26 July 2010

Don Q, via translators

I’ve started Don Quixote for windmills for the mind, a group readalong that's being organized by Stu at Winstonsdad's Blog. I had the book with me since last year and was only searching for an opportunity to tackle it. What better way to read this millennial object than with a group of readers. Millennial in terms of scope, importance, and length (i.e., running at almost 1,000 pages or more). I don't know where I'll find the gumption to read this all by myself.

Reading started on July 19 and discussion begins July 26. Most of the readers will be reading the translation of Edith Grossman (Vintage, 2005) though other translations of the Quixote will do. I will be reading the text of John Rutherford (Penguin Classics, 2003), 1032 pages in all, including endnotes. That will be some 100 pages per week, for 10 weeks.

In an essay called "One Master, Many Cervantes," Latin America scholar Ilan Stavans said that there are 18 different English versions of the book (19 if one includes Pierre Menard's unusual "translation"). In the past decade alone, 3 translations of the book came out, from Grossman, Tom Lathrop, and John Rutherford. Earlier translations were by Samuel Putnam and Burton Raffel, among others. As to which translation is likely to be the most faithful, there are varying opinions. I particularly sought out the Rutherford translation in the bookstore on the basis of Margaret Jull Costa's indorsement of it:

Don Quixote makes huge demands on the translator: there is comedy, broad and subtle, poetry, good and deliberately dire, there are proverbs and puns, and, above all, there is Cervantes' own wry, playful voice as narrator. Both of those "anniversary" translations [Grossman's and Rutherford's] were good, but it seems to me that John Rutherford's translation (the one that was largely ignored) most satisfyingly meets the challenge to the translator and does what all fine English translations should do, breathing English life into every sentence. If you don't know Spanish and have never read Don Quixote or are thinking of reading it again, then this is the English translation I would recommend, recreating as it does the novel's vibrant (and, to the modern sensibility, sometimes cruel) humour, and doing equal honour to its pathos.

I'll take Jull Costa's word for it. Her translations of Javier Marías and José Saramago are among my favorite books from Iberia. 

On the other hand, Stavans loved the version of Grossman who transformed Cervantes' prose into "a deliciously postmodern American hodgepodge." "What makes the translations superior," Stavans notes, "is the symmetry between form and content. More than anything else, what makes them an endless source of curiosity is the way they connect with readers across time. Grossman makes Cervantes look good. What else can an author wish for from a translator?"

There is another opinion about this matter of Don Quixote translation. If you ask Roberto Bolaño, he wouldn't care whose English version he will be reading. Not least because he knew Spanish but because of some interesting conjectures. He said something to that effect in an interview (collected in Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview, and partly quoted here):
A work like Don Quijote can resist even the worst translator. As a matter of fact, it can resist mutilation, the loss of numerous pages and even a shit storm. Thus, with everything against it—bad translation, incomplete and ruined—any version of Quijote would still have very much to stay to a Chinese or an African reader. And that is literature. We may lose a lot along the way. Without a doubt. But perhaps that was its destiny.

He went further in an essay ("Translation Is An Anvil," translated by Guillermo Parra) from Entre paréntesis (Editorial Anagrama, 2004; forthcoming in English translation by Natasha Wimmer):

Cervantes, who was underestimated and disdained while he was alive, is our greatest novelist. There is hardly any disagreement about this. He is also the greatest novelist – according to some the inventor of the novel – in lands where Spanish is not spoken and where the work of Cervantes is known, above all, thanks to translations. These translations can be good or not, which isn’t an obstacle for the Quijote’s reason to impose itself or fertilize the imagination of thousands of readers, who don’t care about verbal luxury or the rhythm and force of Cervantean prosody which any translation, no matter how good it is, will undo or dissolve.

Sterne owes Cervantes a great deal, and in the XIX century, the novelistic century par excellence, Dickens does too. Neither one, it’s almost too obvious to say it, knew Spanish, from which we can deduce that they read the adventures of Quijote in English. What is marvelous – and yet natural, in this case – is that those translations, good or not, knew how to transmit what in the case of Quevedo or Góngora they didn’t and probably never will: what distinguishes an absolute masterpiece from a dry masterpiece, or, if it’s possible to say so, a living literature, a literature that belongs to all mankind, from a literature that merely belongs to a specific tribe or to a segment of that specific tribe.

There are two radical ideas here. One is that a translation is not an obstacle to "fertilize the imagination" of a reader. The other one is that any translation, without exception, undoes or dissolves the "verbal luxury or the rhythm and force of Cervanean prosody." Still, a residue of the living masterpiece will rub off on the reader. Perhaps, if Bolaño's theory will hold, only a work with a capacious vision as the Quixote can get away with the conceit, nay, treason of translation. (Which leads me to think whether the great Latin American novel Grande Sertão: Veredas by João Guimarães Rosa, the Brazilian Ulysses, also survived its botched translation.) Perhaps also the active reader of Don Q, in any language, is its best translator, with the passages being received by the brain and converted in a visual basic program code of imaginative interpretation, or whatever happens in the critical faculties, ghost in the shell. The converse, at least, is generally accepted to be true. That is, the translator as one of the closest readers there can be.

Image: Don Quixote by Adrien-Louis Demont, 1893, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Victoria

22 July 2010

Reading diary: January 2010

I have a very fast turnover of books. What I opened today is gone tomorrow. I usually list them in BookMooch, a book swapping site, leaving only special books behind. I'm posting a summary of my 2010  reading list by month, as I can't review everything that I read.

Most of my descriptions here are previously posted from my reviews in Shelfari and LibraryThing. I've read a total of seven books in January. Most were short books, what I'd call my "comfort books" or books with 200 pages or less. I always rely on these fast reads. They are my junk food. Sometimes the slimmer the spine, the longer it takes for me to finish it. I don't rush reading short books, especially since the end of the page is always in sight.


1. Ghosts by César Aira, translated by Chris Andrews

In Argentina, male ghosts haunt a newly built condominium. It is New Year's Eve. The ghosts are preparing a party while upstairs the living (the caretaker's family and their relatives-guests) are celebrating and feasting. There's a silent co-existence between them. But for the very first time, the ghosts are trying to communicate something to the living. What happened in the end will make you scratch your head.

The insidious power of this book convinced me that I need to collect all of Aira in English. Oh yes, I will! The great news is that Aira is a prolific writer, and by prolific I mean dozens of books waiting to be translated by the likes of Chris Andrews. Better to start collecting early when there are only a handful of his novels available. What an auspicious start of my reading for the year.

2. Better by Atul Gawande

As a matter of policy, I don't read self-help books. They depress me and make me all the more helpless. But this one is different. Engaging and lively and uplifting. It may be about medical science and the ethical issues doctors confront in the practice of their profession, but the book is tailored for the general reader.

In three chapters (Diligence, Doing Right, Ingenuity), Dr. Gawande argues for the need to perform well and to do better, to be a "positive deviant," even if you feel you are just a cog in the wheel. This book can be therapeutic. It can make you feel good or, like me, feel better.

3. Pinball, 1973 by Murakami Haruki, translated by Alfred Birnbaum

"Yet when we look back on the darkness that obscures the path that brought us this far, we only come up with another indefinite 'maybe.' The only thing we perceive with any clarity is the present moment, and even that just passes by." ... I like the sentimental lyricism in this book. Pinball is Murakami's second book and it's a bit better than his debut, Hear the Wind Sing, which I read last year. I've read the pdf which is readily available online, but I have since acquired my own copy. The booklet has just been reprinted by Kodansha, available in Amazon Japan and ebay at more reasonable prices than the limited first edition. This book, like the first one, is full of references to music. The soundtrack is also available online.

4. A Wild Sheep Chase by Murakami Haruki, translated by Alfred Birnbaum

A quantum leap. I never expected the book to maintain its silliness with a straight face. This culmination of the Trilogy of the Rat is a well-executed puzzle.

The question must be asked. Since this is the third book in the trilogy, does one need to read the first two books (Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973) in order to appreciate this one. Well, not really. I must say that this is almost a self-contained book.

Another question may cross the reader's mind. Since Murakami practically prohibited the publication outside Japan of his first two books, are they still worth reading? Of course. They give background stories to the main characters in A Wild Sheep Chase.

5. Loving Sabotage by Amélie Nothomb, translated by Andrew Wilson

Short but potent novel that is partly about communism in China, partly about the barbaric potentials of an international troop of soldiers.

Told from the point of view of a brave soldier amid a brutal and unforgiving war, this short novel brings to mind the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan. Only the soldier happens to be a nasty little girl in pigtails. Hilarious book. Chock-full of LOLs. With occasional tears in the eyes (brought about by LOLs). Unforgettable (on account of LOLs).

6. Mon by Natsume Sōseki, translated by Francis Mathy

Zen-like beauty. At the start, exquisite sadness and pain. Characters struggle for peace of mind, trying to escape the jaded feelings they have been harboring for so long. In the end a sense of life affirmation, of renewal, regeneration. If you're into Buddhism, meditation, asceticism, finding the path, and other new age blahs.

Mon is, for me, better than Kokoro. I have a feeling that every book that Sōseki wrote is a sad or bittersweet book. Maybe except for Botchan, but I still have to read that one. I also have a feeling that Sōseki will be my favorite Japanese novelist. My impressions halfway through the book are a classic case in judging too much too early. The second half is more ruminative, more contemplative, and (I'd like to believe) redemptive. Sōseki remains my most favorite Japanese novelist.

7. Seven Nights by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Eliot Weinberger

This book is fantastic. A transcription of Borges lectures originally delivered in Buenos Aires. Lit-crit without the academic pom-poms. Playful takes on seven subjects: Dante's Commedia, dreams and nightmares, the endless pleasures of The Thousand and One Nights, Buddhism, poetry, the Kabbalah, and blindness. I imagine myself attending these lectures (in English) and turning the ideas over in my mind before going to sleep. Perhaps I will sleep peacefully knowing that the next night's lecture will be another food for the mind. Or I can't sleep at all anticipating the next lecture. Or I will be visited by fearful nightmares of mirrors, of closed rooms, of the inferno. There's no question that literature for Borges is like religion. Reading for him is an act of miracle. He is a blind man who sees.

13 July 2010


"Nineteen sixty-nine was the year student uprisings shut down Tokyo University. The Beatles put out The White Album, Yellow Submarine, and Abbey Road, the Rolling Stones released their greatest single, "Honky Tonk Women," and people known as hippies wore their hair long and called for love and peace. In Paris, De Gaulle resigned. The war in Vietnam continued. High school girls used sanitary napkins, not tampons."

So begins Murakami Ryū's novel Sixty-Nine, an anthem for revolution and youth. It's the book I'm giving away this month. Please note that this giveaway is open only to readers in the Philippines.

The book is not brand-new but in quite good condition. It's in trade paperback edition, with dust jacket. It's translated by Ralph F. McCarthy and published by Kodansha International. 

The rules can't be simpler. Just drop me an email. Subject: "Seize the Year". Include your full name and your full mailing address (within the Philippines only) with the email. One address per reader, one reader per address. A winner will be chosen from the entries using a random number generator.

The deadline is midnight of July 31, local time. I'll update this post and announce the winner here.

Good Luck!

UPDATE (August 2): Congratulations to the winner, Karlo of (Mis)readings.

11 July 2010

Some Prefer Nettles (Tanizaki Junichirō)

1. Every worm to his taste ...

Kaname and Misako, husband and wife, couldn't bear their relationship anymore. They decided to separate. Misako fell in love with another man; and Kaname, feeling no attachment to his wife, condoned it. Both agreed they need to divorce each other. Everything was cool, but always, always, there's a hitch. It's Japan in early 20th century. The ties of family and tradition are strong ties that bind and must not be put asunder. 

Some Prefer Nettles is Tanizaki's silent novel of marital woes. The couple at the center of the story is besieged by their own falling out of Japanese customs and ceremonies. The age-old behaviors must not be circumvented by newly found freedom from attachment and convention. How can they escape from their marriage obligations when they have a young son; when the wife Misako has a strong-willed father who is a staunch defender of tradition, culture, and propriety; when the patriarchal society frowns upon such things as Western influences (like jazz music and western fashion); and when any indication of "loose behavior" is probable cause for scandal and disgrace?

Tanizaki's novel would have been ordinary soap opera material had it not been for his masterly use of details. His depiction of insular world of puppet plays, of geishas and mistresses, and of the contrasting refinements in the cities of Tokyo and Osaka, place the story into a cultural context and in a dramatic light that sublimates all the tension and conflict into a dizzying calmness. The characters are so precise in their barbaric gentleness. They move with the grace of the bourgeoisie, but their inner identity crises are just as crude as modern humanity's.

Misako's old father and his mistress O-hisa, thirty years his junior, provide a counterpoint to the young couple's increasing alienation from each other. The chemistry between the old man and his mistress, manufactured from the old man's insistence of his mistress's learning the refinements of wearing traditional clothing and playing specific strains of the traditional koto music, is an easy contrast to the deepening rift between Kaname and Misako. The two couple's relationships play out two cultural responses to the influence of modernity: full loyalty to the native tradition and rejection of native tradition in favor of freer and more liberal attitudes. Thus, the novel has been seen as an East-West clash of values, but clearly it is the pull of globalization and cultural diffusion that subverts any age-old notion of what is right and wrong. Acceptable values are as unstable as tectonic plates.

It is noteworthy in this novel that the personal confrontations are made during dinner, be it in front of a puppet drama or at home. Tanizaki suffused the story with native color and set design, as if putting his characters on stage, allowing them to wear masks at their leisure but their undeniable reactions to their situations and their surroundings betray the color of their motives. The surface calm in the story does not contradict the complacent behavior of Kaname and Misako. The very indecision of the two inadvertently prolongs their agonies whenever they postpone and again postpone their wish to separate.

"Every worm to his taste ..." - the novel's epigraph announces. Some would rather eat something hardly appetizing. What one consumes, one finds out too late, is not always the edible kind. Even the itchy worms are prone to allergy themselves.

2. ... some prefer to eat nettles.

The very surface calm of the prose is a cultivated style that Tanizaki must have developed through a keen observation of Japanese mores. Tanizaki is adept at exposing the interior motives of the characters. The characters' unchaste desires and vices are not used as a pretext for undermining their humanities, but rather the interplay of their very flaws and their tenacious hold to their beliefs and to traditions (or otherwise) prove that the writer is not just a writer but is a novelist. Tanizaki is a novelist of human foibles and follies, quirky precepts and perceptions, and modern guises and disguises.

The various puppet plays and the indigenous music are central to the story. They are not there to, cliché intended, lament the passing of an age. The dramatic arts of puppetry and music are well integrated into the story structurally and thematically. Watching the puppets and listening to the accompanying music are ways for the two characters (Kaname and Misako's father) to reflect on their own perception of tradition. For Kaname this is a welcome digression from his marriage, another way to lose himself to the music and decadence of the theater. For the old-fashioned but assertive father of Misako, it is a way to demonstrate the supremacy of local customs, attitudes, and the arts over the increasingly modern and modernized ideals. Misako would rather forgo these forms and appearances. She wants instead to escape from it all and rendezvous with her lover.

The novel thus uses the dramatic art of puppetry, as well as the acts of dining out and touring theaters, to reflect on the states of the characters; their own inhibitions and pretensions played out in front of them. The power of puppet show as a mimetic digression is subtly derived also from the inherent purpose of digression: as a delaying tactic or filler or an escape from the stifling reality of marriage problems. A reader may be puzzled by this seemingly academic or gratuitous application of digression, egging on the novelist to provide the closure to the story, to move on, to get it over with. The characters seem to be frozen in time, immobilized by their helplessness and timidity.

A puppet audience may try to second guess a puppeteer's actions and gestures, even if the stories in puppet shows are already predetermined. Reading this novel is like watching a puppeteer move the limbs of his puppet creations. The puppet-characters in the story want to get on with life, without the gnawing dread of the unwanted outcomes of final separation. The lengthy discourse on the fading puppet art shows in Osaka corresponds not only to the fading attachment of the young couple to each other but also to the growing insularity of old tradition being exposed to an explosion of new wants and needs, to an implosion of new points of view and attitudes.

A sensible worm feeds on what she likes. But sometimes a worm cannot choose her own meal. Tragedy: sometimes a worm is a casualty (caught by an early bird). Comedy: sometimes the worm has no appetite. Tragedy: a worm will purposely go on hunger strike. Comedy: a worm will turn into a butterfly. Tragedy: a worm will prefer to eat nettles. Comedy: a worm will prefer to eat nettles. 

(Image: Painting by Pablo Gallo)

03 July 2010

The winning case of the random number

Thanks to all who joined my first book giveaway. All of you, who can be counted in the toes of the happy feet of a penguin. The random number generating machine I used almost bogged down. The algorithm went berserk. I had to use an alternative power source to crank up the calculus. The software was out of its AI wits deciding the big win. :)

I used MS Excel™ to choose the winner. I assigned a number to each entry and calculated the lucky number using the magic formula: =RANDBETWEEN(1,x) ; where x is the last number, in this case 4.

Congrats to JM of QC for winning. Kanpai! Watch out for my second book giveaway, sometime next week. Maybe something by a French or a Japanese novelist.

(Image: Wikipedia)