Saturday, December 31, 2011

A tribute to Vikram Seth

The enchanted bookstore, vast, rectangular,
Fluorescent-lit, with Bach piped through
The glamorous alleys of its angular
Warren of bookshelves, the dark brew
Of French roast or Sumatra rousing
One's weak papillae as one's browsing
Lead to the famed cups, soon or late,
That cheer but don't inebriate.
Magical shoe box! Skilled extractor
Of my last dime on print or drink,
Mini-Montmartre, Printers Inc!
Haven of book freaks, benefactor
Of haggard hacks like me, who've been
Quivering for years to your caffeine.
The Golden Gate 8.14

The books at Printers Inc. are gone now.
A wall blots out the view from where
My bitter-rich americano
Scrawls steam upon the winter air
Of recesses where they once spangled
The rows of shelves, black, stately-angled;
Where once you glimpsed that ordered world
A sandwich menu is unfurled,
Whose jagged letters've condescended
To spell endless ingredient lists.
For baffling onomasticists,
They've kept the name, "Cafe" appended,
For — now — just one more place to have
Coffee on California Ave.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

In the holiday spirit

[Thanks to DM and AMB on G+ for corrections on this post.] My family wanted to bring their own song to a potluck carol singalong, so they asked me to translate "В лесу родилась ёлочка".  There are some English versions already on the Internet, including two on Wikipedia, one of which is fairly loose and the other truly atrocious, though even the first assigns considerably more agency to the forest than I'm comfortable doing.

Raisa Kudasheva.  [Wikipedia, fair use.]
It turns out that this most Soviet and religion-free of holiday songs was actually written in 1903 for a children's magazine.  The author was Raisa Adamovna Kudasheva, a schoolteacher and librarian who also wrote a number of other children's poems and stories, largely published under pseudonyms and now for better or worse mostly forgotten -- even the parts of "Elochka" which didn't make it into the song, though they're on the Russian Wikipedia page.  Two years later the agronomist and amateur musician Leonid Karlovich Bekman came up with the melody.

The song embedded itself thoroughly in Soviet tradition, and no one remembers that it has an author any more than we remember the author of, say, "Jingle Bells" or "The Lion Sleeps Tonight".  Since Kudasheva wrote under a pseudonym, her authorship was not even publicized until an anthologist tracked her down around 1940.

A version of the song from
В лесу родилась ёлочка,
В лесу она росла.
Зимой и летом стройная,
Зелёная была.

Метель ей пела песенку:
«Спи, ёлочка, бай-бай!»
Мороз снежком укутывал:
«Смотри, не замерзай!»

Трусишка зайка серенький
Под ёлочкой скакал.
Порою волк, сердитый волк,
Рысцою пробегал.

Чу! Снег по лесу частому
Под полозом скрипит.
Лошадка мохноногая
Торопится, бежит.

Везёт лошадка дровенки,
На дровнях мужичок.
Срубил он нашу ёлочку
Под самый корешок.

И вот она, нарядная,
На праздник к нам пришла
И много, много радости
Детишкам принесла.
One day a Christmas tree was born.
It grew deep in the wood.
In summer and in wintertime
How slim and green it stood!

The blizzard sang it lullabies:
"My little tree, sleep tight!"
Frost tucked its snowy blanket in:
"Now, don't you freeze tonight!"

Sometimes the timid little hare
Came hopping underneath.
Sometimes the wolf, the hungry wolf,
Ran by and bared his teeth.

Hark! in the woods the crunch of snow
Hangs in the quiet air.
A sturdy shaggy-legged horse
Is hurrying somewhere.

The horse is pulling on a sleigh.
A man is in the sleigh.
He's chopping down our Christmas tree
And driving it away.

And now it's come to stay with us,
Decked out in pretty toys,
To bring great joy and happiness
To all the girls and boys.
This is certainly not the best of possible translations: I didn't spend that much time on it. But I did come away with a couple of translation-related notes. Compared to translating a "real" poem I was less willing to shift stresses in ways that are usually accepted in English poetry ("Slénder and gréen it stóod", which is a better line content-wise) but more willing to accept the sort of wrong stresses that are customary but which I usually find irksome ("somewhére", "sometímes").   This is not a mystery: partly it's because the latter is easier to sing, at least to an English ear (the French and Spanish are surprisingly adept at singing syllabic poetry) and partly because a genre grounded in tradition like the Christmas carol is likely to preserve older pronunciations if that's actually what these are.  But I don't think previously I would have come up with this as a difference between literary and Christmas carol poetry.

And another thing: how much transculturation is in order when translating a song like this?  The Wikipedia translation by Durando and Popov changes the hare into a bunny, which makes it more familiar.  But rabbits aren't really associated with timidity in English-language folklore [edit: or not] -- does it help or instead obscure the image by bringing in irrelevant associations?  What about the sleigh bells that we're supposed to hark to instead of the crunching snow?

On the other hand some details inevitably get lost, both in translation and in kids' understanding of the song.  Not only is there no word in English for дровни, a kind of rough wooden sleigh, but surely most of the kids singing the song in Russia this month don't know what it is either.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Gumilev and shrimp

Hooray!  My translation of Gumilev's Giraffe won third place in the Compass Award.  (The winners' names on that page got transliterated into Russian and back into English.  Alyssa Gillespie fared worse than me.)  Thanks to Russian Dinosaur and others for encouraging me to participate.

So I've been forced to think again about my original post on the topic.  Somehow the consonance between корабль (which yes, just means 'ship') and caravel escaped me at the time.  Now I noticed it and ran to Poorly OCRed Vasmer to tell me the etymology.  Poorly OCRed Vasmer told me that both derive from Greek "karЈbion, kЈraboj", which initially meant 'crab', and the Russian -ль and Romance -ela got attached independently.  He also remarks that "the naut. art of the Thracians is highly dubious" and that a native Slavic derivation is "impossible".

The OED article on 'crab', which you need to be at a university to see, clarifies that the English word is "in no way related to Latin carabus, Greek κάραβος, but to Low German krabben 'to scratch, claw'."  It is, on the other hand, "allied etymologically to Middle Low German krēvet," and hence presumably to French crevette, Russian креветка 'shrimp'.

But wait!  The French Wiktionary claims that crevette is a metathesis of a Norman local pronunciation of chevrette, that is 'baby she-goat', and so has nothing to do with the Germanic root. 

All I can conclude is that people really like to use a [k], a rhotic, and a voiced labial obstruent in naming crustaceans, and will go to all sorts of lengths to get them in that order.

Oh yeah.  I'm going to be in New York for the award ceremony and reading on the 30th at the Bowery Poetry Club.  Since the time and place are posted publicly on the web, perhaps anyone who reads this is welcome to drop by.  But I don't know the etiquette of such things. 

Oops! I just posted my travel plans on the Internet.  Anyone who tries to break into my room (which is very easy) will face the vigilance and wrath of my housemates.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Three videos on blindness and painting

A painter from the court of Mehmet II.
Picture from Wikipedia.
There are many ways in which My Name Is Red is a beautiful book.  I will not try to discuss most of them, because this isn't the place and I don't have the words.  But it was Orhan Pamuk's discussion of painting and blindness that pierced and wove itself into the cloth of allusions in my mind.  Embarrassingly, several months ago I already started and didn't finish a blog post on blind painters.

For the Ottoman and Persian miniaturists who hunched close to their work in dim candlelight, vision loss and eventual blindness was a universal fear.  The painters of the Herat school learned to overcome this fear, according to Pamuk, through their philosophy of painting, believing that "the illuminator draws not what he sees, but what Allah sees" and that blindness is a gift from Allah which allows the artist to see these perfect archetypes unsullied by the imperfect objects of the real world.

As such, a blind miniaturist was in a similar position to a deaf Beethoven: their art consisted of arranging stereotyped elements on a page in a novel and pleasing way, of composition, in one sense and the other.  Indeed, just as the composer doesn't always play or conduct his own music, so the miniaturist might leave the rendering of certain details to apprentices.  But since the archetypes that he draws are preserved in muscle memory, he can often also do it himself.

Driving this analogy onto more tenuous ground, Western artists are more like rock stars, whose sounds are their property: if anyone else performs them, they can at best be a cover.  Though I imagine rock stars go deaf with some frequency (a quick Google search seems to confirm this) I doubt many of them would consider playing music without hearing it.  (If they do, this would be a great topic for a blog post by someone who isn't me.)  This post is about today's blind painters, who paint by themselves and as themselves; about how and why.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

À la recherche du temps gagné

[Bloomington, Indiana]
We all know that the invention of agriculture has made us numerous, unhealthy, poor, and sad. Since then, there have been many inventions to make us again healthier and richer. But what about happiness? What have we invented to make ourselves happier, or at least to partly forget the weight of place and possession on our memories?

Today [a couple days ago] I found myself without the Internet. This is not really unusual: after all, I walk around outside, fly on planes, and occasionally spend nights in bulldozers under brilliant liquid baldaquins. What's different about this time is that I was at home, and that I felt the pressure of tears, suddenly and without reason. A pure and formless nostalgia.

Normally I would have drowned out the nascent sadness by reading blogs or the news or some other thing that I use to waste time. But since this wasn't an option, I had to figure out its source and make it go away.

It turns out that two of the four bulbs in my chandelier had burnt out months ago, and I had never before worked up the energy to buy new ones.

Indeed, before people could rot years staring at screens in the dark, there were light bulbs. And before there were light bulbs, there was Poe, trying in vain to blot out "nevermore" with unsteady candlelight.

I wonder what beautiful and simple coping mechanisms we began to take for granted, and perhaps lost, after Edison's invention oozed across the globe.

[Edit: as I was searching for the links to put at the top, I found a great blog with arguments for and against these ideas.]

Saturday, April 23, 2011

From the annals of unwritten papers...

...comes a bit of literary criticism.

"A badgered musicality: the snake as threat in light of Munroe's trochee theory"

(See also the to-do list.)

Wednesday, March 16, 2011



Сегодня, я вижу, особенно грустен твой взгляд
И руки особенно тонки, колени обняв.
Послушай: далёко, далёко, на озере Чад
Изысканный бродит жираф.

Ему грациозная стройность и нега дана,
И шкуру его украшает волшебный узор,
С которым равняться осмелится только луна,
Дробясь и качаясь на влаге широких озер.

Вдали он подобен цветным парусам корабля,
И бег его плавен, как радостный птичий полет.
Я знаю, что много чудесного видит земля,
Когда на закате он прячется в мраморный грот.

Я знаю веселые сказки таинственных стран
Про чёрную деву, про страсть молодого вождя,
Но ты слишком долго вдыхала тяжелый туман,
Ты верить не хочешь во что-нибудь кроме дождя.

И как я тебе расскажу про тропический сад,
Про стройные пальмы, про запах немыслимых трав.
Ты плачешь? Послушай... далёко, на озере Чад
Изысканный бродит жираф.
Nikolai Gumilev, 1908

This evening the look in your eyes is especially sad,
And your arms are especially vine-like entwining your calf.
So listen to me: far away, on the shores of Lake Chad
There roams an exquisite giraffe.

He is gracefully slender and gifted with bliss from within,
And none on the Earth dares to equal him, only the moon
Will stencil the magical patterns that cover his skin
As it shatters and floats on the mists of a spacious lagoon.

From afar he resembles a caravel's colorful sails,
And his canter is smooth like exuberant avian flight.
I know that the earth holds a hundred miraculous tales
Of when he retires to a grotto of marble at night.

I know merry tales from mysterious lands, and a song
Of a maiden's dark cheeks, with a chieftain's desires for refrain,
But you have inhaled the dank lead of the fog for too long,
You will not believe any sound but the patter of rain.

And how will I tell you of tropical gardens all clad
In vines, slender palms, pungent grasses the wind bends in half?
You're crying? But listen to me... far away, on Lake Chad
There roams an exquisite giraffe.

Unlike the previous poem, this one has been translated many times, for example (as I just found via a Google search) by Stephen Dodson, a.k.a. language hat.  My own translation dates from November, although for some reason I hadn't posted it until now.  Apparently Dodson and I came to some startlingly similar solutions (caravel? really?)

The Bagel


О бублик, созданный руками хлебопека!
Ты сделан для еды, но назначение твое высоко!
Ты с виду прост, но тайное твое строение
Сложней часов, великолепнее растения.
Тебя пошляк дрожащею рукой разламывает. Он спешит.
Ему не терпится. Его кольцо твое страшит,
И дырка знаменитая
Его томит, как тайна нераскрытая.
А мы глядим на бублик и его простейшую фигуру,
Его старинную тысячелетнюю архитектуру
Мы силимся понять. Мы вспоминаем: что же, что же,
На что это, в конце концов, похоже,
Что значат эти искривления, окружность эта, эти пятна?
Вотще! Значенье бублика нам непонятно.
Nikolai Oleinikov, 1932

The Bagel
for Kate a few days after her birthday*

O Bagel, loving breadmaker's creation!
Though you are meant as food, how lofty is your station!
Though simple you may seem, your structure's mystery
Is finer than a watch, more splendid than a tree.
The humdrum crumbles you with trembling hands.  He rushes.
He cannot wait.  He fears your ring.  It crushes
Him, and the famous hole
With unsolved mystery weighs down his soul.
But we behold the bagel and we strive to make conjectures
About its simple shape, its thousand-year-old architecture.
What is it, what, we struggle to recall,
What's so familiar about it all?
This curvature, these spots, this roundness -- what is their intention?
In vain!  The bagel is beyond our comprehension.

Nikolai Oleinikov was an editor of magazines for children and one of the lesser-known members of the Oberiu group of early Soviet poets.  He was born in 1898 and killed in (guess...) 1937, and his short oeuvre was largely unpublished until perestroika.  And for good reason: its studied naiveté is a vehicle for parody and mockery, the greatest enemy of ideologues everywhere.  For those with JSTOR access, here is a pretty lucid discussion of Oleinikov and his work in English (though with unglossed poems.)

As far as I can tell, his collection, Пучина страстей (The Abyss of Passions), has never been published in English; only a few poems have been translated and published in magazines and on the Internet. "The Bagel" is now one of them.

For what it's worth, Wikipedia in its multilingual wisdom informs me that a bublik is not the same as a bagel, but I'm guessing there are no places outside of maaaybe Brooklyn where you might get confused.

*I think birthdays should have a 15% error margin.

Friday, March 4, 2011

This was written around February 15

Since then winter has poked its head back in the door. I'm so bad at this blogging thing.

Mirrors in Springtime

Who do you think you are, here, shoveling the sea,
Churning the sky to whip up butter-clouds,
Scrunching its blade into a funhouse grimace
To shove it through the gullet of the earth?

There's no going back!
You can't mop up the spring.  You can't sand off
The rivery veneer that covers winter's vigor
Even to bare its murky cotton bones,
But there rush in chattering brief brilliant shards:
This is it.  Throw down your antiquated instruments.

Suffer it to thunder by,
Until the world falls, dry and docile, in your lap.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A post I would've written in December but didn't because I didn't (and still don't) have the right picture

But here is the wrong picture:
In December, when I was in Pasadena, a poem got into my head, and it wrote itself simultaneously in Russian and in English.  In Russian it went like this:
Жарко.  Ветер.  Меткими бомбами
С платанов обрушиваются листья, оглушительно шурша.
Где-то тут затерялось время.
Под каким листом оно спрятано?
And in English, it went like this:
Somewhere above there's a breeze. With bomb-like precision,
Leaves hurtle from the trees, rustling thunderously.
Somewhere here I lost track of time.
Do you know which leaf it's hidden under?
Even if you don't speak either language (in which case you're probably not reading this) you can see that these are not entirely equivalent pieces of text.  Yet I claim that they are the same poem: they express the same set of concepts that happened to be in my head at the time.  Certain techniques match -- it's fortuitous that there was enough onomatopoeia in both languages for the concepts in the second line -- but in other places the two diverge, for example in the first line, where they leave different details unspoken, to be reconstructed from the rest of the scene.  This sort of self-analysis is what has convinced me that translating free verse must be excruciatingly hard -- perhaps harder than metered poetry, and certainly much harder than prose.  Not that I've tried it.  But the relation of the meaning of a poem to the meanings of its words and phrases is decidedly nontrivial.

In Le Ton beau de Marot, Hofstadter pours a great deal of invective on Dylan Thomas' “How Soon the Servant Sun,” claiming that it is untranslatable because it's meaningless.  Now, this poem is obscure, but it's clearly not meaningless.  You can call it bullshit, sure -- in other words you can question how much of the meaning was intended by the poet -- but meaning (some of it, of course, personal to the reader) is still there in spades if you look for it rather than purposely sweeping it away.

Anyway, Hofstadter also gives an example of a French translation of this poem that I remember being far too true to the words to be true to the sense.  To me, the real moral of the story is that to translate a poem like this you really need to internalize its concepts and write a new poem that encompasses the same meaning, without trying to map words to words.

I haven't tried to analyze “How Soon the Servant Sun” in detail.  If I did, the output would be a translation to Russian.  It's not that I think that analyzing the meaning of a poem through prose is always inappropriate, but it's not what I want to do with my life or these pages.

So, a future project?

Remission statement

I realized eventually that if you try to set yourself limits on what to blog, you never blog anything.  Wait, let me try this again.  If I try to set myself limits on what to blog, I end up abandoning the blog entirely.  So I will now blog whatever I feel like putting out there.  And if there aren't enough pictures, well, so be it.