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?

New in Theaters: ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’

Carey Mulligan and dog in 'Far from the Madding Crowd' (Fox Searchlight)

Carey Mulligan and dog in ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ (Fox Searchlight)

postimageimage-ffmc-ffmc_blogIn Thomas Vinterberg’s take on Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, the beautiful outfits and gorgeous Dorset vistas don’t detract a bit from a story about a strong-willed woman willing to rebuff all suitors, no matter how well-suited they might seem.

My review is at PopMatters:

Some people have all the luck. Take Bathsheba Everdere (Carey Mulligan), the willful heroine in Thomas Vintenberg’s gleamingly romantic adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. Mulligan’s perceptive performance gives some hint of Bathsheba’s internal anxieties, but in the main, she is blessed and seems to know it. In 1870 Dorset, at a time in Europe when it was by no means uncommon to fall sick and die or starve to death simply for lack of funds, she is beautiful and unattached, a young woman free to find her way in the world. This comes before her surprise inheritance…

Here’s the trailer, feast your eyes:

Reader’s Corner: ‘Finnegans Wake’ in China

finneganswake1There’s something about James Joyce’s last and arguably unreadable novel Finnegans Wake that has always attracted the obsessive. Fans range from Marshall McLuhan—who, one critic quipped after reading his manic interpretations, was possibly the only living person to have read every single line of the book—to those various reading clubs that have popped up where people read a couple pages each meeting over the course of many years.

Now, after one woman spent eight years doggedly translating what Joyce’s wife termed “that chop suey” into Mandarin, the book has proven to be surprisingly successful in China. Per the Wall Street Journal:

A newly affluent nation that prizes black Audi sedans and Louis Vuitton handbags has made a literary status symbol of what may well be English literature’s most difficult work. Thanks in part to a canny marketing campaign involving eye-catching billboards and packaging, “Finnegans Wake” sold out the first, 8,000-volume run shortly after it was released in December. The book briefly rose to No. 2 on a bestseller list run by a Shanghai book industry group, just behind a biography of the late Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s modern-day boom.

Perhaps it’s a sign of increasing affluence that people have the inclination to acquire status novels that they have little intention of actually reading.

Reader’s Corner: The David Foster Wallace Syllabus

Wallace

What gift did the Internets just deliver? A 1994 syllabus from the late, great David Foster Wallace that will make you wish the man had taught at your college. From my post over at Re:Print:

Wallace_Syllabus_001_large[Wallace’s] syllabus for the Fall 1994 intro class “English 102-Literary Analysis: Prose Fiction” eschews the books we’re all used to from college English lit classes (Zora Neale Hurston, Gabriel Garcia Marquez) in favor of an eclectic mix of mass-market fiction, ranging from Stephen King’s Carrie to Jackie Collins’ Rock Star

New on DVD: ‘Anna Karenina’

annakarenina1

Anna-Karenina-DVD-CoverJoe Wright’s electric, Tom Stoppard-scripted take on Anna Karenina didn’t quite get the attention it deserved in theaters last fall. Here’s hoping that it can have a second life on DVD and Blu-ray (available today).

My full review is at Film Journal International:

All the world’s a stage in this highly self-aware yet free-flowing take on Tolstoy’s great novel of doomed romance and the thorny collision of ideals with the world of real humans. Joe Wright’s exciting take will divide audiences, but for those who go along for the ride, they’ll thrill at how it blows their hair back. Instead of moving from one stately mansion to the next, Wright sets most of his scenes inside the same grand but vaguely decrepit theatre, with obvious backdrops and stage props, adding music and elaborate choreography to further stylize the action. It can be read as a statement on the highly artificial world that the Russian aristocracy had entrapped itself in, circa 1874, or a device heightening the novel’s already potent melodrama…

You can see the trailer here:

 

Reader’s Corner: Four Hours a Day

Getting a look at somebody’s reading habits is always interesting. Not because it reveals particular traits that may lie dormant—though people with very persnickety reading tendencies (I must read everything from the New York Times bestseller list; I can only read one book at a time) are likely to be not the most relaxed types in their everyday life—but because it lets you see something of their inner self.

And sometimes it’s fascinating just because it reminds you exactly what an important part of life the daily habit of reading books is. Take Joe Queenan’s piece from last Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, “My 6,218 Favorite Books.” In it, Queenan writes affectionately of his lifelong addiction to the daily pursuit of printed words on bound pages, and of the somewhat hopeless nature of it:

I’ve never squandered an opportunity to read. There are only 24 hours in the day, seven of which are spent sleeping, and in my view at least four of the remaining 17 must be devoted to reading. A friend once told me that the real message Bram Stoker sought to convey in “Dracula” is that a human being needs to live hundreds and hundreds of years to get all his reading done; that Count Dracula, basically nothing more than a misunderstood bookworm, was draining blood from the necks of 10,000 hapless virgins not because he was the apotheosis of pure evil but because it was the only way he could live long enough to polish off his extensive reading list. But I have no way of knowing if this is true, as I have not yet found time to read “Dracula.”

There is never enough time in the day to read even a fraction of what you want to. So what are you doing here? Get cracking. That pile on your bedside table isn’t going to get any smaller the longer you waste on the Internet.

Quote of the Day: Lauren Leto

Lauren Leto, author of Texts from Last Night: All the Texts No One Remembers Sending and Judging a Book By Its Lover,  was asked how she—being one of those voracious social media creatures and founder of a viral website—ended up writing books.

Her response, in part:

I am a voracious reader, because I like to not deal with reality very often.

Hear, hear.