Perils of translation

Pomegranate

I came across this translation of a poem:

YOUR FACE AND THE TOLLING OF BELLS; by Ayten Mutlu

it was just like spring to laugh with you
and to touch the chimes of your face
lecherous and tranquil like a naked pomegranate

your face was the intimations of forenoon

at the meeting place of autumn
in the closed seas of your face
the birds flew like poisoned arrows
the summer blindfolded at the bottom of a wall

what is left of your face, a rusty shadow
the receding forest, the flower in mourning
pieces of broken glass the colours of spring

how do birds get accustomed to losing a sky?

ah, I’m late in getting to know the rain
like a naked pomegranate I am defeated and offended
where like the deteriorating autumn your old face
vanished with the tolling of the bells
(Translated by Suat Karantay)
(The Turkish PEN, 1995)

You can translate a poem but can you translate the meaning?  From this poem I will take one symbol, the “naked pomegranate”.  Coming from Ireland we have no symbology associated with this fruit.  It made an appearance every year at halloween as an exotic,  something out of the ordinary.  Most Dubliners called it a “Wine Apple”.

In more recent years the pomegranate has been more widely available and has crept in to a more regular role as an ingredient or a garnish in cookbooks.  But it has no deep meaning for us.

If you speak to people educated in the classics they may remember the tale of Persephone, daughter of Demeter, who was whipped off by Hades to his kingdom where she ate six seeds of a Pomegranate and hence we are condemned to 6 months of growth and 6 of death and winter was born.  This Greek tale begins to hint at a deeper symbology to the fruit.  The fact that the seeds represent a calendar, a marker of time or age.

The symbology of the pomegranate in the middle east runs very deep.  Because the tree is evergreen it was used as a symbol of immortality by the ancient Persians.  I can imagine middle eastern children playing a game of counting the seeds of a fruit to represent the years of their life.

Iranian mythology celebrates the ancient hero Esfandiyar who is easily a match for the DC Comics or Marvel superheros.  In one tale he eats a pomegranate and gains super strength like an ancient version of Popeye with his spinach.

The pomegranate appears in ancient Jewish architecture as a symbol of fertility and prosperity.  The fruit was one of the seven species brought by the 12 spies to Moses as proof of the fertility of Canaan.  It has been used as a teaching tool by Rabbis who say the fruit contains the number of mitzvot, 613.

Islam adopted the Jewish symbology of fertility.  Muslims consider the tree one of the four holy fruits along with dates, figs and olives and they depict it in representations of the garden of Eden.

In modern day Turkey as part of new year celebrations a pomegranate is cracked on the floor in a blessing ritual for prosperity in the coming year.  At wedding a bride may be asked to throw a whole pomegranate on the floor and will bear as many children as the seeds that fall out.

The Prophet Mohammed told his wives to eat the fruit so they would bear beautiful children.  From this hadith arises the notion that the fruit is a symbol of beauty.

So when the Ayten Mutlu speaks of a naked pomegranate in her poem she brings a rich weight of symbology of the fruit as a marker for beauty and for the hope of a new beginning and the disappointment of the declining of a life in the winter of years.

Unless you come from the Middle East, or do a lot of research into symbology, it is very difficult to grasp the meaning the poet is trying to convey.  Language and culture erect barriers that are very difficult for the translator to surmount.  Google can translate words, it takes a poet to translate meaning.

Ayten Mutlu is a Turkish Academic, Poet, Writer and Women’s rights activist.  Born this day in 1952.

Advertisements

Miura Anjin

Fluyt

A 16th Century Dutch Fluyt

Born on this day in 1564 William Adams was the first Englishman to reach Japan, and one of the few westerners to become a Samurai.   Immortalised by James Clavell in the novel (and TV series) Shogun.

When his father died he was aged only 12 and was apprenticed to a shipyard, where he learned the skills that later allowed him to build Western Style ships for the Shogun of Japan.

He served in the Royal Navy in the war against Spain, as Master of a supply ship during the fight against the Armada.  In 1598 he joined a flotilla of five Dutch merchant ships on a trading exploration voyage to Japan.  They predated the foundation of the Dutch East India Company.

Adams was hired as “Pilot Major” of the fleet, a navigator.

They were hunted and harried by both Spanish and Portuguese in their voyage, who wanted to protect their monopolies in Africa, South America and the Pacific Islands.

One ship of the five made it to Japan, carrying only 23 men who were sick or dying.  Of these only 9 recovered their health.

Portuguese Jesuits, already in Japan tried to have the Dutch and English Protestant sailors killed as pirates.  The Japanese had other plans for them.  They invited the Dutch to open a trading post at Nagasaki in competition with the Portuguese.

Adams built a fleet of Western Ships for the Shogun which allowed the Japanese to expand their trade in Asia.  While Adams was honoured with Samurai status and given a large farm complete with the retainers to maintain it, he was never permitted to return home.

He married a Japanese girl and had a second family, his original wife and children being in England.  As a Samurai he was “reborn” and given the name Miura Anjin.

How to choose a college course.

College Choice

As one cohort of students begin their first year in college a whole new batch are embarking on their final school year.  Somewhere along the way this year they need to fill in a form to apply for college places.

In Ireland the university and college applications process is centralised by a government body called the Central Applications Office.  So you will hear Irish kids talk about their CAO form and their CAO choices.

For the vast majority of Irish kids the system is entirely meritocratic.   It is a points based scoring system.  If you get sufficient points in your exams you get the place in college.  There is no opportunity to sway the opinions of a “selection” committee with a jazzy video or a fat donation.  There are some sensible exceptions.  Places for art schools generally involve an additional points allocation based on your portfolio.  Music schools award separate points for musical ability, awards and prizes.  But for the most part the selection is based on the results of your secondary school leaving certificate exam.

So in Ireland, when the Leaving Certificate results come out you will hear conversations about the “points race” and the “CAO Points”.  For reasons of social etiquette it is gauche to ask what points someone (or their child) received.  It is OK to ask “did they get their first choice?”  A high performing kid might get 525 points and be disappointed because they needed 550 to get into Law.  Another kid might be over the moon because they got the 300 points they needed to secure their first choice course.

These days it is possible to recover from a terrible leaving certificate and negotiate alternate routes into third level education.  But the leaving certificate remains the simplest and fastest way to get from school through college and into the workplace.

Hence the Venn diagram at the top of the article.  Confucius is supposed to have said that if you do something you love you will never work a day in your life.  It’s a nice idea and it is certainly wonderful to have a job you love.  It makes your days fly by and every morning is an engaging challenge rather than a depressing trudge to a workplace that seems like a prison.  The modern equivalent of the “dark satanic mills”.

Putting an old head on 18 year old shoulders is a challenge.  When I see a college course in data science I see a future of possibility, interesting work and excellent pay.  My 18 year old sees a lot of boring stuff on the syllabus.

Which brings me to the TV jobs farce.  When you look at TV what are the exciting jobs?

Lots of TV shows glamorise a law career.  Those sharp clothes, beautiful people, shiny courtrooms, exciting cases, sexy colleagues.  It all seems such a rush.  For me “Better Call Saul” is probably a fairer view of a law career.  There is glamour and excitement, for the senior partners.  For the grunts there are long days of work that is often boring and tedious, with risk of severe criticism for any mistake.

Law is categorised (Freakonomics:  Dubner & Levitt) as a career that is structured as a tournament.  You have a very wide entry base and a very narrow apex of the pyramid.  Those at the top, the partners, reap huge rewards from the work of their teams.  It is a microcosm of the capitalist system.  You get rich by taking the value of the work of your low paid staff.  Careers structured as tournaments are great if you win.  Not so great if you lose.  Either you spend your life being paid less than you are worth, or you depart from the competition to accept a more stable position, having given your best years to a senior partner.

Big 4 accounting firms are similarly structured as tournaments.  Kids need to be aware that if they enter that race they need to be up for the long haul.  20 years of 50 to 60 hour weeks, breakfast and lunch at the computer, working weekends, cancelling holidays, having kids who think the mobile phone is called “daddy”.

TV is also pretty good at glamorising jobs that do not pay.  TV is filled with interior design shows.  It seems there must be a booming career for interior designers.  But riddle me this, the last time you did a home makeover, how much did you spend with your interior designer?  What?  You didn’t use one?  Why ever not?  Oh, they cost too much.

So you have a handful of well connected interior designers who work for millionaires, who are probably the sons or daughters of millionaires themselves.  You then have a handful of designers who are connected to the right industries, such as hotels or restaurants, but they seem to get ALL the work in those industries.  Each year hundreds of young hopefuls enter college to study interior design and end up working in the restaurant business serving food instead of designing rooms.

My advice to young people selecting a college place, for what it is worth, is this.

  1. Use the Venn diagram above.  Be honest with yourself.  If you get 50% in Maths and you really love maths, but you get 80% in Spanish, you are better at Spanish, even if you hate it.
  2. Add up your points from the last set of exams you sat.  That is your base working assumption.  Unless you plan to really, really work really really hard, you are looking at a good approximation of your final marks.  Look at the courses in that points range.
  3. Search job sites, and the kind of job you would eventually like to have.  Look at the qualifications they specify as mandatory requirements.
  4. If you are selecting a career speak to some people who actually work in that career.  Don’t fall for the corporate literature or what you see on TV.  For instance a recent survey found that most US college students in nuclear physics learned most of what they knew about the subject from watching the Simpsons.
  5. Keep your options as open as you can early in your college life.  What I mean here is select the general rather than the specific.  If you have a choice of “General Science” or “Food science” go with the General and you will find that there are options to specialise all along the way.  If you go too specific too early it can be hard to back out if you hate it.
  6. Finally, don’t stress about it.  Most people end up working in a career that has little or nothing to do with their undergraduate college course.  Life takes you in some strange directions.  Whatever you do choose, stick with it.  Complete the course and get the degree.  Employers are impressed by people who finish what they start, not by people who found themselves on a beach in Thailand instead of sitting their finals.

 

 

The missing Menorah

Titus.png

On this day in AD 70 the siege of Jerusalem ended with the destruction of the Second Temple by Titus, son of Vespasian, at the head of a Roman army.

According to the historian Josephus the Menorah of the temple was taken as spoils of war and brought back to Rome.  It was carried in the Triumphal Procession of Vespasian and Titus and is recorded on the Arch of Titus.

Using the spoils taken from Jerusalem Vespasian constructed the Templum Pacis, the temple of peace in the Forum of Vespasian.  The Menorah was stored in the temple for hundreds of years until the sack of Rome by the Vandals in 455 AD.

The Vandals brought the Menorah back with them to their capital in Carthage, in the Roman African province, modern day Tunisia.

One hundred years later the Vandals had become soft from living on the fat of the land.  Their armies were no longer the terror of the western Mediterranean.  Emperor Justinian of the Eastern Roman Empire sent his favourite general, Belisarius, to retake Africa for Rome.  In 533 AD Belisarius defeated the armies of King Gelimer and his brothers.

According to the historian Procopius the Menorah was found amongst the treasures of the Vandals and was taken to Constantinople.  It was displayed in the Ovation given by Justinian to his victorious general.  Gelimer was prostrated before the Emperor, and was allowed to live out his life on a Roman estate.

According to Procopius Justinian gave the Menorah back to the Jews in Jerusalem.  On the one hand it is hard to believe that such an ardent Christian emperor would have given this treasure to people he regarded as little short of heretics.  On the other hand he may have looked at the fate of the Second Temple, Rome and Carthage and wondered if he really wanted to keep the Menorah in his capital.

Whatever the truth this is the end of the tale for the Menorah.  It is never seen again.  Some say it is hidden in the Vatican City and the Vandals never found it.  Others say it was looted from Jerusalem when the Persians sacked the city in 614 AD.  Some think it was in a ship that sank in the Tibur when the Vandals were leaving Rome and that it lies at the bottom of the sea outside Ostia.  Others think it was still in Jerusalem during the Crusades and was taken by the Knights Templar.  Whatever the truth it is a tempting theme for a “Da Vinci Code” style adventure, or a new quest for Indiana Jones.

Psalm III : by Allen Ginsberg
To God: to illuminate all men. Beginning with Skid Road.
Let Occidental and Washington be transformed into a higher place, the plaza of eternity.
Illuminate the welders in shipyards with the brilliance of their torches.
Let the crane operator lift up his arm for joy.
Let elevators creak and speak, ascending and descending in awe.
Let the mercy of the flower’s direction beckon in the eye.
Let the straight flower bespeak its purpose in straightness — to seek the light.
Let the crooked flower bespeak its purpose in crookedness — to seek the light.
Let the crookedness and straightness bespeak the light.
Let Puget Sound be a blast of light.
I feed on your Name like a cockroach on a crumb — this cockroach is holy.

 

Keys to the earth.

ships-1917

Ships by Lyonel Feininger (1917)

July 1st and half the year is down.  I sit here sweltering in a heatwave, condemned to inactivity by an injury to my ankle.  This year Ireland has become a sunburnt country.  Oh what I would give for a day on the sea, rolling over the waves beneath a full sail, air conditioned by spray and spume.

So instead I man my Mindship and head out across the oceans of imagination.  On my journey I found Dorothea Mackellar, a household name in Australia for the second stanza of her poem “My Country”.

I love a sunburnt country, 
A land of sweeping plains, 
Of ragged mountain ranges, 
Of droughts and flooding rains. 
I love her far horizons, 
I love her jewel-sea, 
Her beauty and her terror 
The wide brown land for me!

Today is her birthday, in the year 1858.  The title of today’s post is taken from another Mackellar poem below.  I love the notion that Ships are the keys to the earth.  That means that instead of being walls between nations the Seas and Oceans are doorways.

The Open Sea; by Dorothea Mackellar

From my window I can see,
where the sandhills dip,
one far glimpse of open sea.
Just a slender slip
curving like a crescent moon—
yet a greater prize
than the harbour garden-fair
spread beneath my eyes.

Just below me swings the bay,
sings a sunny tune,
but my heart is far away
out beyond the dune;
clearer far the sea-gulls’ cry
and the breakers’ roar,
than the little waves beneath
lapping on the shore.

For that strip of sapphire sea
set against the sky
far horizons means to me—
and the ships go by
framed between the empty sky
and the yellow sands,
while my freed thoughts follow them
out to other lands.

All its changes who can tell?
I have seen it shine
like a jewel polished well,
hard and clear and fine;
then soft lilac—and again
on another day
glimpsed it through a veil of rain,
shifting, drifting grey.

When the livid waters flee,
flinching from the storm,
from my window I can see,
standing safe and warm,
how the white foam tosses high
on the naked shore,
and the breakers’ thunder grows
to a battle-roar…

Far and far I look—Ten miles?
no, for yesterday
sure I saw the Blessed Isles
twenty worlds away.
my blue moon of open sea,
is it little worth?
at the least. it gives to me
keys of all the earth.

Through the lens of a master

Avedon

Born on this day in New York in 1923, Richard Avedon helped to set the standard for beauty in the Western World with his fashion shoots and his portraiture.  He grew up in a family where both his parents were involved in the fashion industry.  Avedon developed an interest in photography at an early age.

He believed photography captures the personality and soul of the individual.  It is his ability to project personality with his images that makes him so famous.

And it is not only the models, the politicians and the rockstars.  With his collection  “In the American West” he captured the spirit of those at the foot of the ladder in the USA of the 1980’s.  Faces tinged with sadness, despair, hopelessness.

American West.jpg

And sometimes he turned his camera onto the rich and famous and in their eyes he captured an image of the truth behind all the fame, the glitz and the glamour.  Those are the best.  They are like poems in the form of image capture.  Instead of a subject looking out at you from the page, showing off a dress or an image of something they wish to convey you are drawn into the photograph and you can see, deep down, the truth.

richard_avedon_marilyn

The Coyote Who Fasts

Nezahualcoyotl

When the Spanish conquered the New World they did a pretty thorough job of erasing anything good, positive or civilized from pre-Columbian American culture.  The goal was to say that Americans were savages, Spanish were Civilized Christians and the culture of the latter should erase the culture of the former.

From time to time it is possible to catch a glimpse of something else.  If you look very very carefully you can find traces of the rich tapestry and layered civilization that existed before Cortes arrived in Mexico.

Nezahualcoyotl (the coyote who fasts) was a philosopher king, poet and warrior who ruled about 50 years before the Spanish conquest.  His deeds and his poems were passed down through oral traditions.  When the native Indios learned to write they set down the history of Nezahualcoyotl on paper.

We get a picture of a wise and thoughtful king who would have been celebrated in any Western realm.  He ruled the Acolhua people from his capital of Texcoco.  One of his main preoccupations must have been to keep his people independent of the influence of the larger and more powerful Mexica.

As a child his father was killed by the powerful neighbouring Tepanecs, closely related to the Aztecs, who took control of Texcoco.  The young Nezah was taken to the great city of Tenochtitlan where he was educated by the Mexica, learing about their legal and administrative systems.

He worked over the years to build the alliances that put him at the head of an army of 100,000 troops.  On the battlefield he displayed strategic and tactical genius.  His victory resulted in a new ruling order in the Valley of Mexico, the triple alliance of Texcoco, Tenochtitlan and Tlacopan.

He then demonstrated that he was not just a warlord.  He made his capital into a center of justice, learning and creativity.  Spanish friars later described his capital as the “Athens of the West”.  He assembled a library, built fine water gardens and held a court of “wise men”.  He established strong legal systems and the rule of law.  In lake Texcoco he constructed a dyke to separate fresh water from brackish.  He constructed aqueducts to transport the fresh water to his capital.

He rejected the blood thirsty human sacrifice driven religions of his neighbours, which were such a powerful propaganda tool for Christian conversion by the Spanish.   Instead he constructed a temple which was an empty space for an unknown and unknowable God.  He did not permit any sacrifice and worshiped by the burning of incense.  It was clearly in the interests of Spanish propaganda to sideline the legacy of such an evolved philosopher.

The following poem gives a sense of the man.  Given that it was written 100 years after he lived, and that it was originally Nahuatl, translated to Spanish and subsequently translated to English I have taken some liberties with it.  For instance in the second verse I have assumed that the “Eagles stained red” were battle standards, things we know well from the Roman legions and Napoleonic French Corps.  Also in the same verse I say the Princes are scythed down.  The pre-Columbian Americans had no wheat or barley.  They had no scythes to harvest grain.  But I am trying to convey the metaphor for the battlefield as a harvest of lives and the metaphor of the scythe just works.

Finally today is given as his birthday so he gets onto my “Poets’ Calendar”. Born April 28th, 1402.  Read the poem below and take note that this was written around the time when Europe was so civilized that the English burned Joan of Arc at the stake for heresy.

 

A poem by Nezahualcoyotl (Edited heavily by Donal Clancy)

He makes the Eagles and Ocelots dance with him.
Come to see the Huexotzinca.
On the dais of the Eagle he shouts out,
loudly cries the Mexica.

On the battlefield we raise toasts with the divine liquor of war,
where the eagle standards are stained red,
where tigers howl,
where precious stones rain from fine armour,
where rich plumed headdresses wave like fields of grain,
where princes are scythed down.

There is nothing like death in war,
nothing like the flowery death
so precious to Him who gives life.
Far off I see it. My heart yearns for it!

And they called it Teotihulcan
because it was the place
where the lords were buried.

Thus they said:
‘When we die truly we die not because we will live,
we will rise, we will continue living, we will awaken,
this will make us happy.’

Thus the dead one was directed when he died:
‘Awaken, already the sky is rosy,
a new dawn has come,
hear the flame-coloured guans sing,
see the fire-coloured swallows and the butterflies fly.’

Thus the old ones said that who has died has become a god,
they said: ‘He has been made a god there’
meaning ‘He has died.’

Even jade is shattered,
even gold is crushed,
even quetzal plumes are torn.
One does not live forever on this earth.
We endure only for an instant.

Will flowers be carried to the Kingdom of Death?
Is it true that we are going, we are going?
Where are we going, ay, where are we going?
Will we be dead there or will we yet live?
Does one exist again?

Perhaps we will live a second time?
Thy heart knows; just once do we live.

Like a quetzal plume, a fragrant flower,
friendship sparkles.
Like heron plumes, it weaves itself into finery.
Our song is a bird calling out a melody,
how beautiful you make it sound!
Here, among flowers that enclose us,
among flowery boughs you are singing.

The earth is a grave and nothing escapes it,
nothing is so perfect that it does not descend to its tomb.
Rivers, streams, springs and waters flow,
but never return to their joyful beginnings.
Eagerly they rush onto the vast realms of the rain god.
As they widen their banks,
so they carve their own burial urn.

The bowels of the earth are filled with detritus,
once flesh and bone,
once animate bodies of men who sat thrones,
judged cases, presided in council,
commanded armies, conquered provinces,
possessed treasure, destroyed temples,
exulted in their pride, majesty, fortune, praise and power.
Vanished are these glories,
just as the fearful smoke vanishes that belches forth from
the infernal fires of Popocatepetl.
Nothing remains of them but the words of a poem.