Friday, January 22, 2010

Google Books

I'm translating a German essay for an art catalogue, and I just came across a German translation of a passage from Lyotard. The essay provides excellent bibliographical information about the German publication the quotation was taken from, so I was able to do some searching and find the English title of the essay. And then Google gave me the first page of the essay from its publication in an English selection of Lyotard's works, and the quotation turned out to be from the first paragraph of the essay, so I could just type up the passage in question.

There are many good reasons to be suspicious of Google's project of scanning in entire libraries, but this experience shows that there is one excellent reason for doing such a project: research! I did all of the above from my desk here at home, at the computer. A German-English translator working in Basel on such an art-catalogue translation in 1990 either had to translate the translated text, find the original and translate it (if he or she could), or do all kinds of extra work to get the translated version from the UK or the US.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Snow Joke

Poems can raise questions about how things are perceived, and it is often best when they leave those questions unanswered. Simon Armitage's "Snow Joke," the first poem in his first book, Zoom!, tells a story about a man who dies when his car gets stuck in a blizzard, and concludes by addressing the question of which of the three men who found the car under the snow "was to take the most credit":

Him who took the aerial to be a hawthorn twig?
Him who figured out the contour of his car?

Or him who said he heard the horn, moaning

softly like an alarm clock under an eiderdown?

Beyond the openness of this ending, there is also the issue of the details of these perceptions and misperceptions: the aerial as a hawthorn twig; the mound of snow understood to be the contour of a car; the horn under the snow (something alarming, cold, dangerous) heard as an alarm clock under an eiderdown (something alarming, of course, but warm and unthreatening). The harmless has to be perceived as a site of harm in order for the dead man to be found. Evidence has to be seen as evidence, as sign, rather than as ... well, nothing much at all.

You can read the whole poem on this discussion page, a little ways down (where it is posted without its quatrain form).

[Warning: I have Armitage on the brain right now, as I am preparing a seminar on his work!]

Wednesday, January 06, 2010


I recently read the Penguin Classics edition of Ovid's Erotic Poems, translated by Peter Green. In the first sequence in the book, the Amores, I was quite struck by two poems in particular: number 13 in book 2 and number 7 in book 3. The former is about an abortion—a topic I would not have expected to find discussed in classical literature! How many abortion poems are there from before the late 20th century?

The latter is about impotence:
I imagined every variety of erotic pleasure, invented
No end of positions—in my head—
But still my member lay there, an embarrassing case of
premature death, and limper than yesterday's rose.
I suspect there are many more poems about impotence scattered across the centuries. In its tone and style, this one also reminds of Rochester's "The Imperfect Enjoyment"—but that one is about premature ejaculation, not about impotence!

Federer's most important X

Miles likes ranking things, and recently he asked me what Roger Federer's most important match has been. I wondered whether it might have been the first Wimbledon victory, or even perhaps the loss to Nadal at Wimbledon, but then I decided that his most important tournament win was the French Open in 2009 (tying Sampras, completing career Grand Slam), which means that his most important match must have been that final, right?

But no, that final was arguably a bit of a letdown; the semifinal against Del Potro was more crucial to the tournament win than the final against Söderling.

But then arguably the most important match of the tournament was the five-setter against Tommy Haas in the fourth round, where Federer came back from two-love down to win.

And if that is the most important match in Federer's career, then it's also possible to identify the single most important point in his career: a forehand winner on a break point in the third set. And from my narcissistic perspective, the coolest thing about that winner is that I noticed how important it was (in that match at least) right after he hit it! (And even before he won the tournament!)

Haze, by Mark Wallace

We live now in an empire which, in the name of reasons, has stolen our lives away from us, but which will then sell them back to us at the cost of all that we have ... ("Reasons To Write")
These lines from the brief opening essay in Mark Wallace's Haze made me think of some of my most-quoted lines from Greg Brown's song "Where Is Maria":
There'll be one corporation selling one little box.
It'll do what you want and tell you what you want
and cost whatever you've got.
As an iPhone owner, I quote these lines all the time! :-)

Another passage from Wallace's book made me think of another of my favorite musicians, this time Ornette Coleman, who once said something to the effect that he knew that the music he was playing had a system when he realized that he could play wrong notes:
Discourses create a network of statements it seems relevant to think and say. One of the main ways to recognize that one is in a discourse is through the feeling that one recognizes when other people make statements irrelevant to the discourse. ("The Haze")
And later in that essay, Wallace reminds me of Mark Rowlands's claim in The Philosopher and the Wolf that it is in our moments of defiance that we are most ourselves:
Haze shows that the potential of the human can be found just as much in what resists organized Discourse as in what organizes Discourse.
This could probably all be worked up into a nice little essay but I'll just leave it at that.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Chris Smither "Leave the Light On"

This song is so unbelievably beautiful!

Descartes' Devil

Highly recommended: Durs Grünbein, Descartes' Devil (tr. Anthea Bell). I have not read the English, but I have read it in German, and it's a truly fabulous book, as good a read as Descartes himself. You can read more about it here.

Now if only somone would commission me to translate Grünbein's Vom Schnee, his verse novel about Descartes in Germany, which is even better than Descartes' Devil.

Women-Centered Care

Congratulations to my sister Sara on the publication of her book Women-Centered Care in Pregnancy and Childbirth!

Practicing Gestures

Here's something from a poem by Jordan Davis ("Ira will not be attending the meeting") to add to my list of quotations about the provisional character of what we do:

So much of life is practicing gestures.
So much of living is evaluating
Those around you for signs of damage.

For comparison, check my post on Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude, as well as this one, with my Mom's comment about "anything worth doing is worth doing poorly."

I also love the effect of the line break after "evaluating", as the gerund moves from the general (evaluating as such) to the particular (evaluating "those around you ...").

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Anonymous users

I've been getting so many spam comments by anonymous users that I've had to turn off the comments for anonymous users. Has anyone else seen a rise in spam comments lately?