The Daily

On Translation

Translation and Virginity

September 30, 2014 | by

Remembering Saint Jerome on International Translation Day.

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Detail from Giovanni Bellini’s Saint Jerome Reading in a Landscape, ca. 1480–5.

Raise a glass, say a prayer in a language other than Hebrew and Greek, or wear a donkey’s ear in your buttonhole: it’s International Translation Day, aka the Feast of Saint Jerome, the patron saint of librarians and libraries, schoolchildren, students, Bible scholars, and translators. Jerome translated the Bible into Latin and died in Bethlehem on this day in 419 or 420 A.D.; he single-handedly (so to speak) created the Vulgate, a translation read as the sacred original for some thousand years.

He famously said that you should translate the meaning of the original text, not the words themselves, but translators must have always known this intuitively—even Jerome cites half a dozen predecessors. Because he was one of the early ones, though, he gets the credit, along with Horace, who said the same thing. Jerome made a partial exception for the Bible, whose very word order was a sacred mystery; his balance between the competing demands is what made his translation so good.

He was born in 331 or 347 in the town of Stridon, possibly in what’s now northwest Croatia; its only mention in history is Jerome’s comment that he was born “in the town of Stridon, now destroyed by the Goths.” He was also by far the crabbiest of the Church Fathers, as befits a man who earned sainthood by scholarship and rigorous asceticism, not working with people. As important a theological polemicist as he was a translator, he fired off letter after letter, volume after volume, from his library in Palestine, written in elegant classical Latin studded with choice insults. To someone who questioned his translations, he countered: “What men like you call fidelity in transcription, the learnèd term pestilent minuteness”; a heretic, Pelagius, was “a very stupid dolt weighed down with Scottish porridge.” Read More »

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On the Shelf

A Brief History of the GIF, and Other News

September 30, 2014 | by

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Image via Giphy

  • The origins of genius, which is a relatively new concept: “The term genius in its modern sense was first adopted in the eighteenth century and it involved a conflation of two Latin terms: genius, which for the Romans was the god of our conception, imbuing us with particular personality traits but nevertheless a supernatural force external to us, and ingenium, a related noun referring to our internal dispositions and talents, our inborn nature … Why did the moderns need a term like this, in which natural characteristics are fused with supernatural associations?”
  • What is remarkable about Ibsen’s work is that it seems both to reflect the specific, Scandinavian bourgeois milieu that formed the author and to have a universal appeal that allows endless reinterpretation … the issues that Ibsen deals with, of class, of status, of who may speak and who may not, ‘are timeless, especially as we are now moving back to the conditions of the nineteenth century, with a very, very small, wealthy and powerful elite.’”
  • An analysis of the GIF, the Internet’s most divisive image-file format: “Created in 1987 by the digital communications company CompuServe, the GIF was originally designed for speedy transfer across pre–World Wide Web Internet networks … GIFs are chiefly agents of pleasure within a sensibility that predominates online, but one that has yet to be invoked in analyses of the format: that of camp. The web-born incarnation of this attitude goes well beyond historical definitions of camp as (variously) over-the-top sprezzatura, effete affectation, stereotypical homosexual display and its hammy adoption by straight society. In fact, it has a potentially international and transcultural reach as a genderless way of engaging with the modern world.”
  • A British teen novel unwittingly illustrates the wide gulf between senses of humor in America and the UK: “I had to put a glossary of words [my editor] didn’t understand in the back for the American editions. Words like ‘prat’ (someone who plays air guitar at concerts or puts two legs down one knicker leg) etc. Common-or-garden comedy words … But you know how cheerful [Americans] can be. Always wanting you to have a nice day. Perking you up by going up at the end of sentences in case you had nodded off. Bounding over to serve you in restaurants.”
  • Remembering the loudest sound on Earth: the eruption of a volcano in Krakatoa on August 27, 1883. “The ear-drums of over half my crew have been shattered,” the captain of a nearby ship wrote in his log. “My last thoughts are with my dear wife. I am convinced that the Day of Judgement has come.”

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On History

Blinded by Coffee

September 29, 2014 | by

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Two ordinary humans soon to have their vision sucked out of them by coffee, villainous coffee.

Sadie Stein wrote earlier today about Balzac, who was famously enamored of coffee—especially coffee on an empty stomach—as a creative agent, so much so that it probably killed him. On the other end of the spectrum is J. M. Holaday, a—scholar? an armchair scientist? he’s a man about whom Google reveals little—whose sole publication, an essay called “Coffee-Drinking and Blindness,” survives him. The piece appeared in the North American Review in September 1888. Rhetorically marvelous if scientifically unsound, it argues emphatically that drinking too much coffee will make you go blind. And this was not, to Holaday’s mind, mere conjecture. He begins his essay with bold certitude:

I am satisfied that defective vision and blindness will pretty soon be a prominent characteristic among the American people … I make this assertion without having seen any statistics whatever on the subject of blindness. I found out long ago that a cup of coffee leaves a night-shade on the brain which continues longer than an eclipse of the sun. For some time past I have been consulting with different persons in Council Bluffs, who are suffering with failing sight, and in each instance I ascertained that the unfortunate person was and is a regular coffee-drinker.

Indubitable evidence! Correlation does imply causation! Lest you fear that Holaday is a plant—a tea lobbyist, maybe, or a cola manufacturer—he’s quick to note that he was once fond of coffee himself, though he “now feel[s] free of the coffee-drinking vice, and will have no more trouble with it unless I shall again fall a victim to some church supper or to the magnetic blandishments of some buoyant hostess.” Read More »

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Our Daily Correspondent

Java Jive

September 29, 2014 | by

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A coffeepot truck from 1956. Photo via Retronaut

There are too many coffee clichés: nineties Seattle yuppies, current obsessives in Portland and Brooklyn, the enormous and always hilarious line of tchotchkes that emphasize the importance of caffeine to functioning and the inadvisability of approaching the addict pre-coffee. And that Friends pop-up! Oh god, the Friends pop-up. It makes one squirm with vicarious humiliation. It is impossible to mention coffee in any context without falling into some hoary cliché trap, which I imagine being like one of those pits cleverly disguised with leaves. But there's a funny paradox at work: however much we take it for granted, coffee has become a sort of identity. In a time when the real thing is scarce, coffee is sold to us as craftsmanship, as connoisseurship, as signifier—for ideas of glamor that very few of us can actually afford. 

It was not always so. Joseph Smith reported that hot drinks are not for the body or belly; Bach wrote the “Coffee Cantata”; and Balzac may or may not have died of coffee poisoning:

I have discovered a horrible, rather brutal method that I recommend only to men of excessive vigor, men with thick black hair and skin covered with liver spots, men with big square hands and legs shaped like bowling pins. It is a question of using finely pulverized, dense coffee, cold and anhydrous, consumed on an empty stomach. This coffee falls into your stomach, a sack whose velvety interior is lined with tapestries of suckers and papillae. The coffee finds nothing else in the sack, and so it attacks these delicate and voluptuous linings; it acts like a food and demands digestive juices; it wrings and twists the stomach for these juices, appealing as a pythoness appeals to her god; it brutalizes these beautiful stomach linings as a wagon master abuses ponies; the plexus becomes inflamed; sparks shoot all the way up to the brain. From that moment on, everything becomes agitated. Ideas quick-march into motion like battalions of a grand army to its legendary fighting ground, and the battle rages. Memories charge in, bright flags on high; the cavalry of metaphor deploys with a magnificent gallop; the artillery of logic rushes up with clattering wagons and cartridges; on imagination's orders, sharpshooters sight and fire; forms and shapes and characters rear up; the paper is spread with ink—for the nightly labor begins and ends with torrents of this black water, as a battle opens and concludes with black powder.

I recommended this way of drinking coffee to a friend of mine, who absolutely wanted to finish a job promised for the next day: he thought he'd been poisoned and took to his bed, which he guarded like a married man. He was tall, blond, slender and had thinning hair; he apparently had a stomach of papier-mâché. There has been, on my part, a failure of observation.

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First Person

Letter from a Retreat

September 29, 2014 | by

How not to meditate.

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Photo: Michel Royon

Martin had a long pair of navy-blue socks that he wore when it was cold. He wore them in the morning before sunrise, and usually took them off before noon.

We were doing a silent, shamatha meditation retreat in the foothills of the Himalayas. The retreat was led by a stern Zen monk from Japan. We referred to him by his honorific, Venerable. Venerable was tall. It was hard to determine his age. He might have been fifty years old, at most. He wore aviator-style glasses. He had square front teeth. His eyes tilted a bit down at the outer corners, down toward his ears, giving him a sad, warm, sexual look. He was handsome and he was stern. He told us that if we learned to sit shamatha, we would no longer have nightmares, and all our anxieties would reveal themselves as mental disturbances and nothing more. He asked us to consider, when we were feeling anxiety, if that was really bliss. Really look at it, he said, really ask yourself. Actually, I don’t think he understood our practice, but I think he’d gotten some instruction, and I was a little offended and a little uneasy that he’d come and sit here and insult us—suggest vaguely that his style of Buddhism was superior. But maybe I was imagining it.

On the first night of the retreat, Venerable told us that ego is like a vampire. Martin, whom I was secretly dating, raised his hand and asked how, if he was to think of his ego as a sneaky vampire, he was expected to relax. The phrase “sneaky vampire” got stuck in my head. The question seemed like a comeback. It made Venerable seem, all at once, ridiculous. I was afraid, while Venerable answered, that I would start laughing, so I didn’t hear his answer. The next person asked a question. I was still thinking “sneaky vampire.” Then I broke. I started laughing. Each time I got my laughing under control, it would explode again, worse, when I thought, “sneaky vampire” while looking at Venerable’s handsome face, noticing his elegant comportment. Venerable was answering an Australian paraglider’s question about light. “Ah, light,” he said, “that is a big subject. For that, come and talk to me in private.” Read More »

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On the Shelf

Balzac the Intern, and Other News

September 29, 2014 | by

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A drawing of Balzac attributed to Achille Devéria, ca. 1820.

  • Our poetry editor, Robyn Creswell, interviewed the Moroccan writer Abdelfattah Kilito: “A writer was a sort of creator, naturally, but I always liked to think of him as a reader as well—a great reader. By way of his writing, I tried to make out, or guess at, what he’d read. A sort of literary voyeurism. And the writer would often show his hand, as though by chance. I felt a wonderful sense of complicity when I was able to recognize a title, or a line of poetry, or an allusion.”
  • Once he’d graduated from the Sorbonne, Balzac took an internship at a Paris law firm. “An intern is to the Civil Service what a choirboy is to the Church, or what an army child is to his Regiment, or what rats and sidekicks are to Theatres: innocent, gullible, and blinded by illusions,” he wrote in 1841’s The Physiology of the Employee.
  • On Scorsese’s new NYRB doc, which debuted this weekend: “Most literary publications, running smoothly, are about as well suited to cinematic narrative as a long-term janitorial project. Scorsese has attempted to pep things up by casting the Review as a front-lines political journal with a rock-star stable of writers. The result is forced, befuddled, and frequently weird. Still, it’s a fine introduction to the long arc of the paper’s history.”
  • The art of recording: John Vanderslice quit his job as a waiter at Chez Panisse to open one of the most innovative recording studios in the country. His mantra: “sloppy hi-fi,” which means “capturing loose, spontaneous performances on the best microphones in the world. It means gritting a pretty song with white noise, pink noise, high-quality distortion (not an oxymoron: ‘It has to be high-quality distortion’), tube amps, and tube compressors, and also by physically distressing and damaging the tape. Basically, Vanderslice wants powers of violence over the loveliest sounds.”
  • Today in highly unforeseen merchandise: “Prufrock”-themed flats. “These flats feature a mix of lines from the poem and theme collage imagery (peaches, mermaids, coffee spoons, etc). The edges and flexible areas of the flats are black for an extra accent.” (Also available: Pride and Prejudice and Catcher in the Rye flats.)

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