More thoughts on translation

I think translators need an oath, like doctors have the Hippocratic. Here’s my draft:

I undertake this craft understanding that I cannot succeed. No translation will ever convey more than a faint hint of the original.

I vow that first I will do no harm: I will not intentionally misrepresent my author.

I vow that I will not attempt to make my author more familiar or comfortable to my contemporaries. This is a lemma of the vow above.

I promise to be as literal as I possibly can.

I promise to be as plain-spoken as I possibly can in the language I’m translating into. Subject to the following clause:

I promise to observe the register. When my author is hieratic, I promise not to be demotic.

I vow, on pain of eternal torment, and the worm that dieth not, and the inextinguishable fire, to make no contemporary reference.

Recognizing that a precious old text has been entrusted to my unworthy hands; recognizing that all translation is vandalism; recognizing that the whole project is bullshit; I nevertheless take it on, in fear and trembling.

And let the congregation say Amen.

Translation, a perennial perplex

I’ve been reading through the Coverdale translation of the Psalms, and it’s actually very good. Modernists pooh-pooh it, largely because, being essentially illiterate, they don’t have any grasp of 16th-century English, so it all sounds very quaint and gadzookish to their large fair donkey ears.

One of the things I like about Coverdale is that he doesn’t try to cover-up the difficulties of translation; he plods through, rendering each Hebrew word as best he can. So it feels in some ways like a pony — one of those interlinear translations that schoolboys depend on. And yet at the same time it captures the earnest plain-spoken urgency of the original, and its impetuous rhythm.

No translation is ever satisfactory — this goes without saying — but a translation that familiarizes is a bigger liar than a translation that doesn’t. These are weird old texts and anything that diminishes their weirdness is falsification.

Ethnicity, a bogus concept

Demographic descriptions of the Ukraine seem to employ some rather odd categories.

The category of Ukrainian speakers as distinct from Russian speakers is at least clear in principle — though I bet there’s a lot of dialect smear, as there is with the Romance dialects; travel south from Paris and every town sounds closer to Catalan.

But the thing that really seems problematic is the “ethnic” category: supposedly there are people who are ethnically Russian and others who are ethnically Ukrainian, and there are Ukrainians who speak Russian and Russians who speak Ukrainian…

This all seems like a desperate muddle. If you had a good ear for dialects you could probably tell whose speech was closer to (normative) Russian and whose closer to (normative) Ukrainian, but how on earth, in a place like this, can you tell who’s “ethnically” Russian and who Ukrainian? Facial features? DNA? I doubt it; people have been moving around and mixing it up in this part of the world for a long time. So I can only assume it’s self-reporting.

Which is to say that people have a fancied ethnicity in their heads and continue to reproduce it on the ideological plane. I’m becoming increasingly convinced that “ethnicity” is a useless concept, except in very specific contexts. For example, in the US, there were people who were “ethnically” Irish or Italian, simply because they were the children or grandchildren of people who recently arrived from Ireland or Italy. After a few generations, though, this becomes pretty insignificant; and it always was a purely social category.

On the map above, one thing missing is the Orthodox/Catholic distinction. But of course including that would have required more colors than humans can see.

A candid commencement address. For once

Here’s my advice, young folks – let’s cut the shit –
Have all the sex you can, and lavish it 
On anybody handy: Woman, man, 
Or beast, or hand: have all the sex you can. 
I peer above my lectern, back you stare: 
Lithe bodies in your hundreds, glossy hair
And lots of it; even your awful gown
And cap, still worse, can’t keep my boner down. 

I hope you’ve spent your four years well, got laid
Five times a day. Your debts won’t be repaid, 
But you’ll have this: 
	
	“Oh, Thunder Thighs, that chick, 
You know, from Great Neck: Put the thic in thicc. 
I lost a week between her legs, and still
Count it well lost from Rousseau’s General Will
In that week’s Great Book. Weirdly, though, the phrase
Always brings her to mind. Those seven days
Anyone would have willed who was alive;
Never a muff more dive-able to dive.”

But now you’ll have a job. I say again:
Bet against grave, and grave will always win: 
Work less, fuck more. I can’t stress this too strongly:
This is your time: young, horny, cute, and wrongly
Attracted, now and then, but take the plunge; 
The grope, the clumsy kiss, the fumbling lunge
Into the knickers. 
	No, of course we know, is no;
Don’t persevere. Back to the draw you go
And better luck. You’ll find someone more willing,
And here’s my wish for you: Be it as thrilling 
As in your dreams or fancies. When it’s good
It’s very good indeed, and sure, it should
Always be good, but won’t. Get used to that. 

Ah. I see the policeman with his hat -- 
High-peaked, hard-brimmed – approaches to restore
Decent hypocrisy. I’ll say no more. 
It’s true I had a tot or two before. 
Orating Under th’Influence, or OUI: 
It’s certainly the proper charge for me. 

So fair cop, copper, and I won’t resist. 
Take me stout constable, and don’t desist
From your corrections. Quite a splendid truncheon
Hangs from your…  belt. And after: how ‘bout luncheon? 

All Hallows eve

So it’s pretty much the eve of Samhain; in the Christian calendar, All Saints Day, when we luxuriate in our great cloud of witnesses.

On this day I’ll always remember my great teacher Eric Hamp, who was supposed to be teaching us the grammar of Old Irish but in his endearing way would often go off on a tangent. The evening I’m thinking of was, let me think, about fifty years ago now; a drab classroom in dreary darkling Chicago, in the evening, as the snow had begun to fall.

We got off the track of infixed pronouns and onto the occasion, and Eric, in his casual way — this stuff was all very present to his imagination — talked to us a bit about the Celts, a people who had come to inhabit a formerly long-inhabited landscape, with rugged old tombs still standing, the relicts of a people of whom they, and we, know basically nothing. At these corners of the year the spirits of the dead were not to be neglected. It’s grown dark outside the classroom windows, and the snow is falling. I trudged slowly home afterwards a very much changed young man.

Night thoughts

You never know when the summons will come. When you’re young, you think it’s a long way away; as you grow older, you realize it might be any minute. Not just because you’re old and your infirmities multiply, but also because you become aware, over time, as young people usually aren’t, of all the contingencies: the fall, the bit of gristle lodged in the throat, beyond the reach of Dr Heimlich and his manoeuvres; the lurking blood clot, the heedless jerk in the SUV. You’ve seen it too often; one is taken and another is spared, and who knows why. You may have had a close call or two yourself, and realized how narrow was your escape.

You don’t want to become afraid and huddle, so you continue to take some risks – to go out alone in the sailboat, to scramble up the exposed rock face. But you’re not as blithe as you used to be. You know disaster hovers just over your shoulder, and any day now, disaster, having toyed with you for seven decades, will tire of waiting and decide to seize his long-deferred – and really, his rightful – prey. For you too have toyed with him.

You won’t see it coming, probably. You might have a few seconds. Enough time for a perfect Act Of Contrition? Probably not; rather, you will be hurled into the beyond screaming Oh fuck fuck fuck. One can only throw oneself on the mercy of the court, sodden and seaweedy or tumbled, bloodied, broken and shapeless, and apologize, stammeringly, for one’s ill-chosen language. I for one am not worried about that part. That Court, I suspect, is too august to be vindictive. But I’m worried about those bad few seconds.

And come they will. So before it happens one would like to make a few gestures; to tell the kids what a joy they always were – mostly; to acknowledge the saintly forbearance of lovers and spouses, and apologize sincerely for all one’s assholery. To thank whoever arranged it for one’s having seen the stars and breathed the air; to have watched the Moon come up over the open sea during a night passage through the Gulf of Maine. For that whale who came to visit the next morning, and eyed me with his big wise eye. For J S Bach and G F Handel. So much; it all crowds to mind. To put on record, in short, how amazingly lucky one has been, even with all the discontents and sorrows and regrets that dog every human track through the chances and changes of life.

Say it now, I’m thinking; because when the time comes there may not be time. So I’m saying it now.

Collected verse again

Hate speech, they say, is bad. I disagree.
Things there are that deserve our hate: We see
And seeing clearly, hate, and ought to do;
Hate is the red-haired twin of Love, left shoe
To Love’s right. We need both to walk, and limp
With lack of either. Hating Hate, we gimp
Pathetic monopods, seeking what can’t be found,
A bound without two sides, a thing that’s round
Without diameter; curve without line;
Knife without fork; and fork without a tine.

There’s lots of stuff I hate. Take Israel ––
Please, as good Henny said. Never so fell
A statelet ever was; its cadre crazed.
This observation got me banned, amazed
To find that something obvious was contested.
I should be grateful not to be arrested.
But here’s to Hate, and speaking it; sincerity
Is overrated, but it’s kin to verity;
The truth can hurt, and sometimes sounds like hate;
But always better sooner than too late.

Versifying again. I know, stop me

Amid the sadly mortal, something springs
Afresh and unexpected. Spreads her wings
Unlooked, un-hoped for. Fledged in shady nest
Takes sudden flight, now east, now sharply west —
Sees the declining Sun, perhaps, and seeks
To follow. Ah, poor bird, no birdly beaks
Can peck that nut apart; where Sun doth fall
Can follow none, except as follow all,
And none return. Yet fly on, pretty thing;
And hope on; hear thou not the ding-a-ling
Of Hell’s much told-of bells; for thee
As yet they ring not. Not the case for me.

Strychnine or cyanide?



A recent exchange got me to thinking – always a bad idea, I know; but I can’t seem to help it.

I opened the bidding by saying mean things about that horrible old money-machine, the Southern Poverty Law Center, an adjunct of the Democratic Party which has always lined its own pockets by getting elderly but well-heeled liberals worried about the Ku Klux Klan. (It might usefully be noted that of the SPLC’s almost 1,000 listed “hate groups”, about a quarter are characterized as “black nationalist”. Nothing like even-handedness to rejoice the liberal heart!)

A friend promptly replied: Okay, which is worse, the SPLC or the Nazis?

Like many questions, this one carries with it a number of unstated and perhaps unexamined presuppositions: for example, the notion that “better” and “worse” have some meaning in a context like this – that one can assign the Nazis and the hate-patrol scammers each a scalar badness score and then compare them. (Which is worse, strychnine or cyanide?)

Then there’s the assumption that this score somehow matters – that it’s important to determine which is “worse”. Underlying this latter idea, I think, is the conviction that in some sense one must choose between them – that bad or good, they are on different “sides”, and that one side or the other must be taken. That’s why the determination of worseness must be made.

None of this really holds water. Say arguendo that the SPLC and its Democratic Party constituency are on one side, and oh, say, the Proud Boys on the other. Where is it written that one must embrace either of these unlovely social formations? Is one not in fact entirely at liberty to wish a plague on both insalubrious houses?

This exchange took place in the context of the current pillorying of Glenn Greenwald. Back when Greenwald was still practicing law, some years ago now, he undertook, on First Amendment grounds, the pro-bono defense of some unsavory groups attacked by the SPLC and other SLAPP suit entrepreneurs. Greenwald’s stance at the time was that lawfare, on the SPLC model, is an abuse of the courts – an attempt to do politics by lawsuit; bankrupt the enemy by making him fee lawyers. I don’t share his respect for the courts or the law, personally, but I think he’s right on the essence of the matter: politics belongs in the street, not in the courts, and the winner should not be the guy with the most lawyers.

The history here is that Greenwald recently got on the liberal shit-list by calling attention to the Biden family’s manifestly corrupt links to the Ukraine, and doing it right before the election. Clearly, they concluded, Greenwald has joined the Other Team. So his past pro-bono work was dredged up as evidence for his Trumpite or perhaps even Nazi sympathies. If he was wrong to do that work – and for the libs, it goes without saying that he was – then the SPLC was right, or at least “better than the Nazis”.

Now my friend, I say more in sorrow than anger, was a Biden supporter, and I suspect that his somewhat sophomoric trick question constituted an attempt to put me alongside Greenwald in the penalty box: a guy who clearly thinks that Nazis are “better” than the SPLC.

The more general moral of this story is perhaps that talk about who’s “better” and “worse”, which is the lesser evil and which the greater, is often manipulative; it seeks to box us into choices and determinations which we are in fact under no obligation to make, and which cloud our thinking more often than clarify it.

And it might be added that the trick-questioner is often coming from the Sitz im Leben of Aesop’s tailless fox; he has lost his own independence in the trap of team spirit, and would like to see the rest of us similarly docked.