lost in a rereading in translation

I tried to invent an etymology for the word “parka” but couldn’t think fast enough. Todd was on another subject—the freight train, laws of motion, effects of force, sneaking in a question about the number of boxcars that trailed the locomotive.

Я попытался придумать этимологию слову «парка», но не успел сообразить. Тодд уже перескочил на другую тему – грузовой поезд, законы движения, физические силы, захватывая вопрос, сколько вагонов тащил локомотив.

— Don DeLillo, Midnight in Dostoevsky, Russian translation by Sergei Karpov

A few weeks ago, Twitter serendipity led me to discover Pollen — a Russian project gravitating towards American literature. Fumbling about on their website, I noticed that one of the issues of their fanzine was devoted to Don DeLillo. Curiosity went “mmm.”

<click> & here it was, first in the table of contents: a Russian translation of the short story “Midnight in Dostoevsky.” Curiosity went “MMM,” & I thought, “Well, well, well, why not reread it in the original along with its translation?”

A weird—irresistibly irrational / irrationally irresistible—compulsion.

This is how I embarked upon a rereading which is likely to take time. So far it has proved to be a wild, delightful playground for a (daredevil) beginning learner of Russian: swarming with lexical discoveries & grammatical puzzles.


“Who’s that with the beard?”

“The familiar Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge photo, showing Maxwell in right profile”

     Koteks looked at both sides, then rolled his chair closer. ‘You know the Nefastis Machine?’ Oedipa only widened her eyes. ‘Well, this was invented by John Nefastis, who’s up at Berkeley now. John’s somebody who still invents things here. I have a copy of the patent.’ From a drawer he produced a Xeroxed wad of papers, showing a box with a sketch of a bearded Victorian on its outside, and coming out of the top two pistons attached to a crankshaft and flywheel.

     ‘Who’s that with the beard?’ asked Oedipa. James Clerk Maxwell, explained Koteks, a famous Scotch scientist who had once postulated a tiny intelligence, known as Maxwell’s Demon. The Demon could sit in a box among air molecules that were moving at all different random speeds, and sort out the fast molecules from the slow ones. Fast molecules have more energy than slow ones. Concentrate enough of them in one place and you have a region of high temperature. You can then use the difference in temperature between this hot region of the box and any cooler region, to drive a heat engine. Since the Demon only sat and sorted, you wouldn’t have put any real work into the system. So you would be violating the Second Law of Thermodynamics, getting something for nothing, causing perpetual motion.

     ‘Sorting isn’t work?’ Oedipa said. ‘Tell them down at the post office, you’ll find yourself in a mailbag headed for Fairbanks, Alaska, without even a FRAGILE sticker going for you.’

     ‘It’s mental work,’ Koteks said, ‘but not work in the thermodynamic sense.’ He went on to tell how the Nefastis Machine contained an honest-to-God Maxwell’s Demon. All you had to do was stare at the photo of Clerk Maxwell, and concentrate on which cylinder, right or left, you wanted the Demon to raise the temperature in. The air would expand and push a piston. The familiar Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge photo, showing Maxwell in right profile, seemed to work best.

— Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49

“and known, then, because of a painting”

Bordando el Manto Terrestre, 1961 by Remedios Varo

In Mexico City they somehow wandered into an exhibition of paintings by the beautiful Spanish exile Remedios Varo: in the central paintings of a triptych, titled ‘Bordando el Manto Terrestre’, were a number of frail girls with heart-shaped faces, huge eyes, spun-gold hair, prisoners in the top room of a circular tower, embroidering a kind of tapestry which spilled out the slit windows and into a void, seeking hopelessly to fill the void: for all the other buildings and creatures, all the waves, ships and forests of the earth were contained in this tapestry, and the tapestry was the world. Oedipa, perverse, had stood in front of the painting and cried. No one had noticed; she wore dark green bubble shades. For a moment she’d wondered if the seal around her sockets were tight enough to allow the tears simply to go on and fill up the entire lens space and never dry. She could carry the sadness of the moment with her that way forever, see the world refracted through those tears, those specific tears, as if indices as yet unfound varied in important ways from cry to cry. She had looked down at her feet and known, then, because of a painting, that what she stood on had only been woven together a couple thousand miles away in her own tower, was only by accident known as Mexico, and so Pierce had taken her away from nothing, there’d been no escape.

— Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49

peeping through translation

Funnily (or frustatingly), this post has been in the pipeline for about four months [1]. It stems from a German sentence rubbing against its reflection in an English translation — with French in between. Reading this friction has unfolded into an invitation to contemplate how meaning morphs according to choices of words.

Die Schwester habe schon als junge Frau jeden Tag im Geschäft gesessen und in den Romanheften gelesen, während P nach einem Guckloch in die weite Welt gesuch habe.

— Yoko Tawada, Porträt einer Zunge

Upon reading this sentence, I looked up “Romanheften” und “Guckloch” in the German-French PONS dictionary:

  • Romanheft: roman à quatre sous publié sous forme de fascicule vendu dans les kiosques, i.e. ± penny dreadful, dime novel; the German-English PONS dictionary translates Romanheft as “cheap [or dime-store] romance novel.”
    (Roman = novel) + (Heft = [stitched] booklet)
  • Guckloch: judas, i.e. peephole.
    (gucken = to look) + (Loch = hole)

Then I read Chantal Wright’s translation:

As a young woman, her sister had sat in the store every day, reading novels, whereas P had looked for a window onto the wider world.

& I wondered — am still wondering.

The world seen through a window vs the world seen through a peephole: they are the same (aren’t they?), yet they surely do not look the same. Depending on the window —

  • A window is: an opening, usually covered by one or more panes of clear glass, to allow light and air from outside to enter a building or vehicle [2].
  • A peephole is: a small hole, opening or piece of glass, especially in a door, through which one can look without being seen [3].

So: we can argue that a peephole is a kind of window, right? If one makes a genealogy of windows, one will surely encounter peepholes.

Aside: in Japanese, a peephole / judas / Guckloch translates as 覗き穴 (のぞ・き・あな), made up of 覗き = peep & 穴 = hole, or as 覗き窓 (のぞ・き・まど), made up of 覗き = peep & 窓 = window.

A window defines a point of view. A frame. Like a camera. Or, the other way round: to quote Naoya Hatakeyama: “Doesn’t [a camera] look like a small room or a ‘shed’ with a window?” [4]

Can a novel be a window onto the wider world? What if it is a cheap novel? Are some books panoramic windows whereas others are peepholes? Does the geometry of a window-book depend on the reader looking/peeping through it? Does it make a significant difference that P’s sister was reading Romanhefte rather than Romane?

There is something prismatic about having access to two (or more) versions of a text — either the original & a translation, or two translations. Reading passes through a prism: engagement with the text — or rather, the texts — fans out in an ever wider spectrum. Surprise, puzzlement, amazement. Pausing to chew over a choice of words, a turn of phrase, a translatio. Feeling how the translation rubs languages against each other, and how languages rub against each other in the reading experiences.

[1] ^ Why so long? Maybe I was trying to make sure that this post would not sound like policing. Maybe I was waiting to hear about Atelier Bow-Wow and the book WindowScape 2 — 窓と街並の系譜学.

[2] ^ Source: Wiktionary.

[3] ^ Source: ibidem.

[4] ^ From: Naoya Hatakeyama, “The Photographer and Architecture,” Places Journal, April 2018. Accessed 17 Jul 2018. https://doi.org/10.22269/180403.

texts rubbing against each other

A few days ago, I was wandering [1] along the whirls & whorls of Twitter when I came across this tweet by Robert Minto:

An instant favourite. This reflection resonates with my weakness for parallel reading. A weakness, for it turns me—a slow reader—into an even slower reader. Even so, I love being on the lookout for these “thought-sparks” books make “by rubbing against each other.”

Robert’s tweet also sent me back to Chantal’s Wright introduction to her translation of Yoko Tawada’s “Porträt einer Zunge” [my blogging-spark so to speak]. At the end of her second introduction, Chantal Wright lists the different categories of quotations that the reader will find in her commentary. There are three of them:

  1. quotations from texts mentioned by Yoko Tawada in her own text,
  2. quotations from texts written by other German exophonic writers,
  3. quotations from texts read by Chantal Wright while she was working on her translation.

I also included citations from texts that I happened to be reading while I was working on the translation and where my mind, busy with “Portrait of a Tongue” even when I was away from my desk, forged connections to the text (e.g. Neil Gaiman’s American Gods). This use of citation seemed to me to be in the spirit of Tawada’s web of associative thinking.

— Chantal Wright, Translating ”Portrait of a Tongue”

I like being aware of the web(s) of associations a text belongs to—be it as part of its being written and/or as part of its being read. Being aware of such a web: first by groping for it, then by analysing its threads & strings, plucking them & listening to whatever sound is produced, and why not? by partaking in the weaving.

Texts may rub against each other in various contexts:

  1. the author of a text straightforwardly refers to another text, thus inviting (or inciting) the reader to follow the breadcrumbs, fetch this other text & bring it in contact with the starting text—for example: in “Porträt einer Zunge,” Yoko Tawada’s narrator mentions Ingeborg Bachmann’s poem “Erklär mir, Liebe,” which may trigger the urge to read it [2];
  2. another text (more or less inescapably) appears complementary to the text being read—for example: reading Chantal Wright’s experimental translation and Kate Briggs’s This Little Art in parallel is bound to lead to some friction since both books orbit the act of translating (and this would remain true if the readings were out of sync);
  3. two texts with no obvious common foreground/background/backstage happen to be read at once: they might remain indifferent to one another, or they might rub against each other in unexpected ways—for example: suddenly, as I read them, Roberto Calasso [in Il Cacciatore Celeste] and Miklos Szentkuthy [in En marge de Casanova] both write about masks…

Every reading choice actualises a new node in these webs of associations. Switch two books in your reading history, and this may send a ripple through the tapestry as a whole.

At this point, I cannot help but quote this passage from This Little Art by Kate Briggs—emphasis is mine:

The theorist and critic Derek Attridge has written at length about the complex ways our sense of the identity of a work of literature requires, on the one hand, repetition (the repetition of what he calls ‘these specific words in this specific arrangement’ across all material supports: whether the book is read online or on paper or out loud, whether it is printed in this font or that, we are still able to identify it as the same work) and, on the other, an openness to just how non-identical the different manifestations of (and the forms of my engagement with) apparently the same work can be. How, in fact, the font does matter, or it can — likewise the timing and circumstances of my reading, the books I am reading the book with, the people I am talking to about it, who might make me think differently; the difference between reading a book for the first time and for the third. ‘Literary identity,’ he writes, ‘involves both repetition of what is recognized as ‘the same’ and openness to new contexts and hence to change’. In other words, to translation.

— Kate Briggs, This Little Art

[1] ^ Robert Macfarlane has gathered world-wide words for “wandering.”

[2] ^ … and which may also send me back to Max Frisch, but that’s another story. And to drift further: the very name Ingeborg may also connect with my current reading of Roberto Bolaño’s Le Troisième Reich.

this belongs to me

P complains that her American students use the word haben [have] too often. You don’t say Zweifel haben [have doubts] but Zweifel hegen [harbour doubts].

I wouldn’t be any different in Berlin, I replied. Nobody harbours anything these days, neither doubt nor love.

The word haben comforts us with a capitalist, enlightened gesture, as though you can have feelings in the same way you can have a house and furniture. Hegen, on the other hand, implies an uncanny relationship between people and their feelings.

— Yoko Tawada, Portrait of a Tongue, tr. by Chantal Wright [1]

How would like I define my relationship with my feelings/thoughts? Do I consider myself to be their owner? their landlady? Am I their host or their guest? Or am I both: a host who is hosted & a guest who is hosting? [Here French has an interesting case of polysemy: hôte can refer to both a host & a guest.] Do I impose my rules & regulations on my feelings/thoughts, or do they bend into a grotesque parody whatever illusion of control I may have—or rather, harbour?

Responses, feelings, thoughts, ideas: they keep me furnished—for I would not want to be an empty, anechoic room. My feelings are mixed when it comes to the ownership of such pieces of furniture. For that matter, the verb “to belong to” is itself subtly mixed:

  • to be owned by [sb],
  • to be a member of [sth].

Of course, the context usually makes it clear what we are talking about—where agency resides [2]. Yet there is still a fertile overlap for questions to thrive—if you are a part of a group, does it imply that you are owned by this group—by each part of the group or only by the group as a sum of its parts?

This flow brings me back to a short story I read a couple of months ago: “Serf-made-man ? Ou la créativité discutable de Nolan Peskine” [“Serf-made-man? Or the questionable creativity of Nolan Peskine”] by French author Alain Damasio. This short story belongs to [!] the collection Demain le travail, which gathers a bundle of texts to ignite reflections on the future of work. Alain Damasio’s contribution not only addresses this issue, but also approaches—& boards—the flagship creativity.

Here is one excerpt of the story—the tentative translations from French are my own [3]:

“The secret is that an idea doesn’t belong to you. It has no origin, it passes and sometimes you are on its path…
– You mean that we are just receivers? You pick it up, that’s it? Like an antenna picks up a flowing wave?
– That’s not it. Not that at all. You are rather a bird which is flying with netwings, you are a jellyfish in the middle of a storm, out of the water, in the wind, and you are crossing a valley when suddenly something runs into you and gets caught in your feathers, in your tentacles. You bring it into your mouth, you metabolise it and only then you understand what it was.”

– Alain Damasio, Serf-made-man ? Ou la créativité discutable de Nolan Peskine [4]

So: an idea does not belong to me, i.e. it is not owned by me, but at some point, it can become—through metabolisation—a part of me, and I a part of it. Later in the story, when the narrator asks Sayo [the girl who told him “the secret”] about the idea she is most proud of, she says:

“I’m proud to be in the middle of life, when life flows past, or when I feel it flowing. I’m proud, yes, proud of being a mesh of nerves, a kind of skin drum softly stretched taut over my bones. Or even a Golem if you like, made of some earth where the seed gets caught, where sudden rain will grow the idea. Proud that this exists because of me, because I stay tuned—or not even that—because I am just open to this, at the right time.”

— Alain Damasio, Serf-made-man ? Ou la créativité discutable de Nolan Peskine [5]

Writing, reading & reviewing are all parts of a net[work], a trellis, an arbour, where responses & feelings & thoughts & ideas grow. Writing, reading & reviewing overlap [6]. They all are responses to something that preexists them in our vibrating network of stuff. Every reading is a writing of sorts: when one reads a text, one actualises a new version of it. You, who are reading this now, are already rewriting it.

[1] ^ The original in German:

P klagt, dass ihre amerikanischen Studenten zu oft das Verb »haben« benutzen. Man sage doch nicht »Zweifel haben«, sondern »Zweifel hegen«.
Das sei aber in Berlin nicht wirklich anders, erwiderte ich. Man hege heutzutage nichts mehr, weder Zweifel noch Liebe.
Das Wort »haben« beruhigt uns mit einer kapitalistichen, aufgeklärten Gesten, als könnte man verschiedene Gefühle haben, so wie man Haus und Möbel haben kann. »Hegen« hingegen deutet auf eine unheimliche Beziehung zwischen den Menschen und ihren Gefühlen hin.

— Yoko Tawada, Porträt einer Zunge

[2] ^ In Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water, Colonel Strickland thinks he needs a new car, which obviously gets him into a car showroom; the Cadillac salesman who just as obviously talks him into buying a green teal Cadillac tells him that “[he] belong[s] to this car.” How uncanny is that?

[3] ^ … Do I belong to them?

[4] ^ The original in French:

« Le secret est qu’une idée ne t’appartient pas. Elle n’a pas d’origine, elle passe et tu es parfois au milieu…
— Tu veux dire qu’on est juste un récepteur ? Tu la captes, c’est ça ? Comme une antenne capte une onde qui flotte ?
— C’est pas ça. Pas du tout ça même. Tu es plutôt un oiseau qui vole avec des ailes de filet, tu es une méduse au milieu d’une tempête, hors d’eau, en plein vent, et tu traverses une vallée quand tout à coup quelque chose te percute, se prend dans tes plumes, dans tes tentacules. Tu le portes à ta bouche et tu le manges, tu le métabolises et seulement alors tu comprends ce que c’était. »

— Alain Damasio, Serf-made-man ? Ou la créativité discutable de Nolan Peskine

[5] ^ The original in French:

« Je suis fière d’être au milieu du vivant, quand le vivant passe, ou que je sens qu’il passe. Je suis fière oui, d’être un filet treillé de nerfs, d’être une sorte de tambour de peau doucement tendue sur mes os. Ou même un Golem si tu veux, fait d’une terre où la graine vient se prendre, où la pluie subite va faire pousser l’idée. Fière que ça existe grâce à moi qui suis à l’écoute de ça… Ou même pas, juste ouverte à ça, au bon moment. »

— Alain Damasio, Serf-made-man ? Ou la créativité discutable de Nolan Peskine

[6] ^ See Lara Alonso Corona’s Twitter thread where she responds to the “don’t write for critics” precept & argues that being a critic & being a reader are not mutually exclusive.