Author Archives: Antonios

Literature and Australia

There is no Australian literature, no Russian literature, no French literature; there is only literature. But over at the Age, Michael Hayward reveals, despite working in publishing, how parochial and uncritical he is:

In 2011, in not a single course in the whole country were students asked to read Henry Handel Richardson’s The Fortunes of Richard Mahony. This is the equivalent of not one Russian university teaching Anna Karenina, of Madame Bovary going untaught in France.

The real shame is that in literature departments, where people supposedly have a love of literature and have developed the ability to critically appraise it, they do not read Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary and Hamlet and Don Quixote and The Leopard and American Pastoral and Love in the Time of Cholera as the basis for all courses. The real shame is that anyone could suppose that The Fortunes of Richard Mahony touches Anna Karenina and that they are both equally deserving of study in a literature department.

Perhaps to prove my point, the very next sentence in Michael Hayward’s piece is this:

It is a rampageous scandal, to borrow a coinage from HHR  herself.

Rampageous scandal is hardly a bon mot worth quoting, and one only hopes it’s not the most felicitous turn of phrase in Henry Handel Richardson’s oeuvre.

A Link Between Unphonetic Orthography and Homophony?

Considering the number of languages in the world, I really don’t have much to go on, but my impression is that the more homophonous a language’s lexicon, the more unphonetic its writing system.

Here are some languages that I have some acquintance with that I’ve grouped according to their relative homophony and orthographic phoneticism, from the least homophonous and most phonetic to the most homophonous and least phonetic:

Group 1: Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Greek, Russian and Finnish.
Group 2: English and French.
Group 3: Languages using the Chinese writing system and Japanese.

This grouping I freely admit is purely impressionistic: I have no hard data on the amount of homophones in each language, although the relative phoneticism of the writing systems I can say with confidence is about right.

The link that I’ve conjectured, if it does indeed exist, would seem to make sense. Written and spoken languages are different — you don’t often say what you write and vice versa — partly (mostly?) to take advantage of the particular properties of pages and eyes, voices and ears; so it shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise that homophones need further elucidation on the page and a move away from pure phoneticism becomes desirable.

I think Korean would be one language to go against the presumed trend — its writing system, Hangul, is deeply phonetic while having to deal with a number of homophones that come from Chinese loanwords.

I also suppose that Korean illustrates another linguistic trend: the later a writing system’s invention or adaptation for a specific language, the more phonetic it is designed to be from the outset, and the less time has passed for the spoken language to have drifted from how it’s written down.

Of course, take this with a large, unsubstantiated grain of salt: it’s all speculation based on the private musings of a very amateur linguist, none of which is supported even by a Wikipedia page written by a prankster.

Sade @ Rod Laver Arena, 2nd December, 2011

Countless people would have looked twice at Sade’s name and assume it a prank when she first came to prominence in the mid-eighties. No one need look twice these days: Sade is pronounced her way first, the marquis be damned.

Thirty years since the heady days of Smooth Operator and Sade still pulls a sizeable crowd, and a much cherished one at that: the kind that still pays full-price for music. Although Sade is an understated performer and her between-song patter is mostly rehearsed, the theatrical elements of her show — video projections, choreography, costume changes, stage effects — combined with an overlong absence from these antipodean shores make for an entertaining evening.

The night begins with Soldier of Love. The song incorporates a mechanised, industrial feel that is a slight departure from her usual fare, and the whole production plays on it: the performers emerge from the depths of the stage on the beat; the band synchronise their movements in lock step; Sade coolly hams it up; the lights accent the snare drum pounding on the two and four.

These theatrical elements are generally a clever touch the whole night through; a nonsensical video providing the back story to Smooth Operator while affording time for an obligatory costume change, however, is not. Regrettably, neither is the song’s rendition a great success — Smooth Operator feels limp and rushed. But no matter: soon after, an atmospheric rendition of Is It A Crime elicits the greatest response of the night, the slow burn of the verses that build to the chorus that goes somewhere close to emotional a welcome change from the general restraint of Sade’s material.

The relaxed funk of Paradise has a handful of the audience on their feet, and when the song breaks down into a sanitised, adult-oriented hip hop section, everyone gets on up. Sade wisely leaves the stage to her two back-up singers who have the crowd responding to their cliched calls. It’s lightweight and ridiculous; nonetheless, it’s fun.

We’ve been told we’re loved, we’ve heard the hits; while she never commands the stage, Sade is a gracious performer, and, smartly, she doesn’t rely on her intimate, understated music alone to entertain in a venue as vast as Rod Laver Arena. Her urbane exotica and the show’s production are all well done and — dare I say it — a smooth operation indeed.

Bioy Casares and Borges

Bioy Casares kept a record of the very many encounters and meetings he had with firm friend Borges in Buenos Aires. These records were edited and published in a 1600-page behemoth simply titled Borges, a title which does not definitively alert the unsuspecting Amazon shopper that its contents are in Spanish.

Although I read Spanish well enough, and although I feel the need to complain about previous translations of both Borges’ and Bioy Casares’ works, I would have much preferred the book in English translation for a non-Argentinean audience, where footnotes on literary and political figures I’d never heard of would have been abundant and the strain of reading such a long work in Spanish could be avoided. Unfortunately, no such English translation appears to be available.

Nevertheless, I do occasionally dip into Borges, and for the most part I end up agreeing with David Gallagher’s sentiments regarding the book — too long, too desultory, not really all that revealing. Nevertheless, there are still a number of amusing moments, and so I thought I’d share a few I’ve discovered recently:

Sunday, 28th of September, 1969

Hablo por teléfono con Borges. Me dice: Mi sobrino Luis se casa pasado mañana. Está en cama, muy resfriado. ¿Será una estratagema para no casarse? Sin embargo, no está obligado… Qué raro, elegir la inmovilidad como una forma de fuga.

I speak with Borges on the phone. He tells me: My cousin Luis is getting married the day after tomorrow. He’s in bed with a severe cold. Could it be a way to avoid getting married? Still, no one’s forcing him… How odd to choose immobility as a form of running away.


Monday, 14th of August, 1961

BORGES: <<Me faltan veinte días para irme a Texas. ¿Cómo detener el tiempo? Madre está muy divertida con el viaje. Ojalá que me dejen hablar de otros temas, además de literatura argentina. Esa idea de que todo hombre es un commis voyageur de su país es una porquería, es la negación de la cultura, de la literatura, de todo.

BORGES: I leave for Texas in twenty days. How does one stop time? Mother is very amused about the trip. Hopefully they let me speak on topics other than Argentinian literature. This idea that everybody is a commis voyageur of one’s own country is crap; it’s the negation of culture, of literature, of everything.


Sunday, 18th of March, 1962

Le hablo de mi cuento <<El calamar opta por su tinta>>. BORGES: <<Está bien. El verbo optar supone una inteligencia que los calamares probablamente no tienen>>. Comentado los primeros resultados de las elecciones y el posible triunfo peronista: <<Recuerdo un dicho parecido: ¨El perro vuelve a su vómito¨. Aunque más adecuado sería, por estos días; ¨El argentino vuelve a su Perón¨>>.

I tell him about my story, The Squid Chooses Its Own Ink. BORGES: “It’s good. The verb choose presupposes an intelligence that squid probably don’t have.” Commenting on the preliminary election results and the possible Peronista triumph: “I remember a similar saying: ‘The dog returns to its own vomit’. Although something more apt would be, for these times: ‘The Argentinian returns to his own Peron'”.

Note: Borges’ apter saying has an added kick in Spanish because perro, the word for dog, is very similar to Perón.


Monday, 19th of March, 1962

A unos metodistas que se oponían a la pena capital, les dijo: <<Cristo la sancionó. Murió en la cruz; no elogió — era Dios y podía hacerlo — la reclusión en la cárcel>>. <<No los convencí>>, agrega. Yo le recuerdo que, para John Donne, Cristo era suicida.

He said to some Methodists opposed to the death penalty: “Christ sanctioned it. He died on the cross; he did not choose — he was God and was able to do so — imprisonment in jail.” “I did not convince them”, he added. I remind him that, according to John Donne, Christ committed suicide.

A Short Documentary on Cryptic Crosswords and David Astle (DA)

I love cryptic crosswords, so much so that I run, with a little help from some friends, The DA Trippers, a site devoted to David Astle’s crosswords.

A bunch of RMIT students wanted to film a short documentary on cryptic crosswords and asked DA, as he’s known in the biz, to be involved. Being the genial guy that he is, DA agreed, and a series of coincidences meant that I ended up in the documentary as well, along with fellow DA-Trippers founder, RC.

And that doco — it’s right here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c4GurqnVAF4

The Invention of Morel and its Curious Excisions

SG’s a friend of mine. A while ago, he and I went on a wild goose chase in search of a literary conjuring act that Adolfo Bioy Casares, a close friend of Borges’, would certainly have been capable of and which would fit with the kind of literary knavery the Argentine was known to pull off. Although the wild goose chase came to a gooseless end, the chase itself was nonetheless worthwhile: almost inadvertantly, we ended up reading the Bioy Casares classic, The Invention of Morel, in a way that would delight any English professor of the old school — paying close attention to words, sentences and imagery, completely innocent of any possible Marxist, feminist or post-structuralist “reading”.

Naturally, such scrutiny extended to the translation — which proved especially apt because, having both read the book originally in English, the goose we were chasing might never have been spotted yonder over the horizon if not for some inapt translation: a footnote was misplaced; encabezamiento was translated as at the beginning of the manuscript rather than preface or preamble; and what the narrator wanted to do with a motto in English was not quite what he wanted to do in Spanish. Consequently, we ended up dreaming up outlines of an elaborate story within a story to explain a peculiarity that was not Bioy Casares’ invention, but rather the translator’s.

I’ve already complained about Andrew Hurley’s translations of Borges’ short stories, and it seems his great friend Bioy Casares has suffered a similarly unfortunate fate in English. Ruth Simms, whose translation of The Invention of Morel we read, writes better English prose than Hurley, so there’s not the same inelegance in the text that burdens Hurley’s Borges. Nevertheless, Simms work suffers from inaccuracies on three fronts: benign translations of curious word selections in the Spanish; unnecessary explanatory interventions into allusive passages; and, criminally, the skipping of certain peculiar sentences or phrases entirely, as if they didn’t exist in the original at all. It’s only speculation, but it seems to me that Simms wanted to avoid accurately rendering the peculiarities of the Spanish original in case the book’s readers would think her translation was peculiar, not the Spanish original. Quite amusing then that if it weren’t for a peculiarity Simms introduced while she was busily redacting the others that actually existed in the original, two Australians would never have closely analysed her translation and come to criticise it.

But there’s no need to just take my word for the shortcomings of Simms’ translation: below I present some bits and pieces of Bioy Casares’ text that Simms chose not to translate at all, which you can inspect at your leisure (references to page numbers are from this edition):


On page 26, the translation reads:

The sun was still above the horizon, hovering as a kind of mirage. I hurried down to the rocks.

That’s meant to be the translation of:

Todavia el sol estaba arriba del horizonte (no el sol; la apariencia del sol; era ese momento en que ya se ha puesto, o va a ponerse, y uno lo ve donde no esta). Yo había escalado con urgencia las piedras.

What’s missing is that entire bracketed section — which is quite important to the plot — so that the two sentences should actually read:

The sun was still above the horizon, hovering as a kind of mirage (not the sun, but what appeared to be the sun; it was one of those situations where the sun had set, or was about to set, and the sun is seen to be where it isn’t). I hurried down to the rocks.


On page 31, the translation says:

Almost all morning I exposed myself to the danger of being seen by anyone brave enough to get up before ten o’clock. But while I was…

The original:

He pasado casi toda la mañana exponiéndome a ser descubierto por cualquier persona que hubiera tenido el coraje de levantarse antes de las diez. Me parece que tan modesto requisito de la calamidad no se cumplió. Durante mi trabajo…

A whole sentence: excised — and for no reason. The whole passage should read:

Almost all morning I exposed myself to the danger of being seen by anyone brave enough to get up before ten o’clock. It seems that such a modest prerequisite for calamity was unfulfilled. But while I was…


On page 34, the translation says:

Now I derive consolation from thinking about her disapproval. And I wonder whether it is justified. What is there to hope for after this stupid mistake I have made? But since I can still recognize my own limitations, perhaps she will excuse me. Of course, I was at fault for having created the garden in the first place.

That’s meant to be a translation of this:

Ahora me consuelo reflexionando sobre mi condena. ¿Es justa o no? ¿Qué debo esperar después de haberle dedicado este jardincito de mal gusto? Creo, sin rebelión, que la obra no debiera perderme, si puedo criticarla. Para un ser omnisapiente, yo no soy el hombre que ese jardín hace temer. Sin embargo, lo he creado.

Simms’ translation is basically a butchering: a sentence is excised (again, one pivotal to the plot) and what sentences are translated have been sanitised. My own rendition:

Now I console myself by reflecting on her disapprobation. Is it just? What should I expect after having dedicated this garden of such poor taste to her? I believe, without rancour, that it should not be my undoing if I can recognise its flaws. I am not the man an omniscient being will fear because of this garden. Nonetheless, I have created it.


And should you feel so inclined, you can also inspect my own translation of the first subsection of The Invention of Morel.

A Portion of The Invention of Morel

I have bemoaned Ruth Simms’ translation of Adolfo Bioy Casares’ classic La Invención de Morel, and because I like the exercise, I’ve gone and translated the book’s first subsection so others can bemoan my own mistakes.

Compare them if you wish: here, as a PDF, is the original Spanish; there, as a large PDF (12.5MB), is Ruth Simms’ translation, and below is my own attempt at turning Bioy Casares’ prose into English:

The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares

Today, on this island, a miracle happened. Summer arrived early. I moved my bed by the swimming pool and bathed in the water for a long while. It was impossible to sleep. Two or three minutes out of the pool and the water that should have protected me from the frightful heat would turn into sweat. A phonograph woke me at daybreak. I couldn’t return to the museum to get my things. I fled for the ravine. I am among aquatic plants in the lowlands to the south, tormented by mosquitoes, waist-deep in dirty streams of sea water, realising that my flight was absurdly premature. I don’t think those people came here looking for me; perhaps they haven’t even seen me. But I continue my course; I find myself unprepared, confined as I am to the leanest, least hospitable place on the island: the marshes that the sea floods once a week.

I am writing this to leave behind an account of the adverse miracle. If in a few days I do not die drowning, or fighting for my liberty, I hope to write Apologia before Survivors and Tribute to Malthus. In these books I will attack those who lay waste to the forests and the deserts; I will show that the world — its judicial errors made irreparable with ever more effective police forces, documents, journalism, radio broadcasts, border security — is a unanimous hell for fugitives. So far I have only written this single page, which yesterday I did not foresee. There are so many things to do on this desolate island! The trees are impossibly hard! Open space is so much vaster than the span of a bird’s flight!

An Italian rugseller in Calcutta gave me the idea of coming here. He said (in his language): “There’s only one place in the world for a fugitive such as you, but it’s uninhabitable. It’s an island. Around 1924, some white people built a museum, a chapel and a swimming pool there. The work was finished, then abandoned.”

I interrupted him; I wanted his help to get there; the rugseller continued: “Neither Chinese pirates nor the Rockefeller Institute’s white-painted ship sail near. A disease is at work on the island, a mysterious one, that progresses fatally from the outside in. Nails drop off, hair falls out; skin and eye corneas degrade away; the body remains alive a week or two. The crew of a steamer that had dropped anchor there were skinless, bald, without nails — all dead — when they were found by the Japanese cruiser Namura. The steamer was sunk by cannon fire.”

But my life was so horrible that I decided to go… The Italian tried to dissuade me; I managed to have him help me.

Last night, for the hundredth time, I slept on this deserted island… As I looked upon the buildings, I thought of how hard it must have been to transport those rocks, and how easy it would have been to build a brick oven. I fell asleep late and the music and the shouting woke me at daybreak. The life of the fugitive has me sleeping with one eye open: I’m sure no boat, no plane, no mode of transport whatever has come here. Yet suddenly, on this oppressive summer night, the hill’s grasslands have become covered with people who dance, who stroll and who swim in the pool, as if they were holidaymakers well-settled into their stay at the resorts in Los Teques or Marienbad.

Gomez and Whatever’s On Your Mind

3 out of 10: Moments of typical Gomez blues marred by treacly, sentimental schlock

Gomez are a blues band who don’t have much to be blue about. Like many bands who aren’t much chop at evoking emotion with their music, Gomez are at their best when they’re inventive, playful, quirky. Whatever’s On Your Mind continues in that inventive vein, but they’ve overreached: instead of quirky and fun, they’ve tried for quirky and emotional — and come off as vapid and maudlin.

The joys of Love Is Better Than A Warm Trombone and Get Myself Arrested are over ten years old now, and they still stand as deft, light-hearted reinterpretations of the blues for this more comfortable modern age. Options, the first track from Whatever’s On Your Mind, begins with those same hallmarks, but deft soon turns to daft with a deathly detour into Coldplay strings and twee electronics that is sadly indicative of the entire album.

Lines as execrable as “I’m just as lost as you are”, “please hold on to your heart of gold” and “you’re the song in my heart” are but three examples of Gomez’s primary mistake: sentimentality substituting for fun. There’s not a jot of emotional weight to any of their songs, not a scintilla of old-school soul to their sound, and the canned strings over cliched lyrics that is alarmingly common throughout will render sickly the sweetest of musical tooths.

Gomez should have known better. Misplaced sentimentality is the young man’s goof, not the old hand’s. What’s most disappointing is that Whatever’s On Your Mind features many moments of musical canniness, but moments they remain overwhelmed as they are by missteps into the maudlin mundane.

Dereb The Ambassador @ The Corner, 17th June, 2011

9 out of 10: Dereb the Ambassador bring the Ethiopian funk.

Souvlaki, laksa and tempura are but three examples of the welcome impact multiculturalism has made on the Australian palette; musically, though, it’s still the same meat and three veg of rock and roll that keeps the masses satisfied. Tonight, however, is different. Tonight Dereb Desalegn showcases the band he has put together over the course of the last decade since his arrival in Australia from his native Ethiopia, a band that serves up the slinky sounds from his homeland’s musical golden period.

Mulatu Astatke is the one-man Motown of Ethiopia, a veritable genius who created the classic Latin jazz, funk and traditional Ethiopian infusion that came to be known as ethio-jazz and which had Addis Ababa swinging in the 60s and 70s. Dereb the Ambassador mine that sound, and they fittingly begin with a driving cover of the instrumental Astatqe standard, Yelage Tizeta. The original is sexier, more lounge, the aural equivalent of a martini sipped among belly dancers in a Saharan oasis bar; but Dereb the Ambassador are bringing the funk tonight, and they conjure up a sweaty dancefloor in an overheated, overpopulated North African city, a single fan blowing ineffectually from the ceiling.

Dereb sings in his native Amharic, which, without words recognisable to this Australian’s ears, makes his voice sound like a bellowing clarinet of deep, evocative hues, both resonant and rich. And it’s that voice along with the two saxophones on stage that trace the thrillingly exotic Ethiopian melodies. Their lines slink, slither and slide, the saxophones at times sounding like two hissing snakes intertwining in desert sands. All this is on top of a crack rhythm section, the congas and the drums polyrhythmically combining to produce an outstanding underlay of intermeshed percussion for the rest of the instruments to sit on.

Dereb the Ambassador, however, are not mere revivalists: they also introduce Jamaican elements into their Ethiopian melange to good effect. The ska-like bounce to many of their numbers add a unifying element to the funky bodies on the dancefloor that are otherwise dancing to any one of the various interlocking parts of the funky, elegant whole.

Dereb the Ambassador are the real deal, a band of tight professionals that, thousands of miles away from Ethiopia, nonetheless manage to evoke the steaming clubs of Addis Ababa with their sexy flights of jazzy, North-African funk. Twiddly, trebly, whiney rock need not be the sole musical diet of a Melbournite looking for something live, and happily Australia’s multiculturalism now has something musical to hang its hat on.

When a C is Just a C

A post from two years ago revived from a now defunct blog:

I’m not in for simplifying English’s orthography. The vestiges of languages and pronunciations long gone in the written appearance of English is a delight. That English is now a cross between logographic and phonetic styles of writing (phlegm looks suitably sicklier than flem) is something to be celebrated, never maligned. I usually consider George Bernard Shaw and Gough Whitlam to be my fellow travellers, but on the subject of spelling reform, there’s certainly a u of difference in the colour of our stripes (Shaw funded the development of Shavian, an ugly, other-worldly, 48-letter alphabet specifically designed so that English is efficiently and phonetically spelt; and, believe it or not, Gough Whitlam changed the Ministry of Health’s name to the Ministry of Helth!)

Nevertheless, my soft spot for the spelling of the English language has not precluded me from pondering on occasion that, of all the letters of the alphabet, c is the most insidiously power mad and undeservingly prevalent. I freely admit that I regularly curse the evil, usurping letter that so often stands in the way of k and s, and slowly over to the dark side of spelling reform I have crept, dreaming of the day c might get its comeuppance.

Happily I’m in Indonesia, and here c knows its place. With the advent of the colonial powers, Indonesian, in its earlier guise as Malay, was turned over to the Roman script from another adapted from the Arabic in the seventeenth century. This meant that the script adapters could do as crazed English spelling reformers have only dreamt of doing and apply the Roman alphabet to an unsuspecting language from scratch. And, quite rightly, these Roman-script appliers wrote a k for k, an s for s and left c with the sole responsibility of looking after its only irreplaceable purpose in English, that of tag-teaming with h so as to represent the sound written as ch. But in Indonesian, c does not usurp the representational rights of its alphabetical brethren, so c requires no h as back up when performing the only role it should be performing. Hence, cuci, the very excellent word for wash, is pronounced in Indonesian as if it were written as choochi in English, and no one is ever confused.

So in Indonesia, I’m mostly at ease whenever I look over a piece of text. Sure, I can’t for the most part understand what’s written, but I know that a c is a c and it’s pronounced as if it were ch in English. Of course, now that I’ve got what I wanted, now that I know that Indonesian spelling is far more equitable than English’s and there is no unwarranted trespassing going on, I miss scissors, I miss cents and scents, I miss concision and I miss cholera. There’s a humdrum utilitarianism in Indonesian’s spelling regime, a utilitarianism that has certainly been most helpful over the past couple of weeks since I’ve arrived in Jakarta, but a utilitarianism that has left me longing for the drama of the logographic and the etymological, where words have colour, not kulla, and from miles away I can spot a Greek influence in my chrysanthemums.