Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Gift From the Pays de la Loire: Tea-Poached Pears with Spices

Last night, Jane and I took part in a wine-themed dinner party, in which we were asked to contribute a bottle and at least one side dish. It wasn't difficult finding a suitable bottle - a spicy fume blanc from Napa’s Grgich Hills Estate. We also brought along some of our pickled rhubarb to go alongside a few strong cheeses. But I wanted to try my hand at a fruit-based dessert, which turned out to work perfectly for the occasion, as other guests were focusing on savory dishes.

Although our backyard pears haven't quite reached the proper stage of ripening, I was interested in adapting a recipe that called for fresh pears to be poached in a tea-based syrup filled with spices. Taking Georgeanne Brennan's recipe for her private orchard-grown Louise Bonne pears, Poires au The aux Epices, I managed to scrounge around for a proper blend of star anise, vanilla bean and whole cloves. The result was a relatively simple creation that positively spilled over with fresh vanilla scent and warm tea aromas. It seemed to be a hit, with several partygoers requesting the recipe. So here it is, for them and for you.


Poires au Thé aux Epices / tea-poached pears with spices

1 cup water
1 cup white wine (the drier the better)
3/4 cup sugar
2 Earl Gray tea bags (you could also use 2 tablespoons of Earl Gray tea inside a tea ball)
1 orange zest strip
2 star anise pods
4 whole cloves
1 piece vanilla bean, pod split open and seeds scraped (I used a 2-3 inch section of whole vanilla bean, and dumped the pod into the syrup after scraping the beans - more residual flavor if you use both beans and pod)
5 pears, peeled, quartered and cored

1) Over medium high heat in a saucepan, combine water, wine sugar, tea, orange zest, cloves, star anise and vanilla bean. Bring to a boil, stirring until sugar dissolves. Boil until a syrup forms, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand, 15 minutes. Remove tea bags.

2) Return to medium heat and bring to just under a boil. Reduce heat to low, and transfer pear slices into the liquid. Poach for 4 minutes, turning over and poaching an additional 3 minutes.

3) Transfer contents to a glass bowl. Allow to cool. Remove orange peel and vanilla bean pod (I left in the star anise and cloves because I think they're pretty and most guests are smart enough not to try and eat them). Cover, and chill inside refrigerator.


The pears will keep for up to five days if refrigerated. I served them about four hours after making them, and they were perfectly chilled and flavor-absorbed. I recommend pouring the syrup over the pears in individual bowls.

Friday, August 27, 2010

A Local Chef Takes Matters Into His Own Hands and Out of Our Mouths. And We Thank Him For It.

The North Park neighborhood of San Diego is home to some of our city's finest restaurants and some of our most forward-looking chefs. Plenty of glitz and an over reliance on Chilean sea bass may be found downtown in the Gaslamp, and the wine lists may be better stocked in La Jolla. But it's the neighborhoods ringing Balboa Park that seem to have attracted a like-minded group of chefs determined to create menus focusing on local ingredients, grown in sustainable fashion, and showcasing seasonal harvests. And time and again, these individuals have been fighting valiantly against the forces of corporate agribusiness - the mega-farms and Monsanto companies that dominate American diets. These days, in order to fully take the attack to corporate farming, one must do more than simply eschew genetically modified vegetables and look for the "organic" sticker of approval. Fighting Monsanto-think requires changing one's entire approach to choosing and consuming food.

Urban Solace, a local dining establishment with a devotion to "gourmet comfort food," has long received raves for Chef Matt Gordon's rich, tasty variations on nostalgia. Meals tend to open with an order of warm cheese biscuits served alongside orange-honey butter, and I don't think I've made it out of the place without ever ordering up a side of their amazing sweet potato fries wi/ Maytag blue cheese-buttermilk dressing. Their cocktails are varied and creative (stuff like Cuke Gimlits, Pink Salty Dogs and a "Coriander Concoction" made of a lemon vodka-gin blend, raw cilantro, and lemon-lime juice). And the entrees - Maple Whiskey Chicken, a meatloaf of lamb, pine nuts and feta, Braised Beef Cheeks with mustard/garlic jus, and the legendary Duckaroni, a duck confit/blue cheese/baked macaroni slab of tear-inducing flavor.

As the above descriptions may suggest, Urban Solace may not be a place to frequent for those attempting diets or meals low in natural fats. And yet, through their attention to things like portion size and food quality, I suspect even the richest of their menu offerings have less bad stuff inside them than nearly any "healthy choice" food item located in your local grocery store's frozen bin. And Chef Gordon has taken another bold and wise step this past month, with the announcement that Urban Solace has banned any and all forms of high-fructose corn syrup from the menu - both food and drink.

If you've spent any time in the aisles of a supermarket examining the backs of food items for a full listing of ingredients, you'll know that trying to avoid high-fructose corn syrup can prove a formidable challenge. Simply put, that crap is in almost everything. Michael Pollan has pointed out that over a quarter of the 45,000 items in an average American supermarket contain corn. And while a freshly roasted ear of corn sprinkled with salt is a true delight, mass-produced liters of soda, tubs of ice cream, jars of applesauce and cans of tomato sauce are not where we should be getting our weekly (daily?) corn intake. If you think the chatter about this additive is mere alarmism, consider this sobering statistic - American consumption of high-fructose corn syrup has increased 1,000 percent between 1970 and 1990.

I'm proud to say that a brief glance through our pantry and kitchen cabinets just now yielded no food items boasting the presence of any high-fructose corn syrup (save from a half-filled and forgotten Hunt's Ketchup squeezebottle). I say this not to boast, but to point out that one can have a well-stocked kitchen that avoids needless additives and preservatives, and I should add that our kitchen wasn't always this corn-free. It took a concerted effort to begin perusing labels and food descriptors to begin sorting out the corn-laden from the corn-free. It involved relying more on local purveyors and farmer's markets, less on mass-produced items, and the near-total abandonment of pre-made and/or frozen foods, in which the high-fructose beast is nearly impossible to avoid (outside of Trader Joe's, that is - keep up the good fight, fellas!). One needn't even give up sodas, if such a thought ever crossed your caffeine and sugar besotted mind - Mexican Coca Cola and Boylan's craft sodas remain blissfully corn free. Because honestly, if I want to drink corn, I'll have my Peruvian friend make me chicha morada.

Given the fact that almost the entirety of Urban Solace's meals are made from scratch on the premises, cutting out high-fructose corn syrup may not have been too difficult for Chef Gordon. In a recent interview for The San Diego Union-Tribune, he highlighted the vodka-based Herbacious Cooler cocktail that would now feature Boylan’s Cane Sugar Lemon-Lime Soda, and the HFCS-free Worcestershire sauce served alongside rich beef cheek daube. In other words, the decision to ban HFCS at Urban Solace won't change the way the food tastes and won't really be noticeable to most patrons.

However, the announcement has proved notable to the likes of the Corn Refiners Association, a Washington, DC-based industry trade group representing the interests of the corn refining industry. This organization has been battling the growing fight against high-fructose corn syrup, launching a PR campaign in 2008 that tossed aside USFDA and Center For Science in the Public Interest concerns about HFCS. The Corn Refiners Association has continued to insist, with seemingly straight faces, that high-fructose corn syrup is 'made from corn, has no artificial ingredients, has the same calories as sugar and is okay to eat in moderation'. They have repeatedly lobbied of behalf of the "natural" status of HFCS, despite the fact that, as Michael Jacobson has described, the ingredient "starts out as cornstarch, which is chemically or enzymatically degraded to glucose and some short polymers of glucose....[while a]nother enzyme is then used to convert varying fractions of glucose into fructose". They have also created several unintentionally hilarious commercials trumpeting the virtues of high-fructose corn syrup - videos which also paint those suspicious of HFCS as dangerously unbalanced and misinformed zealots.

Little surprise, then, that the Corn Refiners Association got wind of Urban Solace's decision to start making cocktails with non-HFCS-based Boylan's sodas, and responded by firing off an official letter of disapproval to Chef Gordon. In it, the association is at some pains to stress the "significant body of scientific information concerning the safety of high-fructose corn syrup" and highlighting the damage caused to the corn refinement industry by a neighborhood restaurant in San Diego opting out of their product of interest.

Somehow, I suspect Urban Solace is going to find this accusatory letter from such a transparently absurd organization to be a badge of honor. Perhaps even frame-worthy? After all, it's hard to take something seriously if it comes from the same minds that created this television spot. Seriously, check it out. And if you're in the area, stop by Urban Solace for a drink or a bite. These things start small.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Robert Burton Was Right: Media Saturation Circa 1621

Couldn't help but re-post this insightful comparison from the good folks over at Lapham's Quarterly, partly due to the fact that I can't help but draw attention to the fact that I've actually read the thousand-plus pages of the seventeenth century document quoted in the piece. Those untold hours of clandestine reading at the Albany Public Library's back desk in the spring of '04 have paid off!

A recent New York Times article by Matt Richtel, entitled "Your Brain on Computers: Digital Devices Deprive Brain of Needed Downtime," notes that in the current age of electronic media saturation, our ability to quickly fill in spare moments or even seconds with stimuli - staving off tedium while in line at the grocery store or while on hold with the cable company - may be choking off necessary moments of memory restoration and mental "downtime". If checking a football score or the NASDAQ numbers via iPhone at a long stoplight may keep us entertained during moments of boredom, what is such activity keeping our brain from otherwise contemplating?

I've long suspected that the vast majority of our time spent plugged in and staring at our phones is little more than simple distraction - the adult equivalent of waving a rattle in a bored baby's face to keep them from crying. The unexamined consequence of spending nearly every waking moment responding to flickering electronic images or sounds may be a complete inability to ponder or reflect. As we tumble into our beds in exhaustion each night and power down the phone, have we spent any moments in contemplation? Or are we terrified of being left alone with our own thoughts?

The cliche of Americans leading "unexamined lives" is an old one, of course, and if the charge holds true, there are many factors at play besides the recent influx of portable electronic devices. Yet one need only step inside any coffee shop, be it Starbucks or a local business with oil paintings on the walls, to witness the antithesis of the Parisian or Viennese café ideal. American coffee shops often seem to be eerily-perfect recreations of the interior of corporate office buildings, with only the cubicle walls removed. Laptops dominate, with much clacking of keys and snaking of cords. Others sit with smart phone in hand, offering a mirror image of their companion, head similarly bent towards the mobile device. Books are in short supply, and conversation sometimes even less so.

But what does all this mean in terms of our brains? Richtel notes the strain such constant activity may be wreaking on our ability to function properly :

Almost certainly, downtime lets the brain go over experiences it’s had, solidify them and turn them into permanent long-term memories,” said Loren Frank, assistant professor in the department of physiology at the university, where he specializes in learning and memory. He said he believed that when the brain was constantly stimulated, “you prevent this learning process.”

At the University of Michigan, a study found that people learned significantly better after a walk in nature than after a walk in a dense urban environment, suggesting that processing a barrage of information leaves people fatigued.

Even though people feel entertained, even relaxed, when they multitask while exercising, or pass a moment at the bus stop by catching a quick video clip, they might be taxing their brains, scientists say.

“People think they’re refreshing themselves, but they’re fatiguing themselves,” said Marc Berman, a University of Michigan neuroscientist."

But as Lapham's Quarterly points out, such laments are far from unique to our digital age. In 1621, the librarian of Christ's Church College and vicar of St. Thomas, Oxford, the estimable Robert Burton, published his massive The Anatomy of Melancholy, one of those delightfully non-classifiable works of the pre-novelistic era, one that purported to be a medical textbook examining the condition of melancholia. In actuality, the work is a bizarre and learned exploration of all manner of scientific, religious and artistic statements on melancholy. If at times it seems as though Burton was on familiar terms with nearly every example of Western writing from ancient times up until the early seventeenth century (and I suspect he was), there is a wit and an endless curiosity that keeps The Anatomy from ever being a mere gloss on old wisdom. Few volumes can boast equal admiration from the divergent likes of Dr. Johnson ("the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise", according to Boswell) to Jacques Barzun and Jorge Luis Borge (in his landmark short story The Library of Babel, Borge opens with the direct Burton quote, "By this art you may contemplate the variation of the twenty-three letters").

Burton - among many, many other things - noted the rising onslaught of printed materials, in which the growth of the publishing industry had conspired to make available far more volumes of information than any one mortal could hope to consume. If Burton's goal in 1621 was to compile all notable information whatsoever relating to melancholia, he immediately recognized upon publication that he may have completed his task at exactly the right moment - the notion of a complete survey of Western literature was rapidly becoming a total impossibility. As he noted in his own massive contribution to knowledge :

"[E]very man hath liberty to write, but few ability. Heretofore learning was graced by judicious scholars, but now noble sciences are vilified by base and illiterate scribblers, that either write for vain-glory, need, to get money, or as Parasites to flatter and collogue with some great men, they put out trifles, rubbish and trash. Among so many thousand Authors you shall scarce find one by reading of whom you shall be any whit better, but rather much worse; by which he is rather infected than any way perfected…

What a catalogue of new books this year, all his age (I say) have our Frankfurt Marts, our domestic Marts, brought out. Twice a year we stretch our wits out and set them to sale; after great toil we attain nothing…What a glut of books! Who can read them? As already, we shall have a vast Chaos and confusion of Books, we are oppressed with them, our eyes ache with reading, our fingers with turning. For my part I am one of the number—one of the many—I do not deny it..."

If the notion of an early seventeenth century missive against media overload seems nearly impossible to fully comprehend, a well-informed reader on the Lapham's Quarterly blog points out such warnings can be traced back even earlier. She cites the 16th century Swiss biologist and founder of zoology, Conrad Gessner, who attempted to catalogue every book in existence in a herculean effort that eventually found form as the Bibliotecha universalis. As clinical psychologist Dr. Vaughn Bell told NPR earlier this year, one result of Gessner's project was outrage "at what he called the 'confusing and harmful abundance of books' which had flooded the 16th century world through the invention of the printing press." The blog commenter goes on to quote at length the French scholar Adrien Baillet, who claimed in 1685 that :

"We have reason to fear that the multitude of books which grows every day in a prodigious fashion will make the following centuries fall into a state as barbarous as that of the centuries that followed the fall of the Roman Empire. Unless we try to prevent this danger by separating those books which we must throw out or leave in oblivion from those which one should save and within the latter between what is useful and what is not."

As always, the realization that we're once again stuck in a situation which has confounded and puzzled great minds since time immemorial is both worrisome and comforting. If I can't quite imagine how Burton, Baillet and Gessner would approach collecting the world's knowledge in the age of Google and iPhones, I also suspect that three hundred years hence, our ancestors will be shaking their heads at the crudity of our technology, the limits of our knowledge, and wondering what on earth we did with all of our downtime.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Art of the Forage

Much as I enjoy tackling recipes that require various exotic ingredients and more than one trip to the grocery store - duck prosciutto and, say, burrata - there's something equally enjoyable about casting about the pantry and the garden for food within hand's reach, then devising some variation or invention using only those items. As the summer reaches its peak and grocery store parking lots teem with ill-tempered suburban warriors out to do battle in the produce aisle, I find it easier to do without that duck prosciutto or burrata (I've never used either ingredient, by the way - just pulling out the big guns to make a point). Luckily, we have a well-stocked pantry, and, even better, we have a small yet proud garden that is responding robustly to the midday heat that has finally arrived in Southern California. When it became clear yesterday afternoon that we had a basket's worth of tomatoes ripening their way towards perfection, the decision to base a meal around our Pineapple, Paul Robeson, Green Zebra and Black Brandywine heirloom tomatoes was made for us.

Incidentally, and as I've droned on about before, one of the awesome side benefits of using home-grown (or home-rotted) natural compost for one's garden are the inevitable number of "interlopers" that accidentally spring up from the rich soil, often from single seeds left smothered from earlier meals. This year, we discovered a hearty heirloom cherry tomato plant pushing up defiantly from the soil amid the pickling cucumber and watermelon vines. Through the month of August, the little invader has continued to grow and now offers a burst of red fruit for the picking.

In addition to our tomato crop, the Brown Turkey and Kordota Fig trees have also started producing ripening fruit. Forget fig newtons, and maybe even forget dried figs - the taste of a freshly picked and fully ripened fig is remarkable, a unique blend of strawberry and peach. The difference between the Brown Turkey and Kordota is also notable, as the Kordota retains its green color as it approaches full ripening, which means birds and many unaware humans leave them hanging from the branch, assuming them to be unripened. So, note the bright green color of the Kordotas in the photos below - I assure you, they were velvet soft inside (figs do not ripen once they have picked, so they must only be selected when ready to eat).

I had also been anxious to try one of the several jars of pickled rhubarb Jane and I had created earlier in the summer, a recipe I'd never tried and decided to tackle after several handfuls were left over from a rhubarb pie session (side note - I recently discovered that while the rhubarb plant itself is quite obviously and botanically a vegetable, it has been classified as a fruit in the United States since a local court made the decision in 1947, using the logic that a), rhubarb tended to be used more often as if it was a fruit, and b), imported rhubarb would be subjected to less of an import duty if it was classified as a fruit. I suspect reason b was the deciding factor). We both had little idea of what exactly pickled rhubarb would taste like, and several times I decided against bringing a jar to parties or get-togethers until we'd been able to sample the mysterious brew ourselves. Tonight would be the night, paired with goat cheese - a pairing I've seen recommended numerous times by various food writers.

The bulk of the fresh tomatoes were to be used for a basic bruschetta, utilizing thin slices of German rye bread toasted to a crisp and rubbed with raw garlic.....

.....and with the tomatoes tossed with oil-preserved sardines, home-dried oregano and flat-leaf parsley from the garden (By the way - I once thought I'd never get Jane to fully enjoy eating sardines, as they seem to suffer from a slightly poor image, just like anchovies. But once I pointed to conclusive evidence that not only were sardines safe for pregnant women to consume, but were actually encouraged - sardines are a kind of "super food," boasting essential omega-3 fatty acids, substantial amounts of calcium, protein, and supposedly improve brain development in babies - she's proven remarkably interested in the lowly fish)......

....the bruschetta were assembled, with several generous glugs of olive oil.

Well, the tomato/anchovy bruschetta were pretty great, the fresh guacamole made from San Diego's finest avocados was equally fine, and the Kordota fig fruit spooned out as instant paste was all the dessert we needed. But we both agreed that the pleasant surprise of the evening was the pickled rhubarb, which tasted exactly as we'd hoped it might - briney, fully pickled, yet sweet and sugary, with unmistakable rhubarb flavor. We loved it. I can see how it would go well with asparagus and roasts, alongside scallops or in leafy salads, as part of a cheese plate or charcuterie spread - really, it could prove endlessly useful. I highly recommend giving it a shot.

So, as the summer rolls along, we continue to look ahead. With San Diego's warmest weather often arriving in September, we'll be cultivating summer crops for some time. Just this morning, we pulled up the remnants of our pickling cucumber vines, now spent after providing us with a dozen jars of canned pickles. In its place will go newly-purchased young plants from the farmer's market - Japanese eggplant, Japanese cucumber, and Ping Tung, or Chinese eggplant. Let's hope the heat continues and our ability to forage for food continues through the new year.

Friday, August 20, 2010

One Begins To Suspect Somebody Is Putting Them On

Adults knew to be on their guard whenever I entered family gatherings with my portable tape recorder in hand back in the salad days of the late 1980s. From an early age, I had not only been fascinated by the workings of magnetic tape, but I had also developed an unhealthy obsession with documenting accidental and ambient sounds – what one might refer to as audio vérité. To capture conversation carried on unaware of any nearby recording device was my attempt at approaching the reality of a given situation. As annoyed as my grandmother was when she inevitably discovered the tape recorder tucked under a blanket on the couch, recording every word as she snapped at my younger brothers for ringing the doorbell one too many times or complained about the summer heat, these unguarded comments seemed to me a much more accurate impression of her than a carefully scripted address into a microphone or a frozen smile for the camera. The result of this fascination is several boxes worth of cassette tapes filled with long stretches of tedious silence or mere bumps and shuffles, interspersed with brief flare-ups of family realism. How else could one capture unique moments and one-off routines, such as my five-year-old younger brother, coming under merciless teasing from two bored older brothers, (i.e., “Why are you such a toad?”) sagely opining, “Well, people are born different”? Or my grandmother disputing another brother’s response to some forgotten query, to which he replies, in his toughest little boy voice, “You’re asking me questions, and I’m giving you the answers.” Or a much later event, which finds me holed up with a high school buddy as we desperately attempt to slog our way through the Lennon-McCartney classic “Help,” in which a brief conversation about the saxophone leads me to offer the following nugget of mush-headed philosophy: “The guitar and the sax are the two best ways to express yourself.” My friend responds with utter disdain dripping from the corners of his mouth, “You can express yourself in a lot of ways, Jason.”

These days, of course, I don’t lug portable recording devices around with me – what might once have been charming at the hands of a young boy would probably be viewed as felonious behavior at best. While I’ve still been known to swing my video camera in the general direction of unaware strangers to grab a few precious seconds of eccentric behavior, I largely rely on my ears and memory to document memorable encounters, which so often stem from casual eavesdropping in public spaces. Just this morning, what might have been a routine transaction between patron and coffee shop employee turned into a longer conversation about sore muscles from helping one’s mother move into a new apartment.

“I recommend Vicodin,” the coffee shop guy said. To which the patron responded, “The crazy thing is, my father just had back surgery and is completely loaded up with painkillers, so I could tap into that. But he won’t let me touch them.”

“Ah, he wants them for himself.”

“No, he just won’t give them to me if he knows I need them because I’m helping my mom move. He doesn’t want her to have any help.”

This, to me, is a fascinating exchange – one of these brief glimpses into someone else’s life that brings home the messiness and casual cruelty that makes up so much of human interaction. A father denying painkillers to a son because he’s lending a hand to his mother? That’s the kind of back-story that might inspire a nineteenth century Russian novelist.

When the details or the conversation is flowing fast and thick, I find memory alone can’t keep up, and at times I’ll reach for the notepad or a piece of scrap paper to jot down stray comments or observations, figuring I may need to quote them later. Half the time, the encounter is forgotten, or upon further reflection one discovers the comment wasn’t actually all that memorable. But sometimes, you strike gold. Like this week.

I’ve been volunteering my time and considerable skills as an Information Professional at the library of a local art museum, in an effort to explore a new area of study, contribute to the health of the community, and spend a little bit of time in the subterranean (read: air-conditioned) depths. Shifting the collection, helping catalogue new arrivals, and digging through seventeen boxes of donations from a local professor that for some reason included cassette copies of George Michaels’ Faith and U2’s October, I’ve been busy familiarizing myself with yet another wrinkle in the library realm. But no use denying it – I’ve also been busy witnessing and observing what appears to be a rapidly disintegrating effort by the head librarian to coordinate the activities of a fellow volunteer transferred over from some shadowy agency to lend a hand and gain some apparently much-needed work experience.

I won’t give details, of course, but suffice it to say that this individual has forced me to re-think any and all preconceived notions I had concerning volunteering. For although volunteering is theoretically among the most helpful, selfless and noble actions individual citizens can undertake, in practice, it can just as easily unravel into showcasing people at their most bored and difficult, a mere excuse to stay busy, get out of the house, and to harbor deeply flawed delusions about one’s self. All of which help describe the individual in question, who I’m going to refer to as Mr. Altruism for the duration of this piece. He is a senior citizen, perhaps on the younger side of 70, who arrived with a clutch of paperwork and odd demands one hour before his interview was scheduled to take place. Any hopes that Mr. Altruism might be able to lend a much-needed hand to an ongoing computer-based inventory project were shattered within the first few minutes of conversation, in which he noted several times that he had been self-employed for thirty-five years, that he had no interest in anything having to do with computers or math, and that he needed to be awarded one specific job that would not change or vary during the entire period of his volunteer service, which was to be of undetermined length. When told the library was willing to offer twelve hours a week of supervised volunteer work, he dismissed this as a mere technicality and said he was going to be here at least twenty hours a week. When informed that the museum opened at 10 AM, he responded that was too late for him, as he “will not deal with traffic,” and would therefore like to come in much earlier. When asked what special skills or areas of interest he had that led him to volunteer at this museum, he replied he was a “people person” and was a “toucher”. He repeated this several times; “I am a big toucher. I touch people”.

Busying myself along the bookshelf, I listened in as, with remarkable restraint, the librarian (who I’ll refer to as Ms. L) managed to steer the conversation away from Mr. Altruism’s people-touching abilities and more towards things like weekly schedules and his familiarity with computers. It soon became clear that Mr. Altruism had some firmly held beliefs on what sort of activities were appropriate for museum volunteers and those that were not. He insistently returned to the topic of math, at one point driving his fist gently but firmly onto the table to emphasize that he would not agree to performing any math. Ms. L. attempted several times to assure him that quadratic equations played a very small role in art museum volunteering duties, but one could sense Mr. Altruism had his guard up. “Believe me,” he said, “I know a thing or two about people. I worked in retail a number of years back, and I put dresses aside for the ladies, and don’t you think they didn’t respect me for that and remember my name. I knew their names, they knew my name. That’s the sort of thing I hope to do here.”

When Ms. L. suggested the museum was less in need of setting dresses aside for the ladies and more in need of simple timesheet-related data entry (not expressed exactly in such terms), Mr. Altruism burst into a disturbingly long peel of laughter that involved the shaking of a finger in the librarian’s direction. “I can do anything you want,” he chuckled, “but that doesn’t mean I will do anything you want.”

“What are some things you would like to do, then?” she asked patiently.

"I’ll do anything you want.”

“Well,” Ms. L. said, seizing the opportunity, “we need help with entering things into the computer –“

“That’s not what I would prefer to do,” Mr. Altruism warned, veering suspiciously into Bartleby the Scrivener territory.

Ms. L. pushed on. “We also need help during openings and events, things like helping serve refreshments or pouring wine for people.”

Mr. Altruism raised his hand to stop her. “I am not a caterer. I do not do any catering.”

“I wouldn’t call this catering…”

He studied the table and his paperwork for a second. “We need to make this work. We need to figure this out. Without any math and without any catering.”

The patience was wearing thin, but Ms. L. pressed on admirably. “Why don’t you tell me what you are interested in doing?”

Long pause. “I’m a people person, you see. And I’ve written a book. I should say, I am writing a book.”

Perhaps sensing neutral ground, Ms. L. took the bait. “And what is the book about?”

Head shaking, hands waving. “No, no, no, I’m not going to tell you that. That is not something I am going to tell you. Not yet, not now.”

Totally bewildered, Ms. L. refused to give up. “Is it set in the past?”

Head shaking. “That’s not the sort of thing I can tell you. Maybe someday.”


At this point in the narrative, my duties took me away from the volunteer interview, so I can’t document how it ended, although one can certainly imagine. For whatever reason – undoubtedly tied up in some murky collision between museum policy and volunteer outreach programs – Mr. Altruism returned the following week, necessitating an impromptu session of desperation involving data entry instruction and long spools of unrelated querying, during which a fellow volunteer and I waited patiently for our turn. As the brief explanation turned into an hour-long slow burn, I reached for a nearby piece of paper to record the comedy gold taking place at the computer terminal. For as poor Ms. L. attempted to walk Mr. Altruism through the simple steps of entering people’s timesheet information from paper to computer, roars of laughter came from our intrepid volunteer.

“So, you look at this number here, and that’s what they worked for that shift…..”

“Ha ha ha ha! Ha ha haaaaa ha!”

“And so you just add that number into this column. Right here.”

“Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!”

“If it’s not a whole number, if it’s something like six and a half –“

Mr. Altruism managed to speak through his mirth. “I only asked that I not ever have to deal with math. No math, ever, I said. And what does the universe do? It slaps me down, slaps me with the math!”

“Well, yes –“

“Math!” he repeated, incredulously.

Ms. L. said, “It’s math, but it’s barely math.”

Shaking his head. “No, it’s math.”

“It’s numbers more than math.”

Mr. Altruism insisted, “Math math.”

“….with a calculator.”

Sinister chuckles. “ Oh, I’m not going to win with you. I can see that. You and the universe.”

The lesson continued in fits and starts. Ms. L. would attempt a simple navigation. “So, let’s enter this number here.”

Long sigh from Mr. Altruism. Somewhat philosophically, he countered, “Now, here’s a recommendation I have.”

“Let’s just enter this number into this column, please.”

“I would probably prefer to see your instructions written down.”

Ms. L. took a breath. “Enter this number here.”

Long pause as Mr. Altruism sat motionless. “Is there a booklet or a pamphlet?”

“Let’s just enter this number here.”

He shook his head in wonderment, at the futility of it all. “Remember,” he said, “I’ve been self-employed for thirty five years.”


And so the afternoon dragged on, each polite request from Ms. L. being swatted away mosquito-style, each attempt at instruction countered with laughter or vague threats. At one point, Ms. L. asked him five different times to delete one number and add another one. His stony silence and loud sighs were the only response.

“It’s a simple thing,” she said. “Take that last number out and put this one in.”

“I’m resisting,” he said finally. “I’m resisting you. I always seem to resist when I’m being taught. When someone tries to teach me, I resist.” He seemed genuinely proud of himself. “See, I know this about myself. I’ve been this way all my life.”

Ms. L. had apparently decided to just play along at this point. “I think you do know what you need to do, am I right?”

“I resist instruction.”

In a voice remarkably pleasant, Ms. L. said, “When I walk away, you’ll be fine.”

Long painful pause. “I hate to admit these things,” Mr. Altruism said.

“You will get your own space in just a second, after I’ve seen you change this number.”

Mr. Altruism mused, “There are no time outs. There are no time outs.”

We teetered on the brink of chaos. “I’m sorry?” Ms. L. asked, no longer capable of hiding confusion laced with exasperation.


Again, this nightmarish back-and-forth continued through the afternoon, and I soon found myself too far from the action to overhear every word. I stopped scribbling notes as the conversation lagged. We busied ourselves in the Middle East shelving section, checking Object ID numbers as the lesson dragged on. At one point, I suddenly realized the room had been deathly still for some time, with no movement or sound issuing forth from the computer terminal at which Ms. L. and Mr. Altruism held court. I leaned over to catch a glimpse of whatever action might currently be going down.

It is an image I will not soon forget. Ms. L. stands over Mr. Altruism, to his left, hands at her side, looking down at him with a complete absence of emotion. Mr. Altruism sits in front of the screen, hands in lap, motionless, looking directly up at Ms. L. Not a word is being said. Neither party blinks. The silence extends, becoming first embarrassing, then painful, eventually worrisome.

It is Mr. Altruism who breaks the silence. “I really don’t believe in this,” he broods.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

On Translation (The Big Backcountry): Guimarães Rosa, Nabokov, J. M. G. Le Clézio, Apollinaire, Sappho, Wang Wei

On Translation

I’ve been thinking about translation and its many manifestations, limitations and compromises lately, partly due to my own interest in the subject and partly due to the efforts of acquaintances more intimately involved in the practice. For example, a friend has turned an internship at a small publishing house into an opportunity at translating a new edition of Mexican novelist Paco Ignacio Taibo II’s Calling All Heroes into English, available through PM Press, as well as embarking on translation and editing services through his own personal website. Similarly, another acquaintance has turned his interest in a long-lost (to English readers, at any rate) Brazilian novel into an ongoing blog/research project drawing attention to what he has dubbed “A Missing Book”. João Guimarães Rosa’s 1956 novel Grande Sertão: Veredas (literally, Big Backcountry: Tracks, but commonly known in English as The Devil To Pay In The Backlands) is a long out-of-print masterpiece considered to be the (a?) Brazilian Ulysses, currently languishing in the realm of overpriced online trading via a rather antiquated 1963 English translation that begs for a new attempt. His blog is continually updated, and has ranged from interviews with noted scholars to lovely images of vintage edition covers. Far from a dusty work of scholarship, the blog is an exploration of the multifaceted ways one might approach a beloved, albeit neglected, work.

In the case of The Devil To Pay In The Backlands, one would be grateful merely for the opportunity to order a $13.99 soft cover copy from Amazon, even if the existing translation remained the travesty it supposedly is. A book’s in-print status and availability is often the first obstacle to appreciating a work – a shoddy translation is sometimes par for the course. But let’s leave aside the issue of availability for the moment (trusting to the efforts of used bookstores everywhere, perhaps?) and focus on what I’ll dub the Translation Perplex. Because while the decision to reclaim a novel for and/or from posterity by firing off a new run with improved dust jackets may be primarily a monetary one, any attempts at re-casting the words themselves via an improved translation necessarily involves sweat, frustration, and a leap of faith.

Whenever my mind turns to translation, I usually start thinking about Nabokov. This is partly due to a long personal infatuation with Nabokov’s glorious and flowing prose, an infatuation that burns ever more brightly with each passing year as I ponder Nabokov’s miraculous mastery of two distinct languages, Russian and English. Is it not enough to be a master prose stylist in one world language – a trendsetter, innovator, genius? To inarguably add to the tradition of a literature and a language that is not one’s own, as Nabokov did to English, is little short of astonishing. One can think of few others gliding as successfully between languages. And yet such efforts were far from effortless. Indeed, it took many years for me to recognize the labor so skillfully hidden by Nabokov, and only recently have I begun to understand he was forever conscious of the wide gulf permanently existing between himself and a language that was not truly his own.

One need only consider the 1957 novel Pnin, his fourth written in English and thirteenth overall. Of course the portrait of an intellectual Russian émigré on an American campus during the height of the Cold War would contain certain autobiographical echoes of a man who bounced around Europe and America for most of his life, seeking refuge from a land that assassinated his father and harassed his Jewish wife. But what I find surprising is the attention Nabokov draws to the humiliations inherent in any attempt at assimilation. Pnin is an intellectual, a scholar, a researcher, a great mind and a man of high moral courage. And yet he is also a figure of some amusement to the denizens of the university campus. “Handicapped and hemmed in by his incapacity to learn a language,” as Nabokov writes, Pnin is “a figure of fun to many an average intellectual.” That is hardly how one would describe as urbane and sophisticated a fellow as Nabokov. Yet how much of himself is present in his unsparing image of a distraught Pnin sobbing, “I haf nofing” – dignity denied simply due to differences in local pronunciation? (Never forget that nearly all English speakers both during Nabokov’s lifetime and today have no idea how to correctly pronounce his name. “One cannot hope to understand an author if one cannot even pronounce his name,” he once sternly rebuked those who would turn Gogol into ‘Go-gall’. ‘Na-bo-kov,’ he insisted. “A heavy open ‘o’ as in ‘Knickerbocker’. My New England ear is not offended by the long elegant middle ‘o’ of Nabokov as delivered in American academies. The awful ‘Nah-bah-kov’ is a despicable gutterism. Well, you can make your choice now”).

Adam Thirlwell recently highlighted this aspect of Nabokov’s struggles with linguistic differences, although his essay (a review of the recently released collection Verses and Versions: Three Centuries of Russian Poetry Selected and Translated by Vladimir Nabokov), seeks to highlight the stark changes the man himself underwent regarding poetry translation, specifically Russian-to-English translations. The details are startling. In 1944, Nabokov released a collection of Russian poetry translations, featuring works by Lermontov, Pushkin and Tyutchev. In 1964, he released a massive four-volume edition of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. Between those twenty years, Nabokov had settled in America and had notably chosen to abandon Russian as his primary compositional language of choice. What is most obviously distinct between the two volumes of translated poetry, Thirlwell notes, is Nabokov’s mutation from a “free” translator, attempting to wrestle with the original language by closely hewing to rhythms and rhymes at all cost, to a more “literalist” approach abandoning forced rhyme (or “padding and trimming,” as Thirlwell puts it) for a stubborn faithfulness to form. Even an aloof observer can note the marked difference between Nabokov’s 1944 and 1964 translations of Stanza XXXIII of Eugene Onegin – “no, never did a passion roll/ such billows in my bursting soul” vs. “no, never did the surge of passions/ thus rive my soul”. The former may well be “better” poetry, with rhymes and rhythms intact. Yet “passion roll” is clearly the translator’s invention, inserted solely to provide a mandated rhyme and to echo the similarly extended concluding line. And as Thirwell notes, only through abandoning excessive ornamentation did Nabokov come close to transmitting what may well be one of the more distinctive features of Pushkin’s art – the swift change in tone from everyday language to idealistic turns of phrase, a feature lost in his earlier, more acceptably “poetic,” version. Put another way, what would the reader prefer? A good Nabokov poem or a good translation of a good Pushkin poem?

But we’ve strayed into the realm of Pushkin while we have yet to fully agree on proper pronunciation of his translator’s name. “Well, you can make your choice now”.


Faced with such conundrums, who might not be struck with paralysis of action? If even Nabokov found himself reversing his course of action over the span of a mere twenty years, what of us monolinguists? Despairing of ever mastering the Russian tongue enough to stumble through a Chekhov short story, let alone larger efforts by Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, I settle for translations, imperfect as they may be (am I going to take a five-month night course in Turkish so I can better appreciate Orhan Pamuk?). But these are the notable names, the celebrities on the world stage. What of the countless authors not yet afforded the right to life in English form? A recent essay by novelist and professor Tim Parks simultaneously depressed and cheered me regarding this matter. For as Parks sadly explains, only 3 to 5% of all books published in the United States are translations. This paltry number negatively impacts not only the opportunities afforded American readers to better understand the continuing trajectory of world literature, but also contributes to a poor global recognition of individual authors – the lack of an English translation, for example, results in a work likely being passed over for international prizes, such as the Nobel. Cut off from the world’s dominant language renders even the most accomplished author a mere rumor or regional obscurity.

Compare America’s 3-5% showing with the situation in France, Germany or Italy, where Parks notes translations account for something on the order of 50% of all published fiction. Certain European newspapers divide their bestseller lists into two competing columns, foreign and domestic, so as to make sure foreign translations do not completely shut out local offerings. However, lest anyone mournfully curse American ignorance and isolationism, Parks has an essential distinction to make. The vast majority of these translated works (“all but a few,” as he puts it), are from novels originally written in English, meaning German, Polish, Dutch, Turkish and Greek novels (to remain firmly within the European mainland), are not being adequately represented outside their own cultures. Even more sobering is the fact that the vast majority of these translations are what we might describe as “genre” novels, or what I might in a less generous mood deride as “trash” – detective novels and mysteries, thrillers, romances, sci-fi, fantasy. Let’s call it pop lit. Or lite.

On the other hand, a research program by the University of Rochester lists a figure of nearly 350 works of translated fiction and poetry published in the United States during 2009, the vast majority of these being examples of “sophisticated” literature rather than potboilers or interminable romances. The serious stuff, the prize winners, from a variety of languages and cultures. As Parks points out, 350 works are “more than anyone could read in a single year,” and concludes with the question, aimed at the translation-swamped European mainland, “Does the unceasing translation of the second-rate matter?”

However, the question remains of what is and is not second-rate. Is the French novelist and Nobel Prize winner J. M. G. Le Clézio “second rate?” Probably not. Yet up until a few weeks ago, when I picked up a “new” book by Le Clézio at the nearby University Heights library branch, I doubt I could have picked the author out of a lineup. Bound in an attractive volume and bearing the proud logo “Winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature,” Desert caught my eye on the new book shelf – vaguely familiar name, I thought, and shouldn’t I jump at the chance to read more contemporary French fiction? Scanning the bookflap more closely once back home, I shamefully discovered that Le Clézio has been at this writing gig for some time, having published his first novel in 1963 (Le Proces-Verbal / The Interrogation), for which he won the Prix Renaudot. I also discovered that Mr. Le Clézio, a “new” author, has over 40 works of fiction and non-fiction to his name. I finally discovered that the current volume I was holding in my hand, the one that had been plucked off the “new books” shelf, available for the very first time in English translation, and cited as his “breakthrough” novel by various critics and the Nobel authorities, had been originally published in 1980, a mere thirty years ago.

I’m glad this translation of Désert exists at all. And at least Le Clézio is still actively working in his chosen field, a relatively youthful 70 rather than a long-ago-passed-on and recently-discovered master. But a thirty year lag between a work’s creation and that work first being appreciated by a supposedly sophisticated English-speaking audience is somewhat disturbing. Are we returning to those pre-electronic media days when the visual arts took decades to spread beyond modest confines, when vast metropolitan areas like New York City could remain blissfully ignorant of innovative changes taking place across the pond in the realm of modern art, in which epochal exhibitions like the 1913 Armory Show introducing shocked artists and public alike to works already fully disseminated among European audiences? I’ll admit there is something exhilarating in knowing artistic influences are still capable of moving slowly between cultures (one thinks of the ongoing discovery of ‘decadent’ artistic practices as totalitarian barriers tumble). Yet what are the full ramifications of an art form if novels remain in limbo for over a generation?

For example: what if music or film suffered the imposition of thirty-year time lags upon their full release? What if contemporary artists and performers had only this year stumbled across, say, the New York No Wave recordings of the late 1970s, the first 12” hip-hop singles from the Bronx, or the films of David Cronenberg and Peter Greenaway? What if we would all need to wait another half-decade before rumors began to trickle in of Jim Jarmusch, Michael Haneke, Laurie Anderson or Sonic Youth? How much poorer would both our popular and high culture scenes be!

So we are caught between the question of whether our culture produces and consumes enough translated works of art (answer: yes and no?) and questions of the quality of these existing translations. And here we enter the quagmire that led an old friend of mine to initiate a verbal throwdown with me concerning the moral acceptability of relying upon translation to convey the specific qualities of a given master stylist. It’s easy enough to scoff at the notion of needing to master Greek in order to settle down with a volume of Nikos Kazantzakis, he suggested. But what would you say to a well-meaning reader whose only encounter with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was in Cyrillic form? Is μυρτιλός “huckleberry” or “blueberry” or (yikes) “whortleberry”? How would you suggest translating the accidental transformation of The Duke of Bridgewater to “Bilgewater”? For crissakes, what about “hain’t”? Do we seek as literal a translation as possible, throwing caution to the wind by allowing for clunky phrasing and unintentional mouthfuls? Or do we search for the elusive literary flow, thereby creating a “new” text that nevertheless has some relation to literature as we know it? Or is there perhaps a third option – to reject an insistence upon an either/or approach of originalism or activism by fully submersing one’s self inside the work in question, not merely reading and understanding the novel but inhabiting the work, before recreating one’s experience of the novel through respect, creativity and a willingness to seek what is merely comparable rather than that which is identical.


Key to issues of translation, then, are the dueling priorities of accuracy and creative inspiration. Perhaps our constant dissatisfaction with translated offerings stems from a translator’s fidelity to a single approach. Even a reader completely ignorant of the nuances of an original language can quickly identify the “authorless” flow of translated prose that utterly fails to convey the art of a spoken or written language – prose that moves the story forward and records dialogue, yet imparts little of the mystery, charm or poetry of the original (an immediate example that comes to mind are the translations of Japanese novelist Kōbō Abe, which I found to be stilted and archaic beyond belief). Add such examples of mannerism and innacuracy to the loss of original puns, wordplay and rhyme, and one is left with mere shells of literature. Even the most painstaking translation requires copious footnotes to convey that which has been lost and explanations of choices made.

And it is this requirement of supporting evidence, I find, that oddly enough means poetry very often works better in translation than prose. Not all the time, and certainly not always as poetry. Rather, one can more fully gauge the experience of the translated poem, and appreciate the choices made by the translator, on the relatively smaller canvas a poem presents. Because every word in a poem matters, and because there are generally far less words in even a lengthy poem than will be found in a novel, novella or short story, copious amounts of space can be devoted to exploring and explaining decisions, and limitations. In addition, poetry benefits from the option of side-by-side presentation, with the original poem in its original language on one side of the page and the translated work on the other. Footnotes or end notes can explore the full ramifications of words and language – their history, multiple meanings, literary echos, internal rhymes, puns, imperfections and the dreaded “untranslatable phrase”. Any attempt at providing such services to even the slimmest volume of prose would bloat the work beyond belief and disrupt the flow of narrative to such a degree as to turn any reading of the work into a sluggish crawl. Yet poems – so keenly tied to the eccentricities of language, so easily “lost in translation” – undeniably benefit from such careful finagling and finessing.

(I’m pleased to note at least a hint of kinship here with deceased Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño, who achieved some degree of fame stateside for his sprawling and astonishing novels, but who viewed himself as a poet first and foremost, even going so far as to declare in an interview with Melanie Jösch that he viewed fiction writing to be the lesser art. His own translator, Natasha Wimmer, writes in her introduction to one of those sprawling novels, Los detectives salvajes / The Savage Detectives, “Bolaño’s short novels are tightly controlled models of precision. His two big books were intended to be something else: works encompassing rough edges, loose ends, lapses, faults”. One could never hope to encompass all that is present in the 600-pages of Los detectives salvajes in even the finest translation. Yet given their “rough edges” and “loose ends,” perhaps this matters less than being immersed in the dazzling display of the whole. Of Bolaño’s “tightly controlled models of precision” – his short prose and, we suspect, poetry – we demand a bit more detail and intricacy).

The 1980 bilingual edition of Guillaume Apollinaire’s Calligrammes, published by the University of California Press, remains the standard bearer of this exhaustive approach towards poetry. Expertly translated by Anne Hyde Greet and featuring commentary and explication by both Greet and S.I. Lockerbie, this handsome volume collects all of Apollinaire’s “Poems of Love and War” composed between 1913 and 1916, and preserves the visual format and playfulness of his calligram offerings (which admittedly only make up a handful of the many examples of verse in the collection). The calligrams are especially worthy of such careful treatment, as these experiments in literal poetic form, in which words on the page assume pictorial or spatial layout commenting upon the poem itself, can seem mere games and showmanship if left to a hapless “straight” translation – the realm of Hallmark greeting cards rather than high modernism. With a literal display of the original text, and with a translation that painstakingly recreates the imagery, the reader is left with a heightened appreciation of Apollinaire’s craft. Add to this an extensive explanation of language choice and the rich backdrop of Apollinaire’s historical worldview, and one begins to note the dual meanings behind each curved line, one understands the careful decisions behind each bend and turn, and can marvel at the richness of symbolism and wordplay pulsing through even the briefest doodle (an example: Carte Postale / Postcard, a poem that assumes the literal outline and form of a handwritten postcard, even down to the fake postal code stamped along the poem’s edge.

Far more than simply a clever wink, Apollinaire here is likely referencing cubist collages, then in vogue with intellectuals of all stripes. Yet the poem itself is a patriotic declaration of sorts, mimicking the free correspondance available to troops during the ongoing Great War, even recycling a popular phrase by Philippe Pétain (On les aura / We’ll get them yet). Thus, within a steadfastly modern appropriation lies a decidedly non-modern patriotic verve).

Both calligrams and standard poems alike receive in-depth explanation, with single poems yielding up several pages of notes and often reference citations. This approach bears a price – over 160 pages of the book are devoted to explanatory notes. Thus, far from a slim volume of poetry, Calligrammes has become transformed into a solid treatise on a modern master. By insisting that a five-line poem deserves a least an entire page of notes, Greet and Lockerbie have offered at least a suggestion of what is lost in any translated work of prose or poetry. And it is partly the result of admitting what is lost that helps transmit the richness and complexity of the original work. Glimpsing the struggle behind the transformation and tasting the imperfection in the finished product has actually strengthened my understanding of Apollinaire’s technique – an understanding I’ve often been denied when reading nearly any other non-English poet.


Although it represents a much different project, I can’t help but be reminded of Anne Carson’s landmark 2002 bilingual translation of the surviving fragments of Sappho, the ancient Greek poet. The similarities arrive through the acknowledgment by Carson of the gaps present in any translated work – aesthetically in the case of Apollinaire, quite literally in the case of Sappho. One of the many tragedies in world literature is the near-complete loss of all Sappho’s work. Her lyrics were written specifically for the lyre, as musical performances. Of course, we know nothing whatsoever of her melodies. Of the nine volumes of lyrics attributed to Sappho, only one poem has survived in complete form. The rest of our knowledge of Sappho is dependent upon fragments, many jumbled and butchered, countless others cut off, a few consisting merely of single lines or a dozen words.

This is the kind of situation that can leave classics majors weeping – the fact that we have one complete poem of Sappho, only eleven of forty plays by Aristophanes, a single line from Adrianus’ epic poem Alexandriad, while the complete seasons of American Idol will no doubt be stored for perpetuity in some form of digital preservation. Given the loss of Sappho’s output, one might be tempted to throw up their hands, mourn the inability to ever experience the works of a great 5th century mind, grumble about the preciousness of ancient wisdom. However, better folks than me, such as Anne Carson, have set about turning this loss into a tangible gain, by translating and presenting the surviving words of Sappho in all their fragmented glory. As Carson herself puts it in her introduction to If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, “There is no reason you should miss the drama of trying to read a papyrus torn in half or riddled with holes or smaller than a postage stamp.” The result is a nearly 400 page volume which one might suggest offers a wholly inaccurate impression of Sappho’s verse – spurts, glimpses, halved fragments, meaning and context hopelessly lost to time. In their mutilated form, Sappho’s poems seem undeniably modern, even postmodern, conforming to the hallmarks of extreme minimalism. They read like brutal haiku.

Yet these fragments are also undeniably lovely, deeply moving and haunting – a glimpse not only into what might have been but what also is. And because such a glimpse is perhaps all that will ever be available to any reader of translated poetry, we feel the loss – the missing words - less keenly. Some of these fragments, even the startlingly brief ones, are very nearly perfect, such as #39: the feet/ by spangled straps covered/ beautiful Lydian work. Or #134: I conversed with you in a dream/ Kyprogeneia. Or #47: Eros shook my/ mind like a mountain wind falling on oak trees (the fragments look even more beautiful in Carson’s book, in which she awards each poem, no matter how brief, a wide blank gulf to lie upon, often moving gently across the page). Might this volume be a nearly perfect act of translation? Perhaps, if perfection is allowed to encompass the vast gulf any translator must acknowledge extends between the reader and the original language.


If poetry can be agreed to be more amenable to translation than extended works of prose (if not for matters of style, than at least for matters of length), and if fragmented verse accepts limitations in a manner beneficial to the reader, then a translation and close examination of a single poem may represent the nearest non-speakers may come to appreciating the richness of a work written in a foreign tongue. A recent article by Cuban novelist and scholar Jose Manuel Prieto magisterially examines a poem by Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938), his notorious 1933 Кремлёвский горец – dubbed “The Stalin Epigram,” “Epigram Against Stalin,” or simply “The Kremlin Highlander,” and referred to by at least one critic as “the sixteen lines of a death sentence”. This poem would, indeed, eventually cost Mandelstam his life, although the circuitous route leading to his eventual death inside a transit camp five years after composition represented a longer reprieve than others faced during similar purges.

Prieto’s piece deserves to be read in its entirety, which is currently possible via The New York Review of Books website– no summary of mine could possibly do it justice. Offering line-by-line delineation of the original Russian alongside Prieto’s rendering (which has been, of course, translated a second time by Esther Allen – we are entering a rather dizzying realm), the article explores the historical ramifications of the poem, the personal drama behind Mandelstam’s decision to compose an anti-Stalin poem (even going so far as to recite it in 1934 while visiting Boris Pasternak – an event explained as “an act of total insanity” and “patently suicidal”), and verbal / linguistic specificities. A casual read of Mandelstam’s “Epigram Against Stalin,” especially by a non-Russian, will not suggest anything particularly venomous, let alone suicidal or insane:


We live without feeling the country beneath our feet,
our words are inaudible from ten steps away.
Any conversation, however brief,
gravitates, gratingly, toward the Kremlin’s mountain man.
His greasy fingers are thick as worms,
his words weighty hammers slamming their target.
His cockroach moustache seems to snicker,
and the shafts of his high-topped boots gleam.
Amid a rabble of scrawny-necked chieftains,

he toys with the favors of such homunculi.
One hisses, the other mewls, one groans, the other weeps;
he prowls thunderously among them, showering them with scorn.
Forging decree after decree, like horseshoes,
he pitches one to the belly, another to the forehead,
a third to the eyebrow, a fourth in the eye.
Every execution is a carnival
that fills his broad Ossetian chest with delight.

Translated by Esther Allen from José Manuel Prieto’s Spanish version

The poem’s opening line – We live without feeling the country beneath our feet – might come across as merely a yearning for a greater engagement with immediate society, not a sense that “the life of the citizens has become [hazardous]” or a display of “the sharp danger everyone takes in with every breath”. Prieto is at pains to impress upon the reader this sense of urgency, however, noting that the Russian verb he has chosen to translate as “feeling” (chuyat’) has an original first meaning in Russian of “to sniff out or to scent” – in other words, echoes of the hunt, the hunted, wild beasts, predator, prey, pursuit. A people adrift in a nightmare world where even the ground they trod upon seems loaded with dread.

Prieto slowly makes his way through the poem in this manner, line by line, making connections a non-scholar might never suspect (a single example: Mandelstam’s use of the word gorets, or “mountain man,” to describe Stalin, a Georgian, and therefore “something absolutely alien, a descent into savagery” to a St. Petersburg intellectual and Tenishev School-educated Russian like Mandelstam – a dismissive insult of the highest order). By the time we reach poem’s end, our complicity in reading a death sentence in sixteen lines has been assured. The poem’s final line – Every execution is a carnival/ that fills his broad Ossetian chest with delight – lands with a chilling thud. Over the course of several dense pages of text, Jose Manuel Prieto has succeeded in transmitting an approximation of what he opened by declaring “perhaps the twentieth century’s most important political poem, written by one of its greatest poets against the man who may well be said to have been the cruelest of its tyrants”.


But perhaps the finest extant example of the simultaneous joy and heartbreak of translation, the possible pitfalls and the fleeting triumphs, comes in the guise of Eliot Weinberger’s wonderful 1987 volume, Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei. This 53-page volume brings to the reader exactly what the title promises – nineteen attempts by nineteen different historical writers at translating Tang Dynasty poet Wang Wei’s “Lu Zhai” (“Deer Park”), a four-line poem. The various translations span the years 1919 to 1979. Nearly all are in English, aside from one Spanish language translation and two in French. The differences between each version are startling, amusing and fascinating.

The poem itself is deceptively simple, a notable example of the way Chinese poetry can confuse the Western mind with a seemingly straightforward presentation of nature or landscape minus an outside voice. Lacking a narrator, the poem quite simply and plainly details images of an empty forest, voices heard from somewhere, a setting sun, greenery lit by sinking rays….

空 山 不 见 人

但 闻 人 语 响

返 景 入 深 林

复 照 青 苔 上

Weinberger offers a literal, artless translation of each isolated character, in order to suggest to the reader what the following translators will be drawing from in their efforts (for example, Empty - mountain(s) / hill(s) - (negative) - to see - person / people). Linguistic difficulties abound in turning this Chinese poem into a Western artifact. Western “meter” in Chinese poetry is impossible to achieve, and yet translators push on. The numbers of characters per line, tonal arrangement – such features matter far more to Chinese poetry than mere rhymes, and neither are capable of being successfully translated. Of course, multiple meanings also abound, as Weinberger points out: “a single character may be noun, verb and adjective”. Such meanings may even be contradictory. Add to this the fact that tense is absent in Chinese verbs. Nouns lack numbers. The first-person singular is rare (although seemingly impossible to avoid in English).

A quick browse of the preceding list of difficulties in Chinese-to-English translation makes the task seem herculean, if not quixotic. And yet we see countless examples of well-meaning scholars and poets trying their hand at this most-translated of Chinese poets, and in so many cases attempting to impose their will on the poem and attempt to “improve” the document. Is this an artistic drive defeating respect for an original voice, or mere Western arrogance, an inability to leave well enough alone, a cultural assumption that anything “simple” must necessarily be “simple minded”. We observe translators turning Wang Wei’s ambiguity into their own sort of confusion. We see scholars assuming the poet “meant” to use a more complex term than the original character suggests – as if a poet does not choose the exact and most perfect word possible (again, we may be teetering on the precipice of an East-West divide).

Witter Bynner, for example, American poet and a major translator of Chinese verse during the 1920s, writes “there seems to be” and “yet I think I hear” in his translation, even though Wang Wei’s original poem makes it quite clear that there is not and that the speaker does indeed hear. Why add ambiguity where none existed? Why distrust the poet’s words? (And, one might add upon reading other versions, why reverse couplets or break lines into extra stanzas – for mere stylistic diversity?) Kenneth Rexroth’s 1970 version is touted by Weinberger as the first true “poem” in the collection, although he suggests the poem remains something “Wang might have written had he been born a 20th century American”:

Deep in the mountain wilderness

Where nobody ever comes

Only once in a great while

Something like the sound of a far off voice.

The low rays of the sun

Slip through the dark forest,

And gleam again on the shadowy moss.

Some attempts seek concision, others add needless extra words, bulk up descriptions, fool around with tense. G. W. Robinson adds additional spectators to Wang Wei’s solitary vista, creating “we hear” out of whole cloth, a plurality indicated nowhere in the original version, leading Weinberger to wickedly quip, “he makes it a group, as though it were a family outing”.

The strongest of the nineteen offerings on display are those by Octavio Paz and Gary Snyder, and one cannot help but note that these two individuals, along with Rexroth, are all poets first, scholars and translators second, if at all. Snyder’s 1978 version is especially wonderful, perhaps a reflection of the poet’s own love for and familiarity with the forest. This most Zen of the original Beat poets, after all, has spent much more time in the East and among the trees than he has in academia, boasts a dharma name (Chofu, “Listen to the Wind”), and has received the Masaoka Shiki International Haiku Grand Prize. No passive slummer in Eastern thought, it is Snyder’s immersion in and respect for non-Western worldviews that undoubtedly help make his attempt at Wang Wei the most satisfactory. “Every word of Wang has been translated,” Weinberger praises, “and nothing added, yet the translation exists as an American poem”:

Empty mountains:
no one to be seen.
Yet – hear –
human sounds and echoes.
Returning sunlight
enters the dark woods;
Again shining
on the green moss, above.

The few wonderful touches that Snyder adds firmly imprint the poem with his own individuality – that is to say, this is undoubtedly Snyder’s poem – yet his additions add nothing that were not at least implictly already in place. Weinberger draws attention to Snyder’s method of avoiding “I hear” or “we hear,” phrases that are nowhere in the original text yet difficult to avoid in English. Snyder’s solution? “Yet – hear - / human sounds and echoes”, a masterful touch that places the moment firmly in the here and now, yet sidesteps the pitfall of naming indivual narrative voices. Snyder likewise acknowledges the dual meanings of many Chinese characters by translating a single character as two possible variations – “human sounds and echoes,” for example, the first version to select both “sounds” and “echoes” rather than choosing one. Once Snyder does so, we cannot help but ask, “Well, why not?”

Snyder’s poem is placed last, and by the time the reader reaches this point, one cannot help but marvel at the sheer variation of approaches attempted on this humble four-line poem. Even more surprising, however, are the number of versions which fail utterly as either poems or as a representation of Wang Wei’s artistry. Or both. Weinberger’s commentary throughout the book is informed, erudite, witty and at times delightfully nasty (and is there anything quite so gleefully bloodthirsty as somebody tearing somebody else’s poem to shreds?), never more so than in a postscript alluding to a letter from a furious professor, charging Weinberger with “crimes against Chinese poetry” due to his “curious neglect” of a 1955 translation of “Deer Park” by one Prof. Peter A. Boodberg. This version is ghastly, outrageous, and worth reprinting in its entirety, if only to marvel at the result:

The empty mountain: to see no men,
Barely earminded of men talking – countertones,
And antistrophic lights-and-shadows incoming deeper the
deep-treed grove
Once more to glowlight the blue-green mosses – going up
(The empty mountain…)

I’m tempted to insert “barely earminded” and “antistrophic lights-and-shadows” into my working vocabulary. “To me,” Weinberger simply notes, “this sounds like Gerard Manley Hopkins on LSD”.


So, then – a book-length exploration of attempts at translating a twelve-hundred year old four-line poem. To me, it seems as fine an example as any of the beautiful and at times fruitless struggle to help others grasp the beauty and meaning of words uttered by wise elders in a tongue not one’s own.