of activity in the Esperanto movement is in 1911, then there’s a gap in references to him in Amerika Esperantisto until 1918, when they start wondering where he went off to.

Unfortunately, I have not been able to find a picture of Mr. Twombly, one of pioneers of Esperanto in the United States.
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