Tag Archives: culture

The Impossibility of Translating Poetry

notebook of roses and civilizationWhen work took Erin Moure to Montreal for the first time in 1984, she admits that she could “barely cope” with the language.

Early last year, with poet/novelist/playwright Robert Majzels, she embarked on a French-to-English translation of Cahier de roses et de civilisation, a 2003 book by Nicole Brossard, one of Quebec’s most important poets. It took her and Majzels almost three months to complete the project, published last fall by Toronto’s Coach House Books as Notebook of Roses and Civilization.

The 88-page volume has gone on to be short-listed for the 2007 Governor-General’s Award for translation. And in April, it was one of three texts nominated for the Canadian side of the Griffin Prize.

Moure is hardly a stranger to Brossard’s work. Notebook of Roses and Civilization is the third Brossard translation she and Majzels have completed. Nor is Moure a stranger to writing poetry. She has been nominated for seemingly every Canadian poetry prize, including two nods, in 2002 and 2006, for the Griffin, and five for the Governor-General’s award, in a writing career spanning more than 30 years.

Translation is a fraught exercise, of course. As Moure notes, “Languages aren’t equivalent. The register even of the word ‘I’ and ‘je’ is so different. You think of these things as equivalent on a practical basis, from day to day … but day-to-day language is not as precise as the use of language in poetry.”

And in the case of Brossard’s work, there are “challenges because she has a kind of tone and register, on what we call the macro and micro level, that we have to maintain.” Plus, Brossard does things in French that are “syntactically strange that we have to find a way of doing in English as well.”

While Notebook of Roses and Civilization “is necessarily different from the book in French,” Moure stressed that she and her collaborator tried “to stick very, very closely to providing the same experience to a reader in English as a reader in French – inasmuch as that is possible because readers bring to texts their culture.”

Brossard, 65 this year, has won at least two Governor-General’s awards in French-language poetry. Yet her fierce rejection of conventions of grammar, punctuation, narrative and logic, of what’s been called “the natural speech lyric,” have made her a sort of “poet’s poet.”

For Moure, the fact that today’s so-called common reader often doesn’t “understand a lot of contemporary poetry at the get-go” is a quibble. “We don’t demand this of life itself. Find me someone who understands life. I’m 53, and I don’t understand it. I understand certain things; I have certain reference points. I get through the day and I love it – but something always happens to throw me for a loop.

Excerpted from James Adams, Globe and Mail, June 4, 2008

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A Beautiful Sentence

Beauty, in a sentence, is as difficult to describe as beauty in a painting or a human face. If you are even thinking in these terms – that is, if you are even considering what might constitute strong vigorous, energetic, and clear sentences – you are already far in advance of wherever you were before you were conscious of the sentence as something deserving our deep respect and enraptured attention.

Consider the sentence that begins Samuel Johnson’s brief biography, The Life of Savage.

It has been observed in all ages that the advantages of nature or of fortune have contributed very little to the promotion of happiness; and that those whom the splendour of their rank, or the extent of their capacity, have placed upon the summits of human life, have not often given any just occasion to envy in those who look up to them from a lower station; whether it be that apparent superiority incites great designs, and great designs are naturally liable to fatal miscarriages; or that the general lot of mankind is misery, and the misfortunes of those whose eminence drew upon them an universal attention, have been more carefully recorded, because they were more generally observed, and have in reality only been more conspicuous than others, not more frequent, or more severe.

The quality that this sentence shares with all good sentences is clarity. Between its initial capital letter and its final period are 134 words, ten commas, and three semicolons, and yet the average reader, or at least the reader who has the patience to read and consider every word, will have no trouble understanding what Doctor Johnson is saying.

SentenceDespite its length, the sentence is economical. To remove even one word would make it less lucid and less complete, as Johnson takes an observation so common as to have become a cliché (money and fame don’t by themselves make us happy) and turns it, then turns it again, considering the possible explanations, the reasons why this perception may be true or merely appear to be true. The sentence combines a sort of magisterial authority with an almost offhand wit, in part because of the casual ease with which it tosses off sweeping philosophical generalizations (“great designs are naturally liable to fatal miscarriages”, “the general lot of mankind is misery”) compressed into subordinate clauses, as if the truth of these statements is so obvious to both the writer and the reader that there is no need to pause over these pronouncements, let alone give them sentences of their own.

Possibly the principal reason why the sentence so delights us is that to read it is to take part in the process – the successive qualifications and considerations – of thought itself, of a lively mind at work. Finally, the cadence and rhythm of the sentence are as measured and pleasing as those of poetry or music.

Excerpted from Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer, HarperCollins, 2006

Saving the Semicolon

It is a debate you could only really have in a country that accords its intellectuals the kind of status other nations – to name no names – tend to reserve for footballers, footballers’ wives or (if they’re lucky) rock stars; a place where structuralists and relativists and postmodernists, rather than skulk shamefacedly in the shadows, get invited on to primetime TV; a culture in which even today it is considered entirely acceptable, indeed laudable, to state one’s profession as “thinker”.

That country is France, which is currently preoccupied with the fate of its ailing semicolon.

Semicolon

In the red corner, desiring nothing less than the consignment of the semicolon to the dustbin of grammatical history, are a pair of treacherous French writers and (of course) those perfidious Anglo-Saxons, for whose short, punchy, uncomplicated sentences, it is widely rumoured, the rare subtlety and infinite elegance of a good semicolon are surplus to requirements. The point-virgule, says legendary writer, cartoonist and satirist François Cavanna, is merely “a parasite, a timid, fainthearted, insipid thing, denoting merely uncertainty, a lack of audacity, a fuzziness of thought”.

Philippe Djian, best known outside France as the author of 37°2 le matin, which was brought to the cinema in 1986 by Jean-Jacques Beneix as Betty Blue and successfully launched Beatrice Dalle on an unsuspecting world, goes one step further: he would like nothing better than to go down in posterity, he claims, as “the exterminating angel of the point-virgule”. Objectionable English-language typesetting practices, as used by most of the world’s computers, are also to blame for the semicolon’s decline, its defenders argue.

In the blue corner are an array of linguistic patriots who cite Hugo, Flaubert, De Maupassant, Proust and Voltaire as examples of illustrious French writers whose respective oeuvres would be but pale shadows of themselves without the essential point-virgule, and who argue that – in the words of one contributor to a splendidly passionate blog on the topic hosted recently by the leftwing weekly Le Nouvel Observateur – “the beauty of the semicolon, and its glory, lies in the support lent by this particular punctuation mark to the expression of a complex thought”.

The semicolon, continues this sadly anonymous defender of the Gallic grammatical faith, “finds its rightful home in the subtlety of a fine and rich analysis, one which is not afraid to pronounce – and sometimes to withhold – judgment where mere affirmation might be found wanting. It allows the writer to link ideas without breaking a train of thought; by contrast, over-simplified communication and bald, efficient discourse whose simplistic style is the best guarantee of being widely understood is naturally wary of this punctuation mark.”

“You practically do not use semicolons at all. This is a symptom of mental defectiveness, probably induced by camp life.”

~ George Bernard Shaw to T.E. Lawrence

How, though, are you supposed to use the thing? According to the eminently readable rules of French grammar, the semicolon has several specific applications. First, it allows a writer to introduce a logical balance into a long phrase. Second, it can serve to divide two phrases that are in themselves independent, but whose significance is in some way linked (viz: “The semicolon is necessary; I have just proved it,” or, as Michel Houellebecq, one of the very few contemporary French writers to use the point-virgule, would have it: “He was unable to remember his last erection; he was waiting for the storm.”) It can also, more prosaically, be used to separate the various elements of an enumeration or list (or indeed to separate groups of similar elements linked by commas within a longer list). Finally, a semicolon can replace a comma when “the use of the latter might prove confusing”.

For Sylvie Prioul, a subeditor at the Nouvel Obs and author of La Ponctuation ou l’art d’accommoder les textes, the gradual disappearance of the ; is, above all, a natural consequence of France’s regrettable recent tendency, under the nefarious influence of ever-encroaching English, to reduce the length of its sentences.

“People just don’t know how to use it any more. It’s a strange mix between a comma and a full stop. Sometimes it’s closer to the comma; that’s what we used to call the ‘strong comma’ in the 18th century. Sometimes it’s closer to a full stop; we use it when we change idea.”

Michel Volkovitch, author, poet and translator, is another ardent defender. “The point-virgule is precious when the subject matter is complex,” he says. “For constructing a piece properly, distinguishing themes, sections and sub-sections – in short, for dissipating any haziness or imprecision of thought. It puts things in order, it clarifies. But it’s precious, too, for adding a little softness, a little lightness; it can stop a sentence from touching the ground, from grinding to a halt; keeps it suspended, awake. It is a most upmarket punctuation mark.”

Excerpted from Jon Henley at The Guardian

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Abecedarian humour

Ashes and Snow

“In exploring the shared language and poetic sensibilities of all animals, I am working towards rediscovering the common ground that once existed when people lived in harmony with animals. The images depict a world that is without beginning or end, here or there, past or present.”
—Gregory Colbert, Creator of Ashes and Snow

Ashes and Snow

Canadian photographer Gregory Colbert’s Ashes and Snow is an ongoing project that weaves together photographic works, 35mm films, art installations and a novel in letters. Included in the exhibit are over 50 large-scale photographic artworks, a 60-minute film, and two 9-minute film haikus. There is also a series of fine handbound books, printed on imported papers. With profound patience and an unswerving commitment to the expressive and artistic nature of animals, he has captured extraordinary interactions between humans and animals.

His 21st-century bestiary includes more than 40 totemic species from around the world. Since he began creating his singular work of Ashes and Snow, Colbert has mounted more than 30 expeditions to locations such as India, Egypt, Burma, Tonga, Sri Lanka, Namibia, Kenya, Antarctica, the Azores, and Borneo.

Nomadic MuseumLocated in the world’s only “nomadic” museum – built temporarily and specially for Ashes and Snow out of 148 abandoned shipping containers – this installation features Colbert’s massive, sepia-toned portraits on handmade Japanese paper, some up to 10 feet in length, of humans interacting with animals like elephants, cheetahs, and manatees.

Colbert originally conceived of the idea for a sustainable travelling museum in 1999. He envisioned a sustainable structure that could easily be assembled in ports of call around the world, providing a transitory environment for Ashes and Snow on its global journey.

Nomadic MuseumThe show first opened at the Arsenale in Venice, Italy, in 2002 and is charted to travel the globe with no final destination. The Nomadic Museum, the travelling home of Ashes and Snow, debuted in New York (March to June 2005) and then travelled to Santa Monica (January to May 2006), and Tokyo (March to June 2007). The show is mounted in Mexico City in January 2008.

The title Ashes and Snow suggests beauty and renewal, while also referring to the literary component of the exhibition—a fictional account of a man who, over the course of a yearlong journey, composes 365 letters to his wife. The source of the title is revealed in the 365th letter. Colbert’s photographs and one-hour film loosely reference the traveller’s encounters and experiences described in the letters.

Ashes and Snow

These mixed media photographic works marry umber and sepia tones in a distinctive encaustic process on handmade Japanese paper. The artworks, each approximately five feet by eight feet, are mounted without explanatory text so as to encourage an open-ended interaction with the images.

Colbert wants to remove the artificial barriers between man and animals, returning to an Eden-like point in time when the world was supposedly “one”. By presenting each image as a “poetic filmstudy” he’s trying to communicate the idea that nature doesn’t have a “style” but a “voice”.

Ashes and Snow

Ashes and Snow has no final destination, and the nomadic museum will continue to travel to points around the globe, each exhibit being simply a “port of call”.

Ashes and Snow

View the books online.

The following excerpt is entitled Feather to Fire, and is narrated in three languages by Laurence Fishburne (English), Ken Watanabe (Japanese), and Enrique Rocha (Spanish).

Laika: The Dog That Touched the Stars

Laika“Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us. We treat them like babies who cannot speak. The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog.”
~~ Oleg Georgivitch Gazenko, 1998

There was really a dog named Laika, and she touched the stars 50 years ago. Laika was the abandoned Russian puppy who was destined to become Earth’s first space traveler.

On November 3, 1957, the Soviet Union made headlines and history when they launched Sputnik II into orbit around the earth. The satellite had a passenger: a brown and white mutt named Laika.

Nick Abadzis brings her story to life in a haunting and bittersweet graphic novel, Laika, published by First Second Books. In 200 pages, he manages to portray the Russian attitude toward space conquest at the time, the grueling schedule that the scientists were forced to follow, and the heartbreaking decisions that the trainers of the dogs in the program had to make.

Laika began her life as the unwanted offspring of a highborn lady’s dog. Given to a boy as an “attitude change,” she wais locked up and abused before being thrown away. A series of events led Kudryuvka (Laika’s original name) to Yelena Dubrovsky, the trainer with the Russian space program. Both Yelena and Dr. Gazenko began to understand the sacrifice that both the dogs and the people involved in the space program were asked to make during the Space Race between Russia and the US.

Laika in her cageThe graphic novel opens with scenes of the frozen Russian gulag and a man named Korolev. Eighteen years later, he is the Chief Designer of Sputnik. Buoyed by the success of the successful launch, Prime Minister Khrushchev demands that his space program launch a second orbital vehicle within a single month…this time, with a living creature on board.

Laika, one of many dogs at the Institute of Aviation Medicine, has been trained for flight travel. She bonds immediately with her caretaker Yelena Alexandrovna Dubrovsky and endears herself to the other scientists as well. No dog is better suited for space travel, and Laika is slated to make a trip from which she will never return.

Laika in Sputnik

Laika dies five hours after she is launched on Sputnik II. Unlike later missions, no provision was made to ensure her safe return.

LaikaThe historical facts of Laika’s life and the characters that surround her were exhaustively researched. There’s Sergei Korolev, the head of the program, whom we meet as he is walking out of one of Stalin’s gulags, whence he had been banished in the great purges, and who becomes a driven monster, forever scarred by Siberia. There’s Yelena Dubrovksy, the space medicine program’s animal handler, who has a preternatural ability to connect with the space-dogs, but who is also a scientist and Party member who is clear-eyed in confronting their eventual fate.

For the most part Abadzis maintains a simplified cartoon style. At moments of great importance, however, he renders the figure of Laika more three-dimensional. As Laika sits in the red light of her capsule, mere moments before takeoff, she becomes highly realistic. Sometimes scenes are black and white, like stills from a movie. Other times they are two page spreads that drill home the wonder or the horror of a given moment. And in dreams, the lines that make up a panel grow soft and colourful.

Abadzis talks to Jeff Vandermeer at Amazon.com about making the graphic novel:

I’d known it was a good story since I was about six years old. It had always been at the back of my mind as a story to tell. In 2002, new information came to light about the Sputnik II mission and specifically Laika’s death. That was the spark. Why a graphic novel? Well, comics are my language. It’s the medium that I’m most familiar and comfortable…so it was first choice.

I had no idea there were so few Soviet engineers and scientists involved in the nascent space program — not to trivialize their incredible achievement but, in many senses, they just winged it, borne along in great part by Korolev’s force of will and political manoeuvering. Also it was interesting to find out how much the Soviet scientists cared for their cosmodogs. Events conspired to make Laika a sacrificial passenger on board Sputnik II, but they really did honour their canine cosmonauts. There’s even a statue of Laika in Moscow. Perhaps this book will go some small way to re-establishing her position in history: whatever the circumstances, and whether you agree with what they did or not, she was the first earthling in orbit around this planet.

I could have done with another hundred pages. But I’d taken a bit of time to write and thumbnail it and when that stage was finished, the publisher and I realized that the 50th anniversary of the Sputnik launches was fast approaching. When I first pitched the idea to Mark Siegel at First Second, neither of us realized that it was so close. It felt like we needed to be a part of that, so I drew it extremely fast–two hundred pages in a little over eight months. It’s an understatement to say that it was extremely hard work. What got left out was a longer explication of Laika’s origins; the scenes with Mikhail, her first owner were much longer…. Originally, I did have an idea of doing three books: Laika would be the first, Gagarin the second, and a full-on comic strip biography of Korolev would be the final part that would bind together events seen in the first two. Maybe one day.

I suppose it would have been easy to make it another overly saccharine dead-dog story but that wouldn’t have been true either to my taste or to the socio-political system and culture I was attempting to portray. Laika — the real Laika — was a cute dog, as photographs attest. I didn’t want to anthropomorphize her, at least not to the extent that she was spouting speech and thought balloons like Tintin’s Snowy. It’d be disingenuous to suggest that, in dealing with a true story that involves dogs and their owners (even if they happen to be scientists in a Soviet cosmodog program), there wouldn’t be a bit of emotion. There’s plenty (and I hope the reader feels it). But there’s also the harsh reality of the time, the place and the confluence of events that put Laika into space.

When Comrade Yelena visits Laika for one last time she can hear the dog saying her name with every bark, even when Yelena is too far away to hear them. She dreams that Laika is calling out to her for help.

No one can walk away from this book untouched.

Laika’s final transmission

Excerpt at First Second Books

Review at Readaboutcomics

Interview with Abadzis at Comics Reporter

Aaron George Bailey’s Laika website

BBC News: What Happened to Laika

Interviews at BBC News: The World