Archives for November 2002


As a counterpoint to my ongoing series of entries on purifying Greece comes an op-ed piece by Amir Taheri in today’s NY Times in which he discusses Saddam’s brutal efforts to “Arabize” Iraq. Everyone knows about his assaults on the Kurds, but I confess I had not known about this:

In 1970, he opened the Ottoman archives, in which Iraqis were classified as either Ottoman or Persian subjects. He prepared a policy of mass expulsion against the Persians, even though many prominent Iraqis — including Rashid Ali al-Gailani, the father of Iraqi nationalism, and Muhammad al-Jawahiri, the greatest Arabic poet of the 20th century — had been classified as Persian during Ottoman rule.
The mass expulsion of the Persians was implemented from 1972 on. By 1980 nearly a million people had been driven out. Needless to say, the overwhelming majority of those expelled had been born and raised in Iraq, regarded themselves as Iraqis and spoke Arabic as their mother tongue.

(I regret to report that in the course of the piece Taheri perpetrates this bit of idiocy: “Iraq is also the home of 11 living languages, some of which, like Elamite, are twice as old as Arabic.” All natural languages are equally old; it’s just a question of where you choose to stick the labels.)


Does anybody else find the sight of the Acropolis more dismaying than inspiring? I’m not talking about the dilapidated state of the buildings and statues, or even the fact that many of them have had to be replaced with replicas and the originals stashed in a museum because of pollution. No, I mean the bare, blanched emptiness of the Acropolis itself, a few crumbling ruins set amid stone paths and tumbled columns. How many people who visit the site to pay their respects to the Parthenon know that this site was once an entire walled city, filled with homes and shops and government buildings? Or that the Parthenon itself, that sad shell, was once one of the great churches of Christendom? I’ll let Alexander Masters describe it (from a review in the TLS of Mary Beard’s The Parthenon):

Some time in the sixth century, the virgin Athena lost her home to the Virgin Mary, and the Parthenon became a Christian church. The main entrance was moved from the east to the west, a few windows were cut through the frieze sculptures to allow in more light, and inside, where once had stood a gaudy, stolid forty-foot gold- and ivory-coated statue of the goddess of war and wisdom… the Christians created one of the greatest cathedrals in Greece. The doors were said to have once been the gates of Troy; the apse glittered with a gilded mosaic; among the adornments was a “miraculous” lamp, and a “magnificent” canopy supported on four columns of jasper. Basil “the Bulgar Slayer”… came down south especially to see this famous catalogue of Christian loveliness, and added to it: a golden dove with a golden crown that “circled continuously around the cross”.

Further testimony comes from perhaps Athens’ greatest medieval inhabitant, its archbishop Michael Choniates (whose younger brother Nicetas wrote one of the best Byzantine histories); I quote from Molly Mackenzie’s excellent little book Turkish Athens: The Forgotten Centuries, 1456-1832: “The Cathedral in particular—the former Parthenon—gave him constant delight: he loved it for its superb setting, the beauty and balance of its proportions, and its glorious treasures piled up through the centuries.” After the Ottoman conquest of Greece, the cathedral was turned into a mosque, with a minaret at one corner; Evliya Çelebi, visiting in the seventeenth century, wrote: “In the middle of the fortress there is one mosque, marvellous and luminous, famous among the philosophers and travellers of the world…. There is no such magnificent mosque in the whole atlas of the globe. In civilized countries no sanctuary exists to equal it. May its construction remain eternal unto the completion of time.” And what happened to this glorious pile of amassed treasures? Of course, it was badly damaged when the Venetians shelled it in an entirely useless attack in 1687 (Mackenzie: “As the building went up in flames, a great cry of joy and triumph burst from the Venetian soldiers. The women and children inside were burnt to death and the fire raged for two days, reducing the Parthenon to a ruin”), and again when Lord Elgin and others looted it in the early nineteenth century, but the final devastation was perpetrated by, of all people, archeologists. Masters again:

Though the church of Our Lady of Athens lasted half a millennia [sic], almost as long as the Parthenon had been a pagan temple, there is not a brick of it left standing today. In 1890, the Greek Archaeological Service declared that it had delivered the building “back to the civilized world, cleansed of all barbaric additions, a noble monument to the Greek genius”. Scoured of history, stripped to a stony simplicity that its fifth-century-BC builders never intended, even the hilltop on which it stood had been scrubbed down to the rock. “As one historian of Byzantium has recently put it,” writes Mary Beard, “a visit to the Acropolis today is rather like being taken on a tour around Westminster Abbey, blindfold to everything but the work of Edward the Confessor.”

These archeologists, of course, were Germans (as was the ruling family that had been imposed on the resentful Greeks); they had no attachment to the slowly built up mosaic of buildings and cultures, but oh, how they loved Ancient Greece! For similar reasons, they insisted (over the objections of the Greeks, who thought Nauplion or Corinth would be far more suitable than this depopulated village) on making Athens the capital of the country, leading to the overcrowding and pollution that has put the finishing touches on the devastation.
So try and picture Rome or Istanbul with their glorious melange of ages cleared away and nothing left but a few ancient structures; or picture, if you can, the Acropolis as it might be today if different policies had prevailed, vibrant and crowded, with mossy lanes and jumbled buildings of all periods, mosques inside churches inside temples, messy life in place of the deadly purity of a city reduced to a site. Now look at what remains, and think about what we owe to history.


Baraita has a long and fascinating entry on blasphemy, the name(s) of God, and the implications of the Jewish tradition of writing “G_d” (I had known about the avoidance of blasphemy but hadn’t thought about the practicality of not having to worry about disposing of the paper). Furthermore, the comments section has an interesting discussion of Québécois cussing (which involves not sex or scatology but chalices and tabernacles).


Now, this and this (unlike this) show how to keep languages alive. And the Cornish are hanging tough. (Via Pat, Mister Endangered Languages.)


They’re refurbishing the tunnel that leads from the IND station at 42nd St. to the 7 line a bit east; there’s nice tilework now, and on it a quote from, of all things, Finnegans Wake:

Telmetale of stem or stone. Beside the rivering waters of, hitherandthithering waters of. Night!

I love New York.


I decided that since I was criticizing other people’s translations, I should put my own work up for scrutiny. So herewith my version of Cavafy’s “Very Rarely” [Polí spaníos], followed by whatever others I can turn up. Comments (as always) welcome.

He’s an old man. Bent over and worn out,
disabled by the years and by his dissipations,
with a soft step he crosses the back alley.
And yet when he enters his house in order to hide
his old age and the shape he’s in, he meditates
on the measure he himself still has of youth.
The young men are repeating his lines now.
Within their lively eyes his visions pass.
Their healthy, sensual minds,
their firm and well-proportioned flesh
are stirred by his own showing forth of what is beautiful.
—tr. languagehat [Stephen Dodson]

He is an old man. Exhausted and bent,
broken by years, and by excesses,
walking slowly, he goes up the road.
Yet, when he enters his house in order to hide
the state he is in, and his old age,
he contemplates
the portion he still claims of youth.
Adolescents now recite his verses.
Through their bright eyes his visions pass.
Their healthy, hedonistic brain
their well drawn firm flesh
by his revelations of beauty are affected.
—tr. Anna Seraphimidou

Very Seldom
An old man—used up, bent,
crippled by time and indulgence—
slowly walks along the narrow street.
But when he goes inside his house to hide
the shambles of his old age, his mind turns
to the share in youth that still belongs to him.
His verse is now quoted by young men.
His visions come before their lively eyes.
Their healthy sensual minds,
their shapely taut bodies,
stir to his perception of the beautiful.
—tr. Edmund Keeley & Philip Sherrard


A couple of items on the subject. First, the Merm has yet another chewy, nutritious link, this time to an article by a translator explaining why translators are supposed to render what their author said, no more and no less, even if the client thinks they should be improving on it. This is, of course, in relation to expository prose; when it comes to poetry, the rules are different, pace Nabokov. And that brings us to a fascinating thread on MetaFilter, started by the excellent y2karl‘s post of a Yeats poem (“When you are old and grey and full of sleep”) that is not quite a translation but certainly based on a famous Ronsard sonnet (“Quand vous serez bien vieille,” quoted in full in the thread).

After much discussion of Yeats, Villon, and translation in general (Miguel Cardoso giving what to my mind were unwarrantedly optimistic views), y2karl quoted a translation of an Akhmatova poem, by Natalie Duddington, that seemed fine to me until I looked at the original poem. What I would like to do now (in the infinite space of my own blog) is to present the original and several translations and see what they reveal. First off, here’s the original (in transcription; I’ll put accents whenever the stress is not on the penultimate, to aid the curious):

Kak nevesta poluchayu
Kazhdyi vecher po pis’mú,
Pozdno noch’yu otvechayu
Drugu moemú.

“Ya goshchú u smerti beloi
Po doroge v t’mu.
Zla, moi láskovyi, ne delai
V mire nikomú.”

I stoít zvezdá bol’shaya
Mezhdu dvukh stvolóv,
Tak spokoino obeshchaya
Ispolnen’e snov.

(The apostrophe indicates palatalization, which sounds like a slight “y” glide after the consonant.) Now a literal translation, with equally valid alternatives separated by a slash:

Like a bride/fiancée I receive
Each evening a letter,
Late at night I answer
My friend.

“I am staying (as a guest) with white death
On the way to darkness [formal/archaic word].
Evil/wrong, my affectionate/tender (one), do not do
In the world to anyone.”

And a large star stands
Between two (tree)trunks,
So/thus calmly/peacefully promising
(The) fulfilment of dreams.

And here’s the Duddington translation:

Like one betrothed I get
Each evening a letter.
And late at night sit down to write
An answer to my friend.

Low in the sky there shines a star
Between two trunks of trees.
So calmly promising to me
That what I dream, shall be.

I am staying with white death
On my way to darkness.
Do no evil, gentle one,
To anyone on Earth.

The first thing we notice is that she’s switched the second and third stanzas. This, to me, is a blatant no-no; if Akhmatova had wanted the quote with its exhortation at the end of the poem, she’d have put it there. Furthermore, Duddington omits the quotation marks, making it impossible to separate the narrator’s framing voice from the words she addresses to her friend. Finally, here is Judith Hemschemeyer’s translation, from her well-regarded Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova:

Like a fiancée I receive
A letter every evening,
And late at night I write
An answer to my lover.

“I am the guest of white death,
On the way to darkness.
My beloved, don’t be evil
To anyone on earth.”

And a huge star is standing
Between the trunks of two trees,
So tranquilly promising
The fulfillment of dreams.

This is a great improvement in terms of accuracy (though “lover” and “my beloved” are in my view unacceptable editorializing), but it doesn’t have the fire of poetry to me; when I read it aloud it doesn’t thrill my ear. Obviously, this is a matter of personal taste (and I welcome others’ reactions), but I can’t share the general satisfaction with her versions (“We needn’t worry again about how to read Akhmatova in translation”—Andrew Motion). Perhaps I’ll try my own hand; in the meantime, I lay these before you for your perusal and contemplation.

ADDENDUM. The Poetry International Web opens its virtual doors today; this amazing site has (or will have—it’s still under construction) pages for poets from different countries, with poems in both English translation and the original. Here, for instance, is Cavafy’s “The Satrapy.” (Thanks to Igor, who posted it on MetaFilter.)


That’s the title of a Wired article by Kendra Mayfield. It seems that the worthy Rosetta Project is creating an archive “that will preserve more than 1,400 of the world’s 7,000 languages on a 3-inch nickel disk.” The texts will be etched on microscopically rather than coded digitally, so that “future generations will need only a 1,000-power microscope to read the microprint.” My response: that’s nice, and I’m sure it will thrill future generations, but how is it keeping languages alive? The only way to do that is to get out there and work with native speakers in the field, helping them find creative ways of recording their language and making it useful to young people so they won’t simply settle for the majority language. The Rosetta archive reminds me of a graveyard full of stones with the death dates waiting to be filled in. [Via the Mermaid.]


It’s not often these days that a news story makes me smile, but this one (by Yilu Zhao) did. Shuang Wen Academy is a school on the Lower East Side that teaches in both Mandarin Chinese and English; obviously it was created by and for Chinese. Yet ten percent of the students are black.

Although only two of the school’s first class of 45 students were not of Chinese descent, Shuang Wen gradually gained a reputation among some of the city’s black middle-class parents for being nurturing yet rigorous. In last spring’s citywide third-grade math and English tests, Shuang Wen ranked third in math and 23rd in English among the city’s almost 1,000 elementary schools.

Now, before the start of every school year, more and more black parents arrive at the office of the principal, Ling-Ling Chou, seeking admission for their children to the prekindergarten class — which is based on interviews with prospective students and their parents. They are undeterred by the fact that their children will be among the few non-Asians in the school, or that Mandarin is famously difficult to master. Chinese instruction runs from 3 to 5:30 p.m. daily. All subjects, however, are taught in both languages.

Shuang Wen is housed in a corner space in Public School 134, at East Broadway and Grand Street, and blacks are not the only non-Chinese among its 245 students. But the 23 black students are by far the largest non-Chinese group, outnumbering the 11 whites and 8 Hispanics.

As an alternative school, Shuang Wen admits students from all five boroughs, and many of the black children live an hour or more away. There are no school buses serving them, and parents have to drop off and pick up their children.

All right, the “famously difficult to master” is silly; no language is difficult to a child. But isn’t that a nice news item? In this age of ethnocentrism and mutual suspicion, it reminds us that people can still reach across barriers. And something tells me those kids are going to have a leg up on monoglots when they start looking for jobs.

It also reminds me of a story. It seems that Morrie hadn’t seen his friend Sol in a long time, so he dropped by Sol’s deli. When he went in, he was greeted by a Chinese shop clerk—with “Sholem aleikhem”! The clerk asked what he wanted and told him “Sol’s in the back,” all in flawless Yiddish. Morrie went through the door to the back room and said “Sol, it’s great to see you! But listen, how did you find a Chinese guy who speaks Yiddish?” Sol looked alarmed and said “Shh! He thinks we’re teaching him English.”


While looking for sites to explain to a friend the relationship between Ge’ez and Amharic (this is a good one), I stumbled across one that contained the following bizarre information:

Tigre became a written language at the end of the 19th century, when Swedish missionaries translated the Bible into it using Ge-ez script. The use of Ge-ez script to write Tigre is a barrier to many Muslims, because Ge-ez is the holy language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Tigre Muslims would prefer their language to be written in Arabic script. As a result, in spite of the presence of a Bible, and a government newspaper in Tigre, most Tigre speakers choose not to read in their own language.