I thought this paragraph from the History of Russian Literature (see this post) was worth posting:

After its fledgling start in the Jesuit plays of the seventeenth century, it would be several decades before theater became a fixture in the culture of the court. In 1702, on the order of Peter the Great, a theater opened to the general public in a special building on Red Square. It was named the Kunst–Fuerst Theater after the two German directors of the company that also trained Russian actors. The German company brought with it its usual repertoire, the so-called “English comedies,” popular in Germany in the seventeenth century. The plays were full of adventures, bloody fights, love, sorcery, and so on. The repertory often consisted of adaptations several times removed from the original. For example, the skit “Prince Pickled-Herring, or Jodolet” (“Prints Pikl′ gerring, ili Zhodolet”) can be traced (through Dutch, German, and French adaptations) to one of Calderón’s plays. Molière was represented by “A Comedy about a Beaten Doctor” (“Komediia o doktore bitom,” a version of Le Médicin malgré lui) and “Precious Amusings” (“Dragyia smeianyia,” a version of Les Précieuses ridicules). The theater proved unpopular; nor did it satisfy Peter’s desire for a propaganda medium, and it closed in 1706.

In the first place, the explanation of the name is mildly astonishing; if I’d seen a mention of the Kunst–Fuerst Theater, I simply would have assumed that it meant “Art-Prince” (it’s a theater, started by a ruler) — talk about your appropriate surnames! We learn from A History of Russian Theatre, edited by Robert Leach and Victor Borovsky, that Johann Kunst was the manager of the troupe when it arrived in Russia in the summer of 1702, and that after Kunst died in 1703 he was replaced by “Otto Fuerst, a goldsmith.” We are also told that “the theatre did not live up to Peter’s expectations, primarily because the plots of the plays tended to be beyond the comprehension of the Russian audience.”

Also, the mention of “adaptations several times removed” is relevant to the discussion of mediation through third languages going on in this thread.

Horseshoe: Trees and Ships.

I’m once again making my way through Mandelstam (in conjunction with my reading of Lekmanov’s biography, which it turns out is available in English), and I’m rememorizing his longest poem, “The Finder of a Horseshoe” (which I translated in 2012). The first time I memorized it was in 2002 (I remember I was working on it when I started LH); that experience confirmed my sense that it was a great poem, but I still didn’t even begin to understand it. Some people read like birds flying over a text, comprehending the layout from above; I’m more like an ant, making my way laboriously through the words, from consonant to vowel to consonant, getting a feel for the structure at the micro level but oblivious to any larger meanings for a long time. This time around, I’ve managed to grasp the first two of the nine sections in a way I hadn’t before, and I thought I’d talk about it here before I forget, planting a milepost to help me next time I attempt the journey. I’ll discuss it in translation because I’m talking about sense, not sound, and out of laziness and egotism I’ll refer to my own translation, which is easily accessible to all of us.

I realized that the two sections constitute a lovely ring structure, starting and ending in the same place and establishing what I think is the main theme of the poem, the confrontation of different layers of time. At the start, we are looking at trees and saying “That forest’s for ships and masts” — we are looking ahead into a possible future. We see them in imagination as the masts they should become, standing fast, “fitted to the dancing deck,” and our thoughts turn to the seafarer making use of them to drag “over humid ruts/ The fragile tackle of a geometer.” The first section ends, and we get a mysterious gerund: “inhaling the smell/ Of tarry tears that ooze through the ship’s planking…” Who is doing the inhaling? After a few more lines, it turns out that it’s us: “We say…” We are magically transported into a different realm, in a way that reminds me of the equally magical end of Pound’s Canto IV:

And we sit here…
            there in the arena…

(The Cantos are also about the confrontation of different layers of time.) We are in that imagined future, and what do we say? “They too stood on the earth…” We are now imagining the ship’s past as trees, “Their tops forgetting their roots/ On the well-known mountain ridge” (the task of poetry being to ensure that the tops don’t forget their roots), and we imagine those trees “Unsuccessfully offering to the sky in exchange for a pinch of salt/ Their noble load and burden.” In other words, they wanted to be “Free to their very tops from shaggy burden,” in the words of the poem’s fourth line. This commodius vicus of recirculation is one of art’s reliable joys. Now if I can only get a similar handle on the rest of this long and inexhaustible poem…

Translation Apps Are Getting Better.

This BBC News story by Emma Woollacott starts with some glitches that are old hat and have been covered here and/or at the Log, but goes on to some interesting material:

“Rather than writing handcrafted rules to translate between languages, modern translation systems approach translation as a problem of learning the transformation of text between languages from existing human translations and leveraging recent advances in applied statistics and machine learning,” explains Xuedong Huang, technical fellow, speech and language, at Microsoft Research. […]

But a new project from Mr Lample and a team of other researchers at Facebook and the Sorbonne University in Paris may represent a way round this problem [of “low-resource languages for which the amount of parallel sentences is very small”]. They are using source texts of just a few hundred thousand sentences in each language, but no directly translated sentences at all.

Essentially, the team’s system looks at the patterns in which words are used. For example, the English words “cat” and “furry” tend to appear in a similar relationship as “gato” and “peludo” in Spanish. The system learns these so-called word embeddings, allowing it to infer a “fairly accurate” bilingual dictionary. It then applies the same back-and-forth techniques as we’ve seen with Microsoft Translator to come up with its final translation – and not a biblical reference in sight.

Thanks, Trevor!

Jingrwai lawbei.

Agence France Presse reports on an interesting form of musical language:

Curious whistles and chirrups echo through the jungle around Kongthong, a remote Indian village, but this is no birdsong. It’s people calling out to each other in music — an extraordinary tradition that may even be unique.

Here in the lush, rolling hills of the northeastern state of Meghalaya, mothers from Kongthong and a few other local villages compose a special melody for each child. Everyone in the village, inhabited by the Khasi people, will then address the person with this individual little tune — and for a lifetime. They have conventional “real” names too, but they are rarely used. […]

Kongthong has long been cut off from the rest of the world, several hours of tough trek from the nearest town. Electricity arrived only in 2000, and the dirt road in 2013. Days are spent foraging in the jungle for broom grass — the main source of revenue — leaving the village all but deserted, except for a few kids. To call out to each other while in the forest, the villagers would use a long version lasting around 30 seconds of each other’s musical “name”, inspired by the sounds of nature all around. […]

The custom is known as “jingrwai lawbei”, meaning “song of the clan’s first woman”, a reference to the Khasi people’s mythical original mother. […] The origin of “jingrwai lawbei” isn’t known, but locals think it is as old as the village, which has existed for as long as five centuries. The tradition’s days may be numbered, though, as the modern world creeps into Kongthong in the shape of televisions and mobile phones.

Thanks, Kobi!

Translation and/as Disconnection.

Joshua L. Miller and Gayle Rogers have produced a “Translation and/as Disconnection” issue (Volume 3, Cycle 3) of Modernism/modernity with fascinating-sounding articles: “Death Ships: the Cruel Translations of the Interwar Maritime Novel” by Harris Feinsod, “Translation in Noh Time” by Carrie Preston, “Disconnecting the Other: Translating China in Spain, Indirectly” by Carles Prado-Fonts, “Before Global Modernism: Comparing Renaissance, Reform, and Rewriting in the Global South” by Lital Levy, “Philology Contra Modernism: Translating Izibongo in Johannesburg” by Matthew Eatough, and several more. Miller and Rogers write:

We are scholars who, in our own work, have explored modes of interconnection across a number of sites, texts, and figures. But like many others before us, we also acknowledge the pitfalls of connectivity, and in a moment when the map of global modernisms seems increasingly networked, it seems timely to pause and consider the kinds of work connectivity does and doesn’t do—and about connection’s unintended effects. Furthermore, we want to consider how intertextual and linguistic disconnection formed both the modernisms that feel familiar (national, regional, and global) and those we have yet to recognize or have possibly misconstrued. If we set aside our predisposition to celebrate connection and to mourn disconnection, and instead view them as integral to one another’s functions, the field before us can look refreshingly unfamiliar.

Thanks, Jonathan!

Lost Writings Found.

1) Massive trove of centuries-old undelivered mail seized by British warships going online:

Somewhere in the U.K. National Archives in London, there are 4,000 boxes containing more than 160,000 undelivered letters from ships captured by the British during the naval wars of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Now those letters — some of which are bundled in old mail bags and affixed with wax seals that have never been broken — are about to go online.

“You can imagine the excitement being confronted with such a treasure,” said historian Dagmar Freist, director of the Prized Papers project, which aims to digitize the entire collection. “These letters have not been filtered, they have not been censored, nothing has been thrown away. Quite a few have not been opened.” […]

The documents shed new light on world history, with detailed ship logs of climate conditions, cartography, trade ledgers and correspondence about major events, including colonialism and the American and French Revolutionary wars. There are records from the slave trade, listing the names of enslaved people, their costs, and what slave owners paid for them. But what fascinates Freist the most are the personal letters between ordinary folks — a part of history she says is often overshadowed in favour of stories about powerful people.

There are some touching stories mentioned in the piece.

2) Discovery of Galileo’s long-lost letter shows he edited his heretical ideas to fool the Inquisition:

It had been hiding in plain sight. The original letter — long thought lost — in which Galileo Galilei first set down his arguments against the church’s doctrine that the Sun orbits the Earth has been discovered in a misdated library catalogue in London. Its unearthing and analysis expose critical new details about the saga that led to the astronomer’s condemnation for heresy in 1633.

The seven-page letter, written to a friend on 21 December 1613 and signed “G.G.”, provides the strongest evidence yet that, at the start of his battle with the religious authorities, Galileo actively engaged in damage control and tried to spread a toned-down version of his claims. […]

The letter has been in the Royal Society’s possession for at least 250 years, but escaped the notice of historians. It was rediscovered in the library there by Salvatore Ricciardo, a postdoctoral science historian at the University of Bergamo in Italy, who visited on 2 August for a different purpose, and then browsed the online catalogue.

My hat is off to all diggers in archives!


A Conversation with Chus Pato, by Michael Kelleher, is an interview with “one of the most significant poets writing in Galician today”; I confess I know little about Galician and less about Galician literature, so I was glad to read it. (Note: a Galician version of this conversation is available here.) Kelleher begins:

In Secession, you write, “my native language is a linguistic conflict.” Your native language is Galician, a language once outlawed by Franco (under whose regime you grew up), a language that now exists as co-official with Spanish within the “autonomous community” of Galicia in Northwestern Spain. Can you talk about the complexities of Galicia as a place, of Galician as a “co-official” language, and what it means for a poet to write in Galician? In other words, what is this “linguistic conflict”?

Chus Pato responds:

That’s what I wrote, and that’s how it is. […] I belong to an intermediate generation; my parents were native Galician speakers but always spoke to us in Castilian, as they didn’t want their children to have painful issues in adapting, as they’d had. […] Today, the situation of Galician is opposite to that when I was born. The younger generations now don’t speak Galician because it was not transmitted to them. They don’t know how to speak it [on a daily basis]; they can read and write in it but it’s a dead language for them, for the majority of them. Of course, Galician is alive in a minority that could become a majority if there were decent linguistic policies. Will this ever happen? Anything is possible.

[Read more…]


If I knew about this, I’d forgotten:

Antillia (or Antilia) is a phantom island that was reputed, during the 15th-century age of exploration, to lie in the Atlantic Ocean, far to the west of Portugal and Spain. The island also went by the name of Isle of Seven Cities (Ilha das Sete Cidades in Portuguese, Isla de las Siete Ciudades in Spanish).

It originates from an old Iberian legend, set during the Muslim conquest of Hispania c. 714. Seeking to flee from the Muslim conquerors, seven Christian Visigothic bishops embarked with their flocks on ships and set sail westwards into the Atlantic Ocean, eventually landing on an island (Antilha) where they founded seven settlements.

The island makes its first explicit appearance as a large rectangular island in the 1424 portolan chart of Zuane Pizzigano. Thereafter, it routinely appeared in most nautical charts of the 15th century. After 1492, when the north Atlantic Ocean began to be routinely sailed, and became more accurately mapped, depictions of Antillia gradually disappeared. It nonetheless lent its name to the Spanish Antilles.

I learned about it from this post at Poemas del río Wang, where you will find the usual mix of stories, information, and gorgeous photos.

Some Bunting Odes.

I have been asked, in a revived 2004 thread, to provide more poetry, and since that post was a Basil Bunting poem and I love Bunting and I haven’t posted any Bunting in quite a while, well, here you go, from his Uncollected Odes:

Coryphée gravefooted precise, dance to the gracious music
Thoughts make moving about, dance to the mind’s delicate symphony.

The flat land lies under water
hedge-chequer-grill above concealing
(not long) heliotrope monotony.

Cold water shin-embracing clacks
desolately, no overtones. Lukewarm
moist socks trickle sea-boot squeezed
black gutters muttering between the toes.
Moreover it rains, drizzles.

Utter-horizon-penetrating glances
spoil only paupers towing derelict home
the flat land hedge-grilled heliotrope under water.

7 Envoi to the Reader
From above the moon
      to below the fishes
nobody knows
      my secret heart.
Do you suppose
      I’d publish it?
Spell out a fart
      and have it printed?

Translating Culture vs. Cultural Translation.

Harish Trivedi, professor of English at the University of Delhi and “a prolific and engaged commentator on the politics of global English,” has a wonderfully acerbic essay (from 2005, but surely still applicable) on what Bathrobe, who sent me the link, calls the postmodernist appropriation of the concept of “translation.” He starts with a brief account of the historical reasons for the recent boom in translation, which “are probably traceable back to three distinct moments across the span of the twentieth century”:

The first of these was the concerted movement of translating Russian fiction into English which began in the 1890s and went on until the 1930s, which revealed to readers in English a body of imaginative work from an area outside Western Europe which was so new and exciting as to be shocking and indeed to induce a state of what was then called the “Russian fever,” with writers as diverse as Virginia Woolf and D. H. Lawrence not only enthusing about the newly discovered nineteenth-century masters of Russian fiction but actually helping to translate them in collaboration with the Russian emigre S. S. Koteliansky. The other two moments belong to the other end of the twentieth century, occurring as they did in the 1970s and the 1980s when two other bodies of literature from hitherto unregarded parts of the world were translated into English and caused a comparable sensation: from Latin America, and from the East European countries lying behind the Iron Curtain.

He then gets into Translation Studies, Cultural Studies, and “something called Cultural Translation”; here is a sample of his peroration:

If this is cultural translation, we perhaps need to worry about the very meaning of the word “translation.” One wonders why “translation” should be the word of choice in a collocation such as “cultural translation” in this new sense when perfectly good and theoretically sanctioned words for this new phenomenon, such as migrancy, exile or diaspora are already available and current. But given the usurpation that has taken place, it may be time for all good men and true, and of course women, who have ever practised literary translation, or even read translation with any awareness of it being translation, to unite and take out a patent on the word “translation,” if it is not already too late to do so. […]

All the recent talk of multiculturalism relates, it may be noted, not to the many different cultures located all over the world, but merely to expedient social management of a small sample of migrants from some of these cultures who have actually dislocated themselves and arrived in the First World, and who now must be melted down in that pot, or tossed in that salad, or fitted as an odd little piece into that mosaic. These stray little flotsam and jetsam of world culture which have been washed up on their shores are quite enough for the taste of the First World. Migrancy, often upper-class elite migrancy as for example from India, has already provided the First World with as much newness as it needs and can cope with, and given it the illusion that this tiny fraction of the Third World has already made the First World the whole world, the only world there is. Those of us still located on our own home turf and in our own cultures and speaking our own languages can no longer be seen or heard.

Over the top? Maybe, but most worthwhile polemic is over the top to some extent, and I enjoyed it a lot. (Warning: contains prophylactic doses of Bhabha and Derrida.)