Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop

The art of translation, part 2

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Vladimir Nabokov

In one of the wonderful short essays that appear in the anthology Selected Nonfictions, Jorge Luis Borges writes:

Around 1916, I decided to devote myself to the study of the Oriental literatures. Working with enthusiasm and credulity through the English version of a certain Chinese philosopher, I came across this memorable passage: “A man condemned to death doesn’t care that he is standing on the edge of a precipice, for he has already renounced life.” Here the translator attaches an asterisk, and his note informed me that this interpretation was preferable to that of a rival Sinologist, who had translated the passage thus: “The servants destroy the works of art, so that they will not have to judge their beauties and defects.”

Speaking of the experience, Borges concludes: “A mysterious skepticism had slipped into my soul.” That skepticism never left him entirely, and you can see it on full display on his essays—which are among his best—on the translations of the Iliad and The Thousand and One Nights, most of which tell us more about the personalities of their translators than about the work itself. (If you ever want to disillusion yourself on the subject of translation in record time, just try reading a few translations, in parallel, of poetry in an Eastern language. This list of versions of Basho’s famous haiku on the jumping frog is a good place to start.)

And the irony here, of course, is that I’m also reading Borges in translation, in this case filtered through the words of the editor and translator Eliot Weinberger, and I didn’t think twice about it. Nearly every encounter I’ve had with Borges, who ranks among my four or five favorite writers, has been thanks to the midwifery of translators, and although I used to know enough Spanish to puzzle my way through a few familiar stories in the original edition of Ficciones, I haven’t tried this in a long time. And my conscience is clear. My only real firsthand experience with comparing translated texts to their originals was in college, when I studied Latin and Greek, and it left me with a few workable assumptions. Prose in a Western language can usually be translated into English without any devastating loss: Plato or Thucydides in English misses something, sure, but ninety percent of the original’s interest is preserved. Poetry is a different matter, and I never found a version of the Iliad I liked enough to read for its own sake. (I ended up relying mostly on what Borges calls Samuel Butler’s “unruffled” prose version, which renders Homer’s poetry as “a series of sedate news items.”) This is doubly the case with translated poetry from a non-Western language, which turns into a kind of performance art on the part of the translator, and it’s tempting to agree here with Robert Frost: “Poetry is what is lost in translation.”

Portrait of Jorge Luis Borges by Ferdinando Scianna

So what’s a reader to do? I’d been aware of these issues for a long time, but it wasn’t until I read Douglas Hofstadter’s Le Ton Beau de Marot that I started to piece together my own feelings on the subject. Le Ton Beau is a very strange book, a highly personal work on translation that ranges widely over multiple authors and languages—Hofstadter refers to himself as “pilingual”—while maintaining the chatty, nerdy, occasionally prickly tone of an interested amateur. Hofstadter’s conclusion is that poetry should be translated in a way that honors both the form and the content to the best of the translator’s abilities, even if this inevitably involves compromises in the literal meaning. It’s a sensible stance, and one that allows readers to more or less keep reading the same translations they always have. But it also pits Hofstadter against a formidable opponent: Vladimir Nabokov, whose epic translation and commentary of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin stands as the ultimate rejection of such easy consolations. For Nabokov, any conscious deviation from the literal text is a betrayal, a sop at the expense of the author to readers who can’t be bothered to learn Russian. To prove his point, Nabokov devoted unimaginable effort to a plodding, agonizingly “faithful” translation of Pushkin, published with two massive volumes of commentary. It’s a translation designed to destroy the reader’s very idea of translation itself, as well as the project in which Nabokov most resembles one of his own obsessive characters.

To be honest, I’ve never made it through all of Nabokov’s translation, but I’ve read all nine hundred pages of his notes, in which he lavishes all the invention, wit, and fire that he intentionally drains from the text itself. These notes strike me now as a defiant creative act in their own right, a statement that Nabokov would have been more than capable of blowing us away with a conventional translation if he hadn’t been too principled to do so. And it’s a stance that somehow manages to be unimpeachably correct and spectacularly wrongheaded all at the same time. Nabokov’s argument that fidelity to literal meaning should come first is impossible to refute, but he destroys the village to save it: his translation of Eugene Onegin is an “aesthetic self-wounding,” as Harold Bloom says elsewhere of Shakespeare, and it has little if anything to do with the qualities that draw readers to Pushkin in the first place. That’s a betrayal of its own, and in choosing between the two kinds of compromises, I can only speak from my own experience: reading a few stanzas of Nabokov’s work is enough to put me off Pushkin forever, while James Falen’s sparkling verse translation has made Eugene Onegin, or some version of it, a permanent part of my life—which is all a translation can ever hope to do. It’s hard to reconcile this, and rightly so, with our ideal of what a translation should be. But in response, I can only quote what Borges said, through an intermediary, to a translator who said that it was impossible to render one of his poems into rhyme: “Borges thinks you should try a little harder.”

Written by nevalalee

November 20, 2013 at 8:58 am

Fact, fiction, and truth in labeling

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Last year, I wrote a couple of posts about the strange case of Q.R. Markham, the suspense novelist who was later revealed to have constructed his debut thriller, Assassin of Secrets, out of a crazy patchwork quilt of plagiarized passages from other novels. Since then, the unfortunate author—under his true name of Quentin Rowan—has been featured in his own New Yorker profile by Lizzie Widdicombe, which quotes an unnamed fan as claiming that Rowan’s book is actually a secret masterpiece: “What might have been just another disposable piece of banal commercial trash has now been lifted to the level of art.” Others thought that it might have been a deliberate prank, a work of stealth literary criticism, or simply an impressive act of construction in its own right. And these are, in fact, all things that it is possible for a novel to be—just not this particular novel, which was clearly a case of plagiarism born of insecurity and fear. And to Rowan’s credit, he has never tried to claim otherwise.

Yet the idea of a novel constructed out of other novels, like a longer version of Jonathan Lethem’s famous essay in Harper’s, is an interesting one. I might even buy and read it. But the issue is one of truth in labeling. If Rowan had been honest about his method, he’d deserve the ironic accolades that he has subsequently received, but the fact remains that until his exposure, he never claimed to be anything but a suspense writer in the vein of Ian Fleming, which makes his book a work of plagiarism. Similarly, there’s always a place for works of art that mix fact with narrative imagination in pursuit of a larger artistic goal, as long as it’s properly labeled. Norman Mailer beautifully mingles journalism with artistic reconstruction in The Executioner’s Song, and much of the appeal of Frederick Forsyth’s spy novels comes from his use of real historical figures and events. But both works are clearly shelved in the fiction section. It’s when a story with invented elements is shelved with nonfiction—even metaphorically, as in the case of Mike Daisey—that we start to get into trouble.

Labels matter. By stating that a work of art is fiction or nonfiction, novel or memoir, the author is entering into a contract with the reader, one that can be violated only in very rare cases. Now, it’s true that a work of art occasionally benefits from ambiguity over whether what it depicts is real or not. I wouldn’t give up a movie like Exit Through the Gift Shop, for instance, which gains much of its fascination, at least on subsequent viewings, from the question of how much the director has manipulated events behind the scenes. But such cases are extraordinarily uncommon. In film, the result is more often a movie like the loathsome Catfish, in which the inherent interest of the story itself is suffocated by the filmmakers’ palpable vanity and dishonesty. Meanwhile, in print, even as some authors claim to be constructing a more challenging synthesis of artifice and reality, in practice, it’s often a case of a writer combining the easiest, most obvious elements of fiction and nonfiction to get cheap dramatic effects or a marketing hook without the trouble of well-constructed storytelling or real journalism. See: Three Cups of Tea, A Million Little Pieces, and now Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory.

The fact is, journalism is hard. Writing novels is also hard, in different sort of way. And it’s accomplishment enough for a lifetime to become good at either one. Before a writer decides to operate in some kind of hybrid mode, he needs to ask himself whether he’s tried to master the infinite complexities inherent in the practice of straight fiction or nonfiction, which, when honestly pursued, are capable of almost anything. For those who claim that it’s necessary to depart from the facts to tell an artistic and moving story, I’d ask them to first check out our many works of truly great nonfiction, ranging from David McClintick’s Indecent Exposure to David Simon’s Homicide, all fully reported and documented, and see if there’s any way they could possibly have been improved. And for those who believe that the conventional novel, unadulterated by plagiarisms, appropriations, or winking narrative shortcuts, is exhausted, well, I can only quote what Borges said, through his editor, to the translator who claimed that it was impossible to render one of his poems properly: “Borges thinks you should try a little harder.”

Paper is cheap, and other lessons from street art

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When you come right down to it, graffiti is the most fundamental form of self-publishing there is. Long before Twitter, WordPress, or Amazon’s digital publishing arm, street artists managed to express themselves on the sides of buildings, fences, and city curbs, and the raw materials couldn’t have been cheaper: paint, paper, wheatpaste. At its best, the anonymity and accessibility of the form encouraged experimentation, radicalism, and resourcefulness—as exhilaratingly documented in Banksy’s great Exit Through the Gift Shop—as well as a refreshing lack of inhibition. As Raffi Khatchadourian of the New Yorker puts it in a recent profile of the street artist JR:

He rarely expresses doubt about his art; paper and glue are cheap, and it is easy to experiment with them rather than to agonize before executing a judgment.

In some ways, then, street art stands as a rebuke to those of us who are always seeking perfection in our own work. There’s no such thing as a “finished” piece of street art: it’s a work in progress, defined as much by the riskiness of its execution as the visible result, and it’s only complete when it succeeds in arousing a reaction in its audience. Even more importantly, it’s a reminder of how little an artist really needs. No matter what your medium of choice, the basic tools are readily at hand, if you have enough ingenuity to use them. Paper, or its equivalent, is cheap for everyone. And the best street art recognizes this. In the most literal way possible, it’s about throwing something against the wall and seeing what sticks.

The trouble with street art, of course, is the trouble with all forms of self-publishing: the work of a few good artists can be hard to find in a sea of meaningless graffiti. Most graffiti, after all, is ugly; most self-published works, when you consider the full range of material both in print and online, are unreadable. At first glance, bad graffiti might seem like the greater eyesore, since there’s no way of looking away from it in your own neighborhood, but graffiti, at least, has certain barriers to entry—notably its illegality—that discourage most of us from risking it. No such barriers exist on the Internet, and I dare you to find a city wall as terrifying as the comments section of, say, Yahoo News, which is really just graffiti in digital form.

So what’s the lesson here? There’s bad street art and good street art; bad self-published novels and good self-published novels; and bad comment threads and, believe it or not, good comment threads. As Theodore Sturgeon famously pointed out, the bad will always outweigh the good, in similar proportions, no matter what the medium. That’s the price we pay for making any means of expression universally accessible—and rightly so. Graffiti is just the most visible form of a process that takes place in every form of communication: a vast amount of experimentation, imitation, and outright trash that somehow results in a handful of viable artists and communities, whether or not we know their names. So if you think you have something to contribute, you should. Because paper is cheap. And we need you.

Written by nevalalee

December 28, 2011 at 10:16 am

Great Directors: Orson Welles

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Essential films: Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil, The Magnificent Ambersons, F for Fake

I have to admit that it took me a long time to come around to Kane. Few other movies have been so unfairly suffocated by their own reputations: advance expectations run so high, for the officially certified greatest film of all time, that it nearly overwhelms what is really, as Pauline Kael points out, the fastest and frothiest of all newspaper comedies. At least, that’s how it plays at first. But as time goes on, thanks largely to David Thomson, I’ve found depths in Kane that probably weren’t evident even to its creator, who was, in fact, the secret subject of his own movie. Citizen Kane is a prophetic foreshadowing of the career of Orson Welles, the boy wonder who plays only a handful of scenes in his own face, and its power grows all the greater as the years take us further away from the incredible physical fact of Welles himself.

And the movie wouldn’t be able to sustain the weight of such baggage, or scrutiny, if it weren’t so intricate and beautiful a toy—a labyrinth without a center, as Borges notes. Of all the faces in Kane, the one that stays with me most is that of George Coulouris, as Thatcher, scowling, at the end of the closing credits, “I think it would be fun to run a newspaper.” No other film has made the art of movies seem like such mischievous fun for boys, and though Welles’s vision darkened over the years, that sense of delight is never entirely gone. It’s there throughout Touch of Evil, and it’s wonderfully evident in F for Fake, his last film, a feat of sleight of hand that even Exit Through the Gift Shop can’t hope to match. In the end, Welles’s life remains, as David Thomson says, “the greatest career in film, the most tragic, and the one with most warnings for the rest of us.”

Tomorrow: Akira Kurosawa and the triumph of storytelling.

Written by nevalalee

February 9, 2011 at 7:37 am

The best movies of the year

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First, the bad news. This was a terrible year for movies. Some combination of recessionary cutbacks, the delayed effects of the writer’s strike, and a determination to convert every imaginable movie to muddy 3D resulted in stretches of up to two or three months when multiplexes were basically a wasteland. And even if this cinematic dead zone turns out to be temporary, it’s hard not to see it as karmic comeuppance for the Academy’s recent decision to bump the number of Best Picture nominees to ten, an act of desperation that is looking more misguided with every passing day. Still, there were some very good movies released this year, including one that ranks among the best I’ve ever seen. It’s almost enough to make me think that this year was better than it actually was:

1. Inception. After a decade of extraordinary productivity, Christopher Nolan is beginning to look like nothing so much as two great directors working as one: the first is obsessed with pushing the bounds of filmic complexity on the narrative level, while the other has devoted himself to mastering every aspect of modern blockbuster filmmaking. Inception is the ultimate result of this paradoxical partnership: it’s one of those rare movies in which every aspect of the production—acting, story, visual effects, art direction, stunts, music, editing, even costume design—is both immediately exhilarating and endless to meditation. I only wish there were more of it.

2. Toy Story 3. I was hard on this movie yesterday, so let’s set the record straight: this is the best Pixar film since Finding Nemo, and one of the finest animated movies ever made. It’s touching, exciting, thematically rich, and very funny, with an enormous cast of characters—both existing and new—who are so engaging that I’m sad we won’t have a chance to see them in other stories. (Fanfic, as usual, is ready to come to the rescue.) It’s enough to make me wish that I were ten years younger, just so I could have grown up with these toys—and movies—on my playroom shelves.

3. The Social Network. Over the past few years, David Fincher has gone from being a stylish but chilly visual perfectionist to a director who can seemingly do anything. Zodiac was the best movie ever made about serial killers and journalism, as well as the best Bay Area picture since Vertigo; The Social Network, in turn, is the best Harvard movie of all time, as well as a layered, trashy story of money and friendship, with an Aaron Sorkin script that manages to evoke both John Hughes and Citizen Kane. It’s almost enough to make me excited about The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

4. Exit Through the Gift Shop. Even more than Inception, this was the best film of the year for inspiring endless heated debate. Months later, I’m still not sure what to think about the strange case of Banksy and Mr. Brainwash, which is some combination of cautionary tale, Horatio Alger story, fascinating reportage, and practical joke. I do know that it’s impossible to watch it without questioning your deepest assumptions about art, commerce, and the nature of documentary filmmaking. And even if it’s something of a put-on, which I think at least part of it is, it’s still the best movie of its kind since F for Fake.

5. The Ghost Writer. Roman Polanski’s modest but wickedly sophisticated thriller is a reminder that a movie doesn’t need to be big to be memorable. The ingredients couldn’t be simpler: a tight story, an impeccable cast (aside from Kim Cattrall’s distractingly plummy British accent), and an isolated house on the beach. The result is one of the great places in the movies, as real as Hannibal Lecter’s cell or the detective’s office in The Usual Suspects. By the end, we feel as if we could find our way around this house on our own, and the people inside it—especially the devastating Olivia Williams—have taken up residence in our dreams.

6. Fair Game. Aside from a pair of appealingly nuanced performances by Naomi Watts (as Valerie Plame) and Sean Penn (as Joseph Wilson), Fair Game doesn’t even try to be balanced: it’s a story of complex good against incredible, mustache-twirling evil, which would be objectionable from a narrative perspective if it weren’t so close to the truth. At its best, it’s reminiscent of The Insider, both in its sense of outrage and in the massive technical skill that it lavishes on intimate spaces. It’s impossible to watch it without being swept up again by renewed indignation.

7. The Town. True, it’s slightly confused about its main character, who comes off as more of a sociopath than the film wants to admit, and I have problems with the last ten minutes, in which Ben Affleck, as both director and star, slips from an admirable objectivity into a strange sort of self-regard. Still, for most of its length, this is a terrific movie, with one of the best supporting casts in years—notably Jeremy Renner, Rebecca Hall, Jon Hamm, and the late Pete Postlethwaite. The result is a genre piece that is both surprisingly layered and hugely entertaining, with a fine sense of Boston atmosphere.

8. The Secret in Their Eyes. Technically, this Argentine movie—which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film—came out last year, but I’d feel irresponsible if I didn’t include it here. Like The Lives of Others, which it superficially resembles, it’s one of those foreign films, aware of but unimpressed by the conventions of Hollywood, that seems so rich and full of life that it passes beyond genre: it’s funny, romantic, and unbearably tense, and contains one of the most virtuoso action sequences this side of Children of Men. I don’t know what to call it, but I love it.

9. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. A week doesn’t go by in which I don’t think fondly of Knives Chau, Scott Pilgrim’s hapless but unexpectedly resourceful Chinese-Canadian love interest. The film in which Knives finds herself is equally adorable: it has enough wit and invention for three ordinary movies, and it’s one of the few comedies of recent years that knows what to do with Michael Cera. It’s something of a mess, and its eagerness to please can be exhausting, but it still contains more delights per reel than any number of tidier films.

10. The American. Despite opening at the top of the box office over Labor Day weekend, this odd, nearly perfect little movie was mostly hated or dismissed by audiences soon after its release. The crucial thing is to adjust your expectations: despite what the commercials say, this isn’t a thriller so much as a loving portrait of a craftsman—in this case, an assassin—at work, as well as a visual essay on such important subjects as the Italian countryside, a woman’s naked body, and George Clooney’s face. It’s perilously close to ridiculous, but until its ludicrous final shot, it casts its own kind of peculiar spell.

Honorable mention goes to Winter’s Bone, A Prophet, Tangled, and How to Train Your Dragon, as well as to parts of The Kids Are All Right, The King’s Speech, and even Black Swan, which really deserves a category of its own. (As for Tron: Legacy, well, the less said about that, the better.)

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