Translating the 1930's Latin and Dutch of an Escher emblematum...
May 20, 2021 6:52 AM   Subscribe

In my work on fungal iconographies, I've stumbled on an image from a series of woodcuts made by M.C. Escher around 1930, which is accompanied by a motto in Latin and brief poem in Dutch by (apparently florid) Dutch author G.J. Hoogewerff (under the pseudonym A.E. Drijfhout). The only translation I've found does not seem entirely accurate, but my Latin is poor and I can only second-guess the Dutch notes via my German... might you be able to help me out?

The motto is "Dissolutionis ex humore speciose praefloresco" which the site renders as "I begin to blossom gorgeously out of the fluids of disintegration" - but I've found "praeflorare" to mean to deflower / steal from, so it seems there's something missing there.

The accompanying short poem goes:

Wasdom van geheimen is,
nabloei van de nacht,
voos is mijn verrijzenis:
een verwezen pracht.

in which I recognise the German parallels Wachstum (growth), Geheimnis/geheim (secret/secretly), Nacht (night) verwesen/verwest (to rot/rotten) and Pracht (Glory/Beauty), and I've found "afterglow" for nabloei, "rotten" for voos, and "resurrection" for "verrijzenis", so in the site's English rendering of the poem as

‘Secret growth,
legacy of the night,
spongily I rise,
a serene beauty’

the first three lines are passable, more or less, but it seems to me the last line is off the mark, especially the "serene" where there should be something about decay. Or am I missing something about "verwezen"?

Thanks for any pointers!
posted by progosk to Writing & Language (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Verwese has a meaning closer to "wistful" or "abandoned" but I'm struggling to hit on a good English word for it.
posted by Zumbador at 6:58 AM on May 20, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: "abandoned"

oh, so is "verwezen" maybe actually more like the German "verwaist" = orphaned?
posted by progosk at 7:02 AM on May 20, 2021

"Woebegone" is closer in meaning than my previous attempt. It could be related to orphan ("wees" in my Dutch-related language) but I'm not sure about that.
posted by Zumbador at 7:09 AM on May 20, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Hopefully someone with better Latin than I will come along and tell you about the rest of it, but:

I've found "praeflorare" to mean to deflower / steal from, so it seems there's something missing there

The thing missing there is that, to the best of my knowledge, this is a different verb entirely.

"Praeflorare," the one ending in -are (with an a) is listed in Lewis & Short as meaning "to deprive of its blossoms beforehand; to lessen, diminish, tarnish; to deflower." So, as far as I can tell, you're right about what that verb means, but this isn't that verb.

"Praefloresco" is actually from "praeflorere" (ending in -ere, with an e) which Lewis & Short has as "to flower or blossom before the time," which sounds like it matches the translation you got a little better. (The -sc- marks the inchoative in Latin. So "florere," "to flower," but "florescere," "to start flowering." The prae- part is "before." So "praefloresco" is "I start blossoming early.")

I don't know enough Latin to have seen the prefixed form of either verb before, so I'm hoping someone else who has better Latin can confirm this, but that looks to me like that's what's going on here.
posted by sineala at 8:31 AM on May 20, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you, sineala, that actually sounds totally on point, and so it's my Latin-guessing that's off, there ;-) !
posted by progosk at 8:43 AM on May 20, 2021

Best answer: I don't speak Dutch beyond hi/goodbye/please/thank you/excuse me, but from what I'm hearing in the rest of this conversation, "forlorn" might be a good English translation.
posted by praemunire at 12:00 PM on May 20, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: "forlorn" might be a good English translation

posted by progosk at 12:06 PM on May 20, 2021

Best answer: In the original text "geheimenis" is a single word, a rather archaic synonym of "geheim", but that doesn't change the translation.

My go-to translation tool Deepl, usually fairly good to excellent but struggling with the archaic Dutch used by Escher, renders the poem:

Washing of secrets,
afterglow of the night,
void is my resurrection:
a veiled splendour.

"Washing" is totally wrong, and should be "growth".
I'd use "remnant" over "afterglow" and "brittle" over "void". "Voos" does have the connotation of rotten, but it's the word you would use for a fallen-off branch in the woods, seemingly intact but covered in moss and fungus, and disintegrating if you touch it. Also, "verwezen" in Old Dutch is, again, "rotten", so probably the best fit here.
posted by Stoneshop at 2:49 AM on May 21, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Addendum: "Wasdom van geheimenis" can be translated both as "growth of secrets" and "growth out of secrets". The latter is probably more fitting.
posted by Stoneshop at 3:09 AM on May 21, 2021 [1 favorite]

So we agree, don't we, that the item depicted is a pair of amanita muscoria, or fly agaric, the emblematic toxic toadstool of Your Nightmares (and some fairy tales) that (as is implied here) grows out of decomposed matter to striking, but transient, beauty. One of them is shown in its pre-mature state, the other one is fully grown.

"Growth out of secrets" seems appropriate. The nearbyhood (or is it nearbyliness) of archaic Dutch and German has been pointed out by others, so let's have a go.

Wasdom van geheimenis,
nabloei van de nacht,
voos is mijn verrijzenis:
een verwezen pracht.

Growth out of secret,
late bloom of the night,
decay is my rising:
decay made glorious [lit.: "a rotten splendour"].

The last line after the colon appears to be a kind of metaphorical conclusion, where the rotten matter (voos) on which the mushroom grows (from the previous line) is transformed into the germanic/archaic verwezen (decomposed, or morbid in a metaphorical sense) to show the underlying fundamental non-solidness of those beautiful red toadstools.
posted by Namlit at 5:54 AM on May 21, 2021 [1 favorite]

Namlit, I like that a lot.
I would however like to point out that 'voos' is generally used as an adjective, not a noun, so it would translate to 'decayed' or 'decaying' rather than 'decay'.
Of course, it all depends on how literal you want to be and your version is rather impressive as it is.
posted by Too-Ticky at 6:23 AM on May 21, 2021

Oh, ok, good point. “Rotten is my rising” then.
posted by Namlit at 6:39 AM on May 21, 2021

Not bad.
posted by Too-Ticky at 6:52 AM on May 21, 2021

Response by poster: Thanks so much, all.

Yes, those are a pair of A. muscaria; great to know geheimenis is one word (so even closer to the German); good to know the disintegrating/brittle sense of voos (so it's like the German "morsch"); and I like that verwezen might also resonate with wees = orphan. No idea where they got the "serene" in the (Dutch) Escher site's translation from...

All good - grazie mille! (I'll gladly return the favour on any Italian translation puzzle you might come across ;-)
posted by progosk at 10:00 AM on May 21, 2021

If you assume that verwezen (archaic Dutch) and verwesen (German) both go back to the same old Germanic origins, it would seem that the sounds-similar-doesn't-it association with wees – orphan is not relevant.

As to why the translation on the linked Dutch website isn't correct, that's anyone's guess. The only thing I know, being married to an authorized translator and having done quite some translation work myself, is that there's a widespread reluctance to spend any money on this kind of work. There will always be someone around who is believed "good enough" for whatever needs to be translated, who subsequently produces some half-lame stuff, and gets a pass because no one else has any idea about how to assess quality in translations.
posted by Namlit at 1:30 PM on May 21, 2021 [2 favorites]

No idea where they got the "serene" in the (Dutch) Escher site's translation from...

A different kind of mushrooms, by the looks of it.
posted by Stoneshop at 2:40 PM on May 21, 2021

Response by poster: My hunch with the “orphaned” thing is actually based on a potential connection to German “verwaist”, taking Zumbador’s cue above. Given that it’s poetry, I can’t bring myself to exclude that Hoogewerff might have let both roots resonate in the phrase ;-)

I’ve worked in translations myself so I’m well aware of the short shrift that’s often reserved to their finer points... in this particular case it’s mainly idle speculation, but I know what a difference a wrong rendering can make. Again, thanks for your time in puzzling this one out :-)
posted by progosk at 3:22 PM on May 21, 2021

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