Posts Tagged ‘John Updike’

Robert Alter on translating the Old Testament, Hebrew, and “the greatest poetry in the whole ancient world”

Sunday, March 13th, 2016
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Translator extraordinaire

I’ve long been a fan of Robert Alter’s Old Testament translations, ever since the 1990s. Frank Kermode is another apparently. He concluded in the New York Review of Books: “I cannot say that this is the best translation since 1611, only because I have not read the great mass of those that intervened; but I can say that in my opinion it is certainly a great translation, to be honorably compared with the admired Homeric translations of recent years.” John Updike waxed lyrical in The New Yorker:  “The ferocity of this tribal God measures the ferocity of tribal existence. … The miracle of the Pentateuch is that, unlike the numerous other tribes and gods that vitally figure in it, the Jews and their God have survived three millennia. The Israelites’ effort to claim and maintain their Promised Land fuels a contemporary crisis and occupies today’s painful headlines.” 

I was pleased that the Chicago Manual of Style blog “Shop Talk” recently interviewed the Berkeley translator. A few excerpts:


genesisCMOS:
 You have now translated a large portion of the Hebrew Bible into English. What motivated you to take on such an enormous, high-profile, high-stakes project?

RA: I have to say that it really sneaked up on me. That is, I was dissatisfied with the existing translations, and I thought, well, I’ll give a whirl at translating Genesis and see if I can do something about the English that would make it exhibit more of the stylistic power of the Hebrew. I was rather unsure that this was going to work, but I figured it was worth a try. And it turned out to work better than I thought it would. Not that I ever think that my translations are perfect, but it got some very good responses: a rave review in the New York Times and that kind of thing. So I thought I’d do one other book that I like, and I translated Samuel, basically the David story, and that also got a nice response, and then I was kind of talked into doing the Five Books of Moses by my editor at Norton. And then because it was perceived as a fundamental building block of the whole Bible, it got reviewed all over in places I’d never been reviewed before like the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. So there I was. Up until a certain point I wasn’t thinking of doing the whole Bible, but then I looked back and said, “Hey, I’ve done about two-thirds of it, so I might as well go on and do the whole.”

songofsongsCMOS: Are there passages in your translations that you’re particularly proud of?

RA: I’m quite happy with my translation of Job, which I think is among the greatest poetry in the whole ancient world. I’m really happy with the way Job’s death-wish poem turned out, and I feel good about my rendering of the Voice from the Whirlwind. The very beginning of Genesis—which is the grand, stately prose of the writer identified by scholars as the “priestly writer”—I think that I’ve gotten something of the rhythms of that writer. And I think Jonathan Lear mentioned in his introduction the sound-play of the Hebrew phrase for chaos: Tohu Wabohu. And I’m happy with the alliteration of welter and waste.

CMOS: Are there any other translators whom you particularly admire? Do you ever find yourself emulating aspects of their work?

israelRA: The only English translation I honestly admire is the King James Version. You can’t directly adopt it, because the language is four hundred years old and there are lots of errors in understanding the Hebrew in the King James Version. Sometimes the seventeenth-century translators did wonderful things with the Hebrew because they had a great sense of the English language, but there are lots of lines that are clunky, where they seem not to have paid attention to how the Hebrew sounds. So there’s my qualified admiration of the King James Version. The various modern English versions I really don’t like at all. I think they have a very shaky sense of English style, and they don’t pay attention to things they ought to in the Hebrew. My one exception to this sweeping objection is that sometimes on the level of a single word, if I’m struggling to find a good English equivalent, I’ll look at a couple of other translations and say—oh, that word works better than the word I had come up with. (I never look at the other translations until I finish a draft of a section.) But that’s not exactly emulation.

Read the whole thing here.

Nitpick, lightning.

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012
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April 12: I said it was bad, and I meant it.

A gentle reader took issue with last month’s post on Library Porn: fabulous places for booklovers everywhere:  “I relished the Rabelaisian (would that it were Menippean and broke forth into verse!) satire in Ex vero portu librorum pars quattuor de bibliotheca erotica (From the Veritable Haven of Books, Installment the Fourth Concerning the Pornographic Library).”

But then he cut loose:

Placing weather first and foremost is a sine qua non of wretched writing, but rather than opening with “It is a rainy night with thunder and lightning,” introduce the porn theme immediately with learned literary allusion to Bulwer-Lytton and library classification systems: “It was a dark and STEAMY night in the PA-PN stacks.”

But is Edward Bulwer-Lytton‘s “It was a dark and stormy night” really the sine qua non of wretched writing? (We’ve written about the Bulwer-Lytton Bad Writing contest here and here.)  Coincidentally, about the same time I was scribbling the sentence-in-question, blogger Levi Stahl over at I’ve Been Reading Lately was wondering:

Like nearly everyone alive today, I’ve not read Bulwer-Lytton. I’ve long thought, however, that he didn’t deserve his infamy–at least not if the sole piece of evidence against him is, as it usually seems to be, the above sentence. Oh, it’s not a good sentence. Yes, it would likely have made Nabokov or Updike shudder. But is it really that bad? If we can pretend briefly that the opening phrase hasn’t yet become a cliché, then the ground for complaint are two:

Crummy father.

1 The unnecessary, interpolated elaboration of the gusts of wind
2 The poorly positioned parenthetical that locates the book in London.

Both are clumsy and could easily have been improved by the casting over them of even a weak editorial eye–but is the sentence as it now stands all that bad? Worse than what our best-selling, low-grade thriller writers turn out on page after page? Worse than James Frey‘s Hemingway-cum-Fight Club masochismo? I just don’t see it.

When did the opening line of the 1830 novel Paul Clifford become a cliché?  A Google’s Ngram viewer is inconclusive. The phrase was repeated a lot in the first three decades, but then faded over the subsequent century.

Stahl is convinced that Bulwer-Lytton has been damned for the wrong sin? Has he been consigned to the wrong circle of literary hell?

According to John Sutherland‘s Lives of the Novelists (Yale University Press) he was the world’s worst husband and father.  He abandoned his daughter to die of typhus in a London lodging house.  His wife eventually accused him of hiring an assassin to kill her. What’s a little rain compared with that?

Oh read it for yourself, over here.  Meanwhile, here’s the blogger’s Ngram:

 

 

 

V.S. Naipaul opens mouth, changes feet: A round-up of literary kerfuffles, and a soupçon of misogyny

Saturday, June 4th, 2011
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Friends again. (Photo: Daniel Mordzinski)

V.S. Naipaul has offered definitive proof against the adage that to be a good writer, you must be a good reader.

First, the happy news:  Naipaul has ended his 30-year feud-over-nothing with Paul Theroux.  The root of the matter seems to be that Naipaul thought Theroux was horsing around with his first wife.  From the Telegraph:

A furious Naipaul retaliated by trying to sell one of Theroux’s books, inscribed to Naipaul and his first wife, online for $1,500. When Theroux found out, Naipaul told him to “take it on the chin and move on.” Naturally Theroux didn’t, and went on to write a book, Sir Vidia’s Shadow, in which he’s said to detail Naipaul’s “elevated crankishness”. The fracas went on until last weekend when – in what is surely Hay [Festival]’s biggest literary coup to date – they made up, “corralled” into a handshake by Ian McEwan in the festival’s green room.

Perhaps Hallmark ought to create a card for the occasion.  The forgettable feud and its resolution is recounted here and here.

The episode has brought to mind other great literary feud of our times, recounted here:

We all love a good literary feud, not least because they are much more amusing and erudite than a spat between, say, a footballer and a reality television star. Of Tom Wolfe’s novel A Man in Full, Norman Mailer wrote: “Reading the work can even be said to resemble the act of making love to a 300lb woman. Once she gets on top, it’s over. Fall in love, or be asphyxiated.” Wolfe retaliated in his essay “My Three Stooges,” casting Mailer alongside his other critics, John Irving and John Updike.

Mad men: Mailer, Gore

Revenge can take many forms. Norman Mailer punched Gore Vidal. “As usual, words failed him,” said Vidal. Evelyn Waugh used the name of his tutor at Oxford for such diverse characters as a quack doctor and a psychopathic burglar. Salman Rushdie and John le Carré had a row over who had suffered more at the hands of religious fanatics, which ended in Rushdie calling le Carré “an illiterate pompous ass”.

Rushdie not above the fray (Photo: Mae Ryan)

In 2006, Salman Rushdie also fell out with John Updike after the latter panned Shalimar the Clown, in particular Rushdie’s choice of names. “A name is just a name,” Rushdie retorted. “Somewhere in Las Vegas, there’s probably a male prostitute called John Updike.” The same year Bevis Hillier duped A.N. Wilson, the writer of a rival biography of John Betjeman, into publishing a spoof love letter; the first letter of each sentence spelt out: “A N Wilson is a —-.”

Which all goes to show that maturity or character, also, isn’t a prerequisite for being a writer, either.

But in the Telegraph here you can also read about the feuds between Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman (that one will not be resolved; the principals are dead) and Harold Bloom and J.K. Rowling.

And I thought the Poles were bad with their acrimonious literary feuds – I’ve recounted the one between Czeslaw Milosz and Zbigniew Herbert here, in “The Worst Dinner Party Ever.”

Naipaul must be anxious to promote himself, because he made these cranky comments to the press.  From the Guardian:

In an interview at the Royal Geographic Society on Tuesday about his career, Naipaul, who has been described as the “greatest living writer of English prose”, was asked if he considered any woman writer his literary match. He replied: “I don’t think so.” Of [Jane] Austen he said he “couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world”.

Queen of literary mathematics

He felt that women writers were “quite different”. He said: “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me.”

The author, who was born in Trinidad, said this was because of women’s “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world”. “And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too,” he said.

He added: “My publisher, who was so good as a taster and editor, when she became a writer, lo and behold, it was all this feminine tosh. I don’t mean this in any unkind way.”

Of course that dropped the cat among the pigeons.  Why?  Why would one expect Sir Vidia to say something sensible on the subject?  He’s obviously not a careful reader of Austen.

Oh yeah?

As for women’s “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world,” I have only two words to say:  Simone Weil.

Jennifer Egan took the bait, however, and made these comments on the kerfuffle to the Wall Street Journal:

“He is such a kook. It makes me laugh because he sounds like such a cranky old man. It’s the classic case of how prejudice works – you feel like you see it confirmed all over the world but the prejudice is tainting your perception everywhere you look.”

“I would put money on the fact that he has not read Jane Austen in 10 years. She’s the most cool, mathematical writer to come along, male or female. It’s a word no one who’s familiar with her work would call her. The nature of the comments read as so silly that it’s hard to see it spurring a gigantic turmoil. They’re not remarks that lead to a deeply-engaged conversation because they’re just so easily dismissible, largely because of what he says about Austen. He raises questions about his authority by calling her sentimental. Only a person with an idea of what Austen is — and not actual familiarity with her work – would say that. She’s not a melodramatic writer.”

Meanwhile, the Guardian has published “The Naipaul Test:  Can You Tell an Author’s Sex?” – it’s here.

Naipaul is said to be a great writer (I haven’t read him, so I’m taking that on authority), but a crappy human being.  So why do we take any of his opinions seriously?

If you’ve a taste for this sort of thing, Vidal and Mailer wrangle on fuzzy clip from The Dick Cavett Show below – journalist Janet Flanner takes the better part.  


se più avvien che fortuna t’accoglia
dove sien genti in simigliante piato:

ché voler ciò udire è bassa voglia.