At the beginning of the Psychopathology of Everyday Life—before the treatise breaks up into a host of examples, discussed often very briefly and interspersed with methodological considerations to be taken up and expanded in the last chapter—there are two extended examinations of specific ‘slips of the tongue’, with a whole chapter devoted to each. It seems certain that the book owes this structure not to external circumstances, to the disjointed manner in which it was written, but to Freud’s intention of making these two examples arouse in the no doubt incredulous or reluctant reader an initial conviction in the justice and fertility of his method. For this reason we believe we too should devote more time to these examples than to later ones. We shall begin with the second, because certain methodological defects which are particularly apparent in Freud’s explanation here will help us understand better the weakness of his explanation also of the first case and the others examined in the rest of the work.

A young Australian Jew, with whom Freud strikes up a conversation while travelling, bemoans the position of inferiority in which Jews are held in Austria-Hungary. His generation, he says, is ‘destined to grow crippled, not being able to develop its talents nor gratify its desires’. He becomes heated in discussing this problem, and tries to conclude his ‘passionately felt speech’ (as Freud, with a pinch of good-natured irony, calls it) with the line that Virgil puts in the mouth of Dido abandoned by Aeneas and on the point of suicide: Exoriare aliquis nostris ex ossibus ultor (Aeneid, IV 625). (‘Let someone arise from my bones as an Avenger’ or ‘Arise from my bones, o Avenger, whoever you may be’.) But his memory is imperfect, and all he succeeds in saying is Exoriare ex nostris ossibus ultor: i.e. he omits aliquis and inverts the words nostris ex.

What is the explanation for this double error? The most mediocre of philologists would have no difficulty in giving one. As we have already mentioned, anyone who has anything to do with the written or oral transmission of texts (including quotations learnt by heart) knows that they are exposed to the constant danger of being corrupted. Forms which have a more archaic, more high-flown, more unusual stylistic expression, and which are therefore more removed from the cultural-linguistic heritage of the person who is transcribing or reciting, tend to be replaced by forms in more common use. This process of corruption can affect many aspects of a word. For instance, it can affect its spelling: forms like studj, havere easily turn into studi and avere in texts being transcribed today or even more so in quotations being written down from memory. It can affect its phonetic character: one so often reads or hears someone recite the famous line from Ariosto : ‘O gran bont` de’ cavalieri antiqui!’ with the antiqui replaced by antichi, even though the rhyme between the third and fifth lines of that octet favours the more archaic form. It can affect its morphology: ‘enno dannati i peccatori carnali’, wrote Dante, Inferno, V 38; but in various manuscripts of the Commedia one finds sono or eran, or some similar corruption (see Petrocchi’s critical edition). It can affect its lexical character: again in Dante the archaic form aguglia was nearly always replaced by the more usual aquila in certain manuscripts—and still is today in quotations loosely made by modern authors. Finally, it can affect its syntactic or stylistic-syntactic character: in the sub-title to Ruggiero Bonghi’s Lettere critiche, Perche la letteratura italiana non sia populare in Italia (‘Why Italian literature is not popular in Italy’), the subjunctive sia is itself not popular enough in Italy, so that when the sub-title is quoted from memory one frequently finds it replaced by the indicative mood è. We have deliberately cited extremely elementary examples. But frequently corruptions take on a more complex character, and involve the whole context and not just a single word. It is frequently difficult and sometimes impossible to establish whether what is involved is unconscious corruption or deliberate alteration; but certainly in a great number of cases one can exclude this latter possibility. We have all had the experience of checking a text we have quoted from memory or even transcribed ourselves and finding we have made a certain number of slips—consisting for the most part, precisely, of corruptions. footnote1 For a long time, ever since I was a boy, I believed that in the sonnet In morte del fratello Giovanni, Foscolo had written: ‘ . . . mi vedrai seduto/su la tua tomba, o fratel mio’, (‘ . . . you will see me seated/upon your tomb, o my brother’), instead of ‘su la tua pietra’: this was an obvious corruption (pietra in the sense of tombstone does not occur in common speech) perpetrated unconsciously, perhaps from the very first time I tried to commit that sonnet to memory.

Now, in the line from Virgil quoted by Freud’s young travelling companion, the construction exoriare aliquis . . . ultor—whether aliquis is to be understood as subject and ultor as its predicate (‘Let someone arise from my bones as an Avenger’) or whether ultor is to be understood as subject and aliquis as its attribute (‘Let some Avenger arise from my bones’) footnote2—is highly anomalous. The anomaly consists in the coexistence in the line of the second person singular with the indefinite pronoun aliquis: Dido uses the familiar tu form of address to the future Avenger, as if she saw him standing in front of her, prophetically, already clearly outlined; while at the same time she expresses with that aliquis (and also, a little later in line 627: nunc, olim, quocumque dabunt se tempore vires, ‘Soon or in after-time, whenever the strength is given’) his indeterminate identity. Dido’s expression is at one and the same time an augury, and as vague as all auguries are (‘Come, sooner or later, someone to avenge me’), as well as an implicit prophecy of the coming of Hannibal, the Avenger whom Virgil, writing post eventum, certainly had in mind, and whom the ancient readers of the Aeneid would immediately think of (‘He is alluding to Hannibal’, explains Servius in his commentary, which dates from antiquity).

In German, i.e. the language spoken by Freud’s young interlocutor, such a construction is almost untranslatable literally; the same difficulty occurs, for that matter, in Italian, French and English. Something has to be sacrificed: either one wishes to bring out the character of a mysteriously indeterminate augury, which means rendering exoriare by the third person singular rather than the second person (‘ . . . let some Avenger arise’); or one prefers to conserve the immediacy and directly evocative power of the second person singular, which means modifying somewhat, if not suppressing outright, the aliquis (‘Arise, o Avenger, whoever you may be . . . ’; ‘Arise, unknown Avenger . . . ’). The first solution, for example, was chosen by Wilhelm von Hertzberg, a philologist and translator who achieved a certain fame in the second part of the nineteenth century: ‘Mog’ aus meinem Gebein sich einst ein Rächer erheben’. footnote3 Earlier, the poet and authentic translator Johann Heinrich Voss had opted for the second solution, suppressing the aliquis altogether: ‘Aufstehn mögest du doch aus unserer Asche, du Rächer’. footnote4 Translating yet more freely, but still renouncing the stylistic-passionate effect of the Latin text, Friedrich Schiller, in a free rendering of the Fourth Book of the Aeneid, had written: ‘Ein Rächer wird aus meinem Staub erstehn’. footnote5 Here both the character of augury and the direct invocation to the Avenger are lost. This same aspect of the expression’s uniqueness and intractability to translation is underscored by the comments of German philologists: ‘Exoriare aliquis . . . pro: exoriatur aliquis, sed longe vividius et confidentius dictum: exoriare tu, quem video ultorem fore, etsi nescio, quis futurus sis’ (Forbiger); ‘Exoriare aliquis, Sprache der wildesten Leidenschaft. Die Dido sieht im Geist das Bild des Hannibal and redet ihn an, ohne ihn jedochweiter zu kennen’ (Ladewig); and so on. footnote6

But while philologists and translators, in direct contact with the text, were aware of the untranslatability of this expression from Virgil, a young Austrian of average culture, for whom Dido’s words were no doubt little more than a distant memory from grammar school, was led unconsciously to corrupt the text, i.e. to assimilate it to his own linguistic sensibility. The unconscious elimination of aliquis corresponds precisely to this tendency: exoriare ex nostris ossibus ultor is a sentence which can be transposed perfectly into German without any need to strain the order of words. It was no accident that the young Austrian’s ‘simplified’ quotation corresponded to the rendering given by Voss, reproduced above.

If we were to stop here, however, we would still leave ourselves open to a legitimate objection. Every one who knows a foreign language, however superficially, is capable of remembering elements of that language (words, morphological structures, syntactic structures) which have no counterpart in his or her mother tongue. The Greek absolute genitive, for instance, or the extensive use of infinitive clauses in Greek and even more in Latin, certainly sound strange to a German—and one could cite analogous constructions in the case of an Italian. Yet an Italian or German lawyer, doctor or man of letters could, and in fact until a few decades ago actually did, quote word perfectly famous passages from ancient authors containing those very constructions, without running the risk of transforming them into dog-Greek or Latin.