August reading log

Billy Budd, Sailor (1888/1924) – Hermann Melville

Classic American Graffiti (1934) – Allan Read

Because I Was Flesh (1961) – Edward Dahlberg (in very slow progress)

The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (1966) – Carlo Ginzburg (trans. John & Anne Tedeschi, 1983)

Chanting at the Crystal Sea (in Frame Structures) – Susan Howe (reread)

On the Ceiling (1997) – Eric Chevillard (trans. Jordan Stump, 2000)

Les théories de Suzie (2015) – Eric Chevillard (a children’s book, with illustrations by Jean-François Martin)

Vestiges_02: Ennui (2016)

Cendres des hommes et des bulletins (2016) – Sergio Aquindo and Pierre Senges

Michel Butor has died. A sad day, but a triumphant life.

Use infelicitous words? Maybe not

There are a great many gradations between words of everyday use and such as are not at all understood by the common people, and to the latter class may sometimes belong words which literary people would think familiar to everybody. Hyde Clark relates an anecdote of a clergyman who blamed a brother preacher for using the word felicity, “I do not think all your hearers understood it; I should say happiness.” “I can hardly think,” said the other, “that any one does not know what felicity means, and we will ask this ploughman near us. Come hither, my man! you have been at church and heard the sermon; you heard me speak of felicity; do you know what it means?” “Ees, sir!” “Well, what does felicity mean?” “Summut in the inside of a pig, but I can’t say altogether what.”

– In Growth and Structure of the English Language, by Otto Jespersen. Leipzig: B.G. Teubner, 1905. P. 98.

Lyly’s Euphuism, 1591: “O fair Cynthia…”

“O fair Cynthia, why do others term thee unconstant, whom I have ever found immovable? Injurious time, corrupt manners, unkind men, who finding a constancy not to be matched in my sweet mistress, have christened her with the name of wavering, waxing, and waning. Is she inconstant that keepeth a settled course, which since her first creation altereth not one minute in her moving? There is nothing thought more admirable, or commendable in the sea, than the ebbing and flowing; and shall the moon, from whom the sea taketh this virtue, be accounted fickle for increasing and decreasing? Flowers in their buds are nothing worth till they be blown; nor blossoms accounted till they be ripe fruit; and shall we then say they be changeable, for that they grow from seeds to leaves, from leaves to buds, from buds to their perfection? then, why be not twigs that become trees, children that become men, and mornings that grow to evenings, termed wavering, for that they continue not at one stay? Ay, but Cynthia being in her fulness decayeth, as not delighting in her greatest beauty, or withering when she should be most honoured. When malice cannot object anything, folly will; making that a vice which is the greatest virtue. What thing (my mistress excepted) being in the pride of her beauty, and latter minute of her age, that waxeth young again? Tell me, Eumenides, what is he that having a mistress of ripe years, and infinite virtues, great honours, and unspeakable beauty, but would wish that she might grow tender again? getting youth by years, and never-decaying beauty by time; whose fair face, neither the summer’s blaze can scorch, nor winter’s blast chap, nor the numbering of years breed altering of colours. Such is my sweet Cynthia, whom time cannot touch, because she is divine, nor will offend because she is delicate. O Cynthia, if thou “shouldest always continue at thy fulness, both gods and men would conspire to ravish thee. But thou, to abate the pride of our affections, dost detract from thy perfections; thinking it sufficient if once in a month we enjoy a glimpse of thy majesty; and then, to increase our griefs, thou dost decrease thy gleams; coming out of thy royal robes, wherewith thou dazzlest our eyes, down into thy swath clouts, beguiling our eyes; and then——”

From Endymion, by John Lyly. (Euphuism wasn’t so bad, now was it?)

Editing Typography (Faulkner)

Further to last week’s post on translating punctuation, here are some thoughts on respecting an author’s punctuation, from a typographer’s point of view — this time via Robert Bringhurst’s Elements of Typographic Style, an extraordinary work, of interest to many more than just typographers.

Under a section titled Treat the punctuation as notation, not expression, most of the time, we read :

Now and again the typographer finds on his desk a manuscript in which the exclamation marks and question marks stand six or nine together. Certain words may be written in bold capitals and others may be underlined five times. If the page has been written by hand, the dashes may get longer, and the screamers (exclamations) may get taller as they go. With sufficient equipment and time, the typographer can actually come close to reproducing what he sees; he can even increase its dramatic intensity in any of several ways. Theatrical typography is a genre that flourished throughout most of the twentieth century, yet whose limits are still largely unexplored.

Most writing and typography nevertheless remain contentedly abstract, like a theater script or a musical score. The script of Macbeth does not need to be bloodstained and spattered with tears; it needs to be legible. And the score of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata does not need bolder notes to mark fortissimos nor fractured notes to mark the broken chords. The score is abstract code and not raw gesture. The typeset script or musical score is also a performance in its way — but only of the text. The score is silent so the pianist can play. The script can whisper while the actors roar.

William Faulkner, like most American novelists of his generation, typed his final drafts. Noel Polk, a literary scholar and specialist on Faulkner, has prepared new editions of these novels in recent years. He found that Faulkner usually typed three hyphens for a long dash and four or five dots for an ellipsis, but that once in a while he hammered away at the key, typing hyphens or dots a dozen or more in a row. Polk decided not to try to replicate Faulkner’s keyboard jigs exactly, but he did not want to edit them entirely away. He evolved the rule of converting two, three or four hyphens to an em dash, and five or more hyphens to a two-em dash. Anything up to six dots, he replaced with a standard ellipsis, and he called for seven dots wherever Faulkner had typed seven dots or more.

These are typographic decisions that other editors or typographers might have made in other ways. But the principle underlying them is sound. That principle is: punctuation is cold notation; it is not frustrated speech; it is typographic code.

Faulkner, we can presume, did not resort to bouts of extravagant punctuation because he was unable to express himself in words. He may, however, have been looking for some of the keys that the typewriter just doesn’t have. The typographer’s task is to know the vocabulary and grammar of typography, and to put them to meaningful use on Faulkner’s behalf.

– Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style, version 3.1, pp. 83-84 (Hartley & Marks, 2005)

I haue been only the procurer of mine own hurt

O how many have we seen in the court of princes, to whom it had been better for them that they had been no lordes of their will, & lesse of their desires, because sythens they did that they might & desired, begon to do that they ought not to do? If the man ye offendes vs ought to aske pardon, let euery man aske pardon to himself before any other, for in my life I found neuer none yt hurte me so muche as my self, I haue been only the procurer of mine own hurt. Who made me fall into pryde, but mine only presumpsion and fondnes? Who durste haue prisoned my sorowfull heart with enuye, but lacke of naturall gouernement? who durst haue inflamed myne inwardes with the fyer of yre, if it had not been my great impacience? what is the cause I am so great a gurmander, but that my bringyng vp was to delicate? what is the cause I haue not departed with my goodes to the poore and nedye, but the excessiue loue I had to my riches? who gaue leue to my flesh to rise against my folish desire, if my heart had not been fixed in voluptuous pleasures? O my soule, of all this domage & open faultes, to whom do you lay ye blame, but to myne owne sensualitie? Great folly it is, ye thefe beyng within the house, to seke for him without: euen so it is with vs a manifest faulte of experience, when seyng in vs the blame, and yet charge another with the occasion: by this we ought to perceiue that we shall neuer cease to complaine vntil the tyme we begyn to amende. Oh, howe often & many tymes hath vertue fought with the botome of our consciences, whiche stirred vs to be good, and our sensulitie resisted, whiche is vaine frowardnes, by the which battail folowed a darke corrupte judgement: but to conclude, we of oure selues as of our selues are very miserable.

Sunday and I am stricken with ennui. Thus this. Lines stolen from Antonio de Guevara’s A Looking Glass for the Court (a.k.a. A difpraife of the life of the Courtier, and a commendacion of the life of the husbandman, a second-degree translation of Menosprecio de corte y alabanza de aldea, 1539, Englished from the French translation of Anthony Alaygre by the “Vicar of Hell,” Sir Francis Bryan, 1548).

(Can some intrepid publisher publish this, please? (It would be nice to also see a translation of the never-before-Englished Arte de marear on the market, too. I’m not going to hold my breath.))

Translating Punctuation (Ducharme)

While working through successive drafts of my first book-length translation, I went back and forth at times about how to treat punctuation. There were some very long sentences containing commas, and at times I wanted to make them into semicolons. After discussing the matter with the author of the text I was translating and the publisher of my translation, I decided it was probably best to respect the original punctuation as much as possible.

It may be slightly more common in French than in English to string together independent clauses using a comma. That said, many native writers of English favor the comma over the semicolon, never or hardly ever using the latter, and also have no qualms about so-called run-on sentences. And conversely, many native writers of French make ample use of the semicolon. So, while there are some generalizations that can be made about the way native speakers of French and English use punctuation, I think nevertheless that the usage is not radically different. Individual authors may use punctuation idiosyncratically, and I think as a rule efforts should be made to respect original punctuation.

A case study: after checking out Go Figure by Réjean Ducharme (trans. Will Browning, Talonbooks, 2003) from the library today, I compared the first paragraph to that of the original.

The original:

Tu l’as dit Mamie, la vie il n’y a pas d’avenir là-dedans, il faut investir ailleurs. On le savait mais ça ne mordait pas. On avait le compteur trop enflé, les roues dentées ne s’engrenaient pas. On planait : c’est un état où on a beau n’avoir pas d’ailes on ne sent pas son poids d’enclume. On tenait à un fil. On ne tiendra plus à rien, c’est promis. Blottis dans le trou qu’on a creusé en s’écrasant, on a compris. On est plus doués pour s’ancrer. On ne risque rien à s’enfoncer un peu mieux en se serrant plus fort dans le lit du courant. Ça peut toujours s’emballer, en crue, en débâcle, on ne se fera pas avoir, ça ne nous en fera pas accroire.


You said it, Mammy, there’s just no future in life, we’ve got to invest elsewhere. We knew it, but it didn’t sink in. The engine was racing; the gearwheels wouldn’t engage. We had our head in the clouds: it’s a state in which it makes no difference that we have no wings, we don’t feel the anvil of our own weight. We were hanging by a thread. We won’t hang on to anything anymore — that’s a promise. Hunkered down in the hole that we hollowed out when we crashed, we’ve got it figured out. We have more talent for taking root. We risk nothing by sinking in a bit deeper while snuggling up closer to each other in the river bed. The waters may break, in a flash flood, in a debacle; we won’t let ourselves be duped; they won’t pull the wool over our eyes.

The original uses no semicolons, whereas the English has three (each of them replacing a comma). He also converts a comma into an em dash, and adds in two new commas. (Actually, if you count the first sentence — “You said it, Mammie” — three.)

Right now I’m trying to gauge whether these changes are improvements for the reader. One thing is clear, which is that they weren’t necessary changes; the text would still be as comprehensible if the original punctuation had been respected.

Browning’s translation, if it followed the original punctuation to a T, would look like this:

You said it Mammy, there’s just no future in life, we’ve got to invest elsewhere. We knew it but it didn’t sink in. The engine was racing, the gearwheels wouldn’t engage. We had our head in the clouds: it’s a state in which it makes no difference that we have no wings we don’t feel the anvil of our own weight. We were hanging by a thread. We won’t hang on to anything anymore, that’s a promise. Hunkered down in the hole that we hollowed out when we crashed, we’ve got it figured out. We have more talent for taking root. We risk nothing by sinking in a bit deeper while snuggling up closer to each other in the river bed. The waters may break, in a flash flood, in a debacle, we won’t let ourselves be duped, they won’t pull the wool over our eyes.

My point in writing this post isn’t to call out a noble translator, Will Browning (who has translated and continues to translate much of Ducharme’s work) for what I see as some egregious error. I don’t see the modification of the original punctuation so clearly as all that.

I understand that the fidelity of the translator is often a fidelity to the self-consistency of the translation, not just the original alone. And I also know that editors can be a little, oh, anal about punctuation. And that a translation is never just a literal transcription of a text. But I also wonder what it means to respect and stay faithful to an original.

I’m going to continue to reflect on this and, who knows, if we’re lucky I may post again soon on a related vexatious punctuation-in-translation topic: the dubious, idiosyncratic French colon.

If anyone wants to chime in as to their feelings about punctuation, I am all ears.

Women in Translation

It’s a fact that books by women are translated and published less than books by men.

In honor of this fact, I would like to call some attention to some previous bibliomanic posts and articles I’ve written for other publications, all on the topic of books by women, written in French.


On Nelly Arcan’s Hysteric

On Marie NDiaye’s All My Friends and Self-Portrait in Green.

On Madame de Lafayette’s The Princess of Cleves.

On Anne Garréta’s Liquid Skies (not yet available in English).

On Marguerite Duras’s Ecrire.

July reading log

Volpone (1605) – Ben Jonson

Review of Contemporary Fiction, Paul Metcalf/Hubert Selby Jr Issue (1981 or 82) (in progress)

Where Do You Put the Horse? (1986) – Paul Metcalf

Enter Isabel: The Herman Melville Correspondence of Clare Spark and Paul Metcalf (1991)

Teach Yourself: Geology (2003) – David Rothery (in progress)

Etudes de silhouettes (2010) – Pierre Senges

Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives (2014) – Susan Howe

The Sixth Extinction (2014) – Elizabeth Kolbert

Cendres des hommes et des bulletins (2016) – Pierre Senges & Sergio Aquindo (in progress)

“A slightly vain exercise in style” (Senges)

“A Slightly Vain Exercise in Style,” by Pierre Senges, appears this month in print in Vestiges_02, in a translation by yours truly. You can purchase it now if you are so inclined at the above link. Lots of stuff in there. I haven’t seen the table of contents yet, just the list of contributors.

The anthology is themed around the topic of boredom, and it was something of a coincidence that I had a translation of “A Slightly Vain Exercise in Style” approaching completion when they announced the call for submissions. The fit is more or less perfect — when one feels bored, what better antidote than slightly vain exercises in style? Although, let me say, it is never boring to read Pierre Senges.

This piece really shows Senges at his best in short form, the freewheeling style, the impudence, the irony, the proliferation of allusions to the history of art and literature.

Sometimes, on Sundays, not having any mass to celebrate, nor to profane, no church in the vicinity to scandalize with his presence, no guests expected, no lunch to plan for Tuesday or Wednesday, nothing else to do, then, but find an outlet for his immense solitude, his eternal and majestic solitude of centuries past and the castle, Count Vlad Tepes of Romania, last name Dracula, used to give himself up to slightly vain exercises in style. Sometimes, in winter, along the coasts of the Black Sea, when the ice had frozen every river to its mouth and made even the water in the wells inaccessible, when the cold had sealed shut the door of his house, and bestowed on straw the rigidity of iron, when the snow piled waist high supposed immobility, when there was no choice but to stay in bed and revisit for the thousandth time memories of happy, sun-drenched Rome, exclusively inhabited by couples in love, Ovid used to give himself over to slightly vain exercises in style […] Every single day or nearly, after purging herself of commonplaces, of lies, confessions, jeremiads, idle gossip, repetitions, imitation, of speech, clichés, clichés of every sort, and of a certain naïve confidence in the power of her pen, Emily Dickinson used to give herself to slightly vain exercises in style.

I think Black Sun Lit has a really interesting aesthetic, and I’m glad to be in Vestiges again, alongside so many others. Last year they published my translation of Mallarmé’s long, typographically radical poem, “A Roll of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance” in their inaugural issue, Vestiges_00. Check it out.

When my copy arrives in the mail I’ll post some snapshots. Looking forward to that day.