The Magazine

Who Said That?

Why certain combinations of words live in memory.

Aug 8, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 44 • By AMELIA ATLAS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

A similarly illuminating moment arises in Morson’s discussion of translated quotation. Turning to the famous line of Sigmund Freud, “Dreams are the royal road to the unconscious,” Morson takes aim at the pedants who would argue for the “correct” version—that is, the English version taken from the widely read James Strachey translation: “The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to the unconscious activities of the mind.” It’s hard to argue that there is such a thing as a correct version when the most commonplace translation already takes substantial liberties with the German, and when Freud himself supplied the Latin for “royal road” (Via Regia). Which one is right? In this case, to insist on fidelity to the original is to miss what the quotation has to offer.

Morson’s dalliances with the academic are far more satisfying than his efforts to theorize the obvious. Compare these detours into the literary canon with Morson on the editorial voice of quotation anthologies: 

[W]e can discern a continuum from minimal to maximal personal imprint of any quoter. Reference works seek to minimize this imprint. They do so by employing multiple consultants, by instructing each editor to build on predecessors, or by choosing arbitrary principles of organization that render the search for the editor’s voice difficult.

Lest the point be unclear, Morson reminds us that since passing on, Bartlett has had little to do with Bartlett’s. He might as well have clarified that Google is an algorithm.

There is only so much one can say about quotation, and so Morson can’t help but stray into generalities and repetitions (Kennedy’s inaugural speech crops up twice by page 15). By the time he gets to “processual” quotations—those that are definitionally incomplete, or works in progress—one can feel him hitting the limits of his subject. In the words of Virginia Woolf, “One has to secrete a jelly in which to slip quotations down people’s throats—and one always secretes too much jelly.”

Amelia Atlas is a writer in Cambridge, Mass.