Archive for July, 2010

Has Hofstadter changed?

Tuesday, 27 July, 2010

So I’m working my way through the early chapters of Le Ton Beau de Marot, as mentioned earlier. While I’m finding Douglas Hofstadter’s writing as fascinating and thought-provoking as ever, I ran into such a severe pothole in the road that I’m left puzzling about this book and wondering if his personality has changed completely since his earlier works.

The book is about translation. In Chapter 3 he recounts a story about translating a science fiction story by Stanislaw Lem from Polish. The story poses a thorny linguistic problem in any attempt to translate it to another language, concerning the spelling of words in a way that is important to the plot. A straightforward English translation would not work, because one crucial word is spelled too differently from its Polish equivalent. Presumably this is why Hofstadter chose to recount the tale, as it provides an interesting demonstration of the difficulties translators face.

Anyway, he begins by offering his own translation of a few paragraphs into English (done when he was learning Polish), and his solution to the problem. He then offers translations by two other people, each of whom approaches the problem in a different way, by tweaking different elements of the story. Hofstadter then lists the solutions, plus three other possible approaches – two of which he says, point blank, are “barely plausible, fairly desperate manoeuvres”.

He then lists five more possible approaches to the translation problem, the first of which is to simply translate the problematic word into its literal English equivalent and add a footnote to the effect that in the original Polish the word was spelled in such-and-such a way, which makes the plot-important spelling aspect of the story work. Now to me this seems a perfectly valid approach to this difficult translation issue. Admittedly perhaps not the best approach, but certainly one that preserves the original intent of the author and explains to the reader exactly what is happening, and which does not materially alter the story since the reader is made aware of the issue and can understand what’s happened.

Hofstadter, however, completely dismisses this approach as a “total wimp-out”. He rants:

you will meet translators, some famous, who prefer to translate in just that style, and some of whom even try, using pompous scholarly language, to demonstrate the superiority of their wimp-stance. This option is sad.

What? Since when did Douglas Hofstadter become so monumentally pompous and judgemental himself? I was so appalled by this display of arrogance by Hofstadter that I was moved to rant about it myself, to my friends at work, and now to you. Hofstatder himself, in his attempt at translating Lem’s story, changed some of the plot elements and worked in a barely plausible shovelling under the carpet of a considerable linguistic flaw, just to avoid having to admit to the reader that here was a bit of wordplay that he couldn’t translate faithfully from one language into another. Surely his entire point in this book is going to be that translation is a difficult job, and perhaps sometimes it’s actually a good idea to present a literal version, with notes explaining that in the original language there was some additional nuance of wordplay that cannot easily be expressed in English? I would expect that someone as deeply interested and fascinated by translation as Douglas Hofstadter must surely appreciate the enormous difficulty of the task, and that footnotes may sometimes be necessary.

Sure, this is not the best approach in all cases. If you want something poetic, then a poetic translation that plays a bit loose with the literal meaning is worth pursuing. But that’s not the be-all and end-all of translation. Sometimes the literal meaning is important, and the reader wants the understanding that this is a translation from an original that may contain deeper levels of subtlety, even if that subtlety cannot easily be conveyed in English without footnotes. Surely…. surely… surely Hofstadter understands this? Surely he cannot be so vehemently against one method of translating that he’s resorting to calling people names about it??

As I said, I was so stunned by this apparent close-minded aberration from an admired author, that I felt the need to share my amazement. A friend suggested to me that perhaps Hofstatder has been too clever for me. He is setting himself up as a ridiculous straw man, and will reveal later in the book that his initial opinions on translation were naive, that translation is such a difficult task that sometimes you simply can’t do it perfectly, and that a footnoted literal version is indeed a valid approach. And you know, having seen the sorts of tricks that Hofstadter plays in his books, I wouldn’t put it past him. I guess I shall see as I continue reading.

Wine three-for-one

Sunday, 25 July, 2010

De Bortoli "Sacred Hill" 2009 Traminer RieslingGramp's 2006 Botrytis SemillonDisaster Bay Hot Chili WineA triple wine post this time. Although purists would not regard the first offering as a “wine” – it’s made not from grapes, but from hot chilli peppers. That’s right, 100% chilli juice, pressed and fermented into a liqueur style drink, by Disaster Bay Chillies. I found this in a wine shop in Katoomba and the owner let me have a taste – wowee. It’s sweet and delicious, developing into a hot red chilli flavour that last and lasts and lasts. You don’t want a lot at once, but you do want more later on. I instantly bought a bottle and took it to a games night with some friends to share it around. Their opinion was mixed, with some not enjoying it, and others really liking it. I’m in the latter camp. The bottle says it lasts for months in the fridge, which is a good thing, because you don’t want more than half a shot glass at a time. But when it runs out, I’ll be buying another somewhere.

Next cab off the rank is Gramp’s botrytis semillon dessert wine. We’ve actually run out of sweet wines in our modest “cellar” (a box in the garage), so wanted to pick up something to go with cheese and crackers. This boasted some medals and wasn’t expensive, so we plumped for it. It’s thick and syrupy, and very sweet, without that hint of acidity to balance it out. The flavour is what I’ve begun to think of as typical for botrytis wines, of orange marmalade, but again without any of the subtle nuances of other flavours in there to give it complexity. M. didn’t like it much, but I thought it was passable with the cheese.

Today’s final offering is De Bortoli “Sacred Hill” 2009 Traminer Riseling, a blend of gewürztraminer and riesling to make a semi-sweet and spicy style of white wine. We found this in a bottle shop for a paltry $8.99 and I figured, “What the heck?” We had this over two nights, first with fish, then with Indian curries. I thought it was fine with both, showing the pickly spiciness of the previous gewürztraminer we tried. M. didn’t like it as much, stating it lacked the lemony citric notes that balanced the Stonecroft, and was a shade sweeter. True, it was as she described, but frankly I was hard pressed to notice the difference myself from memory. I think I’d need a side-by-side tasting to tell them apart. At any rate, I enjoyed this, and for the price I wouldn’t be shy of picking up more of this one.

Ma Mignonne

Monday, 19 July, 2010

I’ve begun reading Douglas Hofstadter’s book Le Ton Beau de Marot. I’m barely one chapter in, and I’m starkly reminded of just how much hard work it was to read through his earlier book, Gödel, Escher, Bach. That book required a clear state of mind, full concentration, and a considerable amount of cogitation and effort to read, to absorb, and to appreciate.

This new book is about translation between languages and the intricate interplay of semantic and structural difficulties that this problem brings to anyone who tries to do it. The book is framed around a French poem, Ma Mignonne, by the 16th century poet Clément Marot. Without having “cheated” by glancing past the first chapter, I understand that the book will present dozens of different translations into English of this one short poem, accompanied by discussions of the issues involved and the adjustments that need to be made to make one language conform to both the shape and the meaning of another.

So at the end of Chapter One, which presents a brief outline of Marot’s life, Hofstadter presents the original Ma Mignonne in French, then a handful of translations into English. These translations are more or less literal, conveying much of the meaning of the poem but failing to reproduce its structure. The chapter ends with a request to the reader to attempt your own translation of the poem into English, assuring you that you already know enough to make a first attempt. Yes, just like GEB, this book asks you to do homework. And in all fairness to the book and to Professor Hofstadter, I feel compelled to complete the homework before continuing to Chapter Two.

So I’m about to present my translation of Ma Mignonne. But first, the original poem for anyone who has never seen it:

A une Damoyselle Malade

Ma mignonne,
Je vous donne
Le bon jour;
Le séjour
C’est prison.
Puis ouvrez
Votre porte
Et qu’on sorte
Car Clément
Le vous mande.
Va, friande
De ta bouche,
Qui se couche
En danger
Pour manger
Si tu dures
Trop malade,
Couleur fade
Tu prendras,
Et perdras
Dieu te doint
Santé bonne,
Ma mignonne.

Here is the basic, literal translation that Hofstadter provides to get you started in understanding what this poem says:

To a Sick Damsel

My sweet
I bid you
A good day;
The stay
Is prison.
Then open
Your door,
And go out
For Clément
Tells you to.
Go, indulger
Of thy mouth,
Lying abed
In danger,
Off to eat
Fruit preserves;
If thou stay’st
Too sick,
Pale shade
Thou wilt acquire,
And wilt lose
Thy plump form.
God grant thee
Good health,
My sweet.

Hofstadter explicitly points out the following points of structure for this poem in Chapter One:

  • The poem is 28 lines long.
  • Each line consists of three syllables.
  • Each line’s main stress falls on its final syllable.
  • The poem is a string of rhyming couplets: AA, BB, CC, …
  • The semantic couplets are out of phase with the rhyming couplets: A, AB, BC, …
  • Midway, the tone changes from formal (“vous”) to in­for­mal (“tu”).
  • The poem’s opening line is echoed precisely at the very bottom.
  • The poet puts his own name directly into his poem.

His literal translation clearly violates most of these. He does not ask that translators adhere strictly to all of these points, but wants to make sure you’re aware of them so that if you break one, you’re doing it knowingly.

I now offer my own translation, in which I have attempted to satisfy as many of the structural elements as I can, but sacrificing some slight changes in exact semantic meaning to achieve this. This is entirely my own work. I have not yet read beyond Chapter One of Le Ton Beau de Marot, nor have I sought or seen any other attempted translations of this poem online yet – though I have no doubt at all that hundreds of them must exist as other readers attempt this task and share their efforts. So it is a wholly original composition, but I would not be surprised if some lines echo lines in other people’s versions. Without further ado:

To A Sick Girl

My dear child,
Such a mild
Day outside:
Time you bide
Is duress.
I do bless
Your swift cure,
Then the lure
Of fresh air
Shows you where
You should be;
David’s plea
Is just this.
Go, young miss
Of sweet tooth,
Ill in truth,
Under threat,
Off to get
A pale shade
You will gain,
If your pain
Lasts too long,
And your strong
Form will flee.
God’s grace be
On you smiled,
My dear child.

Right. Homework completed. On the Chapter Two!

Ata Rangi Pinot Noir and Mountain Ice Icewine

Wednesday, 14 July, 2010

Crimson Pinot NoirMountain Ice 2009 Viognier/Chardonnay IcewineAnother two-for-one wine post. The Pinot Noir is by Ata Rangi in Martinborough, New Zealand, vintage 2008. I really liked the previous Pinot Noir I had, so it was good to try a different one. We took this bottle to a local pizza restaurant. The colour is a striking transparent crimson red. The aroma I didn’t get a good handle on I’m afraid – it was mostly a heady alcoholic smell, with nothing else I could really recognise apart from the usual “red wine” smell. The taste, however, was a triple-layered development of flavours. At first it was very dry and mild, and both M. and I detected the slight prickle of fermentation. I understand this is usually considered a fault in red wines, but pinot noir seems light enough that it doesn’t seem astray. The overall effect was quite un-wine-like, with almost a chalky feel to it. In fact, it reminded me of the taste of a soluble aspirin. But after a few seconds, the flavour developed into a pleasant fruity number, mostly reminiscent of raspberries. Leaving it sit in the mouth for a while longer started to bring out some mild tannin. Overall I’d say I was happy with it, but perhaps not as nice as the previous pinot.

Today’s second wine is an icewine I bought on our recent day trip to the Blue Mountains. It’s from Orange Mountain Winery, near Orange in inland New South Wales. They freeze the Viognier and Chardonnay grapes artificially to concentrate the sugar for this sweet dessert wine. A sticker on the bottle says it won “Best Icewine” at the 2009 International Sweet Wine Challenge. It’s a gorgeous luminous pale straw yellow in colour. The smell is of citrus fruits, with orange and lemon coming out. But the taste is very different, being strong tropical fruits – passionfruit and pineapple, with a touch of orange. And it’s exceedingly sweet – possibly the sweetest wine I’ve ever tasted; I certainly can’t recall a sweeter one. All of which make it delicious and more-ish. I want to see if I can find more of this one! We had this at home with a platter of brie, jarlsberg, and a cream cheese with apricot and almond in it, on crackers. What better dessert could you want?

The Order of the Stick

Monday, 5 July, 2010

So I’m finally reading The Order of the Stick. I know, I know… I really should have read it ages ago, and be totally up to date, and read each new strip as it comes out. In fact I’ve been meaning to read it for ages, but could never get over the archive panic it stirred in me each time I tried to start on it. So I never got further than about half a dozen strips into it.

Until recently when I linked two things which I really always knew but had for some reason never put into close proximity with one another: (1) the comic is available in collected book form, and (2) I have enough disposable income to afford the books. So I ordered every book I could – which unfortunately excludes the currently out-of-print Book 3: War and XPs. Nonetheless, the remainder of the collection arrived last week and I’ve been devouring them as bedtime reading. I’ve just finished Book 2, and will now read the prequels (Book 0 and Book -1) before resorting to the online format to work my way through the strips of the missing Book 3. (I’ll buy Book 3 as soon as it comes back into print – in case Rich Burlew needs any more justification for another print run.)

So let me say, it’s much easier to digest a webcomic with an ongoing plot and text-heavy strips and a 500+ strip archive when it’s presented in a book than it is to click through it online. At least for me, anyway.

No doubt many of you are avid followers of The Order of the Stick already. You know how good it is, so I don’t need to go into that. Despite not having read it until just this last week, I had absorbed enough of the opinion and general aura around it to know that it must be good, so I knew I wasn’t plunking down good money for something I’d regret later. Deep down I already knew this was a good webcomic, and I still couldn’t get over the entry barrier of that archive of a few hundred strips until I could get my hands on them in book format. Which naturally makes me think about things.

Tacking to port slightly, the books come with introductions written by Rich Burlew, both at the beginning of the book, and before each chapter of action. Unfortunately for people like me, as I discovered, these introductions are written based on the assumption that you have already read the strips that they are introducing. They actually give away plot elements in the upcoming chapter, and in some cases for several chapters in advance. And I’m pretty sure one of them gave away something that is in a future book that I haven’t read yet. So I’ve taken to ignoring the introductions entirely for now.

Which is a shame, because Rich has very interesting things to say about the creative process and the planning that goes into his comics. Being a comic creator myself, it gives me a good indication that this guy really knows what he’s doing – he’s not just throwing stuff together every week with no forethought. And I can understand the tiny detailed things that he must be thinking for every strip that he puts together – things that most readers will never consciously notice, but which add to the immersiveness and quality of his work.

I just wish that this stuff could have been written without referring to events in the comic that haven’t occurred yet, from the perspective of a first-time reader. Sure, most people reading the books will have already read everything online – but not all of them. I think some thought needs to be given to constructing the books in a way that doesn’t spoil things for new readers. It’s a minor annoyance, but an annoyance nonetheless.

But overall, I’m very impressed by what I’ve read so far. What obviously began as a gag-a-day comic strip evolved very quickly into something with clear plans for a grand plot. It’s easy to see why Rich Burlew has grown such a large fan base. +1.

Fermoy Estate 2007 Merlot & Adina 2008 Dessert Semillon

Sunday, 4 July, 2010

Adina 2008 Dessert SemillonFermoy Estate 2007 Margaret River MerlotTwo for one today. M. picked the Fermoy Estate merlot on our recent trek to the wine shop because she wanted to try one from Margaret River in Western Australia. We took it to a modern Australian/Italian restaurant up the road, a bit more fancy than ones we normally go to – because we had a 20% discount coupon ;-). I figured the hand-made pasta and the chicken-stuffed-with-spiced-sausage dishes we ordered would suit the wine reasonably well.

I am still really struggling with the big international red wine grape varieties. I mean, I can sort of tell the difference between merlot, cabernet sauvignon, and shiraz, but when it comes to actually describing them I’m still at a loss. Honestly, I could glean nothing out of this except the standard “blackcurranty” and “plummy” buzzwords. It was fairly tannic, but that’s really my only contribution to an original description. And I didn’t find it particularly nice, either. I need more practice with the reds.

The Adina dessert semillon on the other hand, we sipped at home as a stand-alone after-dinner sweet several days later. We’d acquired this on our trip to the Hunter Valley last year, and to my mind as we tasted things on a tour of vineyards, this was the best sweet wine of the trip. I recalled a piercing, sweet lemony acidity, which was how it first hits the nose and palate on more careful tasting. The aroma is of fresh lemons and lime, with a hint of banana. There’s fermentation prickle, which makes the lemon sweetness refreshing and it develops into a mild marmalade bitterness at the finish. It’s very light and enjoyable. We might pop into Adina Vineyard next time to grab some more.

Photos of you

Thursday, 1 July, 2010

Here’s an idea. Determine a particular date when you were in a public place that is often photographed. Tourist spots are good examples.

Now use Flickr’s advanced search to find photos taken on that date, and tagged with something that narrows down the location appropriately.

See if you can find a photo taken by a complete stranger, with you in it. Let me know if you succeed!