Some thoughts on translation

In A Splendid Conspiracy (reviewed here), the police informant and intellectual of the streets, Rezk, covets foreign books, which he diligently reads at the pace of a page a day even though he frequently finds phrases that are beyond his comprehension. At the same time, Medhat, who works the for the town’s newspaper, dismisses the idea of reading books in other languages because people are the same everywhere and the books are going to share the perversity in any language so why bother working so hard.

In The Russian Girl Richard Vaisey stubbornly resists teaching courses in translation because the students cannot then claim to read Russian novels, but only a pale image of the real thing.

Years ago I had a conversation with a friend who declared that he doesn’t read books in translation. In contrast, almost forty percent of my non-academic reading in the past four years has been translated into English. My friend’s concern was over the quality of the translation and I must admit that I have read some book where the translation was distinctly antiquated in such a way that it distracted. Sometimes the issues with the translation are with the translator, but sometimes they is with the original text. But even that dichotomy is too simple. To wit, all translation is going to itself be an art, with decisions about how to render turns of phrase, but where some syntax tracks well with English, some languages do not, while some books like Tyrant Banderas flow between multiple different dialects with varying levels of complexity and each with its own external symbolism in its diction.

The proper solution would, for Richard Vaisey, to read the book in the original. There is a value to this, which I can quite attest to in my academic work with Greek texts, but since there are multiple purposes for reading, translations are usually satisfactory so long as it is realized what they are.

I like explanations for particular word choices, as Alyson Waters offers in her translation of A Splendid Conspiracy, but generally trust publishers to employ capable translators. As a rule, cut some slack on purely aesthetic judgements of the text since it is being passed through a medium. The problem is trickier when there are dueling translations, but thankfully Google provides a service that allows easy access to reviews of the different translations. At the most granular level each will probably have its virtues, but, being interested in collecting stories, I prefer readability to a word-for-word translation. While I appreciate authors who have enough English to work closely with their translators like Umberto Eco and Orhan Pamuk have done, but the truth is that I greedily want access to these stories and (usually) lack the facility with the original language so I happily settle for the translation.

I will likely soon pick up one or more novels in French just to work toward fluency with that language, but I don’t consider it necessary to appreciate a book as a work of art. I believe that one of the things reading enables is to unlock all sorts of people and places, world views and experiences that are not normally available, particularly to someone living in the United States. To reject works in translation is to apply blinders to a whole range of cultures, not mention willfully denying oneself great art.

Foucault’s Pendulum – Umberto Eco

True esotericism does not fear contradiction.

People are starved for plans. If you offer them one, they fall on it like a pack of wolves. You invent, and they’ll believe. It’s wrong to add to the inventings that already exist.

Foucault’s pendulum, this novel’s eponymous device, swings in the Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers in Paris and one theory holds that, with the right map, its movements will reveal the navel of the world and allow the user to access ultimate power. But this is only a conspiracy theory, right?

Foucault’s Pendulum is narrated by Casaubon, whose doctoral dissertation was on the historical facts surrounding the Knights Templar, though he insists that everything after the trial of Jacque de Molay belongs in the realm of myth. After graduating, Casaubon goes to work for press in Milan with his fellow editors Belbo and Diotallevi that specializes in the work of self-funded authors—-the realm of obsessives and those who see conspiracies at every turn. One of their potential authors is Colonel Ardenti, who claims to have discovered a message, in code, of course, concerning a Templar plot for world domination that spans centuries. But that contract falls through when Ardenti disappears.

Life happens and years go by, including a sojourn in Brazil for Casaubon, but around every corner is evidence of Ardenti’s Templar plot. By the 1980s all three editors are back in Milan and starting a division of the press that specializes in the occult. Years of reading books on cabala, conspiracies, and the occult has them seeing ever more evidence for the Templar plot until they decide to start feeding facts into a computer that will generate connections between disparate pieces of evidence. What they discover is a grand conspiracy that has been ongoing in its current iteration for more than six hundred years, but has been the principle motivator of world events for far longer.

Most of Foucault’s Pendulum‘s narrative takes place in the imagination of the three editors as retold by Casaubon. Nevertheless, the breadth of their knowledge makes the unfolding of the plot an intellectual tour de force, finding even the most improbable connections.

There was, however, one plot point that did not hold up for me: the computer. Set in 1990, the computer of Foucault’s Pendulum is touted as advanced (since Belbo was an early adopter) and capable of finding connections between any facts, but those data points must be manually entered. The editors use a few locked points (that the Templar plot is real) and call upon the computer to spit out connections to their inquiries. My issues with this plot point are two, one in terms of how the book aged and one in terms of the book itself.

First, the idea of a computer that can process information and return answers is all well and good, but I think that it has aged poorly simply in terms of the computing power currently available and the huge amount of data available through the internet. Similar ideas are at play in, for instance, the t.v. show Person of Interest, but on a more modern scale. This is not to discredit Foucault’s Pendulum, but rather to say that the device seems somewhat quaint at this point.

Second, and more pertinent to the plot of Foucault’s Pendulum is that the editors believe that the computer is producing connections in response to their questions, but answers are always oblique, requiring interpretation. This is probably Eco’s intention, meant to demonstrate a fatal flaw from the outset. The willful ignorance that makes up a significant portion of the plot would have bothered me less had it entirely been the result of human error, but the insertion of a technological wizard behind the curtain struck me as a relatively weak red-herring.

I really liked Foucault’s Pendulum overall. It was a stimulating mystery that also serves as a profound meditation on the foibles of human imagination and power of belief. The novel sprawls out, and only accelerates as it nears the conclusion, but this is necessary since the big reveal relies on a lifetime of accumulating evidence. I might have wished for just a bit more at points, but that should not detract from what is, ultimately, an immensely impressive novel.

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Next up is Philip K. Dick’s Dr. Futurity.

The Seven Madmen – Roberto Arlt

I read a lot, and believe me, all the books from Europe are full of the same current of bitterness and despair you speak of in your own life. Just look at the United States. Movie stars have platinum ovary implants; and there are murderers trying to beat the record for the most horrible crime. You’ve been around, you’ve seen it. House after house, different faces but the same hearts. Humanity has lost its ability to celebrate, to feel joy. Mankind is so unhappy it’s even lost God! Even a 300-horsepower engine is only fun when driven by a madman who is likely to smash himself to pieces in a ditch. Man is a sad animal who only rejoices in wonders. Or massacres. Well, in our society we’ll make sure we give them wonders–plagues of Asiatic cholera, myths, the discovery of gold deposits or diamond mines. I’ve seen it when we two talk. You only come alive when some fresh wonder is mentioned. It’s the same with everyone, criminal or saint.

He tried in vain to concentrate on the two projects he considered important: adapting steam engines to electro-magnetics, and the idea of setting up a dog salon where people could get their pets dyed electric blue, their bulldogs bright green, purple grey-hounds, lilac fox-terriers, lapdogs with three-toned photos of sunsets printed across their backs, little pooches with swirls like a Persian rug.

Set in 1920s Argentina, The Seven Madmen opens with the protagonist, Remo Erdosain, having a very, very bad day. An anonymous tip came in to the firm where he works as a collector alerting management to his skimming cash and he is given an ultimatum. Hunting for six hundred pesos to pay back the company, Erdosain reaches out to The Astrologer, a messianic revolutionary, whose friends willingly lends him the cash. Then Erdosain’s wife leaves him, and he is once again driven into the arms of the Astrologer. In the midst of this cadre Erdosain is inducted into the Astrologer’s plot to bring about a utopian society that will simultaneously liberate people and entirely dominate them. Rationalism, they believe, has enslaved people and destroyed their capacity for pleasure. In order to save the souls, society must regress; in order to take over society they need machine guns and chemical weapons.

The plan, such as it is, will be financed state-sanctioned brothels run by a pimp known as the Melancholy Thug until the mining operations under the guidance of the Gold Prospector and industry under Erdosain can get off the ground. However, to start the first brothel, they need start-up cash. As it happens, Erdosain knows that his wife’s cousin Barsut has inherited money and learns that Barsut was the anonymous informant who cost him his job. Revenge and utility go hand in hand as the revolutionaries decide to kidnap Barsut and take his money.

The Seven Madmen is a novel best described as feverish, in the vein of Dostoevsky or Gogol. The prose is hurried and at times barely coherent, as it flits between delusion, vision, dream, and reality. Its central tension is between enlightenment rationality and the human nature that they argue relies on miracles, wonders, and the divine to have purpose and happiness in life.

“There will be two castes in this new society, with a gap between them…or rather, an intellectual void of some thirty centuries between the two. The majority will live carefully kept in the most complete ignorance, surrounded by apocryphal miracles, which are far more interesting than the historical kind, while the minority will be the ones who have access to science and power. That is how happiness will be guaranteed for the majority, because the people of this caste will be in touch with the divine world, which today they are lacking. The minority will administer the herd’s pleasures and miracles, and the golden age, the age in which angels will roam among paths at twilight and gods are seen by moonlight, will come to pass.”

“But that’s a monstrous idea. It could never happen.”

“Why not? Oh, I know it couldn’t happen, but we have to proceed as if it were possible.”

The plotters believe themselves to taking on the noble burden of truth while they take up the mantle of power. They will give everyone else the gift of lies like those spun by the Astrologer that take on the substance of truth.

The Seven Madmen careens toward the start of their revolution, but ends before the plan can get off the ground. On one level this end point is indicative its incompletion, but on another, it offers the novel as precariously balanced between the broad revolution with cosmic importance and Erdosain’s intensely personal vendetta that he veils with delusions of grandeur. The resultant story is a brilliant study of the Buenos Aires slums, the revolutionary passions of 1920s Argentina, and wider movements (i.e. fascism) circulating at the time, but one that threatens to tip into madness.

I loved this book. It is not an uplifting vision of society, but it is in some small ways prophetic.

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Next up, I am finally reading Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, which I am enjoying much more than I did when I last tackled this book. It is certainly helpful that I am more familiar with a lot of its literary and philosophical references than I was the last time around.

December 2015 Reading Recap

PSA: I’ve been doing these monthly reading recaps for the last few years and it has been a good opportunity to give mini-reviews of anything for which I do not write out longer posts. That will still likely be true for such posts, but for the books I have reviewed, I will likely just give a link to the longer review and forego a more detailed summary. The blurbs that accompany the recap post will be used as a chance for further reflection, updating, amending, or otherwise adding tidbits not in the original post.

The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco

The one book from December that I did not review. (Actually, as I write this I am still trying to figure out how to write a review of Don Delillo’s White Noise, though I am going to finish that post before this one is published, so there.) The Name of the Rose is a book that I thought I read years and years ago, but I do not know that I ever finished it and yet it is so ingrained in culture that I consume, through references, through discussions, and through games, that it was as though I had read it. Adso, the apprentice of William of Baskerville, accompanies his master to a rich and esteemed monastery in Northern Italy to attend to a theological dispute, but a series of deaths derails the specific inquest and forces the visitors to dive into a series of other mysteries, including the labyrinthine (and forbidden) library, the inquisition, longstanding philosophical disagreements, heresy, and challenges of living on earth. William is tasked with unravelling the mysteries using the powers of logic that positions the story within the rich world of medieval philosophy. Eco’s work is deep and allusive, but this story is at some level an excellent mystery.

Stamboul Train, Graham Greene

Reviewed here, I don’t have much new to add about Greene’s entertainment, but am again thinking of the distinction between “serious” literature and “fluff.” To an extent there are structural differences, particularly when judging serious literature by the standards of the Nobel committee, which usually has a preference for books that make the Oscar voters’ choices of movies look downright optimistic. Non-serious literature, by contrast, is designed to be easily read. It is a caricature to suggest that easily read books can’t deal with important issues or profound topics hidden beneath the glitz and glam.

A Small Town Called Hibiscus, Gu Hua

Reviewed here, Hibiscus is Gu Hua’s critique of the Cultural Revolution in 1970s China. He idealizes capitalism and the success of small-businesses, who succeed through hard work and through the support of the town officials and town community. It is a deliberate choice (as often happens) to praise these virtues through the remote, anachronistic, and bucolic village. Nothing is ever perfect, of course, but it is possible to create a healthy and comfortable life if one works hard because the universe of the town is limited to the surrounding villages and the town is thus unpolluted by the wider, impersonal forces that cause people to become disconnected and then to turn on one another. There is probably a parallel story that could be told where the force that corrupts the town is a large retail establishment instead of the government.

Hyperion, Dan Simmons

Reviewed here, Hyperion is a beautiful and moving work of science fiction that, other than stories-within-story structure, stunning imagery, and suffering of nearly every character, is notable for a major reason: it has no real ending. It is as though Dorothy went with her companions to see the wizard, with the entire story consisting of how the Tin Man came to be without a heart*, etc, and then left off as they approached the Emerald City. There is a sequel to Hyperion, which suggests that this story is nothing but an extended prologue. Yet, I like that this is a story about the intersection of the characters both in the specific case of the pilgrimage and in wider events. In other words, the story is about the journeys, not the destination. I already wonder if the second book (which I have not yet read) will too dramatically shift these messages and leave me wishing that Hyperion existed as a standalone work that just ends without conclusion.

*According to Wikipedia, this story exists and the Wizard of Oz movie would have been even more horrifying had it been told in vivid technicolor.

White Noise, Don Delillo

Live Tweet and (short) review. The college that Jack Gladney works at in this novel is known as College-on-the-Hill, set, of course, in the midwest. Delillo shows that it is possible to flee the unbearable crush of the big city by going to the midwest, but that it is impossible to escape. However, the college (for all its faults) is still presented as aspiring to be a genuine refuge, presumably for both the students and the teachers. I suspect the name is meant ironically, particularly since it clearly does not save Gladney from his family, but I would like for the school to serve as more than just a foil for the rest of society because it perpetuates a vision of an ivory tower that really doesn’t exist.

Siam, or the woman who shot a man, Lily Tuck

Reviewed here, Siam was the only book I read last month that provoked an extremely negative response from me. The knee-jerk hostility has somewhat waned, though I stand by everything I said in the review. Claire’s relationship and situation does not work out in Southeast Asia and I was frustrated by how the story doesn’t much engage with the relationship between Claire and James, the latter of whom is frequently absent, which, in turn puts further strain on the relationship–i.e. I didn’t get a sense of why or how Claire cared a whit about James outside of the physical relationship. However, part of the problem with my frustration is that the story is a psychological study about Claire’s isolation, not a study about the failures of the relationship between Claire and James. I still did not like the book, but I think Tuck is more successful than I gave her credit for.


Favorite from December: Hyperion.
Currently reading: The Green House, one of the early books by Mario Vargas Llosa. After that I have a lengthy list, but no concrete plans. 2016 is a blank slate and I have some ambitions, but those are for another post.

November 2015 Reading Recap

December is here–and already flying by. This is always a busy time of the semester and, even though I am not preparing students for exams or furiously grading papers to meet a deadline, I feel busier than I ever have been. This is because I have finally broken into a good stride in terms of writing, namely that I am spending most waking moments doing so, with a cup of coffee in front of me and surrounded by piles of library books. At the moment I am cleaning up the last few points on about eighty pages of dissertation revisions that I turn in on Monday, and have the review notes for revisions on an accepted article (plus one more job application) to tackle immediately after that. Then more dissertation revisions (I would like to get another 40 pages done in two weeks), work on two conference papers, a conference abstract, and edit another article for submission. I guess what I am saying is that I am staying busy but that progress is taking place. I also very much enjoy what I do. However, this also means that I have not had much time to focus on reading for fun, much less on writing here, though I did finish two books in November.

Demons, Fyodor Dostoevsky
Tweeted quotes.

I may get around to writing longer thoughts about this behemoth, but haven’t yet both because of the aforementioned writing tasks and because I am still trying to wrap my head around what happened in the story. I have mentioned before that I sometimes struggle keeping tabs on whoiswho and whatiswhat in reading Russian novels, and that was particularly the case in Demons, which careens between a large number of characters, sometimes being a close character study of individuals such as the intellectual Stepan Trofimovich, his patron Varvara Petrovna Stavrogin, and her son Nikolai Vsevolodovich Stavrogin, other times commentary on the Russian Marxist vanguard committees, and still other times giving a sweeping impression of the interplay between the aristocracy and the common folks in the town. It is a dark, funny, examination of a political assassination (or set of assassinations, really) in an isolated Russian town where the people who look the best are often the most twisted, things that look too good to be true certainly are, and where there is a pervasive, exhausting tension at every level of society that is liable to break open. Things could be worse (as several characters note, they were once workers in America), and while the leading aristocrats play deadly idle games to maintain their position, the disaffected aspire to bring about a revolutionary future without having any idea what to do should they succeed. Perhaps most damningly of all, Dostoevsky sets this revolutionary committee squabbling amongst themselves in this provincial town where the threat to their lives from the state is still real, but where they seem to have no chance of affecting change.

The Letter Killers Club, Sigizmund Krizhazhonvsky
Review and Tweeted quotes.

Another Russian novel, set in 1920s Moscow. The Letter Killers are a collection of writers who now aspire to set free their conceptions by expounding in narrative form upon a theme every Saturday night. Letters and books, they say, inhibit the individual from having his own conceptions and thus the pure form is direct communication from conceiver to audience. The Letter Killers Club consists of a frame story told by the interloper (i.e. non-professional conceiver), and then five of the conceptions, one for each week of the story. Thus, when reading the book, one is reading the writings of a non-writer who both has his own narrative and transcribes five conceptions that were not meant to be written down. It is a dense little book that builds layer upon layer. I cannot claim to understand all of the themes so well as the narrator, but enjoyed it nonetheless. I also must applaud the New York Review of Books series for the attractive format of their books and for helpful introductory material.

I am now reading Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, a book that I once picked up but am not sure I ever finished.