Tuesday 29 September 2020

Poems Without an ‘I’ (2020)


An excellent set of reviews of recent translations of chinese poetry by Madeleine Thien HERE in the New York Review of Book.

It includes the following explanation.

The essential experience of Chinese poetry is all but untranslatable. Eliot Weinberger, Lucas Klein, Burton Watson, Stephen Owen, and David Hinton, among others, have set down superb translations, while noting that, in bringing Chinese poetry into English, more things go missing than in translations from other languages. Word-for-word translations, writes François Cheng in his masterful Chinese Poetic Writing (1977), can give “only the barest caricature.” Ha Jin describes a particular Li Bai poem as obtaining a beauty that “can be fully appreciated only in the Chinese.” Hinton observes that a particular line, severed from its radically different philosophical context, “fails absolutely in translation.” But the incommensurability of Chinese (logographic) and English (alphabetic) written systems begins the moment a mark is made. Chinese ideograms are composed of strokes, and each of the brushstrokes references others. Cheng gives this line from Wang Wei as an example, followed by its literal translation:

木 末 芙 蓉 花

branch end magnolia flowers

The character for “branch”
begins to transform at its tips and bud into life. In the third character, 艹 (the radical for “grass” 艸 or “flower”) bursts forth from the crown of the words 芙蓉 (magnolia) and ends in 花 (flower). Further, in a simultaneous layer of images, the third character, Cheng writes, “contains the element 天 ‘man,’ which itself contains the element 人 ‘Man’ (homo),” or person. “Face” 容 is visible in the fourth ideogram, and the fifth contains 化 (transformation). Thus the line also records a human trajectory: spiritual metamorphosis and then mortality embedded in nature itself.




Tuesday 22 September 2020

The Writer–Translator Equation (2020)

In the New York Review of Books, Tim Parks writes about a translation he is doing, and compares it in detail with how he is writing his latest novel. 

The translator is a writer. The writer is a translator. How many times have I run up against these assertions?—in a chat between translators protesting because they are not listed in a publisher’s index of authors; or in the work of literary theorists, even poets (“Each text is unique, yet at the same time it is the translation of another text,” observed Octavio Paz). Others claim that because language is referential, any written text is a translation of the world referred to.

In recent months, I have been dividing my working day between writing in the morning and translating in the afternoon. Maybe comparing the two activities would be a good way to test this writer–translator equation.



Monday 21 September 2020

It All Connects (2016)

Adam Curtis is a fascinating British film maker. He works for the BBC. HERE is a brilliant interview of Curtis from 2016, by the novelist Jonathan Lethem. 

In the interview they dicuss the idea of a hyperobject.

Curtis and I briefly discussed a word coined by the critic Timothy Morton to describe a problem so vast in space and time that you are unable to apprehend it: a “hyperobject.” Global warming is a classic example of a hyperobject: it’s everywhere and nowhere, too encompassing to think about. Global markets, too. But naming a hyperobject alone is of limited use; human cognition knows all too well how to file such imminent imponderables away, on a “to-do” list that’s never consulted again. 

For an example of his work, see his three part documentary for the BBC, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. In the series, Curtis suggests that instead of liberating humanity in any way, computers have "distorted and simplified our view of the world around us."


Tuesday 15 September 2020

Seeing with Fresh Eyes: Meaning, Space, Data, Truth. (2020)

Edward Tufte's latest book is in press, and will be shipped in October. One of the two-page spreads above (more HERE).

Saturday 12 September 2020

The Writing Life (1989)

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard is a short (111 pages), but wonderful book,  about what she had learned about being a writer. It is beautifully written, and almost every page has something deep to say about living, thinking, loving, and writing. 
One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.

Thursday 10 September 2020

A Second Chance (2020)

HERE in the New York Review of Books is a wonderful story told by Janet Malcolm about how she learnt how to respond to cross-examination in a famous US libel case. 


I recently wrote about Gregory Batesons definition of information: ‘...what we mean by information—the elementary unit of information—is a difference which makes a difference...’.  I refered to this as not even a tautology (the saying of the same thing twice over using different words). I was right, it isn't a tautology. 

The phrase 'a difference which makes a difference' is a diacope. This is a literary device formed by the repetition of a word or phrase before and after an intervening word or phrase.

The canonical example of a diacope is in Hamlet: '...to be, or not to be!'

The OED describes it as ‘A figure by which two words that naturally stand together, especially two parts of a compound word, are separated by the intervention of another word’ (Webster 1864).  Another famous example is the first sentence of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina: 'Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way'.

Still, my favourite is Bateson's.

Saturday 5 September 2020

A difference, which makes a difference.

At a deep level, translation deals with the rendering of ideas or information from one form of expression into another. Into different dialects, languages, scripts, or media. It is the concept of difference which also helps us to define an idea, or a unit of information. The celebrated scientist and philosopher Gregory Bateson (1904 - 1980) addressed this issue in the Nineteenth Annual Korzybski Memorial Lecture, which he delivered on January 9, 1970, for the Institute of General Semantics. His lecture, titled Form, Substance and Difference is a rich broth of ideas about cybernetics, information theory and mind. In the essay Bateson defines information: ‘...what we mean by information—the elementary unit of information—is a difference which makes a difference...’.  This wonderful phrase of Bateson’s, a difference which makes a difference, was later used by Robert Bringhurst to also define an idea. On face value it is meaningless, it is not even a tautology (the saying of the same thing twice over using different words). But Bateson’s phrase tells us something about both language, and about experiments in the physical sciences.

It is universally the case, that if we make repeated measurements of a physical quantity, such as the mass of a potato or othermacroscopic object, with a sufficiently sensitive balance or measurement device, we see small differences between the measurements. If the time period between the repeated measurements is small, and the difference in the measured quantities is small, we call this variation ‘measurement error’, or ‘noise’, and we often ignore it. Our belief is that the true quantity is unchanging and that the differences in our measurements are not meaningful. Numerically we take the average of the varying measurements to smooth out these differences. But not all small differences are noise. Some are meaningful differences - in other words they are differences which make a difference. A number of Nobel prizes in science have been won by investigators who chose to find the cause of small differences that others had either not noticed, or had noticed and ignored.

Bateson’s not- even tautology, also tells us something specific about the nature of the English language. The historically contingent development of English means that we should be completely unsurprised that a single word, such as difference, would be overloaded with a number of different meanings, which depend on the immediate context of its use. In Bateson’s example, he uses a single word to describe two types of difference. The first is a perceptible difference, the second a meaningful difference. In concordance with the example of experimental measurement, we can sometimes perceive a difference, but it has no meaning. It does not ‘make a difference’. In other languages, which have developed and evolved through a different sequence of steps, and from different roots, these subtly distinct meanings of the word ‘difference’, might well be more usefully rendered with completely distinct words.         

Tuesday 1 September 2020

Hundred Rabbits (2016 - )

Hundred Rabbits is a small design - software - research studio based onboard a sailboat called Pino. It is run by Rekka, who is a cartoonist and writer, and Devine who is a programmer and musician.  Since 2016, they have been sailing. From Canada, the US West coast, Mexico, French Polynesia, Cook Islands, Niue, Tonga, New Zealand, Fiji, The Marshall Islands, Japan and back to Canada.

Rekka and Devine are very productive. During the past few years they have created an ecosystem of low power, open-source, software tools for programming and design, interactive musical projects, computer games, and books. They focus on alternative ways to store power and minimum viable solutions for technological tooling. HERE.