The Daily

On Translation

The Sesquiquincentenary

May 26, 2015 | by

Looking to the stars to find Dante’s birthday.


Sidney Hall’s etching of Gemini, 1825.

Dante Alighieri was born 750 years ago, although the exact date of his birth is, authorities say, unknown. The Vatican played it safe by starting its celebrations on May 4, with Pope Francis expressing his hope that Dante and his work will accompany us during this year on our dark way. That same day, Roberto Benigni read from The Divine Comedy on the floor of the Italian Senate, a reading broadcast to the nation. (His lovely, nonhammy recital of Canto I of Inferno is online, along with many other clips.) Well, let church and state proceed with caution. I say it’s today.

Dante’s journey to the underworld, and overworld, took place during Easter week of the year 1300, when he was “midway on his life’s journey”: halfway to the Biblical seventy, or thirty-five years old. So he was born in 1265, as Boccaccio, in the first biography of Dante, confirms. Read More »

Write Tight

April 21, 2015 | by

What is poetry? Etymology provides more questions than answers.


Contest of the Poets, a float design by Jennie Wilde for the 1910 “Comus” Mardi Gras

T. S. Eliot, who once famously called National Poetry Month the cruelest, was also one of many to point out the hopeless semantic tangles that ensue because “poetry” has two opposites. Poetry can be the lined stuff, often with rhymes, as opposed to sentences and paragraphs; poetry can also be the good stuff, as opposed to the plodding or simply informational. But if good prose can be poetic, a novel can be “pure poetry,” and poems can be prosaic, then it’s not clear what anyone is talking about, really. Or rather, it’s clear except to theorists trying to come up with definitions. Poetry is what’s thrilling, while a poem is that poor thing with eleven readers, eight of them members of the poet’s extended family.

Etymology doesn’t help—it only highlights that the apples and oranges here are how the thing is made and how it moves. Poetry is from the Greek poiein, “to make”: a poem is something made, or in English we would more naturally say crafted. Yet everyone agrees good prose is well crafted, too. Prose means, literally, “straightforward,” from the Latin prosa, proversus, “turned to face forward” (whereas verse is all wound up, twisty and snaky, “turned” in every direction except, apparently, forward). Yet we all know that poems can be clear and direct, too, especially when they’re songs. Read More »

The Forest of Letters: An Interview with Valerie Miles

April 9, 2015 | by


The Latin etymology of the word translate derives from trans (“across”) and lātiō (“carrying”), which makes the translator a sort of linguistic smuggler, carrying gems from one language, one culture into another. Valerie Miles has worked as a translator, in all senses of the word, for Spanish-language culture for more than twenty years: as a journalist, editor, writer, and professor—and, of course, as a literary translator. In the early nineties, she wrote about British and American writers for the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia, and then entered the world of Spanish publishing, where she introduced English-language writers such as Lydia Davis, John Cheever, and Richard Yates to Spanish-speaking audiences. In 2003, together with Aurelio Major, she founded Granta en Español, which has served as a major platform for launching the careers of emerging writers. Most recently, she translated Milena Busquets’s novel This Too Shall Pass.

Last fall, Open Letter published A Thousand Forests in One Acorn, Miles’s anthology of twenty-eight Spanish-language writers from Central and South America and Spain. The name of the anthology comes from an Emerson essay about the whole of history folding into a single individual experience. The book features excerpts of each writer’s work, brief discussions of their literary influences, and explanations of why each writer chose a particular excerpt as being exemplary of their work as a whole.

Valerie spoke with me late last year from Spain, her adopted home (she grew up in Pennsylvania), and gave me a guided tour through the forest of Spanish letters.

Where did the idea for this anthology come from?

I came across an anthology from 1942 called This Is My Best. I was really taken with the literary value of the book as well as its historical significance. It had all these marvelous writers—Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Dorothy Parker, Pearl S. Buck, John Dewey, Lillian Hellman—talking about what they consider their best pages. Gertrude Stein and T. S. Eliot wanted to contribute, but it was 1942 and the breakout of war made communication very difficult. So the anthology becomes a multifaceted literary portrait of an era in American history and an incredibly vital way of fighting one of the most horrific moments of the twentieth century. In a time of such widespread destruction, the anthology serves as a testimony to the fact that humans also create things of beauty—they don’t simply wreak bloodthirsty havoc on one another. This book is like a shout for humanity in the midst of horror, and storytelling, poetry, and philosophy in the face of slaughter and genocide. As though saying, We are that, but we are this, too, and I want to remember that we are this. It was really an unusual way of being introduced to a moment in time.

When I saw the book, I wanted to do the same thing in Spanish. The twentieth century was a pretty busy time for the Spanish language—in the 1960s and seventies, for example, there was the Latin American Boom Generation, and there are only a few of those writers left to ask the question, What are your best pages? Beyond a reading list, I wanted to find an intimate history that only the writers themselves could tell.

Read More »

Novels Are Made of Words

March 31, 2015 | by

More on automated sentiment-analysis, and Moby-Dick.

neiman mobydick

Leroy Neiman, Moby Dick Assaulting the Pequod.

Paul Valéry tells the story: The painter Edgar Degas was backhanded-bragging to his friend Stéphane Mallarmé about the poems that he, Degas, had been trying to write. He knew they weren’t great, he said, “But I’ve got lots of ideas—too many ideas.” “But my dear Degas,” the poet replied, “poems are not made out of ideas. They’re made of words.”

Paintings, for that matter, are not made of pretty ballerinas or landscapes: they’re made of paint.

Which brings us to Syuzhet, Matthew Jockers’s new program that analyzes the words of a novel for their emotional value and graphs the sentimental shape of the book. Dan Piepenbring has explained it all here and here on the Daily, with links to the original postings and the various outcries, some of them in the comments, that have blown up around Jockers.

Many people apparently find Jockers’s research the latest assault of technocratic digitocracy on the citadel of deep humanistic feelings, but that’s not how I see it. What the graphs reveal about potboiler narrative structure versus high-literary arcs, for instance—Dan Brown’s higher average positivity than James Joyce’s, and his more regular cycle of highs and lows to force the reader through the book—is insightful, useful, and great. Read More »

Who’s Number One?

March 17, 2015 | by

Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy and the role of the first person.


Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy

It can be staggering to realize, suddenly, that something you’ve never thought about—something you’ve always accepted as real—is just an article of faith. Language is often what turns the lightbulb on: someone defines reality afresh with a new word (mansplaining, Rebecca Solnit) or by showing the hidden powers and interconnections of an old word (debt, David Graeber). Rarely is the realization about language itself.

Of all the dogmas of classical antiquity, only grammar has held its ground. Euclidean geometry, Ptolemaic astronomy, Galenic medicine, Roman law, Christian doctrine—the schools have radically demolished them all. But even now, Alexandrine grammar still reigns.

The quote is from Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy (1888–1973), a deeply idiosyncratic Christian theoretician of the modern era. (All translations are mine, from the two-volume The Language of the Human Race: An Incarnate Grammar in Four Parts [Die Sprache des Menschengeschlechts: Eine leibhafte Grammatik in vier Teilen].) Rosenstock-Huessy inspired a few cognoscenti, including W. H. Auden and Peter Sloterdijk, but he is still, it is safe to say, deeply, deeply obscure. It is hard to know what to do with him. I certainly find off-putting the self-evident all-importance of Christ’s Birth or God’s Divine Purpose, which he regularly tosses into his philosophical arguments. (Auden: “Anyone reading him for the first time may find, as I did, certain aspects of his writings a bit hard to take … Speaking for myself, I can only say that, by listening to Rosenstock-Huessy, I have been changed.”) The grammatical dogma he means, though—and which he spent more than one 1,900-page book in mortal combat against—is the innocent-looking list dating back to the Greeks: first person, second person, third person. I love, you love, he/she/it loves, or, if you studied Latin, amo, amas, amat. Read More »

Of Pimps and Pyknics

February 24, 2015 | by

Adventures in dictionaries.


An aurochs from The Wonderful Paleo Art of Heinrich Harder, 1920.


In the novel by Patrick Modiano I’m translating, a bus stops at Cross Road in Bournemouth “devant un cottage pimpant,” and I had a feeling, somehow, that my first try, “in front of a pimpin’ little cottage,” was probably not right.

“Origin obscure,” says the Oxford English Dictionary about pimp. You can hear a titch more donnish vinegar in the etymology than the stolid lexicographers usually let show:

Generally thought to be in some way related to 16th century French pimper, vb., present participle pimpant alluring or seducing in outward appearance or dress…. French pimper is taken as ≈ Provençal pimpar, pipar, to render elegant. But these leave much to be explained in the history of the word before 1600.

Much to be explained indeed. Read More »