Tag Archives: translation

A Translation from La Tregua

From the chapter called “The Dreamers” in Primo Levi’s La Tregua:

In the evenings — those long Polish evenings — the air of our quarters, already heavy with tobacco and human odors, became saturated with crazy dreams. This is the first fruit of exile and uprootedness: the unreal prevails over the real. Everyone dreamed, dreams of the past and of the future, of slavery and redemption, of improbable paradises, likewise of mythical and far-fetched enemies: cosmic enemies, perverse and subtle, ubiquitous, ambient, like the air. Everyone, with the exception perhaps of Cravero, and certainly of D’Agata.

D’Agata had no time to sleep, because he was in the grip of terror: bedbugs. Naturally, none of us were exactly fond of these troublesome companions, but we had all grown accustomed to them. They were not few or far between, but a little bug regimen, which had invaded all our bunks with the arrival of spring. By day, they nested in the crevices of the walls and in the wooden bedframes, and they would not set out on a raid until the comings and goings of the day had ceased. We were all resigned to surrender a little portion of our blood, even to do so willingly; it was less easy to get used to feeling them steal across your face and all over your body, underneath your clothing. Only those who had the good fortune to enjoy a heavy slumber, and who succeeded in losing consciousness before they awoke, could sleep in peace.

D’Agata, who was a little man, a Sicilian bricklayer, sober, reserved, and fastidious, had been reduced to sleeping during the day. He spent nights stretched out on his bed, watching all around, his eyes huge from the horror, the vigil, the spasms of attention. In his hand, he tightly grasped a gadget fashioned from a stick and a piece of wire mesh, and the wall next to him was covered with a lurid constellation of bloody stains.

At first these habits of his were the target of mockery: was his skin so much thinner than ours? But then pity took over, mixed with a trace of envy, because among us all, D’Agata was the only one whose enemies were concrete, present, tangible, and could be drawn into combat, struck, and squashed against the wall.

Nelle lunghissime sere polacche, l’aria della camerata, greve di tabacco e di odori umani, si saturava di sogni insensati. È questo il frutto piú immediato dell’esilio, dello sradicamento: il prevalere dell’irreale sul reale. Tutti sognavano sogni passati e futuri, di schiavitú e di redenzione, di paradisi inverosimili, di altrettanto mitici e inverosimili nemici: nemici cosmici, perversi e sottili, che tutto pervadono come l’aria. Tutti, ad eccezione forse di Cravero, e certamente di D’Agata.

D’Agata non aveva tempo di sognare, perché era ossessionato dal terrore delle cimici. Queste incomode compagne non piacevano a nessuno, naturalmente; ma tutti avevamo finito col farci l’abitudine. Non erano poche e sparse, ma un esercito compatto, che col sopraggiungere della primavera aveva invaso tutti i nostri giacigli: stavano annidate di giorno nelle fenditure dei muri e delle cuccette di legno, e partivano in scorreria non appena cessava il tramestio del giorno. A cedere loro una piccola porzione del nostro sangue, ci saremmo rassegnati di buon grado: era meno facile abituarsi a sentirle correre furtive sul viso e sul corpo, sotto gli abiti. Potevano dormire tranquilli solo quelli che avevano la fortuna di godere di un sonno pesante, e che riuscivano a cadere nell’incoscienza prima che quelle altre si risvegliassero.

D’Agata, che era un minuscolo, sobrio, riservato e pulitissimo muratore siciliano, si era ridotto a dormire di giorno, e passava le notti appollaiato sul letto, guardandosi intorno con occhi dilatati, dall’orrore, dalla veglia e dall’attenzione spasmodica. Teneva stretto in mano un aggeggio rudimentale, che si era costruito con un bastoncello e un pezzo di rete metallica, e il muro accanto a lui era coperto di una lurida costellazione di macchie sanguigne.

In principio queste sue abitudini erano state derise: aveva forse la pelle piú fina di noi altri? Ma poi la pietà aveva prevalso, commista con una traccia di invidia; perché, fra tutti noi, D’Agata era il solo il cui nemico fosse concreto, presente, tangibile, suscettibile di essere combattuto, percosso, schiacciato contro il muro.

An Impossible Translation

A short scene, just 45 seconds in length, from Roberto Rossellini’s 1954 Journey to Italy, about an “impossible” translation, in an Italian English-language film that’s preoccupied with the question whether people can ever understand each other. I’m especially captivated by where this scene ends up, not with people estranged from each other because translation is impossible, but with the shipwrecked Duca di Lipoli looking into Ingrid Bergman’s eyes and seeing stars in the night — a bon mot that makes her laugh. Keep in mind, too, this note from Gianni Rondolino’s biography of Rossellini : this scene, like most scenes in this film, is largely improvised, with actors left to find their way together.

Enzo Serafin, who was the film’s director of photography,recalls that Journey to Italy was truly filmed without a script, instead following the indications written on Rossellini’s note sheets, with the daily help of Vitaliano Brancati who was in charge of the dialogues. It was Bergman who acted as go between for Rossellini and [George] Sanders [who plays Bergman’s husband], mainly inventing things and improvising in turn, because Roberto didn’t give her any direction.

Katherine Joyce: What an unusual home you have — and so comfortable.
Count: That sounds to me like one of those compliments that hide the usual reproach: ‘dolce far niente’.
Katherine: Sorry, I don’t understand.
Count: How do you say in English, ‘dolce far niente’?
Prince: It is impossible to say it in English. Perhaps I could translate it, ‘how sweet it is to do nothing.’
Katherine: Oh, I understand.
Countess: They say that all Neapolitans are loafers. Now I’d like to ask you, would you say that a shipwrecked man is a loafer? In a certain sense we’re all shipwrecked. You have to fight so hard just to keep afloat.
Katherine: Well it looks like a very pleasant shipwreck to me.
Duca di Lipoli: Especially when I look into your eyes: they’re like stars in the night.
Katherine: (laughter).

Rickaby’s Doublet — Doing the Work Philosophy Bots Won’t Do

The other day a Twitterbot called @AquinasQuotes tweeted this:

While others retweeted it and favorited it and seemed to identify with it, I thought the translation sounded ungainly and struggled to make sense of it.

As I’ve noted before, most philosophy bots seem to operate without editorial (let alone philosophical) oversight; so it’s no surprise to find misattributions, awkward translations, sentences taken out of context and once coherent thoughts rendered nonsensical. There’s often not much editorial discernment on the other end of the communication, either; if it sounds vaguely encouraging and uplifting, it will find an audience.

The quotable items the bots serve up usually appear without any link or citation that would allow them to be tracked down and read in context, and in most cases they aren’t even lifted from a work of philosophy. Instead, they’ve been pulled from some existing compilation of quotations — which was made, in the majority of cases, from some other compilation. We are almost always at several removes from the original text.

In this case, I tracked down the quotation about living well and working well to the Summa Theologiae, 1ae-2ae Question LVII Article 5. Here Aquinas takes up the question: Is Prudence A Virtue Necessary to Man? The full argument runs as follows in the translation by the English Dominican fathers.

Prudence is a virtue most necessary for human life. For a good life consists in good deeds (bene enim vivere consistit in bene operari). Now in order to do good deeds, it matters not only what a man does, but also how he does it; to wit, that he do it from right choice and not merely from impulse or passion. And, since choice is about things in reference to the end, rectitude of choice requires two things: namely, the due end, and something suitably ordained to that due end. Now man is suitably directed to his due end by a virtue which perfects the soul in the appetitive part, the object of which is the good and the end. And to that which is suitably ordained to the due end man needs to be rightly disposed by a habit in his reason, because counsel and choice, which are about things ordained to the end, are acts of the reason. Consequently an intellectual virtue is needed in the reason, to perfect the reason, and make it suitably affected towards things ordained to the end; and this virtue is prudence. Consequently prudence is a virtue necessary to lead a good life.

I understand the impulse to get away from “a good life consists in good deeds” or “good works,” but the translation of bene operari as “to work well, to show a good activity” doesn’t really help. First, it tries too hard to articulate the Latin verb, so that instead of a simple construction (“to work well”), we have to grapple with an unnatural sounding doublet. The English Dominicans seem to have understood that it’s not really all that necessary to fuss over the verb operor here, since Aquinas spends the rest of the article breaking down what he means by it: not only what we do but how we do it, from right choice rather than merely from passion or impulse, and so on.  And if we try to parse “show a good activity” we might run into other problems, since it could easily be confused with hypocritical display.

The trouble seems to have started with the publication of Father Joseph Rickaby’s Aquinas Ethicus in 1896, where the Stonyhurst philosopher offered “to live well is to work well, or display a good activity”. I’m still not sure what Rickaby was trying to accomplish with this doubling of the verb (why “display”? why “a” good activity?) and by what contortions he managed to get the adjective “good” for the second half of his doublet from the adverb bene. I take it that with “display a good activity” he’s reaching for something like Aristotle’s “activity of the soul in conformity with excellence or virtue” and that in bene vivere consistit bene operari the Jesuit hears Aquinas hearkening back to Aristotle’s definition of eudaimonia or happiness as eu zen (living well) and eu prattein (doing well).

It’s unfortunate that Rickaby did not consult with his friend Gerard Manley Hopkins for a more felicitous phrase. The thing might at least have had some rhythm to it.

In any case, it was only a matter of time before someone tried to make things a little more natural sounding and came upon the word “show.” (I haven’t yet tracked him down, but I should.) That’s how we find Rickaby’s doublet reproduced (without comment) by creativity guru Julia Cameron in her book Walking In this World, in Forbes magazine’s “Thoughts on the Business of Life” feature, and on a whole batch of sites offering inspiring quotations to live by.

I wonder how Forbes readers or Cameron’s readers make sense of this sentence from the Summa, without the benefit of Aquinas’ explication. Do they find in it something like Garrison Keillor’s exhortation at the end of Writer’s Almanac to “do good work”? Or do meaningful work? Or do the work to which one is called? (Can we still talk meaningfully about vocation?) I wonder, too, whether it genuinely clarifies things for them, or why they might wish to identify with the statement and pretend to themselves and others that it clarifies things or inspires them.

This isn’t just a matter of being fussy or snobby about the misreading of Aquinas or deploring the degeneration of philosophy into a meme, though I do have that reflex, I confess. I’m noticing something else happening here, and it has to do with confusion that Rickaby’s doublet causes, or at least fails to resolve, for modern readers around the English word “work.”

Consider just for a moment the appearance of this sentence from the Summa in Cameron’s book on creativity. It hangs there in the margin on page 105, as a gloss on the following passage: “When we start saying ‘Can’t, because I’m working,’ our life starts to work again. We start to feel our artist begin to trust us again and to ante up more ideas.” We have to make room for “our artist,” who retreats when we are busy and over-scheduled, to come out and play. Then and only then will our life “work” again. That’s Cameron’s word, not mine; she’s saying that when we cordon off time for artistic work, our life “works” — makes sense or becomes meaningful again.

This idea of a life that works should bring us back into the territory of eudaimonia as human flourishing, or happy activity; the life of the working artist flows, but not because she acts in accordance with virtue, but because she takes measures to care for the self and allows “her artist,” or what used to be called her genius, to come forward without fear or interference. “We forget that we actually need a self for self expression,” Cameron continues, and that is why we have to say “no” to invitations and other demands on our time: “Instead of being coaxed into one more overextension of our energies in the name of helping others, we can help ourselves by coaxing our artist out with the promise of some protected time to be listened to, talked with, and interacted with.”

The notion of an artist abiding within us who needs to be drawn out and cared for and listened to would be entirely foreign to Aquinas and the Aristotelian ethics on which the Summa draws. That aside, I’m sympathetic to the argument Cameron is making here. Just recently I wrote admiringly of Ingmar Bergman’s “disciplined solitude,” and I know firsthand how hard and how critical it is to secure protected time in order to do one’s work. There’s that word again: work. Maybe it’s always been a confusing word, and maybe that’s why in the 19th century Rickaby felt he had to render it with that doublet. But I have to point out that the “work” of artists, writers, craftsmen, creative people — the work Cameron wants us to put aside time for so that our lives will start to work again — isn’t at all the work Aquinas is talking about at this juncture in the Summa.

In fact, Aquinas takes great pains in this part of the Summa to draw a sharp distinction between the work of the artist and the performance of action: following Aristotle, he distinguishes the artist’s making (facere) from doing (agere); and with this distinction in mind he defines art as “right reason about things to be made” and prudence as “right reason about things to be done.” So the considerations that apply to “working well” or prudent action do not apply to the artist’s work. “The good of an art is to be found, not in the craftsman, but in the product of the art.”

Consequently art does not require of the craftsman that his act be a good act, but that his work be good (ad artem non requiritur quod artifex bene operetur, sed quod bonum opus faciat)….the craftsman needs art, not that he may live well, but that he may produce a good work of art, and have it in good keeping: whereas prudence is necessary to man, that he may lead a good life (bene vivendum) and not merely that he may be a good man.

By the time we’ve gotten to Cameron’s book and its ideas about creativity, the quotation from the Summa has lost all connection to Aristotlelian ideas about “work” as virtuous action and the other-directed performance of duties (or what Aquinas calls the “due end” of action). Instead, the focus has shifted here entirely to the self and the demands of “self-expression.” What Father Rickaby called “the display of a good activity” is now sounding more like self-display. Through accidents of translation and misreading, the idea of work that Father Rickaby tried to capture in his doublet has drifted from an activity of the soul in conformity with excellence — or virtue — to what might amount to nothing more than the production of an elaborate selfie.

On the Reference I Made the Other Day to ‘The Middle Ground’

In a previous post, I said that asking creates a kind of “middle ground” where power – and everything else – is up for grabs. The concept of the middle ground is one I borrowed from a wonderful book, Richard White’s The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815. It was a passing reference, and it may have been a little careless, I now concede. Here I want to talk a little about the concept as White develops it, and try to connect it with what I had to say about the power of asking in my earlier post.

In White’s book, the middle ground is both a real place – the pays d’en haut or “Upper Country” of the Great Lakes Region – and a complex human terrain where the French and the Indians created “an elaborate network of economic, political, cultural and social ties to meet the demands of a particular historical situation.” For Europeans and Indians in the pays d’en haut, the middle ground described a place of mutual agreement, exchange and concession, to conduct everything from judicial proceedings to the regulation of sexual mores to the fur trade. White calls the middle ground “the place in between: in between cultures, peoples, and in between empires and the nonstate world of villages.”

In this place, Indians and Europeans staged a creative, cross-cultural, ad hoc exchange of words, forms, rituals and practices. This conversation accomplished what force or violence could not. Or, to put it more precisely, the middle ground emerged at the limits of coercive power and violence. The Europeans in the Upper Country “could neither dictate to the Indians nor ignore them,” White writes; and where they could not conquer, command or go it alone they had to yield, concede and share. That went both ways.

The middle ground depended on the inability of both sides to gain their ends through force. The middle ground grew according to the need of people to find a means, other than force, to gain the cooperation and consent of foreigners. To succeed, those who operated on the middle ground had, of necessity, to attempt to understand the world and the reasoning of others and to assimilate enough of that reasoning to put it to their own purposes.

Understanding and assimilating the world and the reasoning of others: another word for that is translation. And that’s how White sometimes describes it: the middle ground was a place made up of “creative, but often expedient misunderstandings” – fictions – that allowed the Indians and the Europeans first to see each other as human beings, then to construct “a common, mutually comprehensible world.” They forged a new language, new meaning and a new world together: “the older worlds of the Algonquians and of various Europeans overlapped, and their mixture created new systems of meaning and exchange.” Gift-giving, calumets, the covering of the dead – all these Algonquian rituals were brought into play, but it wasn’t simply a matter of carrying old forms across languages or cultures; in the middle ground, they were transformed into something new.

It would be a mistake to think that the French and the Indians somehow deliberately set out to create this middle ground after first encountering one another. The middle ground did not emerge because both sides had dedicated themselves to a spirit of cooperation – hardly! — or because some “magical affinity” (as White puts it) or mist of peace, love and understanding hung over the pays d’en haut in the 18th century. Short-lived, fragile, often unique and irreproducible adaptations and improvisations made up the middle ground; in White’s account, it emerges and disappears then re-emerges while the French are the primary European presence in the pays d’en haut. They abandon it from time to time, resorting to force and violence (as do the Algonquians). After the defeats of the Iroquois and the French in the Seven Years war, and the ascendency of the English as a power in the Upper Country, the middle ground is all but lost.

While some readers of The Middle Ground talk about the way White’s work unravels and disassembles the concept of the frontier, I find myself moving in an entirely different direction. I tend to think of pays d’en haut as White describes it in his book almost as an Atlantis, a world residing somewhere between myth and history; or, better, as a historical world created by mythmaking. It exercises a hold over my imagination as few places have — except, maybe, the city of Naples, which is, for me, also a place both real and imagined and to which I return in my mind over and over again.

1755_Bellin_Map_of_the_Great_Lakes_-_Geographicus_-_GreatLakes-bellin-1755

On the one hand, it’s easy to see why the French Upper Country has a hold on me: here the history of the Great Lakes region (which I discovered in the course of my work on 1913 Massacre) comes together with my interest in non-coercive forms of power. So it’s not surprising that I should have made a passing reference to White in my previous post about the power of asking; in fact, it’s much more surprising to me that I didn’t go on more about it, as I have here.

On the other hand, I recognize that this is all very problematic. White is a historian, describing as meticulously and carefully as he can the cultural politics of the Great Lakes region in the 18th century; I’m reader of history, and I tend to take what I read and start imagining things. I’m familiar with Philip J. DeLoria’s warnings against “oversimplification” of White’s work, and his worry about misreadings that make White’s middle ground “analytically portable” to the point where it becomes “simply a trope for human give and take.” But there is, there has to be, something portable in everything that one reads; the act of reading is itself a carrying back and forth, an exchange, an importing and exporting. It’s an act of give and take, as DeLoria himself wryly admits.

This is not just to say that White’s study of the middle ground echoes themes found in, say, James C. Scott’s work on the Upland peoples of Southeast Asia, or Pierre Clastres’ work on the Indians of South America, and that there’s some common trope that all these books describe. It might be to say that reading itself is an exercise of non-coercive power, an act that involves transference, translation, transmutation and creation of new meaning, a kind of dialogue between author and reader, the practicing historian and the images we make of history.

Not much new in that thought: for the moment, I simply want to offer that I seem to have carried my interests, imagination, intellectual habits and stories into White’s work, assimilated it, and now I seem to be putting it to my own purposes, as an illustration of what can be accomplished through the exercise of non-coercive power. It remains to be seen how that illustration will help advance or complicate my thinking on this point. But I guess it’s pretty clear that all this situates the act of reading in the territory of cultural production White describes in The Middle Ground.  I say that knowing full well that I am probably going to be accused of misreading.

Translations from Khmer and Chinese Needed

I’m currently making a short film for The Foundation for AIDS Research (Amfar), and I need English translations of interviews from Khmer and Chinese.

The Khmer interviews are from an HIV+ women’s collective in Phnom Penh, and the Chinese material is from an AIDS clinic in Liuzhou.

Both sets of interviews were shot with the help of a translator, who provided us only with a rough jog to get us through them. We now need good written English translations. Each is about 15-20 minutes long. We probably have about 30 minutes of Khmer material and a little more than an hour of Chinese material.

Since we are making the film for a non-profit organization, we’re on a very tight budget, but can manage a fee or honorarium for translations.

We can provide audio files (MP3s) of the interviews. We’re looking for good written English translations with time code notations, so that we can match the Khmer or Chinese audio with our written English translation and create subtitles; and then we would probably need the translator to spend an hour or so with us in the edit room making sure the subtitles correspond to the spoken Khmer/Chinese. (So that means the translator should ideally be based in New York City, though I suppose it would be possible to do all of this online.)

The film will be shown for the first time in Shanghai, at an international AIDS conference, and then it will most likely run on the Amfar website.

If you or someone you know can assist with this project, please contact me through my twitter account, @lvgaldieri.