Sunday, April 28, 2013

Shakespyeare: Day 118 - Kola Tea

I read The Merchant of Venice recently and came at last to a line that was the basis of a familiar joke growing up. Portia's impassioned speech, though it cannot sway Shylock to act with kindness of his own accord, is lovely and sweeping:

The quality of mercy is not strained; 
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven 
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest; 
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes: 
'T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes 
The throned monarch better than his crown: 
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power, 
The attribute to awe and majesty, 
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings; 
But mercy is above this sceptred sway; 
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings, 
It is an attribute to God himself; 
And earthly power doth then show likest God's 
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew, 
Though justice be thy plea, consider this, 
That, in the course of justice, none of us 
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy; 
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render 
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much 
To mitigate the justice of thy plea; 
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice 
Must needs give sentence 'gainst the merchant there.

My father told me this joke as a child, long before I ever read Shakespeare:

A man walks into a tea-shop while on holiday in Marseille and asks the waiter about the specials. He is told that the house serves a delicious green tea that is doubly special because it is brewed by koalas at the local zoo. Thinking this interesting and always up for sampling local delicacies while on vacation, he orders a some. When his order comes, he picks up the mug and takes a big gulp. 

Almost immediately, he begins coughing and spluttering. He spits the tea back into his mug and begins wiping his tongue with a napkin. The waiter hurries over and asks if everything is all right.

"Of course it's not alright." the man says. "You didn't bother to strain out this tea. I got about half-way through a sip and started choking on the leaves."

"But don't you know?" the waiter responds. "The koala tea of Marseille's not strained."

Saturday, April 27, 2013

A Saturday's Reading: Express Train - Gottfried Benn (trans. Michael Hofmann)

I keep coming back to Gottfried Benn in the last translation issue of Poetry. Michael Hofmann, who also translated a book of Durs Grünbein a friend sent me for Christmas, nails these poems, putting them in situ and making them contemporary at once. They make me ready for summer, swimming, heat.


Brown. Brandy-brown. Leaf-brown. Russet.
Malayan yellow.
Express train Berlin-Trelleborg and the Baltic resorts.

Flesh that went naked.
Tanned unto the mouth by the sea.
Deeply ripened for Grecian joys.
How far along the summer, in sickle-submissiveness!
Penultimate day of the ninth month!

Parched with stubble and the last corn-shocks.
Unfurlings, blood, fatigue,
deranged by dahlia-nearness.

Man-brown jumps on woman-brown.

A woman is something for a night.
And if you enjoyed it, then the next one too!
O! And then the return to one’s own care.
The not-speaking! The urges!

A woman is something with a smell.
Ineffable! To die for! Mignonette.
Shepherd, sea, and South.
On every declivity a bliss.

Woman-brown drapes itself on man-brown:

Hold me! I’m falling!
My neck is so weary.
Oh, the sweet last
fevered scent from the gardens.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Shakespyeare: Day 113 - Date Night?

I've been a bit of a slacker on my Shakespeare reading and watching over the last few months. I'm counting on a summer rebound (and finishing King John (bleh) should make me a bit more motivated). I'm planning on moving through some of the plays through film, especially ones I've read.

I stumbled across a new version of Much Ado About Nothing directed by Joss Whedon (Buddy, Firefly, The Avengers). It looks excellent.

I also plan to watch Caesar Must Die, 10 Things I Hate About You, Anonymous, The Tempest, and Enemy of Man. I don't like watching films alone and I could use some Shakespeare buddies. So my offer: if you'd like to join me in my Shakespyeare adventure (and perhaps appear in my blog), get in touch. Tickets and popcorn on me!

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Lenten Psalm Translation Contest: Winner

I set my psalm contest in the hopes that the challenge would provide a reflective space during Lent. And I think it did. Each of this year's entrants shows a deep engagement with and internationalization of the texts they were working with. They each showed poetic skill and personal vision. I'm grateful for the chance to have read them.

I want to write that I am pleased to announce the results and share with you Jen Hinst-White's winning psalm. And I am. But I am also humbled and grateful for that opportunity. There is a power and solemnity here (as well as a playfulness and music) that makes me hesitant to give a typical grandstand announcement.

Hinst-White's version of the twenty-fifth psalm, sent as part of an essay, is beautiful, powerful, and mysterious in an age that has ceased to take beauty, power, and mystery particularly seriously. It captures the tension of the psalms - how long, Lord? with You have been a shelter... Remove your scourge from me; I am overcome by the blow of your hand... with Oh my God, in you I trust. Her paper airplane motif is a perfect symbol of human weakness and the difficulty of the divine task of guiding loved, frail vessels. I wrote to her that only she and M.I.A. could pull off paper planes so well.

There's much more I could say about this poem but I won't. The poem will do itself justice much more than I can.

To the Pilot Bridegroom

      after Psalm 25

At your hangar door I toss me: a paper plane.
Bring me in from the rain—take me ragged, and keep me
            all clear of the suck of the great turbines
Collect me and read me, wee stormied scrap,
            and scrap those still scrapping us windward,
            O God—
Don’t forget. Fold aright, and write New on my wing—
make limp paper sing—here, then, the wait—
but love’s side-lying
Eight guides all your flights. Right? Remind me. Remind me.
Find me kindly. Not back in my writhing, wriggling loose of my binding—
            forgive me, still wild—
God of the Polestar. Pilot Bridegroom. Pied Guider.
He gathers scorched ribbons for the tails of his kites.
If he finds paper squares, he folds cranes for his skies,
and so newsprint shares airspace with stars.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

More on Google Translate

Yesterday I read Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct while waiting around for a carpet install. Bored and a bit addled from reading about deep structural rules, I texted my friend IKEA to to with me go weekend this want? I love the wording of her reply: Did google translate happen to this text?

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Google Translate - Micro-languages and Faroese

The auto-detect feature of Google Translate identifies Faroese as Icelandic. That's understandable, as Faroese and Icelandic share unique characters and are similar in syntax and vocabulary. The Icelandic translator is nonetheless ill-equipped for Faroese. It gets some words right, ignores others, and wildly misconstrues meanings of sentences and phrases. Oddly, every time I put a text in now it invariably spits out a variant of "one can achieve perfection" (as evidenced on my earlier blog).

Google Translate covers 65 languages with several betas in progress. In descending order, here are the bottom five languages by smallest number of speakers - Welsh (700,000), Maltese (400,000), Icelandic (320,000), Irish (130,000), and Esperanto (10,000). The last is an artificial language. I'll blog about that later, but I am of the opinion that an artificial language is no language at all as it lacks the depth and idiom of natural language. So I'm not counting it. The pattern of the above: European languages spoken in interesting places, all of them islands. Faroese (60,000) deserves a place on the list.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Shakespyeare: Day 98 - Car Repair

I took a brief hiatus from reading King John over my spring break, focusing instead on writing lectures for the  University of Michigan and Cornerstone. Still, Shakespeare was there when I needed him. The bulky heft of the complete works depressed the accelerator, holding the throttle body open for cleaning.

Sigh No More