Found in translation

Into EnglishLanguage translation fascinates me. It’s a mix of language skill, art, interpretation, science and, apparently, divination. Maybe even magic.

Going from one language into another is far from a simple step of swapping words in dictionary manner – Flaubert’s le mot juste. Any fool can do that. Hell, even Google can. A single word can be a fulcrum, and the decision to use one word instead of another can utterly change the meaning. I wrote about this in The Municipal Machiavelli. The translator’s choice of even a single word – in that case the choice between the English words ruin and destruction – can alter the reader’s emotions, understanding and appreciation of a work.*

Back in the 17th century, English poet, satirist and translator John Dryden divided translations into three forms:

…metaphrase, paraphrase, and imitation. Metaphrase is literal, word-for-word translation; paraphrase follows the sense of the author, rather than his precise words; imitation departs from the original at the pleasure of the translator, and really constructs a new poem on the basis of the old. Dryden rejects the two extremes of metaphrase and imitation, and chooses the middle way of paraphrase.(Full article here)

Dryden explained his approach in his introduction to his translation of Ovid’s Epistles (1680), the work that launched his late-life career as a translator. He evidently gave the process a lot of thought:

All Translation I suppose may be reduced to these three heads.
First, that of Metaphrase, or turning an Authour word by word, and Line by Line, from one Language into another. Thus, or near this manner, was Horace his Art of Poetry translated by Ben. Johnson. The second way is that of Paraphrase, or Translation with Latitude, where the Authour is kept in view by the Translator, so as never to be lost, but his words are not so strictly follow’d as his sense, and that too is admitted to be amplyfied, but not alter’d. Such is Mr. Waller’s Translation of Virgils Fourth Aeneid. The Third way is that of Imitation, where the Translator (if now he has not lost that Name) assumes the liberty not only to vary from the words and sence, but to forsake them both as he sees occasion: and taking only some general hints from the Original, to run division on the ground-work, as he pleases. Such is Mr. Cowley’s practice in turning two Odes of Pindar, and one of Horace into English.
Concerning the first of these Methods, our Master Horace has given us this Caution, Nec verbum verbo curabis reddere, fidus
Interpres — Nor word for word too faithfully translate.

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Why are American evangelical Christians so cruel?

What does that sign say? Thank you Lord for Jesus President Trump... makes no sense...The article in Forbes’ Magazine, March 11, didn’t ask that question I used in my headline. Instead, the headline simply stated the piece would explain, “Why White Evangelicalism Is So Cruel.” (The author later republished this on his own site under the less pointed title, “Why the Religious Right is so cruel.”)

In America, where theocracy is a more powerful political force than free speech and where its president has publicly threatened to muzzle journalists and uncomplimentary media like other tinpot dictators do, such a piece was apparently unwelcome. Forbes removed it – but not in time to prevent it from being read and cached and shared. Forbes’ excuse for the removal was that, “We also have a policy of not talking about social issues like abortion at Forbes Opinion — only economic policy and politics.” Weak, methinks.

No doubt the writer – Chris Ladd – hit a nerve in his increasingly theocratic, decreasingly tolerant nation when he wrote:.

Modern, white evangelicalism emerged from the interplay between race and religion in the slave states. What today we call “evangelical Christianity,” is the product of centuries of conditioning, in which religious practices were adapted to nurture a slave economy. The calloused insensitivity of modern white evangelicals was shaped by the economic and cultural priorities that forged their theology over centuries.

This isn’t really news or even new. Back in August, 2017, John Gehring wrote a piece for the Religious News Service (RNS) titled, “What is wrong with white Christians?” Gehring wrote:

Too many white Christians sacrifice the gospel’s radical solidarity with the poor and oppressed with comfortable, self-serving ideologies. Prosperity gospel preachers affirm the cult of consumerism and individualism. Evangelicals rally behind political leaders who make a holy trinity out of tax cuts for the wealthy, attacks on social safety nets and anti-government propaganda.

Given the number of fervent, uber-right “court evangelicals” in Trump’s White House (like evangelist anti-education Betty Devos, the evangelist anti-environment Scott Pruitt and evangelist anti-Muslim Mike Pompeo) appointed by Trump to positions of authority, it’s little wonder this sort of critical commentary isn’t welcome in his USA. Just look at his thin-skinned evangelical VP Mike Pence, who had a hissy fit when an interviewer jokingly suggested that he didn’t hear the voice of his imaginary friend Jesus, and was instead, “mentally ill.”

Pence ranted and frothed loudly, and probably put a lot of pressure on her network for her to apologize to all Christians, as if he alone was the representative of the 2.2 billion Christians, and that a poke at him was an insult to all of them.*

Well, here’s the truth: Jesus doesn’t speak to Pence. Or to anyone, Christian or not. Jesus is dead. Dead people don’t talk, whether they died yesterday or two millennia ago. Those voices in your head are you. But don’t try to tell that to American evangelicals like Pence. Yes, hearing voices in your head IS called mental illness. Just because Pence calls the voices Jesus and David Berkowitz said it was his dog Harvey speaking to him doesn’t mean that they’re not the same form of madness.

Pence has often described himself as a “Christian, conservative, Republican, in that order,” clearly putting his personal loyalty to the state and its people lower than that for his imaginary voices-in-his-head friend.
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The magic of reading

Jumble_02Can you make sense of those lines in the image to the right? Of course not. They’re deconstructed from the letters of a simple, one-syllable word and randomly re-arranged. It’s just four letters, but their component parts are not arranged in the proper order, so they seem like meaningless lines and squiggles. We’ve not been taught to assemble them into a structure that makes sense to our brains. Yet we’re quite capable of assigning meaning and context to abstract forms, if they’re assembled properly.

The order that we prefer those lines and curves to be in is arbitrary – the association of any particular line or curved with another piece is simply a convenience we all agree to use. Other cultures, other languages have a different agreement, equally arbitrary. The lines that form a lamed in the Hebrew alphabet don’t look anything like the lines we use to make an “L” but they get translated into that sound in the reader’s brain because that’s what the reader was raised to expect. Similarly, a Cyrillic “L” looks different from both English and Hebrew, yet performs the same function in the language. When a non-Hebrew or non-Cyrillic reader sees them, they recognize the lines, but there is no neurological association to tell that reader what they mean.*

Jumble_01When those lines and curves are again aligned differently, they offer a hint of order. English readers can more easily recognize some of the forms, even if they don’t always coalesce into specific letters. You might be able to guess at some of the letters, maybe even all., but most likely the word itself remains obscure unless you put a lot of cogitative effort into solving the puzzle.

Yet even if you can’t figure it out, our brains are remarkably agile in that they are eager to build associations from even the smallest clues. That’s how pareidolia happens – described on Wikipedia as, “…a psychological phenomenon in which the mind responds to a stimulus, usually an image or a sound, by perceiving a familiar pattern where none exists (e.g. in random data).” But while it makes for imagined faces of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches, it also helps us identify things that are not in the exact shape and form that we expect.
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Those we lost in 2017

It’s not just because I’m older that I am reading more of the obituaries than ever in my past. At least, I don’t think so. I seldom read local newspaper obituaries (in part because the delivery here is too sporadic to make it a habit), and I don’t regularly share death notices on social media unless they are of very well known figures. But I do admit I think seem to notice these reports more these days than in years past.

It’s not a fear of death, either, just an awareness that it’s closer than it was and that it comes to us all, great and small. I try to keep in mind the words of Marcus Aurelius, that great Stoic, who wrote among other thoughts in his Meditations, Book VIII:

He who fears death either fears to lose all sensation or fears new sensations. In reality, you will either feel nothing at all, and therefore nothing evil, or else, if you can feel any sensations, you will be a new creature, and so will not have ceased to have life.

Cicero had some pithy things to say about aging and death too, but I’ll leave them for another post.

It strikes me most melancholy when someone among these dead contributed in some memorable way to my own life, to my own culture, upbringing, values, entertainment or beliefs. We have lost their continued wisdom, their continued contributions to our culture; their future output is stilled. For those closest in time to my own age – writers, actors and rock stars many of them – I notice their passing more than I do that of younger artists and musicians. true, few have had a direct, personal impact on me, but they touched me nonetheless.

For no apparent reason other than it struck me to do it, I started looking online for notices of deaths in 2017 only last week, combing through the lists posted online for familiar names. Here are a few that stood out.
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Malory then and now

Caxton's MaloryI recently started reading Malory in the original – that is, the language that Caxton printed in. Not the typeface Caxton used, since that would be harder to read, but rendered in a modern serif face. Caxton initially used black letter type (aka gothic) – pretty much all the early printers used it, although each printer had his own dies and styles. However, he did move to a more easily-read, more-rounded typeface by around 1490, a few years after he printed Malory’s book. Still, the early typefaces used in all incunabula take a bit more mental effort to decipher because they are not as familiar to us as our modern letter forms and often the type is set more densely than we would today, often without the same punctuation and the paragraph breaks we use today.

Malory’s themes are remarkably modern: heroism, faith, love, sex, betrayal, scheming,  politics, war… the stuff of life. Change from swords to light sabres and you’d have a scifi novel or space opera; to six-shooters and you’d have a western. That’s one of the reasons to read him: to remind ourselves that while technology advances, humans are still motivated by the same emotions and behaviour that have been around since the Stone Age.

I’m quite enjoying the reading, especially when it makes me stop and think about a word that has caused me to stumble. Not to mention the story is one I know well, and have read in many forms and seen in movies, too. Perhaps the best known and most readable of the works he inspired is T.H. White’s Once and Future King, which I’ve read at least twice. It’s one of the few books that have moved me to tears.

William Caxton was, as you know, England’s first printer, but he was also a translator and editor with a passion for sharing what he considered the greatest English literature. And he was also England’s first retail bookseller. The first book he printed at his Westminster press, was Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in 1476. In all, he printed more than 100 books.

He printed Malory’s famous work, Le Morte d’Arthur (aka Le Morte Darthur) in 1485, and of that first printing only two copies survive. Malory’s story proved a bestseller, and created a passion among readers for the Arthurian Romances and the tales of the Knights of the Round Table that continues today. It influenced later writers like Tennyson, Twain, T.H. White and Steinbeck (and, yes, Monty Python…).

There were five editions printed before 1500. Caxton’s successor, Wynkyn de Worde, reprinted Le Morte D’Arthur in the first illustrated edition, 1498. That’s a beautiful work even today.
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