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Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.

— Sir Francis Bacon

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Thursday, December 25th, 2003

🦋 Translation questions

Well actually here I am at home this morning, might as well write a post I've been thinking of for a few days. It concerns translation so I will ask LanguageHat to link to it.

First topic: I found a book on my shelf the other day while looking for train reading, called The Following Story (Het Volgende Verhaal) by Cees Nooteboom (what a wonderful name! I wonder how it is pronounced.) I have a vague memory of coming into possession of this book, and it is dog-eared at p. 76, so I must have started reading it -- I took another go at it Tuesday. And a couple of subtle grammatical errors got me wondering -- is the translator (Ina Rilke) not fluent in English? Or is Nooteboom playing some kind of linguistic game that Rilke is rendering faithfully?

For example: the first sentence of the second paragraph of the story begins, "I had waked up with the ridiculous feeling that I might be dead..." "Waked" can be baby talk in the usage "I waked up" but it does not sound like baby talk here, just like nonsense. I do not know any Dutch so I will put my question forth and hope someone reads this who is familiar with Nooteboom in the original. If you have answers, mail me.

By the way, here is a very nice couple of sentences:

I'm ashamed to say that after all those years on earth I still do not know the exact makeup of the human eye. Cornea, retina, iris and pupil, which double as flowers and students in crossword puzzles, that much I knew, but the actual substance, that vitreous mass of coagulated jelly or gelatine, has always struck fear into me. Whenever I use the word "jelly," everyone invariably laughs, but all the same Cornwall in King Lear had cried: "Out, vile jelly!" as he put out Gloucester's eyes, and that is precisely what I had in mind when I squeezed those sightless spheres which either were or were not my eyes.
A lovely passage -- but note "those" in the first sentence. Seems to me like it should be "these". Again -- is this from the original or from the translator? (Note -- very cool that the crossword puzzle joke works in both Dutch and English. I am assuming it worked without too much fiddling about on Rilke's part; if I am wrong and she did have to take liberties to get it to work, well, she did a very good job of it.)

We visited Ellen's friend Alice the other day and gave her son Steven Demian as a Hanukkah present. Ellen had asked what I thought would be a good book for him -- he is studying German and is reading Camus -- so I thought Demian was a good idea. It is the first book I ever read in German, anyway the first one I was ever able to actually finish. We gave him my copy, plus a translation. I had a look at the beginning of it and found it fascinating as ever, and indeed highly legible. But here's what's interesting -- the German sounds great and a bit profound to my ears -- but when I try rendering it in English it seems a lot less profound, nearly banal. I don't think this is because I am a lousy translator, though I am; when I looked at the translation which we bought for Steven, its phrasing was pretty close to my own. So could the profundity which I am seeing in the original be something I am reading into it, inspired by the rush of being able to understand a foreign language? -- this is a pretty unusual experience for me. A number of people whom I respect have dismissed Hesse as not worthwhile for someone who is not a teenager. (Which either way, Steven is, so I'm covered there.) Any thoughts?

Update: LanguageHat advises me that I am mistaken here: "waked" is a standard past participle of "wake", used more commonly in Britain than in the U.S. And he thinks "those" is acceptable in the longer exerpt. I'd still be interested to know more about the original text that was translated as "after all those years".

posted morning of December 25th, 2003: Respond
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Saturday, December 13th, 2008

🦋 Kreutzworträtselspielerei

Over at the Fifth World they are talking about Hermann Hesse. I was reminded of how when I started reading Das Glasperlenspiel (about 13 years back or so; never finished or even got very far in), I took the narrator's attack (or what I perceived as an attack) on Crossword Puzzles very personally. I was doing the NY Times crossword every day at the time and reading this felt like being lectured about what a waste of time and consciousness it was:

Übrigens gehörten, so scheint es, zum Feuilleton auch gewisse Spiele, zu welchen die Leserschaft selbst angeregt und durch welche ihre Überfütterung mit Wissenstoff aktiviert wurde, eine lange Anmerkung von Ziegenhalß über das wunderliche Thema »Kreuzworträtsel« berichtet davon. Es saßen damals Tausende und Tausende von Menschen, welche zum größern Teil schwere Arbeit taten und ein scweres Leben lebten, in ihre freistunden über Quadrate und Kreuze aus Buchstaben gebückt, deren Lücken sie nach gewissen Spielregeln ausfüllten. Wir wollen uns hüten, bloß den lächerlichen oder verrückten Aspekt davon zu sehen, und wollen uns des Spottes darüber enthalten. Jene Menschen mit ihren Kinder-Rätselspielen und ihren Bildungsaufsätzen waren nämlich keineswegs harmlose Kinder oder spielerische Phäaken, sie saßen vielmehr angstvoll inmitten politischer, wirtschaftlicher und moralischer Gärungen und Erdbeben, haben eine Anzahl von schauerliche Kriegen und Bürgerkriegen geführt, und ihre kleinen Bildungsspiele waren nicht bloß holde sinnlose Kinderei, sondern entsprachen einem tiefen Bedürfnis, die Augen zu schließen und sich vor ungelösten Problemen und angstvollen Untergangsahnungen in eine möglichst harmlose Scheinwelt zu flüchten.
In addition to the feuilleton it seems as if there were certain games, which the reading public loved and through which the information overload was started, a long communication from Ziegenhalß about the wonderful idea of crossword-puzzle deals with this. There sat at this time thousands and thousands of people, for the most part hard-working people with hard lives, bent over quadrants and crosses of characters in their free time, filling in their blanks according to certain rules. We should guard against just seeing the ridiculous or crazy aspects of this, hold ourselves back from making fun. These people with their baby-puzzles and their picture-constructions were indeed in no way harmless children or playful (?Phäaken)* Phæacians, they sat fearful in the middle of political, economic and moral agitation and earthquakes, conducted a number of horrible wars and conflicts, and their little picture-games were not simply little senseless childishness, but rather they bespoke a deep unfilled need, a need to close their eyes and flee from unsolved problems and anxious imaginings of death into a world of appearances, as harmless as ever it could be.

This comes at the end of a couple of pages' discussion of the ridiculous idea of the feuilleton, which I believe means approximately "op-ed column" -- I hadn't thought of this before but it would be an interesting passage to keep in mind while reading The Black Book.

Figuring out how to translate Phäaken, below the fold.

posted evening of December 13th, 2008: 2 responses
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