Tuesday, November 26, 2002

TRANSLATION IN AMERICA. I've just gotten around to the November Harper's, and I was struck by the first letter to the editor, which puts into perspective the recent flurry of attention to the Arab Human Development Report commissioned by the UN. Everyone who discusses the report mentions the appalling statistic that "the whole Arab world translates about 330 books annually." I'll let Esther Allen take it from there:
In his reply to Edward Said in the September Letters section, Paul Kennedy alludes to the worrisome news about the cultural stagnation of the Arab world that U.S. pundits have been clucking their tongues over all summer: according to a recent United Nations Development Programme report, the entire Arab world, with a population of 280 million, translates only about 330 books per year.

Gratifying as it has been to see so many of our nation's spokespeople in agreement that the number of translations is a key indicator of a region's cultural vibrancy, I can't help noting, at the same time, a certain grim hilarity. Here in the United States, at the cosmopolitan heart of the universe, with a population of 285 million and a publishing industry that churns out well over 100,000 books per year, we publish—well, what do you know—about 330 books in translation per year. (That figure excludes only technical and scientific treatises.)

The PEN Translation Committee receives about 175 to 225 submissions each year for its PEN Book-of-the-Month-Club Translation Prize, and they actively seek out every translation published in the country. Annotated Books Received, a publication of the American Literary Translators Association, lists about 400 books per year, including a grand total of thirteen books translated from Arabic in the last four years. "Literary" translation, I hasten to add, refers in this context not only to fiction and poetry but to history, journalism, biography, criticism, every category of book written for a general audience, and several categories—e.g., literary theory, philosophy—that are not.

This has been the case for decades; if there ever was a Golden Age of Translation in the United States of America, no one seems to know when it occurred. Yet the trend has never given rise to a UNDP report or any general voicings of dismay in the columns of the national print media. But now that we seem to be reaching such a stirring consensus on the importance of translation as an indicator of cultural well-being, I, for one, am very curious to see what our leaders will do to combat the lamentable isolation and stagnation in which we are foundering.

Esther Allen
New York City

Monday, November 25, 2002

EDITING ON THE IRT. From "Metropolitan Diary" in today's NYT:
As a ninth grader at Hunter College High School who lives in Brooklyn, I have a pretty long trip to and from school, and I try to get some homework done on the train.

One afternoon, I was working on an editing assignment on the downtown No. 6 train, and as I was putting it away the man sitting next to me told me I had missed something. I took the paper out again, and he told me to add a comma in one of the sentences.

Then the woman sitting next to him piped in. She said that it should, in fact, be a semicolon.

I decided to go with the semicolon, but they were still discussing the right choice when I got off the train a few stops later.   Hope I. Reichbach


Sunday, November 24, 2002

CAMPBELL MCGRATH. I just discovered (via the excellent creosote.org) a poet heretofore unknown to me, Campbell McGrath. He has written a book of poems about Florida which I may have to buy; samples can be read here and here. He has interesting things to say in an interview; here's a bit on his poetic development, which is the kind I wish more poets had:
CM: Yes, I think the formal shift was essential. I had been writing sonnets and my diction was more ornate. Pound had been a big influence. All that went out the window. The first 7-11 poems were influenced by William Carlos Williams. A stripping down of syntax and diction. And the form has continued to change, book by book, but it's certainly never gone back to that older formality.

VW: Do you think there is. more validity to your poetic form because you went through that formal background?

CM: I don't think you gain 'validity' that way, but you do gain a lot of craft. I feel like I can access certain formal virtues and turn on them when I want, or turn them around. I love the range of poetry, from the formal to the free, the new, the invented. From tight lines to prose. 'The Bob Hope Poem' was an attempt to explore that formal range, from prose to haiku, and everything in between.
Anybody who can make a fine poem solely out of seashell names ("crenulate nut clams and pointed cingulas,/ dogwinkles, diplodons, donax, dosinia,// emarginate emarginula...") is worth reading as far as I'm concerned.

Saturday, November 23, 2002

LINNAEUS. I have just discovered that "Linnaeus" was not a latinized version of Carl von Linné's last name, as I had always supposed and as Webster's Biographical Dictionary seemed to confirm; his father's name was Nils Linnaeus, and he took the name "von Linné" when he was admitted to the aristocracy; see the biography here. You just never know. (Thanks, Nick!)
DIANE ACKERMAN. After several dense (though hopefully not turgid) ethnohistorical essays, I thought I'd give us all a break and post a poem I liked from the Ninetieth Anniversary issue of Poetry. Here's Diane Ackerman:
LIKE YOUR FACE

After Hans Magnus Enzensberger

Like your face,
a thousand-leafed day,
and I who rejoice
in what's measureless
measure the onset of evening
and the imagined scent
of your eyelashes
shivering like flowers in the wind.

What fate threw us together?
The same chance
that drew airlanes for the bats
swooping like neuroses
from the sky, fluttering
over frail autumn leaves
which cannot harm or save
or be anyone's victim.

Wednesday, November 20, 2002

PURITY VS. HISTORY 4. So a certain purist concept of nationalism has had unfortunate effects on the landscape, language, and toponymy of Greece. The worst, though, is its effect on people. The ultimate implication of ethnic nationalism is that only members of the national ethnic group can be allowed to be part of the nation; all others must be eliminated or assimilated. This attitude was part of the Greek War of Independence from the beginning; some quotes from the 1911 Britannica, with colorful but accurate descriptions:
The town itself was destroyed and those of its Mussulman inhabitants who could not escape into the citadel were massacred.... Kolokotrones, a notable brigand once in the service of the lonian government... captured Karytaena and slaughtered its infidel population... [T]he revolt spread rapidly; within three weeks there was not a Mussulman left in the open country..... In the Morea, meanwhile, a few Mussulman fortresses still held out: Coron, Modon, Navarino, Patras, Nauplia, Monemvasia, Tripolitsá. One by one they fell, and everywhere were repeated the same scenes of butchery. The horrors culminated in the capture of Tripolitsá, the capital of the vilayet. In September this was taken by storm; Kolokotrones rode in triumph to the citadel over streets carpeted with the dead; and the crowning triumph of the Cross was celebrated by a cold-blooded massacre of 2000 prisoners of all ages and both sexes.
This sort of thing is not, of course, confined to Greek history; it is a sad feature of similar struggles everywhere. But when the war was over and the Greek state established, the attitude hardened rather than dissipating; the vicious Balkan Wars of 1912–13 featured ethnic cleansing as a modus operandi on all sides (see the first-person accounts here; I highly recommend the Carnegie Endowment's Report, from which the quotes are taken, to anyone interested in the wars), and the equally vicious Greco-Turkish War of 1921–22 resulted in an "exchange of populations" (as this devastating mass ethnic cleansing was politely called) that uprooted "Greeks" who spoke no Greek from their ancestral homes in Turkey and equally assimilated "Turks" from Greece and sent them to alien countries they had never seen and where they had no homes and no occupation.

The Greek government announced that Greece was now ethnically homogeneous, and from then on ethnic minorities (principally Turks, Macedonian Slavs, Albanians, Vlachs, and Romá [Gypsies; note that Romá is the plural of Rom]) were either ignored or repressed, depending on the political situation. The official attitude is that everyone in Greece is Greek; attempts to discuss, say, the Slavic minority will be met with a denial that there is such a thing—people in the villages you mention may speak with a distinct accent, but certainly not in a different language. A classic example of this attitude was brought about by the research of Anastasia Karakasidou into the history of a village in Greek Macedonia, north of Thessalonica; she had originally thought that the village was divided between the "local" Greeks and the "refugees" (from the 1921–22 war), but as she talked to people she learned that many of them had relatives who came from a Slavic background. Unfortunately, just as she was preparing to publish her results (in the excellent book Fields of Wheat, Hills of Blood: Passages to Nationhood in Greek Macedonia, 1870-1990) the Balkan wars of the 1990s broke out, and the Greeks became extremely paranoid about ethnic questions; along with blockading the poor and landlocked new Republic of Macedonia (and forcing everyone to call it "FYROM"), they began a campaign of harassment against the author and her book, calling her a "cannibal" and frightening Cambridge University Press into shamefully caving in and canceling publication (fortunately the book was picked up by the gutsier University of Chicago Press).

Again, none of this is unique to Greece; similar nonsense is perpetrated everywhere that ethnic differences are used and exacerbated by evil politicians (Sri Lanka and Rwanda come immediately to mind, but of course examples are legion), and Turkey has done far worse to Armenians and Kurds in the last century than Greece has done to its minorities. I have concentrated on Greece because of its unique status as the "fountainhead of Western civilization" and because the pernicious theories of ethnic and historical purity used to justify the things I have discussed were imported from the supposedly civilized nations of Western Europe. It is the heirs of the Enlightenment who licensed the Greeks to falsify everything around them in the name of a chimerical Hellas that never was, and it is at their feet (and by extension our own, if we wish to claim the inheritance of "progress" and "rationality") that we must lay much of the responsibility for the evils that resulted. When we fulminate against the Rwandans, it is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.

Addendum. For further information on the background of the ethnic confusion of Macedonia and the political dispute engendered by it, I urge anyone interested to read Loring M. Danforth's The Macedonian Conflict: Ethnic Nationalism in a Transnational World (Princeton, 1995). Like the Karakasidou book mentioned above, it's unusually well written for an academic work, and Danforth has one of the most sensible takes on the problem of ethnicity and nationalism that I've seen. From his first chapter:
According to the logic of nationalism, because nations are equated with states and because states have unambiguous, clearly defined territorial borders, nations must have such borders as well. Complex cultural realities, however, know no such borders. While a particular village must be located on one side or the other of the border separating two sovereign states, the people who live in this village are likely to speak more than one lanugage and participate in more than one culture. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the inhabitants of this village speak the two national languages and participate in the two national cultures of the nation-states whose border the village lies near. The people of this village do not inhabit two homogeneous, bounded national cultures; they inhabit a cultural continuum, a cultural intersystem, in which cultural differences and similarities coexist in complex and constantly changing ways.
Having established his theoretical basis, he goes on to discuss the complex history of Macedonia and the conflicting claims to Macedonian identity. In a particularly moving chapter, he tells us about an Australian he calls Ted Yannas who comes from a village in northern Greece where people spoke Macedonian as well as Greek but identified themselves as Greeks; in Australia, he discovered others from the same village who identified themselves as Macedonians, and he wound up joining them, alienating himself from friends and even his own family. (The first part of the chapter is online here.) Makes me glad to be an American mutt who doesn't worry about such things.

Monday, November 18, 2002

IDIOCY IN RUSSIA. The Russian Duma has outlawed the Roman alphabet. Of course, the law will be roundly ignored, but it reminds me of Indiana House Bill #246, introduced (but happily not passed) in 1897, which tried to legislate a simpler value for pi. [Via polyglut.]

Sunday, November 17, 2002

PURITY VS. HISTORY 3. Another obstacle in reading Makriyannis, if you're trying to follow along on a map, is place names. He'll mention, say, Sálona; you look on your map and find no such place. Eventually, if you're lucky, you discover that it's now called Amphissa. Fortunately, the Great Hellenic Encyclopedia not only gives all former place names in its articles, it cross-references them, and there is a copy in the New York Public Library. In the course of reading about the period, I had occasion to look up many such names, and my reference map of Greece is now liberally sprinkled with them, the old names in penciled parenthesis: Lamia (Zituni), Panetolion (Mustafuli), Evinos (Fidaris), Elatia (Drakhmani). What most of these pairs have in common is that the old name, the traditional name, is Turkish or otherwise foreign in origin; the "new" name is the classical name, imposed after many centuries of desuetude by the new government, indifferent to the virtues of allowing people to call their town, river, lake by the names they'd always used but supremely attentive to the desire of Western Europeans to imagine their beloved Hellas restored. The very name Hellas (Ellas in katharevusa, Ellada in dimotiki) was strange, foreign, to Greeks of the day; they called themselves Roman (Romios) and their language Romaic (romeika), and their dreamed-of capital was Constantinople, "the City" (i Poli, which in the phrase is tin Poli 'to/in the City' was the source of the Turkish name Istanbul). They wanted Emperor Constantine to reappear and reestablish the Roman Empire (what we call "Byzantine") again; to reorient them to Athens and Pericles and this strange name "Hellas" took many decades. But it was accomplished, and in the end people could sit in a cafe in Amfissa rather than sitting in a cafe in Salona, and foreign visitors could travel the country using Thucydides or Pausanias as their guide and see the very same place names outside the windows of their bus. Like the Acropolis, the entire country had been wiped clean of distractions from the important reality, that of 2,500 years past.

Friday, November 15, 2002

PURITY VS. HISTORY 2. So what does all this have to do with language? Quite a lot, actually. A good way to see this is to look at the Memoirs of General Makriyannis; I'll quote Petro Alexiou's description of the general from his "A Talk on Martin Johnston":
Makriyannis was a man of humble origins who became a revolutionary fighter and leader in the Greek war of independence against the Ottoman Turks in the second decade of the 19th century. He was a veteran of innumerable battles and a political idealist who, after Greece became an independent state with a Bavarian monarchy, was active in a movement for constitutional government. But Makriyannis was more than just a soldier and political fighter; he was a living embodiment of Greece's oral folk culture. He was also a fine exponent of the improvised song. But what earned Makriyannis an honoured place in Greek literature is that, an illiterate man, he taught himself to write late in life, and, fired by the desire for the truth of his people's fight for liberty to be known, wrote an account of his life that has the literary stature of an epic. Makriyannis' Memoirs weren't published till 40 years after his death and only began to be read more widely in recent years.
Alexiou quotes his friend Johnston as saying "If modern European fiction 'came out of Gogol's overcoat', modern Greek prose came out of the ample folds of General Makriyannis's kapa." But in between the writing of the memoirs (they end in 1850) and their general acclaim (they were published in an Athens newspaper in 1904 and in book form, with extensive commentary, in 1907, but were not well known until proclaimed a classic in a famous 1943 lecture by George Seferis) there was a period in which Greek prose wandered in the desert of katharevousa ('purified'), an artificial Greek devised to bring the "degenerate" spoken language as close as possible to classical Attic, seen as the ideal form of the language. Part of what this involved was purging the language: of unrecognizable descendants of ancient forms (e.g. psari 'fish' from opsarion, in place of Attic ikhthys), but especially of the many foreign terms it had borrowed over the centuries, particularly Turkish ones. This is the exact analog of the purging of the Acropolis of the accumulated postclassical structures, and it results in Makriyannis being hard to read even for Greeks (although his language is extremely natural, since he wrote as he spoke) because so many words common in his time have been replaced by echt Greek forms (e.g. tzasitis 'spy' [from Turkish casus], replaced by kataskopos). The effort to produce a language that would sufficiently mimic the ancient tongue revered by Western Europe (the final judge of all things cultural, and of course the provider and guarantor of Greek freedom) paralleled the effort to produce a state that would mimic the "civilized" countries of Western Europe, themselves (in their fond self-image) modeled on the glory that was (ancient) Greece. The result was a stilted language that was native to no one and that could be produced only by stifling the inner voice that is the only source of true literature (and that makes Makriyannis so powerful a writer). The difference is, of course, that the language could be restored to human life by the inevitable erosion of the Atticizing furbelows (such as the dative case, not used in speech for centuries), but the Acropolis is dead for good.

Thursday, November 14, 2002

PURIFYING IRAQ. As a counterpoint to my ongoing series of entries on purifying Greece comes an op-ed piece by Amir Taheri in today's NY Times in which he discusses Saddam's brutal efforts to "Arabize" Iraq. Everyone knows about his assaults on the Kurds, but I confess I had not known about this:
In 1970, he opened the Ottoman archives, in which Iraqis were classified as either Ottoman or Persian subjects. He prepared a policy of mass expulsion against the Persians, even though many prominent Iraqis — including Rashid Ali al-Gailani, the father of Iraqi nationalism, and Muhammad al-Jawahiri, the greatest Arabic poet of the 20th century — had been classified as Persian during Ottoman rule.

The mass expulsion of the Persians was implemented from 1972 on. By 1980 nearly a million people had been driven out. Needless to say, the overwhelming majority of those expelled had been born and raised in Iraq, regarded themselves as Iraqis and spoke Arabic as their mother tongue.
(I regret to report that in the course of the piece Taheri perpetrates this bit of idiocy: "Iraq is also the home of 11 living languages, some of which, like Elamite, are twice as old as Arabic." All natural languages are equally old; it's just a question of where you choose to stick the labels.)

Tuesday, November 12, 2002

PURITY VS. HISTORY. Does anybody else find the sight of the Acropolis more dismaying than inspiring? I'm not talking about the dilapidated state of the buildings and statues, or even the fact that many of them have had to be replaced with replicas and the originals stashed in a museum because of pollution. No, I mean the bare, blanched emptiness of the Acropolis itself, a few crumbling ruins set amid stone paths and tumbled columns. How many people who visit the site to pay their respects to the Parthenon know that this site was once an entire walled city, filled with homes and shops and government buildings? Or that the Parthenon itself, that sad shell, was once one of the great churches of Christendom? I'll let Alexander Masters describe it (from a review in the TLS of Mary Beard's The Parthenon):
Some time in the sixth century, the virgin Athena lost her home to the Virgin Mary, and the Parthenon became a Christian church. The main entrance was moved from the east to the west, a few windows were cut through the frieze sculptures to allow in more light, and inside, where once had stood a gaudy, stolid forty-foot gold- and ivory-coated statue of the goddess of war and wisdom... the Christians created one of the greatest cathedrals in Greece. The doors were said to have once been the gates of Troy; the apse glittered with a gilded mosaic; among the adornments was a "miraculous" lamp, and a "magnificent" canopy supported on four columns of jasper. Basil "the Bulgar Slayer"... came down south especially to see this famous catalogue of Christian loveliness, and added to it: a golden dove with a golden crown that "circled continuously around the cross".
Further testimony comes from perhaps Athens' greatest medieval inhabitant, its archbishop Michael Choniates (whose younger brother Nicetas wrote one of the best Byzantine histories); I quote from Molly Mackenzie's excellent little book Turkish Athens: "The Cathedral in particular—the former Parthenon—gave him constant delight: he loved it for its superb setting, the beauty and balance of its proportions, and its glorious treasures piled up through the centuries." After the Ottoman conquest of Greece, the cathedral was turned into a mosque, with a minaret at one corner; Evliya Çelebi, visiting in the seventeenth century, wrote: "In the middle of the fortress there is one mosque, marvellous and luminous, famous among the philosophers and travellers of the world.... There is no such magnificent mosque in the whole atlas of the globe. In civilized countries no sanctuary exists to equal it. May its construction remain eternal unto the completion of time." And what happened to this glorious pile of amassed treasures? Of course, it was badly damaged when the Venetians shelled it in an entirely useless attack in 1687 (Mackenzie: "As the building went up in flames, a great cry of joy and triumph burst from the Venetian soldiers. The women and children inside were burnt to death and the fire raged for two days, reducing the Parthenon to a ruin"), and again when Lord Elgin and others looted it in the early nineteenth century, but the final devastation was perpetrated by, of all people, archeologists. Masters again:
Though the church of Our Lady of Athens lasted half a millennia [sic], almost as long as the Parthenon had been a pagan temple, there is not a brick of it left standing today. In 1890, the Greek Archaeological Service declared that it had delivered the building "back to the civilized world, cleansed of all barbaric additions, a noble monument to the Greek genius". Scoured of history, stripped to a stony simplicity that its fifth-century-BC builders never intended, even the hilltop on which it stood had been scrubbed down to the rock. "As one historian of Byzantium has recently put it," writes Mary Beard, "a visit to the Acropolis today is rather like being taken on a tour around Westminster Abbey, blindfold to everything but the work of Edward the Confessor."
These archeologists, of course, were Germans (as was the ruling family that had been imposed on the resentful Greeks); they had no attachment to the slowly built up mosaic of buildings and cultures, but oh, how they loved Ancient Greece! For similar reasons, they insisted (over the objections of the Greeks, who thought Nauplion or Corinth would be far more suitable than this depopulated village) on making Athens the capital of the country, leading to the overcrowding and pollution that has put the finishing touches on the devastation.

So try and picture Rome or Istanbul with their glorious melange of ages cleared away and nothing left but a few ancient structures; or picture, if you can, the Acropolis as it might be today if different policies had prevailed, vibrant and crowded, with mossy lanes and jumbled buildings of all periods, mosques inside churches inside temples, messy life in place of the deadly purity of a city reduced to a site. Now look at what remains, and think about what we owe to history.

Monday, November 11, 2002

A HOLE IN G_D'S NAME. Baraita has a long and fascinating entry on blasphemy, the name(s) of God, and the implications of the Jewish tradition of writing "G_d" (I had known about the avoidance of blasphemy but hadn't thought about the practicality of not having to worry about disposing of the paper). Furthermore, the comments section has an interesting discussion of Québécois cussing (which involves not sex or scatology but chalices and tabernacles).

Friday, November 08, 2002

SAVING LANGUAGES. Now, this and this (unlike this) show how to keep languages alive. And the Cornish are hanging tough. (Via Pat, Mister Endangered Languages.)

Thursday, November 07, 2002

HITHERANDTHITHERING. They're refurbishing the tunnel that leads from the IND station at 42nd St. to the 7 line a bit east; there's nice tilework now, and on it a quote from, of all things, Finnegans Wake:
Telmetale of stem or stone. Beside the rivering waters of, hitherandthithering waters of. Night!
I love New York.
MORE TRANSLATION. I decided that since I was criticizing other people's translations, I should put my own work up for scrutiny. So herewith my version of Cavafy's "Very Rarely" [Polí spaníos], followed by whatever others I can turn up. Comments (as always) welcome.

He's an old man. Bent over and worn out,
disabled by the years and by his dissipations,
with a soft step he crosses the back alley.
And yet when he enters his house in order to hide
his old age and the shape he's in, he meditates
on the measure he himself still has of youth.

The young men are repeating his lines now.
Within their lively eyes his visions pass.
Their healthy, sensual minds,
their firm and well-proportioned flesh
are stirred by his own showing forth of what is beautiful.

—languagehat



He is an old man. Exhausted and bent,
 broken by years, and by excesses,
 walking slowly, he goes up the road.
 Yet, when he enters his house in order to hide
 the state he is in, and his old age,
 he contemplates
 the portion he still claims of youth.

 Adolescents now recite his verses.
 Through their bright eyes his visions pass.
 Their healthy, hedonistic brain
 their well drawn firm flesh
 by his revelations of beauty are affected.

Anna Seraphimidou


Very Seldom

An old man—used up, bent,
crippled by time and indulgence—
slowly walks along the narrow street.
But when he goes inside his house to hide
the shambles of his old age, his mind turns
to the share in youth that still belongs to him.

His verse is now quoted by young men.
His visions come before their lively eyes.
Their healthy sensual minds,
their shapely taut bodies,
stir to his perception of the beautiful.

—tr. Edmund Keeley & Philip Sherrard

Tuesday, November 05, 2002

TRANSLATION. A couple of items on the subject. First, the Merm has yet another chewy, nutritious link, this time to an article by a translator explaining why translators are supposed to render what their author said, no more and no less, even if the client thinks they should be improving on it. This is, of course, in relation to expository prose; when it comes to poetry, the rules are different, pace Nabokov. And that brings us to a fascinating thread on MetaFilter, started by the excellent y2karl's post of a Yeats poem ("When you are old and grey and full of sleep") that is not quite a translation but certainly based on a famous Ronsard sonnet ("Quand vous serez bien vieille," quoted in full in the thread).

After much discussion of Yeats, Villon, and translation in general (Miguel Cardoso giving what to my mind were unwarrantedly optimistic views), y2karl quoted a translation of an Akhmatova poem, by Natalie Duddington, that seemed fine to me until I looked at the original poem. What I would like to do now (in the infinite space of my own blog) is to present the original and several translations and see what they reveal. First off, here's the original (in transcription; I'll put accents whenever the stress is not on the penultimate, to aid the curious):
Kak nevesta poluchayu
Kazhdyi vecher po pis'mú,
Pozdno noch'yu otvechayu
Drugu moemú.

"Ya goshchú u smerti beloi
Po doroge v t'mu.
Zla, moi láskovyi, ne delai
V mire nikomú."

I stoít zvezdá bol'shaya
Mezhdu dvukh stvolóv,
Tak spokoino obeshchaya
Ispolnen'e snov.
(The apostrophe indicates palatalization, which sounds like a slight "y" glide after the consonant.) Now a literal translation, with equally valid alternatives separated by a slash:
Like a bride/fiancée I receive
Each evening a letter,
Late at night I answer
My friend.

"I am staying (as a guest) with white death
On the way to darkness [formal/archaic word].
Evil/wrong, my affectionate/tender (one), do not do
In the world to anyone."

And a large star stands
Between two (tree)trunks,
So/thus calmly/peacefully promising
(The) fulfilment of dreams.
And here's the Duddington translation:
Like one betrothed I get
Each evening a letter.
And late at night sit down to write
An answer to my friend.

Low in the sky there shines a star
Between two trunks of trees.
So calmly promising to me
That what I dream, shall be.

I am staying with white death
On my way to darkness.
Do no evil, gentle one,
To anyone on Earth.
The first thing we notice is that she's switched the second and third stanzas. This, to me, is a blatant no-no; if Akhmatova had wanted the quote with its exhortation at the end of the poem, she'd have put it there. Furthermore, Duddington omits the quotation marks, making it impossible to separate the narrator's framing voice from the words she addresses to her friend. Finally, here is Judith Hemschemeyer's translation, from her well-regarded Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova:
Like a fiancée I receive
A letter every evening,
And late at night I write
An answer to my lover.

"I am the guest of white death,
On the way to darkness.
My beloved, don't be evil
To anyone on earth."

And a huge star is standing
Between the trunks of two trees,
So tranquilly promising
The fulfillment of dreams.
This is a great improvement in terms of accuracy (though "lover" and "my beloved" are in my view unacceptable editorializing), but it doesn't have the fire of poetry to me; when I read it aloud it doesn't thrill my ear. Obviously, this is a matter of personal taste (and I welcome others' reactions), but I can't share the general satisfaction with her versions ("We needn't worry again about how to read Akhmatova in translation"—Andrew Motion). Perhaps I'll try my own hand; in the meantime, I lay these before you for your perusal and contemplation.

ADDENDUM. The Poetry International Web opens its virtual doors today; this amazing site has (or will have—it's still under construction) pages for poets from different countries, with poems in both English translation and the original. Here, for instance, is Cavafy's "The Satrapy." (Thanks to Igor, who posted it on MetaFilter.)
KEEPING LANGUAGES ALIVE. That's the title of a Wired article by Kendra Mayfield. It seems that the worthy Rosetta Project is creating an archive "that will preserve more than 1,400 of the world's 7,000 languages on a 3-inch nickel disk." The texts will be etched on microscopically rather than coded digitally, so that "future generations will need only a 1,000-power microscope to read the microprint." My response: that's nice, and I'm sure it will thrill future generations, but how is it keeping languages alive? The only way to do that is to get out there and work with native speakers in the field, helping them find creative ways of recording their language and making it useful to young people so they won't simply settle for the majority language. The Rosetta archive reminds me of a graveyard full of stones with the death dates waiting to be filled in. [Via the Mermaid.]

Saturday, November 02, 2002

HEIREN XUE ZHONGWEN. It's not often these days that a news story makes me smile, but this one (by Yilu Zhao) did. Shuang Wen Academy is a school on the Lower East Side that teaches in both Mandarin Chinese and English; obviously it was created by and for Chinese. Yet ten percent of the students are black.
Although only two of the school's first class of 45 students were not of Chinese descent, Shuang Wen gradually gained a reputation among some of the city's black middle-class parents for being nurturing yet rigorous. In last spring's citywide third-grade math and English tests, Shuang Wen ranked third in math and 23rd in English among the city's almost 1,000 elementary schools.

Now, before the start of every school year, more and more black parents arrive at the office of the principal, Ling-Ling Chou, seeking admission for their children to the prekindergarten class — which is based on interviews with prospective students and their parents. They are undeterred by the fact that their children will be among the few non-Asians in the school, or that Mandarin is famously difficult to master. Chinese instruction runs from 3 to 5:30 p.m. daily. All subjects, however, are taught in both languages.

Shuang Wen is housed in a corner space in Public School 134, at East Broadway and Grand Street, and blacks are not the only non-Chinese among its 245 students. But the 23 black students are by far the largest non-Chinese group, outnumbering the 11 whites and 8 Hispanics.

As an alternative school, Shuang Wen admits students from all five boroughs, and many of the black children live an hour or more away. There are no school buses serving them, and parents have to drop off and pick up their children.
All right, the "famously difficult to master" is silly; no language is difficult to a child. But isn't that a nice news item? In this age of ethnocentrism and mutual suspicion, it reminds us that people can still reach across barriers. And something tells me those kids are going to have a leg up on monoglots when they start looking for jobs.

It also reminds me of a story. It seems that Morrie hadn't seen his friend Sol in a long time, so he dropped by Sol's deli. When he went in, he was greeted by a Chinese shop clerk—with "Sholem aleikhem"! The clerk asked what he wanted and told him "Sol's in the back," all in flawless Yiddish. Morrie went through the door to the back room and said "Sol, it's great to see you! But listen, how did you find a Chinese guy who speaks Yiddish?" Sol looked alarmed and said "Shh! He thinks we're teaching him English."

Friday, November 01, 2002

ON REFUSING TO READ YOUR OWN LANGUAGE. While looking for sites to explain to a friend the relationship between Ge'ez and Amharic (this is a good one), I stumbled across one that contained the following bizarre information:
Tigre became a written language at the end of the 19th century, when Swedish missionaries translated the Bible into it using Ge-ez script. The use of Ge-ez script to write Tigre is a barrier to many Muslims, because Ge-ez is the holy language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Tigre Muslims would prefer their language to be written in Arabic script. As a result, in spite of the presence of a Bible, and a government newspaper in Tigre, most Tigre speakers choose not to read in their own language.

Thursday, October 31, 2002

ANDIGHONI. I just got back from a performance [NY Times review here] of Antigone by the National Theater of Greece, and a revelatory experience it was. Not revelatory of Sophocles, who barely survived the transmogrification, but of the impassable gap between ancient theater and the modern world. You may think I should have realized this before now, and I may agree with you, but it took the experience of hearing the play in Modern Greek to bring it home to me. Somehow, when I excitedly reserved my ticket a couple of months ago, I had been thinking of it as parallel to seeing the Sovremennik Theater of Moscow do The Cherry Orchard (which pleasure I had last year). As soon as Antigone came onstage and began to speak, I realized my mistake. In place of Sophocles's somber and unforgettable "O koinon autadelphon Ismenes kara" (OH KOInon AUtaDELphon IZ-MEH-NEHS kaRA), there came the brisk and unmistakably modern "Ismini mou!" This literally means "my Ismene" and is the functional equivalent of simply saying "Ismene!" (in an affectionate sort of way). Now, there's no way to translate Sophocles's line into any modern language and have it sound anything but silly: "O common self-sibling head of Ismene!" (Calling someone "head of X" rather than simply "X" is not uncommon in Greek theater; A.E. Housman incorporated it and many similar tropes into his hilarious Fragment of a Greek Tragedy.) Even interpreting it a bit more generously as "Ismene, my full sister, sharer of my (blood, life, what have you)" it's hard to make it work as an address from one living character to another. But to go the "Hey, Ismene!" route is to lose everything that makes Sophocles Sophocles. It's as if you were to stage Shakespeare in a modern version which turned "O what a rogue and peasant slave am I" into "Damn!" Part of it is the loss of the ancient world, with its blood-pollution, sacrifices, and god-infused thinking; part of it is the loss of poetic theater as a viable genre (comparatively speaking, it's a piece of cake to translate epic successfully). But what I want to stress here is that there's no more point seeing Sophocles done in Modern Greek than in English or Japanese; the connection is purely historical—and if you expect more, you will be disappointed.

Unless, of course, you are Greek, in which case you will not realize there is a difference. One thing that astonishes me about modern Greek culture is its insistence on its alleged continuity with Ancient Greece, and part of that is an absurd belief that Ancient Greek was pronounced the same as the modern language—that Sophocles would, like his many-generations-removed descendents, have pronounced Antigone "Andighóni." I once thought only uneducated people believed this, but then I read an essay by Seferis, one of the most cultured men of the twentieth century, in which he furiously attacked foreigners who pretended that the ancient Greeks used some sort of strange pronunciation, made up out of whole cloth, rather than the authentic speech of the Greeks! I sadly reflected on the ineluctable pigheadedness and vanity of human nature and closed the book with a superior snap.

Addendum: This subject reminds me of the time I was living in New Haven and the Yale classics department put on Euripides' The Bacchae. I had friends in classics, and as a result I wound up playing the god Dionysos, a most enjoyable experience—I made my own thyrsos and everything. As it happened, one of the women in the cast was about to go to Greece to study, had been learning Modern Greek, and didn't want to screw up her Sprachgefühl by using ancient pronunciation, so she insisted on reading her part as if it were Modern Greek (which is the way modern Greeks do it). I, in an amazing feat of linguistic prestidigitation, spoke most of the part the ancient way but used modern pronunciation in my dialog with her. And I thumped my thyrsos thwackingly on the ground. A good time was had by all.

Wednesday, October 30, 2002

HOI POLLOI. In a recent discussion on MetaFilter, someone referred to "the hoi polloi" and someone else (inevitably) said that this was redundant because "hoi means 'the'." This whole thing irritates me so much I can't resist hashing it out here. The basic principle: To speak English correctly, you don't need to know any other languages. Isn't that obvious? The problem with "hoi polloi" used to be that everybody who counted had a classical education and thus had Greek drilled into them so thoroughly that "the hoi" sounded redundant to them; Fowler was so upset by this that (although he was generally sensible on the subject of loan words) he recommended that the phrase be eschewed altogether! These days nobody knows Greek, but thanks to Fowler and his epigones everybody "knows" that "the hoi polloi" is wrong, so the anathema gets passed down from generation to generation.

All right, let's take it a step farther. "Al" in Arabic means 'the,' so "the Alhambra" is redundant ('the the red') and should be eschewed. Not silly enough for you? How about this: "the Paraguay River" etymologically means 'the river river river'! That's right, para means 'river' and so does guay. The same is true of "the Yenisei River"; Evenki (y)ene means 'big river' and ses means 'river.' We are led to the conclusion that either 1) everyone must learn all other languages before daring to speak their own, or 2) "the hoi polloi" is perfectly good English, being the standard usage ever since it was first borrowed. "Hoi polloi" is treated in English as an unanalyzable compound, and that is as it should be.

Tuesday, October 29, 2002

HOOKS AND CODS. I'm reading Geert Mak's Amsterdam (which has nice detailed maps of the city as it was c. 1300, 1575, 1650, and 1980—there's nothing I like better than a good historical city map), and I ran across the following passage (on p. 78):
For a good deal of the fifteenth century the rest of the Low Countries was plagued by a curious civil war, or rather a war between rival nobles and their adherents, the so-called "Hook and Cod Wars". Amsterdam tried—successfully, as it turned out—not to get involved in this dispute by simply forbidding its citizens to talk about it. By an order of 26 December 1481, it was officially forbidden for anyone to say: "Thou art a hook" or "Thou art a cod".
The war itself is curious enough (those interested in finding out more about it can do so here; you can either scroll down to 1349 or do a Find search on "cods"), but the fact that Amsterdam stayed out of it by forbidding people to talk about it is quite amazing. You won't find a bigger believer in free speech than languagehat, but... it gives to think, as the ponderously facetious used to say.
PUTA QUE O PARIU! A wonderful translation of bland American English executive-speak into more... colorful Brazilian Portuguese (courtesy, of course, of Merm).
READ NOT OK. The recent obituaries for Allen Walker Read focused on his claims for the etymology of "O.K." as an acronym for "Old Kinderhook"; he promoted these claims so assiduously that they have made their way into most dictionaries. But an article by Jim Fay conclusively (in my view) demolishes that etymology, proposing to return to the formerly accepted derivation from Choctaw oke(h), hoke(h). While Fay presses his evidence a bit ("...people of the 1800's who were interested in the frontier undoubtedly knew of "Yak oke" as a very simple, useful and expressive phrase.  The fact that they seldom, if ever, wrote the expression or used it in formal discourse does not mean they did not use it"), he is convincing enough that I have corrected my dictionary accordingly. I have also lost some respect for Read, who seems to have acted in an overbearing way without much regard for truth in this matter. [Via a MetaFilter comment (his first!) by TreeHugger, who has a blog rapid motion; thanks, Jordan!]

Sunday, October 27, 2002

MYSTERY! Avva has discovered a request for assistance at the website of the University of Otago (N.Z.) library: they have a number of items they haven't been able to identify, and have put images on the internet in hopes that others could do better. Of the sixteen items, ten are listed as having been solved (and the solutions are given); the remainder (numbers 7, 8, 10, 11, 12, and 16) are still awaiting identification. It's not as much fun as it could have been, since the scripts are known (Perso-Arabic, Armenian, Ethiopic, Byzantine Greek)—I had my Languages Identification Guide poised and ready to seek out obscure Southeast Asian alphabets or Native American syllabaries—but anyone who knows Urdu, Arabic, Amharic/Ge'ez, Byzantine Greek, or (perhaps) Coptic should see if they can decipher one or more of them; Otago's Special Collections Cataloger, Margaret Tripp (her e-mail is at the site), will be eternally grateful to hear from you! (The Armenian page, #10, has already been deciphered by one of Avva's readers, dodo, and the translation, more or less 'items of Christian spiritual wisdom for each day of the year,' has been sent on to Ms. Tripp.)