Roving thoughts and provocations

Listening for the Jabberwock

Tim Parks

Are translated texts essentially different from texts in their original form? One of the arguments I have put forward is that there is a natural tendency towards, rhythm, alliteration, and assonance when one writes even the most ordinary prose, and that editing to conform to the linguistic conventions of a different culture can interfere with this. The translator gives priority to the semantic sense, but that sense was also partly guided in the original by what one might call the acoustic inertia of the language. All too often, the generous attempt to match the strategic use of poetic devices only alerts us to the strain the translator has to make to force the language into the desired sound patterns, patterns which in the original sounded easy and even natural.

Holding Education Hostage

Diane Ravitch

Grandville

For weeks, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the United Federation of Teachers have been battling over the issue of teacher evaluation. Governor Andrew Cuomo set a deadline for them to reach an agreement, but they failed to do so, potentially costing the city schools hundreds of millions of dollars. The state education commissioner, John King, jumped into the fray by threatening to withhold over a billion dollars in state and federal aid if there was no settlement between the parties. Now, Governor Cuomo says that he may intervene. What’s going on here? Why can’t the mayor and the union reach an agreement? Why does Commissioner King intend to punish the city’s children if the grown-ups don’t agree?

Wes Anderson’s Worlds

Michael Chabon

Focus Features

From Rushmore to Moonrise Kingdom (shamefully neglected by this year’s Academy voters), Wes Anderson’s films readily, even eagerly, concede the “miniature” quality of the worlds he builds, in their set design and camera-work, in their use of stop-motion, maps, and models. And yet these miniatures span continents and decades. They comprise crime, adultery, brutality, suicide, the death of a parent, the drowning of a child, moments of profound joy and transcendence.

Singing of Adultery and Apartheid

Darryl Pinckney

Johan Persson/BAM

Can Themba’s “The Suit,” a sparsely told tale of betrayal, was adapted for the stage in South Africa in the early 1990s. Peter Brook presented his production of The Suit at the Theatres des Bouffes du Nord last year. His English version is now at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in the Harvey Theater, a space made to look distressed, in imitation of the look of decay that Brook’s Paris theater has made famous. Audiences will know immediately that The Suit is the work of Peter Brook, in its looking beyond Europe and the West for stories to tell on stage, and also in the elegant economy of the staging itself.

Batman vs. Koolhaas

Martin Filler

DC Comics

Considering my specialization in architecture, I’m not surprised that the first graphic novel to thoroughly engage, not to say captivate, me is Chip Kidd and Dave Taylor’s Batman: Death by Design. It is by turns an impassioned plea for historic preservation, a cautionary tale of engineering hubris, a nostalgic homage to the visionary draftsman Hugh Ferriss, whose futuristic chiaroscuro renderings exalted the skyscraper as the ultimate symbol of burgeoning American might during the interwar years, and an acidic indictment of the present-day cult of architectural stardom.

Jordan: Democracy Delayed

Nicolas Pelham

Raad Adayleh/AP Photo

In a region where politics is not only governance but popular theater, Jordan’s first parliamentary election since the eruption of the Arab Spring two years ago provided a brief moment of comic relief. In the heart of the capital, candidates erected marquees like vast Bedouin tents, and handed out coffee from Bedouin copper flasks. But for all the entertainment, King Abdullah II’s claims that Wednesday’s election would mark Jordan’s transition to democracy seemed hyperbolic. In fact, the election was boycotted by five opposition parties, including the oldest and most powerful, the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as a raft of former prime ministers, and even according to disputed official figures less than 40 percent of the kingdom’s voters bothered to register and vote.

Dreams I’ve Had (and Some I Haven’t)

Charles Simic

In a lifetime of unexceptional and forgettable dreams, a few stand out. For example, many years ago I dreamt that I was on stage during the performance of the opera Aida about to sing the famous aria “Celeste Aida” in which Radames, the young Egyptian warrior, voices his hope for victory in a coming battle and proclaims his love for Aida, the Ethiopian slave. I wear some kind of helmet that is about to slide down and cover my eyes, hold a lance in my hand, and worry about what will happen next, because although I know the melody, I can remember only the opening words and figure that I’ll have to fake the rest by making up words that sound Italian. I do that, but I now have another fear, a high note that awaits me toward the end of the aria that I’m sure I won’t be able to hit—so to avoid it, I sing the opening over and over again like an old LP record that’s skipping. Thankfully, I awoke and in due course became aware that I was lying in bed in a motel just outside Buffalo, New York.

In Praise of the Language Police

Tim Parks

It is essential for the creative writer that there be, or be perceived to be, a usual way of saying things, if a new or unusual way is to stand out and to provoke some excitement. Naturally, anyone writing with the level of creativity of a D. H. Lawrence needs a copy editor willing to accept that rules can be bent and broken. But that doesn’t mean such editors have no role. It is important that the “special effect” stand out from a background of more conventional prose, and that a deliberate departure not be mistaken as something merely regional, British perhaps, or simply that there not be so much clutter around it of one kind or other that it is hardly noticed.

The Lost Wolves of New England

Christopher Benfey

Edward Krumanaker/National Geographic Society/Corbis

The lost wolves of New England have been on my mind lately, as winter settles into the woods below our house and the lives of the local predators—the hawks and owls and the raucous coyotes—are increasingly exposed among the bare-leafed trees. Wolves have not been welcome in our woods for a very long time. Among the first laws instituted by the Puritan settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630 was a bounty on wolves, which Roger Williams, who fled the colony for its religious intolerance, referred to as “a fierce, bloodsucking persecutor.” By the mid-nineteenth century, our New England sages were already lamenting the loss of wildness in both landscape and society, and invoking wolves rather than eagles as a sort of national icon.

Dumb America

Garry Wills

Chris O'Meara/AP Images

Both sides of my family are from the South: my mother’s from Georgia, my father’s from Virginia. Though my parents left Atlanta soon after I was born there, we often visited southern relatives in Atlanta, Louisville, and Birmingham. I preferred those who had stayed in the South to those who moved north. My Irish grandmother in Atlanta was a warm-hearted Catholic, while my English grandmother in Chicago was a pinched Christian Scientist always correcting her family. But even apart from the contrast in grandmothers, I always liked the South, though my northern accent made me an outsider there as a child (the family “Yankee”). But the current South is willing to cut off its own nose to show contempt for the government.