You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Le Ton Beau De Marot

Douglas R. Hofstadter's Le Ton Beau De Marot is an exploration of the nature and relationship of different languages and their translation. Hofstadter is a great student of languages, being fluent in French and having studied Italian, German, Polish, and others. In this book he looks at the art of translation from different angles.

The book revolves around different translations of Clément Marot's poem "A une Da-moyselle malade". The author sent out a request for people to translate the poem into English, and he got a lot of varied responses. Some people tried to imitate the tone of the original, but others created translations in different styles. One of the central choices is whether to imitate the original's elements: three syllables per line, twenty-eight lines, rhyming couples, with the semantic lines out of sync with the rhyming. The core question is: how much of a translation can each poem be if it does not include these elements? When does it become a poem "inspired by" the original?

This is tied to Hofstadter's concept of "media". A translation between different languages is considered more complete if it carries the same media as the original--the same style, meter, rhyming scheme. How much of the poem (or novel or story) is in the semantics, and how much is in the form? It's also possible to translate a work into a different media in the same language.

Does the English word "door" mean the same as the French word "porte"? They have the same definition but different connotations. How is it possible to translate Dante's Divine Comedy? The poem has a unique rhyming scheme that is difficult to translate outside of Italian. Different translators have chosen different paths, with various success.

One of the points is how different languages translate things like people's names and place names. The explorer we know as Christopher Columbus is properly known as Cristoforo Colombo. Yet we don't think of Johann Sebastian Bach instead of John Sebastian Bach. When a work is translated, is the culture also translated with it? Hofstadter complains about reading a work translated from Chinese into English with modern English colloquialisms. Usually when we read a work from another language we want to get a feel for the original culture as well as the original language. Hofstadter makes an exception for his own book, Godel, Escher, Bach, since the intention of many of the passages is to illustrate an abstract point, not express a particular scene.

I was fascinated by the different takes on translation he comes up with. He discusses the translation of a work without e's from French into English. He makes a good case that the translation would be imperfect if it did not respect the constraints of the original. What would be the point? Sometimes, semantics is tied to form, especially in specialized forms like poetry. Palindromes are so much a part of their language that they are impossible to translate with the full meaning. Hofstadter comes down squarely on the side of form, and it's hard to disagree with him.

I enjoyed the linguistic wordplay throughout the book. The text is full of examples of works that are difficult or impossible to translate. He also manages to illustrate how a work is tied to its culture, which must be taken into account for any translation. There are many dimensions to language and translations. For me, as a lover of language, it is a great book. Others might find parts of it tedious, but for me it was a lot of fun. A

Thursday, July 24, 2008

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

This is a book that fell into my hands by chance when a friend handed it to me. In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick is an historical account of the whaleship Essex, which in 1820 was attacked and sunk by a whale.

The story starts in Nantucket, where the Essex is getting ready to sail to the Pacific Ocean under her new captain, George Pollard, Jr. It is Pollard's first sail as captain, after serving as first mate on the ship. Owen Chase, one of the boatsteerers, takes the position of first mate. Also on the ship is Pollard's young cousin, Owen Coffin, and a fourteen-year-old cabin boy, Thomas Nickerson.

The voyage starts off poorly with bad weather and the loss of a whaleboat. They do not spot a whale until the south Atlantic. With their luck still bad, they enter an area of the Pacific called the Offshore Ground, a region east of the Galapagos known to be full of whales.

While two of the boats are chasing down whales, an giant old bull hits the ship. While Chase and others try to figure out what to do, the whale hits the ship again and the ship starts to sink. By the time the whaleboats return, the ship is nearly all under water. The men are devastated. They gather water and what little food they can salvage, as well as some navigation tools.

Here they make a momentous decision. Instead of sailing southwest to Tahiti or French Polynesia, they decide to sail to South America, two thousand miles to the east against prevailing winds. They are fearful of cannibals in the islands of the South Pacific, so choose the longer trip despite having low supplies. Before they run out of food, though nearly out of water, they reach Henderson Island, a small outcropping of coral. They manage to find a small spring and quench their awful thirst and get a little food. But when they leave, three of the men are too weak for the trip and decide to stay on the island.

The three boats continue eastward, but due to the lack of food they men start dying. The boat with Chase in charge gets separated from the other two boats. Eventually the survivors decide that they must eat their dying comrades. In the book's worst moment, the men in Pollard's boat decide to draw straws for which one to eat before they are all too weak to be saved, and Pollard's cousin Owen gets the short straw.

Pollard's boat and Chase's boat are eventually picked up by ships on the South America coast. The men make good recoveries. In a miracle, the three men on Henderson Island are rescued, despite the survivors believing they were on a different island to the east. The men make it back home and receive a warm welcome from the people of Nantucket.

This story was gritty and real, though it had its happy moments. There are so many elements that went into the narrative, like the men's background, the life on the ship, and the decisions and events that led to the conclusion. If they had decided to go to Tahiti, they might have all survived. The long voyage in the boat--94 days in an open boat--is a harrowing tale and must have been gruesome to live through. No wonder the story of the Essex was so well known in the 19th century. I also enjoyed the stories of the men's homecoming and how they lived their lives after the ordeal. This story is a great one to read for any fan of naval history. A-

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Kite Runner

Wow, it's been a month since I blogged, but I've been reading all along. I've finished three books since then, so here goes.

[Note: I debated whether to include a more complete plot summary with spoilers or just a brief outline. But I felt to discuss the book completely required touching on certain important plot points. So, spoilers below.]

Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner is a personal story entwined with the story of Afghanistan and its turmoil over the last forty years. Amir is the only son of a wealthy merchant in Kabul, and his best friend is Hassan, the son of his father's servant and a Hazara, a minority class. Both mothers are no longer part of the family. Amir resents the affection that his father Baba gives to Hassan. He sees in Hassan all the things he wish he could be. Hassan is more generous of spirit, but Amir often uses his position to lord over his friend. He will read to Amir, who is illiterate, but sometimes will make fun of him or make up stories instead of reading the actual words.

When Amir witnesses Hassan getting a terrible beating by the local bully, he does not help him or even acknowledge the event. In his guilt, he seeks to get Hassan out of his life, he frames Hassan for theft to get him to leave. Hassan admits to the theft and Baba forgives him, but Hassan's father decides they should leave anyway.

Years later, Baba uses his wealth and influence to escape from Afghanistan into the United States. There Baba lives until he dies of cancer, just after he helps Amir get married. After years of trying to have a child, Amir and his wife give up. Then he gets a call from Pakistan from his father's friend who is dying. When he goes to Pakistan, he learns that Hassan and his wife have been killed and their son Sohrab is missing. Moreover, he learns that Baba was actually Hassan's son, Amir's half brother. With this news, Amir makes the painful decision to go to Kabul and face the terrors of the Taliban to retrieve his nephew.

Amir finds Sohrab with the same bully who beat up Hassan years earlier. Amir manages to put aside his fear and face the man down, though he nearly gets killed before Sohrab uses his sling to put the bully's eye out. They manage to escape and get to Pakistan, where they face an even greater challenge: getting the boy adopted legally so that Amir can take him to America with him. When Amir suggests to him that he stay in an orphanage for a while to formalize things, Sohrab nearly kills himself in the bathtub. But he recovers slowly in the hospital, and Amir takes him home thanks to the help of his wife's phone calls.

The story is beautiful on many levels. It is the story of a nation tearing itself apart. It is the story of a young man growing up with fear and resentment that he must overcome. It is the story of a father and his sons, and the father's eventual redemption thanks to his son's actions. Going to save Sohrab is Amir's big decision to make up both for the way he treated Hassan and how his father's actions led to Hassan's existence as a low class servant instead of a member of the family.

I think it's telling that the mothers in the story do not play a part. Without them, there is no alternative to Baba's harshness, no loving figure to help keep Amir and Hassan together as friends. Also, the family's wealth helps them but cannot keep them safe in a country that is falling apart. Their status becomes a problem, as Amir finds out when he returns and his driver looks down on him as a rich brat only returning to get money.

It is also telling that Amir feels that he got what he deserved when he faced the bully and nearly died. He feels that Sohrab's suffering was due in part to his ugly treatment of Hassan. He has quite an epiphany when he sees Baba's private treatment of Hassan as they way he made up for the public support he could not give. Suddenly his whole life made more sense. In a way, he turned into a new person, and the actions he took after that show his new nature. It shows the power of secrets to harm and heal.

Some of the book is painful to get through, such as Amir's treatment of Hassan, the devoted friend, and the return to Afghanistan. But in the end it somehow seems worth it. When Sohrab and Amir go to the park and watch kites, it ties them to the same two boys who had flown kites together years ago. A