25 October 2009


I was watching one of the Swedish Wallander episodes the other night. They're brilliant programmes, and thankfully subtitled rather than dubbed. You really begin to feel you're learning Swedish as you watch, because sometimes the rhythm of speech sounds so much like English - or even more like Scots. It turns out that the Swedish for come in - a phrase people use a lot - is komm ein. I'm picking up some words that I'd heard in Grieg songs: glömma is forget and aldrig is never. The usual word for good is bra (pronounced braw), which is exactly Scottish.

However, to get to my point, towards the end of this episode, a clue was given by a child. Watching a children's animation, she says "That's how they [the attackers] spoke." I assumed they (the animation characters) were speaking Swedish with an accent. The attackers turn out to have been north Africans. In fact, replaying, I've realised that the speech was in French. It's a brief, quiet speech and it took a while to realise this. Obviously, first time around, I thought it was just more Swedish I didn't understand. But a Swedish viewer would have known immediately that the speech was in a foreign language, even if they didn't know which one.

Moving on to a question of accents, there's a character (Marco Zuluaga) in Almodóvar's film Hable con Ella who turns out to be Argentinian. This is, I assume, obvious for a Spanish audience from his accent, but it's only apparent to an English-speaking audience (me) when one of the other characters refers to him as "The Argentinian", as if it were obvious. For a moment you wonder who she's talking about. His nationality doesn't seem to be significant to the plot, but the accent must arouse stereotype assumptions in a Spanish audience, just as an Australian accent in an English film would.

The final example is from Balzac. Several of his novels feature a character called Nucingen, who's German, and don't we know it. He speaks like this: Je fus tonne ma barole t'honneur te vaire le bossiple, which in standard French is je vous donne ma parole d'honneur de faire le possible. It's a fairly simple system: voiced consonants (d, b) are replaced by unvoiced equivalents (t, p) and vice versa. It's really fucking irritating, though. Every speech is represented this way, and always in italics. I suppose in time you don't have to read aloud or subvocalise to get the meaning, but I've never got to that stage. You have to stop and listen to the sound. I don't know how English translations handle this: to be accurate, they'd have to be really fucking irritating too.

So, three examples of ways of signifying, or not, a foreign accent. Another thing for me to get exercised about.

20 October 2009

Bad news, good news

I've just discovered that Steiner published an extensively revised version of After Babel in 1992 with "a new preface setting the work in the present context of hermeneutics, poetics, and translation studies", so that's the one I ought to read, I think. (I'm not intending to do a detailed study of the differences between the two versions!) And that edition doesn't seem to be owned by Lewisham Library.

So that's the bad news. The good is that I can get on with reading something else: Flesh in the Age of Reason by Roy Porter, which I picked up on spec at the library last week.


It's not intended you should be able to, or want to, read these images. They are a footnote that spreads over pages 120-121 of After Babel.

The sentence that provokes this footnote?
One finds few answers to these questions in the literature.

19 October 2009

Babel (2) - Language and Gnosis

In chapter 2, Steiner looks at the contrasting views of language as monadic or universalist: are languages all similar at some deep level or not? First though, he raises the question of why different languages evolved at all. He says it can't be an evolutionary process, because there's no benefit from the change. Why would a community lose the ability to communicate with neighbours? Well I can think of political reasons, which can be seen at work even now. Serbian and Croatian are, as I understand it, essentially the same language in different scripts, but I bet they are diverging more than coalescing at present. Similarly, I think it's likely that Portuguese diverged from Spanish as an act of national self-definition.

The discussion on the deep structure of language boils down to this paragraph right in the middle of the chapter:
Whether it is indeed 'possible to convey any conceptual content in any language' is what I seek to investigate.
and it's nice that he's finally expressed the purpose of the book.

I don't want to go into any detail of the discussion of linguistic theories for these reasons:
(i) the book's over thirty years old, and I'm sure the discussion of Chomsky's view has moved on a lot
(ii) I don't fully grasp the points being made or
(iii) the relevance of the detail to the general point.

As before, in this chapter Steiner displays the enormous breadth of his knowledge, but doesn't always show how it relates to the matter in hand. The multiplicity of examples hammer home arguments that aren't contentious. The book could be a lot shorter.

But here's a question. There's a film (Windtalkers) about the US military's use of native Americans to transmit messages in their language, which was so obscure and different from any known language, that it acted as an unbreakable code. The monadist view of language difference would surely say messages either could not be translated into and out of that language or that they would be irrepairably changed in the translation process. But apparently it happened. I haven't seen the film, and don't know more about the case, so I'll leave the thought there to come back to.

After After Babel

I've started reading George Steiner's After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation. It's my first recent use of Lewisham's library service. Ordered online, the book was delivered to Catford library for my collection for 50p, which is entirely reasonable. The book itself is the hardback first edition, 1975, which doesn't appear to have been read very often.

It begins with a discussion of a passage from Cymbeline, followed by similar discussions of a passage from Sense and Sensibility by 'Miss Austen', as Steiner, unbelievably even in 1975, refers to her on occasion, and one from Noel Coward. The point, heavily made, being that reading a text from the past is an act of interpretation: the meaning of words slips and the further back we go, the more we have to use dictionaries to understand the text.

Steiner's reading of the Cymbeline extract is close, detailed and learned. But underlying it there's an unquestioned (so far) assumption that the text is a decodable, lisible, container of meaning.
To read fully is to restore all that one can of the immediacies of value and intent in which speech actually occurs.
There are tools for the job. A true reader is a dictionary addict. He knows that English is particularly well served [...] Skeat's Etymological Dictionary and Principles of English Etymology are an indispensible first step towards grasping the life of words.
I think that use of 'he' to denote the true reader was already dodgy in 1975; it's a signifier that Steiner is avoiding 'fashionability', at least. And he might have considered new theories of reading to be just fashions, too. Certainly, this is pointing so far towards a view of the text as having one true meaning, which it's a matter of knowledge and skill to uncover.

I sometimes have doubts about more relativistic theories, so it'll be interesting to see if the book sticks to this point of view (I'm only on page 25, for heaven's sake!)

03 October 2009

MCT: Hélène Cixous

Hélène Cixous turns out to be quite straighforwardly feminist. The real difference is that a lot of her piece in the book, "Sorties", is written in an eliptical, notey, form, and uses a variety of neologisms which the translator (Ann Liddle) tries to replicate, such as hierarchized. It's actually a very good translation, in that it isn't ashamed to use footnotes to point out, for example, a pun on Baudelaire's line Hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère.

So there's a kind of playfulness in the writing, which is quite obviously intended as a contrast to more formal writing. We start with this:



and there are other slightly strange headings, eg WHAT DOES ONE GIVE?

But what establishes itself is a view that maleness has been valued and associated with other attributes. Cixous looks at the way Freud and Ernest Jones looked at this and suggests they were both limited by assumptions that went deep into their thought. I may be missing something, but it doesn't seem outlandish at all. The feminist criticism of Freud is so well established, that surely everyone knows he got this wrong.

So far, so unrelated to literary theory. Cixous then argues that creation (literary, philosophical ...) is only possible with:
the presence in the intervening subject of an abundance of the other, of the diverse
I'm happy with that conclusion, but I'm not sure it springs necessarily from the foregoing. There's something missing.

Incidentally, looking for background on Cixous, I found this site, which gives some background, but astonishingly - to my feminist-aware mind - uses the term authoress. Tsk.

02 October 2009

MCT: Stanley Fish

I’ve started looking at the chapters in Modern Criticism and Theory, the key text book for the Modern Literary Theory syllabus, and turned to the section on Stanley Fish. He’s a representative of “reader-response” criticism – an approach I hadn’t come across before (which is why I read it).

The text here is “Interpreting the Variorum”. Not really a helpful title, but it is based on close examination of some poems by Milton, and was first published when the Variorum was published. In that book, Fish sees critics arguing over close interpretation of Milton’s texts, based on a formalist approach, and sharing the assumption that the poem contains a meaning, which the reader/critic can more or less successfully extract.

His view is that the reader actually creates the text, and his detailed analysis of the Sonnet 20 (“Lawrence of virtuous father virtuous son”) shows how the readers expectations shift as the poem unfolds, but also that the poem itself seems to be refusing to give a clear meaning. The last two lines are:

He who of those delights can judge, and spare
To interpose them oft, is not unwise.

and the debate has always been about the interpretation of the word spare. Does it mean avoid or spare the time? (I remember briefly discussing this with a tutor back at Cambridge.) He says that what ever it means, the closing phrase (not unwise) throws the whole question back into doubt anyway.

The second sonnet under discussion is “Avenge O Lord thy slaughtered saints”, where he closely analyses the way the expectations of the reader are built, then satisfied or baffled, and the sense therefore changes as the poem progresses. He seems to focus particularly on the poem as having a duration – not being a single event, but a stream.

This is good, but I can’t help thinking it is actually very similar to formalist textual analysis. It is the way the words are chosen and arranged that enables the reader to construct their meaning.

He goes on to say that the reader creates an intention, and further to say that the reader (only) defines what the poem is: so it is the reader (with the benefit of prior knowledge) who decides that line-ends are significant places in 17th century sonnets; it is the reader who defines what is and isn’t a poem at all.

In the final part of the essay, Fish posits interpretive communities to account for the fact that many readers have very similar readings. This seems reasonable – and his description of these communities as multiple, overlapping, and mutable seems entirely right. We read Milton in a different way today from the Victorians, for example. But poets and writers are themselves part of interpretive communities, aren’t they. And what they write is therefore affected by them. Milton wrote in a way that to some extent complied with the expectations of the 17th century, so his poems are particularly marked by that community. They aren’t completely rebuilt by each new age’s reading.

But it’s interesting that Fish is in a broadly anglo-saxon tradition. This kind of negation of the priority of the text is quite French, I think, but even so I think he takes it too far. Anyway, it’s a start. I may have a crack at Helene Cixous next. She looks engagingly batty.