Lost in translation?

I’ve been thinking. About life, of course, but also about writing, and especially poetry, and how the whole point of it is to transmit something ineffable – paradoxically – using language. Of course, the best prose does exactly the same thing, but still, something about poetry is different. The lineage of poetry probably goes back to the moment language escaped from the present, and allowed us to consider things that were not immediately before us.  It goes back to the invention of metaphor, which can be seen as arising from the inadequacy of vocabulary.  Lucky for us, the human mind runs on analogy.

It is without doubt the oldest form of literature we have; I can say that quite confidently because of the unique role that meter, repetition, and rhyme play in memorization. There’s something in the structure of the mind that makes things stick better in structured verse than in plain prose. That’s why all those pithy sayings we live by are usually in handy little couplets.

Some of the earliest recorded literature, the epics of Homer, consist largely of memorized stories subsequently written down for posterity. Even today, there are places where the story teller presents his wares orally; I’ve seen them myself in the souks of North Africa. We listen to these stories, or we read them, and we are moved by them, sometimes profoundly. Homer, however, composed in the first half of the 8th century BCE, in a language that is no longer current in the form that he used. This raise the question of what exactly we are responding to when we read Homer. Even if you are able to read in the original Homeric Greek, it is certain that you miss some of the meaning, and certainly the nuance, that would have been obvious to the native speaker hearing the same work, because no one today is a native speaker, nor has anyone alive even learned the language from a native speaker. Even scholars have variable levels of skill; my own experience of reading ancient Greek is more akin to solving a difficult crossword puzzle than to reading. It involves a large dictionary, a stout drink, and a great deal of squirming and cursing, and even then I’m not sure I’ve got it right. More likely, like me, you read Homer in translation, and this is the problem I’ve been wrestling with.

To illustrate the problem, let’s look at the opening lines of the Odyssey, which I reproduce here in the original for those of you who can read it:

ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ
πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν:
πολλῶν δ᾽ ἀνθρώπων ἴδεν ἄστεα καὶ νόον ἔγνω,
πολλὰ δ᾽ ὅ γ᾽ ἐν πόντῳ πάθεν ἄλγεα ὃν κατὰ θυμόν,
ἀρνύμενος ἥν τε ψυχὴν καὶ νόστον ἑταίρων.
ἀλλ᾽ οὐδ᾽ ὣς ἑτάρους ἐρρύσατο, ἱέμενός περ:
αὐτῶν γὰρ σφετέρῃσιν ἀτασθαλίῃσιν ὄλοντο,
νήπιοι, οἳ κατὰ βοῦς Ὑπερίονος Ἠελίοιο
ἤσθιον: αὐτὰρ ὁ τοῖσιν ἀφείλετο νόστιμον ἦμαρ.
10τῶν ἁμόθεν γε, θεά, θύγατερ Διός, εἰπὲ καὶ ἡμῖν.

Here’s a more or less literal translation by A. T. Murray, from the Loeb Classical Library edition:

Tell me, muse of the man of many devices, driven far astray after he had sacked the sacred citadel of Troy. Many were the men whose cities he saw and whose minds learned, and many the woes he suffered in his heart upon the sea, seeking to win his own life and the return of his comrades. Yet, even so, he did not save his comrades, for all his desire, for through their own blind folly they perished – fools, who devoured the cattle of Helios Hyperion; whereupon he took from them the day of their returning. Of these things, goddess, daughter of Zeus, beginning where you will, tell us in our turn.

I’ll forgive you if you’ve dozed off; such is the introduction to Homer for many generations of students who used the Loeb series. By contrast, here’s how Robert Fagles renders the same passage:

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,
many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,
fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.
But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove –
the recklessness of their own ways destroyed the all,
the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sun
and the Sungod blotted out the day of their return.
Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus,
start from where you will – sing for time too.

Better? Or just subtly different? One last version, by Stanley Lombardo:

Speak, Memory –
Of the cunning hero,
The wanderer, blown off course time and again
After he plundered Troy’s sacred heights.
Of all the cities he saw, the minds he grasped,
The suffering deep in his heart at sea
As he struggled to survive and bring his men home
But could not save them, hard as he tried –
The fools – destroyed by theior own recklessness
When they ate the oxen of Hyperion the sun,
And that god snuffed out their day of return.
Of these things
Speak, Immortal One,
And tell the tale once more in our time.

Well, that’s something different. But which of these translations is the best? To answer that, we need to decide what we mean by “best,” for the most poetically satisfying might not be the most accurately reflective of the original meaning. Let’s say that we want the translation to capture not just the literal meanings of the words, but their connotations as well, and something of the experience of 8th century BCE Greeks hearing this.

First, we have to imagine each of these translations recited at night, around a fire, with a drum keeping time, for that was the experience in Homer’s own time. Or recited formally, at a competition four centuries later in a public theater, which is how the citizens of Classical Athens would have experienced it.

Are you beginning to see the problem?

There are, of course, many layers of meaning in even rather bad poems, including those of which the poet himself is unaware.  The reader also brings a world of experience to the poem and adds, willy-nilly, layers never conjured in the original, either consciously or otherwise.  There are, in essence, a minimum of two separate acts of translation in a poem: from the heart of the writer to the paper, and from the paper to the reader. Throw in a completely different language, with different natural rhythms, and you have a challenge indeed. And how to translate the cultural experience along with the words?

Homer presents a particularly sticky problem in all these aspects, but he’s by no means unique. What got me thinking about all this was my attempt (still unrealized) to translate a rather straightforward poem of Federico Garcia Lorca, a poet writing in a language with which I am reasonably familiar, in a European context.

What to do: be as literal as possible, or try to capture the mood at the expense of literalism?

What do you think?

Look upon my works, ye mighty

Among the privileges of a career  in archaeology is the great perspective it reveals on life and history, great and small.  Years of digging up abandoned settlements and graves of nameless, long-forgotten people leave one thing without doubt: all the fears and tribulations of the world we live in will one day be nothing but a mystery to any who might survive us.  Future archaeologists, if there are such people, will marvel at our occasional outbursts of technology amidst the overweening primitiveness.

The learned among them will imagine that they have come to understand us.  But whatever reconstruction of our cultures they will come up with would look bizarre to us, like some fun-house mirror image of what we hold to be reality.

They will give lectures in which they declare, with righteousness, that the 21st century wasn’t as bad as we seem to think, and point to evidence of some rudimentary technology.  Indignation at the prevailing opinion that we were savages will become trendy.

Or they will find, to their surprise, that there were empires and complex social structures, or that the one or two “great” civilizations of which they might be aware were not so great after all.  And all of this will be for reasons which we would find utterly perplexing today.

I will always remember looking down at the mummy of Ramses II at the Cairo Museum, in its controlled atmosphere glass case.  I looked down at the face of Ozymandias, hoping to gain some sort of empathy, some glint of recognition, some insight into that long ago place and time.  To my astonishment, only one thought came to me.

It’s just another corpse.

The Anti-Clickbait Movement and the Return of Long Form Writing

Mikels Skele:

Get smarter with thus one weird secret!

Originally posted on Drew Chial:

Fishing for another click

Fishing for another click

Depressed by the rise in Clickbait, One Blogger Does Something to Restore Readers’ Faith in Humanity

Bloggers have it tough, working long hours, paying to play, for an audience that may never stay. The world sees our failure as the punchline to an elaborate joke. As far as they’re concerned, our words are selfies for snobs, journals masquerading as journalism, vanity press that wouldn’t exist without the internet.

Scroll through your Facebook feed, compare the choices to what we’re offering. If readers have to pick between our editorial on net neutrality and a report on the death of The Walking Dead’s lead, it’s hard to compete (Andrew Lincoln is alive and well, but that article will be accurate eventually). Sure, we might have important information on OK Cupid’s psychological manipulation plan, but there’s a report going around that Orange is the New Black has been…

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Joshua and the wuss

I’m in Riga, where there’s always music.  This year, it’s the venue for the World Choir Olympics.  I had never heard of such a thing, but never mind, it appears that lots of other people have.  The place is positively buzzing, with venues all across town, and impromptu street corner concerts for those who can’t get enough.

It’s grand.

Everywhere you look, groups large and small, all ages, in minimal or maximal choir attire, can be seen bustling about, off to some urgent event or another.  It wouldn’t be hard to be bowled over if you’re not careful.  The apartment I’m renting is directly on the path, it seems, between the Olympic Stadium and everywhere else, and all day long a chorus of languages files by, magnificent in its diversity, that would have made Babylon despair of towers forever

It seems every country in the world is represented, some more than once.  I’ve seen Russians, Bulgarians, Koreans, and even two flavors of Americans from the US.  I specify US to differentiate them from several Latin American groups.

Nor do they limit themselves to their own cultural heritage.  Just now, I’m walking past an outdoor bandstand, where a choir from somewhere in Asia is singing

Josha fixed a battle of Jericho
And the wuss come a ‘tumblin down

Gotta love it.

The way we (would like to think) we were

People of a certain age, and of a certain background, when talking about poverty, have a tendency to minimize its impact.

“Hell, we didn’t have anything, but we didn’t even know we were poor,” they might say, and sage heads all around nod in agreement.

“We didn’t have television, or the internet.  We made our own diversion from stuff we found in alleys: a ball of tape for a baseball, an old broom handle for a bat.  We always had enough to eat, though.  We just made do.  We didn’t whine about our lives like the kids do nowadays.”

Two things strike me about such sentiments.  One is the inevitable filter of childhood memories.  We tend to remember things as much better than we thought they were at the time we experienced them; the farther away we get in time, the better things were.  Add the fact that, as children, we had a kind of natural optimism engendered by the fact that we weren’t responsible for keeping things above water.  It’s a certainty that our parents didn’t remember those times in such glowing terms.

Keep in mind we’re not talking about abject poverty; people who lived through that rarely even bring it up.  These are typically the lower middle class (working class, if you’re a socialist) reminiscing about days of yore.

The second thing that strikes me is the implicit sense of smugness, as if we were somehow superior to the young people of today.  I say “we” because I, too, come from that history; born in a refugee camp, I came to the US on the boat with my parents.

But what I feel, instead of smugness, is mostly good luck.

True, we didn’t have TV.  Hell, it was just invented.  Every block in my neighborhood had two or three houses with television; every other block someone knew of someone who had a color TV.  The internet simply didn’t exist.  There was radio, and the daily newspaper, and you could take in a movie twice a month or so.  Some of the theaters downtown even had AC, but you might pay a buck or more there; it was typically 25 cents elsewhere.  For anything else, you relied on the rumor mill.

The point is, we really had nothing to compare our lives with.  Like children everywhere, we looked around us, and thought that was what normal was.  You wore hand-me-downs because it was stupid to throw away perfectly good clothes.  You walked everywhere or took a bus because buses were ubiquitous and frequent, and cost pennies.  You’d cross the street to avoid some people, others would cross the street to avoid you.  Occasionally, if you saw someone coming, you’d turn around quickly, and hope you hadn’t been seen.  But nobody gunned you down (unless you happened to be black, and then it was open season).

I have to say, if I want to be scrupulously honest, that we whined as much as anyone today, though we called it grousing, or pissing and moaning.  There was one kind of angst, though, that we didn’t have a lot of, and that was class envy.

Rich kids, if we even knew of any, just seemed incompetent, had to have everything done for them, judging from stereotypes in the movies and comic books; we felt sorry for them, though we had no real idea of how they lived.  We envied guys with construction jobs, or steady work in a factory.

In today’s connected world we all know how everyone else lives, or rather how commercial interests would like us to believe everyone else lives, so we’ll want to buy their stuff.  We are probably the most propagandized and pitched bunch of humans in history, and, for the first time ever, we’re in it all together, all of humanity, pretty much everywhere.  As a result, it’s very easy to become envious of others, even if we don’t have it so bad ourselves, from an objective point of view.

Why is that?

It’s because we’re humans; it’s what we do.  We are the social species par excellence.  There are no authenticated cases of feral humans, that is, humans who have grown up without the company of any other humans, anywhere, at any time in history.  I say this with full knowledge of the alleged cases, none of which stand up to scrutiny.  We’re hard wired to be keenly aware of our situation relative to other humans around us, our place in society, if you will.  Add to that the fundamental concept of fairness (and not just human apparently!) that informs our moral and ethical rules, and poverty becomes a relative thing.

In short, we weren’t any better or wiser then than young people (or old ones for that matter) today, just less informed.

For the first 2.5 million years of our existence as a distinct species, we lived in groups of fewer than a hundred people, all of whom were of roughly equal status; when we interacted with other groups, they weren’t much different either.  Still, forget the paradise of the noble savage; the latest studies suggest hunter-gatherers lives were filled with conflict and jealousy as much as ours, but they didn’t see global disparities, and certainly nothing like the magnitude of the differences we see today.  That, and the hard fact that killing someone put a significant dent in the work force, which for them had an optimum size within a pretty small range, kept actual killing at low levels.

Not us, more’s the pity.  Fortunately, we’re intelligent.

Aren’t we?


The boys of almost summer

This weekend, I had occasion to stay at a rather nice hotel in St. Louis.  You might know it as the home of the baseball Cardinals; you might not know that St. Louisans, and people for approximately 300 miles around, are true baseball fanatics.  On this occasion, the boys were in town, and the hotel where I was staying was right on the riverfront, about 5 blocks from the stadium.

Now, I count myself as a Cardinals fan; I watch most games on TV when possible.  But I have never been to a live game, nor am I ever likely to be; I dislike both noise and large crowds, and a stadium during a game is the last place I would enjoy.  Which probably makes me just casual in the eyes of St. Louisans, not even worthy of the title of fan, really.

I did, however, have one person beat: Amir, my waiter at the hotel restaurant, who was interning for a year from Turkey. We were chatting about the sea of red t-shirts and jersey replicas in the lobby. I asked him if he liked baseball, or even knew anything about it.

Well, yes, it transpired, he did, and in fact, had even been to a game.

“What did you think?” I asked.

“It was very hot.  The pitcher played very well for half the game, but then began hitting other players with the ball.  Soon, the director came out and substituted someone else for him.”

“He began hitting people?  Why do think that was?”

“He was very tired, I think.”


“Yes, it was very hot, and he was the only one doing anything.”

“So that made him tired?”

“Yes, and I can understand it.  I was tired, too, and I was only watching!”

From the journal of Peter Kugel-Schwanz

I have obtained the journal of the late Peter Kugel-Schwanz, investigative journalist for the German tabloid Spektakel, through devious means, which I am not at liberty to divulge. The following is an excerpt, dated the day before his untimely death in a freak accordion accident.

In the course of my research surrounding the mysterious Document 1285a, I have learned of the involvement of one Harry Bollocks, Jr., an operative of an obscure British agency called the Ministry of Abstruse Development; it is so obscure that its acronym is a state secret.

It seems that Mr. Bollocks was a key player in the time machine project alluded to in the afore-mentioned document. I was determined to find and interview this gentleman, but he seemed to have disappeared from the face of the earth around January of last year, around the same time as the filing date on the document. While delving deeper into the workings of the ministry, I was able to make the acquaintance of someone who once was employed there, who must remain anonymous; I will call him Mr. Y. At about the same time, I became aware of several suspicious events, which I could only interpret as attempts upon my life. This has prompted me to write down as succinctly as possible the facts I have learned through several intensive interviews with Mr. Y.

First, as to the functioning of the time machine: it could be set to arrive at any precise time and date in the past by ministry officials, but the return journey depended on the operative who was sent into the past, a fact whose significance will become clear.

Second, the operative who was sent on the mission in question was none other than Harry Bollocks, Jr.

It was determined by those in charge of the operation that Bollocks would be provided with a cover identity, a verifiable historical entity, in order to minimize any collateral effects of his presence. The identity that was chosen was that of an obscure German dispatch runner who had been wounded severely at the Battle of the Somme, and had died March 4, 1917 of infection. Bollocks assumed this identity, counting on the force of history itself to clear up any contradictions, in order to carry out his mission to assassinate Heinrich Knebel, a lieutenant who would later rise to prominence and instigate WW II. The idea was to forestall the Second World War entirely by eliminating this person.

The name of the deceased dispatch runner whose identity Bollocks assumed was Gefreiter (Pfc.) Adoph Hitler.