Swan Lake, Puigcerda
LETTING GO OF PARADISE
With my daughter back, I live less in the dream world of
the lake with its two white swans. My granddaughter, Isabella, has tea
parties in which we eat popcorn from her miniature teacups, one piece of
popcorn per cup.
But she is not an impressionistic dreamer; she likes
to be active at all times.
Travel plans wait on the United States
Congress to make up its mind about the debt ceiling. John Boehner and Mitch
O'Connell are holding the United States hostage. As usual, it's all about money.
But I keep busy. Isabella is only three but she likes to dance. We watch
videos of Swan Lake and The Nutcracker.
I start referring to the lake
in Puigcerda as Swan Lake. We look for Von Rothbart but don't find him among
the trees around the lake. If we find him, we plan to wring his neck.
I like the dreamlike movement of the
ballet, with the music propelling it from one scene to another. It casts a
spell without words. How nice to be able to do that.
It is easy to understand, even for Isabella.
There is the good Siegfried, the lovely Odette, and the evil Von Rothbart.
And there are no words to confuse things, just Tchaikovsky's music propelling
I began to think about Wittgenstein's statement that
anything that can be thought can be written. But what about a ballet?
What is a ballet? Is it a thought and can it be written down? Or is it
something different? Maybe his statement could be extended. Anything that
can be created in the four dimension—three of space, one of time—can
be notated, though not completely with words. Other
symbols would be necessary, as with notation for music. For dance, a special
notation—choreography—would be required. Communication with words, musical notation,
choreography—all these were types of languages, though academics might
disagree with that.
Words had a meaning? What
about music? What did it have? What about dance? Was it wrong to think of
music and dance
in terms of words and meaning? If so, how should one think of them? Obviously one had to
experience them. But what was the nature of that experience? And then what?
How could one communicate that experience to
another person? Words could describe those special notations. But it was
only after those special notations were understood with the same proficiency
of a word-based language, and were internalized, that real communication would occur.
clear is that without words and the grammar that goes with them, mental
development and "consciousness" do not occur. Helen Keller makes this amply
clear in her book, The Story of My Life. Without a language of some
kind, one lives in isolation and does not have the tools that allow for
thought, reflection, and understanding. Thought is a constructive process
that does not happen without words and rules for combining them. It was
probably the same for music and dance. Without musical notation,
musical "thought" would probably not develop; and without choreography,
dance "thought" would probably not develop either. Musical ideas and dance
patterns would remain dormant. The building of one pattern on or from
another would not occur; the creation of larger structures from smaller ones
would not happen.
It was about this time in Puigcerda
that I decided to translate Verlaine's poem into German. I had the time. The
United States Congress and the President seemed hopelessly deadlocked over
the deficit, that is, over retaining or not retaining tax cuts for the rich. But
what was the point of this, you might ask. Why translate a poem from one
language to another?
Music is a "universal" language and requires no
translation; the same is true of dance. But a word-based communication
system is not. It depends on particular words, grammars, and at times even a
different way of thinking. Thus translation is not only a challenging
exercise because of the vocabulary and grammar differences between two
languages; different ways of thinking—"culture"—can be involved too.
How do you express something in one language in another? What if the thought
itself does not have a close counterpart in the other language? What if one
culture is not sensitive to some of the notions of another? And hence does
not have the language to express an idea?
This seemed to be a particular problem with translating
Verlaine into Chinese. About six months earlier in Shanghai I had worked on
the Chinese translation with
help from plenty of well educated Chinese friends. For some passages, it was
challenging to come up with even rough equivalents. Then,
when equivalents seemed to have been found, no one acted particularly pleased with the
As an example, consider the line:
... Et tout cet ail de basse cuisine !
( ... And all that garlic of base cuisine!)
We still have no satisfactory equivalent to that one in
Chinese. The Chinese don't seem to say things like "... and all that jazz!"
Another problem is that Chinese is much more pictorial
than Western poetry. It is not as interested in the nuance of feeling and
thought; French poetry seems to be interested in nothing but nuance. See
Art, Music & Female Genital Mutilation.
Partly, I will have to admit, translation was challenging
to my language abilities. I enjoyed it for that reason. It was not always
easy to say what a
poet meant in another language. It made me think in both languages. But I
also had another interest: proper translation of poetry. I
had seen bad translations of Chinese poetry into English and had a strong opinion on how
not to translate poetry. While in China I had translated a number
of classic Chinese poems and examined also how they had been translated by
certain Beijing "scholars." What I had seen was translations that were not
translations at all. These "scholars" had used the classic poems, as a point
of departure, to write their own poems. I had seen a similar thing years ago
when writing for trade journals. You turned in your copy only to have some
frustrated, would-be-writer copy editor base "their" article on your hard work. But it was
worse than that in China. The goal of translation seemed to be to turn the classic
into Western-style poems, with rhymed couplets in iambic pentameter, showing,
for propaganda purposes,
that Chinese poetry was just as good as Western poetry. I saw the works of
Li Bai, Du Fu, and others utterly destroyed this way!
translation, in my opinion, always preserves the meaning of the author, and
in the case of poetry, is willing to accept a loss of the "sound values" of the
poem for the higher good of accuracy and meaning. The translation should be conceived as an aid to
understanding and reading the poem in the
original, and I hope that the translation of
Art Poetique by Paul Verlaine meets that criteria.
One day, while
waiting for Congress to do its job, I decided to walk to La Tour de Carol in
France. It is where the train from Paris stops at the border with Spain.
Many times I have ridden in a car
from there across the border to Puigcerda. I was curious to know
how long it took to walk the pretty country road that connects the two
One hour and 15 minutes was the answer. I also discovered
that it is slightly uphill walking toward La Tour de Carol, something you
might not notice in a car. And although you would notice the flowers from a
car, you would not see the many types. You would not be able to see the
purples and the yellows close up, the mountains in the background; you would
not spot the bunches of ripe blackberries nor the single red berries that
remind you of Huckleberries if you are from California; and you would not
come face to face with cows and horses and stare into each others eyes; you
would not see the lush green grass of the fields while standing almost in them nor
the clear flowing water of the Sant Marti river standing on a bridge and
looking for trout in clear pools; you would not see the hovering of the butterflies nor hear
the buzz of the bees and other insects; and you would not be able to stand in
awe in the middle of the railroad tracks and see them vanish, converging to a
single point in the distance. You would get there quicker in a car but you
would miss much.
When I got back some three hours later—I rested over at the train
station—Congress and the president were still deadlocked. The Republicans
were still hanging onto their tax breaks while I was hanging onto
the memory of flowers.
It was going to be sad leaving Puigcerda and popcorn
tea parties and Swan Lake and all the little bars and restaurants around
plaza Santa Maria. I began to refer to Puigcerda as Shangri-La and developed
vague memories of a plane crash in the jagged Pyrenees. The war? Was it over
yet? I knew I had to
leave but about half of me wanted to stay. But I'm afraid paradise was my
daughter's inheritance and not mine. I was apparently meant for hard times
and other travels. Still it was nice to have had a little taste of paradise.
stop was to be Paris again, then Berlin.
At Sol y Sombra