No, I do not wish you success

from Ursula Le Guin’s 1983 commencement address at Mills College:

Success is somebody else’s failure. Success is the American Dream we can keep dreaming because most people in most places, including thirty million of ourselves, live wide awake in the terrible reality of poverty. No, I do not wish you success. I don’t even want to talk about it. I want to talk about failure.

Because you are human beings you are going to meet failure. You are going to meet disappointment, injustice, betrayal, and irreparable loss. You will find you’re weak where you thought yourself strong. You’ll work for possessions and then find they possess you. You will find yourself — as I know you already have — in dark places, alone, and afraid.

What I hope for you, for all my sisters and daughters, brothers and sons, is that you will be able to live there, in the dark place. To live in the place that our rationalizing culture of success denies, calling it a place of exile, uninhabitable, foreign.

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On a day like today my rider and I

On a day like today my rider and I could
canter could canter could canter could canter
for miles for miles for miles for miles
in the sun in the sun in the sun

NaPoMo 23 – Words in My World: Temporary

Temporary

From Until to Further Notice
Sky be gray and horse be nervous

Wine be acid, sweet be sour
here be far and near be furthest

Ink be dry and bones be gone
night be dawn and god be nervous

Spell be broken, fly be huge
Starve be supper and food be locust

Healer be lost and plague be many
Time be stuck and glue be nervous

Bow be split and limb be shattered
Fearsome be dead, and dead resurface

Sign on pole at 440

Sign on pole at 440

New Year Resolve by May Sarton

New Year Resolve
May Sarton

The time has come
To stop allowing the clutter
To clutter my mind
Like dirty snow,
Shove it off and find
Clear time, clear water.

Time for a change,
Let silence in like a cat
Who has sat at my door
Neither wild nor strange
Hoping for food from my store
And shivering on the mat.

Let silence in.
She will rarely speak or mew,
She will sleep on my bed
And all I have ever been
Either false or true
Will live again in my head.

For it is now or not
As old age silts the stream,
To shove away the clutter,
To untie every knot,
To take the time to dream,
To come back to still water.

“New Year Resolve” by May Sarton, from Collected Poems 1930-1993. © W.W. Norton & Co., 1993.

A Little Ditty for Dancing with the Stars

A Little Ditty for Dancing with the Stars
Elliott batTzedek

You’re an asshole, Nancy Grace
I flinch when I see your accusatory face
or even your right breast, hanging out.
About your character I have no doubt,
for you called for the lynching of a disturbed young mother.
So I’d be afraid now, too, if I were your choreographer.

Bly’s 8 Stages of Translation: Stage 8, far more than the back of a rug

from Robert Bly’s Eight Stages of Translation

      Our last stage is making the final draft. We read back over all our earlier drafts—perhaps a half line we said better in one of them. We have to make our final adjustments now. […] During this stage we allow ourselves, at last, the pleasure of examining other people’s translations of the poem. That is fun we can’t deny ourselves after all our work, and we can sympathize with each translator.

[…]

      Well, then, after studying once more all our earlier drafts, and making our final sound and rhythm adjustments, and after taking in what we can from other people’s translations and commentaries, we are ready to set down the final draft. We know that we haven’t captured the original: the best translation resembles a Persian rug seen from the back—the pattern is apparent, but not much more.


But I think that Bly’s image of the back of the Persian rug dismisses the accomplishment his own essay reveals. If we attend to syntax and tone and tenor and meter and body rhythm and spoken speech and deep understanding of poetry, and we recreate a poem from one language into our own language, that product is more much than the back of a rug. It is—well, what is it? I need to work on my own concrete image. How’s this? “A well-translated poem is a dish made from an immigrant’s beloved family recipe, using the new local foods—different, but satisfying to the longing soul AND capable of teaching the old and new cuisines about each other’s possibilities.

How’s that working for you?

translating is so much more than this

Bly’s 8 Stages of Translations: Stage 7, the very painful stage

from Robert Bly’s Eight Stages of Translation

      We are nearly finished now. During what I will call the seventh stage we ask someone born into the language to go over our version. Perhaps we go back to the native speaker who helped us in the first draft; if we did not get such help then, we do now; we ask him or her to find errors that have crept in.

      For beginning translators, this stage is very painful. As beginners, we tend to give ourselves permission to veer away from the poem’s images, pulled away in fact by our private mental horses, and dismay sets in when we realize that some of our best solutions are simply wrong. […] Once I remember he found in a single Jimenez poem that I had already worked over for months, and that contained only twenty lines to start with, twenty-two errors that could not be allowed to stand. The error sometimes was in tone, sometimes in image, or slant of image, or I had picked up a South American coloring the word had rather than its Castilian coloring, or I had gotten the rhythm or vowels wrong. None of us can learn a foreign language well enough to pick all these things up.

      […] we should take this stage on by will, and consider it as important as any of the earlier stages. We have been slowly possessing the poem and making it ours—we have to do that to bring it alive—but is is possible that we have kidnapped it instead.

In which I let Rabassa and Barnstone duke it out about memory, error, and the ethics of translation

In his book If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents, Gregory Rabassa asserts lots of interesting and valuable stuff, then this clinker on pp. 61-62:

The completion of work is best done in translation, where the translator can work at things denied the author in his own language, even the way Saint Jerome mistakenly implied the cuckoldry of Moses which Michelangelo then wrought in enduring stone.

In case you don’t spend hours a day considering the history of Christian Anti-Semitism, Rabassa is referring to St. Jerome who mistranslated the Hebrew word for “ray” to mean “horns,” leading to a tradition of picturing Moses with horns coming out of his head, which Michelangelo then made flesh (marble flesh) in his famous statue of Moses. Horns on the head are, in some pagan traditions in Europe, understood to mean than the man wearing them has been cuckolded—that is, his wife has had sex with other men.

That cuckold charge, which is not common when discussing Jerome’s “horns,” is not as important to me as Rabassa’s assertion that the mistranslation which came to be both a statue and a common, enduring myth that Jews had horns was a good thing, a “completion” of something the original text could not say. Huh?? The issue is that the Hebrew “couldn’t say” that Moses had horns, or that his wife/wives were not faithful? Are you kidding me? And that’s without understanding that plenty of Christians see those horns as images of the devil, not images of a cuckold.

While translations do build on each other across time, this is not, by far, always a positive thing. Mistranslations, for nefarious, controlling, purposes, can be introduced into texts and mutate from there until the product people “know” is more a history of prejudice or ignorance than a translation. For a crystal clear example of this, I turn to translator Willis Barnstone’s The Poetics of Translation, to his sub-chapter “How through False Translation into and from the Bible Jesus Ceased To Be a Jew.” While his argument, incredibly well-documented, is lengthy, these little excerpts carry the spine of it:

Since early Christian leaders, saints, and followers were both Jews and gentiles, pursuing the Jewish dream of an announced Messiah, how could two thousand years of Christian anti-Semitism be based largely on their Scriptures, that is, on the New Testament, a collection of revolutionary texts born from the depths of the rabbinic tradition?

By sleight-of-hand editing and translating, only certain figures of the Christian Scriptures remain clearly identifiable as Jews—not John the Baptist, not Mary, not Jesus, nor James and Paul: even their names are not Biblically Jewish. This disguise is in place by the time of the Greek Scriptures and is reinforced in translation into other languages. […] The Christian scriptures are different because, in the Jewish world that they describe, all the good people are Christians and the evil ones Jews. […] How could Jewish authors produce such a fearful world of fatal hatreds? They did not. The original stories, in the process of telling and writing, redaction, and translation, were transformed to produce a narrative that excluded Jews from the messianic happenings in their land.

Barnstone continues, showing how yeshua (Joshuah) became Jesus, mashiah became Christ, and rabbi became Master, all intentional mistranslations to erase Jews from the text, and how “Jew” was slyly transformed description to the name of the enemy. Eventually, Barnstone says, the people who are allied with Jesus are just people, while the people who oppose him are “the Jews.” As Barnstone summarizes,

Christian anti-Semitism begins with and derives historically from the New Testament, from the falsifying translations into and out of the Christian Scriptures in which Jesus ceases to be a Jew. The result of this transmission of the history of Joshua the Messiah has been two millennia of hatred and extermination, from diasporas and ghettos to pogroms and holocaust.

So what has that to do with Rabassa’s St. Jerome saying “something” in translating that the original text “couldn’t say”? This: translating matters, and because it matters, it must be aware of culture, bias, social power, linguistic power, prejudice, hatred. To assume that my job as a translator is to say what the author couldn’t say in her/his culture seems dangerously arrogant, especially since I am the citizen of a (declining) superpower and the speaker of a language whose culture is an invasive species, wiping out native tongues and cultures daily. My job is NOT to say what some other culture couldn’t say, but to show, value, bring into my language what their culture CAN and DOES say, know, value, communicate, worship, want, need. The line from scriptural sources to St. Jerome to Michelangelo was not a good thing for my people, the Jews, which is certainly one big understanding I carry into this new skill I am building.

Against Rabassa’s assertion of finishing an author’s work by adding what a different culture knows, I assert Barnstone’s linguistically AND socially responsible analysis of the power of language to be used as a weapon:

The primary method of destabilizing and deracinating a people is to rename them and their land. Consequently, the first strategy of the recorders and translators of the Christian scriptures was to remove Jesus from his Jewishness.


Note from my own political life: one of the first actions of the Zionist government in the new state of Israel was to erase all Arabic village, street, and place names and replace them with Hebrew names, thus trying to physically erase Arab/Palestinian history from the land itself. For more information on this, see the wonderful Israeli activist group Zochrot (Remembering). In the photo below, Zochrot members are restoring the name of a Palestinian mosque in Arabic and in Hebrew.

Tisha B’Av – Reconsidering Lamentations 5

1Remember, O Lord,
what is come upon us.
Consider and behold our disgrace.
2Our inheritance
has been turned over to strangers,
Our houses to aliens.

       Lamentations 5


פרק ה


א זְכֹ֤ר יְהֹוָה֙ מֶֽה־הָ֣יָה לָ֔נוּ הַבִּ֖יטָ [הַבִּ֖יטָה] וּרְאֵ֥ה אֶת־חֶרְפָּתֵֽנוּ:
ב נַֽחֲלָתֵ֨נוּ֙ נֶֽהֶפְכָ֣ה לְזָרִ֔ים בָּתֵּ֖ינוּ לְנָכְרִֽים:

1Pay heed, O Lord,
to what we bring upon us
consider and behold our disgrace

2When we live from the inheritance of others
When we claim homes and lands as ours alone
and claim any people are alien.

      Elliott batTzedek