Friday, November 7, 2008

Parvum Opus 300 ~ Transgressive Reading

Some Things Lost in Translation, Maybe

|=| I gave a writing assignment to retell a ghost story or scary story from the student’s own culture or language (for Halloween week). My Moroccan student’s story was about a Christian college student in Egypt who challenged God to show himself and prove his existence. The Christian student (not the Moroccan, who is a Muslim) was duly killed when he got water in his ears, which is “scientifically known” to be how donkeys can be killed. I asked a couple of questions about this narrative, and he told me that the word he translated as “Christian” (from Berber? Arabic?) means Christians, Jews, and/or Muslims. Hmm.

|=| I tried to translate a couple of verses by Goethe using Babelfish (German to English), but not all the words translated, and the meanings weren’t clear. When I copied the German text directly into the Google search box, I found images of book pages with the poems, and in one case English translations followed. So I recommend this method for translating literature, though not, of course, for e-mail from your friends, unless their letters have been published already.

|=| Dave DaBee sent these links to bad translations in Welsh on signs in the UK.

Dave added: “I'm inclined to agree with local citizen Dylan, quoted in the first article: when proofreading, consider using someone who knows the language at issue.”

Transgressive Knitting

Craft magazine has an article about a woman who mixes electronic bits, like digital watches, with fiber, and calls it transgressive. What she means is novel or unusual. She’s pretending her mixed materials are more important and intellectually interesting than they are, maybe even daring, maybe sinful.

Proverbs 17:9: He that covereth a transgression seeketh love; but he that repeateth a matter separateth very friends.

I’m sure that crafters seek love, but the trendy lady with the electronic bits is no more transgressive or in need of love than anyone who ever made ornaments from beverage can poptop rings. I hope she won’t repeat the word “transgressive”.

How to Read a Book

My MA in English lit almost killed my taste for fiction, except for mysteries and Jane Austen. However, I decided to try a novel by Kingsley Amis, who wrote one of my favorite funny novels, Lucky Jim, written in the 1950s, which I quote from time to time. The Russian Girl is a 1992 novel. It’s not as light, bright, and sparkling as Lucky Jim (to quote Jane Austen’s remark* on her book Pride and Prejudice), not as funny; it reads like the work of a man who’s had four more decades of living and working with neurotic, destructive personalities (as well as being one). Yet his protagonist in The Russian Girl, Richard Vaisey, like Jim escapes from a bad relationship (in this case, marriage to a good-looking, sexy, wealthy, but psychopathic woman rather than a frustrating affair with an unattractive, neurotic virgin) and the prospects of a stultifying academic job, and finds love with a nice woman, and a better job. Also like Lucky Jim, the Russian book contains a masterly description of drunkenness and a whopper of a hangover. But other matters required some brow-knitting.

The Russian girl in question is a poet in London, who wants various well-connected people to promote her reputation as a writer in order to garner international favor which might help spring her brother from a Russian prison, where she says he’s been held too long after finishing his sentence for some crime. So it looks like this novel might possibly be about something other than the character flaws and tangled relationships of urban intellectuals, but of course as it’s a “literary” novel, things aren’t that clear-cut. There’s some vague back-and-forthing about whether the brother is in fact unjustly imprisoned, how much danger he’s in, and so on, but the more interesting scenes are about the refusal of two of the people asked to sign the petition, and their reasons, as well as the reasons some people help (for example, Czechs who are angry at the Russian government).

One character who refuses to sign the petition in aid of the girl’s brother does so because he thinks literature is too important to jeopardize one’s professional reputation and integrity over by proclaiming bad writing to be good, even for a (possibly) good cause. Vaisey, a specialist in Russian literature, realizes the girl he loves writes horrible poetry. Amis creates a hideous sample poem (in English translation, of course). Vaisey the scholar notes that the original Russian displays no ear for language, let alone any sensibility indicating a mind of any imagination, feeling, insight, intelligence, etc., and since he’s falling in love with the girl, he actually is reduced to tears by this knowledge. So he lies to her about her poetry.

At the end of the book, when Vaisey and the girl are happily beginning a life together, she writes a love poem of which Amis/Vaisey does not give the reader a verbal critique, but which moves Vaisey to tears again. I liked it and I’ll give you the first few lines here:

man of all men in Shakespeare’s island,

eyes that shine through the rain in my heart,

where I came as a stranger,

finding a hand grasping as firmly as time,

knowledge that burns like fire

and makes my heart round and red again.

So the conclusion is that true love can inspire decent or at least tolerable literature. Thus the novel has an old-fashioned moral. I wasn’t sure why I was reading the book or why Amis wrote it, but this must be it.

*Austen: The work is rather too light, and bright, and sparkling; it wants [i.e. needs] shade; it wants to be stretched out here and there with a long chapter of sense, if it could be had; if not, of solemn specious nonsense, about something unconnected with the story: an essay on writing, a critique on Walter Scott, or the history of Buonaparté, or anything that would form a contrast and bring the reader with increased delight to the playfulness and general epigrammatism of the general style.

Book Chat

|=| Studs Terkel died at 96. He was privileged to be able to quiz all kinds of people on their lives and thoughts. I heard him speak in Boston maybe ten years ago. He noted that newspaper business pages do not have a section on labor (unions and working people). I wonder what he thought about the push to do away with the secret ballot on unions. Very police statish. The next step is to do away with the pretense of voting at all. He also told a story about standing at a bus stop in Chicago with a couple of yuppie types who didn’t know that unions gave them the 40-hour work week. We tend not to know much about history, let alone unions. Those who forget history are inclined to repeat it, it’s said, but they’re also inclined to lose what they’ve got.

|=| I’m sorry to see that another good, popular novelist, Michael Crichton, just died. He gave us Jurassic Park as well as State of Fear, which I wrote about.

|=| Fun fact: Bill Ayers dedicated his 1974 book, Prairie Fire: The Politics of Revolutionary Anti-Imperialism, to political dissidents, including Sirhan Sirhan, the man who shot Robert Kennedy.

The Wish Book

Need some light reading? I’m publishing one of my short novels/long stories online, making it available for free download as a Word document. The Wish Book is about a young woman who discovers she can order anything she wants from century-old Sears catalogues, at century-old prices. Danger and love ensue. It’s a lot of fun. Read it or download it from my web site.

New interview with bluesman Sonny Robertson.


Trivium pursuit ~ rhetoric, grammar, and logic, or reading, writing, and reckoning: Parvum Opus discusses language, education, journalism, culture, and more. Parvum Opus by Rhonda Keith is a publication of KeithOps / Opus Publishing Services. Editorial input provided by Fred Stephens. Rhonda Keith is a long-time writer, editor, and English teacher. Back issues from December 2002 may be found at Feel free to e-mail me with comments or queries. The PO mailing list is private, never given or sold to anyone else. If you don't want to receive Parvum Opus, please e-mail, and I'll take you off the mailing list. Copyright Rhonda Keith 2008. Parvum Opus or part of it may be reproduced only with permission, but you may forward the entire newsletter as long as the copyright remains.

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