Friday, December 31, 2010

John L. Heilbron: Galileo

John L. Heilbron
(Image from UC Berkeley)

This year is the 400th anniversary of Galileo's Starry Messenger (Sidereus Nuncius), and in celebration of this date, my old history-of-science professor John Heilbron has published his biography of Galileo, fittingly titled Galileo, though I've only just discovered this fact today by reading yesterday's International Herald Tribune. The historian of science Owen Gingerich reviews the book in that paper, but the same review appeared earlier as his New York Times article "Starry Messenger" (December 24, 2010) and has mostly positive things to say:
Heilbron, an emeritus professor of the history of science at Berkeley, is . . . fine-grained in his approach, leavening his account with wit and irony.
That sounds like Heilbron.
Readers who make it through the occasional eye-glazing geometrical digression in J. L. Heilbron's "Galileo" will not be surprised to find that the author’s extensive output includes a fresh explication of Euclid.
That sounds like Heilbron, too, but it's a good thing. And glazed eyes aside, if only Galileo himself had been as attentive to such detail, or at least more careful in whom he ridiculed and whom he outraged, for he needn't have been placed under house arrest for views that weren't especially unorthodox:
Heilbron . . . makes no big issue of any religious unorthodoxies on Galileo's part beyond his Copernicism, though surely there must have been some . . . . [H]e doesn't see any secret unbelief underneath the public Catholicism, noting in passing that when Galileo, near the end of his life, was under a strict house arrest on charges of heresy, Urban VIII granted him special permission to attend Mass at a nearby church.

Everyone agrees that Galileo was an incorrigible egotist, so full of himself that he repeatedly misjudged his ability to persuade the authorities of his own opinions. His attempt via the Jesuit astronomers in 1615-16 to convince the Vatican backfired . . . . Heilbron [is] . . . sharply critical of Galileo's unnecessary alienation of the Jesuits, and . . . in particular highlights Galileo's scientific fumbles, both in the debates with the Jesuits and later in his controversial "Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems" (1632). As he wryly comments, "It was not Galileo's style to accept corrections from others."
Heilbron himself, for all his formidable knowledge and intellect, never places his own views above the reach of critical reason. As he says in a different context, quoting Ludovico Antonio Muratori: "Humility, humility, humility" (at 49 minutes, 5 seconds into the video). As for Heilbron's views on the Jesuits, I recall from several of our conversations his admiration for Jesuit intellectual rigor. Studying under him was a bit like learning under Jesuits, and his writings are not an easy read:
Heilbron's [biography] has . . . rich . . . scientific detail, and will no doubt become the standard, comprehensive biography. Early in the book, Heilbron has a serious mathematical discussion of Galileo's Paduan period. In one of his most inventive sections, he creates a Galilean dialogue on issues of algebra and geometry. Though not easy to read, it brilliantly expresses the ambiguities and blind alleys as Galileo wrestled with the conceptual difficulty of introducing a non-geometrical quantity -- time itself -- into the proportions. These issues did not find their final formulation until the end of his life, when he raced to complete "Two New Sciences" and smuggle it to Holland for publication.
He creates a Galilean dialogue? Irony of ironies! Heilbron, author of science fiction! Well, he always was an 'instrumentalist' on the issue of truth. At any rate, I must go out and obtain a copy of this lively biography! More seriously, concerning Galileo's use of geometry, if I recall correctly, even Newton struggled to express his hard-won views on the unity of celestial mechanics and terrestrial dynamics not in the calculus that he had invented in developing his views, but in the language of geometrical proportion. I'm no expert on that, however, and may have a faulty memory about the point.

Anyway, hats off to John Heilbron for his new book. I'll raise a glass in his honor at midnight tonight as this anniversary year passes. Let's not forget Galileo, either, as his Sidereal year passes by. "Time just gets away from us," as Mattie Ross says in the penultimate line to her tale in True Grit, but it won't get away tonight without a toast in passing.

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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Poetry Break: "Diana's Lover"

Fool Moon?
(Image from Wikipedia)

Time for another poetry break . . . long past time, actually. This time, I offer a poem from around 1985, a not entirely successful one, I fear, concerning an uncertain 'Diana':
Diana's Lover
Stretch forth your hand to grasp the moon within
and close your fingers close around her globe;
and feel her warmth, and see her lunar glow
shine golden through your now-translucent skin.

Then press her gently, deep into your breast
until you feel the beating of your heart,
and know the moon herself has come to rest
within that prescient throbbing, restless part.
Not that one could actually do this, no matter how much in love one might be, but that's poetic licentiousness.

But how could this bit of doggerel be improved? The most obvious solution would be to delete it altogether, but that's no fun. Let's at least improve the rhyme scheme by making the first stanza fit the pattern of the second:
Stretch forth your hand to grasp the moon within
and close your fingers close around her bow;
and feel her warmth, and see your lunar skin
shine golden with a now-translucent glow.
The meaning is somewhat altered, but no matter, for composing poetry is as much about discovery as creation, about finding something caught within language and setting it free. Not that I've succeeded in that in this. Anyway, let's pair this altered stanza with the unaltered one:
Diana's Lover
Stretch forth your hand to grasp the moon within
and close your fingers close around her bow;
and feel her warmth, and see your lunar skin
shine golden with a now-translucent glow.

Then press her gently, deep into your breast
until you feel the beating of your heart,
and know the moon herself has come to rest
within that prescient throbbing, restless part.
Is that better? What do readers think? Feel free to try your own hand at improvements -- or at parodies -- in the comments.

Enjoy . . . or not.

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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Charles Portis: True Grit

Image from

I saw the first movie made from this Portis novel way back when it came out, or a little thereafter. It starred John Wayne and Glenn Campbell, who were well-known, and Kim Darby, who wasn't. The film was okay, but it was a John Wayne vehicle to an Oscar and was marred by Campbell's 'acting'. I think that I liked it because it was sort of about Arkansas, my home state. I was just a kid of 13 or 14, I reckon.

Well, I finally read the book over the weekend past because I was taking some time off and had the thing handy since I'd gotten it for my daughter as a Christmas gift. I bought it for her because it's sort of about Arkansas and because Charles Portis and LeRoy Tucker are friends, and I thought that I ought to get to know the friend of a friend.

Also, a new movie has been made based on the book, a Coen Brothers film, said to be far superior to the first one, so I thought that I'd prepare myself for seeing it.

Anyway, I liked the book. "A good story, well-told," as I wrote to Mr. Tucker upon finishing it. I wondered, though, why the book has stayed on my mind -- not that much time has passed since the weekend, of course. I think that it's stuck with me because it brings together several things that give the story tension. One thing is the distinctive narrative voice of the girl Mattie Ross, who sets out to avenge her father's death by hunting down and killing his murderer, Tom Chaney, in spite of being a good 'Christian'. Indeed, despite being even a very strict Calvinist with a deep attachment to the doctrine of predestination, she nevertheless hooks up with an obvious reprobate, the one-eyed U. S. Marshall, Rooster Cogburn, for him to help her do the dirty work. Another thing, naturally, is Rooster Cogburn himself, who might not be a saint, but who turns out to be a chivalrous knight on a horse -- in less-than-shining armor, but a knight nonetheless -- for even when he knows that Mattie is safe (or seems to be), he performs for her by 'jousting' against four dark knights:
Rooster said, "Fill your hands, you son of a bitch!" and he took the reins in his teeth and pulled the other saddle revolver and drove his spurs into the flanks of his strong horse Bo and charged directly at the bandits. It was a sight to see. He held the revolvers wide on either side of the head of his plunging steed. The four bandits accepted the challenge and they likewise pulled their arms and charged their ponies ahead.

It was some daring move on the part of the deputy marshall whose manliness and grit I had doubted. No grit? Rooster Cogburn? Not much!

. . .

I believe the bandits began firing their weapons first, although the din and smoke was of such a sudden, general nature that I cannot be sure. I do know that the marshall rode for them in so determined and unwavering a course that the bandits broke their "line" ere he reached them and raced through them, his revolvers blazing, and he not aiming with the sights but only pointing the barrels and snapping his head from side to side to bring his good eye into play.

Harold Permalee was the first to go down. He flung his shotgun in the air and clutched at his neck and was thrown backward over the rump of his horse. The Original Greaser Bob rode wider than the others and he lay flat on his horse and escaped clear with his winnings. Farrell Permalee was hit and a moment later his horse went down with a broken leg and Farrell was dashed violently forward to his death.

We thought that Rooster had come through the ordeal with no injury, but in fact he had caught several shotgun pellets in his face and shoulders . . .
One dark knight remains to be dealt with, the bandit chief Ned Pepper, but that's part of the story.

Also, Mattie's own ordeal isn't quite over, for she must face down her father's killer one last time, but in firing at him with her father's heavy pistol, she's thrown backward from the recoil and falls deep into a sinkhole that threatens to swallow her ever more deeply as she finds herself loosely wedged into a narrow neck of the hole and hard by the bones of a dead man, whose ribcage is filled with a ball of serpents. Rooster descends to harrow this hellish scene, stomp the serpents that threaten, and save her from falling entirely into the pit of utter darkness below.

All this is told with a lighter touch than I've used here, but I wanted to make explicit what's going on at a deeper level.

I think that there are even echoes of Don Quixote in the protagonist Rooster Cogburn, partly from the picaresque aspect to his character, partly from the ridiculous figure that he cuts, and partly from his exaggerated sense of self, but we shouldn't be too surprised to find the Knight, the Christ, and the Man of La Mancha all put into one character, for the chivalrous cowboy is commonly portrayed as the last incarnation of the Medieval knight, of which Quixote was a Renaissance example, and the virtuous night was ever a Christ figure. It all fits, somehow, even if Rooster isn't exactly a cowboy.

No wonder Mattie Ross falls so deeply in love with Rooster, without ever quite realizing that she does.

And that makes her story a tragic one . . .

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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

One word, one meaning?

A Blizzard of Meaning?
(Image from

One of my favorite columnists in the Korea Herald, Dr. Kim Seong-kon, has written an amusing critique of unimaginative exams, "Hitchcock, Chaplin and Korean exams" (December 22, 2010) -- including a couple of 'exams' that Hitchcock and Chaplin failed in interpreting their own work --- but he particularly dislikes the Korean SAT. Dr. Kim is an English professor at SNU (Seoul National University), and one of his literary essays was included in the Korean SAT Preparation Book, but he found the question posed so wrongheaded as to leave him appalled. I'll leave that one for you read about on your own and decide for yourself if you are similarly appalled. Instead, I'd like to focus on an example that I personally find more appalling:
[The] Poet Choi Seung-ho . . . often complains about the Korean equivalent of the SAT test, which contains questions on his poems such as "Blizzard Warning."

"Even I fail to find the right answer," he muttered. "In poetry, image is like flesh, rhythm is blood and meaning is like bones. But the exam forces students to find the bones only."

Indeed, our testing policy, as well as our education system forces our students to forget the warm flesh and blood, and search for the dried bones of a dead man instead. It is common sense that you cannot possibly find one answer when it comes to poetic meaning. In fact, you cannot simply find one meaning for each stanza and line of a poem. Unfortunately, however, the Korean SAT test leads students to believe there is only one correct meaning in a poetic word or stanza, which is definitely a serious fallacy.
Not quite the poetic fallacy, of course, but pathetically fallacious, nonetheless. One word, one meaning works well in logic but not in poetry, which thrives on wordplay and polyvalent signification. Even prose often plays with words, as in Professor Kim's use of "bones" to refer both to "dead man" and to "meaning."

Now, I don't know Choi's poem "Blizzard Warning," but I'd bet my bottom dollar that the word "Blizzard" has more than one meaning in the poem, perhaps much as my poem "Water Witching" is not just about dowsing but uses the expression "water witching" to refer both to dowsing and to something else that might also require a bit of magic.

Read it on your own if interested . . . and also Professor Kim's article.

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Monday, December 27, 2010

Paul Stevens: "Milton's Satan"

Paul Stevens
Department of English
University of Toronto
St. George Campus

I rarely watch videos because I find them so time-consuming, but I took Christmas Day off and watched a video of a 45-minute lecture by Paul Stevens on "Milton's Satan," recommended to the Milton List by one of the experts on Paradise Lost, Feisal Mohamed.

When I clicked on the link, I discovered that the video is one in a series of Competition Lectures for Best Lecture sponsored by TVO, which is Ontario's public educational media organization. I take it that "TVO" stands for "Television Ontario."

But to cut to the chase . . .

The lecture is outstanding if you like Milton, and maybe even if you don't, because Stevens demonstrates Milton's contemporary relevance in showing how the poet has bequeathed to the modern age its psychological understanding of a deeply ambivalent, conflicted, quasi-heroic Satan who is somehow an enormously appealing, compelling figure.

Why did Milton portray Satan as such an appealing figure? Stevens notes three main answers proffered over the centuries since the publication of Paradise Lost:
1. The Romantics' Satan -- that Milton was in fact of the Devil's party without realizing this fact (Percy Bysshe Shelley [Correction: William Blake]).

2. The Academics' Satan -- that Milton created a Satan to seduce readers into identifying with the evil one, only to be disillusioned by evil, thereby bringing readers to experience within themselves the fall first experienced by Eve and Adam (Stanley Fish).

3. Milton's Satan -- that Milton modeled Satan after himself and his own failings (Paul Stevens).
That third Satan is the one favored by Stevens, obviously, and though there's something a bit too cocky about calling it Milton's Satan -- wouldn't those who support the first or second Satan also consider their Satan Milton's Satan -- Stevens makes an intriguing, almost entirely persuasive case that I cannot easily reproduce here, so I urge you to click on the link and see for yourself.

I say 'almost' because I'm still partial to Fish's argument in Surprised by Sin . . .

UPDATE: As my friend Carter Kaplan graciously points out, the first Satan interpretation is not Percy Bysshe Shelley's but William Blake's, so I stand corrected of my 'senior moment'.

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Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas Cake Gift from Student

Christmas Cake from a Satisfied Student
Photo by Jae-kyung Woo

On Friday, a former student of mine for whom I had written a letter of recommendation dropped by my office at Ewha Womans University bearing a lovely little cake that sported Christmas decorations, as you see above.

I can also report that this cake tasted even better than it looked, for despite its cute sugary decorations, it wasn't overly sweet (once those decorations were removed), but instead tasted something like a German chocolate cake. I would have brought it home with me, except that I was heading out to do some last-minute Christmas shopping and simply couldn't carry the thing around that easily, not even in its box with a convenient carrying handle (partly visible in the upper left of the photo), so I went around to the English Program Office and shared my cake with the staff there.

They oohed and aahed and took photos. One of the office staff promised to send an image, and did so. That's the "Jae-kyung Woo" noted just under the photo.

So . . . a big thanks and Season's Greetings to my satisfied student and to the ever-helpful Jae-kyung Woo. Also, a Merry Christmas to my readers on the laggard side of the International Dateline, and a Happy Boxing Day to my readers on the British Isles!

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Saturday, December 25, 2010

A Happy Mutant X-Mas from En-Uk Sequoya Hwang

While every normal person is preparing to celebrate Christmas, a perverse Mutant X-Mas is being prepared at the South Pole as mutant penguins frolic in the summer wonderland:

Mutant Santa Claws chortles as he visualizes the joyful horror ahead:

The many cloned mutant elves prepare mutant gifts:

Gifts such as X-Mas Present Zombies, a must offering for every mutant child:

But first, all must be delivered -- and here come the reindeer to do so! On Dasher!

On Dancer!

On Prancer!

And Vixen!

On Comet!

On Cupid!

On Donner!

And Blitzen!

And last, but not least: On Rudolf, you Mutant Reindeer!

The team of mutant reindeer fly towards a mutant home, its door graced by a mutant wreath:

Within awaits a mutant X-Mas tree:

But mutant Santa Claws drops straight down the chimney and into a flaming mutant fireplace, his false beard getting dreadfully singed!

And thus ends another successful Mutant X-Mas. Happy Holidays everyone, from all of us here at mutable Gypsy Scholar!

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Friday, December 24, 2010

Maybe teaching's like this . . .

Erica Brown

I've not blogged at length for a couple of days, just brief bloglets, because I've been so busy about 'Christmas' grading, that time at fall semester's end when all good little students get the good little grades that they deserve . . . and all bad little students get grades better than they deserve. Ah, well, that's Christmas grading, a time for generosity of intellectual spirit. But maybe teaching should be more like how David Brooks describes the intellectual approach of Erica Brown:
[T]here is the matter of how she speaks. Somehow (and I’m not going to be able to capture this adequately), she combines extreme empathy with extreme tough-mindedness.
Perhaps that's what I ought to aim at in my own teaching. Maybe teaching's like this. Anyway, if that quote intrigues you, go to the Brooks column "The Arduous Community" for the December 20, 2010 issue of The New York Times, and read the entire article about Dr. Erica Brown, scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.

Meanwhile, from here in Lesser Seoul, Merry Christmas Eve to all who celebrate this holiday . . . and a merry time as well to all who don't.

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Thursday, December 23, 2010

Mark his words . . .

Illustration by Tina Berning
(Image from New York Times)

The humorist Garrison Keillor, in his New York Times book review on the Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1 (edited by Harriet Elinor Smith et al.), which he's inexplicably titled "Mark Twain's Riverboat Ramblings" (December 16, 2010), has these words to borrow from the still young but already great Mr. Clemens himself:
A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.
I find this sly remark hilarious . . . and utterly serious at the same time. Yesterday's Islamists ought to keep the sage saying in mind as they continue to tweak the tail of the West and the rest . . . though I reckon this incisive aphorism by clever Clemens can cleave twain ways.

And I do not like that upper cut, I do not like it, Sam-Cut-Up . . .

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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Some Islamists sort of like Gypsy Scholar . . .

(Image from Islamic Awakening)

Some Islamists read Gypsy Scholar and, apparently, like what they read . . . kind of. About three years ago, I posted an entry titled "Saudi Cleric Salman Al-Odeh Slams Osama bin Laden" (September 24, 2007) and cynically wondered why this cleric was coming out against his former 'friend' Osama bin Laden -- possibly to align himself with the Awakening Councils against Al-Qaeda in Iraq? But you can click on the link to find out the details of my post about that.

Somebody else clicked there, and not using a link that I had set up, for my site meter provides the following:
Domain Name (Unknown)
IP Address (Unknown Organization)
ISP Unknown ISP
Location Continent : Unknown
Country : Unknown
Lat/Long : unknown

Language English (U.S.)
Operating System Microsoft WinXP
Browser Firefox
Mozilla/5.0 (Windows; U; Windows NT 5.1; en-US; rv:1.9.1)
Gecko/20090624 Firefox/3.5
Javascript version 1.5
Monitor Resolution : 1366 x 768
Color Depth : 32 bits

Time of Visit Dec 20 2010 8:33:14 pm
Last Page View Dec 20 2010 8:41:55 pm
Visit Length 8 minutes 41 seconds
Page Views 3
Referring URL
Visit Entry Page
Visit Exit Page
Out Click
I've deleted the IP Address because I figure that should be kept private, but the Referring URL was to a discussion thread at Islamic Awakening that had a comment by a certain 'Abu Jihad' complaining about 'Awdah (Saudi Cleric Salman Al-Odeh):
Well, seeing as though 'Awdah is a serious sellout . . . (he went from saying things like 'those scholars talk about everything in the heavens and under the earth and they leave off the waaqi'' to giving entire broadcasts about the mubaah types of breast enlargements on satellite tv!!)

I would say that his fataawaa in support of the saudi government, while pretending to support jihad in iraq, and remaining hardcore against al-qa'idah (Saudi Cleric Salman Al-Odeh Slams "Brother" Osama bin Laden, Warns Him He'll Be Responsible for Deaths of Millions, Reminds Him He Must Face Allah. Ironically timed at around 2007) is a winning mix if you plan on starting some awakening councils.

I'm not the only one with that type of understanding. Check out this Kaafir link: Gypsy Scholar: Saudi Cleric Salman Al-Odeh Slams Osama bin Laden.
Well, I'm honored. I must be indeed a rare Kaafir (Infidel) to have even a degree of credibility among Islamists . . . though that comment was posted over a year ago, so perhaps I'm out of favor by now. The recent visitor stayed nearly 10 minutes, however, so maybe my star is ascending . . . though there's no guarantee that the visitor was Muslim. Could just be another Kaafir with time on his hands . . .

But more seriously, this does remind me that a large number of individuals out there come across my blog . . . and that not every one of them will read my posts with friendly eyes.

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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Merry Christmas Card from Terrance Lindall

'Falling for Christmas'
Terrance Lindall
(Image from Xmas Greetings 2010)

That contemporary Hieronymos Bosch, the absurdist-surrealist artist Terrance Lindall, recently sent out a Christmas card to various friends and acquaintances, and since I also received one, I thought that I'd share his Miltonic holiday wishes with Gypsy Scholar readers:
Dear Friends,

It must be remembered on Christmas that we would not be celebrating that day had not our parents in that happy state of Eden eaten of the tree of knowledge necessitating the birth of Christ to redeem us from that original sin and take that sin upon Himself. Herewith a Christmas card, not to celebrate, but to commemorate that fateful day that assured Christ's coming and made it possible for John Milton to write that greatest of all poems PARADISE LOST, for if no loss of Eden, no poem. Ironic is it not, such beauty coming from such origins.

BOOKS 9, 10, John Milton's Paradise Lost

As with new Wine intoxicated both
They swim in mirth, and fansie that they feel
Divinitie within them breeding wings
herewith to scorn the Earth: but that false Fruit
Farr other operation first displaid,
Carnal desire enflaming, hee on EVE
Began to cast lascivious Eyes, she him
As wantonly repaid; in Lust they burne:
Till ADAM thus 'gan EVE to dalliance move. (PL 9.1008-16)

Eternal Father from his secret Cloud,
Amidst in Thunder utter'd thus his voice.
"Assembl'd Angels, and ye Powers return'd
From unsuccessful charge, be not dismaid,
Nor troubl'd at these tidings from the Earth,
Which your sincerest care could not prevent . . ." (PL 10.32-7)
With his reference to the Fall, "that fateful day" that the angels "could not prevent," thereby "necessitating the birth of Christ" and making "possible for John Milton to write that greatest of all poems PARADISE LOST, for if no loss of Eden, no poem," which is perhaps a happy outcome, Mr. Lindall seems to be affirming a variant on the theology of felix culpa, the "fortunate fall" (and perhaps also pictorially punning on "tree of knowledge" and "carnal knowledge"), which might not accord with everyone's Christian views, but Christmas is a time for generosity of spirit, so I hope that all readers will accept his holiday greetings.

Moreover, as Christmas draws near, friends of art and artists might draw even more deeply on that same spirit of generosity to contribute here to the support of Mr. Lindall's Paradise Lost Project, which includes the production of his Elephant Folio edition of Paradise Lost. If you want to know more the project, go to Mr. Lindall's website and click around.

I should perhaps also note that I am a member of Mr. Lindall's Paradise Lost Committee, but I make no money out of promoting his art. Nor, I might add, does he personally benefit financially, for all contributions go to the Yuko Nii Foundation for the support of the Williamsburg Art & Historical Center.

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Monday, December 20, 2010

Pitching in to help students . . .

I might not look much like a teacher in the photo above from last summer's Ozark trip home, but I look even less like a farmer, so all of my American Gothic gets focused on instructing students . . . using the pitchfork as motivator, of course.

But I must be doing something right in my teaching, for a couple of students handed me notes of thanks. Both were for my Research Writing course, though from different classes. The first note was given to me in an envelope, and I joked, "An envelope? There's money inside?" Unfortunately, I opened it to find only nonpecuniary praise:
Dear, Prof. Hodges

Prof. Hodges thank you so much for your "Research Paper" class this semester!! I really enjoyed learning how to write a paper for academic stuff. I hope you can teach us international politics for another course perhaps? I really enjoyed discussing my politics-related paper with you (I learned a lot while discussing it with you). You're not going to check for grammars in the letter, are you?! He he. I'm just joking!! I'll visit your blog time to time! Hope you've enjoyed our class too!! Happy early Christmas!! See you next semester. Bye bye.

P.S. 교수님이최고에요. You Rock, Prof!!
She'll be pleased to discover that I indeed did not check for 'grammars' but left the note in the form that it came to me. I don't want to alter someone's voice . . . .

The other student handed me a card only, no envelope, but I joked again anyway about maybe finding a check inside the fold. Once more, however, just non-monetary words of praise:
Dear Prof. Hodges.

While I was editing my paper for the last time, I had mixed feelings about completing the paper and the course.

It was indeed a difficult and long process and there were times when I was tempted to let go everything.

Yet, as I now look back I have swum across an ocean that seemed endless and deep in depth. And without your guidance I would not have reached the shore.

Surely, this is not the end of my journey and there will be many obstacles I will encounter. But at least I now know that I have a teacher who I could always ask advice and wisdom.

Thank you for everything.
I recall a lot of email questions from this student, so she must have been referring to the advice in my replies. I don't recall offering any wisdom, however.

Both notes were signed (and handed to me personally, for that matter), but I don't know that either student would want her name posted here, so I'll leave their praise anonymous.

Now to move toward actually grading those final research papers . . .

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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Cultural Diversity and European Integration

Ewha Womans University
(Image from Wikipedia)

The photo above shows pretty much what I see nearly every morning after exiting the subway station and heading for the entrance to Ewha campus, and I'll be seeing this scene later on this early Sunday morning, albeit with fewer students milling about, as I head for my duty as judge in a nationwide speech contest sponsored, if I recall correctly, by the JoongAng Daily.

Because of this early morning responsibility, I have little time for a substantive blog entry today, but I can at least note that Ewha's Division of International Studies has asked me to teach its course on European History this coming spring semester since the regular instructor will be on sabbatical. I intend to rework a course that I designed for Yonsei University's Underwood International College. Some of this will sound familiar to long-time readers of Gypsy Scholar:
In the book Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order, Robert Kagan proposes that Europeans are "turning away from power . . . [and] moving . . . into a self-contained world of laws and rules and transnational negotiation and cooperation . . . . a post-historical paradise of peace and relative prosperity, the realization of Immanuel Kant's 'perpetual peace'" (page 3). But is this European perception of its role realistic or deluded? European integration has drawn together a collection of distinct nations, each characterized by its own particular culture, forming the EU a truly multicultural organization. These nations, nevertheless, share much the same civilizational identity, as Samuel Huntington (Clash of Civilizations) would have agreed and Rémi Brague (Eccentric Civilization) would still attempt to set forth. But as Christopher Caldwell shows in Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West, the ongoing, extensive immigration from the world to Europe may be introducing a more radical version of multiculturalism, as groups adhering to other than Western identities begin to dominate and to practice, if not explicitly demand, cultural autonomy. Do such groups pose a political threat to the European paradise of peace? Were the Paris riots, for example, a harbinger of cultural -- perhaps even civilizational -- conflict to come? And with the current economic problems reflected in the Euro currency's woes exacerbate these cultural differences and bring the entire process of European integration to a halt, even a collapse? This course will focus upon such questions, broadly conceived.
This is a preliminary draft of the course description, and I intend to rework and reword it as soon as I get beyond finals grading and other editing jobs that have piled up recently.

Meanwhile, wish me energy for today's judging duty. I foresee three grueling hours . . .

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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Friedrich Naumann Foundation's 2010 Freedom Prize: Necla Kelek

Freedom Prize for Necla Kelek
Awarded by Friedrich Naumann Foundation
Ms. Kelek flanked by Wolfgang Gerhardt und Jürgen Morlok

I've mentioned in a few blog posts that I met my wife partly through the auspices of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, for we accidentally sat next to each other on a train headed for that foundation's orientation seminar after we had been awarded doctoral research grants. We were sponsored by the Naumann for three years and attended numerous seminars on free enterprise, democracy, and human rights, among other topics of concern for the foundation. At the time, multiculturalism was a much debated concept, but what had not yet become clear, to me anyway, was the distinction between a moderate multiculturalism intrinsic to Europe and a radical multiculturalism extrinsic to it.

I'm scheduled to teach a course next semester at Ewha Womans University for the Division of International Studies on European unification and some of its difficulties, so I've been looking into these issues, which include radical multiculturalism and its denial of universal values. I was therefore interested to note that the Naumann Foundation has awarded its 2010 Freedom Prize (Freiheitspreis) to the Turkish-German feminist Necla Kelek.

In her acceptance speech, "Let's Speak about Freedom" ("Lassen Sie uns über Freiheit sprechen"), Ms. Kelek notes a problem posed for human rights by Islamism in Europe, which I translate somewhat loosely below:
Human dignity, equality between men and women, freedom of expression, conscience and religion, of assembly and freedom of association, the separation of church and state were thenceforth [i.e., after the liberal Revolution of 1848] principles of European society. Although delayed [in full acceptance], equality and freedom came to be reflected in [European] constitutions and laws, and they shaped the value orientation of civil society and constituted European identity, and constitute it even now. Political Islam -- and I mean, for example, the 45 states [actually 57] of the Organization of the Islamic Conference -- place human rights under the rule of sharia, Islam's divine law. The Islamic organizations in Germany emphasize their retention of sharia. Islam and Islamism are thus difficult to separate from each other, for a rejection of secularism and the culture of the West has not only a militant variant, but is at the core of the policy of almost all Islamic institutions.

(Die Würde des Menschen, die Gleichberechtigung von Mann und Frau, Meinungsfreiheit, Gewissens- und Religionsfreiheit, Versammlungs- und Koalitionsfreiheit, die Trennung von Staat und Religion waren fortan Prinzipien der europäischen Gesellschaft und Gleichheit und Freiheit schlugen sich mit Verzögerung in den Verfassungen und Gesetzen nieder und prägten die Wertorientierung der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft, machten und machen die Identität Europas bis heute aus. Der politische Islam -- und ich meine damit zum Beispiel die 45 Staaten der islamischen Konferenz -- stellen die Menschenrechte unter den Vorbehalt der Scharia, ihres göttlichen Rechts. Auch die Islamverbände in Deutschland betonen den Scharia-Vorbehalt. Es ist deshalb schwer, Islam und Islamismus voneinander zu trennen, denn die Ablehnung der Säkularität und der Kultur des Westens hat nicht nur eine militante Variante, sondern ist Kern der Politik fast aller islamischen Institutionen.)
In stating that "Islam and Islamism are . . . difficult to separate from each other, for a rejection of secularism and the culture of the West has not only a militant variant, but is at the core of the policy of almost all Islamic institutions," Ms Kelek touches on an issue that I've also broached, namely, my view that Islamism is radicalism at the core of Islam.

Unfortunately, I lack time today to go further into this speech and its issues, but for those who know German and wish to read more, there's a pdf of the original speech at the Naumann site (as noted above, and also videos). An edited German version titled "Aus Muslimen müssen freie Bürger werden" ("Muslims Must Become Free Citizens") appears in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (November 9, 2010), so if one knows no German, then one can easily copy and paste at Google Translate and get a fairly decent translation.

One can also read a complete English translation of the FAZ edited version at the blog Gates of Vienna, and there may be other sites, possibly translating the original version, but I've not yet found any.

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Friday, December 17, 2010

Death of an Old Friend . . .

Yesterday morning, I received the sad news that my old Scoutmaster and good friend Mr. Albert Holland has died. My brother John will perform the funeral service in his capacity as minister, and John's wife Sandy informs me:
John . . . said he visited with Mr. Holland quite a bit this past week and he was strong and brave about his condition. Told John he'd lived a good life. There was no man he needed to make peace with and he was at peace with God.
Sandy also told me that John asked if I'd like to offer any words, so I wrote a reply for my brother's consideration in preparing the funeral service:
Dear Sandy,

John might want to take a look at this blog entry on Mr. Holland:

The best words about him in that entry were written by Sun-Ae, who had taken the kids and visited him the summer of 2009 (when I had to stay in Korea) and had remarked on how well he was doing for a man around 90:
"He uses the hearing equipment, so most of the time, he hears well. He is still very talkative and remembers a lot of things from his long life. He is a good storyteller, and what he tells is all very interesting. He is witty, wise, warm-hearted, and I really like him. En-Uk said, 'Because you are so healthy for your age, you can live until 100.' Yes, I wish him those years and more. His dog takes care of him well so do other people around his area."
I told En-Uk this morning about Mr. Holland passing away, and I asked him what he liked about visiting with Mr. Holland. He liked the fact that Mr. Holland had a good dog, "Lady," who was smart and could retrieve sticks from the pond (like in the photos in the blog entry). I asked Sa-Rah also, and she liked Mr. Holland because he was a very nice man and told such good stories, especially about the Korean War.

For me, Mr. Holland began as my Scoutmaster and ended as one of my best friends. When I was no longer in the Scouts but still in Salem, he asked me to help him with some farmwork. He drove the tractor while I stood next to the tractor seat with a sprayer and doused the weeds in one of his fields. That would have been about 1974, I reckon. A few years after that, in the early 1980s, Mr. Holland and his wife lost their only son, Herman (to an aneurism), and many years later, though still too soon (in the mid-1990s), Mr. Holland lost his wife (to Alzheimers), but despite these tragic losses, he remained open to life and to people. He loved my wife and kids and felt a connection to them not only through me but through his own time in Korea during the Korean War. He had a high opinion of the Koreans whom he had known during the War, and he remembered many details even the last time that I saw him, which was last summer (2010).

I should add that he was not only a veteran of the Korean War but was also a veteran of the Second World War, serving in the Pacific as a Marine (I think). He was thus one of what has been called "the Greatest Generation," and when the Korean War started, he didn't rest on those laurels but volunteered because one of his officers from WWII contacted him and said, "We need you."

That the sort of man he was: When you needed him, he was there.

Mr. Holland was a good, decent, warm-hearted, intelligent, hospitable man, and I'll miss him every time that I visit Salem.



P.S. I hope that somebody will give his dog "Lady" a good home.
I have lost a good friend whom I had expected to see again. My Ozark community has lost a good man. America has lost an old soldier. And South Korea has lost a hero it didn't even know.

Until, perhaps, now.

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Thursday, December 16, 2010

More on Translating Korean Literature!

Joseph Lee
(Image from JoongAng Daily)

Only four short days ago, I was blogging about the potential American market for translated literature, "What Works in Translation . . .", because I had come across a New York Times article on the subject that mentioned the Korea Literature Translation Institute, and I have now happened upon another article on translation, specifically on translating Korean literature.

I say 'happened upon,' but the article inevitably caught my eye because it was in the JoongAng Daily, to which I subscribe yearly and read daily. To be precise, I read two articles in this newspaper on translating Korean literature, "Korean novels finally getting noticed" and "A Nobel in literature is Lee’s goal, but a little credit is just as good," both by Seo Ji-eun.

The photo above comes from the second article, in which Seo Ji-eun interviews Joseph Lee, executive director of the publishing house Imprima Korea, but I'm more interested in something that he says in the first article that touches on the tough life of a translator in Korea:
Attracting and fostering competent translators remain a challenge here. According to Lee of Imprima Korea, a translator working on a 200-page novel receives about $10,000. "Given that the translators should spend months on a single project, [that amount of money] is negligible," he said.

Lee thinks government financial support for literary translations should be increased to the point where translators' earnings are at least doubled.
Yes! Yes! This man is a saint merely for suggesting such a thing! Saint Joseph! In our hour of need, pay for us spinners of other people's yarns!

Seriously, he's right. A long novel can take an entire year or more to translate properly, as my wife and I have discovered, and 10,000 dollars just won't pay the bills. Frankly, neither will 20,000 dollars, but it'll definitely stretch twice as far in covering one's living expenses.

One of my Ewha colleagues (not that we've met), Professor Choi Mi-kyung, who teaches in the Graduate School of Translation and Interpretation and translates Korean literature into French, agrees with Joseph Lee:
Without an adequate level of financial compensation, she says few talented writers would be willing to enter the translation field. "For you to churn out quality translations, it takes at least 10 years of study, during which no one really pays you anything at all. In my case, I studied until I became a professor, and translation has become a side job. But being a full-time translator would be a different story."
This is similar to what I said the other day about "years of language learning, cultural immersion, and experience translating . . . [being] required before a prospective translator is good enough to attempt literary translations." This implies that one knows what a literary translation is, but there is some disagreement about that, as noted by rising translator Kim Chi-young:
Kim offers a piece of advice to Korean-English translators. "Some Korean translators believe that literal translation is necessary to convey the author’s true intention. While that may be the case for a certain audience, for books geared toward the general public, the prose has to be smooth and written as if it were originally written in English . . . . Otherwise, people tend to be taken out of the story because of the stilted or awkward style. If that happens, the book is dismissed as having been poorly translated, and the novel itself is not taken seriously. That is one aspect of Korean-to-English translation that is often overlooked."
She's right. Some Korean translators do think that a literal translation is the truest one. In seeking translation grants, my wife and I have encountered something of this attitude among occasional Korean referees of fiction that we have translated. By contrast, referees who are native speakers of English focus far more on the smoothness of the translation. To get that smooth, native-English quality, a translator often has to take certain liberties with the text.

For example, in our current translating efforts on The Soil (Hŭk, 흙), by Lee Gwang-su (Yi Kwang-su, 이광수), my wife and I have discovered that we have to combine paragraphs because Lee often wrote a series of very short paragraphs that a foreign reader would find more comfortable as a single, longer paragraph. I asked my friend and veteran translator Suh Ji-moon about why Lee had written in this manner, and she cautiously speculated that he might have been paid by the page and might therefore have earned better money by stretching out the length of his writing. That was an interesting suggestion to consider. Another possibility is that Lee tended to write shorter paragraphs because he was publishing his novel in serial form for a newspaper. A newspaper column makes even a short paragraph stretch out rather long, which can appear rather daunting to the eye. Whatever the reason for Lee's short paragraphs, they don't work so well on the page of a book, so we often combine them. This requires some degree of audacity, I suppose, but it's the sort of freedom with the text that a professional translator needs to have to do a proper job . . . even if the result might be 'punished' by a literal-minded referee.

Translators therefore face at least these two difficulties, too little money and too much literal-mindedness. But I begin to see from these recent articles, both here and abroad, that the predilection for literal translations may be declining and a greater generosity in financial support may be coming.

Though the process might take a while . . .

Meanwhile, read the two articles from the JoongAng, and the one from the Times if you missed it.

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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Barbary Pirates: Mujahedeen or Moolah-Hunting?

Image from Wikipedia

Ian W. Toll has an interesting New York Times article, "The Shores of Tripoli" (December 10, 2010), that reviews a recent book by Adrian Tinniswood, Pirates of Barbary: Corsairs, Conquests and Captivity in the Seventeenth-Century Mediterranean. I've not read the book, but I probably ought to, for it sounds fascinating. I'm particularly intrigued by Toll's remarks on the motivating force behind Barbary piracy:
Because the Barbary states were Islamic, and their victims predominantly Christian, the conflict was understood on both sides as a clash of civilizations. In the Islamic world, the corsairs were hailed as "mujahedeen" who had devoted themselves to "sea-jihad" against Christian encroachments. Europeans deplored "Mahometan tyranny" and conflated Islam and piracy as if they were one and the same -- "the present terror of the world." But once the veneer of religious purpose was stripped away, Barbary piracy was a commercial enterprise, offering a handsome livelihood to those dusty, sun-drenched city-states for the better part of three centuries.
What intrigues me is the move that Toll makes from stating that "[i]n the Islamic world, the corsairs were hailed as 'mujahedeen' . . . devoted . . . to 'sea-jihad' against" non-Muslims to asserting that "once the veneer of religious purpose was stripped away, Barbary piracy was a commercial enterprise." Perhaps Tinniswood makes this case, and he might even do so effectively, but I have to wonder if Toll's move in calling the religious motivation a "veneer" isn't somewhat hasty. Instead of a choice between religion and money as motivation, doesn't a third possibility exist, namely, that both were motives? Jihad has often been about seeking the spoils of war through attacking infidels -- killing two birds with one stone. Muhammad himself carried out what he called divinely sanctioned raids on Meccan caravans to provide the spoils of war for his community of Medinan Muslims. Was his claim of divine legitimation merely a veneer?

In my opinion, to speak in terms of "veneer of religious purpose" that must be "stripped away" usually betrays a reductionist account of religion, whereby religious action in the world is almost always to be attributed exclusively to some economic, or otherwise secular motive, combined with the assumption that true religion is private, spiritual devotion cut off from practical matters and therefore not of the world. I doubt that this distinction between veneer and private, between false and true religion is generally valid, and it certainly isn't valid for Islam, which has rather specific rules about practical, political, economic, and military matters, among other things.

We see a similar tendency today, in that local jihads are attributed almost entirely to local conditions -- often poverty or discrimination or repression -- reducing religious action to something secular and even ignoring the ways in which local jihads receive support and even inspiration from nonlocal Islamists.

Not that I would deny local conditions or mixed motives. The world is a complex place.

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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Selig Harrison Calls for More US Imperialism

Rock Launched by North Korea
(Image from New York Times)

In an op-ed piece for the New York Times, "Drawing a Line in the Water" (December 12, 2010), Selig Harrison tells us the proper response to North Korea's recent shelling of Yeonpyeong Island: Give them what they want.

What does Mr. Harrison think the North wants? What it's long claimed to want, namely, a redrawing of the sea border between North and South Korea to provide the North more territory. I'll let readers go directly to the article to get the argument firsthand, but this 'minor' redrawing would result in a border that looks like this:

The blue line is the current border, but the North Koreans want the line redrawn a 'bit' to the south, as the 'slightly' lower, red line shows. That altered border would be so much less absurd, of course, and would obviously decrease tensions over inadvertent border violations since the North Koreans would undoubtly be satisfied with the generous new geographical reality and would never ever cross the narrow strips of water that link the South's islands to the South's greater territorial waters. North Korean ships would make sure to turn north and go the long way around rather than do anything so provocative as to violate a narrow strip of South Korean territory.

So, that would be a good thing.

But Mr. Harrison suggests an unfortunately imperialist means to this obviously quite desirable end:
[T]he United States should redraw the disputed sea boundary, called the Northern Limit Line, moving it slightly to the south.
Can we actually do that? Apparently:
[F]ortunately, President Obama has the authority to redraw the line. On July 7, 1950, a United Nations Security Council resolution established the United Nations Command for Korea and designated the United States as the executive agent, with authority to name its commander.
Mr. Harrison calls this 'fortunate', but I am less sanguine about the consequences. South Korea would never agree to such a change, and if the US were to press forward alone on Mr. Harrison's clearly ingenious solution to the North-South conflict in the Yellow Sea, the consequence in South Korea would be such an explosion of anti-American feeling -- at the audacity of this American imperialist action in ceding South Korean territory to an enemy -- that I suspect that I and every other American here would simply have to leave Korea.

Therefore, regardless of its brilliance as a solution to the conflict between North and South Korea over territorial waters in the Yellow Sea, I'm afraid that Mr. Harrison's suggestion just won't work to improve things in this part of the world.

Back to the old drawing board . . .

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Monday, December 13, 2010

Haruki Murakami: "Reality A and Reality B"

I often post on articles from the New York Times, but that's because I read the International Herald Tribune, which I started reading in the mid-1980s, back when it still contained articles not only by the New York Times but also by the Washington Post. Since 2003, however, it's been owned solely by the New York Times and has thus become "The Global Edition of the New York Times," or so it describes itself. And that's what I read.

Recently, within the past week -- last Friday, to be precise -- my copy of the paper included something titled Global Agenda 2011 and calling itself the International Herald Tribune Magazine. I don't yet know if this is a weekly, a monthly, or an end of the year special, but I was pleased to receive it.

This edition has a number of interesting articles, but something that especially caught my attention was a passage in the article "Reality A and Reality B" by the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. I then wondered if the article might also appear online and indeed found it along with the contents of the entire magazine posted on the "Opinion Pages" of the New York Times. Here's the passage from "Reality A and Reality B" that struck a chord in me:
When I hear the word "chaos," I automatically picture the scenes of 9/11 -- those shocking images that were shown a million times on television: The two jumbo jets plunging into the glass walls of the Twin Towers, the towers themselves crumbling without a trace, scenes that would continue to be unbelievable after a million and one viewings. The plot that succeeded with miraculous perfection -- a perfection that reached a level of near surreality. If I may say so without fear of being misunderstood, the scenes even appeared to be something made with computer graphics for a Hollywood doomsday film.

We often wonder what it would have been like if 9/11 had never happened -- or at least if that plan had not succeeded so perfectly. Then the world would have been very different from what it is now. America might have had a different president (a major possibility), and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars might never have happened (an even greater possibility).

Let's call the world we actually have now Reality A and the world that we might have had if 9/11 had never happened Reality B. Then we can't help but notice that the world of Reality B appears to be realer and more rational than the world of Reality A. To put it in different terms, we are living a world that has an even lower level of reality than the unreal world. What can we possibly call this if not "chaos"?
I wouldn't call our world "chaos," but it is a far more disorderly world than the one that I expected after the fall of communism, when the musings on the "End of History" by another Japanese writer, Francis Fukuyama, held rather more appeal to me than Samuel Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations."

"Reality A" is Huntington's world, and "Reality B" is Fukuyama's. I don't doubt that we're living in the former, but it does seem less 'real' than the latter. I still vividly recall watching United Airlines Flight 175 enter the glossy surface of the South Tower to the World Trade Center -- first on television that night in Osan, South Korea after arriving home from teaching my evening class at Hanshin University, then in my mind's eye as I tried to sleep later that night but couldn't as I tossed and turned with no place to turn -- and all those times that I watched this scene replay, it always felt unreal. My mind reeled then, and still does.

Murakami goes on to imply that our less real "Reality A" poses a problem for novelists, for "[i]n an age when reality is insufficiently real, how much reality can a fictional story possess?" I won't dispute his point that writing about our time is hard, for I've been writing with unease about the aftermath of 9/11 since the morning of 9/12, but I think that a far larger problem is posed for how we are to live in this 'unreality'.

If our time is characterized as by the clash of civilizations, what does this description mean? Each civilization equally? What is our civilization? Still what it used to be? Whose civilization are we clashing with? Really what it claims to be? How will we know if we've won? Exactly what'd winning be? Perhaps most importantly, who, or what, will we have become by the time this is all over? Something that we'd want to be?

No wonder our time seems unreal. Our questions are about our identity in this world, and we're not even certain what either is any more.

In this flux of identity in a changing world, we find perhaps even ourselves unreal.

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Sunday, December 12, 2010

What Works in Translation . . .

Stack of Translated Books
Photo by William P. O'Donnell
(Image from The New York Times)

In yesterday's entry, I alluded to the special problems that a literary critic encounters when interpreting poetry in translation. That assumes already that the literary critic will encounter poetry in translation, but one doesn't often come upon the stuff, outside of the big names and the classics.

In fact, as a recent New York Times article notes, Americans generally don't read much foreign literature in English translation. Some people want to change that. Speaking as one partner of a translating team (the other partner being my wife, Sun-Ae Hwang), I hope that they succeed, but they have a steep path ahead, as Larry Rohter implies in "Translation as Literary Ambassador" (New York Times, December 7, 2010):
Among foreign cultural institutes and publishers, the traditional American aversion to literature in translation is known as "the 3 percent problem."
That "3 percent" refers to translated literature's "minuscule share of the American book market." I'd known its market share was small, but I've now got its number. The forces of light are now on the side of us translators:
But now, hoping to increase their minuscule share of the American book market -- about 3 percent-- foreign governments and foundations, especially those on the margins of Europe, are taking matters into their own hands and plunging into the publishing fray in the United States.
Or are these the forces of heavy? Governments are getting involved, and they're rather weighty. A bigger heavy yet is also settling in:
Even the online bookselling behemoth has entered the field, with a new imprint for literature in translation called AmazonCrossing, which is sold online and in bookstores.
With Amazon getting involved, there must actually be a market. Translators still need support, though, because years of language learning, cultural immersion, and experience translating are usually required before a prospective translator is good enough to attempt literary translations. Again, there is now help for aspiring translators:
Government cultural institutes like the Institut Ramon Llull, which is dedicated to propagating the language and culture of Catalonia, in northeastern Spain, and the Korean Literature Translation Institute have also helped underwrite conferences and books on translation, and others are sponsoring trips to take American translators to their countries to acquaint them better with their culture and people.
Note the mention of the Korean Literature Translation Institute (KLTI). That's actually an overcorrection, for the institute is actually the Korea Literature Translation Institute. The correct version does sound rather odd, and gets 'corrected' about as often as Ewha Womans University gets 'corrected' to Ewha Women's University or my middle name "Jeffery" gets 'corrected' to "Jeffrey."

Anyway, I'm pleased that Rohter's article at least mentions the KLTI, for there's no mention of Asian literature in translation other than some from the Islamic world, i.e., "Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Urdu," nothing at all from East Asia unless one counts Stig Saeterbakken's Siamese in the stack of books above.

Of course, Siamese, like the rest of the stack, is entirely European.

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Saturday, December 11, 2010

Liu Xiaobo: "Experiencing Death"

Liu Xiaobo
(Image from Wikipedia)

Interpreting poetry in translation is always treacherous, as close analysis invariably misleads. We're not reading the poet's own, carefully chosen words, so we can't see precisely what the poem is doing. We can't follow John Ciardi's advice in How Does a Poem Mean? How can one ask how when the how is gone? We have to step back and read with a bit of distance, or accept that we're reading the translator's poem as much as the original poet's poem.

I don't know Chinese, nor do I know much about Liu Xiaobo, whom I'd not even heard of until he was recently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and I learned only yesterday from reading the International Herald Tribune (IHT) that he is not solely a human rights activist imprisoned in China for his role in composing Charter 08, he is also a poet. A selection from his poem "Experiencing Death" appears in the IHT and also the New York Times ("Words a Cell Can't Hold," December 8, 2010), translated by Jeffrey Yang, from which I've excerpted the first two stanzas:
I had imagined being there beneath sunlight
with the procession of martyrs
using just the one thin bone
to uphold a true conviction
And yet, the heavenly void
will not plate the sacrificed in gold
A pack of wolves well-fed full of corpses
celebrate in the warm noon air
aflood with joy

Faraway place
I've exiled my life to
this place without sun
to flee the era of Christ's birth
I cannot face the blinding vision on the cross
From a wisp of smoke to a little heap of ash
I've drained the drink of the martyrs, sense spring's
about to break into the brocade-brilliance of myriad flowers
How curious, this use of martyr imagery, as though Liu intends to draw on Catholic symbolism to understand his own kind of martyrdom, his exile in a dark cell, but cannot bring himself to take up his cross and follow Christ into what he considers the heavenly void, where no golden glory will cover a martyr's bones, for Liu lacks conviction to offer up even one sacrificial relic bone . . . though he has drained the martyr's drink of suffering.

But see how treacherous this is, this sort of reading, the attempt at making connections in translation, where individual words also matter?

I therefore turn to the experts, should any be reading this. What's Liu doing in this poem? Why the use of Christian imagery? I've found nothing to link Liu directly to Christianity, so how are we to read these allusions?

Perhaps someone will respond?

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