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Letters & Essays: 1980s

Letters & Essays of the Day

The Mirror Test

By Melissa Febos

1.

 

always squeeze bread to make sure it’s fresh; but what if the baker won’t let me feel the bread?; you mean to say that after all you are really going to be the kind of woman who the baker won’t let near the bread?

—Jamaica Kincaid, “Girl”

 

In the eighteenth century, “slut’s pennies” were hard nuggets in a loaf of bread that resulted from incomplete kneading. I imagine them salty and dense, soft enough to sink your tooth into, but tough enough to stick. What could a handful of slut’s pennies buy you? Nothing—a hard word, a slap in the face, a fast hand for your slow ones.

A slut was the maid who left dust on the floor— “slut’s wool”—or who left a corner of the room overlooked in her cleaning—a “slut’s corner.” An untidy man might occasionally be referred to as “sluttish,” but for his sloppy jacket, not his unswept floor, because a slut was a doer of menial housework, a drudge, a maid, a servant—a woman.

A slut was a careless girl, hands sunk haphazardly into the dough, broom stilled against her shoulder—eyes cast out the window, mouth humming a song, always thinking of something else.

from a new translation of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time

By Richard Howard

The great works are ageless, but their translations date; indeed, as Walter Benjamin remarks, the subsequent translations of great works mark their stages of continued life. In most cases, even the case of so extensive a work as War and Peace, translations appear at intervals of about a generation. The Tale of Genji, for all its length, has lately found a second translation, for none is definitive (not even Arthur Waley’s).