On Losing Your (Carrara) Marbles: a Note on Tsvetaeva in English

I have started translating Tsvetaeva because — with some exceptions— current translations irritate me, and for largely the same reasons that most of Dante's translators irritate me.

They do not turn her into a bad poet, and usually get something at least okay out of her.

Pasternak can easily sound like bad Tennyson if the translator is not careful. Pushkin easily comes across as a trite repository of second-hand ideas and clichés (which, to be fair, he sometimes was in his interpersonal life though not his art).

But it would take serious effort, seriously inverted talent, or serious risk of the kind translators seldom take, in order to make Tsvetaeva or Mandelshtam into consistently bad verse. Tsvetaeva's poetic thinking is often dense, image-laden in precisely the right way to supply the requisite combination of formulaic oddity and paired-down rhetoric that modern English-speaking literary elites expect.

This is a problem, because it invites the translator — and therefore the reader — to enjoy the comfort zone. It is all even. Like a literal translation of the expression все равно. English translators of Tsvetaeva are less creative and/or more timid than they could be, than Tsvetaeva. It would be a cliché — and, worse still, untrue — to say that they water her wine down. But they add more than a spoonful of sugar to make her medicine go down in the most unsleightful way. And unlike airborn English nannies, they don't usually like doing it musically. They sacrifice Tsvetaeva's linguistic sensibility for one that is acceptable to English-speakers reading a poem (especially in translation where there is higher atmospheric pressure to be, in one or another sense, "normal.")

Imagine the great Sylvie Laplatte's poem "Father" began thus in English translation:

You are not suited, you are not suited 
To me any longer, black shoe 
Where I've lived like a foot   
For thirty years, poor and white,   
Hardly daring to take a breath or sneeze.

Two widely-praised translations, very different from each other, have the same basic problem. Elaine Feinstein cuts Tsvetaeva's music down by more than a meter, smooths out her abruptness, and turns her into very competent free verse. David McDuff, translating with a lot of rhyme and reason, produces some stiffness in his versions, to be sure, but that's not much of a problem. Tsvetaeva could be stiff. But he runs flatfoot over her polysemy, her wordplayfulness, her sense of the game, as well as her shifts of mood and tone. Removed in both cases are any linguistic eccentricities that are irreconcilable with how English-readers have been indoctrinated conditioned to think modern poetry should sound.

Content to take the English language as they find it, translators allow and even encourage their Tsvetaeva-clones grow into a genteel poetessa of sorts. They may be suited to the taste. But they do not do, they do not do.

Tsvetaeva was not content to take the Russian language as she found it. She did things that were not merely odd but weird. She wasn't setting out to to rock boats, to be sure. But she did helm a boat that really rocks. What she wanted to do led her to push the limits of poetic language, sometimes almost to the breaking point. Her poetry is full of double and quintuple entendres. She sometimes coins words, and uses existing ones in odd ways. Take the lines from "Jealousy Attempt"

Как живется вам с простою
Женщиною? Без божеств?
Государыню с престола
Свергши (с оного сошед),

(How's life going with a simple woman? Without godhead? Having overthrown your empress from the throne — and having thence stepped down —)

The prose paraphrase does not convey a few things. It cannot convey that "without godhead" is an allusion to Pushkin. It also does not convey the fact that the third and fourth of these lines use a highly archaic style reminiscent of the high court poetry of two hundred years earlier. Nobody speaks (or writes) with words like оного. On the other hand "Как живется" is colloquial and informal. You'd talk to friends your own age like that, but not your boss.

Tsvetaeva's vocabulary ranges from the bookish almost to the backstreet. She has no compunction about mixing the archaic register of 18th century bombast with the language of casual conversation in the same poem, and even in the same stanza. Imagine "What's up?" and "Thou" occurring in the same stanza in an American English poem.

It's possible to do the same sort of thing in English, mixing registers, toying with words, with a regard both for the land of the literal and the waves of the littoral. It's hard but there's nothing impossible about it. Translators often don't have the balls. They set up the net, but they aren't playing with any balls. And when you aren't playing with balls, you're just raising a racket.

The takeaway, in other words, is that translators should loosen up, find their balls and play with them a bit. Remember: just because you're speaking seriously, doesn't mean you can't have fun doing it. 

Musings, Thought-shards and the Like

The world is often most eager to categorize those individuals who most defy any easy categorization. As a rule, the less of a reductive cliché one is, the more clichés one is reduced to.

***

Success as a writer is to get a positive reaction for telling the reader something other than what they were already waiting to be told. Any idiot can feed things into a waiting and eagerly opened mouth. It takes skill or luck to get the morbidly insensate to realize they are in need of nourishment.

***

The fact that an account isn't representative of everything does not mean it isn't representative of anything

***

Good is something you just talk about. It is something you do. Or it is nothing.

***

You cannot institutionalize independent thinking

***

It is often the establishment's greatest beneficiaries who stand to benefit the most by convincing others, and eventually themselves, that they are anti-establishment underdogs.

***

The only moral response to “If you're not with me, you're against me” is “in that case, I'm against you”

***

I have noticed for a long time that religious people have much greater clarity about the gods they don't believe in than the gods that they do.

***

The best literary translators are concerned not with the great amount that is lost in translation, but with the equally great amount that stands to be gained.


***

I have often noticed that what is called God's justice is typically a human's idea of what they would do if they were God.

***

Upper-class liberal multiculturalism is an aristocratic self-image. There are certainly things that it is preferable to. But there is no need to pretend that it is more, or other, than what it is.

***

People who have no actual power to control events often comfort themselves by pretending that they in some way have control. A good measure of defeat is the degree to which the distinction between minor and major problems is obliterated, and matters of secondary consequence are invested with great moral urgency. If I have no real ability to change a thing in any way, but I can of course control my personal behavior, it is seductive to think that changing how I behave, how I talk about a thing, what I wear, or what movies I do or do not pirate, may actually contribute to changing the thing itself. "We all have our part to play in this" is an appealing alternative to the prospect that you are simply out of account. Sometimes, it is the alternative to losing your mind completely.

***

Always beware of those whom everybody finds charming or likable. For the same reason that you shouldn't be impressed at the sense of humor of someone who laughs at absolutely everything. If you're not disliked by somebody, if nobody has a problem with you, then there is a lot you conceal from everyone.

***

A loathing or repudiation of rhetoric is neither necessary nor sufficient to allow one to see beneath the rhetorician’s lie. A lie is a lie, no matter what stuff it be gauded in. The distinction between matter and manner should be made, at least sometimes.

***

The laugh of the cynic should not be mistaken for soullessness. It is the alternative to a life of horrified screaming.

***

A valuable habit to cultivate: learn to discern the truth by the way other people tell lies, but never slip into paranoia.

***

"Russian is a richer language than English!" Pfah. I defy anybody to find a Russian word for privacy, or three Russian words that can adequately translate the three-way distinction between disillusionment, disenchantment and disappointment.

***

You will rarely find that any two randomly selected individuals are exactly the same height. One will always be taller and the other shorter, if only by a fraction of an inch. Likewise, it is statistically likely that, of any two given evils, one will be the lesser. And it is a fact of eternal banality that, when one is faced with a list of bad options, the best option chosen will still be bad.
But those who employ the phrase "lesser of two evils" are not simply re-stating the obvious. There is a seedy rationalization at work. It is worth noting that this is often the only use of the word "evil" that such people ever permit themselves. Scarcely a second after inflicting the cliché upon the eye or the ear, they forget that the lesser of two evils is, still and ever, evil.
And there is no limit to the degree of evil a sane mind can be found to endorse, as long as that evil can be cast as the lesser of two.

***

Intelligent people can be brilliant at believing stupid things. A narrow intelligence, in the absence of proper perspective, may easily make a person all the more tenacious in maintaining the most ridiculous of ideas, as they are all the more equipped to rationalize whatever bullshit they are loath to relinquish. Formalistic thinkers in particular are suckers for beautiful arguments with one false premise.

***

يشكل التسامح، وفقا للمعايير الحديثة، فكرةً غير متسامحة في الاساس. التسامح يعني انني احكُمك، وسأسمح لك بقسط من الحقوق والامتيازات التي اتمتّع بها ،ولكن ليس كلها، شرطا أنْ تتصرف تبعا لقوانين أشرّعها وأنفّذها وأفرضها انا عليك. إنّ حقوق الانسان ليس لها ادنى علاقة بمجرد التسامح، فالتسامح لا يُنتِج مقدار ذرة من الاحترام بالضرورة

***

I think the time has come for the term “liberal reactionary.” A person who sees the anti-racist consensus under attack, and uses this as an excuse to double down on their class-interests.

***

Impure genius exists. Pure genius is an oxymoron.

***

Those who hate evil more intensely than they love good are in a dangerous position.

***

شأن الله شأن الفلوس والزواج والقوانين وغيرها من الاشياء والمفاهيم التي لا توجد سوى بقدر ما يؤمن المجتمع بوجودها

***

Joseph Brodsky is not the best translator of Joseph Brodsky. I wonder if the reason so many of his best poems have yet to be well translated into English is because others were uncomfortable trying their hands when an English version by the author's own hand existed.

***

Relatively few love poems celebrate a love that actually exists with a lover who is actually present. Poets tend to either anticipate it with joy or look back on it with nostalgia or pain. They prefer the past or future to the present. Actual love in the present moment seems to be diminished by too much introspection, and those love poets who deal with it seem to relish the mundanity of things, as if to reaffirm that what they are feeling is real.

***

The Abbasids appropriated Hellenism from the Byzantines as part of an explicitly articulated cultural program of supplanting and delegitimating the Byzantines as heirs to Greek greatness. And it was done largely with the labor of Christians and converts from Christianity. Or did you think Abbasid Arab Muslims actually bothered to learn Greek and Syriac? Nobody who whinges about cultural appropriation has any business glorifying the Abbasid translation movement.

***

I am tired of the use of the word “colonialism” not as a descriptor of a set of identifiable practices, but as a morally charged (and frequently psychologically inflected) metaphor that passes for reality. This is responsible for a good deal of muddled thinking.

***

Actual diversity is the last thing to be found within ten miles of anyone who feels the need to make noise over Diversity™

***

سامح اعداءك لكن لا تنسٓ أبدا أسماءهم

***

New Rule: you can’t be an expert on the Middle East if you can’t read a newspaper article in either Hebrew, Arabic or Persian.

***

There is no crime that a human being can commit that would justify treating them as less than a human being.

***

If you genuinely think nothing worse than Trump is possible, then you are ignorant of history and current global affairs.

***

There is something fucked up about a country that gets more bent out of shape about a president calling Haiti a shithole country than about a president bombing Yemen. 

***

The world is run by sociopaths and you have to live in it.

***

It’s gotten so that every time I see the phrase “profoundly problematic” I think “what fresh bullshit am I going to be served today?”

***

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a completely ad-hoc plot convenience cooked up in the writers' room.

***

Your freedom of speech does not translate into my obligation to listen.

***

Слово пошлость часто считается непереводимым. Как бы то ни было, хотя у нас в америке такого слова нет, зато в значительном избытке есть само явление.

***

Intersectionality is how members of the haute bourgeoise like Ava Du Vernay can be seen to speak for the black woman who sold me my last burger at McDonalds

***

إن اردت التعددية فتحتاج الى دولة علمانية لا الهَ في دستورها اذ أنّ العلمانية الضامن الوحيد للحرية الدينية.


***

I dearly wish comic book artists would stop drawing women like deformed sex-mutants

***

According to my thesaurus, there isn't another word for synonym

***

Mars habet duces.
Pax habet decus.
Qui marte luces
Tu dux es caecus,
Trumpus Donaldus.
Baro in luce,
Follis est caldus.
Saluto il Duce.

***

What dumbass put an "s" into the word "lisp"?

***

I have nothing but respect for the Department of Fatherland Security

***

The sentence "every farmer who has a donkey beats it" has many possible meanings.

***

Postmodernism is the bad hangover of a civilization that got drunk on the idea that nothing would ever happen again for the first time.

***

The idea of artistic originality (and the negative connotations of "plagiarism"), has got to be one of the stupidest ideas the modern world has about art. Uncertain paternity is no more a blemish on an artistic work than on a person, and the only real bastards are the Romantics who failed to grasp this. Many ridiculous notions such as "ripoff" and "derivative" (as well as a whole sub-genre of modern copyright law) rest on the same general absurdity.

***

This Ibid guy must be the most prolific and versatile scholar ever to exist.

***

Just because I'm an atheist, doesn't mean I don't believe in anything at all. I do, for example, firmly believe in the reality of the Surgeon Birth. It is undeniably true that C-sections actually happen.

***

The Grinch seems to be the last of his species. No wonder he's bitter at the Whos. They probably exterminated his entire civilization.

***

Я помню чудное мученье.
Передо мной явился ты,
Стабильный гений неведенья,
Как призрак фарса и беды.
— А.С. Пушкин к Дональду Трампу

***

This A. Z. Foreman guy is so arrogant and pretentious, I bet he even talks about himself in the third person. 

***

One of the smelliest things about Cop Shows in any country is their tendency to portray Internal Investigations as the Bad Guy.

***

لا يحتاج العقلاء الى وعد الجنّة ولا الى التخويف من الجحيم لإدراك الفضل في الأعمال الصالحة

***

Never insult literature by turning it into scripture. Shakespeare has suffered enough at the hands of his worshippers.

***

Violence sometimes is the solution, no matter what fortune cookies say. But that doesn’t mean you should be an idiot about it.

***

It is probably a crappy movie if the black supporting character refers to “my black ass” at any time.

***

Just because an opinion is given by an expert, doesn't mean it is wrong. 

***

It doesn’t seem to me to be true that “nothing can really be translated.” Nearer the truth is that everything can be translated. It’s just that not everything can be translated well.

***

Language is the one thing where, the more educated you are, the more ignorant you tend to be about it.

***

Many of the old left, of all colors, are disturbed by the obsession over “cultural appropriation” because a lot of what they cherish most (whether as artists, political thinkers or just as human beings) comes from their having violated some cultural precinct formerly held sacrosanct. Concern with cultural intactness and with “whose culture a tradition really belongs to” is profoundly conservative, no matter what your color. I can’t help but notice that a lot of the people in the Anglophone world who are most eager to bow to the idea of cultural appropriation as a kind of terrible blasphemy are also some of the ones who uttered not a goddamn peep in 1989-1990 to defend Salman Rushdie from the charge of literal blasphemy and literal death threats. “This hurts my cultural feelings" is an age old cry of conservatism in any and every society.

***

You can't dismiss Human Rights as merely an imperialist creation without asking: what would a world without the concept of rights be like?

***

I am sick of people making the claim that there is no objective truth, as if it were objectively true.

***

كان هناك رجل لم يعجبه طبخ زوجته، فوضع لها لوحةً في المطبخ كتب عليها
"إن الله يحب إذا عمل احدكم عملا أن يتقنه"
أخذتها فعلّقتها في غرفة النوم 

***

One reason why administrators love adjunct professors is that they are usually too vulnerable to teach any topic seen as controversial.

***

Things that are regarded as evil always draw in an unseemly fascination, but things regarded as trashy or behind the times do not. What will it take, I wonder, for reasonless violence to fall plonk in the realm of the Uncool? Eventually, we may grow so bored with seeing our fellow creatures dismembered in simulacrum, that trashy may be the worst anyone is able to think of it anymore.

***

Just because a lie is batshit crazy and absurd, does not mean it is meaningless, that its effect is not worth taking seriously. I don't just mean taking seriously the possibility or even likelihood of someone or some multitude believing the lie. I mean the effect that constantly being lied to has on you, me, and any other primate. The power of lies is not simply to get you to believe untruth. Constant assault of fabrication on one's faculties has the effect of dulling them in specific ways. Being inundated with transparent lie on lie for great stretches of time will have at least one effect: getting you used to being lied to. When you're used to being lied to constantly, when you simply accept it as part of the background noise of existence, truth tends to matter less and critical faculties wither. It becomes easier to convince yourself of all sorts of things that — from the outside — might sound delusional, easier to dismiss information out of hand that may have proven vital. So if you're going to be lied to constantly, it's best to dissect a lie now and again. If the experience of being lied to constantly is normalized, you are that much more vulnerable to demobilizing paranoia.

***

Donald Trump uses the phrase “fake news" in a way that blurs the more useful sense of the phrase. It muddles the distinction between good-faith poor journalism which - whether through bias, exaggeration or oversight - may be inaccurate and perhaps misleading, and a deliberate hoax which has no basis in fact and is intended to make you believe that it is something other than what it really is. A Yiddish proverb has it that "a half truth is a whole lie" and there's that Blake quote about how a "truth that's told with bad intent/ beats all the lies you can invent." All well and good. But there is an important difference between badly reporting the truth, and successfully purveying lies.

***

Women will soon be able to drive cars in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are finally entering the nineteenth century.

***

“I agree with you, but more eloquently”
- Martin Luther King Jr.

***

"في المستقبل كلما الناس بتسألني "دينك ايه؟" جوابي حيبقى "انا باعبُد الغباوة، وانت الهي الجديد


***

Secular piety is the funniest kind

***

On Star Trek they treat it as alien that Bajorans put their family name before their personal name (as in "Smith John".) I keep wondering what happened in the future to the Hungarians, the Chinese, the Koreans, the Mordvins, the Japanese and everybody else.

***

Multilingualism, both historically and presently, is more common than monolingualism. Yet linguistics has traditionally operated as if the monolingual were the normal speaker. An unnoted irony inheres in the fact that the majority of human beings ever to inhabit this weary globe have been capable of conversing in more languages than Noam Chomsky. 

***

The upper middle class always hates it when the poor are not sufficiently miserable

***

If bathroom legislation is about protecting children, there should be separate bathrooms for unmarried clergy.

***

I wanted healthcare like a civilized country and American capitalism gave me a Bluetooth salt shaker.

***

You don’t need to respect the religion somebody practices in order to respect their right to practice it

***

Iran supports the Armenians in Nagorno Karabakh, even though Azeris are Shi'a. Lesson for anyone who thinks religion guides foreign policy.

***

Bad questions do not deserve good answers. At least, not all the time.

***

Star Trek: Enterprise is the Keyser Söze of outer space. The mind is always flaming wreckage in its wake.

***

I wish the police took sexual assault as seriously in real life as they do on cop shows

***

For Marx and Engels, it was Russia that was the reactionary behemoth and America the great hope of liberty. Something they usually don't teach you. In either country. 

***

Appelons les choses par leur nom: le régime de Trump est une ploutocratie.

***

Placing a high value on authenticity seems paradoxically to encourage phoniness

***

Increasingly one is forced to render one's own intellect anonymous as the price for functioning as an intellectual.

***

To be objective is not to be neutral. The truth is usually somewhere in the middle, but it is almost never in the exact middle. The only time "objectivity" deserves those scare quotes is as a misleading synonym for neutrality. 

***

Donald Trump is what America gets for slapping bandaids on an infected wound and pretending it isn't there.

***

Russian-American Putinheads remind me of the German-American Bund.

***

Female Starfleet captains who aren't named "Janeway" have a mortality rate that would shock a redshirt

***

I've often heard people say "we should have just let the south secede." Oddly enough, it's mostly only white people that say that. 

***

Mountains fall before the power of hyperbole.

***

I have noticed that absentminded professors in fiction are always, always male.

***

I'm no good at being anything other than myself except when I translate literature. Translation is an escape from the nuisances of self.

***

If I were a woman posting the same shit I already do, I have no doubt people would be all "why are you so bitchy all the time?"

***

People who blame themselves for everything have an exaggerated sense of their own importance.

***

The notion of a "Western Construct" is also a western construct. Translation: fuck you too

***

The Bible is 100% accurate when thrown hard at close range

***

New rule: you can't call a country Marxist if its citizens aren't allowed to read Marx in uncensored form.

***

لو انا في غرفة وكل شخص فيها اسمه "طارق"، هو ده معناه انني في غرفة الطوارق؟

***

Political correctness is for white people so busy respecting other people's cultures that they forget to respect other people.

***

I thought about ceasing to be a surrealist, but then I went back to filling the bathtub with brightly colored power-tools

***

Since cellphones are becoming more and more waterproof, soon it will be okay to push people into swimming pools again

***

Sometimes conflicts arise because two parties misunderstand one another, and sometimes because they understand one another all too well.

***

The chance of being horribly misunderstood is directly proportional to the importance and gravity of whatever it is you're talking about.

***

There appears to be a mostly positive correlation between the stupidity of a language ideology and how smart its adherents believe themselves to be. 

***

Those who claim to judge others based on their intelligence typically have a very stupid idea of what intelligence actually is.

***

That what passes for the truth is often no such thing doesn't mean the search for truth is fruitless.

***

When a couple is having problems in a film, all it takes is a major catastrophe for them to fix all their marriage issues and be happy.

***

USA Today claims that Welsh is a “notoriously difficult” language. Difficult? Pshaw. I think Anglophones rate any language as “difficult” just for not being Spanish or French or German.

***

I avoid a lot of horror movies, because watching a teenage girl get dismembered alive is not my idea of a good time.

***

In the fight between oligarchic corporatism and authoritarian nationalism, the true losers are those who think one of them is the good guy.

***

Being highly educated does not make you particularly intelligent. People seem to have difficulty with this fact.

***

“Connery” c’est super rigolo comme nom.

***

Translation theory using cultural respect to avoid letting a work actually communicate is the most colonial of all.

***

Is there a parallel universe where people believe in Thor, and Yahweh is one of the Avengers?

***

Logical flaws are like farts. You don't mind your own, but someone else's can be really unpleasant when you pick up on them.

***

Cultural Identity is a chronic disease contracted through prologued contact with infected individuals, usually in childhood. Though seldom fatal, all humans, even the seemingly immune, should be considered carriers and potentially contagious. The only consistently effective treatment is for infected individuals to place themselves under quarantine and avoid all human contact for several years. However, symptoms will reappear upon resuming contact with infected persons. Another temporary, usually less effective remedy, is to exchange saliva with another sufferer of a different strain.

***

When people write that "purchasing sex to me is violence against women" what they're telling me is that they are either sadly confused about what Purchasing Sex is often really about, or that they have a definition of Violence Against Women that is so contorted as to be worse than useless.

***

Hypothesis: take any 100 Americans from my generation into a time machine and drop them off in an American city 30 or so years before their birth. Within one month, 10-30 of them will have killed themselves.

***

The fact that what passes for the truth is often nothing of the kind does not mean that the search for truth is fruitless. Rather, it means that such a search is all the more urgent.


***

We Americans have this cultural assumption that peace is the norm and war the exception. But that is only an assumption.

***

I notice that when people do not know how to do something, they tend to assume it is either far far easier or far far harder than it really is.

***

When the history of late 20th and early 21st century America is written, a large chapter will have to be devoted to how such a large swathe of the electorate remained so clueless about how corrupt their representatives really were, in the face of so much evidence. Members of my generation will find themselves having to explain ashamedly to their grandchildren what absolute fucking chumps they were.


***

"I am sick of all the fake shit being attributed to me on the internet"
-Albert Einstein

***

Blue percent of Americans have synesthesia.

***

The things that distant posterity remembers most vividly are usually the things that never really happened. Worshipful deification by posterity is the true Hell to which successful idol-smashers and blasphemers are often consigned after death.

***

Life isn't about money or power. It is about easily digestible platitudes which tell you what life is about.

***

Nostalgia is not a kind of remembrance. It is a form of forgetting in which the present overshadows the past so completely and the future so frightens us, that the only refuge is the delusion of remembrance: fabrication of a past that never existed, when we can't handle the truth that even good old days were pretty godawful too.

***

Behind much talk of challenging power inequality, and attempted criticism of power structures, there lies no coherent, rational and secure vision of a better world, but an incoherent, insecure and irrational obsession with power itself, not as a means to an end but as an end in itself, a state of being. The seductive idea of power obscuring all other considerations. Much of this bloviation about "empowerment" in many circles seems to both perpetuate and mask a continued Enslavement, to a retrograde idea of Power Itself.

***

I have noticed two things about the antagonists in videogames: they are so good as to never give the hero a second break, yet so incompetent as to be thwarted at every turn.

***

There are some languages where different word-order may be as unimportant as that between a sleeping man, and a man sleeping. There are others where it is as crucial as the difference between a venetian blind and a blind venetian.

***

I'm glad the forbidden fruit Adam consumed was an Apple. Just think how much more damned we would all be if even the Fruit of Knowledge were running Windows.

***

Plato, you're full of shit. There is no evil in this changeful material world. But the world of our immutable ideals is crawling with it.

***

When George Orwell died in 1950, he had at last achieved an international reputation, and was having to issue repeated disclaimers of the use the American Right was making of Nineteen Eighty-Four. One wishes he had lived just a little longer to give the American Right its due at full Orwellian blast.

Pope Pourri

Pope Francis is calling fake news satanic and saying that it goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden.

Oh please.

In an age when Israeli archaeologists have shown that the Jews were never slaves in Egypt and that Joshua’s conquests never happened, this is like watching Dane Cook making jokes about Carrot Top.

Not to beat a dead cliché, but I automatically suspect news to be fake if it involves talking snakes, magic fruit, virgin births and dead people coming back to life.

But then, the Vatican’s developmental timeline is a slow one. It took them until 1965 to decide that the news of Jewish Deicide was fake.

I Will Put Chaos Into 十四行詩: A Thought On The Chinese Sonnet

I've noticed something about Chinese sonnets. As is often the case with sonnets, the Chinese sonnet is a marked genre, in that the choice of form implies certain things about what content may or may not be appropriate to it. Unlike the Medieval and Renaissance Italian sonnet, it is not marked as amorous. Unlike the medieval Hebrew sonnet it is not marked as "satirical." Unlike Western European sonnets generally, it is not marked as traditional at all.

Rather, it appears to be marked as slightly "experimental" like the ghazal in German or English. It seems to offer the Chinese poet in the first instance a space to engage in poetic behavior that is metrically structured and rhymed, and quite possibly prosodically complex (using Wen Yiduo's Sishui meter for example) but not traditional. To Chinese Republican poets who were fond of patterned verse, it must have offered an option that wouldn't seem fusty and out of date. On the contrary, the Chinese sonnet seems to be where the poet is allowed to do unexpected or even nonsequitous things. There is a sense in which the real English analogue to Zheng Min writing a sonnet about a Renoir painting is not an English sonnet about same, but rather something like Keith Holyoak experimenting with Chinese prosody, writing regulated verse in English about his time in Tibet, or English "old style" verse about his time with his father.

It seems a worthwhile question because translating the Chinese sonnets of Feng Zhi, Zheng Min, Pian Zhilin etc. as English sonnets, as the kind of sonnets that might be written by modern practitioners such as Kate Light or even Willis Barnstone (or even by Yeats or Larkin or Rilke) seems to miss something. Sometimes it is almost too easy to do. Feng can often be turned into an English that sounds like a good Rilke translation. But Rilke took the sonnet form for granted in a way that Feng could not have.

Feng with his wish to "hold what cannot be held" in the confines of a sonnet is reminiscent of Millay's declaration that "I will put chaos into fourteen lines." But it is Feng who knows that chaos will always escape in the end, and can be only caught in a moment's motion, as wind in a weathervane which is only there at all because it is not at all held there.

I try to think of a model for what Chinese sonnetry in English should sound like and sound with. I take it for granted that there is no perfect option. There never is in any but the most tedious and dry of translation work. Any kind of translation that is worth doing for reasons beyond the narrowly utilitarian, beyond the barest of informational need, will require significant compromise.

But what compromise should there be? The easy thing would be to treat Chinese sonnets like English sonnets. An even easier thing would be to translate Chinese sonnets into free verse. Both seem defensible for different reasons, and to different degrees. But maybe there is something more to be done. A different kind of English rhyming suited to the potential and effect of the 13-track rhymes used by so many modern Chinese poets. Assonance combined with slight consonance combined with full rhyme, maybe, would reduce the contrasting rhyme categories sufficiently. Also, repetition of the rhyme across sestet and octave — as Chinese sonneteers often do — could do interesting things in English. All of which has been done by experimental sonneteers in English of the Larkin/Lowell castes.

I ought to read more about the Chinese sonnet.

When I first started to read Modern Chinese poets using the 13 rhymes of Peking opera, it seemed cheap in a way. I thought: Really? You need all your syllable-codas shoehorned into just thirteen categories? What, rhyming in Standard Mandarin just not easy enough? I almost want to ask "How does this not take all the fun out of it?" but that is actually a stupid question. Still, it seems like Chinese went into rebound not just from the traditional literary language but from everything that went with it, including the tedious discussions of what does and doesn't count as a rhyme (and for what purpose) and just said "ah, fuck it" when it came time to assimilate rhymed forms like this newfangled sonnet thingy.

Anyway, here's an idea:

十四行诗         Sonnet
馮至           Feng Zhi

從一片氾濫無形的水裡,  To freely overflowing formless water
取水人取來橢圓的一瓶,  The water-bearer brings an oval jar
這點水就得到一個定型;  Thus giving definite form to water's matter.
看,在秋風裡飄揚的風旗, Look! The windvane flutters in Fall air.

它把住些把不住的事體,  It holds that which cannot be held at all.
讓遠方的光、遠方的黑夜  Let some of the far dark, the distant light,
和些遠方的草木的榮謝,  The glory and decay of leaves in Fall
還有個奔向遠方的心意,  And the mind launching toward the infinite

都保留一些在這面旗上。  Be captured on that banner-vane this way.
我們空空聽過一夜風聲,  In vain we've listened to wind sough all night
空看了一天的草黃葉紅,  Watched grass go yellow and leaves grow red all day.

向何處安排我們的思想?  How now to focus, hold our thoughts aright?
但願這些詩像一面風旗   These verses be a windvane filled with Fall,
把住一些把不住的事體。  To hold some of what can't be held at all.


عن الديانات السماوية المزعومة

انا بجد مش عارف اي هي الاديان السماوية. اللي انا عارفو إنّ فيه اديان ابراهيمية زي اليهودية والبهائية والمسيحية وغيرها، وفيه برضوا اديان دارمية زي البوذية والجاينية والسيخية وغيرها. وفيه ديانات طاوية كمان. بس كوني مجرد انسان انا مش عارف انهي ديانات من دي ينفع نطلق عليها تسمية "سماوية." وده عشان انا عمري ما زرت السماوات علشان اكتشف ايه المناسب وغير المناسب هناك في الآخرة

On Translating Dante


             .....e nos podrèm entendre 
            Facilament, qu'es mon parlar roman 
            Parier coma lo tieu, e de comprendre 
            Ton òc ò lo francés amé mon sì 
            Non es esfòrç que non pòsqui entreprendre
            — Voice of Dante in Renat Toscano's Lo Grand Viatge,  

    I have read Dante, off and on, for about ten years. I have often thought about translating the Commedia. But the Commedia is so overtranslated, unlike certain other works which English-speakers don't even know about. Hell there are whole literatures (like this one, or this one or this one) whose existence is generally unknown. Why bother with Dante the Overtranslated, when I could be translating things that English-speakers can't already read?

   Turns out the answer is: to see what I can do with it.

   You'd think I'd go for the Inferno. But, seriously, everybody does the Inferno. It is the easiest of the three books, and also the weakest, though the first three cantos are great. I'd go so far as to say that nearly half of the Inferno is basically a virtuosic waste of the reader's time and of Dante's talent.

    So, there I was, nel mezzo del camin della mia giornata, trying to take my mind off of things I had to do. For spits and tickles, I sat down and tried my hand at the opening of the Purgatorio. Then I found myself translating more. Before I realized it, mi ritrovai per un viluppo. I had translated half the damn canto, while formulating ideas about how to translate the Commedia. Cercai una maglia rotta nella rette, e balzai fuori! Onward to canto's end. Eventually I did more, and did another of the Paradiso, and succumbed to the temptation to try my hand at Canto I of the Inferno. I also have incomplete draft translations of three cantos from the Paradiso in my files. Colpa è di chi m'ha destinato al foco. 

Lasso! Avviene elli a persona? 

    The answer is yes. The Commedia has been translated into English a ton. A metric fuckton, in fact. Sometimes even a metrical fuckton. There are at least 60 different English translations of it to my knowledge, and that is just the complete translations of all three books. Those who have produced complete English translations of at least one of the books (most often the Inferno) number well over a hundred. Those who have translated a complete canto into English may be impossible to count, numerosi come le arene del mare.

    In fact, the Commedia has been translated more into English than into any other language. I am not quite sure why this is. But part of it probably has to do with the fact that English-speaking Protestants and Anglicans were late in warming up to Dante's blend of classical mythology and Catholic theology. The Inferno was thus much more brand spanking new.

    Another reason I think is that the Commedia is in some respects harder to translate into English than some other languages. The terza rima, which was by no means always easy for Dante to square off in Italian, doesn't come easily to English translators. Most English pentameter is moreover blank verse, in which Dante's habit of end-stopping can feel clunky.

    Getting down to brass tacks, what would I bring to this frankly overcrowded and sometimes overrated table? There are many questions of philosophy, theology and diction to be tackled in a Dante translation.

There are also questions of form.

    Dante used the techniques of versification he inherited, including scrambled syntax and deletion of word-final vowels (a tactic probably adopted by imitation of Occitan verse where post-tonic vowels are much rarer.) His prosody can also be "rude" by later standards, and he sometimes plays loose with linesHe is not always polished or refined in the manner of a Petrarch. When the occasion calls for it, he is just as capable of delivering a versified Italian version of the Lord's Prayer as he is of using words like merda "shit" (Inf. XVIII) and culo "arse" (Inf. XXI). Before he was condemned to eternal worship in the deepest circle of the Italian canon, his style was considered borderline barbarous by some later poets, not least because he veered between "high" and "low" at will. The translator should feel free to follow Dante in this.

   A reputation as a pioneer of unaffected and plainspoken vernacularity has been pasted onto Dante like a feelgood bumper sticker slapped onto the ass of an embalmed corpse. To be sure, it makes him an appealing figure in an era when poetry (especially English-language poetry) is subjected to much corporal punishment if it tries to put on airs.
   This reputation would have likely struck Dante himself as bizarre and maybe a little insulting. Especially when applied to the Commedia, where the language gets progressively odder as you go along. The notion that he was "revolutionary in writing in the contemporary vernacular" has repeatedly been seized on in ways that make people strive for contemporaneity and readability and plainspokenness every which way. But he was not at all unusual in using the vernacular for high poetry. He was unusual in treating a classically-informed theological epic in it. Few others in his day would have dared have Virgil speak in lyric vernacular as a fictional character.

   He also did unusual things not just with the vernacular, but to it.

   While the Commedia uses lots of paired down, colloquial language and (in the Inferno) occasionally obscenity, it is far from being the "natural" language of anybody's speech, even at the level of vocabulary.
   In some parts, particularly the Paradiso, Dante seems to be straining to make the language unhuman. He coins a great many words (somewhere between two and five hundred, depending on how you count) of which a number caught on and survive today. When an Italian reads the Commedia today, they may not notice all the neologisms, because they have since been adopted into normative Italian. A great example is the verb inurbarsi "to enter a city, to get citied" coined in the Purgatorio, which took on a life of its own in Italian and today has developed the semantically extended sense of "to become refined, to lose one's rustic manners." Other famous Dantean coinages  include trasumanare "to go beyond the human, to transhumanate" and contrapasso "an ironic punishment which fits the sin, a counterpass, a contrapoise" (or as I would translate it: a splayback.)  The Commedia contains many even odder coinages like inluiarsi "to go into him, to be inhimmed" and intuarsi "to go into you, to inyouate, to be inyoued." The mountain of Purgatory "dis-lakes itself" (si dislaga) and "dis-evils" (dismala) those who climb it. Pasiphae, when she climbs into the mock-cow in a fit of godwrought lust, sins by "embeasting herself" (imbestiarsi). In Hell, Virgil refuses to "pulchrify" (appulcrare) beggars, and a simoniac pope speaks of another who goes "simonizing" (simoneggiare). There are even greek-inspired neologisms such as teodia (theody) from "theos" (god) apparently patterned off of salmodia (psalmody.) The proportion of neologisms in the Paradiso is at least twice that of the other two books. As Dante slowly enheavens himself, language itself grows unworlded to express hereafterthoughts.
   Dante also uses existing words in esoteric or otherwise odd ways (e.g. in Purg. XXVI where "mortale" is used as a noun to refer to the mortal fleshly part of the self).

   With Dante, it seems to me an English translator should be willing to avail themself not only of all the English that exists, but also of some English that doesn't exist.

   Aut inveniam viam aut faciam.

   Many of Dante's lines are contorted in a way that would not disgrace even the most recherché of Elizabethan sonneteers. There are even some lines (e.g. "Farotti ben di me volere scemo") where the syntax is so scrambled and elliptical that commentators are still in disagreement as to how to parse them even if the general meaning is clear.
   The distortions of syntax in which a medieval Italian, Spanish or French poet will freely indulge, but which are forbidden to the English translator, are rather on par with the kind found in Milton's Paradise Lost. For example:

...So Satan spake, and him Beelzebub
Thus answer'd. Leader of those Armies bright,
Which but th' Onmipotent none could have foiled....

A milder form may be found in Jennifer Lawrence's lines from "Doubt Not" written in the 1920s:

...That I would never leave a barren plain 
The forest dewed with what we know as love
Was true when true it was. I say again
I love thee, and I will be on the move
And afterward from out my bullseyed heart
Pluck out boy Cupid's most innocuous dart. 

   Milton didn't actually talk like this anymore than you do. We accept this kind of thing in Milton, because circles of literary arbitration are forever populated by souls too cultured, or just too cowardly, to suggest that such a great poet's work is vitiated by mere syntactic scrambling. Likewise, we have been trained — through the repeated thought-terminating injunctions of experto crede that often prevail in matters of artistic taste — to remember that it is "unnatural" when we are faced with anything written after WWII. De gustibus non est...ah booshit. The incoherence of such an aesthetic is obvious from the unfavorable reaction a polished Elizabethan sonnet will earn from the reader if you tell them it was written last week, and from the favorable reaction you can earn by writing in Elizabethan English so long as you credit your work to some obscure contemporary of Shakespeare.
   The same goes mutatis mutandis for other elements of the traditional English poetic register which  are so out of favor with present audiences that their use would hinder more than help any translator whom the reader knows to be operating in the here and now, such as the thou/you distinction,  contractions like 'neath, e'er, o'erta'en, 'twas, lexical items such as twain and inflections such as third person -eth. While 'twas, 'tis and twain were actually part of living English until some time in the 1700s, even Shakespeare probably didn't actually use the pronoun thou unless he was versifying or praying (though it does survive, increasingly vestigially, in some non-standard varieties of English. Listen to I Predict A Riot by the Yorkshire band Kaiser Chiefs, and you'll hear it used quite naturally in the second line, rhymed as it happens with a very colloquial British word.) What's more, forms such as ta'en have hardly ever been a part of anybody's real speech anymore than Miltonic syntax. Like the Occcitanoid apocope of cammin, correr, mar in Dante's lyric Italian (instead of the cammino, correre, mare which he would have used in probably all but the most rapid of speech) they came into existence mainly as an aid to poets. Today they are eschewed as poeticizing artificiality by people who do an impressive job of convincing themselves that they are something other than that in Milton.
   The contemporary prejudice of the reader on this point cannot be ignored. The reader cannot be expected to know better (anymore than could the critics who once fulminated against Whitman for not using rhyme and meter.) The 20th century, which plenished the Anglophone poet so many useful and sorely needed new tools, has for better and for worse smeared this particular implement with pathogenic shit. (Yet each man kills the thing he loves...) Today, as with any other superstition when it is widely shared, one must humor people on this, at least to some extent. Despite my instinct to use "all of the English that exists" this particular part of the language would cause more problems than it could possibly solve. So while I have allowed myself free rein (and sometimes even free reign) with neologisms, particularly when it comes to concepts relating to the afterlife, I decided to make very sparing and light use of syntactic scrambling in translating Dante (just as in translating other medieval Romance poetry), and have allowed myself no recourse to the traditional poetic register except in those few cases where it seemed outright moronic not to do so. You're welcome.

   Another point of order for me as an English translator of Dante is to respect the terza rima and do it in a way that adds to the poem rather than subtracting from it. When it comes to translating Dante, there is a long, labored and ludicrous tradition of insisting that terza rima is impossible (or prohibitively difficult) to pull off in English. One finds the same excuse offered up by English translators of other rhyming poets, even when translating French rhymed couplets, where — as Pope or Dryden will show — this is actually pretty easy to do in English. Even when English verse is translated into Italian, rhymes are very often not duplicated. The real reason is that the translator just doesn't want to bother with rhyme. I think sometimes the the translator has little experience writing rhymed verse of their own in English, and therefore is incapable of doing it in translation. Poets who are able to write in rhymed metrical verse in English, such as Richard Wilbur, John Ciardi, Dick Davis and William Jay Smith are quite able and often eager to do so when they translate. (Though notably, Eugenio Montale in translating English verse into Italian often doesn't bother with it, and Longfellow who normally translated Italian verse into rhyme used blank verse in rendering the Commedia, and of course Ugo Foscolo quite approved of blank verse English translations of Dante.)

An honest and respectable position would be "it's hard for me to do, and I have other priorities in what I want to bring out to the reader." But it is simply a face-saving move for the translator to tell their readers and themself that "English just doesn't allow" a certain practice, rather than admit to a personal inability.

As to terza rima, witness the opening of Shelley's famous poem:

    O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being, 
    Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead 
    Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing, 
    Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red, 
    Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou, 
    Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed 
    The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low, 
    Each like a corpse within its grave, until 
    Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow 
    Her clarion o'er the dreaming earth, and fill 
    (Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air) 
    With living hues and odours plain and hill....

    The idea that English is uniquely rhyme-poor is true only in the sense that it has fewer rhymes which would satisfy Italian or French (or Chinese or Persian) definitions of "true" rhyme. It is true that Italian contains many more rhyming words than English, but this simply means that repeated rhymes may be more acceptable in English than for Dante's Italian. English inflectional morphemes very rarely can produce rhymes the way they can in Italian or Russian. In English such morphemes don't carry stress, and so inflectional rhymes are possible only when secondary stress falls on -ing or -es (e.g. rhymes like Dante's intrai/abandonai/trovai where the rhyme depends on identical verb inflection would be on par with entering/abandoning/harrowing.) Still, even traditional poetic English permits itself various approximate rhymes (like Shelley's thou/low/blow above which didn't rhyme in his pronunciation anymore than they do in yours.)
    Nobody who has so much as glanced at Spenser's Faerie Queene or Byron's Don Juan can be forgiven for maintaining the idea that English doesn't have the rhymestock to handle terza rima in a long epic. In these works, the stanza requires either three or four lines to have the same rhyme sound.

    One of the problems with replicating Dantean terza rima has not to do with the difficulty of finding rhymes, but with the way English speakers react to them. Dante often uses "stunt rhymes" which call attention to themselves by their sheer ingenuity. In English, this kind of thing is traditionally restricted to comic verse as in William Cole's

On my boat on lake Cayuga
I have a horn that goes Ay-ooogah...

Or

The once was a Bishop of Birmingham
Who rogered young boys while confirming 'em.
To comply with his wont
They'd bend over the font
As he pumped his episcopal sperm in 'em.

   Dante on the other hand uses stunt rhymes as a virtuosic display. Many of his neologisms are rhyme-words confected for that purpose. I see no reason not to follow Dante, and break with English tradition, on this. Readers who can't or won't handle e.g. Gomorrah rhyming with bore her and the neologism Phantasmagora are advised to look elsewhere.
   In the Commedia, Dante also often uses Latinate forms, or words that in his own day were quite archaic, in order to supply the rhyme. He may use a word like schife at line-end in ways that make it unclear whether he means the verb schifare "loathe, abhore" or simply a rhyme-wrenched form of schivare "to flee."

   The anonymous author of one of the earliest surviving commentaries on the Commedia, one of the very few commentators who seem to have known Dante personally, relates:
Io scrittore udii dire a Dante, che mai rima nol trasse a dire altro che quello ch'avea in suo proponimento; ma ch'elli molte e spesse volte facea li vocaboli dire nelle sue rime altro che quello, ch'erano appo gli altri dicitori usati di sprimere
(I heard Dante say that the need to find a rhyme never forced him to say anything other than what he had intended to say, but that he often made the words in rhyme position say different things than what other poets used them to express.)   
    If sufficient occasional latitude is allowed with rhyme, and if the translator is willing to make the kind of effort which Dante deserves in any case, terza rima is quite doable. If Dante occasionally reached a bit in Italian for rhymes, why shouldn't English reach more often and farther?

    Once in a long while, Dante allows himself glaringly imperfect rhymes, some by "Sicilian" precedent and some by sheer license, which later generations found unacceptable. In the Commedia, -olto rhymes with -orto-esse with -isse, -omo with -umo etc. Dante's versification also generally allows for imperfect rhymes between open and closed o and e, rhyming e.g. cuore [kwɔ:re] with amore [amo:re] and questa [kwe:sta] with testa [tɛ:sta]. It is rather like allowing rhymes between English bate/met or coat/thought. This property of Italian poetry is masked by the writing system which doesn't distinguish between such vowels on the page, and I suspect that part of the illusion of Italian rhymes always being perfect (like the illusion that Italian orthography is perfectly phonemic or phonetic) is because many non-Italians consume the language more in written than in spoken form.

    I use imperfect rhymes of various types — orders of magnitude more than Dante did — and make no bones about it. I use rhymes drawn from different dialects of English. I also play loose with English versification. Unbending iambs are neither necessary nor desirable in a poem like this in modern English for a modern audience. The regularity of rhyme allows for a little loosening of the pentameter anyway. I take the iambic pulse as a base, but the only strict requirement is that each line have five identifiable beats.

Anyway click here to read my translation of Canto 1 of the Purgatorio.

(And click here to see how I tackle the opening of the Inferno.)

Thou Shalt Have No Other Gosh

"In monotheism the sacred is concentrated in one omnipotent and omniscient entity, whereas in polytheism it is diffused over a wide range of beings, places, objects, practices and human personnel. In reality there is both some seepage in most monotheisms, with saints and shrines and the like tending to proliferate, and some telescoping on the part of many polytheisms, with one god often being preferred above others. But the difference between the two is real and substantial. Firstly, in pre-modern societies that had not secularised public life and relegated religion to the private domain, monotheism is by nature intolerant and intransigent. For there to be only one true God all the rest must be impotent frauds, and those who worship them are not just in error, but damned, and should be fought or at the very least shunned. If you believe in many gods, however, there is no reason to be hostile to gods not your own, nor any bar to paying them and their faithful your respects. ‘When you enter a village, swear by its god’, as the old Arabian proverb goes. Secondly, the words of a unique omnipotent God must needs be the absolute Truth, in the light of which its recipients should therefore regulate their lives and interpret their world. Polytheism, on the other hand, is neither so unitary nor so coherent. It is rather a variegated worldview, one capable of eliciting a rich and subtle range of meanings from a multi-faceted reality, one desirous of understanding and influencing the many and varied ways the natural world impinges upon us."
-From "Arabia and the Arabs" by Robert G. Hoyland, p. 139

De Natura Peiorum

Christians have historically had one literary disadvantage against Roman Polytheists. To be a Christian — a good one anyway — it has until recently been broadly held that one must believe at least certain parts of Christian mythology to be true. (Not all Christians do or ever have, to be sure.) Greek and Roman polytheists of the 1st centuries BC and AD, though, suffered no such problem, and were free to take their mythologies less seriously and more creatively.

Romans of the late Republic and early Empire had no dearth of myths that they genuinely entertained as true, such as that of Romulus and Remus. It was a deeply superstitious society in many respects. Most believed in the supernatural to one degree or another, and even skeptics like Cicero set great social value on religious observance and ritual.

But many of the mythological trappings of Roman literature were myths almost as much to Romans as they are to us. The divine council, where gods behave like human beings (complete with having different rooms on Olympus where they hide, consort, conspire, screw each other, screw with each other, screw each other over, and act screwy with each other) is a Greek idea, probably much inspired by the Divine Councils of Near Eastern religions. Much else of the lore-store we associate with "Roman Mythology" was not widely believed in either. The "world-stream" Ōceanus encircling all the world (personified as a Titan) was not just false but obviously so to Romans of the day who knew, no less than you do, that the earth was spherical. During Rome's classical period, very few, in Greek or Latin, had entertained a flat earth cosmology for half a millennium or so. One such person is Lucretius, who found a spherical earth preposterous mostly because he had no idea what gravity was. (St. John Chrysostom, when he claimed that one could not be a Christian unless one believed in a flat earth, was committing a rank embarrassment for a literate Greek speaker.)

Nor did Romans seem to see much reason to care about such things. Not exactly. As a rule, religion for Romans was of social, not psychological or philosophical, importance. What you believed was not so important as what you did, whom you did it with, and whom you did it for. This is why Judaism could be tolerated more easily than Christianity once it caught on, and why Druids in particular were hunted down and persecuted not for beliefs about the cosmos but for having supposedly incited people to disobey the Senate.

This idea was inherited and — with some qualifications — maintained by many Christian emperors before Justinian. Rulers such as Constantine seem also to have cared less about the contents of anybody's head than about public ritual and public speech.

Suffice it to say that the idea of Roman "pagans" stubbornly clinging to their childish beliefs in childish gods who sit on a mountain somewhere is a Christian conceit. Intellectuals such as Cicero opined that only children and ignoramuses actually believed that these things and beings were literally real. There is all sorts of evidence of wide-spread skepticism, or agnosis, about the reality of the place the Greeks called Hades. Later sources are on record insisting on the metaphorical or monistically symbolic nature of mythological accounts. This was not so much a problem for Romans, for whom matters of what we call "faith" (a non-concept for Mediterranean polytheists) did not form the basis for social order or morality.

Traditional Greek lore did, though, form an appealing backdrop for literature and the visual arts. It is above all else here — in art forms patronized and practiced by an often quite skeptical elite — that celestial matters are taken over most fully from the Greece of five centuries earlier, and where Roman gods are most fully identified with Greek ones (or behave in other ways irreconcilable with Roman religion). This is not all that strange. Most English-speakers no longer believe in magic, werwolves, vampires, witchcraft, dragons, mermaids, haunted houses, fairies, gnomes, elves or unicorns either, and yet happily make and watch movies set in worlds where these things are real, just as they enjoy films about zombies, voodoo, genies and other fantastical or supernatural elements unknown to them until recently. Myths that many English-speakers still believe, or want to believe, are another matter. It is a truism of Near Eastern Archaeology that the Jewish Exodus out of Egypt and Joshua's conquest of Canaan are about as historical as King Arthur or Robin Hood. But piety still dictates considerable restraint when portraying such things.

It is in literature that Mars, equated with Ares, is an irascible war-god who takes pleasure in stirring shit up. This literary figmentation Virgil could call "impius Mars" in the end of his first Georgic. The Mars of Roman religion had a wild side to be sure, but was always more friend than faux. Though the equation of Mars with Ares did give the former a warlike aspect, this made him less a god of combat and gore than of what Americans would call Homeland Security and National Defense, and whether he was real or not was respectable as a personal matter of agnosis.

Translation all Fiqh'd Up

"Early discussions of the translation of the Qur’an related to the need to preach God’s revelation to non-Arabs, who, upon accepting Islam, could not be expected to perform the ritual prayer in Arabic. The jurist Abū Ḥanīfa (d. 150/767) seems to have permitted the recitation of the Qur’an in a foreign translation in performing ritual prayer for those Muslims who were not competent in the language. There is some discussion as to whether this was an absolute permission that was granted or just a temporary measure until the new Muslim acquired enough Arabic to be able to recite the Qur’an in its original language, but it seems that Abū Ḥanīfa may have given this license without qualification, in other words, as an absolute permission. This permission, in its absolute form, implies that the form of the revelation in Arabic is detachable from its content, wherein the miraculous nature of the Qur’an lies. By breaking the form-content duality in the Qur’an, Abū Ḥanīfa, in effect, seems to say that a translation of the content of the Qur’an would result in a kind of Qur’an, although primacy, we assume, continues to reside in the Qur’an in the Arabic language. Some of Abu Hanifa’s followers – for example, al-Sarkhasi (d. 483/1090) – restricted the license given by Abū Ḥanīfa, making it a temporary one, so as to avoid the above implication, while others persisted in legalising the original ruling – for example, al-Kasani (d. 587/1191).
Most Sunni jurists, however, led by al-Shāfiˁī (d. 204/820), rejected Abū Ḥanīfa’s view on using translations of the Qur’an in ritual prayer, to the extent that al-Shāfiˁī is reported to have given a dispensation to those who do not know the Qur’an in its Arabic form to pray without reciting it. At the basis of this rejection lies the dissolution of the duality of form and content in Abū Ḥanīfa’s theology, which duality is considered by al-Shāfiˁī as an integral part of the challenge (taḥaddī) that God issued to the Arabs to produce even one chapter in the like of the Qur’an. The form-content duality is, therefore, at the very core of the inimitability of the Qur’an principle: rejecting it would be tantamount to rejecting its inimitability and, therefore, the miraculous nature of the revelation that it underpins in Islamic theology. 
If a translation of the Qur’an is to be treated as the Qur’an, the inimitability principle would be spectacularly breached in a way that makes the challenge (taḥaddī) almost meaningless....
...Scholars who argued against the (un)translatability of the Qur’an were driven by doctrinal considerations, including the fear that if treated as Qur’ans, the translations would become the basis of legal rulings. The idea that these translations will break the indissoluble bond between form and content is related to this fear, but, as is evident from the discussion above, it is also clear that these translations challenge the principle of inimitability in relation to its doctrinal and language-centred meanings in a manner which would, at least indirectly, impinge on the synchronic and diachronic symbolic
loadings of the language... If so, the discussion of (un)translatability is not merely a discussion about doctrine, but also an ideological one, in which the language-identity link is involved, even though this link may exist deep below the surface of the debate on (un)translatability and inimitability. "
— Yasir Suleiman "Arabic in the Fray: Language Ideology and Cultural Politics"

Eating Pasta Al Dante

Having now finished reading Dante's Commedia twice, I feel about Dante a little bit like he seems to have felt about Virgil. I respect it, I value it, I enjoy it, but it can only take one so far. The retrograde mental universe makes it ultimately irredeemable beyond a certain point. All the valiant hermeneutics of modern commentators cannot save it, anymore than Beatrice could've saved Virgil. He had it in him to transcend the narrow spheres of his Christianity, and at times comes so close to doing just that. He almost half wants to. But even in Inferno IV or Purgatorio I or Paradiso XIX, he never quite manages. He never quite breaks through Heaven's man-made ceiling, and so damns himself to the Limbo of the Virtuous Enthralled. It is only by going down there that one can meet him, and the only way out is by descending into the Catholicism's hellish soteriology, and facing the hybrid Angeldemons that populate the bowels of a Paradise he very nearly condemned himself to.

Of Political Parties and their Partying Members

There is a diverse and in combination uncomfortable assortment of things which can be and have been said about Al Franken's resignation.

The US is again going through that sordidly cyclical, not to say cynical, moment where it re-re-discovers yet again and for the very first time that sexual harassment and sexual assault of the vulnerable by the powerful are a problem worthy of a bit more than a "man that's fucked up" before resuming dinner. It is heartening at the very least that politicians in the Democratic party in particular can be made credibly to fear that the things offensively euphemized as “sexual misconduct” might come with “consequences.” It is neither surprising nor heartening to read so many people — whose possession of eyes, a brain and a functioning internet connection deprives them of any excuse short of pity — tacitly implying or stating outright that the Democratic party has any kind of “moral high ground” on matters like this. Higher moral aspirations, just maybe. But moral high ground? Hang on just a cotton-pickin' minute.

My experience has been that among those cheering Al Franken's resignation there are many — mostly men I note — who get annoyed or even a bit paroxysmal if you mention in passing that other beloved ones have nasty closet skeletons. Not just Trump or other loathables.

Trump’s past sexual violence is as obvious, shameless and flamboyantly nasty as everything else about him. It should come as no surprise to anyone who has read much about his pre-political life. But Justice for Victims is as much a cynical ploy as it is a mawkish cliché.

The charges, or "allegations" as we are supposed to call them when politicians are involved, brought by aggrieved women against Trump are almost certainly true based on the available facts. But this is not the only reason, or the main reason, why they are so readily believed and broadcast by so many of the cogs in a Democratic Party machine which would disgrace Rube Goldberg only by its disrepair. They are unabashed and comfortable believing them and calling for legal action (at which I hope they succeed,  by the way) because it's good for the team with which they ally themselves and whose guiding interests they allow themselves to see as mostly consonant with their own. Anyone who has taken Psych 101 can tell you why that alone makes something easier to believe.

Unlike the fact, say, that the woman who lost a presidential race against Trump is married to a serial rapist to whose predations she spent years as both accessory and accomplice. Back in the day many of the same individuals leapt to the defense of their party's Member in the Oval Office. No matter how many non-consenting women that Member may or may not have thrust itself at or into.

Modern PR has the frightening power to grace hideous people with its greatest triumph: the transcendent success of having one's words and actions judged by one's reputation, rather than the reverse. Give a man a reputation as an early riser, as Twain wrote, and that man can sleep till noon. But the news cycle, given enough money, manipulation and time, gives the impression of being able to turn the most suppurating Philoctetes into Achilles in any but the most hardened and hostile mind. This is a whole other cause for concern in an era when figuring out for oneself what to believe and disbelieve in any story has become so challenging that many people can be forgiven if they give up trying. Be thankful, at least, that Trump himself hasn't the ability or restraint to manipulate it nearly as effectively as a far more self-disciplined ogre might have.

Rapist Bill and Accomplice Hillary enjoyed nigh-unassailable status for some time with their party, particularly its elders, and the name Clinton was for almost a decade touted as a byword and synonym for all that our tarnished excuse for a republic is supposed to stand for. In many ways, Clinton's America made Trump's America possible. As people both on the left and the right pointed out more and more of the nasty rot underneath, as the list of women groped, bitten, forced open, shamed, slandered and bullied by the party's most prominent Member got credibly longer, the party-line glorifications got louder, as did the denunciations of those guilty of inconvenient honesty. Even when they were attacking Clinton from the left, they were bashed as snitches and right-wing ratfinks. Why doesn't this kind of thing put more people on their guard in our ailing nation? I almost wish I didn't want to know.

I myself and a good many others, when we pointed out the considerable evidence of Hillary Clinton's complicity in his crimes during her recent end-run for president, got accused of doing the "work of the right." When a person says that there is something deeply wrong with a country in which voters are faced with a choice between a Serial Rapist and a Serial Rapist's willing accomplice, anyone whose response is "the real problem is people like you pointing this out" is in fact confirming the broader implications of the original charge. Gotcha politics of the kind in which a few embarrassing statements in the past are dredged up as ammunition are par for the sordid course, and everyone more or less accepts this whether they realize it or not. But willingness to be an accessory to violence against other people, and an accomplice in concealing same, simply out of self-interest is a bit more than that. That this sort of thing could be tolerated at all by a political party, which brands itself as standing for women and for the powerless wronged by the powerful, is unshakably a sign of corruption in the broadest sense of the word.

Moral High Ground? Democrats? Please. Pfft. 

Layers of Wordplay in a line of Al-Mutanabbi

I just realized that when the poet Al-Mutanabbī says هَلِ الحَدَثُ الحَمراءُ تَعرِفُ لوْنَها ("Does Al-Hadath the Red know her color?") he may be indulging in triplicate wordplay.

In Modern Literary Arabic, and in various Arabic vernaculars, there are a number of terms used for pale-skinned foreigners, ranging from the benevolent to the insulting. One of them is plain ابيض "white" calqued off of European usage.
In Classical and Medieval Arabic the term used for non-Arabs, especially Persians, Greeks or "Franks" who were seen as being of lighter complexion, was actually احمر "Red". (Greeks in particular could also be بنو اصفر "Yellowsons, Sons of the Yellow" usually in a demeaning fashion).
كل اسود منهم واحمر (All the blacks and reds among them) = "Every one of them, Arab and not". A saying attributed to Muhammad in Islamic mythology has it that "بُعِثْتُ إِلَى الأَحْمَرِ وَالأَسْوَدِ " (I was sent to the red and the black) of which the most straightforward interpretation is "to all mankind, Arab and not." The form Al-Ḥamrā' can be used as a collective term for "foreigners." What I just learned is that it could also refer to emancipated slaves.

Al-Hadath Al-Ḥamrā' "Red Hadath" is the traditional appellation of the city. For Al-Mutanabbi, it was previously a "red" (foreign, Greek) city because it was in the hold of the Byzantines, which it no longer is. It is now "red" (emancipated from slavery) now that Lord Realmsword (Sayfu l-Dawla) has relieved her of Byzantine hold. Despite her traditional appellation, she may not even know that she is red in one sense, and was red in the other, so completely has she now been redeemed to her proper place under Islamdom.

Alien Nation

There is something smelly about Science Fiction shows using clashes of different sentient species as a metaphor for race or ethnicity or culture in order to talk about how "we" (whoever this "we" is) deal with The Other™. Race is an ideology. It is not biological. Nor are ethnicity and cultural difference. The idea that racial or ethnic conflict exist because people just have trouble with "Those Who Look Differently" is a cretinous absurdity that ought to disgrace even a college activist. The implication, or assumption, behind much of this genre of putatively socially aware storytelling in Science Fiction is that these differences are much more essential than they are in fact. The culture producing this stuff seems to take as a matter of pious faith that the way to "get beyond differences" is by obsessing over them, taking for granted their fixity. So much so that different biological species seem sensical as a metaphor for different groups of humans. It lends itself particularly well to tales of people expressing their "essential nature" in categorical terms. 

Language learning is not an intellectual activity.

Language learning is not an intellectual activity. Insofar as a learner treats a language as a puzzle to be solved, instead of a set of habits to be learned as automatic reactions, he is wasting his time and failing to learn the language. The "concepts" that any adult has are simply the meanings that he connects to the words of his native language. They serve only as stumbling-blocks in the way of his learning another language. The only way to clear the road for learning another language, with its inevitably different structure and meanings, is to disregard and forget as much as possible the words and meanings of one's native language.

— Robert A. Hall "Language and Superstition" 

Nomine Fucking Patris

I would find the Church Fathers fascinating, if I could tolerate them in any but small doses. John Chrysostom is sometimes as much a thug as he is a thinker. Augustine often comes across as an asshole, an emotionally abusive bully, and a philistine frightened by the power of other people's imaginations. Tertullian has an outright sadistic side to him as transparent as the barrier he imagines between heaven and hell. Jerome is like G.K. Chesterton: a brilliant mind gone very bad. And in Eusebius' sick attack against Jews for the alleged crime of deicide, I hear the incipient rumblings of European anti-semitism.

Neither Time Nor Season


Now, you can say that I've grown bitter but of this you may be sure
The rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor
And there's a mighty judgment coming, but I may be wrong
You see, you hear these funny voices in the Tower of Song
— Leonard Cohen

Why did rhyme and meter grow so displeasing, offputting or simply invisible to so many Anglophone literary intellectuals over the course of the 20th century?

Put simply: they are liked by the wrong people, and by too many people. It is not a matter of conservatism vs innovation, or freedom vs regulation. Not really. It is a matter of elite values; elite disdain for popular verse forms, and (in the 21st century) elite attachment to an increasingly irrelevant print culture. Our literati don't usually take modern rhymed verse as seriously, because the masses enjoy rhyme too much. Even the Neo-Formalists, in trying (with some partial success) to reintroduce patterned prosody and rhyme to contemporary elite verse and print culture, had to take pains to avoid many of the other traits of popular verse.

Best say something about popular verse in English, which is badly misunderstood in a way so commonplace as to pass for common sense. Literary intellectuals like to think, and like even more to bemoan, that the masses have no appetite for poetry and well-turned lays. "Poetry is a dying art" is a cliché. A conspicuously false one.

Popular verse in contemporary English tends to be sung, or performed to musical or percussive accompaniment. We usually call it song or music, even (as is often the case with rap) when there isn't much singing involved. We just do not call it poetry. We do not even call it literature. The elite Anglophone response to Bob Dylan's Nobel win is an excellent example of how distasteful, distressing and insulting our literati find the very idea. One wonders how they would square this with the literatus' readiness to admit that Hafiz, Sappho or Bernard de Ventadorn are of course literature.

To this it may be objected that most contemporary popular verse in English is bad or mediocre. This is true but also irrelevant. Most poetry in contemporary elite forms is also bad or mediocre. Most poetry throughout history has not been of enduring resonance or relevance. Sometimes there are circumstances that favor better or more versecraft, and sometimes there are not. But that is a different matter altogether.

There is no intrinsic reason why popular verse, or song lyric, should be rhymed. Ancient Greek, Roman and Israelite song (popular and not) was unrhymed. But English popular verse, sung or spoken, has mostly been rhymed for the past thousand years.

It is sometimes said that English is especially rhyme-poor, that it is therefore too hard to write rhymed verse well in English (and unreasonably hard to translate verse well into rhymed English.) This is not true. If it were, anyone who made this objection ought to treat English popular verse as a formal miracle. It's true that "perfect rhymes" like fellatio/Horatio, Niagra/Viagra, penis/Venus, fistula/Vistula, death/breath or even sea/me/tree/etc are not as readily available as in French or Persian or Chinese. The reasons for this need not detain us here. But popular verse in English is rhymed and metrical all the same, as has much elite verse before the early 20th century. Strophic verse like Don McLean's "Miss American Pie" has no trouble rhyming. English is not as effortlessly easy to rhyme in as French (though the rhyme requirements of English have never been nearly as exacting as they have been in literary French.) But it is not intrinsically rhyme-resistant. And it did not suddenly become harder to rhyme ca. 1950. Rather, elite verse mostly abandoned a practice, and its practitioners mostly lost a skill, that popular verse retained.

In fact, as it stands, the techniques used to produce rhyme in contemporary English popular verse are by almost any standard more inventive, flexible and rife with untapped potential than the rhymes familiar from a Norton Anthology. One popular poet rhymes music/wounded, ready/sent me, boredom/reward them, heavens/weapons, baby/station in a single poem composed in accentual pentameters (these rhymes alternate with a single -in rhyme throughout.) Why is this kind of rhyming not admitted into elite verse forms in English? Why do we not translate rhymed poetry from other languages with this kind of rhyming into English?

Take a more extreme example. Another popular poet, again in a single composition, rhymes aimed/sprays/stays/days, hair/wear, office/problems, government/loving it/dumping it, squirts of piss/words exist/suburban kids/turbulence, hooked right in/looked like them, America/Erica/Character. 

Assonance is not "intrinsically" more appropriate to song or popular lyric. In other literatures (e.g. Medieval Irish, Old French, Modern Spanish, and even at times Dutch) it has been the vehicle for all kinds of literary composition from epic verse to hymnody to erudite panegyric to surreal love lyric. This is no shock to anyone who reads Neruda or Lorca in Spanish.

Literary intellectuals in English sometimes call this "off-rhyme." But it is not the kind of off-rhyme most favored in literary verse. Poetry in literary verse that uses "off rhyme" is more likely to employ consonance. Often, as in the verse of Seamus Heaney or in Robert Pinsky's translation of Dante's Inferno, nothing but the final consonant of a word need be repeated to qualify as rhyme. This has the effect of making the patterning easy enough to see on the page, but hard to detect with the ear, producing a kind of sound-repetition that is as unlike the rhymes of popular verse as anything imaginable. I think this is precisely why consonance is the kind of off-rhyme most congenial to elite poetics in English today.

It is no surprise that modern English literati do not often know how to dance on their prosodic feet, and do not care to learn. How can they dance, when they can't even hear the music anymore?

Vulgar Latin

"Vulgar Latin" is not a real thing.

Many features of Romance had their origins in high-register usage rather than that of the vulgus. Pre-Romance features which originated among the educated include adverbial -mente, a future formed with inf. + habēre and the suppletion of the monosyllabic forms of īre with corresponding forms from vādere.

Anyone who has been alive in a literate society knows that it is common for the uneducated to imitate the speech of the educated. That features presaging Romance have been almost exclusively sought in, or attributed to, basilectal "uneducated" usage says much about philological prejudices regarding Latin vis-à-vis Romance.

Furthermore, while it is often possible to tell what was going on in speech beneath the surface of the literary language, it is a mistake to attribute such features exclusively to the speech of the uneducated. As speakers of Arabic, Hindi, Urdu, Welsh, Tamil and Finnish know well, there is no reason why an educated speaker might not write one thing but say another. Americans of all social classes use "to be like" in the sense "to say" but few will use it in writing except in the most informal contexts such as text messaging.

There is no reason at all to think that Emperor Hadrian had much use for the inflected passive when grumbling about the weather.