Thursday, May 25, 2017

Aphrodite and the Rabbis: How the Jews Adapted Roman Culture to Create Judaism as We Know It by Burton Visotzky

In Aphrodite and the Rabbis: How the Jews Adapted Roman Culture to Create Judaism as We Know It, Burton Visotzky provides us with both a sweeping and focused view of how Greco-Roman culture worked to mold rabbinical Judaism.  

For example, the Passover Seder is quite purposefully designed after Greco-Roman style symposiums (with more decorum, no sex, and less drunkenness).  In fact the classic Seder was celebrated reclining, in the Roman style.

But Visotzky explores far more than styles of eating.  Roman culture permeated all areas of Jewish life, despite many Jews hostility to Rome.  As the predominant culture, it was bound to impact all areas of Jewish life.  The author explains an important point: after the destruction of the Second Temple, it took at least two or three centuries for rabbinical culture and authority to extend to most Jewish communities.  This meant that certain Jewish communities, like the one in Dura-Europos in modern Syria, decorated their synagogue with human and other figures – something forbidden by rabbinical Judaism.  Eventually, the rabbi’s version of Judaism would win.

But even their Judaism was permeated with Greco-Roman culture.  The number of loan words in rabbinical Hebrew alone attests to that. This book throws light on an area of Jewish history that few ponder.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Economics Rules. The Rights and Wrongs of the Dismal Science by Dani Rodrik

Economics Rules. The Rights and Wrongs of the Dismal Science by Dani Rodrik is a rather good middle of the road account of both the promise and shortcomings of Economics.  Rodrik is quick to point out that Economics will never have the predictive power of certain natural sciences.  Social forces are too varied and layered.  Instead, Economics deals with a variety of models (another name for theories) of how social/economic forces work. 

Unlike physics, which has, more or less, a central theory of how the universe works, Economics will always be a pluralistic pursuit.  One model will never suit all areas of the economy.  So, an economist must pick a model that suits a particular problem.  Rodrik admits that this is more art than science, and involves a great deal of intuition.  This, Rodrik explains, is not taught to graduate students, and is largely learned by economists early in their career by trial and error or informal professional guidance.

Overall, this is an informative book.  Rodrik does go into the weeds sometimes, getting off target, getting a bit too technical at times.  Still, Rodrik makes great points about the field.  He provides a view of Economics that is not dogmatic, while also not overly cynical either.   

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the third of her Neapolitan novels, takes some time to gather momentum.  But mid-way through it certainly does, and the end is truly shocking.

This novel of friendship has been primarily about Lina; she is, in a sense, an elevated being in downtrodden circumstances.  In this novel, Elena Greco is more front and center; she is less the cipher, and more the axis of the narrative.

And what she does with the life she worked so hard to create and build is astounding.  The reader is left wondering about the spells various characters cast upon each other, and why they fall into the same old traps.  Fulfillment escapes these people again and again.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Translation Notes of "Truly the Light is Sweet"

My story, Truly the Light is Sweet, originally published in Lowestoft Chronicle, has been translated into Tamil and published in Padhaakai Magazine.  Below are the translator's very astute notes on some of the challenges of translation. 


Early in the story, 'Truly the Light is Sweet' by Eric Maroney, in the very first paragraph, there is this sentence - "In front of me there was a little crocus." I did not know if crocuses are common. So I googled and came across this YouTube with a recording of the crocuses that had flowered along a sidewalk. The visuals of what was just a little patch of flowers among grass runs for more than three minutes.  Wondering what was so remarkable about this, I looked some more and understood that the crocus of this story could be a symbol of regeneration - a website celebrates Crocus thus, "When it seems like winter will never lose its icy grip, the dainty goblet-shaped crocus pushes through the snow to put on a show of colorful revival. If you are not planting this perennial bulb, you are missing an early season of delight." (The Old Farmer's Almanac ).

In reading fiction from other cultures, we are attracted by that which is different, novel, and exotic. But attraction turns to love only when we recognize in it something which is familiar and belongs to us. At that point, we desire to make it our own - and translation affords the closest approach to a text. Every word is weighed, and every meaning explored across words, sentences, passages, and across cultures. An ideal translation which reflects its original impulse should simultaneously feel strange and familiar. The language is one's own, but some of the references and manners of speech point outward, which when explored might resonate with some inward sense.

Crocuses might be familiar to those who people Eric Maroney's story, so ideally it should be translated into a familiar word in Tamil.  But it has a significance in the story, and that seemed to be more important - crocus is not a mere word, or flower, it stands for regeneration. Hence, I chose an unusual translation- Naṟavu. It is not a word in contemporary usage; it is found only in classic literature. A.K. Ramanajan has translated a poem by Kapilar, where the Tamil word, 'Naṟavu' is translated into English as 'Crocus'- (Kalittokai 54) . It is a remarkable translation in the context of this story- crocus finds mention in these lines of A.K. Ramanujan-

              "Not only that, he took
        my fingers
                (unfolding now
                like crocus buds,
                I suppose)"

The poem, like many of these love poems, describes the pain of separation. It ends with these lines,

       "May the sweet smells
        of my marriage in our house
        cling to no man
        but him,
        and that will be good.
        It will guarantee a lasting place for us
        in this world that doesn't last."

After this, 'Naṟavu', which also means, honey, nectar, wine, fragrance etc., became the natural choice. It provides a significantly strong parallel image to what is present in the story; even to its conclusion where "the slightest trace of breath" alone remains of the fellow traveler - he is absent and present simultaneously. He has his imperfections, but even in his absence, he leaves behind a scent, a hope, the promise of what has been and what could be. That promise of regeneration is signified by a small, ordinary flower, a crocus, noticed by a man who had come back to life as it were, and whose narration carries traces of its fragrance to the end of the tale.

The greatest challenge in translating this story was the replication of its tone. A sentence like, "Now, take it from me, this was a no-big-deal flower," employs idioms which have no equivalent in Tamil. The light, conversational tone of English runs a risk of sounding heavy and unduly pedantic.  It is necessary to negotiate these challenges as best as one can. 

The Tamil translation of, "I was right in front with the big shots…" might be taken to mean, "I am in direct contact with all the big shots". "My wind was gone…" might remind the reader of a punctured tire- "I had lost my air"! And what is worse, 'fancy hospitals' are transformed into 'modern hospitals'. But a reasonable amount of pride could be allowed for successfully dodging the booby-trap of "he has a mission…" with "he has come with a purpose..." Mission, if translated into Tamil as such, would sound so high there would be no climbing down.

Some words in English are transliterated into Tamil. Spa, Goyim, Yarmulke are unknown in Tamil. They are transliterated and the meaning is provided in footnotes. Other words, such as tea-kettle and rack, are common in conversational Tamil. They are retained. Beet is known as beetroot, 'slumlord' transformed into a owner of rented houses, since despite the widespread prevalence of slums, slumlords are scarcely a known entity in Tamil. Carpet bag has become a bag made of cloth- the unsuspecting reader in Tamil might mistake its size to be negligible, but since this bag of cloth is on a rack in the carriage of a train, I think he might bring to mind a bag with considerable heft.

Such are the many usual trails encountered in the often frustrating process of translation. But the act of translation provides the deep satisfaction of getting involved not only in the act of translating words, but translating cultural concepts and ideas. I must thank Eric Maroney who kindly allowed me to translate his story.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart

Earth Abides, a 1949 post-apocalyptic novel written by George R. Stewart, is by turns fascinating and boring, long winded and action packed.  In this uneven novel, a plague has wiped out humanity, and Isherwood Williams, a naturalist holed up in a cabin, survives.  Ish becomes the new Adam (and ish in Hebrew means man) and works, by fits and starts, to once again create civilization.

Ish can be annoying.  He is fascinated by first principles, when he really should be galvanizing his energy toward practical work.  Others join him in a community humorously called The Tribe.  The name takes on greater significance later. Stewart’s post-apocalyptic community is relatively calm, given the genre; it is largely free from disease, strife, and want.  In fact, Ish worries that the abundance of the previous world, all the cans of food in supermarkets in the Bay area, for instance, will hobble The Tribe.

By the end, Ish is the last member of what the thousand or so progeny of The Tribe call the Old Ones.  He is treated as a god.  Members pinch him for good luck, and ask him questions as if he was an oracle.  Ish is satisfied with The Tribe.  A group of young men, untroubled and stalwart, become the new leaders of humanity.  The message is clear: people have had a severe setback, but they are undaunted.  

Thursday, May 4, 2017

This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive, by James S. Robbins

In This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive, author James S. Robbins offers a revision of the famous Viet Cong, NVA surprise offensive of 1968, a battle which supposedly uncovered the impossibility of winning the war in Vietnam.

Robbins writes many things that make sense: Tet was a decisive loss for the NVA and VC.  In fact, the VC were essentially destroyed as an operating force in South Vietnam following Tet.  Robbins then enumerates the many ways that Tet was lost, even though the US won.  Not surprisingly, he points out that the media was firmly anti-war.  Robbins contends the media did not have the right facts in its evaluation of the war and Tet.  The media was looking for quick, black and white headlines.   

As one form of proof, Robbins extensively examines the famous “Saigon Execution” photograph taken during the Tet Offensive.  He argues that in a very short time, the photo’s context was eliminated or altered.  The media molded the photo to further its own narrative.  People did not understand the moral complexity of a summary execution, on a street, in a city under martial law.

Perhaps that is true, but I wonder what Robbins hopes to accomplish.  Everything is understood in context, and through the informed or uniformed perception of the viewer.  Robbins does not make a profound point here.  Is he saying that the US lost the Tet Offensive because of photos like “Saigon Execution”?  This may be the case, but what do we really learn from this?  Ultimately, every human event is a matter of perception.  I am not sure what to do with Robbin’s analysis and conclusion.

Still, this is a vastly informative book about a momentous time in our history.  Robbins delves deep into Tet and the events before and after the offensive.  Readers unfamiliar with this battle will learn much useful information and explore complex issues.