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Posts tagged ‘Translation’

The Sea Close By

The Sea Close By - Albert CamusThe Sea Close By – Albert Camus

“I grew up in the sea and poverty was sumptuous, then I lost the sea and found all luxuries grey and poverty unbearable.”

So begins one of the most lyrical and beautiful extended metaphors for the well lived life ever written. One long dream-like recollection of many journeys strung together, the passage captures an essential experience of travel: the disconnection from place and possessions caused by the inevitable surrender to elements greater than oneself.

“We sail across spaces so vast they seem unending. Sun and moon rise in turn, on the same thread of light and night. Days at sea, even and indistinguishable as happiness…”

Few stories show the aptitude of prose, in manipulating time and distance as much as conveying meaning, as Camus’s short descriptive essay. Camus’s capacity to travel a vast distance in a sentence – “Beyond, the Ocean lies everywhere, on one side we pass by the Horn and the Cape of Good Hope, the meridians wed the lattitudes, the Pacific drinks the Atlantic … Suddenly, one morning the seagulls disappear. We are far from any land, and alone, with our sails and our engines” – that capacity is equalled only by his ability to stall his prose and capture a single moment of unbridled natural pleasure: “Day breaks over a surging sea, full of steel spangles.”

The seemless shifting from fast to slow and back again transmits the dreamlike state of the traveller as he submits to the spacelessness of travel, the lack of confines, the disregard for direction that comes with constant movement: “Today, on the contrary, I have all the air I need, all our sails slap in the blue air, I am going to cry out with speed, we throw our sextants in the sea.”

His passion for the sea lies in stark contrast to his feelings for the land (“Without space there is neither innocence nor liberty!”). On the land he describes only indifference. The magic of the sea is absent, his attitude to life limp and disaffected (“It is at funerals that I excel myself”).

“Men praise me, I dream a little, they insult me, I scarcely show surprise. Then I forget, and smile at the man who insulted me, or am too courteous in greeting the one I love. What can I do if all I can remember is one image?”

But what is most striking, appealing, is the proximity of Camus’s most vivid passages – his most animate spirit expressing itself in words – when life is at its most proximate to death. The paradox of space and nature, transience and permanence lends Camus’s writing a special poignancy. “Rivers and streams pass by, the sea passes and remains. This is how we must love, faithful and fleeting. I wed the sea.”  His funereal treatment of life on land, in community, shrouds the story in death, but in the rigid social structures that death is lent a futility that is abundantly absent from Camus’s life at sea.

“What man who cherishes the sea and loneliness will ever stop himself from loving the obstinate madmen who, clinging to planks and tossed by the mane of immense oceans, chase after islands long adrift.”

It is in death that Camus paints the happiness of this life, in the refusal to submit to structure, to conformity and instead to follow the winds and the seas, to pass by great continents in a sentence, to marvel at the gifts of the sea and to wish always to return to the sea’s cool grasp and ultimately in his acceptance of death and the sea as the forces of spiritual liberation from man’s own inadequacy of spirit: “If I were to die, in the midst of cold mountains, unknown to the world, cast off by my own people, my strength at last exhausted, the sea would at the final moment flood into my cells, come to raise me above myself and help me die without hatred.”

The Editors

Pushkin 1: Lost in translation?

Queen of Spades - Alexander PushkinQueen of Spades – Alexander Pushkin

The idea of something being ‘lost in translation’ is both strong and valid. Social constructs, vocally embodied in our mother tongues, language and vocabulary, provide a base for communication and understanding between people and peoples. The sheer quantity of meaning, nuance, suggestion, hint, tip and allusion that one can pack into a short written phrase – let alone a spoken one – is remarkable. It is also somewhat inaccessible for those without the necessary tools to perceive this bounty of information. To fully detect and understand these signals takes an upbringing, depth of study or talent, ideally all three.

If you can bear it, the first couple of chapters of the Chomsky-Foucault Debate on Human Nature provide a good and relatively deep insight as to the importance of language and delivery in our comprehension of what people are saying and why they are saying it. It is something that might sound intuitive, maybe even obvious, but I would recommend taking a little time to consider it. These, at times subconscious, constructs and the communication (and miscommunication) that they engender are a matter widely studied by International Relations scholars and their importance is ever-increasing along with our evolving and expanding methods of communicating with one another; worldwide.

The ‘translation’ argument is close to its strongest when one considers those authors who are credited with the creation of a language or a domestic literary tradition. English commentaries on Dante’s work frequently mention their inadequacy in interpretation. Those of us in Britain might well think the same if we consider what Shakespeare might be like to read in Italian. These authors’ works have come to embody more than the stories that they tell, they document a context, a history and have bequeathed a style of writing and comprehension that whole nations identify with. This is the case with Alexander Sergeyevitch Pushkin.

Pushkin seems a wonderful character – his life tells a tale that would not be out of place in fiction. He was descended from noble Slavs on one side and Ethiopians on the other. One can imagine that his slightly swarthy looks set him very much apart from his contemporaries in early Nineteenth Century Russia. The effects and affections that a peculiar lineage such as his may have entailed are reflected in his unfinished masterpiece The Moor of Peter the Great.

The Moor of Peter the Great - Alexander PushkinThe young Pushkin had an obvious talent for writing and an open mind he soon found himself falling foul of the Establishment by the age of twenty. He was ‘exiled’ to take governance posts in minor provinces and, luckily for us, devoted a good deal of time to reading and writing. As lives in earlier times often seem to have been lived in fast-forward, Pushkin’s was no exception. By his early thirties he had earned a reprieve to Moscow and married a young socialite called Natalya Goncharova. Only four years later he died, aged thirty-seven in 1837, of wounds suffered in a pistol-duel defending the honour of his bride who had been accused of infidelity.

Pushkin left behind him a legacy. From the age of fifteen he published critically acclaimed poetry, plays and prose. I do not speak Russian, but from what I can read and what people tell me, his writing bound together disparate dialects and literary traditions like no one before him. Furthermore the style and structure of his writing was distinct and immensely influential. His stories are written in direct, pithy tots and tend to centre on a few core personalities. These characters formed the mediums and conduits that would take the reader through lavish environmental detail but also, through their abundant subjectivity, give deep insights into their characters and their perceptions.

In this largesse we are frustrated but satisfied in equal measure. Without a native, or extremely educated, understanding of Russian it is hard (or impossible) to properly understand the effect that Pushkin had on his domestic literary tradition. But – the mist important but – we can bask in the gift of his stories and the stories that his life’s work inspired. When I read him, I cannot help to think that his work paved the way and helped to inspire some of the greatest stories that have ever been told: Raskolnikoff and Sonia toiling to a shared peace in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment through to Woland’s message for The Master in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margerita. On a slightly less romantic note, it seems to me that Pushkin and post-Pushkin Russian writing translates incredibly well into English. The characters often demonstrate an eccentricity – a humanity – with which the readers can identify which shines through even in translation. The short sentences and peculiar detail often make for awkwardly humorous moments that the British, in particular, tend to understand and appreciate.

The Queen of Spades is a superb introduction to Pushkin. It is possibly the most famous piece of his prose work. More a short story than a novella, the succinctness and precision with which this mildly-surrealist story does nothing but add to its brilliance. The story hinges on Hermann, an earnest, frugal, German soldier. “The game fascinates me, but I am not in the position to sacrifice the essentials of life in the hope of acquiring the luxuries,” announces Hermann when questioned about his gambling abstinence.

An octogenarian Countess is Hermann’s foil as the story begins. She was once known as la Vénus Moscovite during her days spent racking up insurmountable debt as a twenty-something woman in Paris sixty years prior. In order to pay her debt, the young Countess turned to a society outcast, Count St-Germain, even rumoured to be the infamous Wandering Jew. From this shadowy character she learned a temporal clairvoyance – the next three cards drawn from a pack given a promise that after the trick is used she would retire from betting. Using this magic (and a little financial leverage) she pays her debtors, leads a life of luxury with one vice fewer and had since only revealed her valuable secret to one seemingly random acquaintance (who does not follow the ‘after sales guidelines’ and dies a pauper). And as for a Daily Telegraph Social Sterotype, Pushkin delivers with aplomb: “she was far from being wicked, but she had the capriciousness of a woman who had been spoiled by the world, and the miserliness and cold hearted egotism of all old people who have done with loving and whose thoughts lie in the past…she dragged herself to balls and sat in the corner like some misshapen but essential ornament of the ballroom.”

Hermann is driven wild with intrigue. This promise of guaranteed profit, the holy grail of reward with no risk, is too great a temptation for his financial reasoning and parsimonious leanings. He begins an aggressive and successful, yet silent, courtship with the Countess’ first-maid so as to get close enough to learn the secret of the cards. All this happens in about the space of one thousand words. The rest of the book is taken up with further gambling competitions, a lethal ultimatum, a happy marriage, a mental asylum, dreams and nightmares. It is beautifully wild and chaotic. In this short space alone I can see the blue print for my favourite stories. Motifs of religion and Para-normality alongside the themes of greed, literary tastes of the Establishment, misappropriation, the dangers of civilised and high-society, ordinary citizens as collateral damage are laid out for all to see here and they coarse through the veins of Russian literature since published. And yet for all the complexity, beautiful reflections of the normal, of human eccentricity are provided in the very same words for our more basic amusement and entertainment; the Countess cries: “PAUL!”Bring along a new novel with you some time, only not one of those modern ones, not the sort in which the hero strangles either of his parents or in which someone is drowned. I have a great horror of drowned people.”

Matt Bradley

Beware of Pity

Beware of Pity - DontReadTooFast.comBeware of Pity – Stefan Zweig, translated by Phyllis and Trevor Blewitt

“How do I define history? It’s just one fucking thing after another” – Alan Bennett, The History Boys

At first glance, Zweig sets out in this his first and only novel to beat up the notion of pity. The issue for Zweig is that pity (which in the book is really weakness) is at the root of all ills in the narrative. Set against the backdrop of the fall of the Habsburg empire the novel pits Lieutenant Toni Hoffmiller against the emotional minefield of a 17 year old girl, crippled by illness, motherless and over-indulged by her millionaire widower father. Starved of love and drifting on the fringes of social acceptance, the girl is not a piteous creature except in as far as her almost psycopathic desire to walk without crutches colours and ruins every aspect of her life.

There is a shallow gloss of inevitability to the events of the novel; the girl, Edith von Keksfalva, falls madly, punishingly, in love with the young Lieutenant Hoffmiller who naturally, on account of the girl being unable to walk, cannot consider returning her feelings.

Yet the ending is far from inevitable. The girl has psychologically crushed by the social implications of her state, but she is still capable of enjoying, still capable of living an intense and rich life driven by passions. A fact which comes as a surprise to the narrator and seemingly the other characters: “From every direction long lines of people moved forward like dark caterpillars through the waving gold of the fields, and just as we drove through the – not altogether clean – main street, scattering in alarm a flock of cackling geese, the droning of the bell ceased. Mass was about to begin, and surprisingly enough, it was Edith who impetuously demanded that we should all get out and attend it.”

Pity is characterised in the novel as the Old Man of the Sea – a djinn in the tales of A Thousand and One Arabian Nights who dupes a young Samaritan into carrying him on his back out of pity before clamping his legs around the young man and making him a beast of burden. This character, pity, is intended to be the motor of the narrative and Hoffmiller is the young man, a slave to this notion ptiy – the guiding djinn by which the narrative is focused, refined, the prism through which the narrative is revealed to the narrator.

Pity, the narrator would like us to believe, is the silent voice of truth, recounting the story from a long time distant. Instead, Zweig’s narrator reads, like an old man justifying past ills to his audience, blinded by guilt, explaining the world to future generations in justification: history, as it were, being written by the victor. It is a masterful act of writing by the author, projecting his meaning through the smoke screen of the narrator.

“For the first time in my life I began to realise that it is not evil and brutality, but nearly always weakness, that is to blame for the worst things that happen in this world.”

What the prism of Hoffmiller’s narrative reveals most clearly, however, is that it is not pity that is to blame for the cacophanous mess that is the ending of this novel. It is the paucity of a system ascribing strength to some and weakness to others on physical appearance.

On the one hand, Hoffmiller engages himself to the girl out of pity and then denounces her out of cowardice to his fellow officers; his brothers in arms alongside whom he was expected to fight and perhaps to die. On the other hand, Edith declares her love for Hoffmiller against the dam of social pressure –  out of a surge of strength, an outpouring of love, and then she kills herself in a lonely and terrifying leap to the ground. Which is the piteous, which the courageous?

It is not pity that the novel lances but cowardice. Hoffmiller’s military prowess, born, he suggests, out of a desire himself to be dead, is a source of shame to him. He ascribes it to pity with so much emphasis that it cannot convince. Or as he says himself: “There was no one to accuse me, no one to judge me. I felt like a murderer who has buried the corpse of his victim in a wood: the snow begins to fall in thick, white, dense flakes, layer upon layer for months. He knows this concealing coverlet will hide his crime, and afterwards all trace of it will have vanished forever. And so I plucked up courage and began to live again. Since no one reminded me of it, I myself forgot my guilt. For the heart is able to bury deep and well what it urgently desires to forget.”

The Editors

Golden Eyes

Melville House Publishing EditionThe Girl with the Golden Eyes – Honoré de Balzac, translated by Charlotte Mandel, Melville House Classics 

I sometimes hope that Balzac and I could have been friends.  This is based on a superficial knowledge of his love of coffee, his sleepless writing style and his international fame as a lion of French literary realism.  Suffice to say that I like coffee and I like the Girl with the Golden Eyes because they are both bitter, stimulating and enervating: aren’t these humans always reborn just as tense as before, their faces contorted and twisted, divulging from every pore the thoughts, desires and poisons their brains are obsessed with?

In The Girl with the Golden Eyes Balzac picks up the themes of his age, which are the themes of our age, with a daunting lightness of expression: “the Parisian […] he complains about everything, consoles himself for everything, makes fun of everything, forgets everything, wants everything, samples everything, takes everything with passion, abandons everything without concern […] in just the same way that he abandons his stockings, his hats, and his fortune.”

Balzac takes up the cause of the oppressed, the slight of the oppressors, with indignity at ignorance and its ubiquity.  He peals back our urbanised sense of humanity – the same humanity that accommodates poverty with riches, fortune with misfortune, that beds down death and disease with health and beauty so they jostle one with the other and we call them homogenous or acceptable, or inevitable.  He routes his narrative through the lowest common denominators: lust, slavery, sexual perversion, murder: and in doing so reveals the softness of the social underbelly in which he writes, its rawness: in essence our vulnerability.

Balzac’s surprising, salacious, seductive novella is not a fable, nor a morality tale.  It is not simply a story about a beautiful girl who is the sex slave of a duchess, a woman of status who can say: “she comes from a country where women aren’t human beings, but things with which you do what you want, things that are bought and sold.”   Balzac does not moralise openly but reveals.  The Girl with the Golden Eyes is not a sexual book because it contains sex or because it examines the sexes.  It is not violent because it contains violence.  Those things you may read in it but it is only made truly shocking by its affront to our comfortable existence which is this: it predicates its view of the world on a simple and taunting request: “Look.  First of all examine the people who have nothing.”

The Editors

The Prince

Book coverThe Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli, Translated by Peter Constantine

One of my tutees – while I was pushing myself through law school – was a young Russian boy of six called Yasha.  Yasha was fiery and precocious and extraordinarily good at chess and his family named him its King.  One day, I thought, Yasha will be king of more than just a chess board ruling as he did our class room, the household and the playground in which I would beat him at football, being the only thing I could beat him at.

On the chess board he ruled with a ruthlessness I have never since met.  I would think for twenty minutes, he would think for two.  I would take his pawn, he would take my bishop.  I would take his rook, he would take my queen.  And all the time he hummed the Dance of the Knights, chanted “ho ho ho and a bottle of wum”  or giggle as he said, “come on Jamesi, I am going to eat your pieces” as though he was hardly playing at all. His was the most intimidating intelligence I have ever encountered for being both naturally occurring and shaped so sharply like a scythe.

What then of Machiavelli?  In his short and potent treatise on the nature of leadership, the difficulty of decision making, the displeasing underbelly of political success, Machiavelli cuts too closely like a scythe to fit  comfortably in our political discourse:  ‘I judge a prince capable of standing on his own when he has enough men or money to gather an army capable of engaging in battle anyone who comes to attack him; and I judge a prince as needing the assistance of others when he is not strong enough to engage an enemy on the battlefield and is compelled to seek refuge behind his walls, which he then has to defend.”

What Machiavelli represents, aside from a lazy synonym for political chicanery, is the power of thoughtful pragmatism.  We might not like his message (“in short men must be either flattered or eliminated”) but we cannot deny the careful honesty of his ideas which makes them – at least in part – compelling.  It is a deliberately provocative book, it is a polished book, and it is a refreshing book because it runs against the grain of modern utilitarian political discourse, based around the cessation of responsibility by the individual to the state – our constant infantilisation.  It is a book written about 16th Century Italian Princes, yet it reveals to us each how we might choose to live in our own principality and to rule our own affairs (“a wise archer, for instance, will perceive that the distance of the target he intends to hit is too far off, and knowing the extent of his bow”s capacity, will aim quite a bit higher, not so that he will reach that height with his arrow, but so that he will gain his objective by aiming above it”).

It reminds me so vividly of Yasha, not simply because it is intelligent, even if it is cynical, yes, but also because I asked Yasha once why he was so good at chess and he said, “it’s easy James, all you have to do is think.”

The Editors

The world looks different today

Book coverThrough the Language Glass – Guy Deutscher

“Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse.”

So said the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, king of Spain and archduke of Austria, who, as a seasoned polyglot, ought to have known.  However, the idea that language somehow reflects cultural difference is an interesting cliché.  It’s a natural assumption to make that because people speak a different language they must think differently too.  In fact, I’ve always wondered about the extent to which one changes personality when speaking another language: physically, you’re clearly the same person, but at what point exactly does a thought cease to be an abstract thing and crystallise into the rigid confines of a particular language?  Depending on where you stand, this could occur at the very last moment before you open your mouth, in which case language doesn’t really affect the thought itself, or, it could occur at a deeper level of consciousness, in which case the thing you are trying to express may itself be sculpted by the vehicle of its expression.

Deutscher approaches the issue from a strictly scientific perspective.  Not for him the airy generalisations about the musicality of Italian breeding a nation of poets, or the harsh logic of German providing fertile ground for the intellectual rigour of philosophers.  Instead, Deutscher looks at specific examples of linguistic interpretation that can be held up to scrutiny.  He then uses these examples as a platform to assess how language affects the way in which human beings view the world.

One such example is the evolution of how different cultures describe colour.  It turns out, for instance, that Homer was extremely one-dimensional when it came to using colour in his work.  This was seized upon by early linguists as evidence that although our perception of colour may not evolve as such, our need or desire to distinguish between different areas of the colour spectrum does.  Another way of looking at it is this: as a culture becomes more sophisticated it tends to refine its language to allow for a more precise distinction of colour.  As such, early civilisations always had a word for red that was used a lot because red is the colour of blood, but not a word for blue because blue was only really appreciated as a colour in its own right with the invention of colour dyes.  Colours were also lumped together, depending on their usage: the early anthropologist W.H.R. Rivers was astonished to find that on the islands of the Torres Straits, people used the same word to describe the colours black and blue.  An overcooked bit of meat is black, but so is the sky.  Bizarre though this may sound, we still use the word ‘blue’ to describe a huge chunk of the colour spectrum, preceded in some cases by the words ‘light’ or ‘dark’, as though someone realised retrospectively that the two shades were not in fact very similar.

If this makes Deutscher sound like he is only interested in the minute detail of linguistic expression, then I’m doing him a considerable disservice.  In his exploration of language, he seeks to establish concrete instances of how the way we see things is predetermined to an extent by the lens of language.   In doing so, the scope of his observations reaches far beyond differences in colour schematics, and embraces the murky relationship between the biological and cultural evolution of humanity.

The Editors