Philology

From my very limited grasp of the Greek language (I still feel that any gala should involve a celebration of milk), I believe the title should refer to a love of words.  Mr Collins is rather drier in his definition going with “comparative and historical linguistics” or, more broadly, a “study of literature”.  He also notes that it is no longer in scholarly use – so ideal for GofaDM!

So far as I know, I have always loved words.  As a tiny, wee nipper I would insist that any text within my visual field was read out to me – or so my mother tells me.  As a result, she took advice from my aunt (a teacher) on how to teach me to read (earlier than was then the norm) in the hope that this might shut me up.  In the whole field of human endeavour, this may be one of the least successful activities ever attempted – not only did it singularly fail to shut me up, my excessive loquacity has now spread to the medium of print and thus to your eyes, dear reader.

I still feel the need to read any print: despite any language barrier that may exist or any propriety that might be offended – I really need to control my urge to read other people’s tattoos (though my “worst” tattoo-related incident was studying a chap’s body art to try and work out which mes0-American culture it was pastiching: Olmec, I think).

This obsession with words might explain my vulnerability to my continuing theatre-addiction and explain something of the nature of the GofaDM.  The style of this blog may have little to commend it, but I do try to give otherwise neglected words a little bit of exercise and a brief glimpse of the sky.  I like to imagine a few readers now using some more obscure vocabulary in their everyday lives – no doubt to the dismay or confusion of their nearest and most expensive.

As was recently established, via the work of Antonio Serrano on The Verb, I can love words even when I can only understand a little of what is said and the position of the word boundaries.  In the recent In Our Time on Rabindranath Tagore, one of the academics read a short extract from his early poem Sonar Tari (the Golden Boat) in its original Bengali.  This was amazing enough to cover my arms in goosebumps, despite my total ignorance of the language and not even knowing when one word ended and another began.  Subsequent research shows that Bengali is also a beautiful language to look at, though again means nothing to my uneducated eyes.  It does look potentially confusing too, as a 4 looks like an 8 and a 7 like a 9: maybe I should work on my Greek first, at least they use the same numbers and via mathematics I know most of the alphabet.

However, the primary stimulus behind this post is A L Kennedy.  I have now read the first two stories in her latest collection, All The Rage.  I am rationing them as they are too rich to be consumed en masse.  The first, Late in Life, I more-or-less managed to read in her voice – or the best approximation that the voices in my head can achieve.  For the second, Baby Blue, I was stuck in my own voice for some reason – even though I had heard the author read a sizeable extract a couple of months back.  Despite the (OK, my) voice, the story is the most perfect piece of prose that I can imagine existing – every word is necessary and just the right one for its place.  I would wonder how she manages this, but I know she goes through hundreds of drafts which must be part of the reason – however, I could do that and get nowhere close to this standard of writing.  I’ve read very well-reviewed books, Nobel-Prize winners even, and many have been very good – but in none have the words achieved quite such an apotheosis.  Still, the fact I can at least recognise such excellence does give me hope (a very vague and distant hope) that I can construct an objective function against which to measure the deficiencies of my own writing and identify improvements (and plenty of these literary fruit should be suspended pretty close to terra firma).  However, this paragraph does demonstrate with irritating precision my inability to fully convey my own thoughts as I would wish – though perhaps I’m not alone. One of the many positive, professional reviews of All The Rage says that it “celebrates love like a hungry dog celebrates the corpse of a rabbit”.  Perhaps I need to more fully embrace the metaphor and not just for (weak) comic effect or in chronic over-extension.

I wonder if this embrace of the short story and poetry might be an indicator of incipient adulthood (though, if I’m honest, I really don’t think I can pull off a hood – style-wise I mean, this is not a comment on the lack of flexibility in my shoulders) – or have a just discovered my teenage angst a mere three decades too late?

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10 thoughts on “Philology

  1. Dimitris Melicertes says:

    Βασικά, Στιούαρτ, υποθέτω ότι εσύ θα μεταφράσεις αυτό το σχόλιο χρησιμοποιώντας μετάφραση γοογλε. Παρότι είναι στα Ελληνικά, είναι γραμμένο με τέτοιο απαίσιο τρόπο που αυτό δεν βγάζει νόημα εκτός σε μετάφραση. Που πάει να πει, η τέλεια διατύπωσης ενός κειμένου δεν είναι απολύτως απαραίτητη για να επικοινωνήσεις μια εικόνα ή ένα μήνυμα τέλεια. Ή τουλάχιστον αυτό είναι το επιχείρημα μου. Εν μέρει αυτοαναιρούμενο, επειδή ακόμη και μέσα σπασμένης μετάφραση εγώ χρειάστηκα να βρω τις κατάλληλες λέξεις στο αυθεντικό.

  2. Stuart Ffoulkes says:

    Courtesy of a degree in (mostly) pure mathematics, I can transliterate Greek into English: albeit very slowly. Both English and Spanish (though mine is now seriously oxidised) owe a debt to Greek and so I can then pick out a few words. Added to this, I have a very small amount of Greek vocabulary that I acquired from Xenophon and Thucydides (which I once tried to use conversationally, to dismal effect). So, you are quite correct that I was forced to rely on Google Translate.

    I believe you have written using Greek words, but largely with English word-order – something I am familiar with from Spanish. Even when my Spanish was far worse than it is now, I could read the financial back-page of El País with extraordinary accuracy – this is because a lot of Spanish press is translated very hurriedly off the AP Wire from English and so retains a lot of English grammar and structure (plus, the financial world uses very limited vocabulary).

    I would entirely agree that a translation does not have to be a perfect replication of the original: even were that possible or that such a thing as a perfect translation exists. My thinking in this matter has been partly informed by David Bellos’ book, “Is That a Fish in Your Ear?” which expanded my thinking in this field dramatically: there are many possible good translations, each of which may best (or better) capture a particular facet of the original. However, I can also trace it back to my experiences in Spain when my fluency increased dramatically after a couple of glasses of vino tinto had passed my lips – at this stage I stopped trying to create a perfect translation utilising perfect grammar (and tricky choices around the subjunctive). This really should have been obvious to me as, when speaking English, I am rarely trying to either perfectly translate the thoughts in my head or generate perfect grammatical utterances.

    However, despite the above, there is a very special joy about reading something in its original tongue (or one that is closely allied) when this is not your own. I read “Memorias de una vaca” by Bernardo Atxaga which was fun (though I assume translated from Euskara) and is basically a kid’s book (or, at best, YA). Subsequently, I started reading “¿Qué me quieres, amor?” by Manuel Ribas which is incredible (and for grown-ups). It expresses ideas in Spanish which I (think I) can understand, but I don’t think I could translate into English. This was one of the most amazing experiences of my adult life – though, I’ll admit, hard won (which may be a contributory factor).

    I can only apologise that the length of this response has escape my control, but this whole subject fascinates me.

    • Dimitris Melicertes says:

      Didn’t know that about El País’s financial back page, fascinating! Ribas noted. And I agree with your points re translation. Often the emotional weight of a word can’t be communicated accurately in another language, that is, if the target language doesn’t have the same context attributed to the word. But again every so often there are splendid translators that bend language in such a way as to make you think you’re reading the original, probably one of the most difficult arts (apart from the craft aspect of it, it must require some inspiration). I was mostly joking with that comment (which is written in horrible Greek but anymore I’m unfazed by my proclivity for anti-aesthetic utterances), however I was just thinking of what you said – apotheosis and that bit about ”every word [being] necessary and just the right one for its place”. Which in A. L. Kennedy’s writing applies wonderfully and rings true. I can’t put my finger on it (hazy-minded a bit, today) but I’m vaguely thinking about excellent wording that appears (and sometimes is) entirely flippant, the feeling you know exactly what an author is saying even though the words themselves don’t offer that great a level of precision in description. I vividly remember that sentence of Yates (which I’m sure I’ve read elsewhere too), ”I could hear her smile”. If my memory serves right it’s to be found somewhere in Eleven Kinds of Loneliness (I don’t have the book with me right now so can’t pinpoint in which exact short story) and (again, a tad hesitantly) I think the context is that the protagonist is talking on the phone with her (I don’t remember who ”her” is anymore, sadly). And he comments that he could hear her smile. Which I spotted upon re-reading the passage and not the first time I went through it. While I’m certain it’s the author’s conscious choice, in the text the sentence is just offered like that, among others, I mean, it doesn’t stand out nor does the writing guide us to see it. It feels as if it’s hidden, somehow, in the general dialogue that takes place. And since a smile is inaudible but the word for it can be easily visualized as a laugh, I’m sure it’s the perfect word in the right place. I don’t seem to explain this properly. In just a choice of word he communicates so many things that are left undescribed, perhaps 1) the narrator’s feelings over the phone conversation, 2) the whole ”sense” of someone’s mood without it being explicitly described, 3) a hint of the other speaker’s voice on the other end of the line, mood vibrating (?) through it etc. etc. I just sometimes admire such wording, which is economical, non-descriptive but at the same time magnificently precise in conveying a whole picture very clearly in the reader’s mind.

      • Stuart Ffoulkes says:

        I should start with an apology. The Spanish writer I referred to is Manual Rivas (not Ribas) – I was thinking in Spanish but my fingers typed the English sounds that filled my head.

        I suspect the El Pais effect occurs in other languages as so much content is generated in English. I do wonder if, over time, it is starting to mutate the grammatic structures of other languages. Certainly my then Spanish teacher would, every so often, disgust herself by speaking in Spanglish by accident, i.e. Spanish words but using English word-order.

        I think a lot of writing, or good writing at any rate, has some synaesthetic element to it. Perhaps this is the root of metaphor and related forms? Almost the only thing I know about W B Yeats is that he looked (almost) exactly like Owen Wilson (or he did on the basis of a sketch of him by John Singer Sargent) – if I ever have to cast his life story, I know where I’d go for visual verisimilitude. I’m sure he’s right that you can hear a smile, especially with someone you know well. It changes the shape of the face and so the sounds of speech which provides a prosaic explanation. However, it goes beyond a purely mechanistic explanation and produces a response or resonance in the reader; it has affect.

        In a world where the excessive prolixity of George R R Martin (and the like) or the character-counting brevity of Twitter can seem dominant, the ability to capture an idea or an emotion with an economy (and beauty) of phrasing seems particularly magical (and is why I love ALK). Perhaps because this appeals to the mathematician in me, where a proof or equation can be beautiful and this is often associated with economy of expression (but not of idea or insight).

        Since I started to write this reply, there has been an interlude where I went to a string quartet recital. No longer am I worrying only about the need to be funny, I am now also trying to ensure that I seem vaguely intelligent – and this can take a while! Whilst milling in the foyer, I was struck with the thought that reading in a second language might allow for greater freedom of thought. The words are less firmly pinned to a specific (even cliched) meaning and so there is a certain fuzziness which might allow the mind or imagination to follow paths less often travelled. Some poets and good prose writers perhaps allow us to access this same fuzziness even in our mother tongue and so see things in a new way. Good translators can probably do this between languages – and I’d be kind of fascinated to read some Georges Perec in a really good translation. Perhaps some works can even be better in translation? I believe Winnie the Pooh has a whole, very different life in Hungarian.

        And you thought your comment was long! I fear I am now rambling – or straying well beyond my intellectual foundations into some sort of pseuds corner. Still, it’s a lot of fun thinking about this stuff, even if my insights turn out to be merely trite or meretricious in the cold light of day.

        • Dimitris Melicertes says:

          Ah, not Yeats, Yates. Richard Yates. (Yeats’s glasses are strange, aren’t they?) But yes, yours has been a roller-coaster of a reply. I’ll try to structure my thoughts in an email. Right now I can’t concentrate. I’m still affected by that sentence, ”I believe Winnie the Pooh has a whole, very different life in Hungarian.” which for whatever reason had me in hysterics for a few moments there. It was the first thing I saw while scrolling up and down to find where your reply started.

          • Stuart Ffoulkes says:

            It would seem that my brain is operating in a purely phonetic mode when it comes to writers’ surnames at the moment. I have now researched Mr Yates, and it would seem that he is entirely unconnected to the chain of Wine Lodges. Thus, is the thin veneer of my learning exposed for all to see!

            It’s all true about Pooh! I believe the stories are rather darker in Magyar (though it will be many years before I can read them without translation as the language is quite the challenge).

      • Stuart Ffoulkes says:

        Paragraph, schmaragraph! When I wrote my first Arts-based essay for the Open University, a few years back, I had marks docked for my excessive use of paragraphs. For my subsequent academic writing (the remaining 10 essays of the course), I rationed my use of new paragraphs to occasions of pressing grammatical need – and my marks improved! In the blog, I am far less strict and if I think a block of text looks to daunting for the potential reader I’ll just stick in a new paragraph (even if an academic reviewer would not approve). I view the paragraph as an aesthetic choice as much as one driven by the rawhide whips of grammar (does there exist, perhaps in a dingy basement in Soho, a grammar Dominatrix, I wonder?) or a desire for a logical grouping of thoughts (let’s face it, this is GofaDM so the ship of logic sailed quite some time ago).

        I love Rothko’s squares – though in a manner he probably wouldn’t appreciate. The room of his works at Tate Modern I find really restful and calming, which is not at all what he was aiming for when he painted them. Emotional response (and not just beauty), it would seem, is in the eye (and limbic system) of the beholder.

        • Dimitris Melicertes says:

          Thank you for that! Finally, someone who shares the opinion the paragraph is an aesthetic choice. Because we’ve been taught it should have the same theme throughout etc. etc. but sometimes it makes sense to break it for effect.

          I’ve a lukewarm relationship with Rothko. Do you remember that story a couple years ago where one of his paintings was vandalized by another artist? A yellowist or something. It was all for the show but I think it did make some people go to the Tate that otherwise wouldn’t have bothered.

          • Stuart Ffoulkes says:

            Freedom for the paragraph! If poets, among whose number I count your good self, can break lines whereso’er they chose then it is arrant discrimination to deny the same freedom to those of us trapped in prose.

            I’m keener on Mr R in his red and black mode – yellow, whether his own or applied by another (an incident I do recall), leaves the water around my boat perilously close to the Plimsoll Line.

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