josh blog

Ordinary language is all right.

One could divide humanity into two classes:
those who master a metaphor, and those who hold by a formula.
Those with a bent for both are too few, they do not comprise a class.

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9 Aug '05 08:55:07 AM

At Micawber's in Saint Anthony Park last week I scooped up three novels in addition to the volume of Celan I didn't need, determined to devote sustained attention to some books (always 'some' - for some reason I never venture to make that commitment to a single book at a time, even if with a group I still intend to read them sequentially), hoping to re-establish some sort of meaningful, satisfying relation to the act of reading. I picked novels partly because that was what I could find there, and partly because I've become an infrequent reader of fiction in the past five or six years; and the non-fiction that I tend to read is either too dissatisfying or too much trouble to get through, to be able to remind me of why I used to spend every free moment with a book. So I got these three: Out by Natsuo Kirino (proud to be buying a book solely on the basis of its cover and therefore its promotional materials; plus, no doubt, lingering interest in Japan), a new Pevear-Volokhonsky translation of Bulgakov's Master and Margerita (despite there probably still being an unread copy of an old translation by someone or other around here somewhere), and Eugene Jolas' recently re-packaged translation of Alfred Döblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz.

Not knowing who Jolas was by his name alone, for a while I assumed I was reading a translation more recent than the 30s, but eventually the dialogue became enough of a sign that I had to stop and wonder why it is the way it is. The characters are low, or ordinary, usually speaking informally, sometimes with vulgarity, or with free use of slang; and, notably, a lot of their conversations seem meant to represent the kind of real one in which much is said by saying what doesn't seem too significant - conversational maneuvering, little jabs, small talk, platitudinous filler. At times in this translation these conversations thus seem kind of flat, overwhelmed by non-sequitur and too great a distance between concrete speech and the words on the page. Which is what sent me looking to find out about the translation (which makes me wonder: depending on what I found out, and thus who I could imagine assigning responsibility to, would I have ended up regarding the dialogue differently as successful or not?). Its age, at least, made a bit more sense as I read on and got more of a sense of reading outdated English slang and colloquial speech. So part of the distance could be relatively unavoidable (unless, that is, I were to spend a lot of time getting the feel for everyday English speech of the twenties and thirties). Part of it could be due to translation, though; the language still kind of feels to me as if it's fumbled, as if the original would sound to a native German speaker, even a present-day speaker, like 'ordinary language'. Since I've begun learning to read German in the past few months, I could check this out, barely, if I had a copy of the original.

But then there's the rest of Döblin's prose. It's funny that the foreword to the Continuum edition mentions that among other things the book is about 'speed' (the speed of the modern metropolis) - when I read it too fast I lose all feel for the language, for the story and the characters, for the sense, internal to the novel, of what they're saying and doing. Not that a novel about fast things has to be fast, itself; but, again, I wonder if it's a translation difference. If I read at a measured pace, even concentrating carefully from sentence to sentence, then more of the things come alive. The dialogue, even in its apparently emptier moments, yes - and also the fragments? intrusions? cuts? pieces? of 'foreign' text in Döblin's extensively used montage technique.

At first glance the montage seems mostly restricted to the level of sentences. Sentences, utterances, from different sources, are the things that are juxtaposed. And for the most part these are all incredibly ordinary. A sentence from Franz Biberkopf's point of view, a factual statement about Berlin, a line from a popular song, verses from the bible or a retelling of a Greek tragedy. Often the juxtapositions seem justified by the scene, the action in focus, the proximity to a character - though they are not always sentences that are from the characters, or thought by them. Sometimes, felt by them; sometimes, just sort of narratively appropriate to what's going on. Eventually one gets a feel for a narrator's presence in all this, but it's an extremely light one. Elsewhere the narrator is quite obvious, distancing himself from his story and making its status as a story explicit; so when he's less conspicuous it feels like montage, an actual: this, then this, then that, one I have to put together in thought and feeling to make sense of why these things are together at all, what they mean. If I had reread Ulysses lately (it has been said to be an inspiration for this technique here, though not as much as Manhattan Transfer, which I have never seen) I would be able to say this more confidently, but I get the impression right now that it would be helpful to say that anything like montage that Joyce uses tends more to be involved with representation of thought and consciousness; in Döblin's prose the montaged material is more outside the characters' consciousnesses, even if it does often reflect what might be going on in them.

...

Here, an interesting article on repetition in translation that mentions Döblin and some more famous contemporaries; here, Marjorie Perloff on Eugene Jolas' 'multilingual poetics'.

9 Aug '05 07:06:18 AM

ellipsis.cx will be unavailable for a while in the coming week as it moves temporarily in preparation for its owner's move from the US to Amsterdam.

4 Aug '05 08:32:36 AM

The note to the third edition of the English translation (the dual-language edition) of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations sez, in the typewritten hand of 'Nicholas Denyer', whoever he is:

'The text has been repaginated for this edition; as a result the page numbers referred to in the two notes above no longer apply.'

Well how about you fix them, then, bitch? Sigh.

4 Aug '05 07:43:17 AM

Jess suggests a limit of 25 releases before labels lose consistency. I wonder what things would be like if labels were allowed to revise their catalogs. I mean, I know they are, in theory, and sort of kind of in fact, but I mean drastically revise: a year or two later, after the release of a not so hot record, to say: well, that's not one of our records any more. Not part of our collection.

3 Aug '05 09:29:02 AM

I must've spent half an hour trying to whistle remembered melodies for my amusement tonight while waiting for the 1:22 bus. The 'yes but can you whistle it?' test is a very canny one, I found; but it seems to depend an awful lot on people's limited ability at whistling. I can do alright but if the melody doesn't have a lot of sizeable up and down motion to it, it starts sounding flat and tuneless as as the limitations of the instrument are emphasized. Proximity to speech adds so much that's hard to replace.

27 Jul '05 11:56:43 PM

Wow, the last time I inserted a CD into my computer that hadn't already been put into an interweb CD database, it was only because interweb CD databases sucked and none of the CDs had been put into them.

26 Jul '05 09:20:13 AM

I don't think I have any idea what other people mean when they say someone is a good actor or bad actor.

26 Jul '05 06:32:42 AM

The best thing a gift can do is to foster a spirit of graciousness amongst its recipients.

25 Jul '05 07:36:58 AM

Ethan on The Dayton Family (plus, Bun B + LeRoi Jones).