On the delicate art of translation

Excepted from Tales of a Misanthrope.

As all itches are inevitably scratched, I endeavor to burden the reading public with yet another translation of Boris Leonidovich Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. This is partly in response to Pasternak’s Sestra moya Zhizn’ having so affected me in my youth and having left upon my better and younger self a prolonged impression.

Translation is a colossal undertaking and is frequently under appreciated. Not only must the translator understand the historical and social realities which underpin the original work, he must so fully respecting the sensibilities of his intended audience, an audience unfamiliar with the cultural exigencies of another set of distinct life-affirming values; furthermore, it is of singular importance to pay close attention to every crease and fold in the fabric of this untidy drop cloth known collectively as language. It is often said that poetry is untranslatable, which only heightens the difficulties one must face when broaching Pasternak, the poet and novelist. Is a true translation even possible?

The question burning on your lips–those lips, pouting slightly, cranberry red, moist and inviting–is probably why now. Why do we need a new translation at this time?

The answer is that I am bored. But rather than dwell on such a grievous admission, let us jump headlong and unguarded into the text of the translation itself, which was incidentally influenced by a previous translation and found by means of crawling dirtily inside a series of caverns under the echoic halls of this great institution, in an underground library, built on the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis and modeled after the catacombs in Lima, all in the hope of preserving books and drug paraphernalia collected from Peruvian gangsters over the course of one particularly fine decade.

And as the front and back covers, and a beautifully illustrated frontispiece (apparently replete with fat cherubs dressed in thin raiment) were repurposed as bedding material for the birthing of merry moles (which, after having read said book, interpreted it as a menage a trois featuring small mammals with bad eyesight) the translator’s name is undiscoverable. Only the date, 1968, remains legible, thus situating its publication after the universally-adopted 1957 translation.

Concomitantly, my interest in moles was piqued, and I did some extracurricular research, learning that moles are the most literary of the burrowing animals, evincing high intelligence, especially as compared to rodents, which are dimwitted and generally offput by the humanities.

And now, without further ado, let’s figuratively get our hands and knees dirty, taking care not to inadvertently crush an opium pipe in the damp floor litter, and look at the text, starting with the 1968 translation:

Lara, Babe, pass the suture.

As a craftsman and man of the times, I wanted the new translation to be more hip hop friendly. For example:

Lara, what a ho. Your Adidas walk through hospital tents.

Those who floss twice daily or who curse mainly at inanimate objects, may posit that a worthy translation must obligatorily start with the text in its original language. And here I beg to differ. Too much of the author’s baggage can taint the fledgling manuscript (here I use ‘manuscript’ as a synecdoche). Best to commence from a sensible English translation and then contextualize.

The scene where Zhivago looks across the Suez Canal and is seen by a gangrenous-looking fellow on a motorcycle who yells, “Who are you?”, should be re-situated near a strip mall, thus functioning, metaphorically, as a lament for the death of such commercial spaces. Small detail, but highly important. Besides, what was Zhivago doing in the desert? A felicitous blunder in the original, I suppose, which was finally corrected after several translation passes. There is nothing like the disinfectant of multiple rewrites.

The complete translation is soon to be available for purchase on Amazon. I contacted Jeff Bezos directly. He wrote back saying he was tied up at the moment with a personal matter. Then he launched into a tirade, incoherent at times, about exchanging goods or something peculiar as that. My honest opinion: Jeff has spent too much time in shipping. He ought to work his magic in one of those glass penthouses, the ones with a motorized bar and satin bed sheets. Are you really telling me you can’t find a place for a new translation, I thought to myself, now displaying evidence of an ague fit. Who are you, Jeff Bezos, just a guy who wants to have current events whispered lovingly into his hungry ears by a professional news anchor? (Money does not buy happiness, but rather encourages it, like a desk lamp encourages the hatching of a mysterious egg, brought to your attention by unsupervised children in the community, and where surprise is the key component.)

And here I end this Faustian tale with a direct plea to JB. Please make room for ‘A New translation of Dr. Z’ in one of your sub-zero temperature warehouses. Hasn’t the public had enough of meat dehydrators or those electric bars used to heat bath towels?

And so, there you have it, related to me practically at gunpoint, the first person account of one of my colleagues at the sanatorium, who exudes from every pore the chill sense that his work is not being taken seriously. He maintains that his next English translation, that of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, coincidentally another framing narrative, will be the one to launch his career into the thermosphere–his word–so that he too may join the pantheon of writers who are too mentally unstable to recognize their true worth in society.

 

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A bubo on the groin

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

And so, Rubber Ducky, Tyrannosaurus Rex, and Penguin have recently been inducted into Monopoly’s family of tokens.

As luck would have it–and it often does–Harry, Janet and Becky decided to play Monopoly, and from this unlikely ménage à trois came this story, as rapidly as sputum is ejected from the back of an inflamed throat.

There were the usual pregame festivities, some of which involved a bowl of chip dip and a Victorian corset, but the place for such tittle-tattle is not in an article such as this (try subscribing to Netflix).

After the preliminaries, Janet hurriedly jumped on the chance to be Rubber Ducky (team Government); Harry greedily grabbed Tyrannosaurus Rex (The People), and Becky, a fiery redhead, who desperately wanted to be represented by an hourglass-shaped cerise blob of industrial plastic (she’s team History) had to settle for Penguin–and evidently there was no time to consider the allegorical ramifications afoot.

And, to make matters worse for the reader, Janet is a Democrat, Harry a Republican and Becky an independent. Now that your head is swirling (or feeling as though it has been suddenly pressed in a waffle iron), I endeavor to continue the story.

As with all board games, some board-side banter is inevitable. For example, Harry threw the dice with such vigor that the chaotic cubes ricocheted off the board, knocking over T-Rex in the process, one ending up secreted inside a Ming vase (which was on loan from a local museum–please don’t ask ) and the other in the unlaced corset. And as the search for the dice was underway, the conversation somehow drifted to the news and how the ideal newscaster ought to be a eunuch. But then Harry, soon cashing in on his string of casinos on Park Avenue, exclaimed, in a rather brusque tone, that mainstream news is fake. Strangely though, he believes his lies have the imprimatur of authenticity. Where I come from there’s another term for this assault on reason, but propaganda is such an ugly word.

Granted, some journalism misses the mark. More and more it’s news as told by the Radio City Rockettes or by some peeping Tom in a nice suit. But the choice is between propaganda and ineptitude. I know where I stand.

History suddenly piped up: “Hey, look at me. My truth, sandwiched between two slices of morocco leather, is sacrosanct.”

“Get down from your high horse, corn beef and rye” retorted Janet. “History is viciously penned by the victors. And, by the way, you owe me rent for one mole-infested hotel. Whine about it later, in chapter fifteen, if you still have an agent by then.” Becky ( she’s so sharp) bowed her head in mock-shame.

Between Government’s lies and History ‘s quavering truth, between Scylla and Charybdis, the People must decide. At this point Janet landed on the dreaded GO TO JAIL square. Then, drawing inspiration from Godfather III (available on Netflix), a swat team crashed through the ceiling, but that’s fake news, as this sort of thing only happens in the dodgy realm of fiction.

Janet, it needs be said, was an inveterate smoker and terrible at board games–and notably unlucky with IT: Some time ago the server in her basement contracted a pneumonia, coughed cacophonously, and died in agony shortly thereafter. And even though she’d been designated as banker for the game (must have occurred in the pregame shenanigans), her own wad of Monopoly money was in rapid retreat.

Now GO TO JAIL screamed for Harry, who felt sure he had rolled his last double. His face turned a pale shade of black: “This is such a pain in the aspic, a bubo on the groin.”

A five-alarm fire ended the game abruptly (errant matches and corsets do not make such good partners).

Will the Phoenix rise from the ashes?

An Island Moment

 

Adenium obesum, Bermuda

Dear viewer,

Whenever I post something without much text (as opposed to posting something having long, characteristically brilliant swatches of text ), I get comparatively more views–a message not altogether lost on me; consequently, you will not be hearing about how or why this beautiful flower, of Saudi Arabian origin, is overtaking the island and making it unbearably wondrous.

With tingling sincerity,

Prospero

 

Why social media is like a bucket of vomit

You love your Triumph Spitfire. You love going down the freeway in top-down weather. You love the sound of the stinging breeze wrapping itself round your German Luftwaffe Helmet. Oh, the looks you get. They, courageous car buffs, stand in awe; then they forcibly wipe the mud from their shoes and their bandy legs, wishing now they had stood a little further back from that pretty café au lait puddle. Still a madman cutting athwart a thin sheet of muddy water is something to behold. You look back, feeling great. And aside from the motion sickness, you’re on top of the world.

But then the proverbial merry-go-round sputters and stops. Your coveted sports car, in truth a sardine can with wheels and a nice paint job, breaks down. Then you learn the ugly truth. The only parts available for the car are stored in a locker somewhere in Asia minor, in the bowels of a godforsaken train station, and the only way to access the stash of now obsolete auto parts is to participate in a religious ceremony involving a small herd of yaks and bitcoin.

All this to say that there are some good things about owing a Spitfire and some not so good. It’s like that with social media too: some good, some bad.

Twitter, for instance, should be for journalists only. What’s the point of laypeople trumpeting (should this now be capitalized?) the first thing that pops into their swollen heads. And so, with the character limitation imposed by Twitter you get–well, you get concise garbage (or pick your own oxy, moron). Tweeting is to blurt out something you’ll regret later. Don’t do it. Attempting to raise the bar, Roseanne did it. Now she’s selling pencils.

There’s another problem with social media. Lone voices get drowned out. There’s bullying; you’ve seen it. Group think shows up to the party, wearing a flashy suit, and so we are left with one opinion, one revolution (now choose a color). Foot-soldier, like me, like some of you, get drowned out. Probably a good thing.

Nevertheless, the game is stacked against you–face it, you’re going to hear disproportionally from celebs. If celebrity X gets several million views for some vapid offering and lone-she-wolf gets single digit views (and the one from her mother hardly counts), is it reasonable to conclude that the celebrity’s contribution is a million times more thoughtful? Could be. If not, there’s room for improvement with this whole social media experiment. Sadly, the bullhorn of celebrity is loudest heard in a celebrity culture.

We seem to have the need to hand the podium to golf pros, to those famous at being famous, to porn stars known for hornswoggling real estate moguls, and don’t seem to notice that we get vomitus in return.

I hear the gentleman from the third row saying it’s sour grapes. The Kardashians are gifted at using social media and need props for that. Okay, I stand rebuked, though their good fortune at having such talents is indubitably my loss.

And here we have a couple sitting at the dinner table. There’s Frank, a vintner, fat-witted, occasionally violent, and then there’s Lucida, as readable as a good font. Cutting to the chase: Frank and Lucida had the common sense to instigate what they called the dinner rule: no mobile devices at the dinner table and no more takeout from Game King–there’s a fetid odor to llama meat that just doesn’t seem to want to let go.

Consequently, they dine in complete silence. And as soon as they leave the table, clean the dishes, wipe the counters, scrape spaghetti from the walls, they go off in separate directions. Only then, when no longer in each other’s company, do they rediscover the lost art of conversation, and text each other frantically till midnight: so long as they do not see each other, and so long as they can communicate electronically, all is well. Then, buoyed by hours of texting, they facebook (is this a verb yet?). Yikes, 143 likes. Goodnight all.

And there’s the typical comment section on UTube:

Your a retard. Eat my vomit. And if you have a moment, go f*ck yourself.

What’s happened to civility, to grammar, to the letter u?

Some are concerned about time management. If you’d spent all your waking hours on that Clementi piano sonata instead of on social media, you’d soon be performing at Carnegie Hall.

We have been entertained (by design) into a coma, and meanwhile we lose track of true friendship, fall into the hands of charlatans, stumble into the wading pool of disinformation, and mayhaps fatally slide into the penumbra of totalitarianism–all without notice or care.

A few weeks ago, I leaned that the developers of Facebook were B.F. Skinner fans and that their chef-d’oeuvre (evil mousetrap) was built upon variable schedules of reinforcement, which result in behavior resistant to extinction. All this to say that posting and waiting for ‘likes’ is addictive (that is, highly resistant to extinction).

When a rat (Burrhus Frederic loved rats) hits a lever and is only rewarded occasionally by a delicious pellet (delicious for rodents), said rat will compulsively keep hitting the lever. Most rats, being unlettered, haven’t heard of slot machines, but you have–you’ve seen the overturned pupils of a gambler stuffing coins into the maw of a heartless box. But, funny thing, when a rat has had too many food pellets, it vomits.

Hot Lips Brandy

Dear Prospero,

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to read your piece entitled Hot Lips Brandy.

While we enjoyed some aspects of the story, many of us kept questioning whether street swindler might not be a better vocation for you, but this sort of office chatter is unlikely to prejudice our view of your work as we are a top-tier behemoth of the publishing industry.

In some passages, our most senior editor seemed to have the need to lower her uvula, diverting air flow through her nose and producing a sort of nasal whine.

Though it is from time to time the sensitive writer’s wont to murderously impale certain words, many thought the word ‘veliger’ was typographically incorrect and that you must certainly have meant ‘villager,’ which in the context of the “visit to the local brothel” episode (part 3c) would have made good sense. But it was only on the fourth reading that a small cadre of us grasped the freshwater gastropod angle.

The sudden shift to Esperanto in the penultimate paragraph was admittedly unexpected. This linguistic sleigh of hand only works one out of a thousand times. This was not one of those times, though we did enjoy the sexual innuendo which came of its own toward the climactic end of an otherwise distracting and poorly lubricated gear change.

I personally felt your diagnosis of meningeal tuberculosis was unconvincing. Young farmer Brown probably suffered from eye strain.

One of our staff, Tina, a recovering bibliophile, saucer-eyed and mercurial of temperament, said your work was a finely chopped mixture of horseradish, Spanish onions, and Herbes de Provence sautéed in homemade goat butter and reduced nicely to an unctuous paste, and while her recent run-in with the law does not automatically disqualify her from opining on any of the material we receive–in hygienically sealed envelopes, as per the new regulations we were forced to adopt in the latter half of 2016–we make sure she is at all times kept away from the deep fryer.

In short, the majority of us look upon your cosmoramic writing style with a jaundiced eye. Gone are the days when a byzantine style is likely to curry favor with an editor, especially one prone to self-immolation; moreover, multi-protagonist stories can work a treat in the current market, but this sprawling amalgam of mirrory characters in search of the ‘perfect polygraph’ is weighed down by the crushing weight of its own invention.

Speaking personally again, I hope you will have occasion to submit some of your other work. We are always happy to discover new talent even if we have to look under rocks to find it. And believe you me, we’ve a huge collection of rocks ranging from petite pebbles to bulging boulders in the portico of our New York office.

We also wish to thank you for your submission fee. Rents are high and some of our staff seem to have acquired expensive habits.

With other colorful splashes of vitriol

Lovecraft goes to the pharmacy, trudges up and down the aisles, finds what he is looking for (a case of vaseline) and repairs to the counter, where he flashes a smile at the cashier, a dour specimen of a girl with a freckled face and friendly though bovine eyes. A flimsy carousel, displaying in candylike packages the sort of appurtenance often sold in public bathrooms, suddenly rotates, momentarily blocking his view of the exit. By dint of habit, he is always keenly aware of all points of egress.

Next moment Lovecraft’s credit card is refused with a small but foreboding fanfare. This embarrasses not only himself but the orange-haired youngster behind him clutching several cartons of ribbed condoms. In narratology, this event is called the ‘inciting incident’ or, to use Gérard Genette’s terminology, the ‘impregnable incident.’ (Scholars may wish to challenge the veracity of this term as it smacks of pure chimera.)

Outside, clouds scud bankward, and this is where we find Lovecraft following the cottony puffs, at a stiff pace, to the edifice whose name, Benito Bank, was emblazoned upon the tidy rectangle of laminated plastic having caused the ruckus in the first instance, and which sported a hologram of a festive scene, where Bacchus and three airily-clad females drink cooking sherry from the bottom of an iridescent, indigo-black high heel pump.

Some five minutes later, Lovecraft arrives at the bank having exhausted his capacity to whistle gaily, and is confronted with a series of gold-plated revolving doors–surely a metaphor for the va-et-vient, the hither and thither of transactional banking: life reduced to a devaluing series of transactions.

Sunlight breaks into the building, which strikes Lovecraft as ironic: most people are seeking to break out of the money palace.

Catching a glimpse of an unoccupied bank representative, Lovecraft undertakes to arrive there with the legendary speed of lightning–mind now, not the accuracy, as angry bolts from the firmament often decimate perfectly salvageable structures, such as those pearl-white gazebos parked haphazardly in the verdant countryside, while giving a pass to heaps of rubbish which, when looked upon rationally, provide little enjoyment to anyone. Lovecraft, presently making himself as large as possible, looms over the bank employee and asks, “Are you the swine that tried to neutralize me?”

The clerk, a small man with a square jaw and watery eyes, clears his throat. “Passcode.”

“EBFS,” was the perfectly timed riposte, Lovecraft’s mnemonic for “execution by firing squad.” The diminutive man launched into an indiscreet ballet of mad, migraine-inducing rat-tat-tat on the keyboard, coupled with interminably long bouts of the dwarfish man staring blankly at a screen, as if to divine some meaning hitherto beyond the reach of humankind.

“Listen, Willy,” says Lovecraft. “You don’t mind if I call you Willy, do you?” An awkward, slightly pregnant pause. “I’m in front of your mug because your bank has seen fit to throw shade on my credit. For shame.”

The clerk remains stoic, conjuring up another screen. A list of names populates the dark void. His finger–a long member with a vaguely phosphorescent sheen–slithers down the list, then stops abruptly. “Credit card refutations: Mrs. Seaman,” he says perfunctorily, and then proffers a dismissive wave.

In another corner of the building a man is heard yelling “fascists,” which quickly gives way to other colorful splashes of vitriol.

Scoffing at the clerk’s insolence, Lovecraft turns volte-face. Meanwhile, drooping velvet ropes keep throngs of customers corralled. Like animals.

Soon he is accosted by a couple of sallow-faced bank guards, the tallest of the two muttering ‘like a dog’ under his foul breath. They are unpleasant, but polite. Impeccably dressed too.

Next Lovecraft is ushered into a small cubicle, whereupon he is seated forcibly across from a woman in a bathrobe. Was this Mrs. Seaman? Her head is covered by a phalanx of plastic curlers and her face smothered by a mud mask covering the entire real estate of her face.

“Sorry to discommode you,” starts Lovecraft, “but are you the one responsible for the bank’s shameful conduct?” At this point Lovecraft deftly pulls the wallet from his back pocket and removed the credit card, indignantly waving it about. “My credit card was declined at a very respectable shop in town. Are you sufficiently shamed?”

She takes the avatar of Lovecraft’s discontent from his hand, and exits to an antechamber. She returns, bathrobe intact, with a folder, which she lays out on the desk like a winning poker hand. “Johnny Lovecraft,” she sighs. “Your account has been in arrears since 1956.”

Lovecraft clasps his hands behind his head, supremely confident. “Impossible.” He pauses to reflect. “Though there is admittedly a gap between the impossible and the improbable.” His eyes narrow. “Yes, I acknowledge the error of my ways.” His voice deepens. “Still, nothing can alter my harsh opinion of Benito Bank.”

“Your healthy revulsion does you credit. But I can tell you that the chairman of Benito Bank, Mr. Rump, is a great man. A very great man.” She closes the folder, smiling through the mud. “Life is permanent warfare.” She stares dreamily at an imaginary ceiling fan. “A very great man.” She jerks her shoulder suddenly, ending her elegant soliloquy with some foggy thing she remembered: “All that corporate profits need to gain a foothold–is for people of good conscience to remain silent.”

Later, in the jaunty spring of 2020, after a little scrape with Hyperbolea, which left one hundred thousand dead—still and all, not bad business for Benito Bank, whose tentacles reached Hyperbolea—Lovecraft and the recently widowed Mrs. Seaman would be wed at a cacophonous ceremony, forever curing Lovecraft’s disdain of high finance.

Fiction explained

Fiction explained. Pilot episode.

SS_4https://vimeo.com/230967579