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Recalcitrant Language: An Interview with Ottilie Mulzet

July 21, 2014 | by

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Art from the first Hungarian edition of Seiobo járt odalent, or Seiobo There Below.

Translators of the Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai are a daring few, but they tend to win awards. This year’s Best Translated Book Award went to Ottilie Mulzet for the first English translation of Seiobo There Below, a dazzling, far-ranging novel even by Krasznahorkai’s standards. At 451 pages, the novel took Mulzet three years to translate; it required familiarity with everything from the terminology of Russian icon painting to the existence of Arcade Fire. The story, told in a series of loosely linked episodes, addresses small matters of death, time, divinity, and the transcendence of art. And that’s not to mention the sentences—intricately constructed puzzles designed to disorient and amaze the reader. They can be up to fourteen pages long.

Krasznahorkai is developing a cult following in the English-speaking world—he’s had one for decades in Hungary—and he draws packed crowds at readings. A recent appearance at Columbia University was so crowded that people were turned away. The author read in a dark room with only a pinpoint of light on the manuscript, for dramatic effect.

I caught up with the woman working under the name Ottilie Mulzet—a partial pseudonym, somehow not surprising from an artist affiliated with Krasznahorkai—to find out how she does it, and what else she has in store.

Tell me about your history with Krasznahorkai. How did you become his translator? How do you work with him?

Before I ever met him, I translated one of the stories, “Something is Burning Outside,” from Seiobo There Below. It appeared on the Hungarian literature website www.hlo.hu, and in June 2009, it was picked up by the Guardian for a series of translated short stories from Eastern Europe twenty years after 1989. I met Krasznahorkai briefly sometime around then. We corresponded, and I mentioned I’d be willing to take on the translation of Seiobo. Krasznahorkai was understandably a little hesitant at first, given the extraordinary complexity of the work. But I translated Animalinside, which was met with a very positive reception and went into a second printing fairly quickly. The following spring, I sent a sample chapter of Seiobo to New Directions.

Krasznahorkai and I communicate a lot by email. If I have any questions at all, he is absolutely wonderful about answering them. We communicate for the most part in Hungarian. There are times when he issues explicit instructions. For example, he didn’t want any of the foreign words in Seiobo italicized, and I could understand why, because they’re even more disorientating when they’re seemingly innocently integrated into the text. For me that was a pretty radical gesture.

What are the strengths and particularities of Hungarian as a language, and what challenges does it present to translate it into English?

I feel extremely close to Hungarian as a language. I love the sound of it, I love how it works grammatically, I love the vocabulary, the astonishing mishmash of words from so many different languages, I love what writers can do with it. Hungarian is an agglutinative language with vowel harmony—it has seemingly endless suffixes and amazing possibilities for compound words, and it has absolutely flexible word order, depending on what you want to emphasize in the sentence. And I would certainly mention the unbelievable elasticity of Hungarian—it’s like a rubber band. It can expand and expand, until you think, Well, this rubber band is going to break at any moment now, or it can shrink into just a few sparse words, where all the most important parts are left out and you just have to know.

English, despite how global it is, is a lot less flexible. Maybe the kind of English that’s spoken in the Indian subcontinent—where it’s partially subjugated to the tendencies of Hindi—would be a more suitable English for translation from Hungarian, but I have to work with the language I know the best. You have to struggle to make sure the sentences don’t seem too jam-packed with information, and yet, when there’s some pretty serious elision going on, you have to test the boundaries of English, with its rigid subject-verb-object structure and having to have all your indicators in place. Hungarian can look like just a splash of ink on the page. There are sentences—or, in Krasznahorkai’s case, subclauses—of just two or three words. I’m intrigued by all of this elision, and fascinated by the problem of conveying it in a recalcitrant language like English—just trying to get English to do something it’s not really meant to do. English today is the global language of commerce and trade, so while it’s dominant, it’s also in some respects deeply impoverished. It desperately needs these transfusions from other languages. Read More »

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Eugene Goostman Is Not What He Seems, and Other News

June 9, 2014 | by

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This boy is a machine. A screenshot from a test conducted by the Royal Society of London.

  • “In 1919 John Middleton Murry was appointed editor of the London literary magazine The Athenaeum. Shortly afterward, in a rare case of felicitous nepotism, he hired his wife Katherine Mansfield to be its fiction reviewer … from her very first column she’s frank about the terrible ephemerality of most fiction, and the trap both reviewers and readers can fall into by hitching themselves to a brand new novel’s rapidly dying star … Mansfield openly wonders why anyone should bother with new novels at all.”
  • Eugene Goostman, a computer program masquerading as a thirteen-year-old Ukrainian boy, has become the first artificial intelligence to pass the Turing Test: in five-minute text conversations, it fooled more than 30 percent of humans into thinking it was a person.
  • Why did a beluga whale named Noc try to emulate human speech? “He sounds, on first hearing, at least, less like a person talking than a delirious drunk humming an atonal tune through a tissue-covered comb … But the science behind Noc’s mimicry and its apparent motives reveals something far more urgent and haunting: the spectral outpourings of a young white whale calling to us across both time and the vast linguistic divide between humans and the other animals.”
  • And while we’re discussing animals, “What kind of a person looks upon the world’s largest land animal—a beast that mourns its dead and lives to retirement age and can distinguish the voice of its enemies—and instead of saying ‘Wow!’ says something like ‘Where's my gun?’” Wells Tower reports from one of the last elephant hunts in Botswana.
  • The most transgressive song of 1909: “If we listen closely to ‘I Love, I Love, I Love My Wife—But Oh! You Kid!’ we may hear a surprising lesson: that the culture-quaking shocks, the salaciousness and transgression we associate with blues and jazz and rock and hip-hop, first arrived in American pop many years earlier.”

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French in Action

June 5, 2014 | by

Mourning Pierre Capretz.

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“Robert,” in his ubiquitous Yale T-shirt, with the fetching “Mireille” in a still from French in Action.

I carry vivid memories of a boy named Robert, who insisted on wearing his horrible Yale T-shirt everywhere—to Chartres, to La Closerie des Lilas, to that seedy little rental-car hub on the Boulevard Périphérique, even (sacré bleu!) under a white blazer. What tone-deaf Ivy League foolishness, I remember thinking. The corollary bummer was that Robert wasn’t a caricature of the average American exchange student; he was more or less the ideal version thereof. He bopped through France, always encountering the lovely Mireille, who seemed to appear—without explanation or apology, and often without a bra—around the country’s every corner. And most important, he took every conceivable opportunity to improve his French. Robert was in Paris not to chase tail but to learn the language, to become a citoyen du monde. And yet he insisted on wearing that horrible Yale T-shirt everywhere

Such were my first high school impressions, in 1999 and 2000, of the video pedagogy of French in Action, the language course cum TV series that taught me (and millions of other Americans) the rudiments of the Francophone lifestyle.

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Pierre Capretz

French’s wild-haired emcee, Pierre Capretz, died earlier this year, in Aix-en-Provence, at eighty-nine. Capretz’s eyes always brimmed with mischievous possibility. He struck me as Henry Kissinger’s magnanimous French cousin, a man whom the world had weathered in the best possible way, imbuing him with wisdom and a philosophical cheer without which no one who teaches French in America can stay sane.

As I learned more about Capretz, I started to get the jokes, which, of course, included the Yale T-shirt that Robert seemed never to wash. My teacher-guru, Madame Demaray—a sanitization of de marais, “from the swamp”—had helped Capretz beta-test the program at Hotchkiss, a very swish prep school that had taken me in; it wasn’t terribly far from Yale, for which Hotchkiss’s founders hoped to groom their young men and eventually (thank God) their young women. Relations between the two schools were still cozy in the sixties, seventies, and eighties, and Mme. Demaray worked closely with Capretz as he developed his legendary regimen for the oral and aural teaching of French, imparting knowledge through a long-form video narrative that moved with the rhythms of a mystery novel. My teacher, with whom I was in half in love as one is with a glamorous great-aunt, told me in private about the million-plus dollars Capretz had gambled in making French in Action: about securing funding from the CPB and from WGBH in 1985, about the multiple heart attacks he suffered during the scripting, filming, and editing of part two. I saw my hispanoparlantes classmates toting Destinos and realized that the workbook/video/language-lab triad owed its current pedagogical vogue to Capretz, who believed, correctly, that the musical tools of language might succeed where 501 French Verbs had failed. Read More »

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That’s Van Gogh’s Ear, and Other News

June 5, 2014 | by

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Photo: Diemut Strabe

  • Now on display at a German museum: a replica of one of Van Gogh’s ears. (Hint: it’s not the one he didn’t cut off.) “Created using 3D printers and genetic material from a living relative of van Gogh, it was shaped to be the exact size of the Dutch painter’s ear and is kept alive in a nourishing liquid.”
  • Yesterday’s usage wars were every bit as fraught and irrational as today’s: “‘Dilapidated’ was frowned upon by some because it comes from a Latin root, lapis, meaning stone, so it was thought that you should only refer to a dilapidated building if it was actually made out of stone … And it was considered that luncheon was the proper noun and that lunch was really only to be used as a verb.”
  • What chemical compounds produce the smells of new and old books? Vinyl acetate ethylene, alkyl ketene dimer, and 2-ethyl hexanol, of course!
  • Tales from New York’s bookstores: “One day a woman asked us which Jennifer Egan book she should read … We recommended Look at Me, and then suggested, ‘If you’d like it signed, Jennifer Egan is right next to you and is quite nice.’”
  • Centralia, Pennsylvania: still on fire. Has been since at least ’62.

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Menu Planning

June 4, 2014 | by

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Carl Bloch, In a Roman Osteria, 1866

The other day, having traveled to a midsize American city that shall remain nameless, my dining companion and I encountered the following description on an online restaurant menu:

Tender day boat scallops, lightly cajuned, pan seared with pancetta, caramelized leeks, sweet roasted red peppers, mint and pickled lentil medley, drizzled with a fava bean puree and organic pea shoots.

I was thrilled. I don’t mean that I wanted to eat it; there were like thirteen different components that I wouldn’t have wanted alone, let alone in combination. But I loved that the dish existed, in this moment in the world, in this place, and that, like a perfectly crafted poem, it managed to illuminate the human condition in a few deft strokes.

As the late Maya Angelou wrote, “The desire to reach for the stars is ambitious. The desire to reach hearts is wise.” Certainly, this dish was ambition incarnate—it was like the Macbeth of restaurant dishes—and certainly that was a big part of its appeal. There were seven parts (not counting seasonings) used, some ten different techniques employed, with more adjectives than you’d find in an Elizabeth Bishop poem. Read More »

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Beauty Is Not Truth, Truth Not Beauty, and Other News

May 22, 2014 | by

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Keats was wrong, scientists say, kind of. Keats’s drawing of the Sosibios Vase, c. 1819

  • Was Frank O’Hara the social-media whiz of his day? Well … “O’Hara’s Lunch Poemslike Facebook posts or tweets—shares, saves, and re-creates the poet’s experience of the world. He addresses others in order to combat a sense of loneliness, sharing his gossipy, sometimes snarky take of modern life, his unfiltered enthusiasm, and his boredom in a direct, conversational tone. In short, Lunch Poems, while fifty years old, is very a 21st-century book.”
  • With apologies to Keats, beauty is likely not, in fact, truth; nor, by transitive property, is truth beauty. “The discourse about aesthetics in scientific ideas has never gone away … Today, popularizers such as Greene are keen to make beauty a selling point of physics … the quantum theorist Adrian Kent speculated that the very ugliness of certain modifications of quantum mechanics might count against their credibility. After all, he wrote, here was a field in which ‘elegance seems to be a surprisingly strong indicator of physical relevance’ … We have to ask: what is this beauty they keep talking about?”
  • “The Chinese name diseases based on symptoms, so diabetes is known as ‘sugary pee.’” A few doctors wish to remedy this.
  • “Beginning in the late 1930s, Richard Edes Harrison drew a series of elegant and gripping images of a world at war, and in the process persuaded the public that aviation and war really had fundamentally disrupted the nature of geography … Harrison dazzled readers of Fortune with artistic geo-visualizations of the political crises in Europe and Asia. The key decision he made was to reject the Mercator projection, which had outlived its purpose.”
  • The anxiety (and ecstasy) of influence in Bob Dylan: “With the help of Google Books, Scott Warmuth, a fan from New Mexico, has been delving deeper into Dylan’s recent writing and finding all kinds of odd, uncredited borrowings. Passages from Dylan’s memoir, Chronicles: Volume One (2004), were taken from disparate sources: from H. G. Wells, Jack London, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald; from Tony Horowitz’s nonfiction book “Confederates in the Attic,” a travel guide about New Orleans, and an issue of Time, from 1961 … Dylan’s ‘appropriations were not random. They were deliberate. When Scott delved into them, he found cleverness, wordplay, jokes, and subtexts.’”

 

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