Culled and Not Culled, the Poet Will Be There

by J. Kates

I ask the reader to join me in an excursion of otsoggery [1] that begins in a steamy Japanese dystopia and ends in a suburb of Zürich, having at its center one of the great Latin poets. This expedition stepped off with a note on the American Literary Translators Association online chatroom: “I just finished [Haruki Murakami’s 2010 novel] 1Q84,” Dennis Dybeck wrote,

and was struck by what seemed an odd quote from C. G. Jung. In the novel, an enigmatic character, Tumaru, asks an unfortunate private investigator he’s about to painfully assassinate whether he’s ever heard of an inscription Jung carved in stone. “Cold or not, God is present.” It’s a striking scene with the question almost a meditative consolation for victim, assassin, and the reader, as well. Googling it this morning, it seems that “Cold or not, God is present” is a deliberate misquote of an ancient phrase Jung is said to have found quoted in Erasmus. “Vocatus atque non vocatus, deus aderit.” (Called or not, god is present.) I’m wondering if anyone knows how the pun is handled in the original Japanese. [2]

To which Juliet Winters Carpenter, a professor of English in Japan, answered:

Japanese would be “Yondemo, yobanakutemo, kami wa iru” (or “yobaretemo, yobarenakutemo . . .”) so there is no play on words comparable to the one in English. You have to suspect Murakami wrote the line in Japanese based on his knowledge of the English quote (also a translation, of course). It would take a mighty astute reader to penetrate all those layers and find it!

How the pun is handled in Japanese is beyond the scope of this essay, but the quotation itself grabbed its own attention. The correspondence among literary translators on the ALTA thread continued. After a week, Dybeck (who writes his own column as Art Beck) specified:

Here’s the Latin quote that Jung chiselled above his doorway: Vocatus atque non vocatus deus aderit. [3] Of course, vocatus can have various English equivalents, and the phrase which Jung found in Erasmus seems to predate Erasmus and may not even refer to a monotheistic deity.

The words don’t originally refer to a monotheistic deity, and they do predate Erasmus. They also don’t start off in Latin. In his history of the Peloponnesian War, written, of course, in Greek, Thucydides recounted how the Spartans

sent to Delphi and inquired of the god whether it would be well with them if they went to war and, as it is reported, received from him the answer that if they put their whole strength into the war, victory would be theirs, and the promise that he himself would be with them, whether invoked or uninvoked. [4]

Erasmus included this Delphic oracle among his Adagia, sayings culled from ancient sources and published to great acclaim in several editions early in the sixteenth century. Jung read Erasmus in the nineteenth, and carved VOCATUS ATQUE NON VOCATUS DEUS ADERIT over his door in Küsnacht, Switzerland, in the twentieth. The line now shows up on tattoos and Irish souvenir plaques.

But the words have another, parallel, life. The Roman poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus made his own original word play off that oracular pronouncement, using the verb audit (in place of a presumed aderit) in the eighteenth of his second book of Odes. Would Horace have known the oracle in a Latin version using the verb aderit? We cannot know; but, if so, then the Roman poet in effect has done exactly what Murakami did halfway around the world millennia later with approximately the same text (called, cold). If not, to paraphrase Professor Carpenter, you have to suspect Horace wrote the line in Latin based on his knowledge of the Greek. But we should note that Thucydides’ original prose phrasing [5] does not employ the evocative repetition of the Latin verse—the historian uses two different words—and Horace’s poetic elegance must have come to govern the rhetoric somewhere along the line as it moved from Thucydides to Erasmus.

In the Horatian ode, the god who hears (and will be present) is death, in this case represented by Orcus, an originally Etruscan deity of the Underworld, a punisher of those who break faith. The ode addresses the vanity of the ostentatiously wealthy and leads to a trope in Horatian poetry: Death kicks in the doors of the rich and poor alike. McMansions avail you nothing when the Grim Reaper finally comes knocking. His enforcer (in this case, the ferryman Charon is implied) could not be bribed with gold to bring Prometheus back from the dead and

. . . Hic superbum
Tantalum atque Tantali
genus coercet, hic levare functum
pauperem laboribus
vocatus atque non vocatus audit.

A literal translation decompresses a very tight set of images: “Here he coercet the overweening Tantalus and the family of Tantalus [6] , here called and uncalled he hears/listens to lift up the pauper who has finished with his hard work.”

One of the interesting words in these last lines is pauper, which does not mean what its modern cognate means, in spite of almost all translations, some of which even turn the poor man into a beggar. The word has the ghost of a comparative about it—poorer, rather than poor. The Roman pauper was primarily the not-so-rich, the working class, maybe even what we would trendily call today the ninety-nine percent. Coercet also looks deceptively cognate—it carries a rich range of meanings only obliquely coercive in the English sense: enclose, restrain, keep in order, even prune. Thus a translator despairs.

But the real despair of the translator is the difference between an inflected and an uninflected language. Latin is free in its word order, where English is coerced. And thus that powerful line, Vocatus atque non vocatus audit, can end the poem in Latin on a strong verb, where English cannot easily contrive an equivalent. The nineteenth-century scholar John Conington needed an easy rhyme:

Pelops he and Pelops’ sire
Holds, spite of pride, in close captivity;
Beggars, who of labour tire,
Call’d or uncall’d, he hears and sets them free.

As did James Michie in the twentieth:

He, when work is done and the poor man
begs him to ease his lot,
comes to the call; indeed he comes, called for or not.

Joseph B. Clancy abandoned all hope:

and he hears him, whether he is called or not.

David Ferry moved the line one up from the end:

And Orcus hears, whether called or not, and comes
To liberate the poor man from his labor.

A . S. Kline also buried the rhetoric:

whether he’s summoned,
or whether he’s not, he lends
an ear and frees the poor man, his labours done.

And Sidney Alexander:

summoned or unsummoned,
he listens to the poor man
arrived at the term of his travail

Helen Rowe Henze, in addition to trying to replicate Horace’s meter, is the only published translator I found who attempted the word order:

When he is called and when not called, he harkens.

If “harkens” is weak, and misses the causal connection to relieving the pauper at the conclusion of his labors, it’s still a valiant stab.

Now here’s the punch line, this is where the parallel stories come together, meeting in the infinity of the Afterworld. Do you recall that Jung carved his version of Vocatus atque non vocatus over his doorway in Küsnacht? And do you recall how Horace’s poem “addresses the vanity of the ostentatiously wealthy”? That ode actually opens with a very specific image:

You won’t find ivory-decorated panels
Nor gilded either, in my house, nor crossbeams
Made out of marble from Greece, supported by columns

Made out of wood imported from Africa [7]

nor, presumably, monumental Classical inscriptions incised into the stone over the doorway.


[1] Those unfamiliar with this noun should read Robert K. Merton’s delightful academic excursus On the Shoulders of Giants. No definition does justice to the sport, which probably gets classified as a subset of venery. Return to Text

[2] I’d like to thank Dennis Dybeck and Juliet Carpenter for having started this hare, and my daughter’s high-school Latin teacher Eli Williams for contributing to the hunt. Return to Text

[3] At this point I entered the correspondence: “To be pedantic, the Latin actually is, ‘Called or not called, [the] god will come’ [literally ‘will be there’]. The future tense is interesting as it puts an ironic emphasis on, or off, the action of calling.” Return to Text

[4] Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, translated by Richard Crawley, Book 1, 118:3. Return to Text

[5] πέμψαντες δὲ ἐς Δελφοὺς ἐπηρώτων τὸν θεὸν εἰ πολεμοῦσιν ἄμεινον ἔσται: ὁ δὲ ἀνεῖλεν αὐτοῖς, ὡς λέγεται, κατὰ κράτος πολεμοῦσι νίκην ἔσεσθαι, καὶ αὐτὸς ἔφη ξυλλήψεσθαι καὶ παρακαλούμενος καὶ ἄκλητος. Return to Text

[6] Tantalus was condemned in Tartarus to be always unsatisfied. Any Roman would have recognized the myth instantly, how he stole from the gods, how he tried to serve up his son Pelops at an Olympian feast, and how the whole family was cursed down through Agamemnon and Menelaus. Return to Text

[7] David Ferry, The Odes of Horace, p. 149. Return to Text


Published on December 12, 2013