Weekend Reading: June 12, 2015

reading1

Babel Tower: Of Phanariots, Googlebots, and Infidelity

Constantine Maurocordato, one of the Ottoman Empire's dragomen, whose work as translators of the "infidels" language gave birth to the word "infidelity."

Constantine Maurocordato, one of the Ottoman Empire’s dragomen, whose work as translators of the “infidels” language gave birth to the word “infidelity.”

Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s superb article “Is Translation a Language or Math Problem?” has many things to recommend it, most particularly this aside on the roots of the word “infidelity”:

Translation promises unity but entails betrayal. In his wonderful survey of the history and practice of translation, “Is That a Fish in Your Ear?” the translator David Bellos explains that the very idea of “infidelity” has roots in the Ottoman Empire. The sultans and the members of their court refused to learn the languages of the infidels, so the task of expediting communication with Europe devolved upon a hereditary caste of translators, the Phanariots. They were Greeks with Venetian citizenship residing in Istanbul. European diplomats never liked working with them, because their loyalty was not to the intent of the foreign original but to the sultan’s preference. (Ottoman Turkish apparently had no idiom about not killing the messenger, so their work was a matter of life or death.) We retain this lingering association of translation with treachery.

Later in the piece, Lewis-Kraus limns what happens when engineers obsessed with using brute-force computation for online translation tools run up against the vagaries of literary nuance:

One computational linguist said, with a knowing leer, that there is a reason we have more than 20 translations in English of “Don Quixote.” It must be because nobody ever gets it right. If the translators can’t even make up their own minds about what it means to be “faithful” or “accurate,” what’s the point of worrying too much about it? Let’s just get rid of the whole antiquated fidelity concept. All the Sancho Panzas, all the human translators and all the computational linguists are in the same leaky boat, but the machinists are bailing out the water while the humans embroider monograms on the sails.

Nothing wrong with Google Translate, of course. But let’s hope that translating literature is left in the hands of people who, well, like literature and acknowledge the importance of linguistic subtlety. You wouldn’t hire a Ph.D in comparative lit to beta-test your server network, now would you?

Writer’s Desk: Harper Lee on Who to Ignore

Harper Lee, c. 1962.

Harper Lee, c. 1962.

There’s a lot of education that can go into being a writer. All those workshops, retreats, seminars, and conferences; there’s enough of them that just taking in a small percentage could be a full-time job.

There’s also the less-formal education, that involves just listening to what other people think of what you’ve done. That’s always necessary, because writing is nothing without its audience.

But it matters who you listen to. Not every opinion matters, after all. Harper Lee knew that. Listen to this, from one of her letters (written after To Kill a Mockingbird was published) that are being auctioned off next week:

…one is not supposed to be aware that critics, reviewers, and English teachers exist.

All those people have their place, of course. But their beliefs should probably only be taken seriously in moderation. Especially by a writer who’s just trying to write.

Weekend Reading: June 5, 2015

reading1

Screening Room: ‘Entourage’ on the Big Screen

entourage2

Four years after HBO’s dude wish-fulfillment series Entourage ground to a generally unloved conclusion, the far-from-inevitable film follow-up comes to a theater near you.

My review is at Film Racket:

If the question of what would happen to the big-dreaming boys from Queens occupied you for one minute after Entourage finished its eighth season in 2011, then Entourage the movie might be your kind of superfluous entertainment. If not, then stay far, far away. After all, this is not a film so much as it is a shrugging “Sure, why the hell not?” afterthought of a media brand extension…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence’

(Magnolia Pictures)

(Magnolia Pictures)

If the question of what exactly A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is would bother you if it can’t be answered, then by all means, don’t see it. Philosophical investigation, bad joke, or just a series of modern-art video installments strung together into a “film,” it resists easy definition. That doesn’t make it a masterpiece, but it’s something different, and in a good way.

A Pigeon… opens this week in limited release, and should cause a few furrowed brows as well as some rapturous praise. My review is at Film Journal International:

Roy Andersson (A Swedish Love Story) announces his newest film with a bravado that typifies the style of this acutely controlled and almost hermetically sealed piece of work: “The final part of a trilogy about being a human being.” The glacially paced circus that follows is certainly an investigation of being human, but one that’s done in the manner of an intellectual burlesque. Answers aren’t proffered in these short pieces that feature many of the same waxy-faced performers in absurd situations that range from a dance teacher who can’t keep her hands off a student to Charles XII riding into a bar. But plenty of evidence is found on the way…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Good for Nothing

artweek1There’s an old joke about how in Irish families, the boy who can’t throw a ball, well, he’s the priest.

A similar weeding-out procedure is suggested by this line from Rachel Kushner’s brilliant 2013 novel The Flamethrowers:

That’s what artists are, his father said, those who are useless for anything else. That might seem like an insult, he said, but it wasn’t.

So, in other words, run with it.