David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: January 2005

Machine Translation

Among others, The Literary Saloon discusses Wyatt Mason’s article on translation and Proust in The New Republic.

After having spent the better part of four months reading the new Viking/Penguin Proust, and the old Kilmartin/Enright Proust, and the erenow Moncrieff Proust, I will tell you there is no comparing them. No matter the local differences aplenty, the global movements of mind and the quality of vision are undeniably, uniformly there. Reading each from tip to toe, no matter which, one follows Proust’s narrator as he makes his way, “descending to a greater depth within myself”–ourselves. That depth survives in translation, in all the translations, for–however subjective assertions of “goodness” surely are when assessing literary quality–greatness is calculable, irrefutable, inviolable: a great writer survives any translation.

There is, I believe, a Borges essay that refers to the same phenomenon–that works of greatness can survive translation better than lesser pieces of art–but I haven’t been able to locate it. This case is somewhat undermined by the fact that two of the three Proust translations that Mason mentions (the new one and the Moncrieff/Kilmartin/Enright) are strikingly similar, and the third is not very good at all. I’d also direct true believers to Douglas Hofstadter’s translation of Eugene Onegin, which begins:

My uncle, matchless moral model, When deathly ill, learned to make, His friends respect him, bow and coddle– Of all his ploys, that takes the cake.

Whatever has survived, I doubt it’s Pushkin. Maybe you could amend the phrasing to be, “a great writer survives any faithful, competent translation,” but that introduces two subjective adjectives into the equation, of the “I know it when I see it” category.

Consider Jeff Vavosour’s article on computer platform emulation, Back To The Classics: Perfecting The Emulation For Digital Eclipse’s Atari Anthology. The slavishly perfectionist approach of people who write emulators (here’s a remarkable Apple IIgs emulator) is ironic given that many of the early games they’re emulating were themselves extremely loose ports from arcade console games, adapted to the limitations of the hardware. On the difference between ports and emulation, Vavosour artfully writes:

In its most basic approach, emulation is an on-the-fly translator. The analogy I’m fond of is this: In porting, it’s like you took a foreign movie, gave the script to someone fluently bilingual, and got that person to rewrite the script in English. You’d rely on the translator’s appreciation for the nuances of the original language, appreciation for the subtext, the message of the movie, etc. The quality of the product would be entirely a property of the translation effort, and regardless, what is important to one person is not what’s important to another. Some double-entendres and the like just don’t come across, and need to be replaced with something of equal value, or else ditched.

In emulation, you’re watching the original foreign movie, but someone has given you a translating dictionary and all the books on the language’s grammar and nuances. Looking up each word on the fly as it’s spoken, and appreciating all the impact it has, and still being able to follow the movie in real time sounds impossible. It would be, unless you could think about 10 times to 100 times faster than the movie’s pace.

Of course, this is just an analogy, since the goal is to replicate the platform for thousands of games, not port each individual piece of software. But the precision of the platform emulation is still paramount, because every quirk counted:

It really pains me when I read reviews that talk about how appalling it is that our emulation appeared to slow down somewhere, as, for example, one review commented of the smart bomb effect in the N64 version of Defender on Midway’s Greatest Arcade Hits, released a few years back. The emulation slowed down because the original game slowed down, and emulation strives to reflect every nuance of the original game. There are often timing nuances and sometimes even original code bugs, which become part of a player’s strategy in playing the arcade game. For a truly authentic experience, every one of these quirks needs to be reproduced.

Do I hear an echo of Nabokov’s famously stringent attitudes toward translation here? There is no tolerance for variation in emulation, and this is because any competent game player’s experience is located in details as small as the ones that Nabokov finds in the rhythms and sounds of words.

Of course, there is no analogue for emulation in literature, unless you can imagine a Russian pseudo-brain hooked into your synapses, translating the myriad nuances of Eugene Onegin into a lingua franca of structured senses, emotions, and images that are exactly those that a Russian reader (any Russian reader!) would have. This would have to be the mythical (and now discarded) deep structure of linguistics.

So as I return to the Moncrieff/Kilmartin Proust now, I have to think of it as being that horrid Apple IIe port of “Pole Position II” that I played back in the early 80’s, standing in the shadow of the majesty of the original console.

Sentiment and Kitsch

Writers are seldom recognized as empiricists, idealists, skeptics, or stoics, though they ought–I mean, now, in terms of the principles of their constructions, for Sartre is everywhere recognized as an existentialist leaning left, but few have noticed that the construction of his novels is utterly bourgeois. No search is made for first principles, none for rules, and in fact all capacity for thought in the face of fiction is so regularly abandoned as to reduce it to another form of passive and mechanical amusement. The novelist has, by this ineptitude, been driven out of healthy contact with his audience, and the supreme values of fiction sentimentalized.

William Gass, “Philosophy and the Form of Fiction”

In a somewhat less propitious time, the poet X would have become a popular hack on a family magazine. He would then have presupposed that the heart always responds to certain situations with the same set feelings. Noble-mindedness would always have been recognizably noble, the abandoned child lamentable, and the summer landscape stirring. Notice that in this way, a firm, clearcut, and immutable relationship would have been established between the feelings and the words, true to the nature of the term kitsch. Thus kitsch, which prides itself so much on sentiment, turns sentiment into concepts. As a function of the times, however, X, instead of being a good family magazine hack, has become a bad Expressionist.

Robert Musil, “Black Magic”

Thomas Frank: What’s the Matter with Kansas?

Is there anything left to say about this book? Maybe not, but I wanted to try to provide some context for the book, both in Frank’s own background and his historical precedents.

What’s the Matter with Kansas? is less a study than a memoir and a polemic smashed together. It’s not just a memoir the middle chapter, where he describes how he was a strident, Randian Republican as a teenager who turned into a liberal in college, but throughout the book. The first big tipoff comes early on, when he salutes the amazing Embarrassment for no real reason other than that they were from Kansas, then quotes “Sex Drive” (I think I would have picked “Wellsville”). They deserve every word of praise, but they don’t fit with the book: the Embarrassment were one hell of an anomaly. But Frank quotes them because he loves them, and the book is a disguised memoir of his childhood and adolescence. It’s not a polemic, it’s a travelogue.

And it works better as one, because when he’s dissecting the Great Plains, he overstates his case. Much of the evidence given is in the form of people he’s run into in his life, people he interviews on the street. I have no question they’re as bad as he paints them, but he paints in very broad strokes. He identifies large, abstract trends, such as white male resentment against minorities, and uses them to characterize Kansas and environs in toto.

Frank goes out of his way to paint Kansans as non-racists and non-fundamentalists. I believe him on this point, since Brown v. Board was provoked in Kansas precisely because the schools were “separate but equal.” Frank then argues for a chiefly economic (but also social) form of resentment that keeps Republicans in power.

That was what Frank’s childhood told him. Frank was raised a Republican of the libertarian Ayn Randian sort, but not as a social conservative or as a Christian. And this informs his take on so-called red America: Republicans are campaigning economically, not socially. So most of his arguments rely on Republicans’ anti-tax, anti-regulation, anti-welfare state strategies.

The problem is that he paints this argument as exclusive and total. Frank does not talk about the South, and the economic view is clearly not true in the South. The South is deeply Republican at this point, but it is not reflective of any shift of views on Southerners part; in 1994, Southerners finally got over their resentment of the Republicans enough to realize that the ultra-conservative Democrats they had been electing had not been doing them any good.

Yet further west, things are less clear. Frank explains away the election of Kansas’s Democratic Governor Kathleen Sebelius as a trivial side effect of a fight between two sects of Republicans, moderate and ultra-conservative. Fine, but why has Montana been trending Democratic lately?

The answer is pluralism. The Republicans do not use anything close to a unified, monolithic strategy. They have built a tenuous coalition of voters by appealing to every voter they can scrape up in whatever way they can, which is why Bush could not have managed more than a narrow victory. American conservatism, as it stands today, is such a weird amalgam (compare it to Israel, England, etc.) that it seems unlikely to be an endemic phenomenon. It’s arisen through careful planning, and does not exist as a monolithically native sensibility. That’s why a uniting figure like Bush or Reagan is so important.

But in the face of a Bush win and a poisoned administration doing a power-grab, it’s tempting to see the end of the nation at hand, driven by 50% of the populace. None of the trends Frank mentions explains anywhere close to 50% of the nation. Each of them, from anti-regulatory capitalists to religious fundamentalists to angry white men, make up a 5-10% segment of the population amidst the great unwashed masses.

People like Paul Weyrich and Donald Wildmon have made careers out of blowing up these conservative population to appear larger than they really are, from the original “Emerging Republican Majority” to the “moral majority” onwards. And they have tricks up their sleeves to convince the media and other suckers that they wield great power, like mailing many identical copies of decency complaints to the FCC. I worry that Frank may help their cause by painting Kansas as having a single sensibility that is hostile to the better instincts of people. And he drastically undersells the more situational aspects of the last election, described expertly by Mark Danner in How Bush Really Won:

The fact was that though President Bush was personally popular, many of his major policies were not. The problem for the Bush campaign was how to turn attention away from policies voters didn’t like–particularly the President’s decisions on Iraq and his conduct of the war there–toward policies they approved of&#x97particularly his conduct of “the war on terror” (into which Iraq would be “folded”)&#x97and toward his personal qualities.

None of this is to say that Frank isn’t right about how Kansas and other states have gradually shifted from economic populism to libertarian corporatism in response to right-wing agitprop. But that’s not Frank’s ultimate message, though. He has an agenda to push: he wants the Democrats to embrace class warfare and become anti-corporate.

Yet to advocate an anti-corporate policy as a political platform based on these observations seems unjustified, simplistic, and insufficient. Frank constructs a narrative that appeals to the compelling and partially accurate prejudices of his target readership–the liberal intelligentsia–but just like those who trumpeted the narrative “moral values” as the deciding factor in the election, Frank exaggerates. The weakness in this approach becomes apparent when Frank goes after Ann Coulter. Now, Ann Coulter is truly horrible, but her constituency is not large enough for her to be an exemplar of a trend. She is more a product of the right-wing think tank machine, designed to put guests on political talk shows, than she is a popular phenomenon (as Rush Limbaugh distressingly is). But because her views are insane and frightening even by Limbaugh’s standards, Frank can alienate readers further from Kansans by quoting her.

Frank’s aggressive tactics become most clear at the very end of the book, where Frank turns prophet of doom:

Behold the political alignment that Kansas is pioneering for us all. The corporate world–for reasons having a great deal to do with its corporateness–blankets the nation with a cultural style designed to offend and to pretend-subvert: sassy teens in Skechers flout the Man; bigoted churchgoing moms don’t tolerate their daughters’ cool liberated friends; hipsters dressed in T-shirts reading “FCUK” snicker at the suits who just don’t get it. It’s meant to be offensive, and Kansas is duly offended. The state watches impotently as its culture, beamed in from the coasts, becomes coarser and more offensive by the year. Kansas aches for revenge…Kansas goes haywire. Kansas screams for the heads of the liberal elite. Kansas comes running to the polling place. And Kansas cuts those rock stars’ taxes.

As a social system, the backlash works The two adversaries feed off of each other in a kind of inverted symbiosis: one mocks the other, and the other heaps even more power on the one.

It was the corporations the whole time! Note how government falls out of the equation, reduced the role of a puppet of the big corporations’ huge plot to advance capitalism and screw the proletariat. And it is mass culture that is the culprit.

The chief antecedent for this mode of thinking is Thorstein Veblen, who attacked the products of luxury culture and its consumers in The Theory of the Leisure Class and coined the term “conspicuous consumption” for the demonstrative decadence of these people. Veblen’s dour, astringent philosophy left hardly anything untouched: one would have to be an ascetic to avoid the pollution of the culture industry. (In this, he also anticipated the sociological work of Erving Goffman, who paints society as a system in which we have no choice but to take on socially constricted, prescribed roles.) With Veblen, and with Frank, the economic origin and intent of a product is the indicator of its moral worth.

The journal Frank edits, The Baffler, I read in college. I haven’t read it for years, but a look at the contents doesn’t reveal much change. It focused nearly exclusively on cultural capitalism. It excoriated every cultural movement that came down the line (Edge City, Donna Tartt, Wired, etc) as a meaningless product of consumerist culture. That which was acceptable–Steve Albini, John Cassavetes, Weldon Kees– were those that were aggressively, polemically independent, but also curiously middlebrow, as though intellectual pursuit for its own sake was not valid, only that which served the greater struggle against corporatism.

I used to find these views terribly compelling, and I’m not sorry they’re out there. But people looking for a book on “Red America” get something quite different with Frank’s book: an emotional travelogue through his childhood and adolescence that ends with the angry cry of a detractor to tear it all down. I don’t think it’s a useful approach; cultural crap tailored to the lowest common denominator has always existed and will always exist, and the liberal struggle can accommodate it. And I no longer wish to sign on with cultural critics that seem eager to shred all that is corporate, because I’ll go down with it. To quote the Embarrassment:

A self-proclaimed master for my education You said it was for my own good Then lit up the matches I gave you And aimed at the ground where I stood

I wasn’t your student, I thought you were crazy. I wasn’t your student, I thought you were crazy.

The Embarrassment, “Careen”

Just kidding, Dr. Frank, but the Embarrassment were a great band.

Will Eisner, RIP

Will Eisner, beloved author of The Spirit, had one of the longest careers, stretching from the 30’s to the present-day. Along with George Herriman, he was one of the early masters of the topology of the page (this Spirit splash page is the best example I could find on the web), and as Jules Feiffer has pointed out, his were some of the most Jewish superhero comics of the time.

Two good pieces on Eisner’s work and its importance are Michael Barrier’s Will Eisner: Moved by the Spirit, which only begins to describe Eisner’s incredible graphic and narrative sensibility, and Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes. I can’t find it on the web, so here’s an excerpt:

Eventually Eisner developed story lines that are perhaps best described as documentary fables–seemingly authentic when one reads them, but impossible after the fact. There was the one about Hitler walking around in a Willy Lomanish middle world: subways rolling, Bronx girls chattering, street bums kicking him around. His purpose in coming to America: to explain himself, to be accepted as a nice guy, to be liked. Silly when you thought of it, but for eight pages, grimly convincing.

Or the man who was a million years old–whose exploits are being read about by two young archeologists of the future who discover, in mountain ruins, the tattered remains of an old Spirit pamphlet, which details his story: the story of hte oldest man in the world, cursed to live forever for being evil, until on the top of a mountain, in combat with the Spirit, he plunges into the ocean and drowns. “Ridiculous story,” say those archeologists of the future as they finish the last page; these being their final words, for coming up behind them is that very old man, his staff raised high to crush their skulls, to toss them over the mountain edge into the ocean, and then to dance away, singing.

I collected Eisners and studied them fastidiously. And I wasn’t the only one. Alone among comic book men, Eisner was a cartoonist other cartoonists swiped from.

And he still is. Whenever I pick up a modern semi-alternative adventure/mystery/noir/etc. comic, Feiffer’s panel layouts are everywhere. And so are his fables, which lived on in everything from EC Comics to The Sandman.

Three Versions of Politics

In the aftermath of the Southeast Asia tsunamis, the Bush administration pathetically found itself spending more money on its second inauguration than it initially committed to disaster relief. Even now, its contributions are not especially impressive. I donated to relief organizations, and then, left to my own thoughts, I went through three responses: anger, despair, and detachment.

I was infuriated when I read Slavoj Zizek’s The Liberal Waterloo. Zizek proposes that it is for the better that Bush won the 2004 election, since it will

dispel the illusions about the solidarity of interests among the developed Western countries. It will give a new impetus to the painful but necessary process of strengthening new alliances like the European Union or Mercosur in Latin America. … Within these coordinates, every progressive who thinks should be glad for Bush&#x92s victory. It is good for the entire world because the contours of the confrontations to come will now be drawn in a much starker way. A Kerry victory would have been a kind of historical anomaly, blurring the true lines of division. After all, Kerry did not have a global vision that would present a feasible alternative to Bush&#x92s politics.

Zizek spends a good deal of space lambasting liberals for their faulty faith in Kerry and his empty vision, instead proclaiming the ascent of a new counterweight that will not seek unity with the United States. I disagree (except on the empty vision part), but it is not this that bothers me. Nor is it throwaway lines like this, which make me fear that his grasp of economics is quite weak:

Further, Bush&#x92s victory is paradoxically better for both the European and Latin American economies: In order to get trade union backing, Kerry promised to support protectionist measures.

No, it was the words “painful but necessary” that were maddening. I pictured Zizek sitting in his safe European home, gently telling his dialectic-minded followers that it is all for the best, that the nightmares that await are part of a cleansing clarity of darkness through which the new sun will rise. I thought it displays a faith not so different than that which informs the Left Behind books that he mentions. I exaggerate, but I was upset.

From Edmund Burke, a philosopher I despised for a long time before coming to a tenuous rapprochement, I learned not that revolution was wrong, but that it is absurd to believe that a ideology, revolutionary or otherwise, can be faithfully transmuted into a working polity. Zizek does not offer statecraft, but inflated theory with which he cheers the coming crash. I have no doubt that life will get far more unpleasant, but I will not allow myself to believe that the decreased education, increased poverty, and burgeoning intolerance will yield a better world or revivified political debate through anything except pure accident. I will not applaud the clarity gained when the U.S. refuses to ante up more than a pittance for the damage wrought by tsunamis in Southeast Asia.

Nor do I believe that the “lessons” learned from these horrible experiences by the vast majority of Americans (or others) will be anything other than instinctive reactions towards some new random vector. Even the ultimately optimistic economist Joseph Schumpeter was sober and cautious when considering the failure of capitalism and the successful rise of socialism, offering only an equivocal endorsement of what he believed would come to pass.

Zizek portrays an America of uniquely extreme religious fanatics. But the United States’ problem is that through an unlucky confluence of events, a group of crazies have taken over, people who do not act, in general, in line with the beliefs of those who voted for them. This is not because Americans are particularly close-minded or bloodthirsty, but because most people everywhere are irrational and ignorant.

After the election, I felt an alienation from huge chunks of my country far greater than anything I’d previously experienced. I could not find words for it, but Steven Shaviro sharply articulated the paralyzing despair: Nothing.

I think, rather, that 59 million people voted for Bush in full consciousness of what they were doing. They were aware of the harms that they would suffer from this action, but they were willing to put personal advantage aside in order to serve a higher duty. In other words, the reelection of George W. Bush was an ethical decision, a moral choice.

I believed this too in darker moments, but then I asked myself: what duty? I remind myself that this President hardly articulates policy, especially given how often it reverses. His steady, agonizingly simple personality is the foundation for any policy; (I don’t think Tom DeLay could have gotten elected with the same rhetoric, and so far, he agrees with me.) With any luck, this version of politics too will fall away after Bush leaves public office (whenever that may be), and there is no longer a cowboy hat on which to hang the current policies.

Looking to the future, I think that India has it right. The Road to Surfdom has a piece on India’s attitude towards America that gives probably the best-case long-term scenario. Dunlop paraphrases the Indian government’s attitudes as such:

[The Congressional delegation] spoke to a lot of Indian government people and the message from them was very clear, and in a nutshell it was this: We don’t much care about America. He said they were very polite but almost indifferent. Maybe matter-of-fact is a better description. The conversation went something like this:

We consider ourselves as in competition with China for leadership in the new century. That’s our focus and frankly, you have made it very difficult for us to deal with you. We find your approach to international affairs ridiculous. The invasion of Iraq was insane. You’ve encouraged the very things you say you were trying to fix – terrorism and instability. Your attitude to Iran is ridiculous. You need to engage with Iran. We are. We are bemused by your hypocrisy. You lecture the world about dealing with dictators and you deal with Pakistan. We are very sorry for your losses from the 9/11 terror attacks. Welcome to our world. You threaten us with sanctions for not signing the non-proliferation treaty, but you continue to be nuclear armed and to investigate new weapons. You expect us to neglect our own security because you want us to. We don’t care about sanctions.

That seems about right. The resistance of so many people to embrace a non-Western-centric view of the next half-century years (and I include Zizek here) is as much a product of parochialism as it is of short-sightedness. The view of a battle between European progressivism and American fundamentalism (Zizek calls it fundamentalism; I, who can’t see a competent hand at the wheel, would just term it insanity) seems obsolete, an artifact of half a millennium of Eurocentrism.

Given the damage wrought to it by the tsunamis, India certainly regrets the United States’ lack of assistance, but is probably not surprised by it. The United States’ total inability to lead in aiding South Asia, or even to feign appropriate sympathy (pace Burke), is ironically appropriate. I still wish that the richest country in the world would shell out a few billion, and I do believe Kerry would have wrangled a bit more, though not as much as I would like. But either way, change is coming through economic realignment, not through Zizek’s advocacy of the repoliticization of the economy (which itself seems to be synonymous with a re-Europeanization of the world).

Likewise, the damaging acts of the United States, assuming they don’t wipe us all out, will be self-marginalizing, rendering the decline of liberalism and the increased polarization of Europeans and Americans irrelevant. So when I am set upon by the black mood of despair that Steven Shaviro described, I regretfully welcome the decline of the United States’ influence, so as to minimize the impact and scope of what Zizek ominously describes as “the confrontations to come.”

Ominous to me, at least.

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