Monday, 21 September 2015

A poor island, lost on the Northwest side of Europe, which seems to have specialized in men of genius: Jorge Luis Borges on Irish Literature

Back in the 1980s Jorge Luis Borges and Osvaldo Ferrari had a radio program; the topic was always books and authors, even when Ferrari tried to lead Borges to other places. Once he asked Borges about the “vast richness” of the Irish Literature.

“Yes,” replies Borges, “it’s a richness that seemed opposed to all statistics: a poor island, lost on the Northwest side of Europe, which seems to have specialized in men of genius and which enriched English Literature, for English Literature is inconceivable without so many unforgettable authors.” Then he develops his thesis. “Why, curiously, that tradition is ancient, for we’d have to think – I think it’s in the ninth century – and there we have that gigantic image of Scotus Eriugena, whose name means ‘Irishman born in Scotland,’ for Ireland was then called Vetus et Maior Scotia, and Scotland is the name Irishmen had over there.” Only Borges to really begin at the beginning. And then of course he starts digressing. “On reading histories of philosophy, and especially histories of scholastics [Who does that?], which is certainly quite rich and has many varied masters, I noticed that Scotus Eriugena is, however, unique because he’s a pantheist. The writings attributed to the Areopagite had arrived in Paris, and there was no one in France capable of reading them. And then this monk from Ireland arrives, and in Ireland they had saved Greek: they had been invaded I’m not sure if by the Saxons or by the Scandinavians; anyway, the Irish monks had to flee from their convents – these convents were particular, each monk was alone in his hut, and in the cultivated fields there were moats to stop the Barbarians. But one of them left: Johannes Scotus Eriugena.” At this point it does look like Borges is going to give a full lecture on Irish Literary History, but damn it!, it’s so interesting. “He was called by Charles the Bald, and translated the text of the Areopagite from the Greek. No one knew neither Latin nor Greek; the Irish monk did. And then he wrote his philosophy, which is a pantheistic philosophy. And, curiously, there’s a Hugo poem, ‘Ce que dit la bouche d’ombre,’ which corresponds exactly to Scotus Eriugena’s philosophy. And that philosophy is also found in Back to Methuselah, from another Irishman, who probably hadn’t read Scotus Eriugena: Bernard Shaw. The idea is that all things emanate from divinity, and that at the end of history all things will return to it. And this provided Hugo with a wonderful page wherein he imagines a whole sort of monsters, of black dragons, or whatever it is, and of demons amongst them. And they all return to the divinity. That is, divinity is reconciled with all creatures, including its monsters.”

Phew, and Ferrari only asked him about Irish Literature! Imagine if he had asked him to talk about philosophy.

Borges moves on to “another incredible writer, we have Swift, to whom we owe Gulliver’s travels – amongst them that horrible voyage: the voyage to the Yahoos, who are men who are like monkeys – and these other men, whose name imitates the sound of a neigh, are the ones who form that republic of thinking horses.” There’s also Berkeley the philosopher. “Berkeley is the first one to reason about idealism and he was Hume’s master. Well, Hume was Scottish, and both were Schopenhauer’s masters. And further on there are so many illustrious Irishmen that one loses the thread: perhaps the greatest poet of the English Language in our, William Butler Yeats. And we also have an unjustly forgotten, George Moore, who began by writing very silly books and in the end writes admirable books with a new type of prose; books like, about confidences of unreal things, of dreamt things by him, but which are told as confidences to the reader and which are Moore’s personal inventions. And there’s another name that, in spite of the sadness, or maybe infamy of his fame, we think of him the way we think of an intimate friends, or even a child: Oscar Wilde obviously. And why not mention another Irishman who created two characters that are perhaps more famous than any politician: the creator of Sherlock Holmes and doctor Watson, Arthur Conan Doyle.”

Ferrari asks him to return to Bernard Shaw. Borges remarks on the similarities between Shaw’s Back to Methuselah and Scotus Eriugena’s philosophy. “And that was all thought of by Scotus Eriugena in the ninth century and Bernard Shaw ends up giving it a dramatic and hilarious form in that work.” On Borges’ mentioning the play’s humour, Ferrari suggests that Ireland “produced the humoristic genre, the ironic, the satiric; a very particular variety.” Borges kindly ignores him and piles on more names from his prodigious memory. “And we forget Goldsmith, we forget Sheridan; well, we forget the ‘Celtic Twilight’ poets, the ‘Celtic penumbra.’ Yes, but Yeats was in that group at first, but then, fortunately, he abandoned that twilight and wrote perhaps the most poetic and precise works. And we forget, I don’t know how we can, it’s really a feat of forgetting: to forget the author of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, who was also Irish.” It’s not really a feat of forgetting; although Borges held Ulysses in high regard, he derided Finnegans Wake and had very little to say about Joyce’s earlier realistic books.

Ferrari asks Borges to speak a bit more about Yeats. “Well, what Yeats did with the English Language is more admirable than what Joyce did, for Joyce’s compositions are a bit like Literature Museum pieces, no?” Here’s the Borges I know and love! The one who always speaks his mind, who doesn't fear unpopular opinions. “On the other hand, the poetry of William Butler Yeats is not, it’s something that enraptures us, like Hugo’s poetry, for instance. It’s extraordinary: I always remember that untranslatable, unwise verse which however exerts its magic: ‘That dolphin’s thorned, that gong tormented sea.’ How strange! The sea dilacerated by dolphins and tormented by gongs. I don’t know if it can defend itself logically, but it’s evidently a magical conjunction. And we find many in Yeats’ pages; there are constantly unforgettable lines like that.  I remember the end of one of his plays where one character is a pig keeper, and you see these extraordinary women who descend slowly down a staircase’s handrail. And he asks them what were they made for; and they respond: For desecration, and the lover’s night. Those are the last words. It’s stupendous, isn’t?”

As far as I could inquire, the play to look this line in is called The Herne's Egg.

Ferrari reads aloud a line from Don Juan in Hell: “Hell the home of the unreal and of the seekers of happiness.” Borges’ reaction is a very Spanish “Caramba” of approval and delight.

This is a funny little conversation; as always it showcases Borges’ strengths and weaknesses: he has a prodigious memory, he knows all the classics and he can establish unexpected relationships between them; on the other hand literature seems to have stopped somewhere in 1939: no mention of Flann O’Brien, Dylan Thomas, Seamus Heaney. Anyway, it’s always a pleasure to re-read Borges talking about books.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Once more unto the Bök, dear friends

I wanted to come back to Christian Bök’s lovely book Eunoia. It’s a short book, less than 100 pages, quite re-readable and endearing. He spent 7 years writing it, and published it in 2001 to surprising but well-deserved critical acclaim and commercial success; 20,000 copies sold, not bad for a book in that blurry space between prose and poetry. Bök, who only had a previous book of poetry to his name, probably didn’t expect this, as we self-deprecatingly acknowledges in a meta-fictional aside:

Relentless, the rebel peddles these theses, even when vexed peers deem the new precept ‘mere dreck.’ The plebes resent newer verse; nevertheless, the rebel perseveres, never deterred, never dejected, heedless, even when hecklers heckle the vehement speeches. We feel perplexed whenever we see these excerpted sentences. We sneer when we detect the clever scheme – the emergent repetend: the letter E. We jeer; we jest. We express resentment. We detest these depthless pretences – these present-tense verbs, expressed pell-mell. We prefer genteel speech, where sense redeems senselessness.

As you can see, the text only uses words with the vowel E. Eunoia is a collection of lipograms, one per vowel. ‘Eunoia’ is the shortest English word to contain all five vowels and means “good thinking”, which is an apt name for such an intelligent book. Bök, influenced by Georges Perec whose A Void avoids the letter E, inverted the concept. It’s a pretty remarkable achievement because, in spite of the Oulipo-like constraint, the book has plot, logic, coherent grammar, complex figures of speech, and lots of humour. As far as form goes, it’s one of the most impressive displays of virtuosity I’ve ever seen in English language.

Now one of the goals of the book was to prove that each vowel has a personality. “A unique personality for each vowel soon emerges: A is courtly, E is elegiac, I is lyrical, O is jocular, U is obscene,” the back cover says. I don’t find this convincing: certainly a chapter with Alfred Jarry’s Ubu will be obscene, but no less than:

“Slick pimps, bribing civic kingpins, distill gin in stills, spiking drinks with illicit pills which might bring bliss. Whiz kids in silk-knit shirts script films in which slim girls might strip, jiggling tits, wiggling hips, inciting wild shindigs. Twin siblings in bikinis might kiss rich bigwigs, giving this prim prig his wish, whipping him, tickling him, licking his limp dick till, rigid, his prick spills its jism. Shit! This ticklish victim is trifling with kink. Sick minds, thriving in kinship with pigs, might find insipid thrills in this filth. This flick irks critics. It is swinish; it is piggish. It stinks.”

Chapters A and E seemed equally courtly, and lyrical passages are not exclusive to I. Personality certainly must be shaped by the vocabulary at his disposal, but for every cunt there’s a twat and for every fuck there’s a bang. I think the personalities that emerged have more to do with the way Bök’s imagination interacted with the words he had available, that magical thing we call creativity. To me it’s rather his personality that’s showing through the meanings he constructed with each story.

But I think the book does show English language’s personality in another way; although Eunoia is an ars poetica digressing through potentialities, it’s also a lament to its limitations. In Chapter A, the character, if that means anything here, is Hassan Abd al-Hassad. Along with Chapter U, it’s one of the book’s most repetitive parts. Bök, you see, was forbidden from using pronouns; ‘Hassan’ shows up 6 times in this short text:

Hassan asks that a vassal grant a man what manna a man wants: Alaskan crabs, alfafa salad and kasha, Malahat clams, lasagna, pasta and salsa. Hassan wants Kalamata shawarma, cassabananas and taramasalata. Hassan gnaws at a calf flank and chaws at a lamb shank, as a charman chars a black bass and salts a bland carp. Hassan scarfs back gravlax and sprats, crawdaw and prawns, balks at Parma ham, and has, as a snack, canard à l’ananas sans safran. Hassan asks that a vassal grant a man jam tarts and bananas, jam flans and casabas, halva, pappadam and challah, babka, fasnacht and baklava.

When Ubu gets on the stage the same thing happens. The other chapters have ways of ameliorating this constraint. Chapter O, for instance, is the chapter of the third person plural:

Goths who rob tombs confront old ghosts (most of whom prowl from ghost town to ghost town to spook poltroons). Lots of ghosts, who brood, forlorn, on moods of loss, how long-lost consorts – blond frows, sworn to honor fond vows of forsworn troth (now long forgot). Most consorts, too forlorn to long for comfort from sorrow, sob: boohoo, boohoo – so bozo clowns, who know not how to frown, don coxcombs, for pomp, for show, to spoof droll plots from books. Most fools who josh lords or mock snobs don hoods or cowls to do so (for wroth lords who scowl oft long to shoot folks who honor no form of snobdom). Most fools go: ‘oops, ow – oh, bollocks: ho, ho’.

Here the text has multiple subjects, which gives the action more variety. In Chapter E, also known as the retelling of the War of Troy, Helen is the protagonist; here there’s more room for maneuver because Bök has pronouns like “me”, “she”, “we”, “her” e “herself”. (At one point he even uses “thee”, which makes sense given the Homeric setting; I love that popular fiction trope of putting mythological characters speaking with faux Shakespearean terms.) This newfound freedom also allows the chapter to use dialogue and reflexive structures; if Hassan is all about exterior, Helen is about me and the self. Chapter I, since it has “I”, goes one step further, it’s even more intimate and self-centered. It’s also the most inquisitive chapter since Bök at last has at his disposal the vocabulary (“is”, “it”, “why”, “might) to ask questions:

Hiking in British districts, I picnic in virgin firths, grinning in mirth with misfit whims, smiling if I find birch twigs, smirking if I find mint sprigs. Midspring brings with it singing birds, six kinds (finch, siskin, ibis, tit, pipit, swift), whirling shrill chirps, trilling chirr chirr in high pitch. Kingbirds flit in gliding flight skimming limpid springs, dipping wingtips in rills which brim with living things: krill, shrimp, brill – fish with gilt fins, which swim in flitting zigs. Might Virgil find bliss implicit in this primitivism? Might I mimic him in print if I find his writings inspiring?

Bök is certainly dependent on vocabulary, he follows its lead, allows it to create possibilities. For instance, Chapter A has a remarkable text on drugs and premonitions because it can:

Hassan wants a catnap and grabs, as a calmant, hash, grass and smack, khat, ganja and tabac – an amalgam that can spark a pharmacal flashback. Hassan falls slack, arms asprawl, and has a nap that spawns dark phantasmatas. Satan stands back, aback a damask arras, and draws a fractal mandala – a charm that can trap what a Cathar savant calls an ‘astral avatar’ (part man, part bat – and fang and claw) – a phantasm that can snarl and gnash at a carcass. A fantast chants ‘abracadabra’ as a mantra, wags a wand, and (zap) a sandglass cracks. A hag as mad as Cassandra warns a shah that bad karma attracts phantasmal cataclasms.

Still the available vocabulary is not that restrictive. “Eunoia abides by many subsidiary rules,” the author wrote. “All chapters must allude to the art of writing. All chapters must describe a culinary banquet, a prurient debauch, a pastoral tableau and a nautical voyage.”

Each chapter illustrates many different potentialities, but then denies many more; I, thanks to the “–ing” suffix, is the only one that uses the gerund; O, since it has the monopoly on “no”, ”nor” and “not”, abounds in negative sentences, and that too becomes part of its personality. Each chapter, perforce, must use simple, declarative syntax; many of the elements that allow the creation of more complex grammar are multivocalic: while, whereas, because, since, therefore, although, and therefore prohibited to Bök. Each letter has exclusive rights on a very small cluster of conjunctions, adverbs, prepositions, articles and pronouns, the synapses that interconnect the phrases’ neurons. Thus A does what it can with “as”, “a”, “that”, “at e “and”; thanks to the repetition of “and,” this chapter has a touch of oral literature (which seems right to me; Hassan made me think of Harun al-Rashid, the caliph of The Arabian Nights.) E, better equipped, benefits from “nevertheless”, “wherever”, “whenever”, “hence”, “then”, “where”; I has “in,” “it,” “which.” I was thinking why O uses the third person plural; I think it’s so Bök can use verbs like “to go” and “to do”; one of his subsidiary rules was to exhaust all the available vocabulary; he couldn’t do that if he conjugated them in the third personal singular, with the “–es” suffix getting in the way. O oversees “who”, “whom”, “both”, “on” and “to”, which allows him to use verbs in the infinitive. U has “thus”, “but”, “such”, “must”, “up”. Obviously since these elements are reused several times; each text acquires its own syntactical personality; the reader can predict the type of sentences he’ll found next. Even so there are surprises; I thought E would use the past tense – that “–ed” suffix – but actually he coherently wrote the whole book in the present tense.

Eunoia is an amazing book, with dazzling verbal tricks. However, although I don’t wish to downplay Bök’s amazing feat, I also have the impression that he fared so well because the English language evolved to permit him to pull off this stunt. Apropos of him I wrote a bit about the differences between Portuguese and English before; and I still think he was very lucky to have a language so monosyllabic, so poor in declensions and conjugations, so devoid of information in its syntax. It’s almost as if English evolved to allow someone to create this book; that it had to wait so many centuries is also quite incredible. So congratulations to Christian Bök; he’s not just a great virtuoso, he also had the genius to notice all this untapped potential that others ignored.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Against Impossible Translations

e começo aqui e meço aqui este começo e recomeço e remeço e arremesso
e aqui me meço quando se vive sob a espécie de viagem o que importa
não é a viagem mas o começo da por isso meço por isso começo escrever
mil páginas escrever milumapáginas para acabar com a escritura para
começar com a escritura para acabarcomeçar com a escritura por isso
recomeço por isso arremeço por isso teço escrever sobre escrever é
o futuro do escrever sobrescrevo sobrescravo em milumanoites miluma-
-páginas ou uma página em uma noite que é o mesmo noites e páginas
mesmasm ensimesmam onde o fim é o comêço onde escrever sobre o escrever é não escrever sobre não escrever e por isso começo descomeço pelo
descomêço desconheço e me teço um livro onde tudo seja fortuito e
forçoso um livro onde tudo seja nada esteja seja onde umbigodomundolivro um umbigodolivromundo um livro de viagem onde a viagem seja o livro
o ser do livro é a viagem por isso começo pois a viagem é o comêço
e volto e revolto pois na volta recomeço reconheço remeço um livro
é o conteúdo do livro e cada página de um livro é o conteúdo do livro
e cada linha de uma página e cada palavra de uma linha é o conteúdo
da palavra da linha da página do livro um livro ensaia o livro
todo o livor é um livro de ensaio de ensaios do livro por isso o fim-
comêço começa e fina recomeça e refina se afina o fim no funil do

This wall of incomprehensibility constitutes the first 20 lines, or versicles (in the ecclesiastic sense of the word) of the first section of Haroldo de Campos’ experimental tour de force. Between 1963 and 1976, publishing it piecemeal in transient magazines, he composed Galáxias, a powerful potpourri of poetry and prose. A travelogue on the surface, the real journey takes the text to the far end of verbal iconoclasm as Haroldo (known by his first name in Brazil) does away with plot, character, social responsibility and message to focus on language. Brother to so many writers of the time who became suspicious of realist literary conventions (or as he calls it, “orthocento realism”), he set out from the creed that “writing about writing is the future.” For the duration of the book, anyway, he seemed to believe that and created a remarkable work of metafiction that has itself as its subject and destiny.

Physically, the book exhibits a special care and presentation: it is composed of fifty sections, each with a variable number of versicles that never exceeds a whole page; the verso of each section is blank, a deliberate and meaningful choice since the text explores the lacunae between words and readers, the space where the books comes to life as the reader frees himself from it and lets it drift towards the readership. The first and last sections are in italics and have a fixed position, although in theory a shuffling of the middle sections would permit a very high number of permutations that altered interpretations – the ideal edition would allow the reader to move pages around like fascicles. Although in prose, you can see that the lines don’t go all the way to the end of the right margin, but vary in size like verses. The text eschews capital letters and punctuation, and the reader must decide where a sentence ends and another one begins. The first words give the impression of starting in mid point: “e começo aqui” means “and I start here,” which is perhaps the first of many jokes since the use of a lowercase letter gives the impression that in fact something precedes it. That something (for this book invites entering the realm of wild associations), may be something as simple as the author’s awareness of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake’s influence upon his text:

"riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs."

In 1962 Haroldo and his brother, Augusto, took a crack at translating this untranslatable book into Portuguese: the result became a book called Panorama de Finnegans Wake.

Reading Galáxias and other altiloquent, magniloquent, inaniloquent, explaterating gasconades strewn with galimatias written by parisologists and other morologists recently has made me think about the fact that some literature resist translation, that some texts, springing from an author wanting to use the unique qualities inherent in a given language, welding themselves so strongly to its fabric, risk damage on attempts to separate them. And such books exist quite a lot in English. 

I think, for instance, of Christian Bök’s Eunoia, a collection of lipograms. A well-behaved lipogram has trained itself in the art of deliberate aphasia, forgetting a letter or a set of letters for ludic reasons. In organizing his book, Bök divided it in five chapters, each chapter using only words with one specific vowel; for example, Chapter A opens with this text:

"Awkward grammar appals a craftsman. A Dada bard as daft as Tzara damns stagnant art and scrawls an alpha (a slapdash arc and a backward zag) that mars all stanzas and jams all ballads (what a scandal). A madcap vandal caps crafts a small black ankh – a handstamp that can stamp a wax pad and at last plant a mark that sparks an ars magna (an abstract art that charts a phrasal anagram). A pagan skald chants a dark saga (a Mahabharata), as a papal cabal blackballs all annals and tracts, all dramas and psalms: Kant and Kafka, Marx and Marat. A law as harsh as a fatwa bans all paragraphs that lack an A as a standard hallmark."

For its control and virtuosity, for  its elegance and natural flow, the whole book deserves ardent accolades. A quality I notice that Bök shares with Haroldo and the others I deal here is the use of foreign words (fatwa, ars magna) and wordplay (Kant/Kafka, Marx/Marat). These writers who seem so unconcerned with the translatability of their work actually show proficiency in, or at least curiosity about, foreign languages: they see far beyond the parameters of theirs and deal with language beyond a mere species rank, to use a biological analogy here, instead they go up to kingdom rank. Much like an ecologist may not differentiate between animal and plant, this writer doesn’t see the distinction between words and onomatopoeias is like that. We may take the famous example from Finnegans Wake:

"The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!) of a once wallstrait oldparr is retaled early in bed and later on life down through all christian minstrelsy."

Bök’s book leads me to two thoughts: firstly, that it can’t be translated; secondly, that something similar can’t be created with the Portuguese language, at least not without tremendous effort, and perhaps not even so. The barriers to a translation stem, in part, from the differences that always exist between two languages. But to mind what Bök is also using specific attributes of his language, attributes that don’t exist in Portuguese. For one thing, Bök takes full advantage of English’s simple morphology, namely its fewer conjugations and declensions. As a general rule, verbs in the present tense add an –s at the end to change the person; the past tense gets an –ed; nouns and adjectives, to form a plural, use the –s ending too. Things don’t work like that in Portuguese. An English speaker may decline stanza as stanzas, but, let us say, avatar turns into avatares. Bacchanal just needs that extra –s, but bacanal turns into bacanais. For reasons lost in time, the Portuguese language abhors pairing consonants together, so it constantly wedges them with vowels. The fact that English words tend to be monosyllabic also means they have less vowels per word and so less chances of different vowels per word. So it’s no surprise that Bök uses monosyllables so much: bard, daft, damn, art, scrawl, arc, zag, mar, jam, cap, craft, black, ankh, stamp. This also implies using few Latinate words (another general rule: Anglo-Saxon-based words tend to be shorter). Furthermore, the English word has a very laidback about its look and doesn’t care how it ends. The Portuguese language, though, avoids endings in consonants: so vandal becomes vândalo, and abstract becomes abstracto. In Bök’s hands, English grammar’s poverty in comparison to Romance language’s becomes a strength that he exploits with success.

Of course Bök can’t circumvent the imposition of writing in the present tense to avoid the past tense its their –ed finales. I actually expected Chapter E to be in the past tense, but the author kept it coherent throughout the book. Once again, the idea of finding equivalents in Portuguese is a pipe dream. A literal translation, obsessed with semantics, would not fare very well and would sink in a quagmire of nonsense in no time. Haroldo dos Campos had an interesting for this. As a celebrated translator, he gave much thought to the matter of translating those difficult beasts. He coined the world “transcreation” for the operation of adapting the book to the target-language. In essence he proposed creating an original text using the qualities of the new language. But even so, even taking many liberties, in Bök’s case it would be very difficult to maintain his restraints and produce something. Bök had to use the present tense to stay safe, but that wouldn’t help a Portuguese translator.

A verb like falar (to speak) once conjugated ruins everything: eu falo (I speak), nós falamos (we speak). A solution would be to use the third person of the plural: ele fala (he speaks) since the infinitive form and the third person of the present tense tend to have the same root: andar/anda, parar/pára, calar/cala. In other persons of the verb a consonant change indicates the change of person. This is because Romance sentences have more information than English ones, this is what allows us to eliminate pronouns and maintain clarity. I’m reminded of a point Guy Deutscher makes in Through the Language Glass: it’s not just a matter of what a language leaves out, but what it keeps in.

Another problem I anticipate in a hypothetical translation is the gender of the words. If you want to make a text just with the vowel A, that means you have to use the feminine since – another general rule –  the –a ending means feminine words: menina (girl), gaja (gal), pata (she-duck). Of course it’s more complicated than that: agma (fracture) is feminine, but agalma (decoration) is masculine. The author, in need of vocabulary, would have to mix both genres which would raise more problems, since the definite masculine article is o and the definite feminine article is a, so we’d write a agma and o agalma.

I’m not arguing it’s impossible to do a lipogram like this (I confess that, a few years ago, when I first heard of Eunoia, I tried to write single-vowel poems and quickly gave up), but it brings up many difficulties of which the English language is safe. My real point, really, is that this book is so extraordinary exactly because Bök understands the uniqueness of his language. 

Other books bring up other problems: for instance, texts that rely on sounds, on alliteration. I turn to my fresh copy of John Lyly’s Euphues (edited by Leah Scragg) and transcribe almost at random an entire paragraph

"The freshest colours soonest fade, the teenest razor soonest turneth his edge, the finest cloth is soonest eaten with moths, and the cambric sooner stained than the coarse canvas: which appeared well in this Euphues, whose wit, being like wax, apt to receive any impression, and bearing the head in his own hand, either to use the rein or the spur, disdaining counsel, leaving his country, loathing his old acquaintance, thought either by wit to obtain some conquest, or by shame to abide some conflict; who, preferring fancy before friends and his present humour before honour to come, laid reason in water, being too salt for his taste, and followed unbridled affection, most pleasant for his tooth."

Here we have a taste of Lyly’s heavily-ornate style wherein a alliterations gallop freely: freshest/fade/finest, teenest/turneth, colour/cloth/cambric/coarse/canvas. I especially admire that “stained” at the end because I didn’t really think “soonest” would grow out of its repetitive role: first it created an internal rhythm, but then it ties up the running S sound with that “stained.” Amazing too the preponderance of the C sound, how Lyly almost begins and ends the sentence with it. This is high-precision verbal engineering. The entire paragraph is. Notice how the F sound propels itself through the sentences, notice how it disappears only to reappear in the final sentence with preferring /fancy/before/friends/before/followed/affection. It’s worth remarking that between “finest” and “preferring” he never uses a stressed F syllable – it’s as if he were saving that particular sound for the end, like an echo of the beginning. Is there a reason for that? Is it a matter of design, of symmetry, mirroring beginning and ending? I don’t know, perhaps he just wanted to show – the whole book is about showing off. But it’s impressive nonetheless.

It’s impossible to translate Lyly literally, unless we change the similes and/or the sounds: “canvas” is tela in Portuguese, so that would reorganize the whole sentence; but “cambric” is cambraia, so perhaps we have to change the fabric to words with a stressed T syllable: ciclatão, cretonne, ratina, tarlatana, none of which has the attributes of cambric, of course in transcreation that would not matter. Another problem: as I’ve written before, the English language is monosyllabic, which means its sounds are not just heard but seen immediately on the page, there’s a strong, immediate connection between sound and picture. In a series of words like this – counsel, country, acquaintance, conquest, conflict – only one isn’t instantly visually perceived as having the stress on a C sound. Even words with more than one syllable tend to have the stressed one in the first place: colours, cloth, cambric, coarse, canvas. This makes it a lot easier to spot alliteration in English texts, and I wonder if its English literature’s long infatuation with it doesn’t stem from that. The Portuguese language, in turn, tucks away its stressed sounds in the middle of words.

Another characteristic derived from the monosyllabic nature of the English language is its rhythm. I only noticed this when William H. Gass mentioned George Saintsbury’s A History of English Prose Rhythm. Gass, like Lyly, holds the monopoly on alliteration, but that’s not what interests me here; the author of Middle C also speaks a lot about rhythm. Since I’m always curious to learn more about his art, I hoped Saintsbury could reveal some new facet. Now words in general tend to have at least one stressed syllable, this is what allowed the ancient Greeks to create several metric feet – trochee, spondees, molossus, and so forth. But I didn’t know that some English words could have secondary stresses. The word pronunciation, for instance has stresses in pro-nun-ci-a-tion (red for secondary, bold for primary). This no doubt allowed prose writers like Jeremy Taylor, John Donne and others to avoid combining words that would create a long string of unstressed syllables, keeping the text lively, fast, active. In fact Saintsbury sees in the variety of feet the glory of rhythm:

I had never even noticed, until I was actually writing this comment, and therefore I need hardly assure the reader that I had never, even half unconsciously, led up to the discovery, that in the above scansion no two identical feet l ever follow each other, not so much as on a single occasion. Now we have observed, from the first, that variety of foot arrangement, without definite equivalence, appears to be as much the secret of prose rhythm as uniformity of value, with equivalence or without it, appears to be that of poetic metre.

I mention this in relation to Gass because I noticed that he does the same. I believe he works his prose in a way to keep a sustained balance of stresses syllables. The least random paragraph I can use to substantiate this claim is Middle C’s first paragraph:

Mir-i-am, whom Jo-ey Skiz-zen thought of as his moth-er, Ni-ta, be-gan to speak a-bout the fam-i-ly’s past, but o-nly af-ter she de-cid-ed that her hus-band was safe-ly in his grave. His frown could si-lence her in mid-sen-tence; e-ven his smiles were curved in con-de-scen-sion, though at this time in his ab-sence, her be-loved hus-band’s vir-tues, once ad-mit-ted to be man-y, were writ-ten in lem-on juice. He had a glare to bub-ble paint, she said. Her re-col-lec-tion of that look caused hes-i-ta-tion still. She would a-ppear a-larmed, wave as if she saw some-thing gnat-ting near her face, and stut-ter to a stop. Jo-ey was helped to re-mem-ber how, at sup-per-time, for o-nly then was the fam-i-ly gath-ered as a group, the spoon would be-come still in his fa-ther’s soup, his fath-er’s head would rise to face the di-rec-tion of the of-fend-ing re-mark, his norm-al-ly plac-id look would stiff-en, and fires light in his eye. His stare seemed un-will-ing to cease, al-though it prob-ab-ly was ne-ver held be-yond the life-time of a min-ute. But a min-ute... a min-ute is so long. Cer-tain-ly it con-tin-ued un-til his daugh-ter’s or his wife’s un-easy ex-pres-sion sank in-to the bot-tom of her bowl, and the guilt-y head was bowed in an at-ti-tude of a-pol-o-gy and sub-mis-sion.

I think here we can see a care in composing sentences with a regular beat, avoiding long series of unstressed syllables. This, to my ear at least, gives the text a lively, punchy effect. I don’t presume for this scansion to be definitive; even Saintsbury held doubts about some stresses. However I don’t think minor alterations will change my claim; in fact I made a point of, when in doubt, to consider such words as the, in, of, as, etc. unstressed, so should we stress them that would actually benefit my point.

Part of this effect results from the use of secondary stresses. But when I looked it up, I learned that the Portuguese doesn’t have secondary stresses, because no can agree where they fall. A word like “unconstitutional” has 6 syllables: un-cons-ti-tu-tion-al, that helps keep that regular beat I spoke of; but in Portuguese it has 7 syllables: in-cons-ti-tu-ci-o-nal. This is problematic if we want to also translate the rhythm. Saintsbury’s writers managed to bring Greek metrical feet into prose, effectively creating the often-mentioned but seldom-seen poetic prose, thanks to innate grammatical features. That’s pretty remarkable. Doing the same in the Portuguese language, is quite hard; translating a novel by Gass (to say nothing of his relentless Lyly-like alliteration) would have to ignore this beat. It would not be a terrible loss, to my mind, but again I just want to emphasize the difficulty of translating certain characteristics.

That brings me to Haroldo de Campos’ Galáxias. The abovementioned excerpt displays many of strategies liable to entomb the book in the Portuguese language: first of all we have inner rhymes and alliteration: meço, começo, recomeço, arremesso; the use of agglutination (milumapáginas, or “mil e uma páginas,” meaning “one thousand and one pages.” Also acabarcomeçar, which connects acabar [finish ]and começar [begin]). There are also many word coinages and puns like sobrescrevo (presente tense of to overwrite) and sobrescravo (a blend of sobre and escravo, or over and slave). Other sections present other challenges: alliteration (escoria/cárie, canto/conto), tautology inside word pairs (in the sentence “lumínula de nada” the joke, I guess, is that nula and nada both mean nothing), and portmanteau-words (cascara: máscara + casca, or mask + shell). Words are paired because of similarities or because they rhyme (“arisco árido,” “coração vulcão,” “mais a calma cal a calma cal calada do primeiro momento do primeiro”). Haroldo goes particularly crazy with portmanteau-words in a section devoted to deriding newspaper writing. Galáxias is a book committed to explaining itself, and so it goes by exclusion of parts. Thus it’s very vehement in explaining to the reader that literature and journalism do not go hand in hand. Some of the words it comes up to deride newspapers are priceless, and I imagine a translator would have fun with them:

Forniculário (fornicar and foliculário: to fornicate and a noun meaning crappy journalist)

Dédalodiário (dédalo and diário: a noun derived from Daedelus that means labyrinth, and a daily)

Dromerdário (dromedário and merda: dromedary and shit)

Hebdomesmário (hebdomadário and mesmo: a weekly newspaper and the adjective same, in the sense that newspapers are always the same)

Haroldo is also aware of the difficulty of his book, therefore he schools the reader on how to read it. My favourite pun is when he frontally declares that his book is a “pestseller.” Haroldo is nothing but realistic.

From these many examples we can conclude that discovering and using the unique qualities of a given language is essential in creating literary works of superlative quality. It’s disturbing to consider how little the average writer needs to know of a language to write a book in it. A surgeon who operated with the equivalent of what such writer knows about words would kill most of his patients either out of ignorance, clumsiness or a combination of both. But in the direction of such a meticulous intimacy with language lies probable ostracism and oblivion, for it does not invite translation. Paradoxically, such writers, thanks to their use of multiple foreign languages, frequently demonstrate a more cosmopolitan frame of mind than the so-called universal writers who erase all specific features of their language in a misguided to say something that speaks to more people. For such writers language is just a nuisance that they’d bypass if only they could invent a way of writing without words, the major great enemy of the delusion of universalism.

Still it’s not a totally bleak situation. Finnegans Wake has been translated into several languages. Although it glories in its own reputation as a livre maudit, Galáxias is not untranslatable. I’d like to draw the reader attention to a handful of translations Odile Cisneros and Suzanne Jill Levine have made. These are the first 20 versicles of their version:

and here I begin I spin here the beguine I respin and begin
to release and realize life begins not arrives at the end of a trip
which is why I begin to respin to write-in thousand pages write thousandone pages
to end write begin write beginend with writing and so I begin to respin
to retrace to rewrite write on writing the future of writings's the tracing
the slaving a thousandone nights in a thousandone pages
or a page in one night the same nights the same pages
same resemblance resemblance reassemblance where the end is begin
where to write about writing's not writing about not writing
and so I begin to unspin the unknown unbegun and trace me a book
where all's chance and perchance all a book maybe maybe not a travel
navelof-the-world book a travel navelof-the-book world where tripping's the book
and its being's the trip and so I begin since the trip is beguine and I turn
and return since the turning's respinning beginning realizing
a book is its sense every page is its sense every line of a page every word
of a line is the sense of the line of the page of the books which essays
any book an essay of essays of the book which is why the begin ends
begins and end spins and re-ends and refines and retunes the fine funnel of
the begunend spun into de runend in the end of the beginend refines
the refined of the final where it finishes beginnish reruns and returns

Difficult as they may be, one must believe that there’s always an ideal translator for the book. If difficulty scares some translators away, its demands also inspires the tenacity in to devote years to solving problems of linguistic equivalence. Thinking that Julián Rios’ Larva: Babel de uma noche de San Juan could be turned from Spanish:

1 El trifolio de nuestro Roman à Klee?
Tresfoliando em nuestra folía à deux: m'atrevo no m'atrevo, trevo a trevo, hojeando las nocturnotas de nuestras bacantes, aún por cubrir ((Busca, Gran Buscón emboscado, a tus busconas em el follaje...) Ehe? Trevoé! Trevo trevoso... [Sauberes Klee! Valiente terno! Eterno... No hay folía a dos sin tres?, se preguntaba una noche el inaudito calculador de los mil alias papeleando com su bella babélica (( : Apila!, pila a pila...)) en la torre de papel. Babella, milalias y... Herr Narrator. Qui?, inquirió ella. Una especie de ventrílocuelo que malimita nuestras voces, explicó.

Into English:

1. The trifolium of our Roman à Klee?
Three-partying through our folie à deux: do I, don't I, he loves me he leaves me not, leaf by leafing through the nocturnotes of our bacchantes, back hunting buck-beans in the back cuntry. ((Seek, Dartful Lodger, your tarts in Hyde Park...)) Living in clover... [Sauberes Klee! Awesumptuous trio! This summer sum of some of the... There's no threesome folía dos? he would calculatedly ask himself one night, that highest bidder of a thousand aliases paperilously perusing papers whith his babelic beauty (( : Sing, sing, christening after christening)) in the Tower of Paper. Babelle, Milalias and... Her Narrator. Qui? she inquired. Who? A sort of ventriloquacious nut who misproduces our voices, he explained.

(Larva: A Midsummer Night's Babel, translated by Richard Alan Francis, Suzanne Jill Levine and Julián Rios)

Is not something I would have imagined possible until I discovered it. Still this is not so much a translation as what Haroldo calls “transcreation,” that is, the creation of an original text from the source, translating it to the strengths of the target-language. He devised this term precisely for problematic texts where other considerations besides semantics had to take precedence, where the form or spirit is more important than the message. In the case of the translators of Larva, what we see is a trade-off: puns in the original are dropped whereas new ones are created in English, and some are reimagined.

The pun of “tresfoliando” is sadly lost: it echoed folía (madness), and also foreshadowed the fact that the novel is three-voiced (tres = three).

The similar series of words busca/Buscón/busconas has a more complex treatment. Buscón, of course, is the name of Francisco de Quevedo’s 16th century picaresque novel The Swindler, whereas buscona means prostitute. The translators changed this pun to reference Charles Dicken’s Artful Dodger, and created a new pun that plays with the game hide and seek. The inner rhyme between terno and eterno is lost in favour of the portmanteau word “awesumptuous.”

Some jokes actually becomes harder in English: the name of the character, Milalias, is Spanish for “mil alias,” literally “a thousand aliases.” That’s clear in Spanish, but not so in the English translation. Still, there’s the addition of paperilously, which I quite love.

The word ventrílocuelo shows the difficulty of translating morphology. The world here stems from ventrílocuo (ventriloquist) but with an ending (cuelo) that means of dubious quality, mediocre. The English language has trouble with this because it’s a language almost devoid of morphological endings. In Romance languages, the way a word ends says a lot about it. Some English words, of course, retain them, like poet and poetaster (bad poet), or critic and criticaster (bad critic). In this case the English version actually means the opposite, since loquacious gives the impression he’s handy with words. The solution, usually, is to add a modifying word, in this case “nut,” which changes Herr Narrator’s personality. But like I say, in a work of transcreation the importance is to generate new puns, or preserve the existing ones, at the expense of literal meaning.

As such, more than in other cases, the reader of Larva: A Midsummer Night's Babel may very well be reading a whole new novel. This is not a consequence or a loss, it’s just a solution. As I hope I’ve shown, the English version keeps a very challenging dose of wordplay designed for its new language, and so the reader should see that as a compliment and a privilege. In principle, books like Eunoia, Euphues, Middle C, and Galáxias can achieve similar feats, provided the right translator discovers them. And we readers would have much to gain from that.