January 24th, 2010

I went to see Avatar because of a subtle and enthusiastic review by Roz Kaveney; a pity that she must have watched it in another universe. The film I saw had no plot, no characters, no conflict, and no depth of field. The last complaint is literal as well as metaphorical. The 3D effect is in some ways even more two-dimensional than normal films, since there is only one plane where anything is in focus. Everything that protrudes into the theatre or recedes from it is blurry and insubstantial if you look at it directly. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Blather, USA | 5 Comments »

Will a grand and honest decade be any better?

January 1st, 2010

Around quarter to midnight I wanted to quote Auden and I couldn’t remember the word. It was “clever”: “As the clever hopes expire/of a low dishonest decade.” Our hosts of the evening didn’t have much poetry written after about 1900 and their one anthology that might have done didn’t have September 1, 1939. Nor is it in his collected shorter poems, though I don’t remember it or even read it as a long one. It’s hardly epic; only just about perfect.

By the time I had run it down, I had read a lot more of his poetry than I set out to do: difficult to think of a better start to the year. And I had also found a remarkable piece of literary criticism: his review, in the New York Times, of The Return of the King. Auden was a huge fan of Tolkien’s, which I find unexpected, and what he wrote about the treatment of good and evil in fantasy is worth discussion:
To present the conflict between Good and Evil as a war in which the good side is ultimately victorious is a ticklish business. Our historical experience tells us that physical power and, to a large extent, mental power are morally neutral and effectively real: wars are won by the stronger side, just or unjust. At the same time most of us believe that the essence of the Good is love and freedom so that Good cannot impose itself by force without ceasing to be good. The battles in the Apocalypse and “Paradise Lost,” for example, are hard to stomach because of the conjunction of two incompatible notions of Deity, of a God of Love who creates free beings who can reject his love and of a God of absolute Power whom none can withstand. Mr. Tolkien is not as great a writer as Milton, but in this matter he has succeeded where Milton failed.

This seems to me a wonderfully shrewd explanation of the way in which Tolkien is more involving than Milton emotionally. I can’t imagine reading Tolkien aloud for the sake of the language (I mean that almost literally: the words of some poems demand to be spoken) and I think that is the final test of poetry; but neither can I imagine anyone reading Paradise Lost to find out how it ends.

The first paragraph of Auden also repays admiring attention. He puts into three sentences one of the problems which the incarnation is supposed to solve in Christian thought. In fact they fit into the last sentence and a half: “physical power and, to a large extent, mental power are morally neutral and effectively real: wars are won by the stronger side, just or unjust. [yet] the essence of the Good is love and freedom so that Good cannot impose itself by force without ceasing to be good.”

Auden puts it in a way that doesn’t mention God, and I think the problem can be understood without reference to Her. It wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if it couldn’t. But I don’t think it’s a universal. That is to say, there are people and cultures to whom it appears wrong or absurd to say that “the essence of the Good is love and freedom so that Good cannot impose itself by force without ceasing to be good.”

(For an experiment, I am crossposting this on the Guardian site, to see what difference it makes to the comments. The observant reader will have noted that it has no moral, and no bearing on the existence or otherwise of god, and may even feel these matters need no further comment)

Posted in Literature | 3 Comments »

good riddance to 1819

December 31st, 2009

I’m not entirely sure when Hazlitt’s Table Talk was written, but I was reading it over Christmas, at my sister’s house, and discovered, to my horror and astonishment, the best description you could imagine of recreational comment pages. It comes in his essay on Coffee House Politicians which is a bitter denunciation of timewasting gossips by someone who has obviously spent far too long researching the subject.

No one here (generally speaking) has the slightest notion of any­thing that has happened, that has been said, thought, or done out of his own recollection. We may happily repose on dulness, drift with the tide of nonsense, and gain an agreeable vertigo by lending an ear to endless controversies. The confusion, provided you do not mingle in the fray and try to disentangle it, is amusing and edifying enough. Every species of false wit and spurious argument may be learnt here by potent examples. Whatever observations you hear dropt have been picked up in the same place or in a kindred atmo­sphere. There is a kind of conversation made up entirely of scraps and hearsay, as there are a kind of books made up entirely of references to other books. This may account for the frequent contradictions which abound in the discourse of persons educated and disciplined wholly in coffee-houses. …
A dearth of general information is almost necessary to the thorough-paced coffee-house politician; in the absence of thought, imagination, sentiment, he is attracted immediately to the nearest common-place, and floats through the chosen regions of noise and empty rumours without difficulty and without distraction.

Isn’t it awe-inspiring to think that all the essential characteristics of internet discourse were in place 190 years ago; and to discover that the essential ingredient wasn’t TCP/IP but – all along – caffeine?

Happy New Year in whatever may be your chosen region of noise and empty rumours! May you float through it without difficulty or distraction.

Posted in Blather, Journalism, Literature, Net stories | 1 Comment »

Academic manners

November 29th, 2009

The current LRB has a wonderful example of one style of academic review: the long essay outlining the book that ought to be written about the subject, concluded by a paragraph dismissing the work under review. But what a paragraph!

André Burguière does not want to admit this. For him Annales remains a cause to fight for. But his book will do the cause no good at all. It is written seemingly without any knowledge of the wider historiography. Lutz Raphael’s Die Erben von Bloch und Febvre, the best and most comprehensive account of the school, is mentioned in the bibliography, but there is no sign that Burguière has read it. Self-important, pompous, pretentious, solipsistic, often obscure, sometimes barely coherent, his book seems to address itself only to those in the know. The translation by Jane Marie Todd renders all these faults with exemplary accuracy.

Posted in Journalism | 1 Comment »

Plugging Marek

November 20th, 2009

I had to call Marek Kohn the other day, because I was thinking about the Chief Rabbi’s eugenics, and this led me to reread A reason for everything. It really is good. The discussion of Bill Hamilton in particular is extremely subtle and penetrating. All of the faults and confusions are dissected: “for him the hospitals came to represent the inexorable modern menace that others see in immigrants or surveillance cameras”. At the same time, Kohn admires and understands the achievements, and sees all the ways in which Hamilton did in fact function emotionally and socially. This is how pop science ought to be written.

Posted in God, Literature, Science without worms | 1 Comment »

One dumb note

November 19th, 2009

I really like the idea of MS OneNote, and find it very useful for scribbling ideas into and recording interviews. It also has exemplary synchronisation. But it is a pig to use as a repository for web clips, unless you also use IE. There is a firefox clipper but it’s slow, ugly and obtrusive. There’s no quick easy way to tag what has been clipped or to get an overview, later, of subject lines. There is an API, but it demands that the programmer read and write long strings of XML to accomplish even the simplest tasks. So, while it would be perfectly possible for someone fluent in Javascript and XML to write firefox extension that clipped at usable speed, that person is not me, and certainly no one has done it. Really irritating. I don’t doubt that the people who work for microsoft find it quite easy to program extensions in C# or whatever. But even inside MS there aren’t many people doing it, and I suspect that it will quietly wither away because, although good software, it’s just too hard to extend. And any type of intelligent dustbin program has to talk easily to everything else on the machine. That’s half the point.

Posted in nördig, Software | Comments Off on One dumb note

Evernote dumbed down

November 19th, 2009

This is a quick note, really for the benefit of Google, to point out that Evernote, which is growing more and more popular, was in important respects much better in version 2, now neither sold nor supported, than in the various versions three that are now available on all sorts of platforms. In fact the software changed so much between the two versions, both in what it does and what it’s trying to do, that it’s best to think of them as almost entirely different. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in nördig, Software | 5 Comments »

Gained in translation: Tomas Tranströmer

September 26th, 2009

Tomas Tranströmer is generally considered Sweden’s best living poet. He presents horrible difficulties in translation. He writes an exceptionally pure, cold Swedish without frills. It’s very hard to specify why it’s not prose but you would have to be deaf blind and dumb not to recognise it as poetry.

Mention of blindness brings up another problem. I find that he is a tremendously visual poet. To read him is to see what he describes. But how can this translate to people who have never seen a Swedish landscape, and don’t know what the words refer to? That’s not a question I can honestly answer, since I can’t unsee.

In any case, I have been reading the Scottish poet Robin Robertson’s “versions” of Tranströmer in The Deleted World. It’s a slim volume that would have been slimmer had it been more faithful. It’s full of bits that just aren’t in the original, most egregiously here.

Here is the Swedish


Ett telefonsamtal rann ut i natten och glittrade på lands-
bygden och i förstäderna.
Efteråt sov jag oroligt i hotellsängen.
Jag liknade nålen i en kompass som orienteringslöparen bär
genom skogen med bultande hjärta.

Here is as close as I can make it:


A phone call spilled into the night and glittered on the country-
side and in the suburbs.
After, I slept uneasy in the hotel bed.
I was like the needle in the compass that an orienteer carries, running
through the woods with a thundering heart.

Now this has one deviation I consider unavoidable: “thundering” for “bultande”, which means “thumping” or “banging” – but you can’t speak of a heart “banging” in English: it’s an altogether too percussive activity, whereas hearts bultar a lot in Swedish. In English, hearts do thump, but it has quite the wrong sound. So, “thundering” which at least locates the central consonant cluster where it should be in the mouth. Otherwise, it’s just about word for word except some minor and unavoidable changes of word order and article (“the compass”, “an orienteer” for the original “a compass”, “the orienteering runner”).

Here is Robertson:

“Calling Home”

Our phonecall spilled out into the dark
and glittered between the countryside and the town
like the mess of a knife fight.
Afterwards, all night jittery and spent in the hotel bed,
I dreamt I was the needle in a compass
some orienteer bore through the forest with a spinning heart.

Dreams? Spinning? Knife fight? Where did they come from? More broadly, I don’t think the original poem necessarily describes a quarrel. I have had non-fighting phone conversations in hotel rooms that left my heart banging through the night like an exhausted orienteer’s.

I don’t want to be needlessly picky. Tranströmer is difficult because he boils his language down to the bones, and English has a different skeleton. These are clearly labelled “versions”, not “translations”. Some of Robertson’s word choices a just exactly right: “The world would be deleted” for “skulle världen utplånas”.

Posted in Literature, Sweden | 13 Comments »

The world needs this T shirt

September 13th, 2009

“Who told you that the argument from authority was always wrong?”

Posted in Blather | 3 Comments »

On the difficulty of translating Tove Jansson

August 19th, 2009

This is part of what may become a sort of series; notes on the difficulties presented by some of the books I am reading. In particular, they are examples of the discomfort I feel when I know what something means but I don’t know how to translate it.

Tove Jansson is a writer who ought to be easy. Her meaning is always clear and she uses simple declarative sentences that consist of nothing but the proper words in their proper places. But the balance and rhythm of her sentences is almost impossible to reproduce. They just take a different route to their end than is possible in English. How to translate this into English, a language which wouldn’t let you put words in the same order, even if they had the same sounds?

I know that her stories and her characters carry over. But there is a rhythm and a tension to her style that just doesn’t. Swedish is a stiff and rather weighty language: English is by contrast light and floppy. Trying to preserve the rhythm of Swedish in English feels like trying to fly cast with string.

Here are the last paragraphs of “Fair Play”, in Swedish, with the tricky bits marked up:

Jonna utbrast: Visst förstår jag! Och hon gav sig in i en lång ivrig utredning om illustrationens bety­delse, det omsorgsfulla arbetet, koncentrationen, behovet av att få vara ostörd för att få ett gott ar­bete till stånd.
Mari lyssnade inte så noga, en äventyrlig tänk­barhet höll på att ta form; möjligheten av en allde­les egen ensamhet i frid och förväntan, nästan ett slags lustighet som man kan tillåta sig när man är välsignad med kärlek.

Here’s a more or less literal translation, written out anachronistically after the notes that follow it.

Jonna burst out: “Of course I understand!” and she threw herself into a long and eager disquisition on the importance of illustration, the painstaking labour, the concentration, the need to be undisturbed so as to get a good piece of work done.
Mari listened without attention; a world of bold thoughts began to form: the possibility of a solitude all her own in peace and anticipation, almost a kind of delight which you can allow yourself when you are blessed with love.

Perhaps because I am not a native Swedish speaker I find that even the simplest words in it are, so to say, unclichéd, unknotted and spread out for my admiration when they are well used. “Omsorgsfull” translates almost directly as “careful” but when I hear “careful” I hear its primary meaning as an injunction: “Be careful!” or “Watch out”; what I would, as a parent in Swedish, have expressed as “Akta!”; whereas the Swedish word has for me connotations of taking care, of patient painstaking lovingness.

Utredning is an enquiry; usually used of a government or other official enquiry. In this context I suppose I would use “disquisition”; the point, of course, is that Jonna is flung away from the moment of emotional communication: what she “of course understands”, which is that she is free to go to Paris and talks instead of something “officially” admissible. I have no idea how to pack all that into one word of English.

An äventyrlig tänk­barhet is more obviously difficult, and possibly easier. It’s a bold, or an adventurous, thinkableness. It’s what stout Cortez saw. “A world of brave new thoughts” perhaps. Nah, that’s wrong. It’s a very Mumin moment, though this is not of course a Mumin book.

And then of course there are the repeated alliterations of the next sentence: egen ensamhet i frid och förväntan, though the last two es of alldeles also belong in this run of sound. The sense is clear: “a solitude of her own, in peace and anticipation”. And it’s fine. But there is still something missing.

That’s taken me about an hour: time well spent, but hardly well paid. I feel a weight of responsibility for all the translators on whom I must sit in judgment over the next two months.

For reference, here’s Thomas Teal’s version:

“Of course I do!” Jonna burst out, and she launched into a long, earnest discussion of the importance of illustration, the painstaking labour, the concentration, the need to be undisturbed if you’re going to do your best work.
Mari was hardly listening. A daring thought was taking shape in her mind. She began to anticipate a solitude of her own, peaceful and full of possibility. She felt something close to exhilaration, of a kind that people can permit themselves when they are blessed with love.

“Peaceful and full of possibility” preserves the alliteration very nicely and brings out the sense.

Enough. I need to earn a living.

Posted in Literature, Sweden | 4 Comments »