William H. Gass On The Dialectical Nature Of Love

In Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translations (Perseus Books, New York, 1999, pp. 13) William H. Gass writes:

During childhood, contradiction paves every avenue of feeling, and we grow up in bewilderment like a bird in a ballroom, with all that space and none meant for flying, a wide shining floor and nowhere to light. So out of the lies and confusions of every day the child constructs a way to cope, part of which will comprise a general manner of being in, and making love. Thus from the contrast between the official language of love and the unofficial facts of life is born a dream of what this pain, this passion, this obsession, this belief, this relation, ought to be.

The model that Gass presents here for understanding how we construct our evaluative and operational apparatus of love is notable for its straightforwardly dialectical nature: the child learns to love and be loved and to expect love through a synthesis of the various opposing theses presented to him about the nature of love. It is through these endlessly revisable bringings together and reconciliations that the lover and his or her love emerges. This dialectical origin is reflected in love itself: it is painful and delightful; it is enlivening and deadening (the rest of the world may come alive through the reflected glory of the love, it may appear drab and colorless in contrast, and so on); it reminds us of our unique, individual subjectivities even as we lose ourselves in someone else; it may make us find reason to live, it may give us reason to die. Most of all, love turns out to be something we find resistant to facile reductive analyses, even as we elevate it to foundational principle in philosophies of life and living.

Gass’ model is relentlessly dialectic for the theses presented to the child about the nature of love find their origin, of course, in others similarly reared on such dialectical ‘confusions’; others who, in their own upbringing, confronted the same ‘contrast between the official language of love and the unofficial facts of life.’ Moreover, the child has only constructed a ‘dream’ with normative flavor; this dream itself, as noted, is ‘endlessly revisable,’ revisions forced upon it through these encounters with others’ dreams of what love ought to be.

The complex encounter of subjectivities that we call a ‘romantic human relationship’ poses such challenges for our understanding because of this collision: each lover brings to the meeting a lifetime’s worth of painfully constructed notions of love, one devised and drawn up without the consultation of their lover. These are not geared for smooth operation with those of others; they cannot be. As battle plans do not survive their first encounter with actual conflict, so do these notions not survive their first encounter with the ostensible subject and target and dispenser of love.

Note: Gass writes the above paragraph in transitioning from a description of Rilke‘s childhood and his relationship with his mother, to an accounting of his relationship with Lou Andreas-Salomé.

On First And Second Languages V – Nabokov’s Lament

In his famous Afterword to Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov closed with:

My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammelled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses–the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions–which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way.

In a post paying tribute a scholarly friend of mine, a close and careful reader of the books he owned and an exacting writer to boot, I had written:

Even more impressive was his attention to elegance and conciseness in both his verbal and mathematical expression; we co-authored a journal paper together and I was–for lack of a better word–blown away by his insistence on getting our written and technical formulations just right. No superfluous words, no bloated definitions, no vague sentences were to be tolerated.

My friend’s writing did not lack flair either, and so I once complimented him on his style. He accepted the praise reluctantly, issuing a lament similar to that of Nabokov’s: He was a native French speaker and writer, and he was painfully aware, as he wrote in English, that he was not writing as well as he could have in French. His distinctive style, his skillful deployment of the resources of the French language were simply not available to him.

I’m bilingual too, but only in a fashion, and so I do not experience the kind of regrets expressed above. As I have noted here on previous occasions, I do not read and write Hindi/Urdu/Hindustani–my supposed first language(s)–with anywhere near the same facility as I do English, my actual first language. Indeed, I do not read or write in Hindi/Urdu/Hindustani at all. I could, but slowly and painfully. And so I don’t. I had intended to read three novels in Hindi by the great Indian novelist Premchand–which I own–to ameliorate this state of affairs (and to evaluate the quality of their translations into English), but they are still sitting on my shelf, unread. I know a struggle awaits me when I open their pages; avoidance seems like a rather perspicuous strategy. (I suspect my reading abilities would trend upward on a sharper slope than my writing in Hindi et al., which was always hopeless.) I am well aware, when I write in English, that this is my chosen medium and vehicle of expression; it is the only one I have.

I say this even as I revel in my bilingual abilities when it comes to the spoken word. I enjoy dipping back into the stores of Hindi/Urdu/Hindustani/Punjabi idioms and expressions when I speak with other speakers of these languages. There are some pungent descriptions of this lunatic world’s state of affairs that I only find available in those linguistic frameworks. And when I do use them, I’m struck, as always, by how the mere utterance of a sentence or two can instantly transport me to a distinctive place and time.

Reflections on Translations-VII: Capturing Class Distinctions

In yesterday’s post, in an attempt to analogize Tea Partiers with demagogues, I included an excerpt from AristophanesThe Knights. Once I had posted a link to the post on Facebook, I made the following note in the comments space–directing it at a pair of friends of mine who work in Brooklyn College’s Classics department:

In the translation I have at home (by Alan Sommerstein) the sausage-seller’s lines are translated as a kind of Cockney slang, right down to the dropped ‘h’s.

Here are some samples of what I am referring to (taken from Act One in Aristophanes: The Knights/Peace/The Birds/The Assemblywomen/Wealth translated by David Barrett and Alan H. Sommerstein, Penguin Classics, New York, 1978; the excerpts for yesterday’s post were taken from an online source):

Sausage-Seller: So long as wot doesn’t wot–never mind. I like that oracle. But I still don’t know how you expect me ter manage all the People’s business. [p. 44]

Sausage-Seller: But ‘oo will there to ‘elp me? That there  Paphlagonian frightens the rich aht of their wits, and the poor, when ‘e’s arahnd, they can’t even keep their arses shut. [p. 44]

Sausage-Seller: Well, you bloody well oughter know abaht stitching. ‘S yer trade innit? [p. 48]

And so on. You get the picture. I then went on to ask:

What justifies this kind of translation? Is the Greek employed by him [the sausage-sellter] a highly colloquial, “working-class” varietal?

Danielle Kellogg replied:

I just did a super quick scan of the Greek in the scene you referenced, and I didn’t see anything that really stood out to me as strange or colloquial in it. Although Aristophanes does mess with the Greek of various characters in his plays, it’s generally done to indicate non-Athenian-ness (i.e., the Megarian in Acharnians). The Sausage-Seller is an Athenian; I would expect any such “strange” Greek to be assigned to Paphlagon, who is not. However, it’s common for translators to assign different dialects and/or accents to various Aristophanic characters to play upon issues of social class/status that Aristophanes is clearly using in his jokes (Megarian jokes, for example, were the ancient Athenian version of Polish jokes, so the Megarian from Acharnians is often rendered with crude language or a “yokel” accent). [link added]

As Kellogg indicates, the use of the Cockney dialect to render the sausage-seller’s lines appears to be an active choice by the translator to indicate a class marker in the characters.The reason this makes the Sommerstein translation is distinctive, and perhaps excessively so, is that the ‘working-class’ or ‘yokel’ accent invoked is a very familiar one, already made legendary by its depiction in theater and film (and often iconically so as in Pygmalion). To see it used by a character in an ancient Greek comedy is disconcerting.

But it is not clear that any other choice of accent would not have suffered from the same problem and more to the point, we are already immersed in the fantasy of imagining characters with names like Demosthenes and Nicia speaking flawless eloquent English.  The sudden appearance of the working-class accent merely reminds us of this distance from the original, of the unavoidable strangeness of reading not-in-the-original.

Unmasking our Self-Deception about Self-Improvement

In reviewing the incongruous medley of Dan Brown‘s Inferno and two new translations of Dante‘s classic (by Clive James and Mary Jo Bang), Robert Pogue Harrison writes:

Much of the fascination of the Inferno revolves around Dante’s probing of the covert psychic recesses of his characters’ inner will. The sinners’ great soliloquies are self-serving and fraught with irony. One cannot take them at their word. One must bring to bear on their speeches a “hermeneutics of suspicion” that is alert to the discrepancy between what they tell us and what they show us. Oftentimes the characters themselves are unaware of the way they are masking their true motivations, which makes it all the more imperative that the reader adopt an analytic distance from their self-presentations. In sum, the Inferno educates the reader in the ways of deception and self-deception, and in that respect remains one of the great archives of human psychology. (‘Dante: The Most Vivid VersionNew York Review of Books, 24 October 2013).

In my post on the ‘Sisyphus of sorts’ a couple of days ago, I had sought to provide an unmasking of projects of self-improvement, which all too many of us find ourselves engaged in with little hope–based on their persistent failure–of bringing them to completion. (I hesitate to say ‘similar unmasking’ for fear of being viewed as comparing my attempt to Dante’s!) That post–hopefully!–speaks for itself, but let me, at the risk of sounding excessively pompous, just embellish its claims just a bit.

Repeated, and failed, attempts at self-improvement and self-help display a familiar pattern: the old behavior is discarded in a burst of moralistic enthusiasm, the old lifestyle is deprecated and disdained, and enthusiastic reports are provided on the glories and attractions of the new path chosen. There is relief at a millstone discarded and this palpable emotion is loudly and visibly noted.

Yet, through all this, all too often, the attractions of the older way of being, which indeed, had made it such a persistently adopted mode of behavior, are not paid their due. We fail to recognize that that path had its own role to play in the forms of life we lived; we fail to note the deep habits it formed; no clean surgical excision of it from our selves has been effected. And then, there is the simple matter of the ‘sophomore effect’; the rapid gains visible in the early days of our new-found virtuous life are quickly replaced by the far more mundane, glacial increments of the life that comes about when such novel behavior has become commonplace.

We remain impatient; we miss the easy pleasures of the older way of being, which suddenly, now seems more attractive than ever. So we lapse. But now we encounter again its pathologies. And so we resolve to change again.

The self-deception here is that we do not seek the publicly avowed goal of self-improvement, but merely the movement away from a kind of stagnation, a state of wallowing. When we encounter yet another one, as is inevitable, for life cannot give us endless novelty, we seek out our ‘fall’ again, so that we may ‘climb’ again. In doing all this, we are reminded again, of Goethe, Burke and Freud’s claims that happiness, for most, is characterized by novelty and rapid transition, not by persistent, quiescent states.

Reflections on Translations-VI: The Advantages to Philosophy

Over at The New York Times‘ The Stone, Hamid Dabashi writes:

Though it is common to lament the shortcomings of reading an important work in any language other than the original and of the “impossibility” of translation, I am convinced that works of philosophy…in fact gain far more than they lose in translation.

Consider Heidegger. Had it not been for his French translators and commentators, German philosophy of his time would have remained an obscure metaphysical thicket.  And it was not until Derrida’s own take on Heidegger found an English readership in the United States and Britain that the whole Heidegger-Derridian undermining of metaphysics began to shake the foundations of the Greek philosophical heritage. One can in fact argue that much of contemporary Continental philosophy originates in German with significant French and Italian glosses before it is globalized in the dominant American English and assumes a whole new global readership and reality. This has nothing to do with the philosophical wherewithal of German, French or English. It is entirely a function of the imperial power and reach of one language as opposed to others.

Dabashi does not really address what might be termed the ‘linguistic problem’ of translation–the difficulties of rendering sensible specialized technical terms for instance–which often leads to the ‘impossibility’ that he notes. Rather, his concern is with translation as a means for improving access to a philosophical work. And in this dimension, he is certainly on to something. (There has been, for some time now, a possibly apocryphal story making the rounds in philosophy departments, that when the first English translations of Kant appeared, an entire generation of German scholars took up English classes so that they could read Kant in translation–the original German was too obtuse for even native speakers.)

One aspect of this improved access that Dabashi does not touch on is that a greater readership achieved via a successful translation can prompt greater study of the text in the original language. A classic example of this is Nietzsche scholarship. Many students who read him find his prose stylings visible even in translation; they are then told by those fluent in German that his style is even more prominent and pronounced in German; they often decide to learn German to find out for themselves just what the fuss is about. (I have recently come into possession of German-language edition of Nietzsche’s collected works, and my resolve to resume my education in German, interrupted many years ago, has now been considerably strengthened.)

And many serious students of a philosopher will learn a foreign language just so that they can deepen their understanding of the material and try to settle disputes in interpretation for themselves. Their access to their philosopher of interest began, of course, with a translation.

Dabashi’s point about translation giving more than it takes works best, I think, in these kinds of cases–when it sends readers back to the original. His point is compatible with an entirely plausible alternative development: that the translations take on a life of their own, and lend themselves to interpretations and applications not possible with the original, thus becoming an entirely new philosophical work.

Such a development is not to be bemoaned; the student of philosophy now has more to play with.

Reflections on Translations – V: The Special Challenges of Poetry

I have previously confessed, on this blog, to being mystified by the magical processes of translation, especially when I realize important components of my literary and philosophical education consisted of reading translated works.

This mystification is especially pronounced when I confront translations of poetry, where the translator’s task appears ever more difficult. When I read Pushkin‘s Eugene Onegin (Penguin Classics1986), I read Sir Charles Johnston’s ‘Translator’s Note’ with a great deal of sympathy; indeed, I wondered why anyone would take on such a task.

As Johnston put it,

Few foreign masterpieces can have suffered more than Eugene Onegin from the English translator’s failure to convey anything more than–at best–the literal meaning. It is as if a sound-proof wall separated Pushkin’s poetic novel from the English-reading world. There is a whole magic which goes by default; the touching lyrical beauty, the cynical wit of the poem; the psychological insight, the devious narrative skill, the thrilling compulsive grip of the novel; the tremendous gusto and swing and panache of the whole performance.

I’ll take his word for it, for I can’t read or speak a word of Russian.

I do read and speak a little bit of German and so am always a bit more curious when confronted with translations from that language. Here are two samples of translations of Rainer Maria Rilke’s classic poem, ‘Death Experienced’ – the differences are slight, yet fascinating. First, the original in German:


Wir wissen nichts von diesem Hingehn, das
nicht mit uns teilt. Wir haben keinen Grund,
Bewunderung und Liebe oder Haß
dem Tod zu zeigen, den ein Maskenmund

tragischer Klage wunderlich entstellt.
Noch ist die Welt voll Rollen, die wir spielen,
solang wir sorgen, ob wir auch gefielen,
spielt auch der Tod, obwohl er nicht gefällt.

Doch als du gingst, da brach in diese Bühne
ein Streifen Wirklichkeit durch jenen Spalt,
durch den du hingingst: Grün wirklicher Grüne,
wirklicher Sonnenschein, wirklicher Wald.

Wir spielen weiter. Bang und schwer Erlerntes
hersagend und Gebärden dann und wann
aufhebend; aber dein von uns entferntes,
aus unserm Stück entrücktes Dasein kann

uns manchmal überkommen, wie ein Wissen
von jener Wirklichkeit sich niedersenkend,
so daß wir eine Weile hingerissen
das Leben spielen, nicht an Beifall denkend.

Then, the first translation, the form in which I encountered it first, translated by J. B. Leishman–long considered ‘authoritative’ by many Rilke scholars–excerpted from the collection Possibility of Being, New Directions 1977:

Death Experienced

We know just nothing of this going hence
that so excludes us. We’ve no grounds at all
to greet with plaudits or malevolence
the Death whom that mask-mouth of tragical

lament disfigures so incredibly.
The world’s still full of parts being acted by us.
Till pleasing in them cease to occupy us,
Death will act too, although unpleasingly.

When, though, you went, there broke upon this scene
a shining segment of realities
in at the crack you disappeared through: green
of real green, real sunshine, real trees.

We go on acting. Uttering what exacted
such painful learning, gesturing now and then;
but your existence and the part you acted,
withdrawn now from our play and from our ken,

sometimes recur to us like intimations
of that reality and its laws,
and we transcend awhile our limitations
and act our lives unthinking of applause.

Here is an alternative translation by Cliff Crego:

Death Experience

We know nothing of this going away, that
shares nothing with us. We have no reason,
whether astonishment and love or hate,
to display Death, whom a fantastic mask

of tragic lament astonishingly disfigures.
Now the world is still full of roles which we play
as long as we make sure, that, like it or not,
Death plays, too, although he does not please us.

But when you left, a strip of reality broke
upon the stage through the very opening
through which you vanished: Green, true green,
true sunshine, true forest.

We continue our play. Picking up gestures
now and then, and anxiously reciting
that which was difficult to learn; but your far away,
removed out of our performance existence,

sometimes overcomes us, as an awareness
descending upon us of this very reality,
so that for a while we play Life
rapturously, not thinking of any applause.

Because my competence at German is limited and thus I cannot really read Rilke in the original in any meaningful, emotionally infused way, I cannot critically comment on the translations; I am content to say that the Leishman translation is more formal, more stilted, while the Crego one ‘flows’ a bit more and is a bit truer to the original’s language. But here I’m restricted to merely commenting on the English, and perhaps just a little on the fidelity to the German; so I find myself frustrated again by my lack of linguistic competency.

The truly fascinating case, of course, is that of the bi-lingual writer (and poet) who translates his own work into his second language. The most famous instance is Vladimir Nabokov; I’ll have a post on his translations soon.

Freud, Pointing to Poets

Some distinctive features of Sigmund Freud‘s writings are: a clarity of exposition–at least in works intended for more general audiences–which offset the density and novelty of the subject matter; a tendency to philosophize while simultaneously disdaining philosophical speculation; an unswerving overt commitment to science, scientific probity, virtue, and methodology; and lastly, and most entertainingly, a keen pleasure in allowing readers access to his polymathic explorations of literature, legend, poetry and art. I have noted this last feature in an earlier post on Freud where I pointed out his invocation of Goethe in discussing the nature of human happiness; all too often, for Freud, poets most succinctly illustrated the conceptual point currently at play in his writing.

These aspects of Freud’s work are on display in this deft conclusion to the always-entertaining Beyond the Pleasure Principle:  

From within, our consciousness conveys to us feelings not only of pleasure and unpleasure, but also of a particular tension which itself can be pleasurable and unpleasurable. Is it the bound and the unbound processes of energy that we should distinguish by means of these feelings? Or shall we relate the feeling of tension to the absolute quantity, or perhaps the level, of charge, while the series of feelings of pleasure and unpleasure points to a change in the quantity of the charge per unit of time? We will also notice that the life drives have so much more to do with our internal perception since they act as disturbers of the peace and continually bring along tensions whose release is felt as pleasure, while the death drives seem to do their work inconspicuously. The pleasure principle seems to serve the death drives directly. It does guard against external stimuli, considered dangers by both types of drives, but guards especially against increases in internal stimuli aiming to make the task of living more difficult. Connected with this are innumerable questions that cannot at present be answered. We must be patient and await further means and opportunities for research–and be prepared as well to leave a path we have followed for a while if it seems to lead to no good result. Only those believers who demand in science a substitute for the catechism they have renounced will take it amiss if a researcher develops or even transforms his views. Concerning the slow advances of our scientific knowledge we are also comforted by the words of a poet [the final lines of ‘Die beiden Gulden’ (‘The Two Coins’) Friedrich Rückert’s rendition of the third of the Maqamat (Assemblies), ca. 1100 by al-Hariri of Basra]:

Was man nich erfliegen kann, muss man erhinken


Die Schrift sagt, es ist keine Sünde zu hinken

[What one cannot fly to one must limp to….the Scriptures says that limping is no sin.]

Note: Excerpt from: Beyond the Pleasure Principle, edited by Todd Dufresne, translated by Gregory C. Richter, Broadview Press, 2011.  Incidentally, this is the first non-Strachey translation of Freud I have read; Richter’s preface contains an interesting discussion critique of the standard Strachey texts.