Wednesday, December 14, 2011

THE ILLUMINATIONS, by Arthur Rimbaud (translated by Donald Revell)


There are certain writers whose fame owes more to their myth than to their writing. I'd put Arthur Rimbaud in that group, though I know that doing so is inviting attacks (Rimbaud enjoys cult-hero status amongst those with bohemian inclinations). Perhaps the classic example of the enfant terrible, Rimbaud scandalized the Parisian literary scene with his decadence. As a teenager he embroiled himself in a homosexual affair with an older (and married) man, and indulged in raucous behavior and uninhibited drug use.

His body of work is relatively small, composed almost entirely during his teenage years (by 21 he'd given up on writing all together). Amongst his most lauded works is THE ILLUMINATIONS, which is also some of the last writing he produced (other than letters to acquaintances, which have also been collected and published). It reads more as a series of prose-sketches than a cohesive work. I wonder whether Rimbaud ever considered it a book, or whether its creation and publication resulted primarily from other people raiding his notebooks.

Despite the legions of admirers, THE ILLUMINATIONS did little to inspire me. Here and there a sentence stood out, but the only piece that interested/satisfied me through all of its sentences was "City", and my interest/satisfaction came more from amusement at Rimbaud's humorous scorn (he was talking about London) than from any deep-passions. Anyway, here it is (as translated by Donald Revell):


I am a temporary and not unhappy citizen of a metropolis generally deemed modern because, in all of its furnishings and facades, and even in its overall city-plan, good taste has been scrupulously avoided. Here you will not find the slightest trace of any monument to superstition. In brief, language and morality have been reduced to their minims! These millions of people, all strangers to one another, pursue their educations and occupations and decripitude so uniformly that their life spans seem many times shorter than those statistically ordained for ordinary Europeans. From my window, I can see new specters rolling through thick, everlasting fumes--our forest shade, our summer night!--my cottage is my homeland and my whole heart because it is just like all the others, and out front, a whole new breed of Furies is arising,--Death without tears (our priceless housemaid), hopeless Love and pretty Crime puling in the gutter.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Map of Fog 3 in Maximum RocknRoll #343

The third issue of my zine Map of Fog was chosen as one of the top ten zines in this month's issue of Maximum RocknRoll. They give it a positive review, too, saying the zine reads like something Studs Terkel would have written.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

approaches to translation

Just finished reading William O'Daly's translation of Aún, by Pablo Neruda, and it left me thinking about the different ways people approach the process of translation. You can either stray toward translating the literal meaning of the words, or toward an artistic translation that aims to communicate your interpretation of the deeper meaning.

For example, a common spoken farewell in Spain is "Hasta luego." In English, you might translate that to "See you later", which is a common spoken farewell in the United States, and which means pretty much the same thing. Or you could translate it to "Until later", which is more literal, and still understandable, but which might strike some as awkward.

O'Daly seems to favor the latter approach, but sometimes he sways in the other direction. One example is his version of the poem's title: Still Another Day. A more literal translation of "aún" would be the adverb "still", as in "I'm still breathing" ("aún respiro"). If O'Daly wanted to make sure the reader didn't read that "still" as the adjective "still" (as in "motionless") he could have translated the title to "Even Still," or something like that, which is closer to the literal meaning of the word. But he went for, instead, Still Another Day, which draws from the meaning of the poem (which deals thematically with the passage of days) to add meaning that the original Spanish title doesn't have.

Why did he do this? My guess is that he'd explain it as an artistic decision. He might tell you "Still Another Day" sounds more elegant than "Even Still". He might argue that Neruda's Spanish version of the poem is elegant, and that the elegance itself is something that should be preserved, instead of sacrificed by a more literal--and probably more awkward--translation.

And he might be right.

But personally, I almost always favor the more literal approach, and part of the reason for my preference relates specifically to that greater awkwardness. I think there is value in being reminded, while reading, that what you are reading is a translation. Awkwardness can help with that reminding.

Why is it important to remember that you are reading a translation? Because there is more to language than just the meaning of the words. Language, and the differences between languages, reveal differences in the minds of people. And if we abandon the literal approach, and translate not just the words but the sense of 'elegance' we get from a piece, if we translate it so it sounds like an American wrote it, then we lose something essential to the piece itself--we lose what it reveals about the mind that produced it.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

listen to Leonard when you feel happy

Listen to Leonard Cohen when you feel happy. Don't listen to him when you feel sad. Don't listen to him when you're home alone on a Saturday night, four beers through a sixer, too drunk to go anywhere (and nowhere to go, anyway), but not drunk enough to have your own emotional misery blotted out by physical discomfort.

Maybe listen to Beyonce instead.