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 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 inadvertently, 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 justified? 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.

Toots and the Maytals @ the Palace, 24th April, 2011

3 out of 10: Toots surrounded by mediocrity

It must be a political statement against nepotism: the show begins with Toots’ daughter singing an execrable reggae-muzak version of John Waite’s middle-of-the-road Missing You. After the song is done, she quietly takes up her spot behind a backing singer’s mic, a spot that should really be for a Maytal, and Toots, her legendary father, enters stage right.

Toots is looking ridiculously fine. Toots’ bright red outfit, a stunning throwback to Eddie Murphy’s finer days, sits snugly over his bulbous, middle-aged paunch, while his swagger and black-as-night sunglasses make for a kitschy-cool combination perhaps no other 65 year old could pull off. From the outset, it’s clear that Toots’ voice and its soulful, gospel inflections have only improved with age and his very own funky dance steps remain timeless. But right from the outset, it’s also clear that even though tonight has been billed as Toots and the Maytals, it’s not the Maytals that the world has grown up with that are on stage and the backing band is not a patch on the Skatalites.

The backing band is practically invisible. They’re hardly better than a covers band and there is little cohesion or energy Toots can work with. Although the classic Pressure Drop is the first song Toots sings, the band’s inability to nail the rhythm has the audience raising its collective eyebrow. No member of the band will end up being introduced to the audience and the show might have been better off if they weren’t there at all.

A night of Toots singing Funky Kingston, Sweet and Dandy, Louie Louie and Monkey Man should be a delight, but everything meanders. The only saving grace is Toots’ rambunctious stage presence and booming voice, especially on the songs whose gospel influences are more apparent. But even these vocal moments of joy are hamstrung by microphones dropping in and out, all of which left Toots bemoaning to his sound crew at one point, “I have a big voice — why you try and make it small?”

The punchy 54-46 Was My Number is the last song, the kind of upbeat classic that is capable of turning the memory of an ordinary night of barely middling rocksteady and reggae into a happy one. Midway through a bizarre four-on-the-floor disco interlude, no one can say for sure whether the first or last song of the night is the most bemusing.

The Bamboos @ the Prince Bandroom, 14th of January, 2011

7 out of 10: An up-and-down night of historic funk.

The Bamboos are Melbourne’s own funk institution, and it’s a testament to the band that in a music scene more attuned to the rumble of power chords, the humble, scratchy slinkiness of a funky guitar’s ninth-chord rhythms can still garner an audience.

Tonight The Bamboos are celebrating ten years of funky good times by packing out the Prince Bandroom. As tradition demands, the show begins instrumentally. Resplendent in dapper suits, The Bamboos evoke the laid-back party groove of a New Orleans night spot and sound as if The Meters had dropped by Melbourne town.

The instrumental Bamboos are a subdued lot who prefer to lock into the groove meditatively, without commotion. Although Lance Ferguson is the band’s leader on guitar, he seems almost awkward being the foremost member of the band. So when Kylie Auldist, the band’s singer, enters the stage, eyes naturally shift to her effervescent exuberance.

It’s not, however, Auldist’s finest night. She’s a little too exuberant, perhaps even drunk, and at times she garbles words and misses notes. When she alludes to some tensions within the band after having mocked The Bamboos’ early days without her, Auldist rivals Parliament’s Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk in her ability to sap away the sweetness of the groove.

A second instrumental section brings out the band’s original drummer, Scott Lambie. He emerges on stage and installs his own snare drum as part of the kit. It’s an audacious statement, supremely self-confident, the kind of thing only seasoned professionals do who consider their instruments extensions of their own selves. And when Lambie begins with an elaborate drum pattern on snare and hi-hat that barely seems possible, we each bear witness to the funk in its purest form. The song is a vehicle for those drums, those exquisitely funky drums, and when the break comes, Lambie deftly, tastefully, expertly varies the original pattern before the crowd gives the funky drummer some.

Danny Farrugia, the band’s current drummer, is no shirk, though. His breaks are manic scattershots of Keith Moon mayhem, and in combination with the tasty James Jamerson stylings of bass player Yuri Pavlinov, The Bamboos rhythm section remains a treat.

The Bamboos are, however, caught in a curious catch-22. When playing instrumentally, their funk is a delight, but the lack of any stage presence harms how the performance is received. Yet when it’s time for the bubbly Auldist to sing and there is a focal point, the funk gets scaled back for the vocals, which unfortunately don’t make up for the loss of groove. An historic night, an entertaining night, but ultimately not the night of nights.

Public Enemy @ The Corner on the 29th December, 2010

4 out of 10: A murky let down from a band that can no longer muster up the rage that drived them

The classic Public Enemy T-shirts are on sale at the front of the room and Chuck D enters from stage right with a boombox across his shoulder. Twenty years ago Public Enemy delivered their second groundbreaking work of sonic rage and righteousness, Fear of a Black Planet, and at the Corner tonight, Public Enemy are celebrating that achievement by turning Flavor Flav’s clock back and playing a show devoted to that era and that album.

The double punch of Contract on a World Love Jam and Brothers Gonna Work It Out kick off proceedings, just as they did on vinyl all that time ago. Chuck D and Flavor Flav are still their sprightly selves and two of the original S1Ws are patrolling the stage in military lockstep. But although the most visible elements of Public Enemy are still in full effect in 2010, aurally there’s something very wrong.

The screaming Prince sample on Brothers Gonna Work It Out is unheard. Chuck D’s deep, resonant voice is muffled. The live guitar, bass and drums — what seems like a great idea — sound like they’re competing rather than melding with the production. The mix is a wash of indistinctness, the muck clearing only when the sound is pared back considerably. For a band whose success was founded on its huge wall of interlocking sampled sound, the murky mush is criminal.

Be that as it may, Public Enemy have a back catalogue that kills. She Watch Channel Zero and Bring the Noise are but two classics they mine from It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, the latter song ending with an a capella reprise of the exquisite rhymes of its first verse that has the exultant crowd roaring happily that “once again back is the incredible” Public Enemy. Flavor Flav’s hijinx are as effervescent as they’ve ever been, Cold Lampin’ With Flavor and 911 is a Joke highlights of the night. Nevertheless, while Flav’s ebullience are pitch perfect for those signature tunes of his, Chuck D’s equally high spirited if not quite as humorous approach to the show renders anaemic much of Public Enemy’s more aggressive material. Public Enemy are too friendly, too jovial, too comfortable. Chuck D once was hip hop’s finest fire-and-brimstone preacher, but the rage has dissipated, and with it too has much of Public Enemy’s righteous, furious edge.

Ronnie Wood’s I Feel Like Playing

7.5 out of 10: A solid release from an elder statesman of the rocking world

Ronnie Wood, the perpetual sideman, has nonetheless already released six solo records to go along with his latest, I Feel Like Playing, which yet again demonstrates what seems so unlikely: Ronnie can actually sing. Sure, there aren’t any lilting melodies to trip him up, but Wood’s gnarled, rich voice feels like aged scotch whiskey, the warm, woody spirit this album of bluesy rock and roll evokes from beginning to end.

Wood wrote ten of the eleven songs on I Feel Like Playing, and no doubt his writing method differs little to how teenagers in garage bands the world over have always written songs: stick down a riff, get the rest of the band to follow and mash together some words. There’s a big difference in Wood’s case, however: he’s been churning out riffs since time immemorial, and the hamfisted lyrics on songs such as Lucky Man, Fancy Pants and 100% go by unnoticed next to the sound of rock and roll so professionally distilled.

Although I Feel Like Playing features a whole bunch of musicians who, ironically, end up as Wood’s sidemen, you’d never know that the likes of Flea, Eddie Vedder, Billy Gibbons, Kris Kristofferson and Bobby Womack are playing. Except for a bunch of stylish Slash solos on about half the tracks and the luscious Bernard Fowler vocals on the duets I Gotta See and the stand-out Forever, this is a Wood record through and through — and all the better for it.

I Feel Like Playing is a million miles from the edgy new thing; it’s stodgy, square and solid, the kind of thing you can rely on. That’s almost an insult in the world of rock and roll, but not everything needs to be revolutionary, and not everything is nearly as good as this solid Ronnie Wood release.

Nietzsche on Genius

Human, All to Human is considered one of Nietzsche’s lesser works, and I would tend to agree. But in one particular area he seems particularly prescient: that masterful work is more the result of blood, sweat and tears than native genius.

Basically, Nietzsche’s Human, All to Human beat Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers to the punch by over a hundred years. They even both agree that about ten years of hard work is required to attain that level of mastery we define as genius in a particular field.

Here’s Nietzsche in his own words:

163. The seriousness of craft.

Speak not of gifts, or innate talents! One can name all kinds of great men who were not very gifted. But they acquired greatness, became “geniuses” (as we say) through qualities about whose lack no man aware of them likes to speak; all of them had that diligent seriousness of a craftsman, learning first to form the parts perfectly before daring to make a great whole. They took time for it, because they had more pleasure in making well something little or less important, than in the effect of a dazzling whole. For example, it is easy to prescribe how to become a good short story writer, but to do it presumes qualities which are habitually overlooked when one says, “I don’t have enough talent.” Let a person make a hundred or more drafts of short stories, none longer than two pages, yet each of a clarity such that each word in it is necessary; let him write down anecdotes each day until he learns how to find their most concise, effective form; let him be inexhaustible in collecting and depicting human types and characters; let him above all tell tales as often as possible, and listen to tales, with a sharp eye and ear for the effect on the audience; let him travel like a landscape painter and costume designer; let him excerpt from the various sciences everything that has an artistic effect if well portrayed; finally, let him contemplate the motives for human behavior, and disdain no hint of information about them, and be a collector of such things day and night. In this diverse exercise, let some ten years pass: and then what is created in the workshop may also be brought before the public eye.

But how do most people do it? They begin not with the part but with the whole. Perhaps they once make a good choice, excite notice, and thereafter make ever worse choices for good, natural reasons.

Sometimes when reason and character are lacking to plan this kind of artistic life, fate and necessity take over their function, and lead the future master step by step through all the requisites of his craft.

And interestingly, it would seem that Nietzsche developed this line of reasoning to spite Wagner, his erstwhile friend, who believed very much in his own native genius.