Bringhurst on Translation

I just read Robert Bringhurst’s “The Polyhistorical Mind” lecture, which is the first chapter in his 2006 book The Tree of Meaning: Language, Mind and Ecology, and was struck by this observation: “Few people earn a degree in European Studies or Asian Studies without acquiring some rudimentary knowledge of a European or Asian language. Students of African Studies are also routinely expected to learn an African language. But how many universities ask even their doctoral students in American Studies or in Canadian Studies [Bringhurst is Canadian–RSV] to learn an indigenous North American language? Not one.” Reading this in 2020, I am pretty sure he is still correct.

The essay has a number of moments like this, with direct, clear observations that amount to institutional interventions, and is unusual and refreshing from this standpoint. For instance, while he lauds the practice of including writers with Native American ancestry in the curriculum, he also notes, “When we teach Greek literature, we do not limit the offerings to novels conveniently written in English by Greeks.”

As he delves into why such things matter, moreover, he touches on the declining number of living languages in the world and the resulting impoverishment for what he calls the “intellectual biomass” of the earth, especially in its “word hoard and grammar hoard and story hoard.” I am with him throughout this section, but then, just as he is describing the accumulation of wisdom in the stories of the earth, his thought takes a strange turn in this paragraph:

Translation, of course, is a hurdle. But it can be crossed, unlike the painted wall of paraphrase or the blank wall of silence and denial. The labor and pleasure of crossing it should be shared, I think, as widely as possible. But it shouldn’t be thrust on the storytellers themselves.

(Bringhurst, p. 31)

I suppose I can agree with a lot of this, but the point of departure, namely, the “hurdle” of translation, strikes me as too easily leaped over in this cursory manner. And while there is a tiny gesture towards something that might actually not be a hurdle in the process, namely, the “pleasure of crossing it” (which also goes by extremely fast), the overall sense and mood here is of a labor that needs to be shared in order to be manageable.

The paragraph feels almost like an afterthought or perhaps a response to a question, anticipated or real, for just after this, we are back to the organic nature of the story within the language and the moment in which it is told:

Mythtellers tell their stories to those who are listening. They also tell their stories to themselves. That is hard to do in a foreign language. When you ask a mythteller to tell you a story in your language rather than hers, the mythteller must talk only to you, not to herself. And then something is missing.

Ibid.

I certainly see that this carries on the “sharing of the labor” idea from the previous paragraph, but it is still all negatively coded. I cannot help but think that by hurdling across the necessity of translation — rather than, what, wading into it to rest in its midst and contemplate things from that perspective, mid-hurdle, as it were — we miss so much that we might learn, not just about the stories themselves, the storytellers, and the cultures from which they hail, but also about ourselves and our relationships with one another.

Teaching Russian Culture

I’ve taught a version of Introduction to Russian Culture many times over the past several decades. I learned the basic material from Michael Flier at UCLA, then adapted quite a bit over the years, using music, religion, language, literature, geography, architecture, art, and a lot of history. The history has always seemed essential since many of the students who take the class (often to fulfill a requirement) don’t know much beyond the current headlines and a few key events.

So I’ve tended to start the first few weeks of class with an overview and a single volume history that goes pretty much from the origins of recorded history to the present. Generally, in such a book there are two hundred pages or so devoted to the time from about the 9th century to about the beginning of the 20th century, then another two hundred pages or so from the 20th century to the present. But we’ve generally had a second class that covers more contemporary material, more or less from World War II to the present, which means we really only need the first two hundred or so pages of the book. I have gone back and forth over the years between having students read the whole thing, even though we won’t really do much beyond WWII in this particular class, or reading only up to the point where we’re going to be digging in. I’m still not sure which is better.

I thought of this today when a friend sent me a funny meme with a painting of Jesus just after his birth, being held by one of the wise men, and in the background is a tiny crucifix hanging on a wall in the nearby stables. In the meme, someone has circled the crucifix with a marker and written “spoiler alert!”

It is a funny meme, but it also made me think of teaching the simultaneity of icon time in this class, where a figure like Mary might appear in a characteristic pose, her hands outstretched, her palms facing forward (which art historians call the “Virgin orans”) and then, pictured in her midsection, almost as if inside her womb, is Jesus. But Jesus is not shown as a baby typically. Instead, he is often shown as a young man, fully robed, one hand extended.

I once asked a specialist at the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg about this, and she suggested I try not to look at such depictions through a secular perspective. The things depicted might look like they should happen at different times (being inside or outside of a womb, for instance, or being an adult or a child), but that is only from a human perspective. The world depicted does not have time like that. Everything in the world of the icon is, in effect, simultaneous. This is the time perspective of the icon. This kind of challenge to our usual ways of thinking and interacting with the world is also one of the reasons why I love teaching this material to students.

Meaner Than That

It’s nice to see the hundreds of listens to Ba Ren Chi compositions on Jamendo since I released Cool 7 earlier this month. I was a little surprised to notice the piece “Meaner Than That” move up slowly as people sampled different ones. Not displeased (I personally like all of them), just surprised. One listener, LebKamp Radio RNB, even added it to a playlist (I need to figure out why this one sounds a lot quieter than most of the others on LebKam Radio RNB’s playlist–if anyone knows, please send word!).

Still, I couldn’t keep my hands off it and felt there was something of a missed opportunity in the B section, which was feeling a bit like it ended too abruptly. So I made a longer version. The A section is the same as before, but for B I added punchier accents in the brass and percussion, beefed up the counter melody that emerges in brass section No. 2 towards the end, and opened up the middle for more drums. The end is bigger, too. Here it is as an “extended version,” released yesterday as a “single” on Jamendo, a nice feature I will probably make use of as I develop album No. 2.

Ba Ren Chi

I just released an album on Jamendo: Cool 7.

The seven pieces were written over a dozen years or so, newly edited and optimized, all instrumentals. They are Rok Ni Yon, Tango Sorpresa, Para Margarida, Meaner Than That, ZAPP, Cool 6, and Lalo Si.

Jazz-ish, which means some fusion, some R&B, some latin, some rock. I seem to like writing for flute, vibraphone, acoustic bass, percussion, guitar. I prefer the sound and feel of real instruments, even if I can’t be in the same room with people now.

Every day’s a gift. Sharing.

Balancing Memoir with the Rest

I’m finding that balancing the various aspects that I have set myself the task of writing can be one of the most interesting and fulfilling aspects of Sea of Intimacy. Memoir and travel can push things along but also become somewhat less substantial, while the more research-focused aspects of the book, such as cultural history and ecology, can get bogged down in details. I’m also keeping an eye on how to be consistent, not in a doctrinaire or predictable manner, but at least so that the book does not end up having strange bulges of content or style.

Here is an example from the start of what I believe is chapter three.

Like the disputed headwaters of the Danube, claimed by different isolated villages in the Swiss and Austrian Alps, the sources of the American branch of the Valentino clan are historically murky and of dubious authenticity. One spokesperson, an elder member of the Brunetti family, Vittorio by name, whose mother Giovanna was a Valentini from the original home village of Mola di Bari in the modern province of Puglia, Italy, once told me the story of an infant boy, Pietro, who died after an altercation between the eldest Valentini son and his step-father Vito-Nicola. A carriage, a whip brandished, a baby thrown or dropped after the startled horse bolted—all fine high-drama details sworn to by Vittorio, but uncorroborated by the historical record.

I have a half-dozen photographs from the time in question. On my first trip to the region, decades before I knew I would one day be writing this account, a cousin took me to a photography studio where I saw a number of postcards created at the turn of the twentieth century. Today I wonder who would have purchased such cards then and for what purpose—this out of the way village was not on any tourist itinerary at the time and was rather a point of egress than one of arrival—but I saw them as the epitome of local atmosphere and asked whether the proprietor could enlarge them for me. He could, he maintained, but the price would be steep. An avid tennis player and coach, he would require tennis balls, lots of them, in exchange. The balls were cheaper in America. We came to an agreement. I shipped the balls. He sent me the enlarged prints, three of which now hang on the wall of my study. Each is presented as if inspired by an old veduta, where the angle of perception and what it takes in is paramount.

And so from the spiaggia orientale, or eastern beach, we spy the central portion of town essentially from the south-east—the rocky coastline slips not just southward but also eastward here, dropping quickly into depths that the northern portions of the Adriatic can only envy. One picture shows a half-dozen men in baggy white shirts, long dark pants, and the wool caps that have been worn in the region since Ancient times and would become fashionable as the beret of the twentieth century. They are situated on and about their twenty-foot boats, which have been beached in what appears to be sand. The boats have no apparent rigging, only large oars that, judging by their size, it would take two men each to maneuver. Everyone appears to be busy with something. One stands off to the side, repairing a net, another crouches by the water, his back to the camera. A few look suspiciously in its direction. Behind them, the port is visible to the right, the Castello Angioino in the medieval heart of town to the far left. Built in the late thirteenth century according to a design by French architect Pierre d’Agincourt for Charles I of Anjou shortly after he had added “King of Albania” to his many titles, the castle has always struck me as strangely out of place in this sleepy setting. One of its central remaining exterior walls slopes menacingly towards the sea in two directions, while the spit of land between its sharp northern corner and the water’s edge feels narrow and constricting. Its front gate faces Dubrovnik across the way.

The second, labeled “Porto,” shows a group of boys, twice as many as there were sailors in the previous view, clambering every which way across four tied-up vessels and up on the pavement. They appear to be working the oars, pretending to throw nets (obviously put away for safe keeping). They are of various ages, five to twelve, as far as I can tell. Some are shoeless, naked to the waist, thoroughly brown even in black-and-white, and wearing shorts—which probably accounts for their looking like hooligans—while others are dressed in long-sleeved button-down white shirts and dark slacks. By contrast to their elders, none wears a hat. Two are foregrounded, both shirtless and shoeless, one sitting cross-legged, his arms rapped loosely around his bony knees, the finger and thumb of his right hand, secured around his left wrist, the other lying sideways on an overturned rowboat. Both are looking straight at the camera. I wonder if there might be some socio-economic distinctions to explore here, but I don’t know enough to delve in. I wonder too whether one of the boys photographed might not have become someone I would one day know, with a cocked fedora and pleated slacks that fell just so. This too is impossible to say for certain.

The landing in New York is the stuff of family legend, but firmer somehow, as appropriate for landings, and there is a paper trail, some of it now digitized. We know that then Giovanni Valentini, later John Valentino, arrived at Ellis Island for the first time in April of 1920, one of three Giovanni Valentinis recorded to have arrived in that year. One of these was forty-six years old, another nine, and the third eighteen. The eighteen-year-old was our guy. That his name had not yet been changed is clear from the available documents: Giovanni Valentini he was and Giovanni Valentini he would remain until sometime between then and 1925, when he applied to become an American citizen as John Valentino. The stories about the Ellis Island officials making a mistake are not borne out by the record. He was the one who changed his name, though why is not clear. His first son, christened Pietro, later popularly referred to as Pete, often wondered about the life Giovanni had left behind him in the old country, speculating—to the consternation of his two sisters—that Giovanni might have been running from something, the law maybe, or a local woman. Or a local woman with a baby. Or the policeman father of a local woman with a baby. Giovanni never let on.

From here I can slice a bit through the region’s rich history of mixings and crossings, reflect on the family nickname of skavatil (which I once thought was related to the word schiave (slave), whose connection to the words Slav and ciao I explore in Chapter Two, and once again closely observe what happens when my Asian partner and I appear together in this quiet provincial town, all while keeping the general emphasis on the virtue of mixture (see earlier post on “bastards”).

Family Humor

I’m proofing Kin, which has been slow going I’ll post separately about that and am finding myself laughing at many things that before I didn’t notice or don’t remember noticing as funny. Jergović’s humor is almost always rather dark, and I recall someone noting how frequently he found himself laughing while reading another of his books. At that point, I wondered if I was translating the same author or, a more scary thought for a translator, if I had missed something in my reading. But reading it all together has reassured me.

Below is an example, which uses the rather normal expression spavati kao zaklan, and then goes to town with it. Normally, the expression would just be rendered as “sleep like a log” or something similar in English, but here there’s quite a bit more. The scene unfolds as a Turkish caravan with a couple of Venetians and a Parisien are passing through Zagreb in the mid-nineteenth century on their way to Ottoman Sarajevo.

Ganimed slept like a slaughtered man, in a deep, rich feather bed prepared just for him. The rest, including Botta and Sarchione, slept on ordinary army straw, but for him, as a special guest, the feather bed had been prepared that was kept, cleaned, and aired out in case one day, God willing, some Viennese prince or Pest count might stop at Blind Marica’s. As it had been decades since any prince had been to Zagreb, let alone to their inn, they made use of the occasion to offer the feather bed to a guest worthy of such attention. And Ganimed appeared to be just such a personage: handsome and slender, with a lofty bearing like some Russian princeling. The truth was that the old woman and her young valet, with a mustache like that of the most refined postman, had not accorded this honor because of Ganimed but more for themselves and the story that they would tell for a long time thereafter, and which they would continue to live off until an actual prince might come, about the youth who was so handsome one could not look away.

He really did sleep “like a slaughtered man.” The valet, who had learned this strange local expression, told him he would sleep precisely so in their bed of goose down. Botta translated his words calmly. Ganimed was shocked, but this served as the inspiration for his self-portrait, surely the best known of Ganimed Troyanovsky’s drawings that have been preserved and about which we should say several words here, for later there will not be time.

The painting Self-Portrait with a Slit Throat was kept in the permanent exhibit of the Art Gallery of Bosnia and Herzegovina until the war. For financial reasons, or as a consequence of the lack of public interest in art, the permanent exhibit was never shown in its entirety again after the war, and the gallery closed for good in 2012. Self-Portrait with a Slit Throat was kept all this time in a gallery storeroom and only displayed on two occasions to the public over the last twenty years. The first time was immediately after the war, in 1996, at the exhibit The Free-hand Sketch – Drawn and Painted Works of Well-Known Architects, which was held in Paris’s Museum of Architecture, and the second was when it was included in a small 2005 display of Ganimed Troyanovsky’s works in the foyer of the Vienna Opera House on the occasion of the building’s construction.

Self-Portrait with a Slit Throat is one of Ganimed’s most elaborate paintings, with a multitude of details amid the five colors of the brush strokes and a slight watercolor overlay. The setting…

There follows a wonderful ekphrasis of this delicate painting…

Music Saving

COVID-19 isolated me, as it did most of us, in ways that we could not have anticipated. I found a variety of ways to not go crazy. One was to rediscover music, not listening so much as making, something I have done off and on for many years since I was a teenager. In the age of non-contact, what I found was notation software, which has come so far it is hard to believe. I started composing again this spring and summer, picking up threads from years, sometimes decades ago and creating completely new ones from scratch. It does not seem to want to stop at this point, but calls constantly. I have to resist in order to get my “work” done.

I’ve put up so far a lucky thirteen pieces at the YouTube channel I created for sharing. The name Ba Ren Chi is something I thought up years ago, the Japanese Romanization, one possible one anyway, for the first three syllables of my last name. It seems apt.

The latest is mean, I mean that’s in the title, Meaner Than That, and the two before were spur-of-the-moment compositional gifts to my mother on her 90th-birthday and my wife on her we won’t say which birthday. Then before that Cool 6, which I find so fun, and then older ones like the zany Zapp, the eclectic Rok Ni Yon, and the sincere September Elegy. And that’s only seven of them.

I am sharing because it’s really all I want to do. Have a listen if you’re at all interested. No pressure to like or become a follower (or whatever the YouTube version of that is). I put little stock in such things. But if anything speaks to you, please drop me a line via comments here. It will make me feel very good.

Kakania in The Massachusetts Review

An excerpt from the fifth part of Kin is in the current (summer 2020) issue of The Massachusetts Review.

Thanks to the editors, especially Corine Tachtaris and Jim Hicks, for their interest and support. It’s a strong issue with plenty of global awareness and representation, including translations by Patty Crane (Tomas Tranströmer), Peter Bush (Juan Vitulli), Tess Lewis (Karl Markus-Gauss), Mirgul Kali (Mukhtar Magauin), Matthew Rinaldi (Maria José Silveira), Patricia Dubrava (Augustín Cadena), Julia Sanches (Soledad Puértolas), and Samantha Kirby (Ornela Vorpsi). There is also an essay on translation by Allison Grimaldi Donahue. Miljenko Jergović’s “Kakania” appears in my translation on p. 233. That’s quite a line-up, and yes, I did just put all the translators’ names first and their authors in parentheses after.

The cover features an intriguing aspect of translation that several of my non-fiction writer and translator colleagues and I have discussed in the past. Jergović is indeed an essayist as well as an author of fiction and poetry. His book Kin, which now has a cover up at the publisher’s website, has been characterized variously as an “epic,” a “saga,” a “family novel,” a “chronicle,” and “historical fiction.”

Partly, this is due to deliberate genre-bending by the author. He likes to write in the in-between spaces and test the boundaries of invention. But it is also due, in my opinion, to a general tendency in the English-language book market to mark the distinction between fiction and non-fiction more rigidly. The book is clearly what the French would call littérature, a category that does not translate well into the English market.

The section from which “Kakania” is drawn bears the wonderfully ambiguous title Inventarna knjiga, which plays with the notions of the inventory (a list of factual items, often in a commercial context) and the invented (the stuff of fiction) all while highlighting that this is a book within a book. What is its genre? This is not just a question about how to classify it, one of the emptiest and least interesting questions in genre criticism. It’s about how to read and understand it, just as one understands a government building by learning to recognize and mentally prepare oneself based on the architectural features it deploys.

Literary magazines tend to use genre markers in their own distinctive ways, narrowing down entire categories into the basic headings of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, drama, and review. (Translation can fit anywhere.) Sometimes editors play around with these categories and encourage crossings and mixings, but the labels are almost always there, and the option of simply presenting everything as littérature is relatively rare.

The most capacious of these, in my experience, tends to be non-fiction, and indeed, “Kakania” slips in here as “essay,” which seems perfectly fitting in terms of its spirit of exploration and experiment, even if it feels much narrower than what Jergović is up to in Kin.

Due out in May 2021.

Man, person, people, or none of the above

While editing a translation recently, I came up against the following challenge. In a passage in which two men are talking about art, one says to the other something to this effect: “The artist must develop his technique to the point that he does not think about it anymore.” The source language in this case is one that has the possessive pronoun agree with the noun (like French), so if the word “technique” were actually the French feminine-gendered noun technique in the source, then the possessive pronoun would be the feminine sa. In effect, the French says “her technique” because technique is a she, even if the person who might have the technique in question is a he. English, by contrast, tends to like its pronouns, wherever they might occur, to agree with the subject of the phrase, and this raises the issue of the changing use of “their” and “theirs” as a gender pronoun preference and a possible way around this sort of gender specificity of English.

If it had been just one instance, it probably would not have been a difficult problem to solve, but this was a piece about art, and there were multiple occasions where a character held forth, beginning with “the artist must” or “the artist should,” and then listed a string of clauses and nouns that often used possessive pronouns. The translator in this case had a preference for using “their” in all these cases, but my old ears and my Chicago Manual of Style were hesitant.

The speaker in all instances was a man, apparently hetero-normative, and he was speaking with another man, also hetero-normative. The author was also a man, and he did not express a preference. In my opinion, he may not have quite seen the subtleties of what we were discussing, so it was the translator and me thinking through this together.

Like my last post on the U-Man’s possible use of “like,” which will surely grate on old ears, especially those who know the book well in previous translations, I wonder about how the possessive pronoun “his,” even in such clear circumstances, might affect people’s reading at an almost unconscious level, especially that of college students who have grown used to the gender-neutral singular they/their/theirs.

My inclination in the end was to very carefully edit the two longer passages where this sort of construction occurs, such that the issue never appears to come up. This involved a few shifts of “the artist” to “artists” and some other very minor changes that I believe only the translator and I will ever notice. This, however, is a recent book that is being offered in English for the first time. Changing something like this in an older one with many translations in print, not to mention in the regular college curriculum, for a text moreover that has seen dozens if not hundreds of scholarly treatments in books and articles, often with minute attention to issues of language based on the existing English translations—well, this is bound to elicit strong opinions.

I believe this concern, namely, how college-age readers might respond to these books when they first read them is behind much of Gary Saul Morson’s objections to the translations of Richard Pevear and Larisa Volokhonskaya, which he expresses quite sharply, calling them “awkward and unsightly muddles” among other things, in his 2010 “The Pevearsion of Russian Literature.”

It might appear ironic, but it is for a similar reason, namely, this interaction with readers at a key stage in their reading life, that I am tempted by a translation strategy that reduces the gender dichotomies of the U-man’s speech, enabling readings, especially readings aloud of the performative sort that I have suggested this text affords, that are broader, more inclusive, and in the end, more engaging for students encountering the text today.

This sort of specificity announces itself from the beginning, and as far back as two years ago when I posted the first in this series of reflections on translating Notes from Underground, I have wondered about it. What would it be like to edit along the lines of what I did for the book I mentioned above about the artist? What if the opening lines of this Notes from Underground were not, “I am a sick man… I am an angry man. I am an unattractive man,” (each phrase of which interprets chelovek as “man,” though it could also be person all three times) but something more like this:

“I’m malevolent…. I’m bad. I am not an attractive person.”

Now before we pronounce this collectively as awful, or anything at all for that matter, I ask you to read it aloud, with pauses in between each phrase as appropriate for an opening monologue. The first phrase is an announcement. The dots are there because he’s trying to shock and is waiting for it to sink in. The second one is taunting: baaaad. The third is insinuating, as if “an attractive person” were in quotes—put your fingers up in the air and say it with a Trump voice.

I’m going through my version now, version two, with this principle in mind.

It’s, like, the ripest old age

The relative frequency of the word даже is something translators from Russian to English figure out at some point, and Dostoevsky’s palaverers present a classic case. Gogol’s are right up there as well, and I seem to recall that one of the most astute passages of Eikhenbaum’s “How Gogol’s Overcoat is Made” delves into the repetition of the word for comic effect. Dostoevsky’s usage strikes me as less funny or deliberate and often seems more of a tick than a device. One of the best ways to deal with it is to drop the “even” from the English. The same, it seems to me, is true of the word ведь. Here again, “even” is a possibility, but the connection is (even) more tenuous, and the word might in fact be more like an oral speech marker sometimes, indicating in effect that someone is speaking aloud, or pretending to, a little like someone might say, “you know” or “right” in English speech.

These variations occur to me as I look at this line: “Мне теперь сорок лет, а ведь сорок лет—это вся жизнь; ведь это самая глубокая старость.” To get at it requires a little more context obviously. The paragraph is where the U-man introduces the idea of the modern (19th-century) person’s—which means in this case his own—inability to become (another great construction: сделаться + instrumental) anything definite. Intelligent people can’t become, only fools can. This is his forty-year old conviction, and then we get the line in question.

The fact that this is a verbal performance has often been noted. In this it reminds me a lot of Nabokov’s Lolita, a performance that conjures a persona powerfully and with lasting effect. The basic characteristics of this voice have been generalized over time through the many fine translations that exist and are regularly read and taught. A translation today is not likely to change its basic contours, its dripping irony, biting, embittered tonal variations, self-congratulation, anger, indignation, and invective. Whether he “really” feels any of this is another question, which means I should add self-conscious to the list of its attributes. Indeed, who would want to change such a fantastic creation?

But I wonder about this dramatic quality in today’s English and whether he should continue to sound like a 19th-century functionary. And so I wonder about the use of a word like “like.” This is not my idiom. I have probably avoided it actively ever since living in southern California, where it was a powerful evocation of the Valley Girl persona. But since then it has become accepted and now appears (even) among groups who have never heard a Valley Girl speak.

Could a word like this work for the U-man?

The line in question could then be something like this: “This is my forty-year-old conviction. I’m forty now, and forty is, like, a whole life. It’s, like, the ripest old age.”

And the slightly longer passage, using the same principle, would be something like this:

This is my forty-year-old conviction. I’m forty now, and forty is, like, a whole life. It’s, like, the ripest old age. Living more than forty years is improper, disgusting, immoral! Who lives beyond forty? Answer me truthfully. Be honest. I’ll tell you who: bastards and fools.