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The Ethical Dative, Lost But Not Forgotten

There is a variant of the dative case in English––deriving from its Indo-European heritage and once much more common than in contemporary usage––that is defined as follows (The Free Dictionary): “a use of the dative of a pronoun to signify that the person or thing spoken of is regarded with interest by some one; as, Quid mihi Celsus agit? ‘How does my friend Celsus do?'” Webster’s Unabridged gives it a somewhat different spin: “a colloquial use of the dative of a pronoun for a person to whom it imputes a vague concern with the matter in question (as German mir, literally ‘for me”, in bleibe mir nur gesund ‘I just hope you stay well’). English translations of the ethical dative from languages like German or the Slavic languages will always fail to convey the full semantic force of the ethical dative; cf. the German humorous idiom es kann mir gestohlen werden ‘you can keep it’ (said of something one doesn’t want oneself) which literally means something like ‘you can steal it from me’. The possessive dative pronoun mir here makes all the difference in the world and is hardly reflected in the English phrase from me.

            This kind of discrepancy between English, which lacks the ethical dative, on the one hand, and those languages like German (or Russian or Serbian), which have it, on the other, makes translating poetry into English a particular problem. Take the following lines from the first panel (Вече ‘Evening’) of the triptych Na liparu (‘On Lipar Hill’) by Đura Jakšić:

Јесте ли ми род, сирочићи мали?
Ил’ су и вас, можда, јади отровали?
Или вас је, слабе, прогонио свет –
па дођосте само да, кад људе знамо,
да се и ми мало боље упознамо,
у двопеву тужном певајући сет?…

Ми смо мале,
ал’ смо знале
да нас неће
нико хтети,
нико смети
тако волети
као ти…
–  Ћију  ћи!

Моје тице лепе, једини другари,
у новоме стану познаници стари,
срце вам је добро, песма вам је мед;
али моје срце, али моје груди
леденом су злобом разбијали људи,
па се, место срца, ухватио лед.

С белом булом,
са зумбулом,
шарен-рајем,
рајским мајем,
цвећем, миром,
са лептиром,
летимо ти ми
срца топити…
–  Ћију  ћи!

Моје тице мале, јадни сиротани!
Прошли су ме давно моји лепи дани,
увело је цвеће, одбего ме мај,
а на души оста, ко скрхана биљка,
ил’ ко тужан мирис увелог босиљка,
једна тешка рана, тежак уздисај.

            One doesn’t have to know Serbian to follow the alternation of the possessive pronoun moje with the ethical dative mi in this beautiful poem about how the poet’s mood is affected by seeing birds flying about at night. When Jakšić says in the opening verse, addressing the little birds, ‘Are you my kin?’, he uses the ethical dative mi in referring to the fourth word rod ‘kin’  (Јесте ли ми род, сирочићи мали?), which would normally be rendered ‘Are you my kin, little orphans’, i. e., ‘are you kin to me’, where the ethical dative of the original has to be supplanted by a prepositional phrase, blunting the emotional force of the original sense. Those who have Serbian will notice how often the poet here plays on the distinction between the possessive pronoun and the ethical dative to convey the affective aura of his lived experience. Ut pictura poesis.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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