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Between your two wings is where the journey occurs.

Eduardo Galeano

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Wednesday, March 31st, 2010

Born on the Wind

My copy of Propellor Time was in the mail today! Oh boy oh boy... Here's our man playing his harmonica in the back of a black cab:

posted evening of March 31st, 2010: 2 responses
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Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

Translations: a statement of purpose

I've been posting here and there lately (and for the past 7 years!) under the label Translation, without ever really defining very clearly what I am trying to do with that. So here is a little gesturing in that direction.

I really enjoy reading books in languages that I'm not fluent in -- not sure exactly what it is, but somehow the neural pathways that light up when I read a page of German or Spanish*, repeat the words under my breath, and transform them internally into words and concepts I understand, are pleasurable ones. And I frequently admire translations that I read, the best ones and the lesser as well, and enjoy picking them apart and seeing where and why they diverge from the original. So translation seemed like a pretty natural thing for me to try my hand at.

I'm certainly not going for any kind of authorative version in my translations -- sometimes I spend some time on refining them and getting them to sound good, other times I try and leave them raw; but generally what I'm trying to do is to get across my experience of reading the text -- this is after all a blog about reading -- and to intensify the act of reading. I remember seeing somewhere a statement that translation is a form of reading, and liking it.

I've been emboldened lately by Andrew Hurley's statement, in his Note on the Translation of Borges' Collected Fictions, that there is no such thing as a definitive translation of a text -- I'm familiar with this sentiment but it moved me to see it voiced by Hurley, whose translations seem to me some of the best I've ever read. Hurley cites Borges' "Versions of Homer" and "The Translators of the 1001 Nights" -- "The very idea of the (definitive) translation is misguided, Borges tells us; there are only drafts, approximations."

* (And I ought to start learning another language to be not-fluent in...)

posted evening of March 30th, 2010: 5 responses
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Sunday, March 28th, 2010


Años depsués, Taylor visitó las cárceles de ese reino; en la de Nithur el gobernador le mostró una celda, en cuyo piso, en cuyos muros, y en cuya bóveda un faquir musulmán había diseñado (en bárbaros colores que el tiempo, antes de borrar, afinaba) una especie de tigre infinito. Ese tigre estaba hecho de muchos tigres, de vertiginosa manera; lo atravesaban tigres, estaba rayado de tigres, incluía mares e Himalayas y ejércitos que parecían otros tigres. El pintor había muerto hace muchos años, en esa misma celda; venía de Sind o acaso de Guzerat y su propósito inicial había sido trazar un mapamundi.Years later, Taylor visited the prisons of this district; in the one at Nithur, the governor showed him a cell on whose walls, on whose floor, on whose vault a Muslim fakir had laid out (in barbarous colours which time, not yet ready to wipe them clean, was refining) a sort of infinite tiger. This tiger, this vertiginous tiger, was composed of many tigers; tigers ran across it and radiated outward from it; it contained seas and Himalayas and armies which appeared as other tigers. The painter had died many years before, in this same cell; he came from Sindh or perhaps from Gujarat, and his initial intention had been to draw a map of the world.

"The Zahir"

Más de una vez grité a la bóveda que era imposible descifrar aquel testo. Gradualmente, el enigma concreto que me atareaba me inquietó menos que el enigma genérico de una sentencia escrita por un dios. ¿Qué tipo de sentencia (me pregunté) construirá una mente absoluta? Consideré que aun en los lenguajes humanos no hay proposición que no implique el universo entero; decir el tigre es decir los tigres que lo engendraron, los ciervos y tortugas que devoró, el pasto de que se alimentaron los ciervos, la tierra que fue madre del pasto, el cielo que dio luz a la tierra. Consideré que en el lenguaje de un dios toda palabra enunciaría esa infinita concatenación de los hechos, y no de un modo implícito, sino explícito, y no de un modo progresivo, sino inmediato. Con el tiempo, la noción de una sentencia divina parecióme pueril o blasfematoria. Un dios, reflexioné, sólo debe decir una palabra, y en esa palabra la plenitud. Ninguna voz articulada por él puede ser inferior al universo o menos que la suma del tiempo. More than once, I screamed at the vaulted ceiling that it would be impossible to decipher this testament. Gradually, the immediate riddle confronting me came to trouble me less than the general riddle: a sentence written by a god. What sort of sentence (I asked) would an absolute consciousness construct? I reflected: even in the languages of humanity there is no proposition which does not imply the entire universe; to speak of the tiger is to speak of the tigers which begot it, the deer and turtles which it ate, the pasture on which the deer nourished themselves, the earth which was mother of the pasture, the heavens which gave forth light onto the earth. I reflected: in the language of a god, every word must bespeak this infinite concatenation of things, not by implication, but explicitly; not in a progressive manner, but in the instant. With time, the notion of a divine sentence came to appear puerile, blasphemous. A god, I reasoned, would only be able to say a single word, and in this word would be everything. No voice, no articulation of his could be inferior to the universe, could be less than the sum of all time.

"The God's Scripture"*

The twenty-centavo piece which falls into Borges' palm and destroys him in "The Zahir," is the same entity which Tzinacán labors mightily to comprehend (and which destroys him) in "The God's Scripture." (Notice Borges says at the beginning of his tale, "I am not the man I was then, but I am still able to recall, and perhaps recount, what happened. I am still, albeit only partially, Borges" -- Tzinacán closes his story saying, "I know I shall never speak those words, because I no longer remember Tzinacán.")

What I remembered about "The Zahir" before I reread it today, was the broad arching theme of it, the object which is a manifestation of God, which cannot be forgotten, which drives people mad; I had totally forgotten what a great story it is, the characters, the local flavor of Buenos Aires.

* Update -- Thinking further, I would rather translate this story's title -- "La escritura del dios", which Hurley renders literally as "The Writing of the God" -- simply as "Scripture".

posted evening of March 28th, 2010: Respond
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Playing our book...

John came over for a little while this afternoon; we started playing and with practically no warm-up time we were sounding really good -- earlier today I had been listening to Justin Townes Earle's version of If the River Was Whiskey -- it is very different from any other version I've heard, and easier to imagine myself singing -- so we tried that out, and came up with a fun blues tune. No new songs today -- the degree of comfort we both felt with the tunes in our songbook took me a bit by surprise, in almost every case we could just launch directly into the tune instead of noodling around trying to figure out how to begin it... Other highlights of the set list:

  • The Old Home (Bill Monroe)
  • Meet Me in the Morning (Dylan)
  • One of These Days (Neil Young)
  • Drowsy Maggie (traditional) -- We're slowing this way down. It's starting to sound like something that could actually have lyrics...
  • Man of Constant Sorrow (Stanley Bros.) -- raised the key from Dm to Em (actually I think it's a modal key, but approximately "minor"), John is able to sing it a lot more clearly there and the transposition on fiddle was only a little bit tricky.
  • Jockey Full of Bourbon (Tom Waits) -- we have not played this one in several weeks, it came together a lot more solidly than ever in the past.
We are going to play the (April Fools' Day) open mic at Menzel Violins on Thursday (Mo put my photo on the flier!), we're planning to play "Meet Me in the Morning" and "The Old Home".

posted afternoon of March 28th, 2010: Respond
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Saturday, March 27th, 2010

First conversation

Creo que mi amistad con Borges procede de una primera conversación, ocurrida en 1931 o 32, en el trayecto entre San Isidro y Buenos Aires. Borges era entonces uno de nuestros jóvenes escritores de mayor renombre y yo un muchacho con un libro publicado en secreto y otro con seudónimo. Ante una pregunta sobre mis autores preferidos, tomé la palabra y, desafiando la timidez, que me impedía mantener la sintaxis de una frase entera, emprendí el elogio de la prosa desvaída de un poetastro que dirigía la página literaria de un diario porteño. Quizá para renovar el aire, Borges amplió la pregunta:

—De acuerdo —concedió—, pero fuera de Fulano, ¿a quién admira, en este siglo o en cualquier otro?

—A Gabriel Miró, a Azorín, a James Joyce. —contesté.

¿Qué hacer con una respuesta así? Por mi parte no era capaz de explicar qué me agradaba en los amplios frescos bíblicos y aun eclesiástios de Miró, en los cuadritos de Azorín ni en la gárrula cascada de Joyce, apenas entendida, de la que levantaba, como irisado vapor, todo el prestigio de hermético, de lo extraño y de lo moderno. Borges dijo algo en el sentido de que sólo en escritores entregados al encanto de la palabra encuentran los jóvenes literatura en cantidad suficiente. Después, hablando de la admiración por Joyce, agregó:

—Claro, es una intención, un acto de fe, una promesa. La promesa de que les gustará —se refería a los jóvenes— cuando lo lean.

I believe my friendship with Borges stems from our first conversation, which occurred in 1931 or 32, in transit between San Isidro and Buenos Aires. Borges was at that time one of our best-known young authors; I was a boy with one book published in secret and another one pseudonymously. Asked a question about my favorite authors, I took the floor and (defying the shyness which was making it difficult for me to get a coherent sentence out), set off on an unfocussed panegyric in praise of the poetaster who edited the literary supplement of a Buenos Aires newspaper. Perhaps to clear the air, Borges expanded his question:

-- Certainly -- he admitted -- but outside of Fulano, whom do you admire, in this century or some other?

-- Gabriel Miró, Azorín, James Joyce. -- I replied.

What to do with such a response? For my own part, I would not have been able to explain what appealed to me in the cool, spacious, biblical -- even ecclesiastical -- works of Miró, in the rustic tomes of Azorín, nor in the garrulous cascade of Joyce -- even given, as I was taking for granted, like a rainbow in the air, all the prestige of the hermetic, the strange and modern. Borges said something to the effect that only in authors committed to the bewitching effect of the word do young people encounter literature in sufficient quantity. Later, speaking of my admiration for Joyce, he added:

-- Clearly, it's an intention, an act of faith, a promise. The promise that they will like it -- referring here to young people -- when they read it.

An imposing brick of a book arrived in the mail yesterday; it is Adolfo Bioy Casares' Borges, 1,600 pages excerpted (by Bioy Casares' literary executor Daniel Martino, in collaboration with the author at the end of his life and posthumously) from the 20,000 pages of diary left in his estate. Bioy Casares began keeping his diary in 1947; the above is from a brief foreword titled "1931 - 1946" which appears to have been written much later.

I had not realized Bioy Casares was so much younger than Borges; had always assumed they were about the same age. (I have not yet read anything by Bioy Casares either by himself or in collaboration with Borges; I know him mainly from mentions in Borges' stories.) When they met in 1931, Borges would have been in his early thirties and Bioy Casares a teenager -- Borges was a mentor more than a peer -- this totally changes my picture of the dinner at the beginning of "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," where Bioy Casares recalls the teaching of a heresiarch of Uqbar, the first intrusion of Tlön into the life of the narrator.

There is a bit of meat in this brief exchange. I'm not sure what to make of Borges' statement about the "bewitching effect of words" -- sounds a bit like hand-waving to keep his young interlocutor from having to explain himself and feel embarrassed. I don't know Miró or Azorín at all; I'm wondering if the trio of authors Bioy Casares names here is meaningful or if it is just the first three names that come to mind as he is struggling to master his timidity. Totally unsure about my reading "like a rainbow in the air," I don't know what the meaning is here. The picture of Borges here is very pleasing; and it's such an exciting thing to imagine this meeting, in 1931, with the whole history of their literary collaboration as yet unborn.

posted morning of March 27th, 2010: Respond
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Friday, March 26th, 2010

I thought we would be together forever.

And that's when I first learned about the Vortex. They had chained themselves here on purpose, in order to preach about the Vortex. It was a world in the Pacific Ocean where a hundred million tons of us had gathered... They said there was no Maker; they said we were the Maker. They said in the Vortex, we were free. It was Paradise.

In Ramin Bahrani's magnificent documentary Plastic Bag, Werner Herzog appears in what is perhaps his first non-bio-degradable role, as a discarded plastic bag longing for the nirvana of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Plastic Bag is one in a series of 11 short speculative films from the first season of FUTURESTATES -- you can watch the others at their web site.

posted evening of March 26th, 2010: 2 responses
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Thursday, March 25th, 2010

Forms of address

There is a tricky bit of translation at the beginning of Woyzeck:

HAUPTMANN: Langsam, Woyzeck, langsam; eins nach dem andern! Er macht mir ganz schwindlig. Was soll ich dann mit den 10 Minuten anfangen, die Er heut zu früh fertig wird? Woyzeck, bedenk Er, Er hat noch seine schönen dreißig Jahr zu leben, dreißig Jahr! Macht dreihundertsechzig Monate! und Tage! Stunden! Minuten! Was will Er denn mit der ungeheuren Zeit all anfangen? Teil Er sich ein, Woyzeck!

WOYZECK: Jawohl, Herr Hauptmann.

H: Es wird mir ganz angst um die Welt, wenn ich an die Ewigkeit denke. Beschäftigung, Woyzeck, Beschäftigung! Ewig: das ist ewig, das ist ewig - das siehst du ein; nur ist es aber wieder nicht ewig, und das ist ein Augenblick, ja ein Augenblick - Woyzeck, es schaudert mich, wenn ich denke, daß sich die Welt in einem Tag herumdreht. Was 'n Zeitverschwendung! Wo soll das hinaus? Woyzeck, ich kann kein Mühlrad mehr sehen, oder ich werd melancholisch.

W: Jawohl, Herr Hauptmann.

H: Woyzeck, Er sieht immer so verhetzt aus! Ein guter Mensch tut das nicht, ein guter Mensch, der sein gutes Gewissen hat. - Red er doch was Woyzeck! Was ist heut für Wetter?

W: Schlimm, Herr Hauptmann, schlimm: Wind!

H: Ich spür's schon. 's ist so was Geschwindes draußen: so ein Wind macht mir den Effekt wie eine Maus. - [Pfiffig:] Ich glaub', wir haben so was aus Süd-Nord?

W: Jawohl, Herr Hauptmann.

H: Ha, ha ha! Süd-Nord! Ha, ha, ha! Oh, Er ist dumm, ganz abscheulich dumm! - [Gerührt:] Woyzeck, Er ist ein guter Mensch --aber-- [Mit Würde:] Woyzeck, Er hat keine Moral! Moral, das ist, wenn man moralisch ist, versteht Er. Es ist ein gutes Wort. Er hat ein Kind ohne den Segen der Kirche, wie unser hocherwürdiger Herr Garnisionsprediger sagt - ohne den Segen der Kirche, es ist ist nicht von mir.

W: Herr Hauptmann, der liebe Gott wird den armen Wurm nicht drum ansehen, ob das Amen drüber gesagt ist, eh er gemacht wurde. Der Herr sprach: Lasset die Kleinen zu mir kommen.

H: Was sagt Er da? Was ist das für eine kuriose Antwort? Er macht mich ganz konfus mit seiner Antwort. Wenn ich sag': Er, so mein' ich Ihn, Ihn -

CAPTAIN: Slowly, Woyzeck, slowly; one thing at a time! You make me dizzy. What am I going to do with the 10 minutes that you'll save by the time you're done? Woyzeck, think of it, you've been alive a good thirty years already, thirty years! That's three hundred sixty Months! and Days! Hours! Minutes! What are you going to do with all that monstrous time? Pace yourself, Woyzeck!

WOYZECK: Yes sir, Captain sir.

C: I get scared for the world when I think about eternity. Pay attention, Woyzeck! Forever: that's forever, that's forever -- you understand; but it's also not forever at all, it's just the blink of an eye -- Woyzeck, it frightens me, when I think of how the world goes around in a day. What a waste of time! What's going to come of that? Woyzeck, I can't even look at a mill-wheel any longer, without becoming melancholy.

W: Yes indeed, Captain.

C: Woyzeck, you always have such a hunted look! A good man wouldn't look that way, a good man with a clean conscience. -- But speak up, Woyzeck! How is the weather today?

W: Bad, sir, bad: wind!

C: I can feel it already. There's something blowing out there, such a wind sounds like a mouse to me. -- [whistles] I believe it's a South-North wind we have?

W: Yes sir, Captain sir.

C: Ha, ha, ha! South-North! Ha, ha, ha! Oh, you're a dummy, such a shameful dummy! - [turns] Woyzeck, you're a good man -- but -- [grandiose] Woyzeck, you have no morality! Morality, I mean like when somebody is moral, you understand. It's a good word. You have a child without the blessing of the Church, as our estimable chaplain says -- without the blessing of the Church, it's not just me saying that.

W: Captain sir, blessed God won't hold it against the little thing, whether somebody said Amen over it before it was made... The good lord said: Let the little children come unto me.

C: What are you saying there? What kind of a weird answer is that? You're confusing me with your answers. When I say "You", I'm talking about you, you...

(From the script of Büchner's play, but the screenplay for Herzog's film seems to adhere pretty closely, at least in this portion of the film.) Two things: I did not know that capitalized Er could be used for formal address in the way that Sie is -- I reckon that must be an archaic or regional usage or Frau Rose would have told us in German class. (grin) It makes sense... The Captain's final line sounds much better in German than in (my) English, I think. And also, I can't communicate (or really, quite understand) the captain's slip into informal "du" in the middle of his second speech.

The captain's soliloquies here are very clearly staged -- Dan Schneider presents that as a shortcoming of the movie; but it seems pretty charming to me.

posted evening of March 25th, 2010: Respond
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Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010


I found some lovely images at bright stupid confetti last week -- the artist is Justine Ashbee and her flowing, convoluted surfaces are similar to what I would like to draw, if I were able to draw.

posted evening of March 23rd, 2010: Respond
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Monday, March 22nd, 2010

A labyrinth of fire

"The Theologians" offers an alternate vision of eternity:

Months later, when the Council of Pergamo was convened, the theologian entrusted with refuting the errors of the Monotoni was (predictably) John of Pannonia; his learnèd, measured refutation was the argument that condemned the heresiarch Euphorbus to the stake. This has occured once, and will occur again, said Euphorbus. It is not one pyre you are lighting, it is a labyrinth of fire. If all the fires on which I have been burned were brought together here, the earth would be too small for them, and the angels would be blinded. These words I have spoken many times. Then he screamed, for the flames had engulfed him.

It is (perhaps) not immediately obvious that eternal recurrence entails the same extension of the present moment I discussed in my last post -- it was not immediately obvious to me. But if the present moment is going to be repeated an infinite number of times, it must have eternal duration. And indeed you can visualize the universe of eternal recurrence with the same four-dimensional model; but instead of a straight vector, the 3-space which we inhabit has to follow a cyclical orbit.

I found the end of "The Theologians" confusing:

The end of the story can only be told in metaphors, since it takes place in the kingdom of heaven, where time does not exist.* One might say that Aurelian spoke with God and found that God takes so little interest in religious differences that He took him for John of Pannonia. That, however, would be to impute confusion to the divine intelligence. It is more correct to say that in paradise, Aurelian discovered that in the eyes of the unfathomable deity, he and John of Pannonia (the orthodox and the heretic, the abominator and the abominated, the accuser and the victim) were a single person.
-- I would have thought the pairing of "orthodox and heretic" would apply, in the context of this story, to Aurelian (or John of Pannonia) in counterpoint to Euphorbus -- that the two churchmen were colleagues with maybe a small rivalry, but both in good graces with the Church. I am missing something here.

* (And what a marvelous, breathtaking statement this is.)

Update:... on rereading I see that I was giving far too little weight to the rivalry between Aurelian and Pannonia -- this is really the principal subject of the story.

posted evening of March 22nd, 2010: Respond
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Good news

(cartoon by Andrew Wahl)

(The president's address to the House Democratic Caucus is worth while.)

posted evening of March 22nd, 2010: Respond
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