A Handy Mission Statement

 If you have not read George Orwell's essay "Politics and the English Language" I urge you to rectify the situation immediately (links provided below, no frets). Although of course I first absolve you of the oversight. The title is a bit misleading, allowing people who write in academia (and therefore, theoretically, not in politics) to think its wisdom and chastisement don't apply to them.

For our purposes, the essay might be more aptly titled "How to Communicate Complicated Thoughts Clearly and Effectively, and the Importance Of Doing So." 
The problems Orwell spots in political writing can and does apply to all academic fields: 
The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose...
That machete-sword thing he's unsheathing over there is for brutally killing, and thereby ending the writing careers, of anyone who persists in either laziness or incompetence. Death to he who uses language as an instrument for concealing or preventing thought. Grrr. Arg.

The Mad Hatter is an excellent specimen of literary delight, but heaven help you if you've been channeling him in your academic writing.

You can find the full text of Orwell's essay here, as beautifully formatted as it is on paper. I have no words for Mt. Holyoke's comparatively unreadable version, but you're welcome to click and gawp if you need a quick fix. By this weekend I'll have corralled a respectable collection of rigorous and aesthetically pleasing academic writing which I believe is working to reverse the process of general decline. If you've read anything that you think fits that general description, please leave a message after the beep.


The Sincerest Form of Flattery

Friends, I would like to share a peeve with you. A peeve of the petly variety, and one I believe many of you share.

Bad Writing.

Bad writing can be found everywhere, and is mostly avoidable. Come across a badly written blog? Don't read it. Or hate-read it, if your grammar sirens aren't paralyzing. A badly written novel stays on the shelf. Badly written poetry goes out of print.

Badly written academic work, tragically, is often unavoidable. It's on the syllabus, or it's related to your research. Or maybe it was written by someone in a department to which you'd like to apply, and like any diligent potential applicant you want to acquaint yourself with the work of potential advisors and colleagues.

Torture, as we of the Gitmo generation know, is illegal. And mean. And really just not all that effective. Which I suppose makes the vast majority of academic writing in violation of the Geneva Convention. Come on guys!

Academics, by all accounts, have to read a lot. And reading a lot, it's widely believed, is crucial to writing well. But the vast majority of the academic papers and books I've read during the course of my academic career have been convoluted wormholes of headache-inducing ineffective communication. And I don't just mean the professors suffering from Publish or Perish fever who don't edit their work and frankly don't give two figs about the suffering of their potential future readers. I mean Big Names. Like Spivak and Butler. Even poor Derrida is completely misread, and while I'll allow that some of that is laziness on the part of researchers who would rather read a paper about his writing than his writing itself - but only some of that recalcitrance is laziness. Some of it can probably be attributed to the sheer overwhelming volume of work, and the incredibly low bar set by so very much of it.

Where did we go wrong?

Well, I won't go into that. But I will go ahead and give you the silver lining (which I feel I should tell you is pretty glorious): having identified a problem, we have ourselves a cause! Even the most crowded of fields have wide swathes of unreadable research, and if you have the stamina and super-human decoding power necessary to synthesize and reformulate, you can raise that bar.

Stay tuned. The next installment will highlight the rare gem that is quality academic writing. Please, if you've stumbled across any particularly excellent writers in academe, do share. As many ways as it can all go wrong, there must be as many ways for it to be done right.


Webly Roundup

Husbee and I saw The Avengers last night for our lunaversary (Joss Whedon rocked that, naturally). Late night makes for a late start today, but Yea though I walk through the valley of mild sleep deprivation, I shall fear no self-recrimination! Am stubbornly bush-whacking through Apter's book, and chugging away at Alanna.

But if you need a break, here is a collection of excellent things from around the web to distract and delight.

Wendy MacNaughton's excellent illustrated epic of this year's 99% Conference.

Dead Duck Day is coming up!

Geoffrey Pullum makes a great point about a common grammatical misconception.

A professional portfolio site-building platform, free until you publish and 11 dollars/month afterwards. No knowledge of code needed!

The Paperless Post: good Samaritans trying to bring a little of the traditional post back to your e-communication. Mostly free, completely gorgeous graduation cards, change of address notices, party invitations, anything else you could possibly want!

The two grandfathers of Economic Theory engaged in a rap battle! Keynes vs. Hayek, round one and round two.

Have a great rest of the week!


And in the Batter's Cage...

We have Emily Apter's "Translation Zone."

From Princeton University Press:

Translation, before 9/11, was deemed primarily an instrument of international relations, business, education, and culture. Today it seems, more than ever, a matter of war and peace. In The Translation Zone, Emily Apter argues that the field of translation studies, habitually confined to a framework of linguistic fidelity to an original, is ripe for expansion as the basis for a new comparative literature.
Organized around a series of propositions that range from the idea that nothing is translatable to the idea that everything is translatable, The Translation Zone examines the vital role of translation studies in the "invention" of comparative literature as a discipline. Apter emphasizes "language wars" (including the role of mistranslation in the art of war), linguistic incommensurability in translation studies, the tension between textual and cultural translation, the role of translation in shaping a global literary canon, the resistance to Anglophone dominance, and the impact of translation technologies on the very notion of how translation is defined. The book speaks to a range of disciplines and spans the globe.
Ultimately, The Translation Zone maintains that a new comparative literature must take stock of the political impact of translation technologies on the definition of foreign or symbolic languages in the humanities, while recognizing the complexity of language politics in a world at once more monolingual and more multilingual.

I guess their blurb kind of gives away the punchline, but let's give it a go in any case.  Tally ho!


"Why Translation Matters" by Edith Grossman

"National literature" is a narrowing, confining concept based on the distinction between native and foreign, which is certainly a valid and useful differentiation in some areas and under certain circumstances, but in writing it is obviated by translation, which dedicates itself to denying and negating the impact of divine punishment for the construction of the Tower of Babel, or at least to overcoming its most divisive effects. Translation asserts the possibility of a coherent, unified experience of literature in the world's multiplicity of languages. (17)
So, yeah. Translation as diplomacy; translation as an inherent, inescapable truth of linguistic existence; translation, in the most meta way possible, as the key to redemption and salvation. 

This little book, when you come right down to it, is a blatant and well-presented challenge to literary critics: there is a shameful and ultimately harmful deficiency in the vocabulary available to discuss and engage with the myriad relationships connecting translations and translators with the work and author they've brought over into another language, including the various contexts and implied readerships full of "idiosyncratic, eccentric, and thoroughly unpredictable" readers. Grossman frames the challenge thusly:
Even if it is unrealistic to wish that every reviewer of a translated work were at least bilingual, it is not unreasonable to require a substantive and intelligent acknowledgment of the reality of the translation. [...] I do regret very sincerely that so few of them have devised an intelligent way to review both the original and its translation within the space limitations imposed by the publication. It seems to me that their inability to do so is a product of intransigent dilettantism and tenacious amateurism, the menacing two-headed monster that runs rampant through the inhospitable landscape peopled by those who write reviews. (32)
And with slightly less venom:
It has been suggested to me... that translation may well be an entirely separate genre, independent of poetry, fiction, or drama, and that the next great push in literary studies should probably be to conceptualize and formulate the missing critical vocabulary. (47)
She provides a Mr. James Wood as the lone example of "an uninformed reviewer who consistently pays serious attention to the real value of translation" - I will do some dutiful legwork and see if I can scrounge up some examples in the near future.

In the second chapter, Grossman delves into her recent, if nevertheless miasmic experience translating Don Quixote, allowing her example to highlight the incredible tension and balance necessary to produce a "faithful" translation. Succinct recap: "words do not mean in isolation" (71).

The last chapter is a similar treatment of a representative sample of her translated poetry, which I'll admit to skimming. I can't read Spanish, so comparing the texts would have been less than enlightening, and I'm well aware of the importance of rhythm, rhyme, and meter. But in any case, duly noted, and if I find myself contemplating a move from prose to poetry, I'll certainly revisit those last few pages.

And that does it for today, I guess. Time to shake the cramp out of my legs and go poke the kitty.


A New Season

Welcome to Exultation, friends! The Spring semester is drawing to a close and I'm celebrating the insidious approach of summer - with its promise of sunburn, heat exhaustion, and the otherwise free enjoyment of picnics, margaritas, and blissfully air-conditioned public libraries.

Oh, Ecstasy!

Here's the deal: I am staring - hands clasped in rapture - through June towards nine or ten months of gainful unemployment, with the odd editing project here and there. What shall I do with this glorious abyss, you ask? I thought I might take the time to begin working through a decade's-worth of accumulated books and just generally indulging all the little projects and interests that have been on the back burner - not to mention researching and applying to doctoral programs in Comparative Literature and English (oh the humanities!), and will share my circuitous struggles here for anyone interested. Grand ambitions, I know. So welcome to the chronicle of what I hope will be a delightful and productive period of chipping away at the backlogs. 

Fair warning: I live in Istanbul and share my days with the most marvelous cat, but I promise not to let her take over. Just one picture so you can all coo and we can just get on with it. Her name is Dorian, and she wakes me up around 5 most mornings with little jabs at my nose. It is to her that we can attribute any serious periods of productivity.

Incidentally, I'm starting with "Why Translation Matters" by Edith Grossman and a series of essays on Epistemology - acquired, ye gads, last Christmas and birthday-before-last (respectively) and as yet shamefully unread. If you have any reading suggestions (or want a reading buddy), I'd be happy to take them on.

Other projects currently underway are a translation into Turkish of Tamora Pierce's Alanna, the slow and painful acquisition of basic Arabic (with the ultimate intention of reading Ottoman Turkish), and small academic editing projects to indulge my pedantic side. FUN.