Monday, December 4, 2017

“Tell me about a complicated man…”: Thoughts on Translation

1. “Tell me about a complicated man…”
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The other day, a good friend sent me an article about a new translation of The Odyssey. The hook of the story was that this version was by the first female to translate Homer into English, Professor Emily Wilson.

My friend followed the link with an open-ended question:

“What do you think about this?”

The article also highlighted how the work deviated from previous translations. Before I was even done reading the article, my knee-jerk response, which I thought but didn’t say, was “I don’t really like it.”

For years, I had assumed the point of a translation was to serve the original text. The only Odyssey I knew was “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns…” To hear it any differently sounded like a bastardization.

“Tell me about a complicated man,” sounded too different to me, and thus wrong.

I didn’t have a problem with the translator’s gender – it was the characterization that “Wilson chose to use plain, relatively contemporary language,” which my subconscious read as a “modern translation,” a term I always found abrasive, akin to playing down to the audience, or an attempt to make something great more appealing to the modern masses, like Leonardo DiCaprio doing Shakespeare in an Acapulco shirt. For some reason I was reminded of Robert Pinsky’s translation of Dante’s Inferno, which to me was an example of a modern translation that I never really went for, one that deviated too far from the original.

But the hint of Dante made me stop and think more about it. The question went a lot deeper than gender. And I had been down this rabbit hole before...

 2. The Dante Problem
Dante, and Dante, and Dante...

Dante’s Inferno is probably the first book I ever really loved; it has an epic love story, poetry, a long journey/quest, and demons – everything a teenage boy could ever want in classic literature. The first edition I owned was the Penguin Classic version – the old paperback version with the pasty yellow cover.

The opening lines, the ones that resonated so heavily with me, read:

Midway along the journey of our life
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
for I had wandered off from the straight path.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Beautiful Symmetry

There is a hardback copy of The Collected Essays of E.B. White sitting at home, nestled as close kin on the shelf between Charlotte’s Web and Lawrence Weschler’s “Calamities of Exile.” It contains this piece, “Here is New York,” which in itself contains some of my very favorite words.

And yet, despite owning it already, for the third time, I felt compelled to buy this slim, stand-alone volume. 

The first copy I owned, I had lent to someone right in the heart of New York, a short-term loan I expected to receive back. But circumstance pushed us apart, and there was a long period of cold darkness between us. Last fall, when circumstance brought us together again and I saw it lying on a shelf in her apartment, she offered it back, but I refused.  It just didn’t feel right. That beauty was hers now.

I didn't tell her, but I had already bought another copy. 

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Please, Tell Me About Spalding Gray

Saturday, two weeks ago, I found myself in Albany, to see, for the last time, the minor league hockey team I grew up with. After 24 years they finally folded, taking with them one of the predominant pastimes of my child and adult life. It was an emotional day, full of vivid memories and odd outbursts of emotion.

I was there with a friend, and as we walked downtown, she noted the odd shape of The Egg, which I explained was a performing arts center. I looked at it, got lost for a moment, then told her that when I was in high school, my best friend saw Spalding Gray perform a monologue there. At the time, I had no idea who Spalding Gray was, and thus, I had skipped the show.

Gray’s art is difficult to define or describe: it’s a blend of public speaking and performance art, “Autobiographical Monologues” – a brainy and seamless mix of history and personal anecdote that gets viewers engaged, entertained, and leaves them better informed about the world. Much of his art had to do not just with his words, but with how he delivered them – a particular brand of neurosis that is impossible to transcribe to the page.

Given that the performances are largely him sitting at table speaking, they’re not the easiest thing to transcribe to film either, but a genius auteur found a way to capture his mannerisms on film in a way that was, like Gray’s performances, both engaging and entertaining. Many years ago I had read the manuscript of his most famous monologue, “Swimming to Cambodia,” and was largely unimpressed. Years later, I saw the film Swimming to Cambodia and Gray instantly became a hero of mine.

Yet, before I could ever see him perform, he jumped off the Staten Island Ferry, ending his life.

Reflecting in front of the venue where I could have seen him in life, I told my friend, “Never getting to see Spalding Gray will forever be one of the great regrets in my life.”