29 March, 2007


At the beginning of his Philosophical Investigations (1945-49), Wittgenstein quotes a passage from the Confessions (398) of Saint Augustine:
When they (my elders) named some object, and accordingly moved towards something, I saw this and I grasped that the thing was called by the sound they uttered when they meant to point it out. Their intention was shown by their bodily movements, as it were the natural language of all peoples: the expression of the face, the play of the eyes, the movement of other parts of the body, and the tone of voice which expresses our state of mind in seeking, having, rejecting, or avoiding something. Thus, as I heard words repeatedly used in their proper places in various sentences, I gradually learnt to understand what objects they signified; and after I had trained my mouth to form these signs, I used them to express my own desires.
This empiricist account is remarkably similar, in fact, to how Locke described the acquisition of language in his 1690 Essay on Human Understanding. It was an influential account; Wittgenstein, however, rejects it as simplistic: 'Augustine does not speak of there being any difference between kinds of word. . . Augustine, we might say, does describe a system of communication; only not everything that we call language is this system'. It is an account suited to a conception of language consisting of concrete nouns—'apple', 'chair', and so forth—but cannot deal with more sophisticated words—from 'if' and 'but' to 'exasperation' and 'piety'. For Wittgenstein, the acquisition of language comes not from 'explanation', but rather from 'training':
An important part of the training will consist in the teacher's pointing to the objects, directing the child's attention to them, and at the same time uttering a word; for instance, the word "slab" as he points to that shape. . . This ostensive teaching of words can be said to establish an association between the word and the thing. . . But if the ostensive teaching has this effect, —am I to say that it effects an understanding of the word? Don't you understand the call "Slab!" if you act upon it in such-and-such a way? —Doubtless the ostensive teaching helped to bring this about; but only together with a particular training. With different training the same ostensive teaching of these words would have effected a quite different understanding.
The learning of words—the establishment of associations 'between the word and the thing'—can only operate in a pre-determined context, such that the learner understands what it is he is to learn. In this context, which Wittgenstein calls a 'language game', the child knows what it means when a teacher points to a slab and says, 'Slab'.


Isn't it ironic, then, that Wittgenstein's great predecessor in critiquing the notion of 'ostensive definition' was, in fact, Saint Augustine? The Bishop of Hippo had already written his dialogue De Magistro nine years prior to his Confessions; it was the first work he wrote after his conversion to the faith in 387, and still in the mould of his pre-Christian works, such as Contra Academicos. For my money, Augustine's early dialogues are the most sophisticated philosophical works since Aristotle—a stylistic return to Plato, after the dialogue form had been diluted by Cicero's bland moderateness.

De Magistro concerns the role of signs in the acquisition of language and knowledge. It begins with Augustine asking his disciple Adeodatus the question, 'When we speak, what does it seem to you we want to accomplish?' The reply is 'So far as it now strikes me, either to teach or to learn'. The rest of the work is given to countering this thesis. Of things, words can only give ostensive definitions:
When a question is raised about things that aren't signs, these things can be exhibited either by doing them after the query, if they can be done, or by giving signs with which they may be brought to one's attention.
But Augustine is just as aware as Wittgenstein about the problems with this:
If anyone should ask me what it is to walk while I was resting or doing something else, and I should attempt to teach him what he asked about without a sign, by immediately walking, how shall I guard against his thinking that it's just the amount of walking I have done?
In other words, ostensive definition can only teach when the learner knows how to interpret it correctly; he needs a context for the demonstration. We notice not only a similarity of reasoning, but also of style—Augustine, like Wittgenstein, constantly returns to concrete examples and thought-experiments to demonstrate his points. Here's another:
Suppose that someone unfamiliar with how to trick birds (which is done with reeds and birdlime) should run into a birdcatcher outfitted with his tools, not birdcatching but on his way to do so. On seeing this birdcatcher, he follows closely in his footsteps, and, as it happens, he reflects and asks himself in his astonishment what exactly the man's equipment means. Now the birdcatcher, wanting to show off after seeing the attention focused on him, prepares his reeds and with his birdcall and his hawk intercepts, subdues, and captures some little bird he has noticed nearby. I ask you: wouldn't he then teach the man watching him what he wanted to know by the things itself rather than by anything that signifies?
The difference here is that the man watching already knows what birdcatching is. The demonstration only 'jogs his memory' of the craft as a whole. Signs cannot teach the knowledge of things: 'When a sign is given to me, it can teach me nothing if it finds me ignorant of the thing of which it is the sign; but if I'm not ignorant, what do I learn through the sign?' Signs can only remind us of things we already know, or teach us other signs:
Words have force only to the extent that they remind us to look for things; they don't display them for us to know. . . From words, then, we learn only words.
Augustine is essentially a rationalist, like his master, Plato—the only source of knowledge is a spiritual faculty, a prior awareness, of which external evidence can only remind us:
Regarding each of the things we understand, however, we don't consult a speaker who makes sounds outside us, but the Truth that presides within over the mind itself, though perhaps words prompt us to consult Him.
Plato brought in the doctrine of anamnesis—recollection of the world of Forms, experienced by the soul before mortal birth. Augustine instead invokes God; in his account, which is much more rigorous than Plato's Meno, he anticipates the objections made by Wittgenstein to the empiricist account of learning, although he draws from them very different conclusions. If Augustine retreats to an even more internalist epistemology—the criterion of truth being in one's spirit—the Austrian philosopher advocates almost pure externalism: language as a group activity, an acquired behaviour.

Update 28/09/07: Alasdair MacIntyre, in his 1984 essay 'The Relationship of Philosophy to its Past', writes: 'Augustine’s account of the place of ostensive definition in language learning points towards the divine illumination of the mind; Wittgenstein’s very similar account—that Wittgenstein erroneously took his account to be at odds with Augustine’s reinforces my central thesis—points towards the concept of a form of life.' So it's not just me.

27 March, 2007

Comedy of Errors

We were on the I-10 when the radio started advertising a performance of the Comedy of Errors. "Comedy of Errors?" I joked; "more like an error of comedy." It's not Bill's best, that's for sure. But it would have an ironic significance, for our journey to the Agua Fria National Monument turned out to be a comedy of almost total error. The first one—error, I mean—was our 'decision' to pack for a hike one small bottle of water, two bottles of Sprite, and, er, two cans of Sierra Mist. You say 'bad planning', I say 'hilarious'. My second error was to wear shorts and deck shoes. In fairness, I didn't know I'd end up climbing a 70-degree slope. But I'm getting ahead of myself!

We took Badger Springs Road to the park. I'd been told to walk east to the river, then head due south towards an ancient Indian settlement. We got to the river and wound up walking south along its banks. After two hours of dancing and diving over boulders, back and forth across the water, getting hot, but not getting there, we stopped and took stock. We had three choices: keep going, head back in defeat, or. . . climb up the sides of the valley. For reference, here is what the valley looked like, before the boulders got difficult—

Being valiant young men, D and I decided to try the slope. It was heap big steep, like I said, about 70 degrees. But D looked up at it, and decided, 'It's workable'. That was the word, dear readers. Workable. So we began our ascent, scrabbling up sharp rocks, some of which came loose in our hands, and beneath our feet. Scary! Gorse and various cacti pricked us mercilessly, and the sun pounded upon us from above. We were an hour on that slope—an hour. I was beginning to get very upset after 40 minutes, but I stuck it out through sheer determination. When we reached the top I looked around; D came up behind. Where the fucking fuck was the fucking settlement? I believe those were my exact words. My shins and fingers were dripping with blood, and my shoes were so scratched that the surface of the leather had acquired a new uniformity. D's condition was similarly woeful. I did not have my sunglasses. The factor-40 had long been sweated off, and my sunburn was gathering pace nicely.

More clumbering awaited us on the plateau. We could see nothing from horizon to horizon—nothing for fifty miles around, except brush, gorse, cactus, decaying cactus corpses, rocks, big rocks, dust, a few spiders, and the buzzards overhead, circling. By this stage our goals had changed. We no longer cared about the settlement. We just wanted to get out alive. D said, 'alive and well'. I replied that at this stage I'd be content with 'alive', and plucked a cactus-needle out of my thumb, leaving a yellow spot to swell on the skin. D gazed out over the sweeping valleys, and estimated the distance back to the car as 7 or 8 miles. By this stage the temperature was 80 degrees, and we were down to a Morbier sandwich and one fun-sized can of Sierra Mist.

Getting back down from the mesa was, if anything, worse than the ascent. The slope was shallower, but the gorse was harsher. Every step took us among endless spikes and needles—D christened one species 'the tearer', another 'the shredder'. The only handholds were cactus fronds.

When we reached the bottom we sat down on one of the white boulders that lined the river. Every inch of my skin was either burnt or scratched; I had a bad headache, and my mouth was parched. The emotional relief was so great that I started weeping, and also laughing. Perhaps it was the sunstroke kicking in.

D's back off to Blighty tomorrow. I think I'll stick to books from now on.

25 March, 2007

The E at Delphi

In the pronaos (vestibule) of the ancient Oracle of Delphi, so it is said, were three inscriptions on the walls. The first of these, and the most famous, read Gnothi seauton—'Know thyself'—while the second read Meden agan—'Nothing in excess'. The third was merely the letter E: a capital epsilon. Plutarch's essay on the meaning of the E, in which various thinkers propose different explanations, is our only literary source for the object. Not much is clear about the E; in fact, it is even suggested that there are three of them:
That this account is not beside the mark may be recognized by any one who has heard the officials of the temple naming the golden "E" as that of Livia the wife of Cæsar, the brazen one as that of the Athenians, whereas the original and oldest letter, which is of wood, is to this day called that "Of the Wise Men", as having been offered of all in common, not of any one of them.
In addition to Plutarch's essay, modern archaeologists have found a similar image on bronze coins of the period, such as this one:

The quest for the meaning of the E acquires an epic significance in Plutarch's essay: 'Our kind Apollo, in the oracles which he gives his consultants, seems to solve the problems of life and to find a remedy, while problems of the intellect he actually suggests and propounds to the born love of wisdom in the soul, thus implanting an appetite which leads to truth.' The wonder occasioned by enigmas like the Delphic E is thus for Plutarch the impetus to philosophical wisdom.

There are six solutions proposed in the dialogue. The first is offered by Lamprias, Plutarch's brother, who thinks that because E is the fifth letter in the Greek alphabet, it stands for the five original sages of Greece—Solon, Bion, Thales, Pittacus and Chilon. The second solution is proposed by an unnamed figure, who cites the opinion of a Chaldaean (Babylonian) astrologer, that the E, being the second vowel out of seven in the Greek alphabet, stands for the second planet out of seven, that is to say, the Sun, which pertains to Apollo. Nicander offers the third solution, which he claims is the local one, namely that the letter epsilon—EI in Greek—is also the word for 'if' (ei), and represents the word with which questioners address the oracle: 'If they shall conquer; If they shall marry', etc. The fourth solution, voiced by Theon, is a version of the third: the EI or 'if' represents syllogistic reasoning, which is the basis of man's intellect. The fifth solution satirises Pythagorean number-mysticism: Eustrophus claims that E, being the fifth letter, represents simply the number five, to which he attributes mystical properties—the five senses, the five divisions of the soul, Plato's five solids, Homer's five worlds, and so on. The sixth, 'correct' solution is provided by Ammonius, Plutarch's own teacher—he returns to EI, but with the meaning 'Thou art' instead of 'if'. The statement 'Thou art' is addressed to Apollo, and signifies that of all things, Apollo (taken as the Neoplatonic One, with an etymology of a-pollos, 'not many') is the only being that fully is, whereas all other beings are merely in flux.


Just as with Atlantis, modern interest in the E, despite the scanty evidence for it, has not abated. Several scholarly articles have been devoted to interpretations of its meaning, none accepting any of Plutarch's solutions. William Nickerson Bates ('The E of the Temple at Delphi', American Journal of Archaeology, 1925) notes that Plutarch clearly has no idea of the E's true meaning, and that furthermore, given that Plutarch was a priest at Delphi around 100 AD, the E must have been very old, and its meaning long lost, even to the initiated. Bates mentions the discovery of an omphalos-stone at Delphi, dated to the 7th century BC, with the following inscription:

This, he claims, following F. Courby, reads E ΓA (E GA), or E ΓAΣ (E GAS)—the latter syllables being an archaic form of Greek ge, 'earth'. It is implied that before the cult of Apollo, the Earth herself was worshipped at Delphi. This suggestion is supported by Parke and Wormell's classic 1956 history of the oracle, which adduces the various myths about Apollo's invasion of Delphi. Bates traces the cult at Delphi back further, to the cult of the mother goddess at Crete, and goes on to compare the E to a similar figure from a Minoan coin of great antiquity. In Bates' view, the Minoan character was misinterpreted as an Attic E, the enigma ensuring its survival:
The historic Greeks had lost all knowledge of its origin or significance. To them it was Apollo's holy letter. The E of the temple of Delphi is thus an inheritance from prehistoric times, and another example of the conservatism in religious matters common in all ages.
A. Trevor Hodge ('The Mystery of Apollo's E at Delphi', American Journal of Archaeology, 1981) has a different view. By Hodge's time, Bates' theory has been 'exploded' by Bousquet's proof that the omphalos-stone is modern, and that the Delphic E thus has no relation to the inscription, E GA[S]. Hodge, however, still associates the E with the word GE, only he argues that the G was originally there, and later fell off accidentally:
Of an original ΓE at some very early period the Γ fell off the wall, soon to be forgotten and never to be replaced, reducing the inscription to unintelligibility and succeeding ages to bewilderment. . . it would not be surprising if the surviving but incomprehensible E was still cherished and indeed replaced in a spirit of faithful, if blind, piety.
The constant in these explanations, and others, is that the E was once a communicating sign, but then ceased to be. It became rather a fetish, something left over from before and venerated out of context. It acquired new meaning as a sign purely because the old meaning was no longer there—semotics, like Nature, abhors a vacuum. This notion of the remnant object keeps cropping up in my thought and reading—it is the essence, for example, of the 'unknown' winnowing oar—and I intend to return to it again soon. For now, though, I leave you with Nicolas Poussin's 1647 Ordination, which shows Christ handing Peter the keys to heaven, and in which, according to Anthony Blunt, can be discerned the very figure of Plutarch's E (indicated by a red arrow on this image). The significance of this association I leave to your judgement.

22 March, 2007


Overheard today: "Caffeine's a stimulator? I thought it was just the carbonation!" Gentlemen—the ASU undergraduate. There's a rich palette of confusion for you.


protinus alter amat, fugit altera nomen amantis

Forthwith the one loves, while the other flees the very word, 'love'.

Metamorphoses I.474

My, a linguification—someone call Geoff Pullum!


Corinthiorum amator iste verborum,
iste, iste rhetor, namque quatenus totus
Thucydides, tyrannus Atticae febris,
tau Gallicum, min et sphin ut male illisit,
ita omnia ista verba miscuit fratri.

— Pseudo-Vergil, Catalepton, II

He's a lover of Corinthian words,
that one, that rhetor—for, being an utter
Thucydides, a lord of the Attic fever,
he evilly ground up his Gallic tau, min and sphin,
mixing all these words for his brother.

Loeb tells us, 'This enigmatic epigram attacks Titus Annius Cimber, a rhetorician who affected the style of Thucydides and is said to have murdered his brother'. It also notes that verba can be translated as both 'words' and 'spells'; for more on language and sorcery, see here. Compare Ausonius on poisoning.


New English words for me this month: beest, 'The first milk drawn from a mammal, especially a cow, after parturition', and guillemet, which refers to these Continental beasts: « »


Perhaps now would be a good time to alert you to Zenoli.

18 March, 2007

An innocent stratagem

But were all the particular miracles, actions, and discourses of Jesus to be minutely and circumstantially recorded, for there were a great many more than those that have been published, the consequence would be, I am persuaded, that the world would never receive and embrace a religion, whose history was contained in such a vast number of large volumes as the life of Christ would then necessarily compose.

— John 21:25, in Edward Harwood's translation.
The last verse of the Gospels is essentially a statement of human finitude in the face of the divine infinite. The text cannot be a mystical microcosm of God, as the Tanakh would become for the Jews—it can only be an epitome or a crude likeness composed for the sake of persuasive evangelism. This passage is in the tradition of Greek practical rationalism. It is also, more broadly, an expression of the limits of translation, for it makes clear that the Biblical text is merely a 'translation' into words of the divinity of Christ, or if you prefer, of the Word:
Before the origin of this world existed the LOGOS—who was then with the Supreme God—and was himself a divine person.
The New Testament is a translation in more ways than one. On a literal level, it is likely to be a translation of Aramaic documents, and Semitic idioms can be detected in the Greek. It is a translation of Jewish messianism into the urbane philosophical culture of the Hellenic Mediterranean. And as John 21:25 shows, it is a translation of the infinite into a finite medium.


A translation, like the conversion of energy, can never be ideal: something is always lost in the process. Most translations choose to gloss over this energy differential, by pretending that they are not translations. Thus an English renderer of Tolstoy, say, will traditionally attempt to make Tolstoy sound as if he wrote in English. But for a contrary fellow like myself—as I have indicated here and there with my own efforts on this site—a translation is more interesting and appealing if it exploits that differential as an opportunity for a new language. This sort of rendering will draw attention to its translated status: it will retain elements of the original, as difficulties not swept aside. It will be, in other words, consciously problematic. This aesthetic stems from the belief that translation is not a necessary evil, but rather a primary basis of language and literature. It is a Romantic outlook—compare Schlegel's notion of the Mischung, which I discussed here, and more specifically Schleiermacher on translation:
Consider, for example, a translator facing the challenge of translating Homer's word aretê into English. The translator will recognize that nothing in existing English exactly expresses this concept. He will therefore judge that the best way to convey it in English is to modify existing English usage in a systematic way for the course of the translation in order thereby to mimic Greek usage and hence meaning. He will begin by taking the word from existing English which comes closest to aretê in meaning, say the word virtue. . . for the duration of his translation he will modify the rule which governs the word virtue in order to make this rule conform (or at least more closely conform) to that which governs Homer's word aretê. . . He will thereby succeed in expressing—or at least come close to expressing—in English the meaning of Homer's word aretê.
Here, the word virtue will not be used as the English virtue, but as the Greek aretê—it could be applied to a habitual liar, but not to a weak saint. It will stand out for its discrepancy, as a mark of the alterity of the original concept. The reader of this translation will suspend his normal understanding of the English language, and instead come to inhabit the semantics of Homeric Greek. A similar reasoning lay behind Burgess' futile stipulation that A Clockwork Orange should lack a glossary.

The earliest instance of this logic, as far as I know, is found in the Celestial Hierarchy of the Pseudo-Dionysius, early 6th century:
Thus all those who are wise in divine matters, and are interpreters of the mystical revelations, set apart in purity the Holy of Holies from the uninitiated and unpurified, and prefer incongruous symbols for holy things, so that divine things may not be easily accessible to the unworthy, nor may those who earnestly contemplate the divine symbols dwell upon the forms themselves as the final truth.
It is better to represent the 'Deific Principles' by such lowly images as the worm or the corner-stone, than by lofty images like 'Light shining forth unclouded and intelligibly' (John 1:5)—because the latter are more likely to be mistaken for the truth than the former. It is essential for the religious man to understand that the textual and pictorial symbols of the divine are merely symbolic, just as it is important for any reader to remember that a translation is a translation. The sign must not dissimulate its nature. Furthermore, for the Pseudo-Dionysius, it is the ugliness of angelic symbols that prompts us to make the Platonic ascent towards God, just as for Schleiermacher it is the incongruity of semantic usage that prompts us to appreciate the alterity of the original language.


John 21:25 tells us that our understanding of Christ must necessarily be imperfect. This verse turns out to be a culmination of the themes running through the final chapter, usually referred to as the 'appendix', and considered to be later than the rest of the book. In 21:11 the gathered disciples, under Christ's governance, catch 153 fish—the number is incongruous, and has been subjected to the most fantastical reaches of exegesis. It seems to betoken the ineffable mystery of the Word. 21:22-23 succinctly shows us a failure of communication:
Jesus said to him [Peter]—Suppose it is my desire he [the 'beloved disciple'] should continue in life 'till the time of my coming, how doth it concern you?—Do you follow me. The words which Jesus now spoke relative to this disciple, gave rise to an opinion, which the other apostles maintained—That this disciple would never die—Tho' Jesus never asserted any such thing—He only said, "If it was his desire that this apostle should continue in being 'till the time of his coming, what concern was it to Peter."
Even Christ's apostles do not understand his words, and the transmission of his original statement through the group brings inevitable confusion. We are witnessing a translation of the infinite into the finite medium of man. And immediately before this passage come three famous verses (21:15-17), an exchange between Peter and Christ:
After they had finished their repast, Jesus turned to Peter and said to him—Simon! do you love me with a more strong and intense affection than any of this company?—Peter replied—You are conscious, Sir! of the sincerity of my love to you—Jesus said to him, Feed my lambs.

Jesus said to him a second time—Simon! do you love me with an affection superiour to any of these?—You know, Sir! he answered, the fervency of my love for you—Jesus said to him, Feed my sheep.

Jesus said to him a third time—Simon! is your love for me more fervent than theirs?—Peter by his repeating the same question three times, thinking he questioned the sincerity of his regards for him, was greatly affected and said—I can appeal, Sir! to your consciousness of the human heart for the ardour of my love—Jesus said to him, Feed my sheep.
Here, the English translation—I quote Harwood, but the same is true of the KJV—loses an important semantic difference in the Greek. Christ's first and second questions to Peter are, agapas me? Each time, Peter replies, philo se. Finally, Christ asks, phileis me?, and Peter again replies, philo se. Christ's initial verb, agapein, does not have the same connotations as philein, although both are translated as 'to love'. Agapein is the verb Christ uses (Matt. 22:37, 39) for the two Christian commandments, 'Love the Lord thy God', and 'Love thy neighbour'. The implication is that Christ wants Peter to show agape, but instead Peter shows only philia. The problem of translation is not merely Greek to English, but within the Greek itself—Peter cannot even comprehend the simple language of his divine interlocutor. Again and again in Chapter 21, John demonstrates the difficulties of communication: the error inherent in translation becomes a model for all linguistic interaction.


So who is this Harwood fellow I've been quoting, and why have I been quoting him? David Norton, in his classic History of the English Bible As Literature, refers to him as a 'much-mocked dissenting minister, classicist and biblical critic'. He was born in 1729, and died in 1794. His Liberal Translation of the New Testament was published by subscription in 1768 (having been advertised since 1765), and in the same year the poet William Julius Mickle published his critique, A letter to Mr. Harwood, wherein some of his evasive glosses, false translations, and blundering criticism, in support of the Arian heresy, contained in his Liberal Translation of the New Testament, are pointed out and confuted. Ever since, Harwood's translation has been a laughing-stock, not for its theological heterodoxy but for its ludicrous prose style.

By 1768 the KJV was almost sacrosanct, and the Geneva Bible, which had remained popular throughout the preceding century, was forgotten. In 1769 the KJV would be re-edited by Benjamin Blayney at Oxford, putting the text into the form we read today. Its strength was the poetic economy of its prose, an accurate reflection of the original, but not of standard 1611 English. Stephen Prickett, in the early chapters of Origins of Narrative, defends the KJV's heavy use of calqued idioms against the criticisms of Eugene Nida, whose line on Biblical translation has become standard in the missionary community. By using words and phrases according to the Hebrew and Greek, the KJV created a new English—see for example its uses of 'host' and 'word'—thus putting into practice the Romantic theory of translation avant la lettre.

Harwood found this style unacceptable: 'the bald and barbarous language of the old vulgar version hath acquired a venerable sacredness from the length of time and custom'. It is barbarous because 'the idioms and structure of the antient are so essentially different from the modern languages, that a literal and servile version of any Greek and Latin author must necessarily be barbarous and unintelligible'. What Harwood wanted, rather, was the old ideal of translation: 'to cloathe the genuine ideas and doctrines of the Apostles with that propriety and perspecuity, in which they themselves, I apprehend, would have exhibited them had they now lived and written in our language'. Propriety and perspecuity, incidentally, are two of the three classical principles of translation according to Frederick Rener, the third being purity.

The result clashed badly with prevailing conceptions of what the Bible should sound like, which by 1768 was equivalent to the KJV. Harwood's prose was elegant in a manner befitting his models—including Hume and Johnson—but hardly suited to the abbreviated beauty of the New Testament. One could hardly attribute poetic economy to the Liberal Translation. Take, for instance, John 21:15-17, quoted above—in the original it is 88 words long, in the KJV it is 124 words, and in Harwood it is 156. Christ's second question in the Greek is simply, Do you love [agapas] me? Harwood renders it as 'Do you love me with an affection superiour to any of these?' The added words serve as a gloss on agapein, and serve also to 'diffuse over the sacred page the elegance of modern English'. Harwood's ultimate reason for his new translation should now be familiar—
[The author] flattered himself that such a Translation of the New Testament might induce persons of a liberal education and polite taste to peruse the sacred volume, and that such a version might prove of signal service to the cause of truth, liberty, and Christianity, if men of cultivated and improved minds, especially YOUTH, could be allured by the innocent stratagem of a modern style, to read a book, which is now, alas! too generally neglected and disregarded by the young and gay, as a volume containing little to amuse and delight, and furnishing a study congenial only to the gloom of old age, or to the melancholy mind of a desponding visionary.
Which innocent stratagem reads a little like John 21:25, circa 1768.

16 March, 2007

Arizona hi-jinks

What a world we live in—a blog can become the measure of one's existence. I fail to post for a week and my folks think I'm dead. Well, I'm not dead. I just took a little trip is all. D wanted to see Arizona, and see Arizona we did.

We took a wave-rider (terrifying) and then a kayak (wearying) out on Lake Havasu, just around the corner from the remains of John Rennie's 1831 London Bridge, purchased in 1968. En route to the resort we passed the podunk 'town' Quartzsite, with its nudist bookstore (heavy turquoise necklace, cowboy-hat) and the tomb of the legendary camel-driver 'Hi Jolly'.

On the way back we detoured 30 odd miles to the abandoned mining settlement Swansea, deep in the desert. Signs alerted us to the 'primitive' roads, strewn with loose stones and throwing up dust-trails in our wake. We munched fresh buffalo-jerky and swigged bottles of water growing steadily less chilled; on the radio was Rush, Led Zeppelin and REO Speedwagon, which seemed vaguely appropriate. Swansea turned out to be the quietest damn place I'd ever been. Out there you can hear neither the wind, nor the birds, nor the roar of rocky roads—not even the dust whispers with lizards. As far as the eye wanders, you can make out only the distant buttes. This picture, a close-up of a slag-heap, rather resembles one of John Ruskin's geological sketches:

I dug into the ground with my fingers, making out the edge of an old wooden beam buried in the sand, and coruscant dust stained my shirt. 'By 1909, with a population of about 500 people'—reads the brochure—'the town blossomed to include saloons, a general store, post office and even a moving picture house. The first train arrived at the adobe depot on the new Swansea Railroad in 1910. By May of that same year, the furnaces began producing the first copper at a rate of 50 tons a day. Unfortunately, Mitchell, who invested heavily above ground and not enough in the mines, was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1911. . . The mine fell victim to the Great Depression and a declining copper market, and never boomed again. The last milling was reported in 1944.' All that remain are fragments of houses, blocked-off adits, and scraps of metal quite brown in the 90-degree heat. In the desert, there you feel free.

At Vicksburg a nice old woman came out of her little shack of a store, from which she sold beaded jewellery and bits of old junk, to talk to us about cacti and packrats, snowbirds, chrysocolla and swapmeets. By this point, D had heatstroke and I was sweating suntan-lotion with a sore jaw from chewing dried buffaloflesh. So we called it a day.

More intellectual adventures soon.

08 March, 2007

Foos won't moos

In his 1943 book Intertraffic, E. S. Bates argues that translation 'is still in its infancy. Most of it is subject to taste and temperament rather than to knowledge. Nobody is entitled to be authoritative or final about it.' What he wanted, like his friend and reviewer, the classicist C. M. Bowra, was a science of translation, one that took into account all the relevant difficulties and grappled with them in a systematic manner, one with an intuitive grasp of the music of words in both languages. Not that he thought the practice technical:
In practice, typographers' and haberdashers' definitions of verse-forms, and a public which lingers alongside them, handicap the translator. The technically-minded man is evil in all his ways. Unemployment amongst grammarians needs to be raised to 101 per cent: what they prescribe matters no more to the translator than the anatomy of a dog to a dog-lover. Grammarians and Academics, in fact, know no more about language than economists about economics. All three get busy in vacuums; and the truth-proof lining of each vacuum is its vocabulary.
This condemnation of the technical and the pedantic has very strong roots—it is an expression of an aristocratic humanism centuries old, almost utterly lost in the English departments of today. In many respects, the 1940s marked the height of this attitude among British intellectuals—in the coming decades, literature and language would be under increasing siege from the sciences. But of course, humanism did not vanish, and the field of translation remained an old fortress for decades; only in the 1980s did it come under serious attack from the avant-garde. In June 1957, the prelate and critic Ronald Knox gave a public address on 'The Demands of a Good Translation'. This was two months before his death, and so he 'was obliged for reasons of health to deliver his lecture sitting down'. As the Times reported:
The ideal approach, he considered, was to represent the original in a graceful, genuine, solid form; the rendering, like the original, needed to be a literary production. . . The translator must in fact get inside somebody else's skin before he undertook the rendering of a single sentence.
'Graceful, genuine, solid form'—this is the voice of tradition speaking. As Frederick Rener observes, the classical criteria for good language-use, cited by translators of all ages, are proprietas (aptness) and puritas (elegance). As for 'get inside somebody else's skin', this is nothing but the standard Romantic line since Schleiermacher, who wrote that 'in interpretation it is essential that one be able to step out of one's own frame of mind into that of the author'. Knox wished for a 'timeless English', fearing that his choice of words would become dated—'no one could possibly tell what [English] would be like in the year 2007'.

This Times article, and Bowra's review of Intertraffic, were two of several cuttings (all on translation) generously inserted into my copy of Bates' book, which I acquired in a small bookshop off Edgware Road for a mere 3 quid. On the inside rear-flap of this wartime volume I find propaganda for British radio: 'FROM LONDON COMES THE VOICE OF BRITAIN. . . THE VOICE OF FREEDOM'. On the back of another cutting, 'MR. ATKINS said that if the overcrowding on parts of the southern section of the Northern Line underground had been imposed on British prisoners of war they would have aroused howls of protest.' Plus ça change, eh?


The most curious of all the cuttings, however, was this, again from the Times, over a decade later, 28 December, 1957:
from our Paris correspondent

This month's issue of the Nouvelle Revue Française contains an attempt at a translation into French of some passages from Finnegans Wake by M. André du Bouchet, together with an essay on Joyce's language by M. Butor. . .
The article goes on to quote a few bits of the translation; I find it difficult to imagine today's broadsheets being so bold. It so happens that I own a lovely 1962 copy of Bouchet's translation, bound with fragments of Anna Livia Plurabelle translated by 'Samuel Beckett, Alfred Perron, Ivan Goll, Eugène Jolas, Paul-L. Léon, Adrienne Monnier, Philippe Soupault, with the author'. It's a rare volume now, and I snapped it up at a PBFA fair a few years ago, an early jewel in my collection. If the Wake is a limiting case of literature, then it must also be a limiting case of difficulties in translation. Can the translator get inside Joyce's skin? Can he fall back on aptness and elegance, on graceful, genuine and solid form, or is something else required?

Let's have a look at what is perhaps the most famous passage of the book—with the exception of its Ovidian opening—namely, the conclusion of ALP, in which two washerwomen airing dirty laundry at the Liffey slowly metamorphosise into a tree and a rock in the gathering dusk.
Can't hear with the waters of. The chittering waters of. Flittering bats, field-mice bawk talk. Ho! Are you not gone ahome? What Thom Malone? Can't hear with bawk of bats, all thim liffeying waters of. Ho, talk save us! My foos won't moos. I feel as old as yonder elm. A tale told of Shaun or Shem? All Livia's daughter-sons. Dark hawks hear us. Night! Night! My ho head halls. I feel as heavy as yonder stone. Tell me of John or Shaun? Who were Shem and Shaun the living sons or daughters of? Night now! Tell me, tell me, tell me, elm! Night night! Telmetale of stem or stone. Beside the rivering waters of, hitherandthithering waters of. Night!
This is language aspiring to the condition of music—Joyce has played the words as a fugue of themes, as he did in the 'Sirens' chapter of Ulysses, only now with a much greater assurance. Shem and Shaun, the two boys of the book, are melded in the rush of the waters with the stem (elm) and the stone—and this pair stands for a whole series of dichotomies: time / space, music / painting, good / bad, and so on. Here's how Joyce and his friends render it:
N'entends pas cause les ondes de. Le bébé babil des ondes de. Souris chauve, trottinette cause pause. Hein! Tu n'es pas rentré? Quel père André? N'entends pas cause les fuisouris, les liffeyantes ondes de. Eh! Bruit nous aide! Mon pied à pied se lie lierré. Je me sens vieille comme mon orme même. Un conte conté de Shaun ou Shem? De Livie tous les fillefils. Sombres faucons écoutent l'ombre. Nuit. Nuit. Ma taute tête tombe. Je me sens lourde comme ma pierrestone. Conte moi de John ou Shaun. Qui furent Shem et Shaun en vie les fils ou filles de. Là-dessus nuit. Dis-mor, dis-mor, dis-mor, orme. Nuit, nuit! Contemoiconte soit tronc ou pierre. Tant rivièrantes ondes de, couretcourantes ondes de. Nuit.
In a concerted effort to retain the musical impetus, the collaborators have managed to avoid too many changes to the semantics, but there are a few; 'yonder elm' and 'yonder stone' become 'my elm' ('mon orme') and 'my stone' ('ma pierrestone'). On the other hand, 'dark hawks hear us' becomes 'dark hawks hear the shade' ('écoutent l'ombre'). Thus in the French the narrators have become recentred; but there is a remarkable fidelity to the rhythm. Marked for ictus:

Besíde the rívering wáters of / hítherandthíthering wáters of.
Tánt rivierántes óndes de / courétcourántes óndes de.

The leading syllable in the English is a short i, in the French, a nasal a [ã]—the latter sound better suited, I think, to the elegiac pace at which Joyce read the passage in English aloud.

As if to prove his polyglot genius, in 1938, with the help of Nino Frank, Joyce translated ALP into Italian; the text is online here.
Non odo più per le acqui di. Le chiacchiericcianti acque di. Nottole qua, topi là fan pian. Oh! Non sei andata a casa? Che Renata la Masa? Non odo più il nottolio, le liffeyanti acque di. Rio ci scampi! Al mio piè ledra v'è. Mi sento vecchia come l'elmo tasso. Fiaba detta di Gionni e Giace? D'Anna Livia i figlifiglie. Corvo scuro ode. Notte! Notte! Il mio cupo capo cade. Mi sento pesa come quel sasso. Dimmi di Giaco e Giaso! Chi fur Giac e Gion i vivi figli e figlie di? Notte addenso! Dimmi, dimmi, dimmi, olm! Nottenot! Dimmifiaba d'alberoccia. Presso le frusciacque di, le quinciequindi acque di. Not!
We can contrast this to another Italian translation published recently by Luigi Schenoni, a copy of which I bought in Siena three years ago:
Non riesco a sentire con l'acque bisbiglie di. Le mormoricchianti acque di. Pipistrelli volicchianti, il parlottare dei topi campagnoli. Ho! Non sei tonnat'a pedone? Chi è Thom Malone? Non riesco a sentire con il parlottare dei pipistrelli, con tutte le liffeggianti acque di. Ho, parla salvaci! I miei oossuti piedi non si mooseòvono. Mi sento vecchia come quel'elmlontano olmo. Una storia spifferata di Shaun o di Shem? Tutt'i figliefigli di Livia. Scuri sparvieri ci sentono. Notte! Notte! La mia tozza testa tentenna. Mi sento greve come quel sasso laggiù. Mi dici di John o di Shaun? Chi erano Shem e Shaun i vivi figli o figlie di? Notte nera! Dimmel, dimmel, dimmel olmo! Notte notte! Dimmi il ditto stelo e sasso. Accanto alle fiumeggianti acque di, alle quaelavaganti acque di. Notte!
The difference is worth noting. Joyce has allowed himself a greater creativity, not as afraid of his original as Schenoni is. Hence, Joyce alters the name 'Thom Malone' so as better to fit the previous sentence, whereas Schenoni alters the sense of going home to fit the English name. Schenoni, in other words, treats the name as a sort of token of the original, something that must be preserved in the transition to show the true nature of the text. The same goes for the names Shem and Shaun, which Schenoni, unlike Joyce, keeps English.

But Schenoni is insensitive to Joyce's music, and is unwilling to compress the syntax for sonic effects. Notice, for instance, how the rhyming spondee 'bawk talk' has been preserved in 'cause pause' and 'fan pian', whereas Schenoni offers the grossly flaccid 'il parlottare dei topi campagnoli'. Similarly, his rendition of the penultimate line has no feeling for the rhythm, the syllables tripping over each other in their haste:

Joyce: Présso le frusciácque di / le quínciequínde ácque di.
Schenoni: Accánto alle fiumeggiánti ácque di / alle quaelavagánti ácque di.

If Joyce could bend the shape of his English for musical and other effects, it seems churlish to refuse the same to a target language; 'olm' for elm is therefore better than 'olmo', as it contains more.


But the oddest translation of all is not into French or Italian—nor into German, or Japanese or Russian, or Swahili, or Tagalog or Etruscan. It is into English, or rather, I should say, Basic English. This was the simplified grammar and vocabulary devised by C. K. Ogden around 1930, allegedly learnable in 7 weeks, to be used in international communications. It was savaged by B. L. Whorf as misguided, and would later be the satirical target of Orwell's Newspeak.

Now, you might wonder why on earth anyone would want to translate Finnegans Wake—the most complicated book in the language—into Basic English, with its 850-word lexicon. Well, you and me, buddy, as M would say. When I mentioned it to Steve Languagehat he admitted that his 'mind is now officially blown'. Still, it was published with Joyce's blessing in the March 1932 issue of transition, the very magazine that serialised the early Wake. The piece can now be found in Noel Riley Fitch, ed. In Transition: A Paris Anthology:
No sound but the waters of. The dancing waters of. Winged things in flight, field-rats louder than talk. Ho! Are you not gone, ho! What Tom Malone? No sound but the noise of these things, the Liffey and all its waters of. Ho, talk safe keep us! There's no moving this my foot. I seem as old as that tree over there. A story of Shaun or Shem but where? All Livia's daughters and sons. Dark birds and hearing. Night! Night! My old head's bent. My weight is like that stone you see. What may the John Shaun story be? Or who were Shem and Shaun the living sons and daughters of? Night now! Say it, say it, tree! Night night! The story say of stem or stone. By the side of the river waters of, this way and that way waters of. Night!
Winged things in flight? The noise of these things? Dark birds and hearing? This is a piece that passeth all understanding! Of course the music is shot, but you could hardly expect different. When the original gets more twisted, Ogden's rendering is even more helpless:
Joyce: And sure he was the quare old buntz too, Dear Dirty Dumpling, foostherfather of fingalls and dotthergills. Gammer and gaffer we're all their gangsters.

Ogden: And Dear Dirty Dublin, he, on my word, was a strange fat old father to his Danes light and dark, the female and male. Old girl and old boy, their servants are we.

Joyce: He married his markets, cheap by foul, I know, like any Etrurian Catholic Heathen, in their pinky limony creamy birnies and their turkiss indienne mauves.

Ogden: His markets were married, the cheap with the bad, like Etrurian Catholics of hated religion in their light reds, light oranges, light yellows, light greens, and the rest of the seven the rain gives.

Joyce: He had buckgoat paps on him, soft ones for orphans. Ho, Lord!

Ogden: He was kind as a she-goat, to young without mothers. O, Laws!
And so on. It's a good folly-project; rather reminiscent of Mary Godolphin's 1867 Robinson Crusoe in Words of One Syllable:
But I had worse luck this time than the last, for when we were far out at sea, some Turks in a small ship came on our track in full chase. We set as much sail as our yards would bear, so as to get clear from them. But in spite of this, we saw our foes gain on us, and we felt sure that they would come up with our ship in a few hours' time.
(The full text is available on Gutenberg if you're interested.) These works remain a monument to their authors' literary ingenuity, some more fun than others. Thus, the prehistory of the OuLiPo. Ogden seemed pretty happy with his results, even though they read more like a curiosity than as a serious product of translating expertise. Others had related ideas with the Wake—abridgments (Anthony Burgess, A Shorter FW), epic poems (Norman O. Brown, Closing Time), and dramas (er, some bird whose name I forget Mary Manning, Passages from FW: a Free Adaptation for the Theater—this, and several other adaptations, I owe to the comments of that inimitable internet savant, MMcM).


What are we to learn from this—is the only person capable of getting under Joyce's skin Joyce himself? The translators never seemed to have a chance with this one, and the further away we get from 1939, the less modernism we have in our hearts and pens. Hence, Schenoni has nothing on Joyce's own efforts. Perhaps for translators other than Joyce, the technical and pedantic might have some merit. Aptness and elegance, in this instance, do not seem so far apart as goals. But then, nobody is entitled to be authoritative or final about it.

Update: the auxiliary section of RobotWisdom, which is among other things the great Joyce website and run by the man who coined the term 'weblog', kindly links. An honour!

04 March, 2007

Roth's cabinet of curiosities

Since childhood, I've been a collector. At first it was costume jewellery, which delighted my magpie little eyes, then bits of junk metal and fragments of porcelain found in skips and in the road. When I was a bit older, it was paperknives and pocket dictionaries. Then I got into rocks, by which I mean semi-precious stones. That was my first serious collecting passion, and I acquired quite a wealth of them. My grandfather Tex, who had been a US ambassador, would bring back coins and ceremonial weaponry from around the world. In my prep-school days I started collecting fountain pens, and then art postcards, amassing several hundred of the latter, with a particular focus on Picasso. During adolescence I collected CDs; then, just before I lost my virginity, I stopped buying music and diverted all spare (and non-spare) funds towards the acquisition of books, from which I have not looked back. I never got into stamps, for whatever reason, though my parents own an album which might prove moderately valuable one day.

The upshot of all this is that I have a fair amount of odd stuff stored away in the parental home. While I'm back here I thought I'd give you a little tour of the early highlights—coins, rocks and weapons. The junk, pens and paperknives, sadly, I no longer have. (As for the books, well, what else are the Varieties?)


The coins are as follows, except where I cannot follow the script: 1. France, 2 centimes (1856); 2. and 3. Nepal, 1 rupee, date unknown; 4. Austria, 25 schilling (1967); 5. Ireland, 1 penny (1964); 6. Australia, 20 cents (1966); 7. Italy, 100 lire (1969); 8. Australia, 50 cents (1966); 9. Mexico, 20 centavos (1968); 10. France, 5 francs (1945); 11. Tunisia, denomination unknown (1960); 12. Norway, 10 kroner (1985); 13. Bahamas, 10 cents (1975); 14. unknown (Arabic script); 15. Hong Kong, 2 dollars (1993); 16. Mauritius, 5 rupees (1987); 17. Ghana, 1 cedi (1979); 18. Kenya, 5 shllings (1985); 19. Denmark, 25 øre (1969); 20. unknown (Chinese); 21. Belgium, 25 centimes (1942); 22. Spain, 50 pesetas (1957); 23. Hungary, 2 forint (1948); 24. Morocco (?), denomination and date unknown; 25. Hungary, 20 forint (1982); 26. France, 10 francs (1948); 27. Iraq, 50 fils (1931); 28. Saudi Arabia, 50 hallalahs, date unknown; 29. Portugal, 50 centavos (1943); 30. Israel, 5 shekels, date unknown.

As you might have guessed, I've selected partly for the pleasure of some of my known foreign readers, who may well recognise some of these old duffers. (Update: indeed they have done, and some have kindly made identifications.) Mostly, however, I've chosen by aesthetics. My particular favourites are the Australian 50 cent piece, which has a lovely heft and sheen, and the hexagonal Arabic coin, which I've tentatively attributed to Morocco on the basis of the fez. By far the most valuable, I suspect, is the very first, from 1856, unfortunately a bit dark in the photograph. It makes one's hands filthy to rifle through these bits of metal—but it brings back memories of sitting at old Tex's knees and watching him pour out little velvet bags into the box.

If the coins were really my grandfather's collection, the rocks are unquestionably mine. I assembled them piece by piece over the years, though I have not acquired any new for over a decade. These are the most interesting and most beautiful specimens I own. The largest item is a stunning unpolished malachite that I picked up in New York; next to it on the right, haematite; in the centre, slivers of pink tourmaline set in a white slab of unknown material, bought in Florence; centre right, a large desert rose acquired in Paris (I believe); bottom right, an unusually handsome agate geode; bottom centre, lapis lazuli; bottom left, marcasite; as for the three smaller stones above it, the lowest is an opal, bought at a fair in London, above it an uncut ruby, given me by a friend of my grandfather's, and the top one I have no idea about, but it's a charming little thing nonetheless.

These, again, are all from my grandfather, who received them as gifts from various local ambassadors. I have left them unpolished, though someday I hope to buff them up and hang them on a wall. The spear and boomerang need no explanation. Unfortunately I have forgotten what the middle one is; perhaps someone can enlighten me. The top item is a kukri, or gurkha knife, from Nepal; I was told that the notch on the blade near the handle—called a kaura—was used to draw one's own blood in pre-combat ritual, but this is probably untrue. The fourth is a kris or serpentine dagger from Malaysia; its hilt is formed from what look like two dogs or other animals, and on the pommel is a mediaeval helmet. On one side of the blade is etched a scene of a man with a rifle hunting a rabbit; on the other the legend, Ay chivas que tienen padre pero esta ni madre tuvo, which my limited Spanish translates as: Oh, kids that have a father but this one had no mother. That sounds wrong, no doubt someone will help me here too.

Regular readers will have no trouble understanding that untotal comprehension is half the appeal of these myriad objects. The darkness more than makes up for the light.

02 March, 2007

Paradise enow

I'm in London for a few days. An interview at the Warburg Institute, and a test of my Latin—one hour in a room with Jean Bodin and a dictionary, the Droz suite, with a daubed Eugénie peering elegantly down at me. Waiting for me at home were books I'd ordered online—heavy, impressive volumes, like a Taschen facsimile of the Nuremberg Chronicle, and John Wilkins' Real Character. I could swim in an ocean of books forever, I think, never even needing to read.


My father and I take in a show, Beckett's Happy Days, starring Fiona Shaw. (I relish applying the expression 'take in a show' to a Beckett play.) It was the closing night, and the cream of London's intelligentsia, glittering and chattering, was out in full force. Saffron Burrows—Shaw's girlfriend—sat behind us.

In the interval we run into a friend of my father's. Pa expostulates on the idiocy of the audience, how they laughed at every possible moment, without a whit of comedy. I argue, and his friend agrees, that it was nervous laughter. 'They don't feel comfortable with long periods of silence', he says; 'they have to fill it with laughter. . . or coughing'. Nonetheless, he doesn't think Shaw 'had the rhythm of it at all'. My father is more convinced by her performance, full of discomforting grins and sudden, jittery postures. Later he asks me if she had made me understand the play any better. How to answer that sort of question? This is how people who like drama think; it is also the way music lovers think—'I find Gould's reading of the Goldberg Variations so terribly enlightening'. But it is not the way I think. Art for me is essentially a closed system. This is why I don't much like drama, and why I like Beckett. I'm uninterested in the performance. It's the words I want; all the rest might be stripped away, in pursuit of Essence. I think I'd probably be just as happy with Gordon Brown mumbling the script from a print-out. In fact, come to think of it, such a rendition would only heighten the pathos of Beckett's drama.

At Languagehat, meanwhile, the best comment-thread of all time.