Friday, October 31, 2008

Wislawa Szymborska

Over at Paper Cuts, Barry Gewen's post 'A Poem for the Pentagon' reminded me of one of my favorite poets, Wislawa Szymborska.

He mentions comparing notes with a friend, and finding they both loved Szymborska's work. I'm not going to go into his comment about contemporary poetry in general, because entire books could be written defending or criticizing his statement, and I want to focus on Szymborska.

It was interesting to me that she was the poet that came up with the conversation, because the same thing has happened to me several times. I am an inveterate bookshelf examiner, when I go somewhere with a bookshelf, I will look to see what is on it. One or another of Szymborska's books appeared surprisingly frequently on my friends shelves. This is hardly scientific evidence of her popularity, but I think among the group of people likely to read poetry, her popularity is pretty real. I've had great conversations with a number of my friends about our fondness for Szymborska's work. Even more surprising to me was the number of people I know who all independently acquired a love not only of her poetry, but also of her truly marvelous collection of short essays Nonrequired Reading. At the same time, I was speaking to a Polish woman who's mother taught Polish Literature in Poland, and she was quite surprised at my fondness for Szymborska. Not because she didn't like her, but because she didn't expect Americans to like her. This was partly from having seen the typical American lack of interest in writing from other countries.

Somehow or other, I have ended up with a bookshelf full of Polish poets, at present the collections outnumber the American poetry books on my shelf. This is partly because I have so many books by Zbigniew Herbert. Still, it's a lot. Polish poets were one of my earliest claims to reading things that weren't originally written in English. While Herbert is my hands down favorite, I think that if I were to recommend any one poet as an introduction to the beauty of Polish poetry, it would probably be Szymborska. Further, in Polish poetry we seem to be blessed with some particularly excellent translators. Even the much criticized Alissa Valles translation of Herbert's poems still allows the beauty of his poetry to really shine. I quite like the fact too that with these poets, from collection to collection they've been translated by one or the other of this small group of excellent translators. Reading the different translators work gives a great opportunity for those of us who don't read Polish, to try to observe where the difference between the poets and the different translators are.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Election Reading

So, as the election for US President gets closer, and boy is it getting close, I'm finding my reading of books going down, and my consumption of news, which is generally pretty high, going up very high. In an average day I probably couldn't tell you the number of times I visit the following sites, in no particular order:

The Daily Beast (which gets to be first because it's a literary reference too)
The New York Times
CNN (more on TV than on their rather shallow website)
MSNBC (ditto to CNN.)
The Daily Kos
Politico (fast becoming my favorite)
Salon (
The Albany Project
and of course, Metsblog, because never mind who might run the country, I want to know who's going to be playing for the Mets.

So I think I may have revealed a bit of a bias in my choice of reading. The bigger bias is of course that I can't wait for election day, and books just don't carry any recent news and opinion about the election, and I want to know what's happening now now now, because I want the election to happen now now now. So my book reading has suffered, but I'm probably reading more in general than usual.

What about you, are you following the election closely? What's your election news source of choice? Beyond that, are you doing anything about it? I am, and I highly recommend volunteering for your candidate, it's a really rewarding experience.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Translation Revisited

I mentioned Daniel Hahn's translation blog in an earlier post. I sent him some questions about translation, and he has thoughtfully answered my, and some other readers', questions in his most recent post.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Editing is good

Perhaps you are familiar with the concept of editing. This is the idea where, after something has been written, it is gone over to improve the grammar. If done well it improves the content. Arguments and ideas are clarified, extraneous ideas, sentences, and words are removed with surgical precision.

Sometimes it seems that the value placed on editing is decreasing. I was reminded of this with the latest, hilarious vloging by Sam of Audience of Two. He's reading a book on camera, which is very exciting. It's Jack Kerouac's On The Road which I have no trouble with. I read it, and enjoyed it a couple of years ago, though I don't think I would put him all that high on my list, it was a good book, and certainly is an important one. However, it looks like Sam was reading the "Original Scroll" version. This would be the version that is, according to taken from the 'first full draft' that Kerouac was happy with. It is notable for being apparently raunchier, with "heightened linguistic virtuosity". I don't want to meet the person who used the term 'heightened linguistic virtuosity,' but based on their own 'word choice' I don't think I would trust their opinion. It's hard to imagine Kerouac saying "Hey man, you should read the original scroll, rather than my final published version, because it has heightened linguistic virtuosity!"

This is probably a very useful work for academics, or for huge Kerouac fans, but I think it does a disservice to those who want to read On the Road because of its wide spread influence on our language and culture. The 'Original Scroll' isn't the book that shocked America, it's not the book that a million young idealists read while traveling across country, and it's not the book that inspired everyone else who read and reacted to the book in the last fifty years. I suspect it's a good book, and it is worth reading, but I don't think it should replace what I call 'the original published work'. I also would suggest reading the book before you read the scroll, it may be too late for Sam, but it's not too late for you. It's like when in museums they have a great painting, and what is called the 'study' for that painting. You may even like the 'study' better, but you should look at the finished work too.

Also, anyone in NYC on November 6 should go to the People's Improv Theater to support Sam and his contubernal Ben, of Audience of Two, in the 2nd Annual Sketchprov festival. Tickets and information can be found here.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Public Intellectuals

Reading Norman Mailer's Presidential Papers, I've been thinking about the role of intellectuals in public life. It certainly seems clear that Mailer was a public intellectual, and I was thinking that his was really the last generation to produce them. Most Americans who are referred to as public intellectuals, are really political pundits of one flavor of another whose careers are focused around politics.

Before picking up this book, my opinion on this lack had been largely negative. I felt, and still feel, that it would be a positive to have a few well-known intellectuals from outside political circles who are looked to for opinions on public affairs. The closest we have now are comedians and late-night hosts, who do a pretty good job at commenting on current events. However, they are forced by nature of their professions, to be funny. Funny is great, I love a good laugh, but it would be nice to have a few people who take it seriously but don't spend all of their time in that world.

Of course, after reading most of Mailer's book (I'm still reading it), my opinion has changed slightly. I still think it would be good to have more public intellectuals, but I can't say my passion is as strong. I recognize that Mailer's attitudes are partly a matter of his time, but I find myself spending a great deal of time admiring his prose, and disliking his ideas. Obviously, anyone who knows Mailer at all, knows about his problems with women, including stabbing his wife, but it is amazing and often disturbing to see it in action. The lowest point so far is his article on Jackie Kennedy. The complicated melange of negative attitudes towards women that exist in Mailer's mind is surprising. There are so many of them that they actually seem to compete with each other.

Now, he's also a brilliant writer, that is very clear from his powerful prose. He has some very interesting ideas about the structure of society, and the underlying attitudes that drive the public, but they are always mixed up with his ambivalent, and occasionally hostile feelings. It is really hard to find a subject for him to discuss where a bubbling stew of mixed emotions doesn't make itself evident. At the same time, his ability to make that evident is remarkable.

He is really at his best when he simply describes events, or explains himself, rather than when he tries to talk about larger ideas, or explain others. There is too much of him in his mind for him to successfully describe another person's motivations.

I have described some of my issues with him, but I cannot say enough too about my respect for his ability. Superman Comes to the Supermarket truly is a remarkable piece of reporting, and we are very lucky that the entire article is available on Esquire Magazine's website. So here it is.

Thursday, October 9, 2008


Today, I spotted this blog post by Lindesay Irvine over at the Guardian, on translation. He asks the excellent question "Can you even remember the name of the translator of the last foreign language book you read?" Now, I couldn't do so, but I knew where to check, and it wasn't by finding the book and looking it up. I keep a list. So I looked it up, and felt silly because I should have remembered it. It was Robert Haas, who worked with Czeslaw Milosz to translate Milosz' Treatise on Poetry which is an excellent poem in itself. I may not remember the name of every translator I read, but I do try to keep track of them, and I particularly try to remember when I find a translator who's taste seems to run with mine. For example, I have read a number of works translated from Italian by William Weaver. Now, if I see that he has translated something, it becomes a point in that works favor. I don't actively seek out his translations, but if I'm trying to decide on a book, and it has been translated by him, that's a point in its favor.

I mentioned in my last post my desire to read more works from different countries, and originally written in different languages. This necessitates reading works in translation, something which seems to be a difficult subject for many people.

I suppose there is a sense that there is something dishonest about reading work in translation, because it's not quite the original. Certainly it's not quite the original, but that doesn't mean it's not worth reading. I am fluent in English, and can muddle my way through a newspaper in French, usually pulling enough detail to follow what's being said, I also studied Latin and Ancient Greek in college, and could at the time read them well enough to explore works in the original, albeit slowly, with a dictionary, a grammar book, and a good commentary. However, I have to accept that there are many other languages out there, in which important writing appears, that I will not be able to learn. I studied just enough Sanskrit to get a sense of the unbelievable elegance of that language,and I've seen Beowulf performed in the original language (with superscript translations so that I could follow the story).

All of this has made me very aware of what we miss in translation. English is a wonderful language, but it's not the only one. Each language has its strengths and its weaknesses, and it's almost untranslatable words and concepts. Some, like Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit, have very different types of sentence structure, because the words tell you how they relate to each other. In English we rely largely on the order of the words to structure our sentences. This isn't the case in all other languages. When I first picked up Latin the decreased importance of word order on the direct meaning of a sentence was an incredibly alien concept to me. The ability to use a more flexible word order to create stress and nuance remains one of the most beautiful things about that language. It can make proper translation difficult, especially of poetry. There are levels of symmetry and interconnectedness that are very difficult to replicate in English. But that's not to say one shouldn't try.

Even if you can't read Greek, Homer is still a worthwhile read. The poet Catullus can seem more familiar than many of today's academic poets. Of course, when translated badly, Homer can be one of the most boring and unpleasant experiences available to a reader, and Victorians were so uncomfortable with Catullus, that they basically translated him out of his own work. Heck, if Catullus was reading his poetry aloud on CD, it would have one of those big scary 'M's on it, warning parents that he was only for mature audiences. That would probably boost his sales.

I would love to speak about translation of contemporary works, but I've never tried that, so I can only show the conclusions about translation that my slight familiarity with ancient works has given me.

First, translating is hard work. It's a lot harder than simply being able to read and appreciate the other language. There are many tough questions to ask oneself. I would try to frame them myself, but fortunately, Lindesay Irvine's blog post at the Guardian gives me a little help. He links to Booktrust Translated Fiction, where translator Daniel Hahn is blogging the process of his latest translation. Daniel Hahn has a great statement on the big questions a translator needs to consider.
"And there are more macro-scale linguistic issues too, broad questions of tone, of cadence, of how the sentences read in English, how the whole things will be made to feel like a piece of writing in English – and yet still attached to its former self in Portuguese – and not some odd hybrid… Getting that quite right is always tricky (and particularly hard to define and describe), always a worry and potentially a problem. On the whole I find Agualusa’s sentences sit very well in English, but is that because I’m venturing too far away from the original cadences, and creating a piece of English writing no longer properly moored to its original?"

That gives you a taste, but go read the rest of it.

Second, translations are important, and can be beautiful. I like reading in translation, even as I long to be able to read the original.

Third, translations are alive. What do I mean by this? Well, it's the curse of the Victorians for those who study antiquity. Victorian language, to us, typically seems old-fashioned, and most of these old English translators of the classics translated them into even more archaic speech, so one has Romans and Greeks using 'Thee' and 'Thou' and other bits of silly Arthurian language. Maybe this was okay for them, they liked it, but to modern readers it feels stilted, and unnecessarily so.

The great Classic writers weren't writing in archaic English, they were writing in what was for them, very modern Latin or Greek. Just like Shakespeare did for English, many of them coined fresh new words. As a result, the older the translation, by and large, the less useful it is for a modern audience. Alexander Pope's translations of Homer are of far more use now to those studying Pope than those who wish to be familiar with Homer. What this means, for me, is that there is a constant market for more translators, and for updated translations. Dorothy Sayers wrote great detective stories, and made important contributions to the scholarship of Dante, but I don't think that her translations of his work are the best option for a contemporary audience. Certainly, when I decided to read Dante, and consulted a former professor of mine for a recommendation, I was told to go with Mark Musa. It was a good choice, and I recommend his editions.

Fourth, their are many different ways to translate the same work. From Classics, I've seen what I would call two major schools, literal translation, and poetic translation. This represents the constant struggle between translating every word, and attempting to capture the 'feel' of the original. Ideally, there should be some balance between the two, but it can be a good idea to determine which end of the pendulum you put more priority on, and to look for translators who agree with you.

Now, the problem with these ideas of mine is that they come from probably the only type of literature where many classic works have multiple translations some contemporaneous, and some not. Homer is the king of that hill, because he's so important, but even many lesser known classical authors have two or three translations available. The more recent a work is, the greater the possibility that there will be only one translation available.

What this means though, is that when one finds a work in translation that really resonates, not only might you want to read more by that author, but you should look at the translator. I mentioned William Weaver for me, but he's a really easy one, I would say that a sizable percentage of the works translated from Italian and available in book stores, have been translated by him. I wouldn't say most, but certainly many. Apparently many people agree with me about the quality of his work.

So there's my two cents on the value of translation (HIGH). Any particular favorite works in translation that you want to share with me? or countries from which you like to read translations?

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Reading Sisyphus

So here it is, October, I'm recovered from my illness, and completed enough of the things that were taking up time in my life that I can once again blog regularly.

I was reading the travails of Joe, the new literary publicity guy at, and feeling a great deal of sympathy. Under the fully appropriate title, "How does everyone here read so quickly?" he writes of his struggles to keep up with how well read everyone at Penguin is.

It often feels like a Sisyphean task, trying to be well read. It sounds that way for Joe, and it certainly seems that way for me. It's not quite like Sisyphus of course, he would reach the top of his mountain, and the boulder would roll right down to the bottom again for him to push it back up. My boulder only goes up, but the top of the mountain is climbing a lot faster than I am.

I type about as quickly as if I were simply speaking quickly, and I read a bit faster than that, but I'm not the fastest reader out there. I am diligent, but not in that I sit down for three hours and push my way through a single book. That happens, but when it does, it's a matter of the book, more than of me. Some books will pull me through them so fast that I have to force myself to read every paragraph, others, that I like just as much, I read so slowly it's like I'm crawling physically across the page. One of the reasons that I read more than one book at a time is to capitalize on momentum. At different times I have different moods as a reader, and different books suck me in.

For example, for the past few weeks, I have been reading The Era of Franklin D. Roosevelt by Richard D. Polenberg, a really wonderful examination of F.D.R's presidency, largely through the lens of contemporary documents, at the same time though, I've read and completed about ten other books. Some of these books I've read in just one or two sittings (for example, I've already mentioned my terrible Nero Wolfe habit), and others have been read in and around those, like James Hamilton-Paterson's excellent Cooking with Fernet Branca from Europa Editions. Reading like this can be a bit chaotic I suppose, but it works for me.

Still, no matter how often I set specific goals, saying, "oh, when I read X, I will have climbed a step higher in being well-read" I get there, and it seems I've hardly moved, or worse, I've moved backwards.

There are a couple of directions I'm always trying to move in from the most focused, there is movement within an author's work, when I was young, if I liked an author, I read everything of theirs that I could get my hands on. Now, as I've gotten older, this happens less often, still, if I really like an author, I try to make it a point to read more than one of their books, and work my way to a complete set later.

The second direction is the list of authors of whom I've heard, but haven't read. I have a list as long as my arm of authors like that, and I try to find at least one of their books to read. Sometimes this moves them into the above mentioned category, sometimes not. Right now for example I'm also reading The Presidential Papers of Norman Mailer (Is there a theme in my current reading? maybe a little...), I may decide that this meets the initial criteria of having read some Mailer, I might not though, as it seems to be out of print and lesser known.

The third direction is the most vague, being for larger categories in which I would like to have read. This includes my desire to read one book by an author of each country out there. Almost certainly an impossible task, but a worthy direction. There is also my desire to read works of different periods or stylistic movements, modern, post-modern, Victorian, etc. Many of these categories expand the more I learn. As a tangent to reading from different countries in general, I also want to read more contemporary international fiction. (nota bene: I came to this desire before the permanent secretary of the Nobel Prize for Literature went off on his high horse.) I've been helped in this goal by the discovery of Europa Editions, who make it their goal to provide good English translations of contemporary European fiction.

It's so commonly discussed, that the observation is almost trite, but I strongly agree with the statement that the more one knows, the more one knows that one doesn't know. It's been said a million times, in many different ways, and it's still true. Every time I learn something knew, it opens up new realms of things that I should know, and I really enjoy that. I don't think ignorance is half as blissful as the opening up of new realms for discovery.