The Waste Land, as everyone knows, is a collage of allusions to texts in other languages, ranging from Greek and Latin to German, French, Italian, and even Sanskrit in the poem's dramatic conclusion. But although the main allusions have long been identified and their thematic import endlessly explicated and discussed, there is one question that has been oddly overlooked: when and why does Eliot cite a line or passage in the original and when does he translate it? Line 307, for example – ‘To Carthage then I came’ – is footnoted by Eliot himself as referring to St. Augustine's Confessions: ‘to Carthage then I came, where a cauldron of unholy loves sang all about mine ears.’ In Latin, this sentence from Book 3, Chapter 1, reads, ‘Veni Karthaginem, et circumstrepebat me undique sartago flagitiosorum amorum.’ Why did Eliot render Augustine's famous opening words in English when, in line 431, he reproduced the reference to Arnaut Daniel in Dante's Purgatorio, ‘Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina’ (‘Then he dived into the refining fire’), in the original?
What determines the decision to translate? If we include the epigraph and dedication, there are, by my count, thirteen instances in which Eliot retains the original line or passage – a rather small amount in a poem of 433 lines in which every other line contains an English-language allusion to one literary text or another? I propose here to look at Eliot's foreign-language citations – the distribution is Greek-1, Latin-2, Italian-2, French-4, German- 2, Sanskrit-2 – more closely so as to try to understand when and why the original is retained and how successfully these foreign phrases function in the poem.
The facsimile edition of the The Waste Land, with Pound's annotations, provides us with what are probably the most important clues. When Pound, himself the master of citational poetry, was going through Eliot's manuscript, he did not delete a single one of Eliot's foreign-language passages; indeed, the ending of Part V (‘What the Thunder Said’), whose last seven lines contain a bewildering sequence of colliding fragments – beginning with the ‘Poi s’ascose’ cited above, followed by lines from the Pervigilium Veneris, Gerard de Nerval's sonnet, ‘El Desdichado,’ Thomas Kyd's Spanish Tragedy, and the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad – was left entirely intact.