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Added notes: Shakespeare as Ozymandias

Friday, September 16th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — how Bill Benzon and Will Shakespeare lead me to Angus Wilson and Ruth Ozeki ]

Comments are now closed on my fairly recent post, Triangulation: Hoboken, Ramesses II, Ozymandias, so I can’t add there to the strand of the discussion that dealt with Shakespeare‘s language becoming barnacle-encrusted with time and our lack of knowledge, but today was something of a red-letter day for me, so I’ll start from there

I’d suggested:

Shakespeare has reached the point where the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has a Shakespeare translation project:

OSF is commissioning 36 playwrights and pairing them with dramaturgs to translate 39 plays attributed to Shakespeare into contemporary modern English between now and December 31, 2018. By seeking out a diverse set of playwrights (more than half writers of color and more than half women), we hope to bring fresh voices and perspectives to the rigorous work of translation. Each playwright is being asked to put the same pressure and rigor of language as Shakespeare did on his, keeping in mind meter, rhythm, metaphor, image, rhyme, rhetoric and emotional content. Our hope is to have 39 unique side-by-side companion translations of Shakespeare’s plays that are both performable and extremely useful reference texts for both classrooms and productions.

I’m not sure, but as we decolonialize and globalize culture (world music, eg), I suspect that English adds national streams from Barbados, Mumbai, Brooklyn, Adelaide, Louisiana and hiphop to its already rich mix, and that a Shakespeare using the spectrum of the language available in London today as keenly as Wm S used the spectrum available in London in his own day would appear no less neologistic and extraordinary than his older namesake. And then throw in an oligarch’ daughter speaking Russian, as Katherine speaks French in Henry V III.2, explaining as Katherine does, “I cannot speak your England”…


That’s “past is prologue”. Today, blog-friend Bill Benzon posted a brief squib that ties in with this — and here my advanture begins:

McWhorter on Shakespeare: Should he be rewritten in modern English?

McWhorter has argued that Shakespeare’s language is so difficult that it should be “adjusted” into modern English for modern readers and theatre-goers. I’m sympathetic. Yesterday I started watching the Zeferelli movie version of Hamlet, with Mel Gibson in the title role and Glenn Close as Gertrude, and at times the language just lost me. Here’s a podcast where he discusses the subject with John Lynch.

Here’s a post at The New Republic where McWhorter makes his case. I quoted passages from that post in an old post at The Valve and it generated a bit of discussion, including a comment from Kent Richmond, who has rendered five plays into modern English.


McWhorter‘s piece — Will Shakespeare’s Come And Gone: Does The Bard’s Poetry Reach Us Like August Wilson’s? Come On–really? — gives us a sense of what we’re missing when he describes present day audiences in terms borrowed from Alfred Harbage as “reverently unreceptive” — seen in the theater lobby afterwards, “gratified that they have come, and gratified that they now may go.”

And he explains something of what we are missing, in Hamlet for instance:

“Give thy thoughts no tongue, / Nor any unproportion’d thought his act.” First of all, thought to Shakespeare meant “plan,” not just mental activity. Thus “Give thy thoughts no tongue” meant “Don’t show your hand,” not just “button up.” “Nor any unproportion’d thought his act” – whose act? Who does the his refer to? To a modern listener this is the sort of opaque little splotch we must just let by, which in combination with the thousands of others over three hours leaves us yearning for a drink or a pillow. Actually, his could refer to things as well as men in earlier English. And act meant “execution”: the phrase meant “Do not act on your intentions until they are well proportioned, i.e. completely thought out,” not just “Don’t be a silly-billy.”

At the end, the famous “Neither a borrower or a lender be, / “For loan oft loses both itself and friend, / And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.” Did Shakespeare suppose that the reason one shouldn’t borrow is because it interferes with the raising of livestock? Actually, husbandry meant “thrift” at the time. It will say that in the footnotes of a Hamlet book; but at the theatre, you don’t have that with you.


All that led me to Kent Richmond, and I wanted to hear his voice, which gives Miranda in The Tempest these lines:

If through your magic, dearest father, you’ve
Made the wild waters roar, now let them rest.
The sky looks set to pour down stinking tar,
But then the sea, climbing the cheeks of heaven,
Dashes the fire out. O, I have suffered
With those that I saw suffer! A splendid vessel,
Which no doubt had some noble creature in her,
Dashed all to pieces! O, their cries knocked hard
Against my heart itself! Poor souls, they perished.
Had I the power of a god, I would
Have sunk the sea beneath the earth before
It could have swallowed up the good ship and
The souls that were her cargo.

Intelligible, yes, in a way that Shakepeare’s version may no longer be, and way better than a crude “version” for students of study notes — but not something that encourages me to see Richmond’s version of the play.


But wait — McWhorter’s title doesn’t mention Richmond, it merntions August Wilson, and his piece opens:

Reading the deserved critical huzzahs for the current production of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone has me thinking about a bee always in my bonnet.

I don’t know Wilson, and I hold much of modern “poetry” in disrespect, but I go searching with little hope in my back pocket, and lo —

It is August in Pittsburgh, 1911. The sun falls out of heaven like a stone. The fires of the steel mill rage with a combined sense of industry and progress. Barges loaded with coal and iron ore trudge up the river to the mill towns that dot the Monongahela and return with fresh, hard, gleaming steel. The city flexes its muscles. Men throw countless bridges across the rivers, lay roads, and carve tunnels through the hills sprouting with houses.

From the deep and the near South, the sons and daughters of newly freed African slaves wander into the city. Isolated, cut off from memory, having forgotten the names of the gods and only guessing at their faces, they arrive dazed and stunned, their hearts kicking in their chest with a song worth singing. They arrive carrying Bibles and guitars, their pockets lined with dust and fresh hope, marked men and women seeking to scrape from the narrow, crooked cobbles and the fiery blasts of the coke furnace a way of bludgeoning and shaping the malleable parts of themselves into a new identity as free men of definite and sincere worth.

Foreigners in a strange land, they carry as part and parcel of their baggage a long line of separation and dispersement which informs their sensibilities and marks their conduct as they search for ways to reconnect, to reassemble, to give clear and luminous meaning to the song which is both a wail and a whelp of joy.

My God, the language! The warmth and depth of voice!


And somehow, from there, after hearing Phylicia Rashad reading some of those words from “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone”, I find myself listening for the first time to another voice, that of the novelist Ruth Ozeki, reading from her book, A Tale for the Time Being. I’d learned a week or two back that the novel had resonance with the great Zen master Dogen, whose Mountains and Rivers sutra I greatly admire and enjoy:

Since the virtues of the mountain are high and broad, the spiritual power to ride the clouds is always mastered from the mountains, and the marvelous ability to follow the wind is inevitably liberated from the mountains.

Here’s Ozeki, herself a zen priest — skip the beginning intros, start at around the 9’35” point, or at 11’17” where her actual reading from the book begins:


Again, such a voice! Two such voices in one day, new to me! Today I consider the world with fresh and thankful eyes.

I do so hate it when people speak foreign

Tuesday, May 24th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — the Pakistani politician Imran Khan and Alec Station’s Mike Scheuer think (somewhat) alike ]

I do so hate it when people speak foreign, and am happy when bilinguals tweet the relevant quotes in regular language:


Imran Khan, who is being quoted from this interview as saying “George Washington was a terrorist for the English & freedom fighter for Americans” is a Pakistani cricketer (captain of the team that won the 1992 World Cup, and credited with 3807 runs batting and 362 wickets bowling in Test matches) turned politician (founder of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party which governs Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, formerly the North West Frontier Province) — and philanthropist (founder of a cancer hospital, and more).

Comparisons, they say, are odious — and you may well think it odious to compare Osama bin Laden with George Washington.

What, though, if the comparison is between Imran Khan and Michael Scheuer, who in the runup to 9/11 was the chief of Alec Station (ie the CIA’s Bin Laden Issue Station). In his first book, Through our Enemies’ Eyes, published anonymously in 2002, Scheuer wrote:

I think we in the United States can best come to grips with this phenomena by realizing that bin Laden’s philosophy and actions have embodied many of the same sentiments that permeate the underpinnings of concepts on which the United States itself is established. This can be illustrated, I think, with reference to the writings or actions of such seminal figures in our history as John Brown, John Bunyan, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Paine.


Bin Laden’s character, religious certainty, moral absolutism, military ferocity, integrity, and all-or-nothing goals are not much different from those of individuals whom we in the United States have long identified and honored as religious, political, or military heroes, men such as John Brown, John Bunyan, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Paine. I do not argue that these are exact analogies, but only that they are analogies that seemed pertinent as I researched bin Laden.

and again, specifically:

A final analogy I found useful in thinking about Osama bin Laden in a context pertinent … Professor John L. Esposito drew me to this analogy in his fine book The Islamic Threat. Myth or Reality?, as did the editors of the respected Pakistani newspaper Nawa-i-Wakt. In his book, Esposito warned that when Americans automatically identify Islamist individuals and groups as terrorists, they forget the “heroes of the American Revolution were rebels and terrorists for the British Crown,” while the editors of Nawa-i-Waqt lamented that “it is unfortunate that the United States, which obtained its independence through a [revolutionary] movement is calling Muslim freedom fighters [a] terrorist organization.”

Like him or not as he currently presents himself and his opinions, Scheuer was plausibly the person best situated to explain bin Laden to an American audience back in 2002 — and today’s Imran Khan and yesterday’s Michael Scheuer seem to have a major analogy for assessing & explaining bin Laden in common…

Semblance as translation

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — an MIT physica professor works in language games on biology ]

two solar machines
Both a tree and a solar panel absorb and transform solar energy, and dump heat into their environment. How would a physicist explain why only the tree is alive?


I’m posting this because of one sentence:

When you refuse to let go of two things that are divergent in the way they cause you to talk,” he says, “it forces you in the direction of translation.

I found it in an intriguing article, How Do You Say “Life” in Physics?

After a brief intro to MIT physicist Jeremy England, the article touches on interdisciplinary translation — which, when you think about it, is a very Koestlerian sort of bisociative process:

Different fields of science, too, are languages unto themselves, and scientific explanations are sometimes just translations. “Red,” for instance, is a translation of the phrase “620-750 nanometer wavelength.” “Temperature” is a translation of “the average speed of a group of particles.” The more complex a translation, the more meaning it imparts. “Gravity” means “the geometry of spacetime.”

Then we get theological, with a twist:

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth …” Here, the Hebrew word for “create” is bara, the word for “heavens” is shamayim, and the word for “earth” is aretz; but their true meanings, England says, only come into view through their context in the following verses. For instance, it becomes clear that bara, creation, entails a process of giving names to things; the creation of the world is the creation of a language game. “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” God created light by speaking its name. “We have heard this phrase so many times that by the time we are old enough to ponder it, we easily miss its simplest point,” England says. “The light by which we see the world comes from the way we talk about it.” That might be important, thought England, if you’re trying to use the language of physics to describe biology.

Finally, we get the basic bisociation laid out in plain words:

As a young faculty member at MIT, he neither wanted to stop doing biology, nor thinking about theoretical physics. “When you refuse to let go of two things that are divergent in the way they cause you to talk,” he says, “it forces you in the direction of translation.”


I hadn’t thought much about translation as a form of semblance until now, but it opens vistas..

An interesting article.

The tree and the solar panel — there’s much food there for analogical thought.

Reuters + Daily Beast + Nasrallah = now I got it

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — piecing together an understanding – Shi’ite militia, Iraq ]

Reuters reported today:

Pentagon slams “unhelpful” Iraqi code name for Ramadi offensive

May 26 The Pentagon on Tuesday said it was “unhelpful” for Iraq’s Shi’ite militia to have chosen an openly sectarian code name for the operation to retake the city Ramadi and added that, in the U.S. view, the full-on offensive had yet to begin.

Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren also emphasized that problems leading to last week’s Iraqi military withdrawal from the city of Ramadi included “both low morale amongst the troops” as well as problems within the Iraqi military command structure.

“There are many factors that caused Iraqi security forces to withdraw from Ramadi,” Warren said, noting that Iraqi forces “vastly outnumbered their enemy yet they chose to withdraw.” (Reporting by Phillip Stewart; Editing by Doina Chiacu)

That doesn’t tell us what the “unhelpful name” in question is.


According to The Daily Beast, the “code name” is “Labaik Ya Hussein”:

The Iraqi government said it launched a campaign Tuesday to take back Anbar province from ISIS, two weeks after it captured the provincial capital of Ramadi. The campaign features a leading role for Iran-backed Shiite militias, raising fears that such an openly Shiite-led push threatens to exacerbate sectarian tensions in majority-Sunni Anbar. A spokesman for the Iran-backed militias even said the operation’s codename will be Labaik Ya Hussein —- a nod to the Shiite saint. “The Labaik Ya Hussein operation is led by the Hashid Shaabi in cooperation and coordination with the armed forces there,” he said. “We believe that liberating Ramadi will not take long.”

So that’s “a nod to the Shiite saint” eh?


Nasrallah expands on the meaning of that “nod” in a fiery clip from 2009.

Ooh. Oh. Ah.

Unholy: perhaps it’s a useful word

Friday, January 30th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — when religion casts a long and violent shadow ]

unholy cover
cover art for the Unholy album, New Life behind Closed Eyes


Unholy may prove to be a very useful word, I think.

It’s not secular, it’s not irreligious, it doesn’t lack for some sort of supernatural influence — in fact it fits right in with the metaphysical implications of such Biblical phrases as (Revelation 12.7):

there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels

and (Ephesians 6.12):

we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places


Because, I am arguing, it is neither secular nor irreligious, it fits perfectly, I’d say, the kinds of situation we’re in so freuqnetly, globally, of religiously motivated group violence.

The word jihad — besides focusing entirely on Islamic variants, when in fact Buddhist, Hindu and Christian militians are also in evidence — concedes too much to those who regard their warfare as holy, divinely sanctioned, while other terms make things sound secular and almost normal, as if politics without the religious booster was all we are talking about.

BrutaL and spiritual, spiritual and brutal on both sides — in the Central African Republic, for instance:

It was March 2013 when the predominantly Muslim rebel coalition Séléka swept into the riverside capital, Bangui, from the northeast. President François Bozizé fled as a vicious campaign of looting, torture and murder got underway. Séléka leader Michel Djotodia soon proclaimed himself the successor; he would later lose control of his ranks and an attempt that fall to disband them would do little to stop the atrocities.

At the same time, groups of militias called anti-balaka had begun to form and train and retaliate against Séléka. Their name in the local Sango language means “anti-machete”; their fighters are comprised of ex-soldiers, Christians and animists, who think magic will protect them. They’re adorned with amulets to ward off attacks and fight with hunting rifles, poison-tipped arrows and machetes.

Amulets and machetes.. warriors and angels.


Maybe we should say “unholy warriors” and “unholy wars” rather than “holy warriors” or “jihadis” — and “unholy monks” for the Burmese mobsters in saffron robes.

And I’d reserve the use of the term for situations in whiuch at least one side in a conflict openly avows religious motivation. Someone making a treaty someone else feels is foolish or dangerous simply doesn’t meet the bar.


It’s worth considering the Unholy CD cover art alongside two other recent images:

Moebius Floating City



And about that top image from the Unholy album, just so you know:

UNHOLY present their Prosthetic Records debut, a metal massacre fueled with down-tuned guitars, double bass and deep grooves akin to the sounds of Entombed, Crowbar and later Carcass, with members having been in bands like Santa Sangre, Another Victim and Path Of Resistance.

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