Posts Tagged 'translation & mistranslation'

Grasping in the dark: Self-taught Chinese.

My recent interest in the Chinese language was sparked by the appearance last spring of an unusual volume of news reports out of China. At that time I realized to my vexation that I knew almost nothing about Chinese geography.

I’d at least heard of Wuhan. It gets a few paragraphs in Paul Theroux’s 1988 travel book Riding the Iron Rooster. He’d visited there years before and remembered it as “a nightmare city of muddy streets and black factories, pouring frothy poisons into the Yangtze”. By his second visit it had cleaned up and sprouted new towers, but its lurches into modernity, Theroux grumbled, “were not necessarily improvements”.

I learn from Wikipedia that Wuhan played a major role in 20th century Chinese history, as the seat of the 1911 rebellion that ended the Qing Dynasty and brought Sun Yat-sen’s Kuomintang to power. The septuagenarian Mao Zedong’s famous exhibition of his vitality – swimming 15 kilometres in the Yangtze River (with the assistance of the current) – took place at Wuhan in 1966.

Nowadays metropolitan Wuhan has almost 10 million people, about the same as Chicago. And up until last year, I couldn’t have told you even roughly where it was.

Embarrassed by my ignorance, I began looking at maps of China. As some of those maps included the Chinese names for cities and other geographical features, I began to notice the recurrence of certain characters: the hai in Shanghai and Hainan; the an in Anhui and Xi’an; the bei in Beijing, Hubei, and…Taipei?

beijing hubei taipei 北京 湖北 臺北

On the other hand, the jiang in Xinjiang was not to be confused with the one in Jiangsu and Heilongjiang.

jiangsu heilongjiang xinjiang 新疆 江蘇 黑龍江

Intrigued, I began drawing a map, labelling it in English and Chinese, looking up the meaning of the characters as I went.

Most Chinese placenames, I learned, are surprisingly straightforward. The provinces of Shandong and Shanxi are, respectively, “mountain east” and “mountain west”. Shanghai is “upon the sea”. Beijing is “northern capital”. (The kanji characters for Tokyo, “eastern capital”, are in Mandarin pronounced Dongjing.)

beijing dongjing tokyo 北京 東京

It didn’t take me long to learn the dozen or so characters that reappear again and again in Chinese placenames – words like river, lake, sea, mountains, forest, and the four cardinal directions.

As a strategy for actually learning Chinese, my map studies weren’t that effective. Suppose you were a foreigner trying to learn English from the names of English towns. You’d learn a handful of useful geographical words like the ones above, a few of limited everyday utility like “ford” and “shire”, and a bunch more that are fossils of long-extinct words, like “wich” and “caster”.

Nevertheless, my efforts weren’t entirely wasted. Most Chinese characters are built out of smaller pieces, most of which started as simple pictograms – a hand, a tree, an elephant, and so on.

chinese seal script 手 木 象

Once you start to recognize these smaller pieces and their variant forms, the characters become less baffling – you can discern order in what appears at first glance to be a pile of squiggles.

***

I try to be explicit, whenever anyone asks: I’m not “learning Chinese”. As I explained in a post early last year, I was daunted by the prospect of absorbing a new vocabulary and grammar, plus a new writing system, plus the “tones” without which (we are told) any attempt at enunciating their language will be met with puzzlement or laughter from Chinese-speakers.

I wondered instead whether I could break out the most immediately useful of the above challenges, learning the meaning of the characters alone, with the goal of being able to decipher the signs on local Chinese storefronts.

Like most westerners, I had a vague idea that Chinese writing is purely pictographic – that it conveys sense only, not sound. This isn’t really true. Many characters are pictograms – simplified pictures of things. Others are ideograms – graphical representations of concepts. Anthony Burgess in his 1992 book on language, A Mouthful of Air, described the character , or “not”, as

a sort of plant with a line above it. The plant is trying to grow, but the line is stopping it. This is a little poem of negativeness, a metaphor of notness.

不 not

Still other characters are ideogrammic compounds – two or more ideograms combined to illustrate a concept. Take , which means “idea”.

chinese character idea 音 心 意

On top is the character meaning “sound”: it depicts some mysterious force emitting from an open mouth (with a horizontal line in the mouth, just in case you’re unclear on the source of the phenomenon). Beneath it is the character for “heart”. An idea, then, is a “heart-sound”.

You don’t need to speak Chinese to absorb the meaning of characters like “not” or “idea”. If the ancient scribes had stuck to pictograms, ideograms, and ideogrammic compounds, written Chinese might have evolved into a truly universal language – something like what the 20th-century inventor Charles Bliss had in mind with his quirky system of Blissymbolics. (Which was inspired by his own experiments in self-taught Chinese.)

But despite the ingenuity of the ancient scribes, it was impractical to compose a little visual poem for every word. To make headway, they devised another, more efficient method of invention – mashing together two existing characters, one to define the broad sense of the new character, and another to suggest how it should be pronounced. These so-called phono-semantic compounds now constitute the bulk of the Chinese character set.

Here’s one. On the left side is the “foot” character, indicating that the compound will have something to do with feet. (The semantic component is usually, but by no means always, on the left.) On the right side is the character bao, meaning “to roll up”. (Yes, it also refers to the steamed bun.)

foot roll run 足 包 跑

The bao part is semantically irrelevant – in fact means “to run”. But the Chinese-speaker will guess, correctly, that it should be pronounced something like bao: in Mandarin, pao.

Because at this point I’m not trying to learn to speak Chinese, these phonetic components aren’t very useful to me. I usually don’t bother trying to remember how the characters are pronounced – aside from those whose pronunciations are mnemonically useful. For instance, , which combines the semantic component “rice” with the phonetic component for the Tang Dynasty.

米 rice 唐 tang 糖 sugar

The syllable tang naturally makes me think of astronauts and orange-flavoured juice crystals, and from there it’s a short leap to the meaning of “sugar”.

Luckily, it’s rarely necessary to smuggle in English words to make sense of phono-semantic compounds. The ancient scribes weren’t completely indifferent to the poetic reading of their new character mashups. Take , or “night”. The semantic component is “sun” and the phonetic component means “to remove”.

remove sun night 免 日 晚

Even where the phonetic component was chosen solely for its sound, it’s usually possible to construct a little mnemonic story to help cement the compound in your mind. A well-known example is , “to search”, which joins the semantic “hand” with a phonetic component representing a ge, or dagger-axe: just picture a hand grasping in the dark for a weapon.

hand dagger-axe search 手 戈 找

I was always being stumped by the rather impenetrable glyph , meaning “to use”…until I realized that the same shape, with a little handle on top, is the phonetic component of “bucket”: a “use”-ful item.

bucket wood use 桶 木 用

I should reiterate that the phonetic components are only hints to pronunciation. Since the characters are so old, and the spoken language has drifted so much over the millennia, many of these hints are completely misleading. Which brings me to…

An aside about Japanese.

Prior to writing this essay, I hadn’t given any thought to how the Japanese pronounce the kanji that make up around half of their writing system. (Kanji, by the way, just means “Han characters”. The Chinese call them hanzi.)

kanji hanzi 漢字

I suppose I assumed they were reading the characters for semantics only, just as I have been; that when they spoke the words aloud, they were using “native” Japanese words; and that the Chinese phonetic clues were therefore just as irrelevant to them as they are to me.

Leave it to the Japanese to do things in the most complicated possible way. It turns out that nearly every kanji has at least two readings – one for its original Chinese pronunciation and another for its “native” Japanese equivalent.

Suppose that every English word based on a Greek root was not only spelled using the Greek alphabet, but could be read either as Greek or as an equivalent term derived from Old English: “psychology”, say, would be spelled ψυχολογία and could be pronounced either as “psychologia” or as “soul-learning”. That’s sort of how the Japanese have elected to treat their Chinese loanwords.

For a foreigner trying to learn Japanese, these multiple readings must be awfully frustrating. But native Japanese learners don’t need to memorize the various readings from textbooks or flashcards – they pick them up effortlessly through speaking and listening. The kanji merely bundle together, under one symbol, various words they already know.

Perhaps the Japanese are onto something. Why not have a single symbol to represent two or more English words with the same meaning – “sight” and “vision”, for instance? Something like…oh, I dunno, , maybe. If nothing else, it would save space – and one of the main arguments for kanji seems to be its efficiency.

Still, it’s hard to blame the Japanese girl in this video who says of kanji, “I don’t want to learn them anymore. We can just use hiragana.”

The trouble with simplified Chinese.

As you may be aware, there are two main varieties of Chinese characters: the traditional ones, nowadays used mainly in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and the simplified ones used in mainland China. Up till now I’ve been showing the traditional characters in this essay.

communist party mao zedong traditional 共產黨 毛澤東 simplified 共产党 毛泽东

The simplified characters were introduced in the 1950s, not long after the Communists took over. Around the same time, the Japanese introduced their own, less comprehensive kanji simplification scheme. Many characters simplified by the Communists kept their traditional forms in Japan. Others were simplified in a slightly different way.

Most of the characters are the same in all three writing systems. But a few, including many of the most common ones, have two, sometimes three different forms.

Here in Vancouver you mostly see the traditional characters. But the simplified versions have gained ground as immigration from mainland China has increased.

When I started dabbling in Chinese I figured I’d stick to the simplified characters because, well, they were simpler. Then as I started being able to recognize the characters on storefront signs I realized that if I ever wanted to be able to read anything around here, I should learn both varieties.

richmond bc skytrain chinese language signs steve bosch vancouver sun

SkyTrain and Chinese language signs, Richmond, BC.
© Steve Bosch / Vancouver Sun.

Then I discovered something surprising. The traditional characters were easier to learn.

***

Let me talk about nostrils for a second. The word “nostril” comes from the Old English word “nosthyrl”. The “nos” part means “nose”. “Thyrl” is an extinct word meaning “hole”. (It’s related to the word “through”.)

nostril nose thyrl

So a nostril is just a nose-hole. Makes sense. But for English learners it must be pretty confusing. Why “nos” instead of “nose”? What the heck is a “tril”?

I imagine English learners must memorize “nostril” the way I’ve been memorizing Chinese characters – by way of mnemonics. Maybe something like this: a “trill” is a high-pitched sound, like you make when you whistle through your nose: a “nose-trill”.

Now, suppose that in the wake of a future Communist revolution, our new government were to decree, “Henceforth, in the name of simplicity, nostrils will be called nose-holes.” This would be sensible enough. Immigrants and schoolchildren would happily adopt the new word. In fifty years or so, after most of us old-timers had died off, “nostril” would be as extinct as “thyrl”. Good riddance!

But most linguistic reformers have less totalitarian aims. Knowing that it’s difficult to change the spoken language by decree, and that it tends to make old-timers grumpy, they concentrate on tinkering with the written language.

So the Peeple’s Kommittee Too Standerdize Inglish probably wouldn’t abolish “nostril”. They’d just change its spelling to “nawstrel”, to conform with “jaw” and “law” and “raw”.

“Nose”, obviously, would become “noze”.

And future English learners would lose a vital clue to the relationship between the two words.

***

Looking at many Chinese characters, it’s easy to see why you’d want to simplify them. Have a squint at the traditional character for “medicine” or “medical”: . Unless your browser is set to an unusually large font size, it looks like a squashed bug. Here it is, magnified:

arrow liquor shu medical 矢 酒 殳 醫

Now you can see that it includes the “arrow” character, which is easy to remember because it looks like a guy with an arrow through his head. The bottom rectangle comes from the “liquor” character, because how do you treat a guy with an arrow in his head? Obviously, with booze.

The shu at top right unnecessarily complicates my mnemonic story. Did my imaginary arrow victim also get stabbed with an antique spear?

Lucky for me, the bureaucrats who overhauled the writing system in the 1950s agreed that the shu didn’t fit: the simplified (also Japanese) character for “medicine” is just an arrow in a box. In this mnemonic story, the guy got shot with an arrow and now he’s lying on a bed in a modern, uncluttered medical facility. (Wishing he had some liquor, no doubt.)

medical 医 japanese and simplified chinese

Okay! Good job, simplifiers. But let’s look at another traditional character, , which means “long” – as in Chang Jiang, the “Long River”, known to us as the Yangtze.

chang jiang yangtze river 長江

The strokes on the bottom appear kind of random, but actually they’re a standard stroke-shape that shows up in other common characters, like the ones for “clothing” and “to eat”. The three horizontal strokes at the top are from a character meaning “hair” – because 長 originally referred to long hair.

hair long clothing to eat 彡 長 衣 食

Not too busy. Easy to remember. The Japanese simplifiers had enough sense to leave this character alone. But the mainland Chinese turned it into this:

長 japanese and traditional 长 simplified

Much quicker to draw, true: it requires half as many pen-strokes. But now the top part is missing the three horizontal lines that clue you in to its meaning, while the bottom part no longer matches the “clothing” and “to eat” characters – which weren’t simplified.

The new character is nothing but an abstract shape which must be drilled and memorized, without reference to other shapes already learned – just as westerners must learn the abstract shapes A through Z. But we have only 52 such shapes (counting lower- and upper-case) to worry about.

Did simplification make Chinese characters easier for schoolkids to learn? Having fewer strokes to memorize seems like it would be a plus, but I’d argue that the elimination of visual cues for mnemonic association cancels out the advantage. That’s been my own experience, anyway, and it’s why I’ve switched to concentrating on the traditional characters in my own haphazard studies.

***

Have I gained anything by my self-directed Chinese studies? Not much. After more than six months of, admittedly, not very conscientious efforts, I still can’t read a primary-level Chinese text. I recognize many, sometimes most of the characters, but they remain stubbornly isolated from one another. I translate each one to its likeliest English equivalent and glare suspiciously at the resulting string of nonsense.

Imagine a foreigner tackling a simple English sentence: “I am going to the state fair.” The sentence begins straightforwardly enough. But where is the speaker going? What’s this “state fair”? A condition of beauty? An administrative district of moderation? A spoken-word exhibition?

Knowing the meaning of all the words isn’t enough. Knowing all the meanings of all the words may actually add to your confusion. You need to know the most plausible ways for the words to pair up.

(And obviously, when it comes to Chinese, I’m nowhere near knowing all the meanings of all the words.)

If I’d followed a curriculum I’d likely be a little further along. On the other hand, going my own way has allowed me to skip some of the off-putting stuff – like the tones – that might have caused me to dump the project entirely.

Perhaps once I’ve achieved fluency in reading Chinese – which at my current rate of progress could easily take a decade or more – I’ll try learning to speak it as well. But probably not. I’m not that enthusiastic about conversing in Chinese. I can barely be bothered to converse in English.

M.

My last attempt to explicate the Chinese writing system roped together an essay by Hillaire Belloc, a novel by Robert Graves, and the elephant of Han Fei. Nine years ago I took issue with Paul Theroux’s interpretation of the American bombing of Hanoi. It seems I’ve never mentioned Anthony Burgess before – except in a footnote to last month’s essay on Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters.

The lessons of three elephants.

In the Chinese and Japanese writing systems, the character 象 (in Mandarin, xiàng) represents an elephant. The trunk and head are at the top, legs on the left, tail at the bottom. [1]

Curiously enough, this character also represents representation. To steal some examples from the 象 Wiktionary page:

意象 (yìxiàng) is a mental impression or conception: a thought-representation.
血象 (xuèxiàng) is a hemogram: a blood-representation.
象形 (xiàngxíng) is a pictogram: a representation-shape.

The character (also pronounced xiàng), which is the elephant crammed together with a lopsided man (人), means a picture or image, or (as a verb) to resemble.

How did a squiggle of an elephant come to represent representation? Wiktionary quotes the 3rd century BC philosopher Han Fei, who hypothesized:

Men rarely see living elephants. As they come by the skeleton of a dead elephant, they imagine its living form according to its features. Therefore it comes to pass that whatever people use for imagining the real is called 象 .

This page about the Da Xiang (大象 – a famous commentary on the I Ching) proposes a less fanciful theory:

The meaning “symbolism” for 象 is sometimes said in traditional Chinese lexicography to be an extension from this primary meaning [of “elephant”], relating to the carving of ivory.

In other words, the mental process may have been elephantivoryivory sculpturesculpture in generalrepresentation in general.

But most likely, the character for “elephant” was simply borrowed for a similar-sounding word meaning “image”. Many Chinese characters originated that way.

Suppose that we English-speakers had never inherited our alphabet from the Romans. Instead, like the Chinese, we had evolved a writing system out of basic pictograms. For our word “elephant” we might now have a character like:

But way in the past, some scribe noticed that we needed a character for “elegant”, and after messing around for a while with stickmen wearing bow-ties he figured, screw it, I’ll just use the “elephant” character, and let readers figure out from context which I’m referring to.

No doubt after a few hundred years, when the origins of the characters were lost in the mist, our equivalent of Han Fei would come up with a story about how, since elephants were the most dapper and refined of creatures, it made perfect sense for them to share a character with the word “elegant”.

And foreigners would wonder why, whenever an elephant appeared in an English-language cartoon, he always had a posh accent and wore a monocle.

***

In Robert Graves’ 1938 historical novel Count Belisarius, the narrator (the eunuch slave Eugenius) mentions a certain landmark in ancient Constantinople – the elephant of Severus.

Graves learned of this elephant from the Parastaseis Syntomoi Chronikai, an 8th century guide to the sights of the Byzantine capital. It is, as its modern-day editors have described it, “a confused and often inaccurate survey of some classical monuments and statues” that had survived from the pagan era to awe and befuddle later generations of Christians.

According to the Parastaseis, in a colonnade near the Basilica (a civic building located opposite the “Great Church”, i.e. the Hagia Sophia) there stood a huge statue of an elephant, erected in days of yore by the pagan emperor Severus:

For in the same golden-roofed Basilica they say the elephant lived, an extraordinary spectacle. … And they say that in the same place as the elephant lived Carcinelus, a silversmith who used rigged scales. They say he threatened the elephant’s keeper because his house was being damaged, and he frequently vowed that he would kill the keeper if he did not keep the animal in check. But the keeper would not consent to control the elephant with reins. The user of rigged scales killed him and offered him to the elephant as fodder, but the animal, being wild, killed him too. And when Severus heard this he offered many sacrifices to the beast, and they were at once commemorated in statues in that place.

The editors add that,

Severus honours the elephant for its innate wisdom in thus punishing the hot-headed money-lender. The story turns out to have a moral: statues, if old and with pagan connections (here imported by the mention of Severus), or even if simply not understood in a conventional Christian context, nearly always [in the Parastaseis] have a hidden meaning[.]

Recognizing in this muddle the bones of a good story, Graves tidies it up, upgrading the elephant from savage beast to deliberating avenger:

The elephant of Severus is commemorated by a statue close to the Royal Porch, nearly opposite the main entrance to the Hippodrome. It had waited twenty years to catch a certain money-changer on whose evidence its master had been committed to a debtor’s prison, where he had died. At last, while taking part in a procession, it had recognized the money-changer in the crowd lining the street and had seized him with its trunk and trampled him to death. Investigations proved clearly that the money-changer had been a thief and a perjurer, so the elephant was honoured with this statue, which represents it with its master seated upon its neck. The motto is: “It will be avenged at last.” Many who labour under private and public injustice comfort themselves with the elephant’s message.

Later, when Graves’ narrator plans a conspiracy for the overthrow of an old enemy, he arranges his initial rendezvous by the elephant statue.

***

In Graves’ telling, the elephant of Severus represents not only justice, but patience – it waited twenty years to take its revenge.

On the floor of the Cathedral of St. Front in Périgueux, France, there is a mosaic celebrating patientia and its allied virtue, fortitudo. This mosaic once caught the eye of Hilaire Belloc, who, when recalling it years later in an essay called “On Fortitude”, described it rather inaccurately, exaggerating its size, placing it “on a side altar of the northern transept”, and erasing the reference to patientia. [2]

elephant mosaic périgueux cathedral

Belloc’s elephant in Périgueux Cathedral.
Source: The Girl Who Went To Paris.

If the mosaic had celebrated another attribute customarily associated with elephants – memoria – Belloc’s faulty description would have been ironically apt. But perhaps it’s for the best that he was unable to verify his facts with a quick Google search. The elephant as he misremembered it, with its “quiet eye” and “immovable expression” and one-word motto, set off a “whole train of contemplation” which might have gone off the rails if he’d consulted a photo of the real thing.

Fortitude (and her elephant) were here set up in a Christian church because fortitude is entitled one of the great virtues. Now what is fortitude? It is primarily Endurance: that character which we need the most in the dark business of life. But if fortitude be endurance, it is also creative endurance, and at the same time it involves some memory of better times and some expectation of their return. It involves, therefore, fidelity and hope; and, without those two, fortitude would be of little use: but above all fortitude is endurance.

Fortitude is the virtue of the menaced, of the beleaguered. It is the virtue of those of them that man the wall, or that are called upon to last out. This thing, Fortitude, is the converse to and the opposite of aggressive flamboyant courage, yet it is the greater of the two, though often it lacks action. Fortitude wears armour and holds a sword, but it stands ready rather than thrusts forward. It demands no supplement; it is nourished not from without but from within. It is replenished of its own substance. Fortitude does not envisage new things; rather does it tenaciously preserve things known and tried. It builds, but builds unwittingly, not following an inspired plan nor a mere vision, but of necessity; and from stone to stone of daily conservative achievement.

Sometimes fortitude will earn fame, but not often. Always, however, it will earn reward; for even when the defensive fails at the end, if it has been of an efficient sort it makes an air and a name surrounding and enshrining itself. So have the great sieges of history done. So will our time of trial today, if we use it aright.

Belloc’s time of trial was, of course, World War II. Happily, our time of trial is far less all-consumingly urgent. Indeed, it’s possible for intelligent people of all political stripes to wonder whether today’s emergencies are emergencies at all, or mere smokescreens fanned by our enemies to distract our attention while they divide, demoralize, and fleece us.

With that uncertainty in mind, all three of today’s elephants have virtues to teach us:

The elephant of Périgueux advises fortitude and patience, which are essential in any age.

The elephant of Severus illustrates the virtue of a long memory, to help us put our problems in the proper historical perspective.

And the elephant of Han Fei reminds us that our knowledge of the world consists of a bare skeleton of second-hand reports, and that the picture we build up from that skeleton is unlikely to be as marvelous and strange as the real thing.

M.

1. Take everything I say concerning Chinese language and culture with a grain of salt. Not only am I not an expert, I’m barely a dabbler.

2. I came across “On Fortitude” in Hilaire Belloc’s Selected Essays, but it appeared originally in a 1941 collection called The Silence of the Seawitheringly dismissed by Vladimir Nabokov in the New York Times Book Review.

Two literary eunuchs.

In this retrospective on the 20th anniversary of Gladiator, that film’s co-star Djimon Hounsou says something odd:

The initial script had me being the head of slaves during that time and I said, “I shouldn’t be the definition of slavery.” Slavery didn’t exist back then, so, what are we talking about, really? We’re talking about using humans to do that sort of fighting entertainment and all those people were considered slaves.

Now, English isn’t Hounsou’s first language, so he might have misspoken, or been misheard. Or perhaps he subscribes to some esoteric definition of “slavery” that somehow excludes the Roman variety. But on the surface it appears that one of the stars of Gladiator­­ – a movie about slavery in ancient times – came away from it believing that there was no slavery in ancient times.

Speaking of fictional depictions of slavery…

***

“Two literary eunuchs” would be a good title for a bitchy essay about a pair of insufficiently virile male authors. Tolkien and Lewis, maybe? Auden and Isherwood? These nerds? But I’m not sufficiently virile to write such an essay.

Instead I’ll be talking about two actual eunuchs from literature – and from history – the narrators of Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy and Robert Graves’ Count Belisarius.

mary renault the persian boy

Between 1969 and 1981 Mary Renault wrote a biography and a loose trilogy of historical novels about Alexander the Great. I can recommend them all, but especially the middle chapter of the trilogy, The Persian Boy, from 1972, which describes the most eventful period of Alexander’s career from the perspective of a eunuch slave boy who is taken into his personal service.

In Renault’s telling, Bagoas is the child of a Persian aristocrat who, during the dynastic manoeuvrings that brought King Darius to the throne, was killed on the orders of the previous king’s vizier (also named Bagoas, to the confusion of later students of history). Marked for death, the handsome ten year old is instead carried off by one of his father’s murderers:

He did not keep me long, being in need of money. In the dealer’s courtyard at Susa, city of lilies, I stood stripped naked, while they drank date wine out of little cups, and haggled over my price. […]

The dealer’s house was strong as a prison, with courtyard walls fifteen feet high. On one side was a shed, where they did the gelding. They had purged and starved me first, which is thought to make it safer; I was led in cold and empty, to see the table with the knives, and the frame with splayed-out legs to which they bind you, with old black blood on it and dirty straps. Then at last I threw myself at the dealer’s feet and clasped them crying. But they made no more of it than farmhands of the bawling bull-calf.

The newly-made eunuch spends two quiet years as a page-boy to the wife of a local merchant, but as he grows older and his good looks attract the eyes of the men in the bazaar, his owner decides to make a little extra cash pimping him out to his customers. The boy proves so popular that he comes to the attention of the agents of the royal household, and at age thirteen Bagoas is sold again, to begin his training in “the rites of the bedchamber”.

I wonder whether Renault’s book could be published in the current climate of hypersensitivity about depictions of underage sexuality. While Bagoas begins his royal service traumatized by his experiences as a child prostitute, he reluctantly finds himself enjoying his “training” at the hands of an older eunuch. He soon graduates to service in the royal bedchamber, where the ageing Darius handles him gently, kissing and dandling him “like a doll”, but:

In all the time I was with him, he gave no sign of knowing a eunuch can feel anything. One does not tell such things to the King of Kings, if he does not ask.

***

In an Author’s Note, Renault adds that while the real Bagoas’ backstory is unknown,

the conjecture that he was of good birth is not fanciful. Such boys, whose looks had been taken care of and not spoiled by malnutrition or hardship, once enslaved were always at the highest risk of prostitution. Sokrates’ disciple Phaidon (Phaedo) is the best-known case.

mary renault the last of the wine

Phaedo – the namesake of one of Plato’s best-known dialogues – appears in Renault’s earlier novel The Last of the Wine, set among the young followers of Socrates during the Peloponnesian War. She makes Phaedo a native of Melos, an island besieged in 416 BC after defying Athenian demands for tribute. Wounded in the defense of his city, the boy is recuperating in bed when starvation obliges the defenders to submit:

[T]he gates were opened and the Athenians marched in. Presently he heard a great shrieking of women, and the death-cries of men. Soldiers ran in, dragged him from his bed to the Agora, and threw him down among a crowd of young lads and children, who had been herded into the sheep-pound. Just across the square was a pile of corpses newly killed, and still being added to; sticking out of the midst of it was his father’s head. [1]

Purchased in the slave-market by the manager of an Athens bathhouse, Phaedo soon “learned the arts of his calling, and commanded a high price”.

The narrator attempts to befriend the shy, skittish boy who is accustomed to sit in silence at Socrates’ feet. (In the dialogue named for him, Phaedo describes himself sitting on a low stool while Socrates “stroked my head and pressed the hair on the back of my neck, for he was in the habit of playing with my hair at times”.) Phaedo’s new friends are unaware that he is a slave, a fact he conceals not only out of shame, but to protect others from the ignominy of being associated with a bathhouse boy. When he reveals his secret, he is careful to explain that he met Socrates not as a client, but while on an unauthorized break from his trade – he has learned the trick of locking the door so that his manager will think he has a customer, and going out through a window to roam the city.

Later some members of Socrates’ circle send one of their number to the bathhouse to invite Phaedo to a dinner party. This leads to an awkward moment:

“In due course I knocked, and Phaedo opened. All he had on was the paint on his face. I knew then I shouldn’t have come. The next moment he slammed-to the door. He was almost too quick for me, but being rather stronger I managed to hold it. ‘Next room,’ he said through the crack, ‘I’m engaged’ – ‘Wait, Phaedo,’ I began. Suddenly he flung open the door so that I nearly fell inside. He stood there laughing. He looked like something you might come upon in a dark wood. ‘Come in, Lysis,’ he said. ‘Honour the threshold. Who am I to turn away trade?'”

Phaedo is eventually bought by one of Socrates’ friends and set free. He never discusses his past clients, but occasionally the narrator will notice him “watching with irony in his dark eye” as some citizen pontificates about morality.

Luckily for Phaedo, at this time it wasn’t the Greek custom to make eunuchs of their slaves, a practice they regarded with disgust – though as Bagoas states in The Persian Boy, set almost a century later,

[S]o long as they sold boys young into the brothels, I did not think the Greeks had so much to boast of.

***

To resume the narrative of The Persian Boy: After King Darius ignominiously flees Alexander’s army at Gaugamela, Bagoas joins his slow retreat northward through the mountains, faithfully serving his master while his generals and courtiers scheme to depose him. When the coup comes, and the remnants of Persian resistance scatter, the boy finds himself masterless and alone, with no choice but to offer his services in the camp of the pursuing Macedonians:

I waited by the fidgeting horses, while the Macedonians looked at me. Among Persians, the eunuch knows himself marked out at sight by his lack of beard; it was most strange to be in a crowd where no young man had one. Alexander had shaved from his youth, and liked his fashion followed. Persian soldiers would have had any man’s blood, who told them to make themselves like eunuchs; but I don’t think this had even occurred to the Macedonians. They had no eunuchs. I was the only one.

Accustomed to the formal rigours of the Persian court, Bagoas is at first repelled by the easy manners of the Macedonians – “uncouth westerners” who drink heavily, banter playfully with their king, and exercise shamelessly in the nude. They in turn detest him as a “spayed catamite” and resent his “fawning barbarians ways”.

The young king, whom Bagoas find surprisingly courteous “for someone reared in the wilds”, is more receptive to eastern customs. Appreciating his new servant’s elegant manners and remarkable beauty, he employs him as a personal attendant, and later as a Persian language instructor, but declines to invite him to his bedchambers. It is Bagoas who first falls in love with Alexander, and eventually succeeds in seducing him.

mary renault funeral games

Bagoas appears again in Renault’s Funeral Games, set amid the struggles for succession at the time of Alexander’s death. The general Ptolemy watches as Bagoas tenderly nurses the dying king:

At first Ptolemy had disliked this exotic presence haunting Alexander’s living-quarters, encouraging him to assume the trappings of Persian royalty and the manners of a Persian court, having his ear day and night. But he was a fixture one had grown used to.

In Renault’s telling Bagoas became not only Alexander’s lover but one of his nearest confidantes, inspiring his vision of his new empire as a synthesis of the best of eastern and western civilizations. In practice this meant that the relatively democratic norms of Macedonia were supplanted by the pomp and rigidity of Persia.

As word got back to Greece about Alexander’s eastern pretensions – like expecting visitors to prostrate themselves before him – his political enemies began to incorporate Bagoas, in the character of a conniving oriental courtier, into their “anti-Macedonian agitprop”. In her 1975 biography The Nature of Alexander, Renault compellingly refutes the story that Bagoas fabricated a charge of tomb-robbing against a satrap who had insulted him. As relayed by the Roman historian Quintus Curtius:

On one side Bagoas, on the other those whom he had suborned, filled the king’s ears with false charges. Before Orsines suspected that he was being accused he was delivered into bondage. Not content with the punishment of an innocent man, the eunuch laid his hand on him as he was about to be executed. Orsines with a glance at him said: “I had heard that women once reigned in Asia; this however is something new, for a eunuch to reign!”

In The Persian Boy Renault makes Orsines genuinely guilty of various crimes, including complicity in the murder of Bagoas’ family.

***

robert graves count belisarius

Unluckily for generations of boy slaves, Alexander’s policy of fusionism led to the adoption of many Persian practices in the west. In a 1937 poem Robert Graves imagined some soldiers of the Byzantine Empire, posted on the eastern frontier, sneering as Alexander’s uncouth Macedonians might have at the decadence of big city customs:

We can know little (as we care little)
Of the Metropolis: her candled churches,
Her white-gowned pederastic senators,
The cut-throat factions of her Hippodrome,
The eunuchs of her draped saloons.

By the time of the Emperor Justinian – we’re now in the 6th century AD – eunuchs were an integral part of Byzantine court life. Eugenius, the narrator of Graves’ 1938 novel Count Belisarius, though a slave himself, takes a certain pride in the influence of his fellow eunuchs:

It is a principle first learned by our Emperors from the Persian Court that eunuchs, since they are ineligible for sovereignty and incapable of founding dangerously powerful families, can safely be honoured with the royal confidence and used as a bulwark against the possible usurpation of the Throne by a conspiracy of powerful nobles. Eunuchs on the whole make milder and more loyal and more industrious officials than their unstoned colleagues, and their pettiness in routine matters – I do not deny the pettiness – is a strong conservative force. It has therefore long been the practice of rich middle-class families who have enough male children to carry on the line, deliberately to castrate one of the younger ones and dedicate him to a profitable career in the Civil Service. The bastard sons of Emperors too, or of their sons and daughters, are regularly castrated, in order to make useful citizens of them and prevent them from aspiring to the Throne. […]

Thus, to be a eunuch is, in the worldly sense at least, more of an advantage than a disadvantage, as may also be seen by a comparison of slave-market prices. A eunuch house-slave fetches three times the price of an unstoned one; he is worth only a little less than a trained house-physician or a skilled artisan. But a eunuch is seldom a happy man, because the operation has almost always been performed on him before the age of puberty, and he secretly imagines that to be a whole man is something very fine; if only because whole men are apt to jeer at eunuchs and to swear that they would rather be blind or dumb or deaf, or even all three of these things together, than debarred from the sweet and wholesome act of love. Naturally, the eunuch has a ready answer to such boasting: that sex is a madness and never brought anyone much luck. But secretly, as I confess, he is apt to envy the man who can take a woman to bed with him and do more than embrace her as a sister and chastely kiss her eyes.

Unlike Mary Renault, Graves evinces not the slightest interest in the sex life of his eunuch narrator. The passage above occurs during the introduction of the eunuch court chamberlain Narses – another real historical figure – who despite appearing in only a handful of scenes emerges as a more complete character than Eugenius.

When we meet him, Narses is already well advanced in years, a survivor of innumerable palace intrigues, a “dwarfish and repulsively ugly figure” acutely sensitive to slights, who harbours an unlikely aspiration to be taken seriously as a warrior. Antonina, wife to the celebrated general Belisarius, is one of the few to humour the ugly little man when he prattles about military tactics.

To widespread amusement, Narses later convinces the flighty Emperor Justinian to send him as general to Italy, to reinforce Belisarius in his war there against the Goths:

That he was dwarfish and big-buttocked and had a squint and a twisted lip had not seemed very ridiculous when he was gliding along the Palace corridors. … But to see Narses, who had already long passed the grand climacteric of his years, strutting about in the latest fashion of plate-armour … trailing a full-sized sword which was continually catching between his legs and tripping him up – that I assure you was a sight to raise a smile on the face of a man dying of the cholera.

The level-headed Antonina foresees that Narses might prove “a capable officer in spite of his age”, but warns her husband that his touchy personality will demand delicate handling. Her warning proves justified: the eunuch promptly quarrels with Belisarius and sows contention among the other generals, until Justinian is forced to recall him.

A dozen years later, after Belisarius has retired to Constantinople, Narses is again sent out by Justinian against the Goths, and by a series of brilliant victories reconquers Italy. Still later, annoyed once again over private slights, Narses intrigues with the Lombards, who go on to invade northern Italy, putting an end to Byzantine rule there.

***

Whereas Narses has plans and ambitions of his own, the narrator Eugenius is defined primarily by his utter devotion to Antonina, whose servant he has been since she was a child.

In creating his narrator, Graves had even less material to work with (or to constrain his imagination) than Renault did with Bagoas. In fact Eugenius appears only once in the historical record, in the lurid Secret History written by Procopius, who served as private secretary to Belisarius.

In that episode, Eugenius is enlisted in avenging an insult by some unfaithful slaves:

And they say that [Antonina] first cut out all their tongues, and then cut them up bit by bit, threw the pieces into sacks, and then without ado cast them into the sea, being assisted throughout in this impious business by one of the servants named Eugenius…

Note that Procopius never identifies Eugenius as a eunuch – that was Graves’ extrapolation. In fact, in the early stages of the writing of Count Belisarius, Antonina was intended as the narrator. Graves was convinced by his mistress and sometime collaborator Laura Riding to rewrite the early chapters in the slave’s voice, inspiring some prurient eyebrow-waggling over the parallels to the author’s own sex life:

It is often observed that Graves was in effect the devoted slave of Riding, which raises the possibility that he was Eugenius to her Antonina. … [I]t is known that Graves had embraced a life of celibacy for Riding. [2]

At any rate, Eugenius in Graves’ telling, like Bagoas in Mary Renault’s, is innocent of the atrocity attributed to him. Just as Alexander was libelled by jealous Greeks, so was Belisarius by his jealous secretary, Procopius:

Sometimes he told the truth, sometimes he distorted the facts, sometimes he lied – according to his vindictive purposes. (Even I, Eugenius, was introduced into this farrago: for example, I was supposed to have assisted my mistress in the murder of the maid Macedonia: whose tongue, he said, was cut in little pieces and cast into the sea.) [3]

However, Eugenius makes no bones about his involvement in another murder – that of a bishop, whose assassination he succesfully pins on an old rival of Antonina’s. In gratitude, Antonina offers to give him his freedom and a hefty reward besides. He humbly demurs:

“What is money but bodily comforts, which I already possess? What is ‘freedom’ but to be well considered, as I already am?”

Eugenius should have taken his freedom and retired somewhere far from the capital’s “cut-throat factions”; for not long afterward, the scandalous manuscript of Procopius comes to light, full of vile gossip not only about Belisarius and Antonina but about the Emperor Justinian. (In Graves’ interpretation, all the tales about his hero and heroine are malicious distortions, but all those about Justinian are true.)

To save his own skin, Procopius is induced to give false evidence against Belisarius, whom the emperor detests for his own petty reasons. Belisarius is charged with treason, and his household servants are seized and put to torture.

For a slave in such a situation, Eugenius knows, defiant silence is not a winning strategy:

Andreas died under the torture, but in order to vex [the public prosecutor] he did not utter a single cry. I yelled and screamed without ceasing. I knew that to do so would either satisfy the officer of the torture chamber or else disconcert him, so that he would say to the slave: “Enough for the moment, fellow: relax the cords, unscrew!” All my cries were: “Long life to his Gracious Majesty!” and “I know nothing, nothing.” So I escaped. Of the bodily injuries I received that day I shall not trouble you. I am a person of no importance.

M.

1. The real Phaedo, known as Phaedo of Elis, was – as you might suppose – from Elis, which fell to an alliance of Sparta and Athens a few years before Socrates’ death in 399 BC. In The Last of the Wine Renault moves Phaedo’s enslavement over a decade backward in time, to the middle of the Peloponnesian War, and makes him a victim of the most famous instance of Athenian ruthlessness in that conflict.

2. For more about Graves’ decision to make Eugenius and not Antonina his narrator, see “Count Belisarius – Genesis, Gender, and Truth” by Shaun Tougher. For Graves’ turbulent relationship with Laura Riding – “a woman of gargantuan and zany self-esteem who rivals the best of Dickens’ comic monsters in the splendor and variety of her awfulness” – this snappy book review by Thomas M. Disch covers the essentials.

3. Elsewhere in Count Belisarius, Eugenius denies his involvement in the murder of Antonina’s servant in slightly different words:

That my mistress with my help pulled out Macedonia’s tongue, cut her in pieces, and threw the pieces into the sea is a lie told many years later by the secretary Procopius to discredit her.

Whereas in the passage quoted above, it’s only Macedonia’s tongue that is chopped up. I can’t read the original Greek – which you can consult here – but I gather there’s some ambiguity in Procopius’ phrasing on this point. I can find three translations online:

It is said that she first cut out their tongues, and then ordered them to be hewn in pieces, put into sacks and thrown into the sea.
Athenian Society, 1896

She first cruelly cut out their tongues, it is said, and then cut their bodies into little bits which were put into sacks and thrown into the sea.
Richard Atwater, 1927

And they say that she first cut out all their tongues, and then cut them up bit by bit, threw the pieces into sacks, and then without ado cast them into the sea…
H.B. Dewing, 1935

In January I referred to Robert Graves’ I, Claudius in a discussion of Max Beerbohm and posterity. Years ago while reading The Last of the Wine I noticed that Mary Renault seemed to be the only person puzzled (like me) by the story of the Spartan boy and the fox. And speaking of “depictions of underage sexuality”, in 2018 I had some surprisingly deep thoughts about the Netflix cartoon series Big Mouth.

The rectification of names: Wakash Island.

After moving to Vancouver in 2012 I occasionally saw references in local media to something called the “Salish Sea”. I thought it must be an obscure body of water somewhere up the coast.

Finally I bothered to look it up, and it turned out the Salish Sea was the new name for what I grew up calling the Strait of Georgia. Or rather, as the inventor of the name explains, the Salish Sea encompasses the Strait of Georgia along with other adjacent bodies of water:

[T]he ecosystem science … showed clearly that the inland marine waters of Washington State along with the inland marine waters of British Columbia formed a single integrated estuarine ecosystem.

salish sea boundaries and watershed

Salish Sea boundaries and watershed. Map by Kris Symer, Puget Sound Institute.

Though some are under the impression that it predates European contact, the word “Salish” has no connection to the area – it comes from a Montana tribe whose name was borrowed by linguists to describe their whole language family. The term “Salish Sea” dates only to the 1980s, and didn’t come into widespread use until the 2000s, when some aboriginal groups began lobbying for its adoption. In 2009 the name was officially accepted by the Geographical Names Board of Canada, and it was swiftly taken up by politicians, academics, and the media.

I generally disapprove of changing names for ideological reasons – for instance, because some hero of the past has fallen out of political favour. However, I do approve of changing names for reasons of clarity.

The Strait of Georgia was named after King George III. The year was 1792, and Captain George Vancouver had just arrived in the Pacific Northwest after surveying the coast of Australia, where he’d already left behind a King George Sound. Needless to say, King George never set foot in either corner of his domains.

There was nothing to prevent Captain Vancouver from coming up with a more distinctive name for the strait. There were any number of geographical features along the coast which had already been given ear-catching names by their native inhabitants, which he might have adapted to the purpose. But thinking up memorable, non-sycophantic names wasn’t how he got to be captain.

So I don’t think demoting the name Strait of Georgia is a great loss. But it’s confusing that the part of the Salish Sea that most resembles a sea – the broad part between Vancouver Island and the mainland – is still known officially as the Strait of Georgia; and that while the sea includes all the narrow appendages of Puget Sound to the south, for whatever reason it includes only some of the narrow appendages to the north.

Also I see that on Google Maps, the Strait of Georgia and Puget Sound are still prominently shown, while the new name has taken the place of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

salish sea google maps

Salish Sea, as shown on Google Maps.

So, as often happens, the result of the new name has been to increase confusion. Wikipedia links to a 2019 survey showing that only 9% of Washingtonians and 15% of British Columbians, when shown the body of water on a map, could correctly name it.

***

Lately I get most of my international news from the Daily Mail. Don’t judge me. When I get too irritated by the idiocy of the headlines I can always cast my eye over to the sidebar and take in some starlet modelling her signature swimsuit line.

I’m not very invested in the dramas of the British royal family, but I couldn’t help being annoyed, during the “Megxit” perturbations that dominated headlines earlier in the year, at the way Daily Mail writers kept referring to the “Vancouver” mansion where Harry and Meghan holed up during their retreat from their royal duties.

The mansion in question is actually located on Vancouver Island, a 90-minute ferry ride from Vancouver.

meghan markle vancouver island

Meghan Markle in Horth Hill Regional Park, Vancouver Island, January, 2020. Source: Daily Mail.

This lack of precision is extremely irritating to British Columbians, just as it must be irritating to upstate New Yorkers when outsiders assume they live in the vicinity of Manhattan, or to Welshmen when outsiders refer generically to the UK as “England”.

But in all these cases the errors are understandable. Who would predict that Vancouver would not be on Vancouver Island?

Captain Vancouver has done pretty well for himself. He’s remembered by a big island, a world-famous city, a less famous city, a peninsula (in Australia’s King George Sound), a couple mountains, and numerous statues and monuments.

Unlike King George and some of the other bigwigs celebrated in BC place names – Queen Victoria, Prince Rupert, Prince George, and, oh yeah, Christopher Columbus – Vancouver actually visited most of the places named for him.

I have no wish to take anything away from his legacy. And yet I feel that he can afford to lose a Wiki page or two in the interest of reducing geographical misunderstandings.

The city of Vancouver wasn’t called that until 1886, when it was chosen as the terminus for the Canadian Pacific Railway. Previously, when residents of the British Empire referred to “Vancouver” it was assumed they were talking about the island, which had been known by that name for half a century.

So in fairness the island ought to keep the name, and the city to come up with a more original one. But realistically I think if either is going to change, it must be the island. It would be different if there were many small islands off the BC coast, all of roughly equal size, one of them known as Vancouver. In that case people would be used to calling it by its full name to distinguish it from the rest.

But in fact there’s one big island, which most British Columbians refer to as “the Island”. Even residents of the smaller islands, Pender and Saltspring and Mayne and so forth, will say, “I’m headed over to the Island for the afternoon”.

So as with the Strait of Georgia, Vancouver Island can be renamed without creating too much friction in ordinary conversations. The downside is that precisely because the name doesn’t come up every day, it would take a while for people to get used to the change.

***

I wouldn’t be thinking about this at all except that – speaking of confusing names – I’ve been trying to familiarize myself with the various First Nations along the BC coast.

There are a lot of them, and it’s not always clear whether we’re talking about a single community, like the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, population 257; or an entire culture, like the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, population 3,500, comprising six band governments and dozens of reserves.

Additionally, many of them have changed their names – like the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, which used to be called the Broman Lake Band; or adopted more “authentic” versions, like the Kwakwaka’wakw, who used to go by the less tongue-punishing Kwakiutl.

It was while reading up on the Kwakiutl and their near neighbours the Nootka – sorry, the Nuu-chah-nulth – that I learned about a name that appeared on some old maps of the Pacific Northwest: the Wakash Nation. [1]

wakash nation quadra and vancouver's island

The Wakash Nation shown on 1840 Oregon Territory map. Image source: Walmart.com.

The Wakash name was bestowed by Captain James Cook during his 1778 encounter with the people of what we now call Nootka Sound (which, of course, Cook called King George’s Sound):

Were I to affix a name to the people of Nootka, as a distinct nation, I would call them Wakashians; from the word wakash, which was very frequently in their mouths. It seemed to express applause, approbation and friendship. For when they appeared to be satisfied, or well pleased with any thing they saw, or any incident that happened, they would, with one voice, call out wakash! wakash!

As it happened, the name Nootka, from a phrase meaning “sail around” – as in, “Come park your boats over here, strangers” – was extended from the village to the entire culture. But in the early years, Cook’s suggestion was followed: the Wakash Nation appeared on maps well into the 19th century, and Wakashan was eventually adapted as the name of the family to which the Nootka and Kwakiutl languages belonged.

Wakash Island strikes me as a pretty good name. I’m not sure if any of the native peoples of the region had a word that referred to the entirety of what we call Vancouver Island; but even if they did, there were two major language families and at least a dozen different dialects there. Rather than privilege one over the others, it would be fairer to use a hybrid word that emerged through cross-cultural interaction.

Those who recall their Heritage Minutes will recall that the name “Canada” came about in a similar way:

There are a few hits if you search for “Wakash Island”, including this letter to the mayor of Victoria reported by the Daily Colonist in 1943:

james skitt matthews wakash nation victoria mayor andrew mcgavin

Vancouver archivist J.S. Matthews proposes a name change. From the Daily Colonist, February 21, 1943.

The letter writer wasn’t some random crank – that’s Major James Skitt Matthews, founder and longtime head of the Vancouver Archives. (Nor was he some soppy liberal seeking to make amends for Canada’s imperialist past: “a staunch patriot, he once fell out of his chair with rage upon glimpsing Canada’s new maple leaf flag”.) [2]

The only trouble with Wakash is that I’m not sure how to say it. I’m guessing “WAH-kawsh” – but the Catholic Encyclopedia offers the variant spellings wakesh and waukash, which makes me uncertain.

The danger is that some influential person suggests Vancouver Island be renamed Wakash Island, all the nice white people nod and say, “Yup, sounds good to me,” and then some indignant First Nations activist jumps up and declares that if we’re going to use a Nuu-chah-nulth word we have to use a Nuu-chah-nulth spelling, with two apostrophes, three diacritics, and a number 7 in the middle. Of course all the nice white people are too scared to say no, and we wind up with a name no-one can spell or pronounce, and more confusion than ever.

Maybe it’s safer to stick with Vancouver Island.

M.

1. Many of these old maps place the Wakash Nation on “Quadra and Vancouver’s Island”. Poor Quadra’s name would soon be dropped, but as David Paget points out, it’s still linked with Captain Vancouver’s in the name of a federal electoral district – appropriately, as the two captains’ relationship was built on diplomatic haggling over ownership of the coast.

2. It doesn’t really matter how Wakash is pronounced, as long as everyone agrees about it. Looking up archivist J.S. Matthews I came across this anecdote from the poet John Pass, who worked briefly with the elderly Major in the late 1960s:

I liked hearing him fulminate, for example, on the universal mispronunciation of Burrard, that the man for whom the street was named would be livid to hear us put the accent on the last syllable, Burrard. It was Burrard.

My previous post on the “rectification of names” touched on Chinese characters, the “Wuhan flu”, and The Neverending Story. I’m a big fan of the City of Vancouver’s online archive, which I consulted for a post last year on abandoned rapid transit plans and which was the source of many of the out-of-copyright film clips used in this music video.

The rectification of names.

The Chinese government seems to have been successful in its campaign to guilt us into replacing the logical, easy-to-remember “Wuhan virus” with the turgid, clinical “Covid-19”.

Apart from everything else, it strikes me as a blown marketing opportunity for the city of Wuhan. When international travel picks up again, western tourists who would otherwise hop straight from the Great Wall to the giant panda sanctuary at Chengdu might be convinced to add a stop at Wuhan Virusland. The mascot could be a pangolin wearing a surgical mask. Ozzy Osbourne could star in a promotional video where he dips into a bowl of delicious bat soup.

But if Beijing has its way, in a year or two Wuhan – that insignificant provincial town, home to a mere nine million souls – will recede into the obscurity it enjoyed before the virus made it briefly famous.

We in the west are pretty clueless about Chinese geography. It’s partly because China was closed to the outside world for 30 years, partly because their language looks so forbiddingly strange, and partly because, in a test-run of the Wuhan/Covid guilt trip, we went meekly along with their decree that we should junk our old, familiar names for their towns and provinces and replace them with hard-to-pronounce Chinese versions – so Tsingtao became Qingdao, Canton became Guangzhou, Amoy became Xiamen, and so on.

(In his 1988 travel book Riding the Iron Rooster, Paul Theroux is corrected by a government flunky when he refers to Peking and Canton. “I’m giving you their English names, Mr. Zhong,” he replies. “We don’t say Hellas for Greece, or Roma for Rome, or Paree, if we’re speaking English. So I don’t see the point–” But the flunky smoothly changes the subject.) [1]

Speaking of under-publicized tourist destinations, Zhengzhou is another huge city – almost six million people – that I couldn’t have placed on a map before the other day. That’s probably why I was unaware of this monument to the ancient semi-mythical emperor-heroes Huang and Yan carved into a mountain outside of town. Their faces are three times as big as the ones at Mount Rushmore.

Meanwhile in Changsha (population five million) there’s an oddly sexy 100-foot-tall bust of Mao Zedong. Or if you like your colossi a little shaggier, the 1200 year old giant Buddha statue near Leshan (a quaint village of 1.2 million) gives a preview of how Mao will look in a millennium or so, when the elements have done their work.

I was watching The Neverending Story with a friend a while back and when I saw the Ivory Tower – the fortress sprouting like a pistil from the shell of a hollowed-out mountain – I said, “How come our multibillionaires all live in boring suburban mega-mansions when they could be using their fortunes to erect cool fantasy architecture like that?”

But even if Jeff Bezos yearned to live in a hollowed-out mountain, he would never get away with it. For that matter, Mount Rushmore wouldn’t get the go-ahead nowadays. The local Native Americans would raise a fuss, protesters would converge, lawsuits would be launched, and after a few years the whole thing would be quietly dropped, as happened to that “grandiose” (actually, by Chinese standards, rather understated) statue of “Mother Canada” the Tories were talking about building in Cape Breton.

The Chinese, poor rubes, lack the sophistication to realize that enormous monuments to their heroes and heritage are gaudy and wasteful, and that developed countries have more important things to spend their money on, such as…wait a second, what are we spending our money on? Our infrastructure is rickety and inadequate. Our streets are full of homeless drug addicts. Our homes are full of cheap made-in-China crapola. Is it possible that all our extra wealth is going into inflated university degrees and pipeline litigation?

***

Ever since I moved to Vancouver from the Canadian prairies, I’ve had the vague intention of learning a little Chinese. Not enough to actually talk to people – I figure that’s unrealistically ambitious – but maybe enough to make out the gist of signs outside the many local Chinese businesses.

As I understand it – and I’m aware this is a gross oversimplification – Chinese characters, or hanzi, are built from ideograms representing ideas rather than sounds. Two quick strokes make a person; a few extra strokes denote a woman; two women side-by-side, hilariously, represent a quarrel. The concept of “big” is communicated by a little man, arms thrown wide, going “it’s this big!

Thus speakers of mutually unintelligible Chinese languages – Mandarin, Cantonese, Fujianese, etc. – can still communicate by scrawling characters on a piece of paper. Chinese travellers in Japan and Korea can also get along, to some degree, without knowing the local languages because hanzi (or kanji, or hanja) form part of the Japanese and Korean writing systems.

I’ve heard mixed reports as to whether Chinese languages are especially difficult for westerners to learn. I assume they are: on top of the usual challenges of learning a foreign A) vocabulary and B) grammar, you’ve also got C) a completely alien tone system and D) at a bare minimum, a few hundred non-phonetic characters to memorize.

Maybe if your goal is to become a fluent Chinese speaker you need to learn A, B, C, and D together. But I’ve often wondered if it wouldn’t be useful to disaggregate the various off-putting features of learning Chinese. Maybe you could, for instance, acquire a basic vocabulary without worrying about tones.

Consider English: every word has a stress that falls on one syllable or other, sometimes according to a predictable rule but often not. We say “AUTomobile”, “autoMOtive”, and “auTOMoton”, which is just something foreigners have to learn – but we can still understand those words if all the syllables are stressed equally, even if the result sounds funny and robotic to us.

The go-to example for the Chinese tone system is the sound “ma”, which in Mandarin can mean “mother”, “horse”, “hemp”, and “scold”, depending which tone is used. But those are pretty distinct concepts – couldn’t the listener figure out by context which is intended, the same way we do with “be” and “bee”, or “high” and “hi”?

This Mandarin language teacher pretty much concedes my point:

[B]elieve it or not, people can mostly understand when foreigners speak without tones. Why? Because of context.

But before you become tempted to take this “shortcut” yourself…don’t! It’s a big mistake! You see, even though people might still be able to understand you if you don’t use tones, it’s not accurate Chinese. And the other person may have to try much harder to catch what you’re trying to say.

You’re basically limiting yourself to “complete beginner”.

But if “complete beginner” is all you’re aiming for – why not? There are a lot of people who, like me, might be interested in acquiring just a smattering of Chinese, who would be happy to take this shortcut if they knew it existed.

Likewise, maybe it would be useful to learn Chinese characters without learning a word of Chinese. Maybe we could absorb a limited set of hanzi into our language, which we could use to communicate across language barriers not only with Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans, but with Germans, Russians, Indonesians, and so forth.

You might say, why import a bunch of antique, abstract, overly complicated ideograms from a foreign country? Why not devise a brand new set of simple, rational ideograms of our own?

Well, consider the fate of Blissymbolics, the hanzi-inspired, hyperrational universal language invented by a disillusioned Eastern European Jew during World War II. (It was introduced in a book called Semantography: A Logical Writing for an Illogical World.) Blissymbolics caught on in a limited way as a method of teaching writing to handicapped kids in Canada, and nowhere else.

blissymbolics charles bliss

From The Book to the Film “Mr. Symbol Man”, by Charles K. Bliss. Image source. You can watch Mr. Symbol Man on YouTube.

That’s how it goes with a constructed language: absent a pre-existing population of speakers and a pre-existing body of texts, there’s little reason, apart from ideological enthusiasm, to learn it. With no-one to talk to and nothing worth reading, students grow bored and chuck it over. Whereas with Chinese you can just take the bus down Kingsway and every third or fourth storefront will present a new opportunity to test your vocabulary.

If our descendants ever do wind up adopting hanzi into the English language, it won’t be through the efforts of armchair theorizers like me. Attempts to benevolently direct linguistic evolution tend to backfire. For instance, the Chinese government “simplified” their writing system in the 1950s, reducing the number of pen strokes needed to draw many common hanzi. But in Hong Kong and Taiwan they ignored these directives, so that now many readers of “simplified” Chinese have trouble reading the “traditional” forms, and vice versa. Meanwhile the Japanese adopted some, but not all, of the simplified forms. (See also.)

This reminds me of the various ineffective attempts to preserve Canada’s endangered aboriginal languages. I can appreciate that aboriginal people would like to hang onto those languages. I think it’s a laudable goal. But to take a local example, there are 14 different Coast Salish dialects on or near the southern BC / Washington coast, distributed over an area smaller than Ireland. (The modern convention is to call them “languages”, but it seems that adjacent tribes could understand one another, though more distant ones couldn’t.)

squamish language road sign

The “7” stands for the number of people who can actually read this. Image source.

Left unmolested by Europeans, a single dominant dialect would eventually have emerged – or maybe the Coast Salish would have been conquered by some other, more unified tribe and had an alien language imposed on them, as happened to the Irish.

My point being, in my imaginary Coast Salish Republic, there’d still be at least 13 dialects regrettably falling into disuse, with old-timers in the sticks grousing that their grandkids didn’t know the words to the old folk songs anymore. But Coast Salish as a whole would stand a chance of survival. It would have enough speakers to sustain newspapers, a publishing industry, radio, TV, and so on.

My further point being, if there’s any chance of preserving Coast Salish now that its surviving dialects are mumbled by a handful of codgers each – it will be by picking one. But then, how do you get the 14 or more Coast Salish-speaking communities to agree to a strategy that involves 13 of them euthanizing an essential part of their culture for the good of the rest?

M.

1. Re Peking/Beijing, Kingsley Amis grumbled in The King’s English: A Guide to Modern Usage, under the heading “Didacticism”:

[T]hat right of the English language, as of any other, to devise its own forms for foreign names is under constant erosion. Peking was an English word for centuries before it was suddenly replaced by Beijing, however you pronounce it; Ceylon has notoriously been replaced by Sri Lanka; Lyons has reverted to Lyon (Lee-on(g)) and Marseilles (pronounced Marsails) to Marseille (MarSAY, often with an attempt at the French uvular trill in the middle); Seville and Genoa have come a step nearer being pronounced in the native fashion. What about Brussels and Brussels? Ah, that I predict will go on as before. The British/English form conveniently steers between Bruxelles and Brüssel, the Walloon and Flemish versions of the name of the Belgian capital.

Mark Steyn once referred to this trend as “the reflexive multicultural cringe that automatically assumes any new, less familiar (and thus less ‘western’) name must be more ‘authentic'”.

 

Eleonora Duse: “I had the feeling that I understood every word.”

Early in Robert Heinlein’s 1958 sci-fi adventure novel Have Space Suit – Will Travel we meet a lemur-like alien called the Mother Thing, whose language resembles the “endlessly varied songs of a mockingbird”.

robert a. heinlein have space suit will travel

When she is introduced to Kip, our youthful hero, he is surprised to realize that he understands her twitterings:

I would have been an idiot not to know that the Mother Thing was speaking to me because I did understand and understood her every time. If she directed a remark at Peewee alone, it was usually just birdsongs to me – but if it was meant for me, I got it.

Call it telepathy if you like … I never read her mind and I don’t think she read mine. We just talked.

As Kip, Peewee, and the Mother Thing are in the middle of escaping from some nasty space pirates, he is obliged to postpone examination of the mystery. Later, on the Mother Thing’s homeworld in the Vega system, Kip finds that he is able to communicate, though somewhat less consistently, with others of her species. He theorizes:

The Vegans have a supreme talent to understand, to put themselves in the other person’s shoes. I don’t think it was telepathy, or I wouldn’t have gotten so many wrong numbers. Call it empathy.

… I once read about an actress who could use Italian so effectively to a person who did not understand Italian that she always made herself understood. Her name was “Duce”. No, a “duce” is a dictator. Something like that. She must have had what the Mother Thing had.

I had never heard of this legendarily expressive Italian actress, but Heinlein’s story bumped along so irresistibly that within a couple pages I’d forgotten my vague intention of looking her up. It was only by chance that a few days later, in an essay by the novelist and critic Max Beerbohm – whom I’ll return to later – I came across the name Eleonora Duse.

While her elder rival Sarah Bernhardt to this day occupies a small but lively alcove in the popular imagination, Duse has been pretty much forgotten by everyone except historians of the theatre. But to American writers of Heinlein’s generation her name would still have been familiar. From the 1890s until the rise of silent pictures, the Italian Duse contended with the French Bernhardt for the position of world’s most famous actress. At the height of her fame she toured the United States and, at a time when actors were still seen as a tad declassé, was hosted by Grover and Mrs. Cleveland in the White House. Later she had the mixed luck – bad for her, but good for her American reputation – to die in Pittsburgh.

In an 1895 essay George Bernard Shaw commemorated an unusual head-to-head acting battle between Bernhardt and Duse when, in the same week, in competing West End theatres, they performed the same role in the same play. In Shaw’s judgement, the contest wasn’t even close:

[Bernhardt]’s stock of attitudes and facial effects could be catalogued as easily as her stock of dramatic ideas: the counting would hardly go beyond the fingers of both hands. Duse produces the illusion of being infinite in variety of beautiful pose and motion. Every idea, every shade of thought and mood, expresses itself delicately but vividly to the eye; and yet, in an apparent million of changes and inflexions, it is impossible to catch any line of an awkward angle, or any strain interfering with the perfect abandonment of all the limbs to what appears to be their natural gravitation towards the finest grace.

What’s noteworthy about the above review is that Shaw doesn’t see it as necessary to mention that the parallel productions were in, respectively, French and Italian – for Bernhardt and Duse performed only in their native tongues.

Most educated Londoners of Shaw’s era would have been (like Shaw) literate in French – though not in Italian. But an inability to follow the dialogue wasn’t seen as an obstacle, in those days, to relishing a performance by a foreign touring company. The modern reader will no doubt share my dubiety at this anecdote from one of Bernhardt’s tours of the American West:

On February 22, 1913, she performed for the two thousand-odd inmates of California’s San Quentin state prison a one-act drama, Une Nuit de Noël sous la Terreur (“A Christmas Night under the Terror”). “For an hour,” read a letter from the prisoners, “through your wondrous personality and entrancing art we have been, in soul and in mind, at perfect liberty – captive only of that remarkable force and fire which have made men call you divine…”

Yes, the inmates wrote those words, so transported were they by this sixty-nine year old Frenchwoman’s performance, in French, of an hour-long play about the French Revolution.

As for the legend of Eleonora Duse, that she could make herself understood even to non-speakers of Italian, it gets some support from Anton Chekhov, who wrote after seeing her in St. Petersburg:

I don’t understand Italian, but she played so beautifully that I had the feeling I understood every word. A remarkable actress. I’ve never seen anything like it.

max beerbohm selected prose

On the other hand, Max Beerbohm, who saw Duse in Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler in 1903, argued that the rapture that had greeted her performance was insincere:

[It would] be an impossible feat not to be bored by the Italian version of Hedda Gabler. Why not confess your boredom? … [T]here seems to me no form of humbug sillier or more annoying than the habit of attending plays that are acted in a language whereof one cannot make head nor tail.

Beerbohm attempts to project himself into the minds of those who pursue such masochistic pleasures:

Perhaps they really do feel that they are taking a means of edification. “We needs must praise the highest when we see it”; Duse is (we are assured) the highest; therefore we needs must see her, for our own edification, and go into rhapsodies. Such, perhaps, is the unsound syllogism which these good folk mutter. I suggest, of what spiritual use is it to see the highest if you cannot understand it?

…And goes on to imagine the mesmerized playgoer flapping away self-doubts:

“Oh, Duse’s personality is so wonderful. Her temperament is so marvellous. And then her art! It doesn’t matter whether we know Italian or not. We only have to watch the movements of her hands” (rhapsodies omitted) “and the changes of her face” (r. o.) “and the inflections of her voice” (r. o.) “to understand everything, positively everything.” Are you sure? I take it that you understand more from the performance of an Italian play which you have read in an English translation than from the performance of an Italian play which never has been translated. There are, so to say, degrees in your omniscience. You understand more if you have read the translation lately than if a long period has elapsed since your reading of it. Are you sure that you would not understand still more if the play were acted in English?

Setting the language question aside, Beerbohm proceeds to doubt Duse’s heretofore unchallenged acting chops. While Shaw had asserted that “behind every stroke of [Duse’s acting] is a distinctively human idea”, the trouble as Beerbohm saw it was that those human ideas had little connection to the characters they were meant to vivify:

I have seen her in many parts, but I have never (you must take my evidence for what it is worth) detected any difference in her. To have seen her once is to have seen her always. She is artistically right or wrong according as whether the part enacted by her can or cannot be merged and fused into her own personality.

And he closes by complaining that throughout the performance of Hedda Gabler he could hear Duse’s prompter hissing her lines to her, “like the continuous tearing of very thick silk”.

Duse’s genius, if such it were, is lost to us. A proposed collaboration with the American director D.W. Griffith never got off the ground. A recording of her voice made by Thomas Edison in 1896 was somehow misplaced. The only extant record of her acting is a silent film called Cenere, from 1916, when she was fifty-eight years old and in semi-retirement. Surviving prints are extremely degraded. The intertitles are in Italian. I couldn’t sit through it.

For whatever reason, Duse’s stage persona was electrifying to turn-of-the-century audiences. But the notion that she could dissolve the language barrier by force of charisma, or emotional expressiveness, or body language, or what-have-you, I think we can consign to the realm of science-fiction.

M.

In previous essays I’ve discussed G.B. Shaw’s Saint Joan (and the toleration of heresy) and Robert Heinlein’s Farmer in the Sky (and the demographic death-spiral).

Update, July 29, 2020: Added cover images and linked to Bibliography page.

Someone knocked at the door as foreigners do.

leo tolstoy great short works

Can anyone explain this paragraph from Leo Tolstoy’s The Devil? (The translation is by Louise and Aylmer Maude.)

Someone knocked at the door as foreigners do. He knew this must be his uncle. “Come in,” he said.

The scene occurs in Eugène Irténev’s study. Eugène is the protagonist of The Devil, a conventional, basically decent guy who is consumed by guilt over his desire, never consummated, to cheat on his wife with an attractive peasant woman on his estate. Knocking on the door is an uncle, never given a name, who is staying in Eugène’s house. The uncle is a “flabby libertine and drunkard”, prone to bragging about his fictitious society friends.

Letting the uncle in, Eugène proceeds to confess his imaginary sins. The uncle fails to understand how his nephew can be so upset about a sin he hasn’t even got around to committing, and recommends that he  and his wife take a nice long vacation to the Crimea. Eugène takes up his suggestion and manages for a few months to blot out his longing for the peasant woman; but on their homecoming, his desire returns, strong as ever, triggering a rushed and unsatisfactory denouement in which he takes violent measures to put an end to his guilt. (There are two versions of the ending, both equally unsatisfactory.)

But I’m concerned with the line about knocking at the door “as foreigners do”. Is Tolstoy saying that Russians don’t knock on doors before they enter rooms? Or is he saying that there is a particular kind of knock that is characteristic of foreigners? And why does Eugène recognize this uniquely un-Russian knock as belonging to the uncle, a character who is never described by Tolstoy as having lived abroad?

Is this the product of a clumsy translation, or is this just one of those things that only a Russian reader of Tolstoy’s era would know?

M.

Update, July 27, 2020: Added cover image and linked to Bibliography page.

The Master and Margarita – the best translation?

In a mostly adoring essay entitled “You Don’t Know Dick”, Jonathan Lethem admits what’s obvious to anyone who’s ever cracked one of Philip K. Dick’s novels:

[Dick is] that species of great writer, the uneven-prose species: Dickens, Dreiser, and Highsmith are others. Russians will tell you Dostoyevsky is too, and that we don’t know this because translators have been covering his ass. [1]

I don’t know which Russians Lethem has been consulting, and I can’t tell whether he’s implying that Dostoyevsky’s writing is as clumsy as Dickens’ (no great shame in that) or as clumsy as Philip K. Dick’s (yikes). But now I wonder, have English readers been ill-served by these deceptively elegant translations? Are we missing something of the original homely flavour of Dostoyevsky’s sentences? Do we not deserve access to a version of The Idiot that is as badly-written as the one Russians cherish?

I was reminded of Lethem’s comment while reading The Master and Margarita. Mikhail Bulgakov’s most famous novel, written in the 1930s but unpublished until 1966, has been translated into English at least six times. The best-known versions are by Mirra Ginsburg (1967), Michael Glenny (1967), Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O’Connor (1995), and Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (1997).

So my first task, when my book club settled on The Master and Margarita for its next meeting, was to determine which translation I wanted to read. Based on the excerpts provided on the About Last Night blog, I decided I would seek out Glenny’s. But I live in a small town, and there aren’t many copies of The Master and Margarita available in the half-dozen or so good used bookstores hereabouts. To be precise, I found one: the Penguin Classics Pevear-Volokhonsky translation. [2] It was in good shape and it cost ten bucks, and it seemed easier to just grab it rather than wait for the Glenny edition to arrive, more expensively, via Abebooks.

After our meeting, I borrowed the Glenny and Burgin-O’Connor translations from fellow book-clubbers. As a service to the reading community, here are two more versions of the opening paragraph, for comparison with the Ginsburg and Glenny versions excerpted on About Last Night:

At the hour of the hot spring sunset two citizens appeared at the Patriarch’s Ponds. One of them, approximately forty years old, dressed in a grey summer suit, was short, dark-haired, plump, bald, and carried his respectable fedora hat in his hand. His neatly shaven face was adorned with black horn-rimmed glasses of a supernatural size. The other, a broad-shouldered young man with tousled reddish hair, his checkered cap cocked back on his head, was wearing a cowboy shirt, wrinkled white trousers and black sneakers. [Pevear-Volokhonsky]

One hot spring evening, just as the sun was going down, two men appeared at Patriarch’s Ponds. One of them – fortyish, wearing a gray summer suit – was short, dark-haired, bald on top, paunchy, and held his proper fedora in his hand; black horn-rimmed glasses of supernatural proportions adorned his well-shaven face. The other one – a broad-shouldered, reddish-haired, shaggy young man with a checked cap cocked on the back of his head – was wearing a cowboy shirt, crumpled white trousers, and black sneakers. [Burgin-O’Connor]

There doesn’t seem to be much to choose from in these samples, so let’s dig a little deeper into the book. Here’s an awkward paragraph: the demons Azazello, Hella, and Behemoth (a talking cat) have just escorted the eponymous couple downstairs and are loading them into a car chauffeured by a magical rook (“crow”, in the Glenny version). Pevear and Volokohnsky offer:

Having returned Woland’s gift to Margarita, Azazello said goodbye to her and asked if she was comfortably seated, Hella exchanged smacking kisses with Margarita, the cat kissed her hand, everyone waved to the master, who collapsed lifelessly and motionlessly in the corner of the seat, waved to the rook, and at once melted into air, considering it unnecessary to take the trouble of climbing the stairs.

Granted it was late and I was sleepy, but I had to read this paragraph four or five times before I figured out that it was not the master who “waved to the rook, and at once melted into air”, but rather “everyone” – Azazello, Hella, and Behemoth. From the context this makes sense – it’s the demons, and not the master, who have demonstrated magical powers. Still, there’s no reason to muddle the reader this way, when the muddle can be avoided through taking a little more care with pronouns. Burgin and O’Connor resolve the pronoun issue but the paragraph still feels cluttered:

After returning Woland’s gift to Margarita, Azazello said good-bye to her, asked if she was comfortably seated, Hella enthusiastically smothered Margarita with kisses, the cat kissed her hand, the group waved to the Master, who, lifeless and inert, had sunk into the corner of his seat, then they waved to the rook and immediately melted into thin air, not considering it worth the trouble to climb back up the stairs.

(Incidentally, this is the only one of the three translations that chooses to capitalize “Master”; which seems appropriate, since the character is given no other name.)

What Burgin-O’Connor and Pevear-Volokhonsky have in common is that they labour to express a complicated series of actions in one sprawling but faithful sentence. (From Burgin and O’Connor’s Translator’s Note: “[W]e have tried, as far as possible without sacrificing clarity, not to break up Bulgakov’s long sentences and to adhere to his word order.”) Glenny’s version reads more easily because he has been freer in his punctuation:

Having returned Woland’s present to Margarita, Azazello said goodbye to her, enquiring if she was comfortably seated; Hella gave her a smacking kiss and the cat pressed itself affectionately to her hand. With a wave to the master as he lowered himself awkwardly into his seat and a wave to the crow, the party vanished into thin air, without bothering to return indoors and walk up the staircase.

…But then, Glenny omits the information that the Master is “lifeless and inert” – for what it’s worth. Obviously he has made the editorial decision that the Master’s exhausted state is communicated well enough in surrounding paragraphs that it can be economically left out of this one.

My impression from browsing is that there’s very little to decide between the Pevear-Volokhonsky and Burgin-O’Connor versions; they say pretty much the same thing in slightly different ways. Glenny’s is the outlier. His translation seems easier to read, but the ease may come at the expense of exactitude. Personally I’m not sure how much that matters; I can live with a translation that loses a few details like “lifeless and inert”, even if Bulgakov himself might grumble. (But then, what if I’m missing something more important? – see below.)

But it’s really more a philosophical question than it is an aesthetic one: which should take priority in translation, precision or readability? Consider Shakespeare. Do his foreign-language translators deploy archaic and obsolete words to replicate the (often wearying) experience of reading Shakespeare in English? Or do they use modern words, saving foreign readers the difficulty of  following the involutions of the thought?

What is “difficulty”, anyway? Our language has an unusually large vocabulary, which makes it easier to be difficult when writing in English than in, say, French. What if you need a replacement for an obscure English word and there is no equally obscure French word available? Do you dig out your old Latin textbook and invent an entirely new but authentic-sounding word? (That’s what Shakespeare would have done.)

***

According to this extract from a book called The Translator in the Text by Rachel May, Michael Glenny’s translation was done from an incomplete manuscript. How incomplete?

When Bulgakov’s novel was first published in the Soviet Union in 1966, the text was heavily censored. Mirra Ginsburg’s translation was based on this censored edition. Glenny’s version came out in 1967, by which time the suppressed material was available in the West. Yet Burgin and O’Connor, in their Translator’s Note, claim that their 1995 effort is the first translation of the complete text. What was still missing from the version Glenny used? Was it just a few disputed lines here and there, of the kind that only purists and scholars quibble over? Or was it whole scenes of politically-sensitive material? Input from knowledgeable readers would be welcomed here.

Having read Pevear and Volokhonsky’s “complete” translation, I’m not sure how important those politically sensitive scenes are. Even in the uncensored text, criticism of the Soviet authorities is extremely circumspect and easy to overlook. When the Master, after offending the literary world with a novel on religious themes, is taken away by the secret police, he describes the scene like this:

“[T]here came a knock at my window…”

The Master doesn’t say who knocked. Instead he leans close to his interlocutor and whispers something into his ear, which “agitate[s] him very much.” Then he resumes:

“Yes, and so in mid-January, at night, in the same coat but with the buttons torn off, I was huddled with cold in my little yard.”

The knock at the window came in October: apart from the agitating whisper, no account is given of the missing three months. From the footnotes we learn that “It was customary to remove belts, shoelaces and buttons from the apparel of those ‘held for questioning’.”

Having seen The Master and Margarita in the number two position on the Wall Street Journal‘s list of  Cold War novels, I was expecting a more sensational exposé of Stalinism than that. Does the quietness of Bulgakov’s rebellion make the inclusion of that political material more or less crucial?

***

If you’re wondering: though I’m not entirely sure I liked The Master and Margarita (but that might just be the fault of the translation), I think you should read it anyway.

M.

1. “You Don’t Know Dick” can be found in Jonathan Lethem’s essay collection The Disappointment Artist.

2. I found it at Westgate Books on 8th Street, easily the best bookstore in Saskatoon.

Update, July 19 2009: I was recently alerted to a wonderfully detailed discussion of The Master and Margarita on the literary website The Valve. I’m going to point you directly to a comment by a Russian speaker named Anatoly, who describes the Pevear-Volokhonsky version as an “awful travesty” – and seems to know what he’s talking about.

Update, June 4 2016: And for further swipes at Pevear and Volokhonsky’s methods, along with a broad-ranging discussion of what constitutes a good translation anyway, check out Janet Malcolm in the New York Review of Books.


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

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