No Stable Ground

Writing a translation, publishing a translation:

Hesitations and doubts play no small part therein, and not just before the piece goes to press… All truth told, I can’t read a translation I’ve had published without itching to revise (read: correct) it.

For this reason, I’ve begun to conceive of translation as a series of progressive revelations, with ever a film of impurity remaining on my eyes, akin to a cataract: a permanent, partial blindness (so irksome).

One irony is that some of the revisions or corrections I would introduce, I would just as soon repeal or overrule, one fortnight on. Though I earnestly seek it, I find no stable ground.

December reading log

The Jew of Malta (c. 1592) – Christopher Marlowe

Pericles (c. 1608) – William Shakespeare

The Stars My Destination (1956) – Alfred Bester (in progress)

Random Acts of Senseless Violence (1993) – Jack Womack

2016: Found Gems

I do read a little contemporary literature, but for a year-end list the more interesting thing in my opinion is always to focus on what’s obscure, the chance discovery, the forgotten tome. So here goes…

Terrors of the Night or a Discourse of Apparitions (1594) – Thomas Nashe

You will not find another author so madcap entertaining as Thomas Nashe. No, it’s not easy to read. When I read Nashe it feels I’m looking through a glass darkly to a time when the conventions of written English were in radical flux, coming into formation. I tried to read Pierce Penniless but my attention felt worn out after about 15 pages. It (and The Unfortunate Traveler and Lenten Stuff) await my attention another moon. From Terrors of the Night:

“As touching the terrors of the night, they are as many as our sins. The night is the devil’s black book, wherein he recordeth all our transgressions. Even as when a condemned man is put into a dark dungeon, secluded from all comfort of light or company, he doth nothing but despairfully call to mind his graceless former life, and the brutish outrages and misdemeanours that have thrown him into that desolate horror, so when night in her rusty dungeon hath imprisoned our eyesight, and that we are shut separately in our chambers from resort, the devil keepeth his audit in our sin-guilty consciences; no sense but surrenders to our memory a true bill of parcels of his detestable impieties. The table of our heart is turned to an index of iniquities, and all our thoughts are nothing but texts to condemn us.” (full text)

Because I Was Flesh (1961) – Edward Dahlberg

Rainer Hanshe recommended Dahlberg to me as being up my alley, and that was after I’d read Paul Metcalf’s high praise of Dahlberg’s Because I Was Flesh in From Quarry Road. So I knew it was time. Well, an American who lived and breathed in the twentieth-century went and wrote a whole book about himself and his mother in soundly Elizabethan language. Sounds risky, but the mad codger flew high. Some will spurn it for its reconditeness, others will smear it for what they perceive as its misogyny, but I revel in its relentlessly rhetorical turns and its abstruse diction. But a small taste:

“Only a man cankered by his own zeal would crimp Scripture in order to call a lady barber a disorderly Magdala. When the time came she would be a steadfast wife and provide a husband who cherished her with a jolly, bawdy bed and fat gammons. She would look just as legal and righteous as any other female householder. Love restores the blind, the palsied and the virgin, and even if a lady barber smeared her bridal sheet with Heinz ketchup, no bridegroom should be so foolish as to examine it. A man who scrutinizes everything that he does–or someone else does to him–will die swearing or live to run mad in the streets with no cover for his nude soul but a syllogism. Besides, a woman is a marvelous chameleon creature, for she can cheat, lie and copulate, and still be the tenderest pullet.” (p. 25 in the New Directions edition)

Frame Structures: Early Poems 1974-1979 (1996) – Susan Howe

“On Monday, massacre, burning, and pillage
On Tuesday, gifts, and visits among friends”

(from Chanting at the Crystal Sea, strophe 20; link to blog post on Howe)

Orality and Literacy (1982) – Walter J. Ong

Tiny but crucial, Orality and Literacy maps out some of the differences between speech and writing, between what Ong calls “primary oral cultures” and societies governed by writing. This is very stimulating for anyone curious about the history of literature, the cognitive dynamics of language, and much much more. A nice reminder of what we are almost wired to forget:

“It is demoralizing to remind oneself that there is no dictionary in the mind, that lexicographical apparatus is a very late accretion to language as language, that all languages have no help from writing at all, and that outside of relatively high-technology cultures most users of languages have always got along pretty well without any visual transformations whatsoever of vocal sound.”

Hidden Cities: The Discovery and Loss of Ancient North American Civilization (1994) – Roger G. Kennedy

I became interested in the extinct mound-building civilizations of the eastern United States (many mounds of which may still be visited today) this year. I had visited several mounds throughout my adoloscence but what is there really to be seen or to know beneath the imposingness of a monumental heap of dirt? I’m plagued and perplexed by my partial knowledge still, and no matter how much I read about the mounds they remain impenetrable to me. Kudos to the archaeologists and paleontologists whose efforts have increased our understanding of these early inhabitants of North America, and to such historians as Roger Kennedy who in this book aims for a synthetic understanding of what those civilizations must have been like. It might it help to mitigate a little bit of that amnesia from which Americans always seem to be suffering.

Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (1989) – Stephen Jay Gould

I found this book at the library’s annual used sale quite on a lark; I headed for the science and nature section with a yen to redress my ignorance in matters of geology. Well, I’m still little more than an ignoramus when it comes to the deep time of the earth, but my eyes were opened to the mind-boggling difference of such alien arthropod life forms as Anomalocaris, Marrella and Opabinia. Gould’s book is a tour de force, illuminating not just the radical contingency of history, but the ways institutions and ideologies shape the way scientists look at history. This was the first book I had read of Gould’s, and it is Cambrian natural history written with the clip and ease of an airport thriller, what a rare thing.

Etudes de silhouettes (2010) – Pierre Senges

A good swath of this book (about 6,000 words) will be published in my translation next spring in the newish London-based journal Hotel. The book consists of short texts (ranging from half a page to 5 pages or so) composed from Kafka’s unfinished beginnings found in his notebooks. That probably sounds odd and not too inviting, but what makes this book so extraordinary is the humor, the undreamt of flights of fancy which Senges schemes up time and time again. I hope I can find a publisher who wants to publish the full book in English. I will keep trying. For now, there is The Major Refutation.

Random Acts of Senseless Violence

“They killed the President today so they let us out of school early. They shot him while he was going from a building to his car. I didn’t like him but he was the President so I should feel said they said at school but I don’t really. The new President is the guy everybody always makes fun of.”

from Random Acts of Senseless Violence (1993) by Jack Womack, p. 66

Announcing The Major Refutation

The first book I translated, The Major Refutation by Pierre Senges (La réfutation majeure, 2004) is at long last available for purchase from the publisher and many fine booksellers.

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The full title is The Major Refutation: English version of Refutatio major, attributed to Antonio de Guevara (1480–1545). The publisher is Contra Mundum Press (on other occasions the publisher of Miklós Szentkuthy and lots of other interesting authors). Here is the publicity page at Contra Mundum’s website, where you will find a link to a free 25-page sample.

The better part of this book is essentially a Renaissance treatise addressed to Charles V. According to its author, the New World would be an illusory, non-existent land, the object of a collective fraud perpetrated by a coalition of cartographers, merchants and government actors, all greedy for gain. Sound familiar? Plus ça change…

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It took a long time – many months, much worry over etymologies and syntax, a touch of my sanity; a willing editor/publisher; countless queries to the author, who encouraged me in my efforts. All that and much more. It took a special perversity, too, to refute the continent of my birth, and a special pleasure.

Is that journey over, now that the book is published? I think it stays with me. So many of its passages are seared into my mind. They are already starting to fade from memory. Then perhaps some years from now I will pick up the book, and remember the sentences anew.

The retail price of the book is $16 or $18 USD, depending on who you buy from. Give a copy to that special truther in your life. Ask your local librarian to acquire a copy. Tell your colleagues at work about it to make them suspicious. Read it for fun.

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Version 2

Rejection, the Lot of the Translator

I enjoyed reading Lawrence Venuti’s article in the most recent issue of Translation Review, though I found myself at odds with its academic jargon at times, its incessant referring to “the global circulation of texts,” “the global hegemony of English,” and what I take to be other abstractions.

Recounting his experience of translating J.V. Foix’s Daybook 1918 and seeking a publisher for it, Venuti makes the claim — in no way contentious, I do not think — that the work in translation of authors writing in a minority language (as Foix in Catalan) faces an additional hurdle to earning the attention of readers, especially that special class of readers: editors and publishers.

I took bittersweet consolation in reading of Venuti’s bootless attempts to publish his translations of Foix’s prose poems, which met with a “succession of rejections” from publishers “unable to appreciate Foix in English (or perhaps my English).” A bittersweet consolation, because as a translator I too have received a “succession of rejections” from publishers, and because I learned that the difficulties I face there are faced equally by the likes of someone as accomplished as Venuti. Of course that latter point could just as soon be reason for discouragement as for consolation: if Venuti in his laurels can’t get a contract for his Foix book, I’m not likely to fare much better, lowly upstart I am.

But what struck me most is that Venuti names names and quotes a number of prominent publishers in their rejection letters to him. (Whether he obtained their permission to do so was something I asked myself about; his commentary on their remarks I found subtly barbed, but perhaps I was projecting.) This is a lovely thing but far too specialized for our list, wrote Jonathan Galassi, president and publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. I cannot get close to this work, said  Jack Shoemaker, editorial director of Counterpoint Press. Nor did the project seem a good fit to Jill Schoolman, editor-in-chief of Archipelago Books, despite her appreciation of certain qualities of the work.

So the struggle that is literary translation goes on. This is just how it is.

Venuti, Lawrence. “Translation, Publishing, and World Literature: J.V. Foix’s Daybook 1918 and the Strangeness of Minority.” Translation Review 95: 8-24. 2016.

November reading log

Pierce Penniless His Supplication to the Devil (1590s) – Thomas Nashe (stuck)

“The Avenger” (1838) – Thomas De Quincey

Erik Satie (1930) – Pierre-Daniel Templier (trans. E.L. French & D.S French, 1969)

The Man in the High Castle (1962) – Philip K. Dick

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Erdritch (1964) – Philip K. Dick

Nothing Like the Sun (1964) – Anthony Burgess

Peace (1975) – Gene Wolfe

The Mechanic Muse (1987) – Hugh Kenner

by the same author (2014) – jack robinson

“France tolerates extremes of heterodoxy and outrageous behavior because it knows that ultimately no one will be harmed: the life of the nation will scarcely be touched. The avant-garde formed first in France because there was an artistic tradition of defiance, and it has lasted longer there because the country as a whole has only reluctantly taken to heart the lessons of its own most venturesome talents. France is innoculated against itself. In the United States, any active avant-garde is so rapidly absorbed by the cultural market that it scarcely has time to form and find a name. Like the profound stability of the ocean beneath its waves and storms, there is a great reservoir of indifference and conservatism in the French which has sustained a dynamic culture.”

– Roger Shattuck, The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France, 1885 to World War I: Alfred Jarry, Henri Rousseau, Erik Satie, Guillaume Apollinaire (Vintage, 1968), pp. 42

(Whether this is true anymore today, who knows; I doubt it. Roger Shattuck’s excellent book appeared in 1955. I have resumed work on a reflection on Satie which I began long ago and found this in my notes, and I thought of you.)

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Statistics reveal that Caucasians in the United States are dying earlier, I recall reading some months back in a national newspaper. Alcoholism, addiction, and suicide play no small part there, it said. Southern Ohio, where I grew up, is no exception. Stories reach me now of the early deaths of my former associates: a cousin of mine, a chronic alcoholic who survived numerous car crashes, once severed his carotid artery, and was saved by doctors. Years later he dove into shallow water and was paralyzed; he died two years later from meningitis. The neighbor-boy down the street from where I grew up died last year of an overdose (opiates, I presume). My one-time tennis teacher drank himself to death, my parents factually inform me. (He was 41; he might have had a new liver, but refused to abjure alcohol.) The Daubenmire boy is dead too (opiates or heroin). The younger brother of one of my classmates, a Navy cryptographer, took his own life. There is no end to these stories.

NEPEAN, ONTARIO. It is snowing now, and I feel more caught-off guard than ever before. Why would that be, when I have lived in Québec, then Ontario, for over eight years already? Why does the arrival of the first snowfall leave me feeling unprepared, threatened even? I cannot say. Better to live in this clime than in a nation to the south that is teetering now on the brink of fascism. And yet I do not feel entirely at home.

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11/9

I was in the dumps before the shit hit the fan. After the catastrophic events of Tuesday, I go on, mired in the same uncertainty as everyone, reading The Life of Tymon of Athens, Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great, consulting my preferred source of ultra-contemporary information and opinings (Twitter), wracked with doubts as to the goodwill of the American electorate.

I am luckier than some, nay, than so many, if not all. Though I’m American, I live in Canada, generally considered a more peaceful, tolerant nation (with many exceptions). I migrated here during the final years of the last Republican president, and I’ve remained here since that time, excepting the occasional visit. And yet my exile does nothing to allay the despair and inquietude I feel at the victory of such a malignant cad as this Donald Dump. Our feelings verge at times on despair.

Peace, to those who love it; and knowledge, knowledge, that the struggle goes on. Take heart, friends. Once more, unto the breach! – Hell and its minions are at the door.

“Of course there’s always the risk that you’ll like it, which is a little scary, because then you’ll want to read the others, and what you’re basically doing here is signing away a percentage of the rest of your life to this writer. I don’t know what exact percentage because I don’t know when you’re going to die, and neither do you.”

– by the same author, Jack Robinson, p. 3

October reading log

“The Fight,” “The Indian Jugglers” (c. 1820) – William Hazlitt

“The Last Days of Immanuel Kant” (1827) – Thomas De Quincey

“Modern Manufacture and Design” – John Ruskin

Because I Was Flesh (1961) – Edward Dahlberg

Orality and Literacy (1982) – Walter J. Ong

Nineteen Seventy Four (1998) – David Peace (abandoned)

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life & Times of Warren Zevon (2007) – Crystal Zevon et al. (skimmed)

The Novel: An Alternative History, vol. 1 (2010) – Steven Moore (in good progress)

Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic (2015) – Sam Quinones (stalled)

Medieval Monsters (2015) – Damien Kempf & Maria L. Gilbert

“In Luria’s field work, requests for definitions of even the most concrete objects met with resistance. ‘Try to explain to me what a tree is.’ ‘Why should I? Everyone knows what a tree is, they don’t need me telling them’, replied one illiterate peasant, aged 22. Why define, when a real-life setting is infinitely more satisfactory than a definition? Basically, the peasant was right. There is no way to refute the world of primary orality. All you can do is walk away from it into literacy.”

– Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy, p. 53

“Early charters conveying land in England were originally not even dated, probably for a variety of reasons. Clanchy suggests that the most profound reason was probably that ‘dating required the scribe to express an opinion about his place in time,’ which demanded that he choose a point of reference. What point? Was he to locate this document by reference to the creation of the world? To the Crucifixion? To the birth of Christ? Popes dated documents this way, from Christ’s birth, but was it presumptuous to date a secular document as popes dated theirs? In high technology cultures today, everyone lives each day in a frame of abstract computed time enforced by millions of printed calendars, clocks, and watches. In twelfth-century England there were no clocks or watches or wall or desk calendars.”

– Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy, p. 96

“Texts can be felt to have intrinsic religious value: illiterates profit from rubbing the book on their foreheads, or from whirling prayer-wheels bearing texts they cannot read. Tibetan monks used to sit on the banks of streams ‘printing pages of charms and formulas on the surface of the water with woodcut blocks.'”

– Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy, p. 92

“It is demoralizing to remind oneself that there is no dictionary in the mind, that lexicographical apparatus is a very late accretion to language as language, that all languages have no help from writing at all, and that outside of relatively high-technology cultures most users of languages have always got along pretty well without any visual transformations whatsoever of vocal sound.”

– Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy, p. 14

Kant impatient for coffee

A third sign of his decaying faculties was, that he now lost all accurate measure of time. One minute, nay, without exaggeration, a much less space of time, stretched out in his apprehension of things to a wearisome duration. Of this I can give one rather amusing instance, which was of constant recurrence. At the beginning of the last year of his life, he fell into a custom of taking immediately after dinner a cup of coffee, especially on those days when it happened that I was of his party. And such was the importance he attached to this little pleasure, that he would even make a memorandum beforehand, in the blank-paper book I had given him, that on the next day I was to dine with him, and consequently that there was to be coffee. Sometimes it would happen, that the interest of conversation carried him past the time at which he felt the craving for it; and this I was not sorry to observe, as I feared that coffee, which he had never been accustomed to, might disturb his rest at night. But, if this did not happen, then commenced a scene of some interest. Coffee must be brought ‘upon the spot,’ (a word he had constantly in his mouth during his latter days,) ‘in a moment.’ And the expressions of his impatience, though from old habit still gentle, were so lively, and had so much of infantine naïveté about them, that none of us could forbear smiling. Knowing what would happen, I had taken care that all the preparations should be made beforehand; the coffee was ground; the water was boiling; and the very moment the word was given, his servant shot in like an arrow, and plunged the coffee into the water. All that remained, therefore, was to give it time to boil up. But this trifling delay seemed unendurable to Kant. All consolations were thrown away upon him: vary the formula as we might, he was never at a loss for a reply. If it was said—‘Dear Professor, the coffee will be brought up in a moment.’—’Will be!’ he would say, ‘but there’s the rub, that it only will be:

Man never is, but always to be blest.’

If another cried out—‘The coffee is coming immediately.’—‘Yes,’ he would retort, ‘and so is the next hour: and, by the way, it’s about that length of time that I have waited for it.’ Then he would collect himself with a stoical air, and say—‘Well, one can die after all: it is but dying; and in the next world, thank God! there is no drinking of coffee, and consequently no—waiting for it.’ Sometimes he would rise from his chair, open the door, and cry out with a feeble querulousness—‘Coffee! coffee!’ And when at length he heard the servant’s step upon the stairs, he would turn round to us, and, as joyfully as ever sailor from the mast-head, he would call out—‘Land, land! my dear friends, I see land.’

– Thomas De Quincey, “The Last Days of Immanuel Kant”, 1827

(Bravo to Adelaide University for their wonderful collection of public domain eBooks, including a rich De Quincey treasure-store. This reader finds it appalling that so much of Thomas De Quincey’s writing, among the finest in the English language, has remained long out of print. Certain of his more well-known texts like Confessions of an English Opium Eater and The English Mail Coach and The Vision of Sudden Death remain ever in print, but what’s lurking beneath? Alas, we dig on still, spurning this vulgar age.)

September reading log

Finding it hard to sustain any kind of regular reading routine these days. Same old story: family responsibilities, work, too many books I want to read, distracting me, many books commenced, dipped into, many threads scrambled and lost. But what thee lovest well remains.

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Tamburlaine (part 1) (1590) – Christopher Marlowe (struggling to read)

The Secret of the Old Clock (1930) – Carolyn Keene (a Nancy Drew book, reading with my daughter)

The Novel: An Alternative History, Vol. 1 (2010) – Steven Moore (started)

White-Out: The Secret Life of Heroin, A Memoir (2013) – Michael Clune

Here Are the Young Men (2014), This Is the Ritual (2016) – Rob Doyle

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montreal aerien

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Le discours sur la tombe de l’idiot

Fly on over to Quebec Reads for a short translation from Julie Mazzieri’s Le discours sur la tombe de l’idiot that I did. It’s a bizarre and unsettling book, that’s for sure. Thanks to Peter McCambridge at Quebec Reads for publishing it and to Editions José Corti and the author, Julie Mazzieri, for granting permission to do so.