Monday, March 30, 2009

RIP, Andy Hallett (1975 - 2009)

Andy Hallett, who Whedon fans know as the actor who played "The Host" a.k.a. Lorne a.k.a. Krevlornswath of the Deathwok Clan on Angel (from season two on) just died of heart failure at the really appallingly young age of 33. He added a really astonishing amount to the show, and was fabulous throughout. It's really a terrible loss, even far beyond his family and friends, who must be devastated.


Friday, March 27, 2009

Quote of the Day

When I was a kid, I remember hearing that cockroaches would not only survive the sure-to-happen US-Soviet nuclear holocaust, but actually emerge stronger than ever as they devour our irradiated corpses. Similarly, there’s a new think tank in town, headed by Bill Kristol, Robert Kagan, and former Coalition Provisional Authority spokesguy Dan Senor.

-- Matt Yglesias
...although, on second thought, this is grossly unfair to the cockroaches, who under the nuclear-holocaust scenario would simply be benefiting from our stupidity; whereas Kristol and Kagan (and maybe Senor, I don't know) were major players in causing the destruction they are now attempting to feast of off. For this parallel to work we'd have to imagine cockroaches actually starting a nuclear war, and then flourishing as they devoured our corpses....

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

File Under "Google is !@#$%ing Awesome"

A google search for "Lilly Rosemary" -- just those two words -- brought up, first, a video of the Dylan song I was searching for. The fourth hit was a link to the lyrics on Dylan's official site; the fifth was to the song's wikipedia page.


Besides, this recent Google logo:

--was enough to warm any new parent's heart. (More here; design by Eric Carle himself.)

On blog-related matters: sorry for my recent radio silence. There is no reason except the main reason. I keep hoping that my life will return to a sufficient balance that I can blog somewhat more (I have a number of longer pieces I want to write when I find the time); but so far, no. (By this time last year, I'd put up 54 posts; so far this year, I've managed a third of that, and almost all of those have been quick links & quotes, rather than more substantial pieces.) I continue to hope things will change. In the meantime, my apologies; and, as always, I invite you to browse the archives -- or the other fine blogs in my sidebar.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Quote of the Day My Year

Infancy conforms to nobody: all conform to it, so that one babe commonly makes four or five out of the adults who prattle and play to it.

-- Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance

...Emerson just mentioned forcing conformity to overall attitude, but I swear that I somehow remembered him also specifically referring to schedules (and nap times in particular).

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Perfect Counter-Protest to Fred Phelps's Hatred

You know Fred Phelps, that guy who goes around picketing funerals (I mean, really -- picketing funerals -- how low can you go?) with signs that say things like "God hates fags"? Well, via Pharyngula, someone came up with possibly the ideal counter-protest:

(Explanation for the Lovecraft impaired.)

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Poem of the Day: A Postcard from the Volcano

A Postcard from the Volcano

Children picking up our bones
Will never know that these were once
As quick as foxes on the hill;

And that in autumn, when the grapes
Made sharp air sharper by their smell
These had a being, breathing frost;

And least will guess that with our bones
We left much more, left what still is
The look of things, left what we felt

At what we saw. The spring clouds blow
Above the shuttered mansion house,
Beyond our gate and the windy sky

Cries out a literate despair.
We knew for long the mansion's look
And what we said of it became

A part of what it is ... Children,
Still weaving budded aureoles,
Will speak our speech and never know,

Will say of the mansion that it seems
As if he that lived there left behind
A spirit storming in blank walls,

A dirty house in a gutted world,
A tatter of shadows peaked to white,
Smeared with the gold of the opulent sun.

-- Wallace Stevens

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Quote of the Day: The Elves of Iceland

Stealing just a bit of Hilzoy's quote from Vanity Fair:
Alcoa, the biggest aluminum company in the country, encountered two problems peculiar to Iceland when, in 2004, it set about erecting its giant smelting plant. The first was the so-called "hidden people" -- or, to put it more plainly, elves -- in whom some large number of Icelanders, steeped long and thoroughly in their rich folkloric culture, sincerely believe. Before Alcoa could build its smelter it had to defer to a government expert to scour the enclosed plant site and certify that no elves were on or under it. It was a delicate corporate situation, an Alcoa spokesman told me, because they had to pay hard cash to declare the site elf-free but, as he put it, "we couldn't as a company be in a position of acknowledging the existence of hidden people."
Hilzoy adds: "Possibly the Icelandic banks should have made sure there were no hidden people lurking in their balance sheets, waiting to take revenge on anyone who disturbed them."

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Eugene Onegin in English: Comparing Translations

One of my more neglected hobbies is comparing poetry translations. Because poetic translation is so over-constrained -- so that, in the words of Vladimir Nabokov, a rhymed translation that also "translate[s] the entire poem literally is mathematically impossible" -- any attempt to put it into a new tongue is going to involve contentious aesthetic choices. For that matter, the same is hardly less true of translation of unrhymed poetry: since poetry, practically by definition, involves playing with the specifics of its original language ("poetry is what's lost in translation" opines Robert Frost from off under his apple tree). So it's fun to see the different ways that people do it. Watching others attempt the impossible is always entertaining, which is why people go to circuses.

For me, it's fun in particular with canonical heavyweights -- if only because lots of translations of them tend to exist. In times past, I've collected translations of, in particular, Goethe's Faust, but also (to a lesser extent) of the Odyssey, the Bible, and Dante's Divine Comedy.

And Eugene Onegin.

Onegin is particularly fun for a number of reasons. Above all, it's form is so ridiculously confining that -- even knowing, as I do, not a word of the original language -- it look like it ought to be impossible to translate. And, indeed, Vladimir Nabokov -- one of my personal favorite authors, a giant of both 20th-century English and 20th-century Russian literature -- specifically declared that doing a rhymed translation was impossible (indeed, mathematically so; op. cit.). And his furious attacks on the attempts of Walter Arndt to prove him wrong created the biggest literary spat of the 1960's, including the rupture of his famous friendship with critic Edmund Wilson, who rose to Arndt's defense. Despite Nabokov's mathematics, a number of translators have attempted Onegin while preserving its rhymes.*

A word about the Onegin stanza. It's a cousin to a sonnet, although with some key differences. First of all, it's in tetrameter, not pentameter (four beats per line not five). Secondly, as opposed to either the traditional Petrarchian (ABBAABBACDECDE) or Shakespearean (ABABCDCDEFEFGG) rhyme schemes, the Onegin stanza uses one of its own (ABABCCDDEFFEGG) -- one which deliberately goes through the three possible variations on a rhymed quatrain (ABAB, CCDD, EFFE) with an additional couplet to close it off (GG). Finally, Pushkin alternates masculine and feminine rhymes (the former are rhymes which rhyme only one syllable -- head, dead -- and the latter are ones which rhyme more than one -- platter, clatter).

Some English-language poetry has been written directly in Onegin stanzas, so you can get an idea of what it's like. First and foremost, Vikram Seth's absolutely delightful verse novel, The Golden Gate, is written entirely in Onegin stanzas, in a direct homage to Eugene Onegin (actually, to its 1977 translation by Charles Johnston); you can read some sample stanzas from it here, but they only give a taste -- you really ought to go read the whole thing. Then there's Nabokov's two-stanza poem "On Translating Eugene Onegin", also written directly in English in Onegin stanzas.

Anyway, the point here is that it's a tight, tough little form. Hard to do.

I had heard of Onegin before -- I'd taken a whole college class on Nabokov back in the day -- but what really turned me on to the existing English translations was reading Douglas Hofstadter's delightful (if often infuriating) book Le Ton Beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language. He devotes two chapters two Onegin. One he devotes to praising and comparing four rhymed translations -- those of Oliver Elton (1937, later rev. by A. D. P. Briggs), Walter Arendt (1963, rev. 1978), Charles Johnston (1977), and above all that of James Falen (1990); the other he devotes to attacking the "vile non-verse" of Nabokov's deliberately ugly translation. And, much to my surprise as a self-identified Nabokov fan, Hofstadter won me over.** I began collecting Onegin translations when I saw them.

One of those eventually included that of Douglas Hofstadter himself (1999), who taught himself enough Russian to go at the task, so enamoured was he of the poem after his two-chapter gear-up in his earlier book. In the introduction he talks about all of the above-cited translations as well as his own, and also about the translation of Babette Deutsch (1936, rev. 1964) which he had read since the completion of his earlier book. In the first book, he gives four stanzas in each of the five translations (counting Nabokov) that he highlights; in the introduction to his own translation, he gives an additional stanza in seven (counting his own).

Hofstadter, by the way, is still at it. If you scroll way down in this online talk of his (or simply search for the word "Deutsch") you'll find eight versions of Chapter 2, Stanza 38 (the original Russian and seven translations of it), which he quotes and discusses.

But yesterday, while I was procrastinating on grading the papers I need to grade engaged in deep intellectual questing, I discovered that there are two new rhymed translations since Hofstadter's discussions were published: that of Tom Beck (2004) who, like Hofstadter, taught himself Russian for the task (sample stanzas here), and that of Stanley Mitchell (2008), which seems to be the most recent (chapter two is online in its entirety here).

Since I happened to have on hand the first stanza of all of Hofstadter's seven translations -- plus a literal one Arndt did for a book called Pushkin Threefold, plus the Russian (of which I did not understand a word), I dug up the first stanzas of the Beck and Mitchell two, and thus had a complete set of ten versions to compare.

Rather than hide the fruits of my obsession, I decided to post all ten here. (I put them on a separate web page to hide them from all this blather, and generally for easier reference.) As I say in the sidebar, I may add more when I have another set of papers to get through the time. (I don't know if I should post the stanzas that Hofstdater reprints -- which might be nice to have online, and with the Beck and Mitchell added -- or if I should try to add others, whether my favorites or simply ones that have gotten some attention from other people (e.g. the one Boyd compares in his Nabokov biography, or perhaps "the great/Fourth stanza of... Canto Eight"). Any thoughts?)

Anyway, once again, here's a link to Nine different versions of a Eugene Onegin stanza in English (with a bonus couplet from another stanza tucked in at the end). I hope that at least some of you may find them half as fascinating as I do. I think that reading them can tell you a lot about translation, poetry, rich dying relatives, and other noteworthy things.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I think I might have some papers to grade. Or something.

Update: At the suggestion of several readers, I've added the 1881 translation of Henry Spalding (that link goes to the complete text on Project Gutenberg) -- not one of my favorites, but for completion's sake it's now there.

* Which doesn't by itself prove Nabokov wrong, since he only said it was impossible to translate Onegin faithfully with rhymes preserved.

** For a good argument on the Nabokov side of the debate, see Brian Boyd's comparison of the Deutsch, Arndt, Johnston and Nabokov translations in the Onegin chapter of his biography Vladimir Nabokov: the American Years.