20 February 2010

Translating Wallander (again)

I'm watching one of the BBC Wallanders, starring Kenneth Branagh. They are different from the Swedish ones, in ways I generally don't like. A lot of this is to do with the fact that they're in English, but there are other reasons.

First, the BBC versions have a big star as the lead, which means a lot of the attention is drawn to him. This is intensified by the style of cinematography. There is typically a shallow depth of field, with ostentatious focus-pulling, which means that often only one face is in focus, and of course that's usually Branagh/Wallander. There seems to be much greater use of close-up, again usually Branagh/Wallander. The effect is to characterise the programmes as being about him, his troubles and his development. Of course the Swedish versions did this too, but less so, I think.

All the characters have - inevitably - some kind of accent. Posh/common/regional for example. I'm sure the Swedish characters did too, but we didn't know what they were. We didn't have any presuppositions offered to us. So the characters were much blanker canvases.

In all, the effect is to make BBC Wallander much more lisible. I recognise that Swedish Wallander would have similar effects, but I'm talking about my response, not the response of a Swedish audience.

I could go into this further, but not now.

What has struck me now, is a scene where Wallander takes a phone call from the pathologist. She tells him she has sent him an email and so he looks at his inbox. Here's what he sees:

To make the obvious point, they're all in Swedish! So, all these people who talk to Wallander in English revert to Swedish when they send him an email. There's something wrong here, but I don't know exactly what.

18 February 2010

Genette and Le Cid

My first thought in returning to literature was that I could reassess my view of Pierre Corneille, and I started doing that, but didn't get very far. For me the question was whether there is mainstream reading of the tragedies against which it's possible to pose a subversive view. Two of the plays I was looking at then were Le Cid and Horace.

I have now read Gérard Genette's essay "Vraisemblance and Motivation", which is obviously a major source of Jonathan Culler's thinking on the various ways in which fiction validates itself to the reader. Genette talks a lot about Balzac - the ways in which he mentions, in a way that suggests a shared understanding, the assumptions about society that are inherent in his novels. This is the part that was taken up and expanded by Culler

But before that he talks about Le Cid, and here is where there is more concern about the conventions of genre. There's an interesting quotation from René Rapin:

Truth only makes things the way they are, and vraisemblance makes them as they ought to be. Truth is almost always defective, due to the mixture of singular conditions that compose it. There is nothing born in the world that is not at some distance from the perfection of the idea from which it was born. One must seek for the originals and models in vraisemblance and the universal principles of things--where nothing material or individual enters in to corrupt them. (Reflexions sur la poetique (1674) 2.115-16)

That is very reminiscent of La Bruyere's comment that Racine described people as they are, while Corneille described them as they should be. I'm not sure who came first, but it's clear that Rapin is talking about vraisemblance as the appropriate aim of "la poetique" - in this case of Tragedy. This recognises the essential difference between untidy truth and carefully selected fiction.

Genette goes on to discuss ways in which this vraisemblance is negotiated. In the case of Le Cid there are a number of, sometimes conflicting, assumptions made about the appropriate behaviour of Chimene, which can be expressed as rules. I think it would be fair to say, though, that the rule that says "a daughter should not marry the man who killed her father" is a strong one. As is the rule that says "a king should punish a man who killed a respected adviser". Both of these rules are broken. From Culler we might say the reader/audience therefore needs to do more to reconcile (recuperate - I really need to settle on a term for this) the action. The play itself provides a justification for the king's failure to punish Le Cid. It's debatable, but it's open. The question of Chimene's action is harder, and it's up to the audience to provide some further justification. For example, when I recently read the play, it seemed likely that Don Gomes had been a pretty bad father, and Chimene might not miss him too much. That can be shocking and without going fully into "La Querelle" I can see that it could be useful to view the argument as a conflict of broken assumptions. Vraisemblance, as Rapin describes it, seems to have a limited range: stray too far from the assumptions we share, and you break the link with truth.

Vraisemblance, then, underlies the principles of French classical drama. The three unities were formal definitions of how truth can be represented, but bienséance, which is particularly at issue in Horace is much more slippery. Some time I'll look again at that play in the light of these ideas.

16 February 2010

Glen Woodroad

A few days ago a woman called at my door, which is exciting enough in itself. She was selling copies of a book that she had written and self-published, called Glen Woodroad*. Although I didn't hold out much hope the book would be very good, I admired her initiative and bought a copy, which I've just read.

It isn't very good, but it's short. I don't know exactly how short, as the pages are unnumbered. It took me about an hour to read it. As she explained, it was a cheap printing job, and that shows up in the way the print size varies from time to time. It's also clearly not had even a basic level of editing: some obvious typos and punctuation errors throughout; let alone the service of a professional editor.

A professional editor could improve it, but what's striking about it is the form. It's basically soap opera: a series of events linked by character, mainly concerning the question of whether the central character can trust her partner. (The answer is mostly no.) Halfway through the book the original central character dies; her daughter then steps into the role, grows up very quickly, and has similar problems.

But right near the end there's a hint of the novel that this might have been. Earlier, there'd been the hint of a secret - a mysterious reference to someone called Glen in the mother's papers At the end the daughter finds herself in a wonderful dreamlike landscape and meets someone called Glen Woodroad, a kind of guardian angel, who gives her the mental strength and courage to rebuild her own life, using the power of love.

One of the big drives for reading is to find out what happens. When the mother died in this book, it felt like the end. There had been enough detail of her life to make it interesting, whereas the daughter was a almost entirely new character. There is a link between the two halves of the book but it's completely underused. The Glen character should be the unification, and could stand for all kinds of things, from the supernatural (she's an angel) to the earth-feminist (she's the indomitable spirit of woman), but instead she's a vague wish fulfillment (who, incidentally, turns up when things aren't nearly as bad as they have been).

It's maybe only when you read a book like this that you realise how artificial fiction as we normally know it is. Here things happen generally in sequence, and are explained as they happen, apart from the could-be big mystery in the middle.

*I've changed the name. It's unlikely, but the author might otherwise find this, which would be unfair.


Reading this book has become a bit of a slog, to be honest. It's incredibly erudite, and there's a host of names I've never heard of, but it seems to be piling on the learning to bomb-proof an idea that Said presumably knew would be subject to attack. As when I read the extract in MCT, a lot of that idea now seems uncontroversial: ultimately it's not helpful to define half the world simply in terms of difference. In many ways that message is even more important now. In the book, Said talks a lot about the way Islam sometimes stood for the Orient, sometimes not. We could argue whether that itself suggests the Orientalist view is more nuanced that it sometimes seems to be portrayed as, but I think a lot of people still see Islam as a single, unvaried, really existing thing, whose defining characteristics are the things that make it different.

One bomb that Said does not seem to have anticipated is feminism. Of course there's the usual business of male pronouns, which I'm beginning to get used to, but it's clear that (i) the orientalism Said describes did not examine the relative roles of men and women and (ii) Said doesn't comment on this omission or (iii) examine whether it is a serious omission in its effects on the research. There's no trace of the fact that men and women may have different interests. I'm pretty sure that point will have been made long before I got here.

(But I think it does prove the point about inclusive language. If you always refer to typical people ("the reader", "the writer", "the Arab") as "he", it's easy to not notice that you're ignoring half the world.)

Another big question is why does this affect literary theory? How does it affect our reading of literature outside this particular arena? I suppose the point is that it's a methodological lesson: received ideas are not to be trusted (Said refers a lot to Bouvard et Pecuchet. OK, I've got that.

The last passage I've flagged in the book, before I flagged, is about narrative and vision. Vision "presumes that the whole Orient can be seen panoptically". Against that, narrative "is the specific form taken by written history to counter the permanence of vision." Vision is the orientalist view; narrative disrupts it, and so orientalism tries to deny history to the orient. At this premature conclusion of the book, I still can't say if the conclusions about orientalism are true, but as an example of a sceptical approach, it's (ambiguous praise) interesting.

09 February 2010

Philology and evolution

Continuing with Orientalism, I've now read the section on Ernest Renan (1823–92), who's best known for his atheistic Vie de Jésus, but who was also an example of the growth of philology.

Although it's not part of my immediate interest here, I'm surprised the parallel between 19th century philology and the scientific revolution headlined by Darwin isn't more commonly made. Just as scientific discoveries were showing that the biblical view of the physical world couldn't be true, linguistics was showing that the biblical story of language couldn't be correct. Hitherto, the aim of linguistics (in the west) had been to show how languages derived from the pre-Babel single language. Now it appeared that, for example, Sanskrit had much older roots.

I wonder why the implications of this have had so much less impact on public debate than evolution. Why aren't there crazy Americans denying the antiquity of the Indo-European languages? Maybe there are, but we just don't hear them.

Renan, according to Said, dealt with Semitic languages in a slightly perverse way. Now that their biblical specialness was denied, he went to another extreme, proving that "the Semitic languages are inorganic, arrested, totally ossified, incapable of self-regeneration" (p 145).

Again, I'm not specially interested in the specific content, but in the way Renan is said to have approached the question. Said compares him to a museum keeper:
What is given on the page and in the museum case is a truncated exaggeration, like many of Sacy's Oriental extracts, whose purpose is to exhibit a relationship between the science (or scientist) and the object, not between the object and nature. (p 142)


I can't believe I've never come across the word 'chrestomathy' before. According to the OED it's "a collection of choice passages from an author or authors, esp. one compiled to assist in the acquirement of a language", and the first use dates from 1832, although the adjective, 'chrestomathic', is first cited from 1819.

The term comes up in Edward Said's Orientalism, which I'm currently reading. When I looked at Said in MCT, I couldn't quite see what his discussion of a textual approach was about. A passage on p 127 - 129 makes it clearer. In this part of the book, Said is talking about the way orientalism began, and in particular the work of Silvestre de Sacy (1758 - 1838). He was part of Napoleon's Egyptian project, but more important, for the purpose of the book, as a scholar and teacher.

As a European he ransacked the Oriental archives, and he could do so without leaving France. What texts he isolated, he then brought back; he doctored them; then he annotated, codified, arranged, and commented on them. In time, the Orient as such became less important that what the Orientalist made of it; thus, drawn by Sacy into the sealed discursive place of a pedagogical tableau, the Orientalist's Orient was thereafter reluctant to emerge into reality. (p 127 -128)
In that passage there's the good and bad of Said's work. The first half is straightforward, while the second unhelpfully gives "the Orientalist's Orient" a will of its own. You know what he means, but in a strange way he's crediting "the Orient" with an actuality that the whole purpose of the book is to deny.

But then this is right back on the button:
So if the Orientalist is necessary because he fishes some useful gems out of the distant Oriental deep, and since the Orient cannot be known without his mediation, it is also true that Oriental writing itself ought not to be taken in whole. This is Sacy's introduction to his theory of fragments, a common Romantic concern. [...] The Orientalist is required to present the Orient by a series of representative fragments, fragments republished, explicated, annotated, and surrounded with still more fragments. For such a presentation a special genre is required: the chrestomathy. (p 128)
This seems like a crucial point: isolating fragments serves several functions. It passes a judgement on the value of the works, but more importantly the selection of fragments of course (it hardly needs to be said) gives a direction of how they should be read.

Maybe that's inevitable, but the particular direction given is what Said is looking at. I'm less interested in the specific case here. What's interesting me more is how this can be seen an example of how comparative literature works, with obvious relation to translation theory.

02 February 2010

MCT: Julia Kristeva

I was talking about Tel Quel, n'est-ce pas, and Kristeva, it turns out, was part of that group. She was and apparently still is married to Philippe Sollers. The extract in MCT dates from 1974 and is called "Linguistics and Ethics", a misleading title, since the main drive of the piece is about the way non-semantic features of poetry clash with the meaning. She seems to argue that this clash has profound consequences, embodying a fight between centralism and subversiveness.

As I understand it, the argument is that linguistics can't easily have an ethical dimension, precisely because of the weaknesses that Derrida (though he's not mentioned) identified in structural systems. So she says that faute de mieux (although she doesn't use that phrase) you must look at the way poetry escapes the confines of the structural analysis of language. So, you could see this as an alternative answer to Culler's finding that linguistics can't provide a poetics. Kristeva seems to be talking about poetics that isn't structuralist (if it was, it would be as vitiated as any other structuralist analysis). She uses the term 'semiotic' unhelpfully, since (according to Wikipedia) she means something quite different from what we understood by it previously. This short extract doesn't give more details of that, but here's an example of her using the term.
It follows that formulating the problem of linguistic ethics means, above all. compelling linguistics to change its object of study. The speech practice that should be its object is one in which signified structure (sign, syntax, signification) is defined with boundaries that can be shifted by the advent of a semiotic rhythm that no system of linguistic communication has yet been able to assimilate. (p 350, emphasis added)

She talks about how poetry uses features that differ from normal language. Taking as an example Mayakosky's poetry read by Roman Jakobson, she says his reading:
imitating their voices, with the lively, rhythmic accents, thrust out throat and filly militant tone of [Mayakovsky]; and the softly whispered words, sustained swishing and whistling sounds [of Khlebnikov]. (p 352)
It's a fairly passionate response, expressing some frustration at linguists' inability to share that passion, but I don't think anything else in the piece offers a real alternative. She discusses Mayakovsky further, identifying a theme of "the struggle between poet and sun", and seems to see his poetry as exemplifying the way that poetic semiotic is disruptive and subversive. I think there's a risk that her theory, so far as there is one, is too intimately tied to a specific historical period.