14 December 2010

Demons, grains and beads

I'm perfectly aware that writing this is a diversion from actually reading the damn book (Dostoevsky's Demons) but sometimes a word leaps out that suggests the translators' dilemma.

In Part One, Chapter 5 (which P-V translate as "The Wise Serpent", Garnett as "The Subtle Serpent", hmm) a hitherto unknown character appears. The narrator pauses a little to describe him. Garnett translates this in past tense and here's an extract:
His words pattered out like smooth, big grains, always well chosen, and at your service.

P-V translate that sentence as:
 his words spill out like big, uniform grains, always choice and always ready to be at your service. (p 180)

The change in tense is interesting. I'd guess the original is written in present tense, but Garnett felt unable to use the present historic in English: it was much less common then than now. I'd imagine there are huge amounts of translation from French where this has happened. So it's an example of a wider change in the translating language enabling a translator to be more literal.

Then the stranger speaks:
"... Only fancy, Varvara Petrovna," he pattered on, [Garnett]

"... And imagine, Varvara Petrovna," the beads spilled out of him [P-V]

It was that word "beads" that made me check the two translations. It's out of nowhere in English. You have to supply a missing metonymy: words are like grains; big grains are like beads. Again, I'm guessing, but might the word "grains" in Russian have a closer link to the Russian for "beads"? A quick look at an online dictionary suggests the words зерно and бу́син(к)а don't sound alike, but maybe they're more interchangeable culturally. Maybe Russians (in the 19th century) couldn't see a big grain without thinking of a bead.

Maybe one day this association will become part of English understanding and we won't find the transition weird, just as we don't now find the use of the present tense weird. (I doubt it, though.)

This is the kind of problem that has always put me off reading translations. I don't know if the use of "beads" is clumsy or meaningful. But the fact that P-V use the word so awkwardly strikes me as clear evidence it's a literal translation of Dostoevsky's term. Maybe Garnett's decision to repeat "pattered" is closer to Dostoevsky's original impact.   

Later (p 219) the same character (Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky) is described as having "words spilling out like peas", a word that Garnett also uses.

01 December 2010


I've written a poem.
My pen is in my hand;
My hand is in warm water. 

I'm sure you'll agree it's remarkable.

Actually, of course, it's rubbish, but the good thing about it is it's rubbish in two different languages. These are grammatically correct lines in both English and Afrikaans and have very nearly the same meaning (or lack of). So does it matter which language I claim to have written in?

A minor point would be that warm in Afrikaans is more likely to mean hot, so there's a slight change in surface meaning.

But in either language there is a familiar technique of poetry: the incompleteness of motivation in the words means the reader has to construct a meaning. It would be hard enough to understand why you would ever want to tell anyone your hand is in warm water. But what's all this about the pen?

Well, of course, now that I've said this is a poem, the first line is a fairly standard bit of poet's reflection. It's common for poets to reflect on the difficulty of writing poetry, of capturing elusive feelings in words. You could expect a neat inversion:
My pen is in my hand
But no words are in my heart.

Even so, you could only see that as the start of a longer poem (and, I'd guess, a pretty poor one). 

Here, though, there's no linking conjunction; the reader has to guess the relation between the two clauses. You could read a but in there: here I am, ready to write but because my hand is (literally) in warm water, I can't. Or an and: my pen is in my hand, and I'm cleaning it (them). You could try various literal interpretations, but I don't think you'd find any of them satisfactory. So then you have to explore various metaphorical interpretations of the second line. Because the poem is so short, any satisfactory interpretation would have to explain why the poem ends where it does, and would have to be adequate: it would have to be able to import a strong feeling in those few words. My poem fails as a poem because you can't do that. There's no way in which you interpret "My hand is in warm water" to give any tragic closure. I'm pretty sure that's true in any language.

Perhaps a poem has to be specific to a certain language to be able to carry a complex idea in a few words: the associations within the language enrich the bare text. (Incidentally, there is a slightly obscene reading of the English version of [untitled], which I won't go into. It's the kind of thing Leopold Bloom might have said. It depends on wordplay of course.)

Of course you can have completeness at the expense of complexity. I might have written:
My pen is in my hand
But it is out of in

which at least is slightly funny and does explain its own brevity. The 'poem' is complete, but doesn't have enough serious content to detain us. The reader has a fairly simple job of seeing the trick. And it probably doesn't work in Afrikaans.

So I've written (or more accurately, assembled) two things that look like a poem, but aren't. There are plenty of those out there. Here's another one, which I'll call "Guest List":
Tim Key, poet.
Rufus Hound, comedian.
Pope Benedict XVI, protestant.

30 November 2010

Why bother?

I've just clicked, excitedly, on a link on the Observer website to an article from Sunday that promised:
Writers pick their favourite translations...
Novelists and translators on the translated books that have impressed them most

What a let-down! Six writers have a paragraph each, and three of them don't in any way mention the quality of the translation - including Tim Parks, who is himself a translator. Here's the most useless contribution (in whole), from Xiaolu Guo, author of A Concise Chinese‑English Dictionary for Lovers.
Some of the most poetic and imaginative sentences I've ever read are from Italo Calvino's novels, especially Invisible Cities, as well as Death in Venice by Thomas Mann. I think those works have reshaped and enriched our vision of history and reality.

A total waste of space. Once again, a reason to be glad I don't get the Observer.

(Apologies for this post, which might itself be considered a waste of space. But the Observer isn't taking online comments on the article, so I can't vent there.)

EDIT. Since writing this post, I've discovered that Jo Nesbo, one of the writers, is Norwegian, and his choice, Knut Hamsun's Hunger, is Norwegian. So he presumably didn't read it in translation (unless he's really perverse.) Pfft. Why didn't they just call the feature "favourite books in forrin"?

23 November 2010


Inspired by Elif Batuman, I impulse-bought a collection of stories by Chekhov, translated by Constance Garnett. Publishers love the Garnett translations because they're out of copyright. Scholars seem less fond. This led me to a fascinating New Yorker article by David Remnick about "translation wars", where among other things I learned that Garnett was working at high speed and so didn't polish the translations, or indeed take time over difficulties. So, maybe, reading her translations is a fairly accurate re-creation of the experience of reading the originals with a limited skill in reading Russian: the experience that most readers, even Russian readers, will have.

In the first two pages of the story I've just started reading, "Peasants" (itself possibly a near-enough translation that really requires a footnote), we find these phrases:
 What lots of flies!
... huge stones jutted out bare here and there through the clay.
"It's lovely here in your parts!" said Olga [...] "What space, oh Lord!"
I could "improve" all of those, without any knowledge of Russian, without damaging the sense. But I'd be making them more regular, more English. The awkwardness is a reminder that we're reading a foreign text about foreign experiences, and I'm glad it's there.

01 November 2010

Elif Batuman

While waiting for the post let's make some big what ifs.

If I had been younger, female, Turkish-american, I like to think I'd have been Elif Batuman.For evidence I refer you to this article, which manages to deal lightly, humorously yet reverently with Derridean concepts, to show how theory can have real effects on writing, as well as reading. One particular example is the use of proper names, and the contrast between Chekhov, where, for example, the Lady's Lapdog doesn't have a name at all, and modern American short stories, in which everyone is given a name, largely from laziness.

I also refer you to this piece in the Guardian a few weeks ago, a really funny account of the temptations of downloading books while drunk. It first alerted me to her work, and I found out she's a serious academic with a brilliant sense of humour. That's quite unusual.

Anyway, the post has been now, and it hasn't brought what I was hoping for. It has however brought me the latest Lakeland catalogue, which is almost as exciting. At my age, photos of glossy cooking appliances have the same effect as the women's underwear pages in my mum's Marshall Ward catalogue used to have.

Oh, since you ask, here's what I was hoping for. It's not published in UK, so I've ordered a used copy from some American dealer via Amazon. It was shipped (by which they mean "sent") on 21 October at "standard shipping speed". I have no idea what that means, but right now I'm otherwise concerned. PHwoar, look at that silicone muffin tray!

17 October 2010


An article by Don Paterson in yesterday's Guardian is a shameless plug for his new book on Shakepeare's Sonnets. An awful, awful piece of writing that took prime location in the review, it's created a flurry of comments which reverse the usual position: usually, the inarticulacy and ineptness of the commenters makes you realise how rare good writing is. Here, despite the inarticulacy and ineptness, you feel they're right: Paterson is madly wrong.

First, he raises and conclusively answers the non-question "Was Shakespeare gay?". A host of comments rightly say that this is anachronistic: the category gay is of our time, not Shakespeare's. This is damaging because he does depend on a biographical approach, and flirts with the questions of who the real people encoded in the sonnets are.

But what's worse, and which only a few comments directly refer to, is the writing. Right from the start:
The problem with reading Shakespeare's sonnets is the sonnets themselves, by which I mean their reputation.
Well, if that's what you mean, why not say so? It's just a lame attempt at a verbal trick. And if there isn't a typo in the next quote, I wish there was:
Here is not the place to elaborate, but suffice to say that the square of the sonnet exists for reasons which are almost all direct consequences of natural law, physiological and neurological imperatives, and the grain and structure of the language itself.
I suppose the "square" might be a reference to the shape of a sonnet on the page. But the rest of it, including the deathly "suffice to say", doesn't make me want to visit the place where all is elaborated.

11 October 2010

Fun with bad books

After an unexplained pause, I return to The Confession of Katherine Howard to look at how critics and theorists can find pleasure in books that aren't good for reading for pleasure, which I'm boldly calling "bad books".

I didn't much enjoy Katherine, and in some ways the fact that I did begin to analyse it critically almost as soon as I started reading it is symptomatic of that. The reasons for my lack of enjoyment are probably partly clear from what I've already written. The manipulation was too obvious, the shifting focus of the narrative made an unsatisfying whole, and there were some instances of sloppy writing/editing. There are other reasons: I don't think I've yet mentioned that the "bad mother" motif cropped up again; and I don't have the interest in historical fiction or the specific subject of this book that would grasp a reader who did.

So, two kinds of reasons for not liking it: those that seem to be inherent in the book itself, and those that depend on my background, experience and preferences as a reader. Can we classify these reasons so clearly? It goes against the grain to say that something can be inherent in the book itself but at the moment I can't find a better way to put it. On the other hand if I had been a "good reader" - ie someone disposed to like this sort of thing - I'd probably have not found the portents & omens so glaring. In this encounter (Brian v Katherine) I'm a bad reader and it's a bad book. Which suggests that, given a good reader, it could be a good book.

So, with that understood, let's agree that for the purposes of this discussion, it's a bad book. (I do feel bad about that, Suzannah, and I wish I could be bothered to find a less harsh way of putting it.) Nevertheless, it's given me a lot of enjoyment, or fun. Bad books can be fun.

First for the reviewer. I imagine many regular book reviewers must love it when they get a new book by a well-known but not very powerful writer, and find it's bad. What fun to point out the awkward sentences, the inconsistent characterisation, the factual errors! Even better if you've a score to settle. Understandable, but should be resisted. I haven't stated this openly (or indeed thought it through) but the main purpose of a review must be to give the reader enough information for them to know if they are likely to enjoy the book. That's pretty much what I tried to do with my outline review of Katherine. But it has to include some concession that the reviewer may, in this case, be a bad reader.

And then what fun for a theorist. Some months ago in this blog I covered a self-published book I had bought from the writer who was door-to-dooring it. What was striking was the absence of artifice in that narrative. It was a brilliant book for the purpose of considering what we normally expect a novel to look like. Katherine is a bit like that. Because it showed some of the construction lines, it led me to thinking about portents and omens as a way a novel controls the release of information. I may in time change that model. I certainly think I need to change the names. But it's been fun, it really has.

I suspect the real challenge for theorists is to analyse the best books - which I guess must mean the books that most people are good readers of - and to show how they achieve it. Maybe that's why a lot of theorists don't attempt it. Maybe that's why a book like The Last Man can attract so much theoretical interest.

24 September 2010


If I were to pretend to be a reviewer, what would my review of The Confession of Katherine Howard be? Um, first, let's think about the structure of a typical book review.

First, I guess, there's a summary of what the book's about, and a bit of contextualisation - what kind of book has this writer produced before.

With The Confession of Katherine Howard Suzannah Dunn continues her exploration of the troubled and usually shortened lives of the wives of Henry VIII. This time her attention turns to the fifth wife, who rose from obscurity, but whose reign and life ended in allegations of adultery.

Then we might turn to what kind of writing it is.
The story is told by a minor player in the unfolding tragedy. Cat Tilney, largely Dunn's invention, has known the Queen since they were children, and, mostly in flashback, shows how she got to this impossible, untenable position. As with previous books, Dunn brings a modern language to these Tudor characters. Katherine says that she has been questioned about "the matter of who I was fucking before I became queen".

I guess what's happening there is all part of letting the reader know if this is the sort of thing they will like, swearing and all. (Actually, there's very little swearing in the book.) This is where there could be more about Suzannah's style, and some smart-arse quibbling.
One feels that tighter editing might have given the central section of the book more pace. And how can sentences like this survive: "I was happy to let him go, because he wasn’t whom I thought he was"?

In the interests of balance, you'd need to quote some of the very nice writing.
At its best, Dunn's prose is musical and surprises with its imagery. When Cat compares herself with the Queen, she says: "I was narrow-hipped and sharply articulated, and my heart, unlike hers, was diamond."

Then the review needs to establish the reviewer's authority for giving a judgement.
Katherine's story is well-known, and the outcome can be no surprise, so Dunn's task is to maintain our interest despite this.

And some kind of judgement ...
As the novel goes on, one senses that its focus switches from the actions of the Queen to those of the narrator, and their relationship, with its threads of jealousy and ultimately betrayal, moves into the foreground. In its latter part the novel doesn't quite fulfill its initial promise of exploring the motivation of this Queen, but neither does the early part adequately set up the rivalry between the two women, which could, and ought to, intensify the tragic dilemma of the ending.
... without giving too much away.

23 September 2010

Portents and omens

A little note about what I meant by portents and omens.

In The Confession of Katherine Howard the narration covers two broad periods: November 1541, when Katherine's position is coming unstuck; and time before then, from the time the narrator, Cat, first met Katherine, until shortly before the November events.

In the November narrative in particular, Cat uses portents and omens to signify her authorial knowledge of what will happen.

Here's an example of a portent: on page 3 Cat says: "Kate looked to have a lifetime of queenship ahead of her". Obviously, it's the word "looked" that gives it away. Sometimes, they are less subtle. "Little did they [Cat's family] know that there’d come a time when my obscurity was all they’d wish for.” (page 48).

Omens, I think, are a bit different. They refer to things that have happened in the past (relative to the narration). The mere fact that they are mentioned is significant. On page 14 Cat says "It was unimaginable to me that the jocular, twinkly man [Henry VIII] had, within the past five years, exiled one wife to a lonely death and signed an execution order for her successor.”

When I isolate them like this, both portents and omens can seem unsubtle, manipulative. And it's part of the writer's craft to hide the manipulation. A reviewer's job would be to consider how well the writer has done this, presumably by reflecting on their own experience of reading the book, but also by drawing on wider experience. For example, the phrase "Little did they know ..." is a danger sign. Too many of those, and the reader feels manipulated, resentful; or, even worse, any tension is dissipated.

In this book, you could argue, the whole of the second narrative is a collection of omens. Incidents of Kate's past life reveal a character for which the tragic ending comes to seem inevitable. You could argue, but I'm not sure that's right. I think omens have to be incidents that occurred before the surrounding narrative time. So when Cat's telling us about her (and Kate's) teenage years, an omen has to refer to something that happened before then.

22 September 2010

Reading, reviewing, analysis, theory

That title's intended to deter. This post is hardcore literary thinking.

It's clear that there are at least three different approaches to reading a book, specifically a work of fiction.

Reading for pleasure is what most of us do most of the time. Reading to review is what reviewers, including bloggers, do. Reading to theorise is the most specialised form of all. Why do these three kinds of reading seem to use such different language?

I've just read The Confession of Katherine Howard by Suzannah Dunn. I made some notes as I went through it, because it struck me really early that there was an obvious mechanism in use, by which the narrator hinted at what was to come later, and, in effect promised to tell us more later. I called these "portents". At the same time, there was another mechanism by which the narrator referred to past events in a knowing way, aware that we would share her sense of the dramatic irony. I called these "omens". Now, I'm not sure if that's a model that will stand upin the long run: can we characterise a novel's control of information that way? I've also little doubt that the mechanism's been discussed before, though maybe not using those terms. But I was reading the book as a theorist.

As I went on, these devices seemed less prominent, or less obvious. What happens is that early promises (portents) are delivered, and the need for mystery becomes less. The notion of portents and their fulfillment is close to Barthes's S/Z, but I think he sees them as structural, rather that instrumental. This may be because he under-examines the process of reading for pleasure, so I'll move to that.

In the early stages of a novel, you need some incentive to stick around. You haven't yet formed any attachment to the characters. You need the promise that something interesting is going to happen. Portents, then, perform this function, just as the questions Barthes identifies ("Who is Sarrasine?") do. He talks a little dismissively about the possibility of a naive reading, and in the case of Howard that's a valid point. Regular readers of historical fiction will have a pretty good idea how it's going to turn out for her, and even I was able to deduce - applying the "divorced beheaded died divorced beheaded survived" mnemonic - the ending.

But that makes it harder, and the next type of reading - for review - would have to concern itself with how well the book engages the interest. So a reviewer might say things like "Dunn retells a well-known story with a fresh look", or "Although the outcome is never in doubt, Dunn keeps us guessing as to exactly how it will come about".

Reviewers also, inevitably, have to talk about character - a bit of a dubious area for theory. Characters have to be assessed for their believability, and maybe less so for their likeability. (It's usually important to be able to like the narrator.) Long ago, on this blog, I wrote about The Last Man. One of my big objections was that the characters' personalities were implausibly inconsistent. Theory would have difficulty in explaining why that matters. Again, it may be because the process of reading for pleasure isn't adequately considered.

A theorist would need to consider what it means for a character to be consistent; a reviewer would need to point out instances where there had been unreasonable inconsistency, and a reader would perhaps just feel that the novel isn't convincing: "I don't believe she'd do that".

I'll leave this thinking aloud there for now, but I will come back to it. One of the questions I want to look at is the way a poorly written book can be enjoyable when read for theory or, come to that, for criticism.

11 August 2010

Being literal

Maybe one of the reasons I won't take up translation studies formally is because, sooner or later, the Bible has to come into it. In Britain, and in protestant countries, I think the question of translation was crucial in the development of the church. It was as much a mark of divergence and identity as the quebecois translations Annie Brisset talks about claim to be.

Jerome and Nidal have already raised the question, but what underlies it is the whole question of the possibility of translation. Muslims, as I understand it, learn Arabic so that they can read the original Q'uran. But the original - like all Arabic - is written without vowel symbols, which have to be inferred, which must mean that in some cases there are genuine, plausible alternatives in literal meaning, which, I assume, the authority of scholars is required to elucidate. (I apologise if I have misunderstood this, and would be grateful for correction.)

I'll return to the Christian Bible, with which I'm slightly more familiar. I've been listening, for amusement rather than education, to broadcasts on Premier Christian Radio of mainly American evangelists. This started with a months-long series by Dr David Jeremiah, explaining the Book of Revelation chapter by chapter. He takes what would usually be called a literal view of the text. He sees it as prophecy of actual physical events to come (pretty soon). This is in contrast to more mainstream Christians, who, if they respect Revelation at all, see it as a moral allegory, or as an encoded polemic against the Roman empire.

I want to come back to that, because I think it can be used to argue that there is no such thing as a literal reading. Actually I'm not sure that's really a novel or difficult-to-argue view. It's basically a restatement of the view that texts don't have an independent life; they can never be read naively.

I'm taking an easier target today, a preacher I heard last night, who was arguing that one's attitude to God is more important than one's actions. It's not the praying and the tithing that matter, it's the spirit in which you do it. Unless you do it out of pure disinterested love for God, it doesn't really count. There are numerous attack points in the argument, of course, but what interested me was his style of quoting biblical authority.

He used a range of quotations from both testaments, unlinked by any narrative within the Bible, linked only, in fact, by his argument. As far as I know, each individual quotation was accurate, but as we well know, putting items into an ordered collection gives them a meaning that may be greater than, and maybe different from the sum of their parts. Choosing and ordering these verses is an act of interpretation. It may give a good result, but it's not the direct transmission of divinely inspired writing, which is what I believe fundamentalist preachers aim at.

Another thing I heard, and I'm not sure who said it, is that divine revelation stopped with the New Testament. I think for Protestants this means that the writings of the Church Fathers, for example, are purely human. But, curiously, all these guys seem to prefer the Authorised Version of the Bible. I don't really know why, but if they think it's because those translators had divine inspiration, their position is inconsistent. But my exposure to this kind of Christianity is having one major effect on me, in making me think the whole basis of the religion is inconsistent. But that's nothing to do with this blog.

19 July 2010

Museums and modernism

I visited Smallhythe Place last week. It's the house where Ellen Terry lived, and now houses a museum about her and the theatre of her era. It's an old-fashioned museum, which means it's curiously modernist.

I mean it's like the Cantos. Individual objects are displayed together, with no, or little, interpretation. You have to make up your own narrative to connect them, to put them into a story. Current museum practice is not like this. For example, the Rude Britannia display at Tate Britain has a commentary in the form of Roger Mellie cartoons. Which is joky, but it does provide contextualising information.

It's a long time since I've been to the Horniman Museum, but its natural history collection used to be displayed in the old style: lots of specimens in cases.

What these old museum displays presuppose is that someone else will provide the narrative. Either the visitor will have the knowledge to put each piece in context, or, more likely, an expert will provide a commentary. The expert might be a teacher accompanying a class visit, or a museum guide.

So, if we continue to see the Cantos as a museum of curiosities, it's an old-fashioned museum. Either we need to know as much as Pound, and recognise the objects and put them in their context, or we need a guide, to gently lead us through the exhibition and show us how it goes together.

How could this picture apply to modernist poetry of a less learned nature? I suppose the chances are increased that a reader can provide their own context. I'll look out for examples.

06 July 2010

TRS: Kwame Anthony Appiah

Kwame Anthony Appiah is apparently a philosopher and so his reflections on "Thick Translation" spring from some fundamental theories. He begins by looking at some proverbs from the Twi or Akan language (there's evidently an iceberg of reasons why both names have been used for the language).

In their literal translations, these proverbs don't seem to mean much ("The drongo says: if he had known that the palm nuts were going to ripen, then he would not have married the raffia palm with a twisted leg"), but Appiah then goes on to consider their "literal intention". He makes a working assumption that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, however true or not, doesn't mean translation is impossible. Twi has no word for "neutral boson", but then neither did English until recently. YOu can always build a concept by the use of existing words within a language.

So to Searle's notion of direct and indirect speech acts (which is different from the notion of literal and non-literal). Direct speech acts occur when the main point of the utterance is accounted for by the literal intentions. Actually, I think he goes wrong here, since he then says "sometimes indirect communication proceeds by way of literal intentions and sometimes it doesn't." But it looks like the concept in fact means that all speech acts have literal intentions; the degree of directness depends on the closeness of the utterance to that intention. For example, if I say "This is a very busy road" to a traffic surveyor, it's a direct utterance. If I say it to a child, it's indirect, because my literal intention, the meaning of my speech, is "Hold my hand". I think the term "literal intention" is the problem here, but I guess we're stuck with it.

In the rest of the essay, Appiah argues that it always possible to reconstruct the intention of the original text, if necessary with the use of "thick" contextualisation. This brings up something that's been nagging at me for some time: does a translator have to consider the intention of the source text, in a way that a modern reader would regard as inappropriate? Appiah tackles this question, but again, I think he muddles the meaning of "literal intention". I also suspect he's not adequately distinguishing between "meaning" and "intention". It all becomes a bit of a mess.

And then this:

But for literary translation our object is not to produce a text that reproduces the literal intentions of the author - not even the one's [sic] she is cancelling - but to produce something that shares the central literary properties of the object-text; and, as is obvious, these are very much under-determined by its literal meaning, even in the cases where it has one.

So many begged questions there. But the essay closes better with the view that there is a variety of valid approaches to translating (as there are to reading).

I feel impertinent in suggesting that Appiah has misled himself in his argument, but that seems to be the case and it's infected the whole piece, so I can't rely on the conclusions.

But to return to the question of the author's intention. I'm beginning to think the translator must try to understand this, in order to reproduce it. From the examples of the proverb, it's clear that you need to know that the utterance isn't intended to be an Attenborough-ish comment on the behaviour of the drongo. If you were translating, say, Siegfried Sassoon's war poetry you'd need to know the ironic intent, and it would help to know something of his personal story. That, modern theory would say, isn't something you need to know in advance of reading the poems.

I took a long time over that last paragraph. Something's wrong here, and I'll come back to this again.

28 June 2010


This is quite amusing. I've googled "Mitwegsein" and found just a few references, all connected with Spivak. Here she is, talking, purportedly, about Edward Said:

I think he often thought I was a fool, to be so persuaded by "theory." His stand, as president of the Modern Language Association, against pretentious and obscure language was against me as well. I think I tried his patience precisely because he cared. I sat next to him on the plane coming back from the Chicago MLA, where he had excoriated unnamed but easily recognizable persons who wrote fatuously obscure books. I asked him why he had so trashed me at the MLA; it was transparent. He said, altogether unconvincingly, and he knew it as he said it, that it wasn't about me - and he named an eminent "French-feminist." And he was amused by my on-the-ground political commitments that had to be different from his, for they were "post"-colonial. "The first critic of the state of Palestine," I had heard him say in 1981. My idea of practical usefulness - I was no stateswoman - was to show the state the usefulness of a different kind of teacher training for the largest sector of the electorate. It seemed such a difficult project, so different from most literacy or science efforts, that I kept quiet about this for the first ten years or so and finally opened my mouth by a happenstance that I will describe in my memoirs. So, anyway, when Edward would ask, "Gayatri, what do you do when you go to those villages?" I would give the usual answer, "Hang out" (Mitwegsein, suspend previous training in order to train yourself, you know). The answer was not satisfactory.

This really is dreadful writing.

24 June 2010

TSR: Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

What to make of an article ("The Politics of Translation") that begins with this laziness:
The idea for this title comes from Michele Barrett's feeling that the politics of translation takes on a massive life of its own if you see language as the process of meaning construction.
I think she means "the process of constructing meaning", so why leave in the irrelevant and confusing ambiguity?

The whole piece varies between lazy writing, which is often impenetrable, and bizarrely low-register phrases. Here's a sentence where they're mixed:
When you hang out and with [sic] a language away from your own (Mitwegsein) so that you want to use that language by preference, sometimes, when you discuss something complicated, then you are on the way to making a dimension of the text accessible to the reader, with a light and easy touch, to which she does not accede in her everyday.

[That's my "sic", not hers.] Whose is the "light and easy touch"? Does it really help to say "Mitwegsein"? Actually, what does "a light and easy touch" actually mean?

And there's a failure to expand on some references. On page 373 she talks about a discussion of "Sudhir Kakar's The Inner World, [in which] a song about Kali written by the late nineteenth-century monk Vivekananda is cited as part of the proof of the 'archaic narcissism' of the Indian [sic] male." That's her "sic", not mine. I presume it means that Indian is being used here to mean South Asian, or subcontinental, or even is a mistake and should be Bengali. The point is that the vast majority of readers won't know what all this is about: it needs more explanation.

After two slow readings, I'm closer to understanding the meaning of the whole piece. It is a subtle argument about the need to submit to the source text in order to translate it. She suggests, strongly, that you need an intimate knowledge of the source language (that's what the above quotation means) and of the culture. The article is predominantly about translating third world women's writing, and Spivak argues that the translator has to understand the social and cultural framework around the source text, especially to avoid assumptions of an orientalist kind. It also challenges one-size-fits-all models of feminism, and in that sense it's a vigorous hybrid of post-colonial and feminist thinking.

She's writing from an active feminist perspective: one of the aims of translation is to expose and thereby change women's experiences. Which raises the question - a much bigger question - of whether actions and choices must always be explicitly grounded in praxis. She's taking it for granted that they must be, and while I can understand that, I haven't worked it through completely enough to feel exclusively driven by it.

There's a lot of good stuff here but oh my word how badly it needs an editor.

TSR: Annie Brisset

Terrific piece on questions evoked by the practice of translating plays into Quebecois, that goes way beyond the initial question to look at the ways, in general, that language defines national identity, and in particular the status of the French language in Canada.

Annie Brisset is a Professor at the University of Ottawa. This essay, "The Search for a Native Language: Translation and Cultural Identity", was written in French, so I assume that's her mother tongue, and it was apparently chapter 4 of her book Sociocritique de la traduction. Théâtre et altérité au Québec (1990).

She looks at plays that have been labelled (by the translators) as translated into Quebecois, and asks what that means. The clearest point is that these translations are part of a project to claim language status for Quebecois, as part of a nationalist movement. She refers to several links between the Quebecois movement and xenophobic sentiments. In fact, the language is part of Quebec's self-told history. What surprised me is the extent to which the movement arises in opposition to "international French"; it rejects the association of francophonie. So it positions Quebecois as a doubly oppressed language.

Meanwhile, however, those translators are explaining their actions in "standard" French; even the stage directions use the non-Quebecois language. Brisset gets quite scathing about the pro-Quebecois movement - she's clearly not politically aligned with it - but even without taking sides you can see this as a real-life experiment in language development. In some ways, then, it's similar to the position Susan Sontag described in Bosnia, where a translation into Bosnian was demanded, although there's little difference from Serbo-Croat.

23 June 2010

TSR: Antoine Berman

Berman's 1985 piece, "Translation and the trials of the foreign" focuses particularly on translation of novels, in which bad translation can go unnoticed:
It is easy to detect how a poem by Holderlin has been massacred. It isn't so easy to see what was done to a novel by Kafka or Faulkner, especially if the translation seems "good". The deforming system functions here in complete tranquility. 
He lists 12 deforming tendencies ("there may be more").  I won't list or describe them here, since the article is refreshingly clear. They describe ways in which translators may attempt to clarify or improve the original text. What was maybe new to me were the less obvious problems. For example, a Spanish text (Berman's work often involves translations from Spanish to French) may use a network of augmentatives, which is hard to reproduce in French (or in English, no doubt). The last four tendencies concern linguistic diversity. How for example would you translate favela slang, or local words like lisboeta? He quotes one apparent astonishing success: Maurice Betz's translation of The Magic Mountain. In the original two characters speak to each other in French. Their two Frenches differ from each other, but in the translation they also differ from the novel's French, in which Betz has "let Thomas Mann's German resonate".

I think there's a possibility that much can be subsumed in the question of rendering appropriately the variety of languages in the original.

Berman is in the tradition of Schleiermacher, advocating translations that challenge and therefore develop the translating language (at this point I am beginning to see that "target language" isn't always the right term). He explicitly references Plato, saying that "the Platonic figure of translation ... sets up up as an absolute only on esssential possibility of translating, which is precisely the restitution of meaning". In contrast to literal(ish) translation, which "stimulated the fashioning and refashioning of the great western languages only because it labored on the letter and profoundly modified the translating language".

But where Vermeer focussed on skopos, while understating its mootness, Berman seems to ignore it. There are times when a domesticating translation is right. Children's literature, for example, I suppose.

18 June 2010

TSR: Hans J Vermeer

Maybe I'm missing something, but this piece, "Skopos and commission in translational action", seems to be a glaring example of dressing up the bleeding obvious in long words.

Vermeer seems to have developed his theory of skopos and commission over a long time. I'll try to explain it.

Translation is a specific kind of translational action - which I think is similar to the concept of refraction. An action is defined as behaviour that has an aim or purpose, and Vermeer calls that a skopos. (He says "skopos is a technical term for the aim or purpose of a translation" - dodgy use of the word "technical" there, I think - he's claiming a shared use of something he is essentially proposing as a technical term.)

The skopos for any particular translation is negotiated with the client who commissions the translation. Thus, the commission may specify that the translation is intended to show how the source language works, for example, or may give as an aim to entertain. The translation strategy adopted by the translator will depend on the skopos defined in the commission. This is why we shouldn't expect all translations to be the same.

So, what it amounts to is this: translation strategy depends on the intended purpose of the translation. I really don't think you need to have recourse to "technical" terms.

But have I missed something? The middle part of the essay raises and disposes of some objections to the theory. Basically the objections are that works of literature and/or translations don't necessarily have a purpose, so aren't actions, and can't have a skopos. It seems like an unnecessary discussion. A more serious objection might be that the choice of skopos is itself part of the translation process, and so translation theory needs to discuss and account for it.

16 June 2010

Less exciting than it sounds

I was talking to my sister the other day and mentioned that my main reading currently is The Translation Studies Reader. She looked unimpressed, and I should have added "and it's not as exciting as you may think".

I started reading the piece by Shoshana Blum-Kulka on "Shifts of coherence and cohesion in translation" and found this first example. The source language reads "Marie was helping Jimmy climb the biggest branch of the tree in the front yard ...", and the translation is "Marie était en train d'aider Jimmy à grimper sur la plus haute branche de l'arbre ..." . Blum-Kalka's point is that the French text is more explicit and has more redundancy but she doesn't seem to notice the factual mistranslation. Translating back, the French reads "Marie was helping Jimmy climb the highest branch of the tree".

It's not her translation, I should point out, but surely she should have chosen better. This missed detail has, frankly, damaged my respect for anything she says. So, exciting as the article may be, I'm leaving it there.

07 June 2010

TSR: Itamar Even-Zohar; Gideon Toury

Back to bogginess and the 1970s. But apparently these two writers provided some of the background for Lefevere, so I ought to look at them.

Even-Zohar's "The Position of Translated Literature within the Literary Polysystem" soon recovers from that awful title. Here he's essentially looking at the different ways in which translation can affect the host "polysystem" (which is similar to the system Lefevere refers to). I think he provides some social/political context to this, although I'd say there's too little reference to sheer political power of one society against another, in economic or military terms. He looks more at the cultural state of the host culture, and it feels right to believe that a new or developing culture is more open to change by the practice of importing translations than a stable old culture would be. It's a pretty short piece, though, not much more than a sketch of what might be investigated further.

Gideon Toury has a simpler title, "The Nature and Role of Norms in Translation", but quickly sinks to this:
The acquisition of a set of norms for determining the suitability of that kind of behaviour, and for manoeuvring between all the factors which may constrain it, is therefore a prerequisite for becoming a translator within a cultural environment.
It's not impenetrable, it's just that it could have been said much more plainly. And so it goes on. The broad argument is that in translation there are some things that you have to do (rules), some things that are at your choice (idiosyncrasies), and those that it's on the whole best to do (norms). All of these are subject to change.

Blimey, I just summarised 12 pages in a paragraph. Of course there's more to it, but it's tough. So he draws us a diagram. The caption says "Schematic diagram showing the Return Potential Method for representing norms: (a) a behaviour dimension; (b) an evaluation dimension; (c) a return potential curve, show the distribution of approval-disapproval among the members of a group over the whole range of behaviour; (d) the range of tolerable or approved behaviour." I'm not even sure if this is just an illustration of what a return potential curve graph looks like, or if it's in any way a mapping of what Toury thinks is the relation between translation norms and acceptability.

At this stage we must be content with our intuitions [...] [M]uch energy should still be directed toward the crystallization of systematic research methods, including statistical ones, especially if we wish to transcend the study of norms, which are always limited to one societal group at a time, and move on to the formulation of general laws of translational behaviour, which would inevitably be probabilistic in nature.
So I can't help thinking this isn't nearly as scientific as it wants to be. The concept of norms etc seems to me very close to Genette's framework of vraisemblance, and I'm eager to see if anyone has made that connection.

TSR: André Lefevere

I've pretty much abandoned chronological order in looking at TSR, so now I'm looking at this essay from 1982, "Mother Courage's Cucumbers", which must be one of the first examples of the "Wittgenstein's Poker" school of titling.

Starting with some unarguably bad translations of Brecht, he then goes on to look at how translations, like other "refractions" (critical essays, stagings ...) are situated within one system of language, and have to use various strategies to adapt the original work. Each system includes ideological, economic poetic assumptions. With the poetic differences there are four strategies, and, André, you could have been clearer at this point. A list, such as follows, might have helped.

(i) One can recognise the value of the plays themselves, while dismissing the poetics out of hand
(ii) One can go in for the psychological cop-out: Brecht's poetics can be dismissed as a rationalisation of essentially irrational factors
(iii) One can integrate the new poetics into the old one by translating its concepts into those of the old poetics
(iv) to show that the system can in fact accommodate the new poetics, and be changed by it.

A similar pattern applies to Brecht's ideological content. Translations and other refractions have to fit within the system of the time.

Finally, economic considerations affect whether Brecht's plays are translated, staged, anthologised. (An amusing consideration is that if there are too many songs in a play in America, it becomes a musical and according to theatre custom and practice requires a full orchestra.)

So, applying these deliberations to translation, it becomes clear that translations are a mediation between different systems. While we may think early translations of Brecht were bad, this is not because the translator nodded, but because s/he had to adapt the plays to make them acceptable. We can only afford more accurate translations because the early ones built Brecht into the canon of drama.

On my other blog, I've recently commented on the National Theatre's production of Women Beware Women. A production is a refraction, certainly, and it might be interesting to try to apply this model to what I've written there.

05 June 2010

TSR: Abé Mark Nornes

I've skipped forward in TSR to look at this, because the 60s/70s was getting boggish, with discussions about basic terminology and concepts that was reading like Les Liaisons Dangereuses, pretentiousness fans, in that the shadow of a revolution was upon it. There was (inevitably) an extract from Steiner, looking more than ever like a relic of a different age.

Nornes' piece is about subtitling films into a different language. This is something he does professionally, and so there's a lot of fascinating stuff about the technical limitations: how many characters can you fit into a line; how long should the line be on screen, etc. Obviously he finds that subtitles are generally inadequate, but offers some evidence that the inadequacy becomes ideological. In a very specific example, he shows how Japanese verb-forms femininise the speech of female protagonists.

But the most intriguing passage concerns anime films. He talks of fan activity, where people (viewers) create and circulate their own versions of subtitles. Using computer animation techniques, these can be much more adventurous than the usual line across the bottom of the picture. He says that some even give long descriptions of unfamiliar terms - effectively footnotes - which the viewer can choose to read by pausing the video, or can ignore. It's that kind of thinking about how we can use modern technology that excites me.

01 June 2010

TSR: Jakobson

Jakobson's essay "On Linguistic Aspects of Translation" is a generally optmistic view of the possibility of translation between different languages. Because every language has metalinguistic capability, "All cognitive experience and its classification is conveyable in any existing language". But poetry is untranslatable, being essentially a framework of puns.

31 May 2010

TSR: Vinay and Darbelnet

Writing in 1958, Vinay and Darbelnet proposed certain methodological concepts for use by translators. Their work was apparently hugely influential, and on the surface is practical and untheoretical. For the sake of reference, I'll list here the seven procedures they outlined. They start from the viewpoint that translation is easy until you meet lacunae - gaps where there is no direct equivalent in the target language. How do you cope with these gaps?

1. Borrowing. If you can get away with it, use the foreign term. Sometimes the foreign term will be established in the target language already, making this a fait accompli. Otherwise you may need to stretch the target language a little.

2. Calque. A calque is where a foreign phrase is reassembled in the target language using simple translations of the elements of the original phrase. I suppose that's what German did with television to Fernsehen.

3. Literal translation. I don't really understand why this is listed here. It really belongs to the pre-lacuna stage. The comments here, though, do say that literal translation can go from the more specific to the more general or vice versa. Also by literal translation they include translation of common phrases. At the simplest level would be a phrase like "of course" where it would be folly to attempt a word by word rendering. At a move complex level, a phrase like "leave it on the back burner" probably has a well-used equivalent in other languages, which may be nothing to do with simmering. I guess the point is that literal translation operates at a level above individual words, which must be true, but begs several questions.

4. Transposition. Where a grammatical formation in the source language is altered. Many examples spring to mind. "Avant son arrivée", for example, might read better as "before s/he arrived".

5. Modulation. Not very different from transposition. Here there's a "change in the point of view", generally to make the translation more natural. An example would be the way the pronoun "on" is used much more in French than "one" in English. So if a character says "On y va?", it's much better if that's translated as "Shall we go?", even though both the tense and the pronoun are changed.

6. Equivalence. This seems to me more like the more complex version of literal translation. One example given is "too many cooks spoil the broth", translated into French as "deux patrons font chavirer la barque", where there are no cooks. It's literal translation at phrase level.

7. Adaptation. This is the remotest, and the most problematic technique. When an action does not fit into the translation language context, it may be changed. There's a weird example quoted of an interpreter recasting a comparison with cricket into terms based on the Tour de France. Personally, that seems like a highly dangerous approach, and it's in this area, I realise, that I tend to get riled most often. It's by way of adaptation that "cien metros" becomes "100 yards" and in the film Central Station the charge for writing a letter is "one buck".

In the introduction, Venuti mutters darkly about Vinay and Darbelnet's inherent conservatism. I think he may be meaning the apparent laxity they show towards the use of adaptation. (Incidentally, Venuti's section introductions are written in an entirely inappropriate present historic tense. Talking about Nabokov, he writes "few English-language translators at the time follow [his] uncompromising example". And he means "followed".  At "that" time. Twat.)

TSR: Nabokov

Nabokov's contribution is a note about his attempt to create a translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin (though even the spelling of that is moot). Nabokov brings a poet's ear to the task initially, examining the different ways in which Russian and English use stress, consonants etc. And this contributes to his final view that it is impossible to translate Onegin into English verse. His concept of translation, then, is overwhelmingly concerned with meaning, and he's quite happy to separate meaning and form. So, he has to sacrifice the music of Pushkin's original, and settle for a series of footnotes which describe "the modulations and rhymes of the text as well as its associations and other special features". Which is contrary: explaining the effect of rhyme etc is like explaining a joke. In practice, it's the kind of translation I'd like, because I don't have a particularly high regard for the music of poetry; but a lot of people do.

As Venuti's introduction points out, Nabokov has in mind as a reader of his translation himself, or someone very much like him. To the extent that early in the piece, reflecting on the alternative versions and deleted stanzas, he says:
All this matter, as well as Pushkin's own commentaries, the variants, epigraphs, dedications, and so forth, must be of course translated too, in appendices and notes.
Of course.

30 May 2010

TSR: Benjamin, Pound, Borges

So I'm looking again at Walter Benjamin's essay on "The task of the translator" (see earlier comments). Here it's accompanied by notes on the translation, which make it clear that the translator, Harry Zohn, made some basic errors (omitting to translate a "nicht" is the grossest example), and doesn't seem to have understood Benjamin's argument. Well, I can forgive him for that, even if a second reading has made it clearer, if no more plausible. (Compared to Schleiermacher, it's lucid and limpid.) We are stuck with Zohn's translation for copyright reasons. And I noticed a tiny difference in this book. I earlier quoted this passage;

A real translation is transparent; it does not cover the original, does not block its light, [...]
Here the word block is replaced by black, which is probably just a misprint, but who knows?

Read in this context, following from Schleiermacher, it's easier to see how this piece fits into a developing theory of translation and its purposes. I think without getting hung up on the concept of "pure language", we can see that Benjamin is putting language at the centre of literary activity, including writing as well as translating. Every act of writing or translating serves to improve, extend or refine language (in general) and the translating language in particular.

By the way, one of the translation faults was the omission of a reference to "messianisch".

The piece by Pound is a typically feisty note on translating Cavalcanti.

The Borges article is on translations of the 1001 Nights. Borges values translations (like Burton's) that use the richness of the translating language and its literature. Apparently the language of the 1001 Nights is quite impoverished, and a straight translation would be dull, apart from the rudeness and the anecdotes themselves. He seems perfectly happy for translations to be improvements.

27 May 2010

TSR: Goethe, Nietzsche

The first section of TSR, "Foundational Statements" ends with two short pieces, by Goethe and Nietzsche.

Goethe says there are three kinds of translation. The goal of the ideal translation is "to achieve perfect identity with the original, so that the one does not exist instead of the other but in the other's place." I wonder what the German is here; what's the actual difference between "instead of" and "in the place of"?

The very short Nietzsche extract from The Gay Science is fairly unremarkable except in its identification of translation with imperialism. For examples, ancient Romans translated extensively:
They did not know the delights of the historical sense; what was past and alien was an embarrassment for them; and being Romans, they saw it as an incentive for a Roman conquest. Indeed translation was a form of conquest.

So this section has covered over 1500 years, when people had theories about translation, but generally seem to have rubbed along. We now move to the 20th century, when things change.

TSR: Dryden, Schleiermacher

I looked at Friedrich Schleiermacher while reading The Translator's Invisibility, and wasn't convinced. TSR contains the essay "On the different methods of translating" so I can now see exactly the point Schleiermacher was making. Or can I? It's a ponderous piece of writing, with at least two paragraphs that are three pages long. The paragraph that begins on page 46 of this volume, for example, works up to a claim that there are two alternatives: paraphrase and imitation, and then discusses each of these within the same paragraph. Oh, I'd be inclined to forgive the translator who broke this text up.

But it then moves on the main point: there is a choice between two strategies:

either the translator leaves the author in peace as much as possible and moves the reader towards him; or he leaves the reader in peace as much as possible and moves the writer towards him.

But then, I think, Schleiermacher is misled by his own metaphor. Only one of these "paths" can be followed because:

any attempt to combine them being certain to produce a highly unreliable result and to carry with it the danger that writer and reader might miss each other completely.

He, as we saw earlier, goes for the first choice for reasons of improvement; of the reader and of the culture that refreshes itself on the new concepts that initially seem so alien.

Reading this now, after my canter through modern literary theory, I'm struck by how much he refers to the writer, rather than the text.

Earlier, John Dryden's introduction to translations of Ovid was a much livelier read. It's a contrast with d'Ablancourt, in that it pretty much says that translations should be warts'n'all although "the sence of an Authour, generally speaking, is to be Sacred and inviolable"

TSR: Jerome, D'Ablancourt

The first piece is, as I've said, by St Jerome and dates from the end of the 4th century. The background was that Jerome had provided a private translation of a letter sent by Pope Epiphanus from Greek into Latin. The letter, to Bishop John of Jerusalem, had included a discussion of possible heresy. The translation had been leaked, and people had accused Jerome of mistranslation. His letter is an angry rebuttal of that. I think the anger and the intensity of Jerome's argument must come from the fact that this was an issue concerned with heresy, where there were big risks. The accusation, which Jerome accepts, is that he did not translate each word accurately. He argues that he translated sense for sense, not word for word. He quotes several examples from the Bible, where for example Jesus quotes the Old Testament somewhat inaccurately, to establish the validity of his method.

In researching this, I came across the septuagint, something I'd never heard of before, and it seems to me that here there are more theological questions involved than translational ones. The septuagint was a translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, made around 300BC. The tradition is that 70 scholars worked independently on the translation, but all the translations were identical, proving that the scholars had been divinely inspired. This was why Augustine (and many others) thought than any "inaccuracies" were improvements. Jerome's later translation of the Old Testament (the Vulgate) was not bound by the septuagint, so he clearly disagreed.

Jerome's argument about his translation of the Pope's letter implicitly accepts that word for word translation doesn't work, and that concepts within one language may not have a direct equivalent in another, so some sort of paraphrase becomes necessary. Augustine's position would seem to accept that, but he sees divine inspiration as helping in the act of paraphrase. Jerome seems to be in a more modern position: the source words contain the meaning and are a sufficient indicator of the writer's intention - even when the writer is God. He basically doesn't see that the process of translating the Bible is structurally different from translating a Pope's letter.

The second selection, two pieces by Nicolas Perrot d'Ablancourt, gives a different view. They are prefaces to two translations from Latin and Greek: Tacitus and Lucian. He argues that it is legitimate to make changes to the original in order to make it clearer or to make it more fitting for contemporary tastes (he was writing in the mid-17th century - the time of Racine and Corneille). He tackles some of the things that bother me: should he translate currency terms, for example? His answer is no, but for a strange reason, which is that the figures would be silly. Arminius, at one stage, proposes a reward of a hundred sesterces. That's a plausible round figure, whereas the equivalent figure in contemporary currency would be seven livres and ten sous, which isn't. He also talks about translating names, and accepts the French practice of frenchifying names like Marc Antoine, while accepting that it's inconsistent. It seems to me this is very much in line with the Académie's attempt to mould classical drama into something suitable for 17th century France. French wikipedia shows that d'Ablancourt's translations were the first to be labelled "belle infidèle", so even at that time, his approach was questioned.

The second piece, on Lucian, is more interesting. He freely admits that he has changed the content of some pieces to remove Lucian's references to homosexuality, for example. And where one piece was wholly untranslatable, he's substituted a piece of his own invention.

D'Ablancourt's clear intention is to give the contemporary reader something like the same experience an original reader would have had. He accepts that he's on the border between translating and adapting, but asserts he stays the right side of the line. I think the position of that line moves, and currently, as evidenced by the use of Ted Hughes's "version" of Phedre, it's moving back towards him.

French wikipedia shows that d'Ablancourt's translations were the first to be labelled "belle infidèle", so even at that time, his approach was questioned.

Before I close this post, one point about Venuti's translation of d'Ablancourt. In his brief note of Lucian's life, d'Ablancourt says "his father, lacking the means to maintain him, resolved that he should learn a métier". Why "métier"? It's not in italics, and the word "trade" would be a simpler translation.

26 May 2010

New fuel

I've neglected this blog and the work behind it recently, but today brought me two new books that ought to get me going. On the right, and following up on my last post is the collection of essays by ARG on the new novel. The immediate impression is of the lovely design. The covers are simple card with, as you can see, simple and authoritative typography. Inside, the text has what I guess is the original setting, with an unpretentious and so far timeless serif font. Also, ARG's prose is beautifully straightforward. I'm looking forward to reading this.

The second book in the Amazon package was The Translation Studies Reader, a collection of pieces dating from St Jerome onwards. Again, it's a beautifully produced book. A large format, and cleverly using serif for the essays, and sans for the commentaries. So far I've read the piece by St Jerome, which is surprisingly alive. He wrote in defence of his own translation practice in response to an attack. He went on to produce the standard Latin version of the Bible, so he's an important figure. The introduction to this section of the book says that St Augustine had an interesting view of translation. The septuagint, which was the Greek version of the Hebrew scriptures prepared in the third century BC, was, to him, more accurate than the Hebrew original, because it was divinely (re-)inspired. (As if God needed the opportunity to make some revisions.)

More comments on both these books will follow, you can be sure of that.

13 May 2010


A short post, this, just to anchor this link to a comment on Alain Robbe-Grillet's essays on the novel. It's coincidental that he's quoted as saying:
the genuine writer has nothing to say. He has only a way of speaking
which is similar to what Susan Sontag said. She'd also echo his view that most novels written today are no advance on Flaubert, technically. She was talking about the twentieth century American novel, and I'd rather read this

than any exquisite examination of the human condition. (It's Alasdair Gray's 1982 Janine.)

05 May 2010

Against Interpretation

I've got this out of the library, and before talking about it, I want to slag off Penguin books once again.

This collection of essays dates from 1966, so once again there's no new material in it to justify the cover price of £12. In fact, Penguin haven't even reset the text. My picture shows the start of one essay, with what's a really dated (and American) use of sansserif chapter heading and a really ugly Bodoni-ish initial capital.

So the only new content is the cover, which is admittedly very stylish. No-one should have to pay £12 for this, and presumably no-one does. Which means that small independent bookshops don't have a chance of making profit on backlist like this.

The book begins with two essays that have related themes. The first, "Against Interpretation" attacks the idea that the purpose of criticism is to interpret works; the point is to show how the works achieve their effect. The second, "On Style", initially sets out to examine the theoretically professed view that you can't separate style and content, compared with the pretty universal critical practice of doing so. It wanders a bit, but the essential argument is that works of art aren't statements; they don't exist to provide information, or to improve public morals, but to provoke reflections, comtemplation.

Interesting stuff, which I largely like. But I still wouldn't have paid twelve quid for it.

PS After publishing this post, it occurred to me that in talking about the typography I might indeed be looking at style or form as opposed to content. Irony, there.

28 April 2010


This is really troubling. It turns out that Iris Murdoch was besotted with Raymond Queneau. In the letter quoted, she says
Anything I shall ever write will owe so much, so much, to you ... As I think more about literature [...] I realise more and more how crucial for me is everything you write. [...] I would do anything for you, be anything you wished me, come to you at any time or place [but] you don't need me in the way in which I need you.

(I've included the extracts as given in the Guardian. It's not made clear if she wrote in English or French, though. The French versions in Le Monde could be the originals.)

I haven't read much Murdoch, to be fair, but the reason I didn't read more is precisely because what I did read seemed to lack the qualities that attract me in Queneau's writing: playfulness, verbal invention, an engagement with current idiomatic speech. Maybe she saw in him the things her writing lacked. So this is like finding that Andrew Lloyd Webber was a passionate fan of Stockhausen.

The article in Le Monde suggests that the guardians of the Murdoch temple might now wish to reread her work, to trace the influence of Queneau in it. Good luck to them, if they do. I won't.

27 April 2010


As king fishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves -- goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is --
Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.

A randomly chosen poem by Hopkins, but can we call it modernist, in the way I was talking about in relation to Rilke?

Who is speaking here? Who says "I say more"? I think that in this poem Hopkins is unproblematically adopting a persona of poet. The poet's observations and opinions have a special value because they are the poet's. Poetry had established this as a legitimate stance. With Hopkins, moreover, you get a very individual diction; the poetry creates the poet. So perhaps there is the relationship with form. The verbal dexterity of Hopkins certifies him as a poet, and gives him that credibility.

Is this actually so different from Rilke, in fact? In his poems, at least as far as I can tell with the peculiar translations I have, he's depending on this assumed status and prestige. He's much less formal, but in a passage like this, you can see, even without understanding it, linguistic dexterity:

Wer zeigt ein Kind, so wie es steht? Wer stellt
er ins Gestirn und gibt der Mass des Abstands
ihm in die Hand? wer macht den Kindertod
aus grauem Brot, das hart wird ...

The most obvious trick there is the repetition of "wer", but there's a melody running through the language too. Like Hopkins, Rilke earns bardic respect from his way with words. Do modernist poets forgo this certification?

I'll come back to that, but also need to think about poems written in character, whether that be Browning or Pessoa.

26 April 2010


My German isn't good enough to read Rilke's Duino Elegies, and probably never will be, but can I rope his poetry into the investigation I seem to be making into a modernist poetics? I've now read Martyn Crucefix's translation, and although I have problems with it, which I'll come back to, there's enough here to suggest that Rilke's work provides some of the same challenges that we see in other modernist poetry.

To over-simplify, the big question in modernist poetry seems to be that of Roland Barthes, in S/Z, "who is speaking here?" The Elegies begin with a bold first-person question:

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the ranks
Of the angels?

And, to be honest, I'm already damaging my own proposition, because the voice throughout the Elegies seems to remain consistent. But maybe it's a more subtle anonymity: the poetic voice gives away so little of its speaker's past, we don't know what is the occasion for these elegies.

There's another anonymity, in that the poet addresses a "you":

Yes - the springtimes needed you. There were stars
waiting to be seen by you. A wave rolled
to your feet in the past, or as you strode
beneath half-shuttered windows, the bowed violin
leant itself to you. All this was your mission.

It's not obvious if this "you" remains the same during the elegies, or what the relationship between the poet and this character is.

So, what might be happening is that one of the characteristics of modernist poetry is the refusal to accept a privileged role for the poet, whose voice is one of many. Pessoa embodied this in the use of heteronyms, Pound by his whole method. And this kind of distinction is much more important than the formal concern (all these poets used what we could inadequately call free verse.)

But there ought to be a relationship between verse form and authority. Does the use of metre and rhyme in itself claim for the poet's voice a structuring authority that modernism refuses? That's a potential line of enquiry.

As for the translation, it's curiously prosaic. Rilke's German of course uses compounds which are hard to transfer into English, and so the lines get longer, and Crucefix's version actually have more lines than the original. Which I think is unusual.

10 April 2010


One of the embarrassing gaps in my reading history - how did I get through my degree without reading this? Now that I have done, in Seamus Heaney's translation, I know how.

The thing is, Beowulf doesn't have much to do with English literature. It's so much more remote than Gawain, for example. It's partly the language, of course. In this version, the first page is given in parallel Anglo-Saxon and English, and even so, it's hard to see which word is which. Then there's the subject matter. The story is set in Denmark, and so it appears to be largely nostalgic. The tale is longer than I expected, and Grendel and his mum are killed off fairly early. Beowulf then returns to his homeland, becomes king and rules wisely and well for 50 years, before the third battle of the poem, a fatal encounter with a dragon. After that, the decline of the kingdom is presaged, a decline that has been evident in the fatalistic musings of the aging Beowulf. These are the best bits of the poem: the descriptions of the king facing his mortality are universal and moving.

Earlier, the poem shows signs of an oral culture. Each battle is described twice, first in the poet's voice, then in quotation from a witness/participant. The repetition would be appropriate for a listening audience, of course, but it also shows a diffidence, perhaps, about the role as author. The author isn't entirely trusted to know and tell everything, he has to adduce evidence. In a few places, the poet refers to himself explicitly, saying things like "someone told me this".

So the poem, for all its qualities, feels a lot like the end of a tradition, not the start of a new one. Sadly, it's less relevant to English literature than Homer, for example.

As for the translation, it seems a bit sluggish. It doesn't have the energy of Armitage's Gawain, perhaps, I'd venture, because there's not the shared dna of language that Armitage exploited. I suspect that might be part of the reason the final sections stand up so strongly - their mood is a better match with Heaney's verse.

This all sounds very negative, and shouldn't. It is a very fine poem, and of course I should have read it before now. I'm not going to learn Anglo-Saxon but I will look for other translations. 

30 March 2010


Gathered here for reference, the biographical details of Pessoa's heteronyms.

Alberto Caeiro, born Lisbon 1889, died of tuberculosis in 1915. Average height, and frail build, blond, blue-eyed. Only completed primary school. His parents died at a young age and he was brought up by an old great-aunt. The others, including Pessoa-himself, regard him as "o mestre", the master.

Alvaro de Campos, born Tavira, 15/10/1890 at 13:30. "Branco e moreno" (I'm not sure what that means), uses a monocle, brings to mind a Portuguese jew. He's 1.75m tall, thin, slightly hunched. Trained as a navel engineer, he has been around, stays in the best hotels, and drives a Chevrolet. There are three distinct phases to his work: the decadent, the futurist, and the apathetic. But Pessoa wrote the poems of the second stage first.

Ricardo Reis, born 1887 in Porto, jesuit-educated. Trained in medicine. After 1919 he goes into exile in Brazil, since he is a monarchist. Pessoa never killed him off, which is why Jose Saramago had to do it.

Bernardo Soares, who wrote O Livro do Dessassossego, is described as a semi-heteronym, a simple mutilation of Pessoa's own personality.

(All this is from the introduction to Poesias: Heterónimos, which in turn derives from a letter of 13 January 1935 from Pessoa to Adolfo Casais Monteiro).

MCT: Terry Eagleton

The final selection in MCT is by Terry Eagleton, and a quick bit of research shows he has been an amazingly prolific thinker and writer. I've most recently come across him in his latest role as scourge of the "new atheists". His review of The God Delusion caused all sorts of jollity, and his book Reason, Faith and Revolution argued for (it appears) a scarcely visible god who created the universe as a pleasant experiment.

Eagleton's been a consistent Marxist, although his marxism, like his belief, has always been subject to the reservation that a lot of what passes for marxism (religion) isn't.

So his analysis of "The rise and fall of theory", from After Theory (2003), is based on the economic and political conditions during Theory's heyday. It's fun to read, but it really doesn't challenge the arguments so much as deplore the consequences. I suppose the main problem is that so much of the substructure of Eagleton's view is hidden from view here, like the substructure of religious thought. It's an internal ideology.

29 March 2010

Felix Randal

That last entry tempted me to look up the text of Hopkins' poem, and in doing so, I found one of the sites where essays are for sale, presumably to school students. Here's the sample of the essay offered:
Poem Analysis: Felix Randall By Gerald Maneley Hopkins [...] This poem written by Hopkins, in 1880, is a religious sonnet addressed to the dead Felix Randall, the farrier. It is a sonnet, meaning that it contains 14 lines, divided up into two quatrains and a sestet, which in turn is divided up in two tercets. This way of writing in fact keeps Randall from expressing himself completely because he is following a fixed rhyme scheme, but nonetheless he has written a powerful poem with an extensive use of vocabulary. The story that is told in the sonnet is divided up into two different perspectives: the physical state, and the mental or spiritual state. The fist quatrain is told in a physical point of view and is an introduction to Felix Randall who is horse farrier. This being mentioned immediately brings to mind that he must be a strong man, which in turn creates the [and there the extract ends].
It's more than a bit shit, isn't it? I love the suggestion it's the verse form that keeps Randal[l] from expressing himself completely, rather than the fact that he's dead. And of course "an extensive use of vocabulary" is so important. In fact, I'd suggest that the use of vocabulary should be compulsory in language, never mind poetry.

Anyway, here's the poem (from Bartleby):

FELIX RANDAL the farrier, O he is dead then? my duty all ended,
Who have watched his mould of man, big-boned and hardy-handsome
Pining, pining, till time when reason rambled in it and some
Fatal four disorders, fleshed there, all contended?

Sickness broke him. Impatient he cursed at first, but mended
Being anointed and all; though a heavenlier heart began some
Months earlier, since I had our sweet reprieve and ransom
Tendered to him. Ah well, God rest him all road ever he offended!

This seeing the sick endears them to us, us too it endears.
My tongue had taught thee comfort, touch had quenched thy tears,
Thy tears that touched my heart, child, Felix, poor Felix Randal;

How far from then forethought of, all thy more boisterous years,
When thou at the random grim forge, powerful amidst peers,
Didst fettle for the great grey drayhorse his bright and battering sandal!

Cunningham talked about Greg Woods' reference to Randal's beautiful sweat, and as he said, there's no mention of sweat here at all. Was Woods vaguely remembering the word "sweet"?

Of course, I don't know anything about Woods' analysis except what Cunningham cunningly quotes. But it seems clear to me that Hopkins is open about the physicality of Randal, and accepts the ambiguity of the religious and the personal relationship between the priest and the farrier. There's so much more in this poem to be interested in: in the lexicon the apparent bathos of the final word "sandal", the "random grim forge", the "mould of man"; the use of colloquialisms like "and all", "all road ever"; that chiming repetition of "all", which in certain accents would rhyme with "Randal" and "sandal"; the on/off alliteration. And above all, that phrase "How far from then forethought of": I'm still not sure what that means, but I feel the sense of it.

MCT: Valentine Cunningham

Near the end of MCT, now, and the first of two post-theory (a begged question, of course) pieces. "Touching reading" is a sparkling read, and you can imagine how good a lecturer Cunningham must be. It's a chapter of his 2002 book Reading after Theory. It's essentially an attack on mainly US proponents of Theory, centered around the concept of tact in reading. In a twist ironically redolent of Theorist writing, he approached this by looking at how the concept of touch has been handled (I know) in criticism of, among others, Great Expectations and the poems of Gerard Manly Hopkins. There's a brilliant dissection of William A Cohen's "Manual conduct in Great Expectations" and of Greg Woods' reading of "Felix Randal" in terms of queer theory.

The point of this is to reinstate the view that the purpose of reading is make us better people, to reinstate the human figure into literature, which he says Theorists have excluded. There are various suggestions that the founders of Theory (Barthes, Foucault, Derrida) never excluded the human in the way their 'followers' have; for example, Foucault's work is witness to "an interest, a truly human interest, in the human owners of those bodies [which are affected by the power relations]" (p 775).

This is good, insofar as it restores the focus of literary endeavour to understanding the act and purpose of reading. I think there's an underlying tendency to throw out a few babies with the bathwater, though. You can theorise about "the Author", locate the text as part of a wider discourse which speaks through the author, without disregarding the humanistic aspects of reading.

Similarly, though you can deplore the overuse of (eg) queer readings, his gungho approach risks losing the insight that identity politics has brought; and it's hard to think about those issues without using some of Foucault's views on discourse.

At the end of the piece, Cunningham quotes from Stephen King, in a calculatedly anti-theoretical act. King likens the relation between writer and reader as a kind of telepathy. By using words, thoughts and pictures that were in the writer's mind are now in the reader's. Once again, though, I as a reader don't care about what the writer was thinking.

MCT: Alexander Stille

The extract in MCT is the last chapter of Stille's 2002 book The Future of the Past: how the information age threatens to destroy our cultural heritage, a title that may owe more to its publisher's marketing department that to its actual thesis, at least on the evidence here. Being a final chapter, it offers a round up of the previous chapters, in which Stille seems to have spent a lot of time of the history of history, and in particular the role that writing, and later printing, had on our relationship to the past. He moves on to television, and all's going well, with discussion of findings of how tv watching correlates with social activities (negatively), until this paragraph:
Television has created a flat, two-dimensional world of an eternal present - in which everything, whether it is depicted in the present or the past, appears to be happening now.
The change of tone is really apparent when you read it. The tautology doesn't help - I really don't know what he means by "flat, two-dimensional" - but the sudden switch into a declarative mode is weird.

Which is a pity, because there's more interesting stuff about the efffects of the internet: fragmentation, disintermediation and homogenisation. These are things that worry me, too, but I don't think he goes beyond setting out the questions. Maybe inevitably: the internet is so new and changing so fast, no-one can know where it will take us.

One thought from this chapter is that the change to the internet may be less fundamental than the introduction of printing (and of mechanical reproduction). Before that, Stille says, even books were rare objects. One way of looking at the internet is that it makes even more objects available, so it's an extension of the power of printing.

26 March 2010

MCT: David Scott Kastan

I've skipped a few passages in MCT to look at this, and found it interesting, despite its being about textual scholarship, which generally doesn't move me. The essay, "From codex to computer; or, presence of mind", is the fourth chapter in Kastan's Shakespeare and the Book (2001), and looks at the relationship of electronic texts to bound books. It's full of provocative ideas, but I think may miss some points.

The original concern is whether an electronic text is less authentic than a printed one. Kastan points out that particularly in relation to Shakespeare any printed edition is mediated more or less explicitly. Shakespeare himself had no attitude towards print, took no part in getting the plays printed, and so any editorial adjudication on what he meant is dependent on an a priori view of what Shakespeare would have been like to say. (Reading this section, I was reminded of translation practice. There also the question of the writer's intention has importance.)

Kastan quotes T E Hulme as saying that "the covers of a book are responsible for much error" (p 734). By this he means that they artificially isolate the text. Kastan also argues that book-publication gives an artificial fixedness to the published text. And this is a relatively new phenomenon, becoming more prominent as authors' moral rights are more strongly protected.

OK, so what's the comparison? He refers to an online version of King Lear, which I can't immediately find online now. But a screengrab shows that you can see a modern spelling text, the folio and quarto texts, and a facsimile of an early printing (and more) on the screen at the same time. This opens up the play text to all the intertextual links that may be relevant. Well, not all of them. Some selection is being made by an editor even here. And this version of Lear doesn't replace what most people will want, ie an edited text that they can read or speak.

I think the missing point in this is that ebooks generally are more like printed books than this. With ebooks, I think, most people just want a reasonable version of the text. Though the technology does allow hypertextuality, it doesn't enforce it. My suspicion is that it will be a minority taste. I think one effect - either of ebooks or of new developments in print publication (print on demand) is that more obscure works will become more available. But as Kastan accepts, we don't yet know (him in 2001 or me in the space age future).

25 March 2010

MCT: Stuart Hall

"New ethnicities", the essay in this book, dates from 1989, and was published in an ICA book Black Film, British Cinema. It's an odd piece, in that it uses some very theoretical arguing (about the nature of representation) to make some very understandable, almost common-sense points.

Essentially, the argument is that it is now time to develop a more nuanced view of race and the problem of representation by and of blacks. Hall says that previously there has been a fairly simplistic view where the black experience is rather homogenised. Perhaps understandably, give the more urgent need to correct and transform the existing position, there has been a tendency to view 'black' as an umbrella definition. He argues that, of course, 'black' is a politically constructed term, and that hitherto the argument has overlooked the differences within black culture - eg gender and class, as well as, though he's less explicit about this, the different experience of different ethnic groups. (I think that around this time there had been racial violence in Birmingham where Afro-caribbeans had been in conflict with Asians.)

So he says that the concept of ethnicity is more important. Everyone has an ethnicity, including white English people who, if you let them, will act as if ethnicity was something only black people had. It's important to recognise and use that fact, and with it to recognise that among black people there's the same range of experience as among any others. He quotes Hanif Kureishi:
writing [about Britain today] has to be complex. It can't apologize or idealize. It can't sentimentalize and it can't represent only one group as having a monopoly on virtue. 
True, but simple, and quite disappointingly trite, really.

MCT: Fredric Jameson

This essay, "Postmodernism and consumer society" dates from 1983. In it, Jameson tries to outline some of the key features of postmodernism, to show how it links with the transformation to a post-capitalist, consumer society, and to argue that postmodernism isn't just another modernism. His tools are sweeping assumptions and generalisations.

I shouldn't sound so dismissive, not yet, but in the first paragraph of the essay he puts forward The Clash as exemplars of postmodernism (together with Talking Heads and The Gang of Four). I've never seen the point of The Clash. If you wanted to hear reggae, punk or rock, there were always much better performers available. On the other hand, if you wanted a gentle blend of the three, I suppose The Clash were ideal. In fact, postmodernism as Jameson describes it seems to be all about Clash-like experiences.

For example, he suggests that there is a genre of nostalgia film (which includes the Indiana Jones series, and Star Wars, where the nostalgia is not for the past, but for the past forms of film. He sees pastiche as one defining characteristic of postmodernism. The other is "schizophrenia". Drawing on Lacan's view, he sees the schizophrenic experience as one in which streams of events or language are broken into relatively isolated elements. But his big example of this seems unconvincing. He looks at a poem called "China" by Bob Perelman. About 25 separated statements which might add up to a portrayal of a multivocal self-portrait of the country. But, he points out, as if he is being ever so clever, all is not what it seems. Perelman bought a Chinese magazine, and wrote his own captions for the photos in it, and these are the poem. In Jameson's view, this means the poem is at least twice removed from its apparent subject; its primary reference is to the magazine, not the country. It's an incredibly weak argument, but he is saying this is all part of the world of spectacles, as described by (eg) Baudrillard.

A key part of the argument is that "classical modernism" has now been so thoroughly assimilated that it presents no challenge. Finnegans Wake, he'd have to say, is no longer odd. And he sees Ashbery's poetry as postmodern, whereas I'd say they're precisely in the modernist tradition. (As is Perelman's poem). In many ways, postmodernism as he describes it seems to me to be just the everyday popular culture. There is still a strain of elite culture, which has the same difficulty as modernism has always had.

Finally, to return to the start of the essay, he says that "theory" has marked the end of philosophy as such. Really?