Fushan kids back in bus

PuigcerdaJuly, August 2011:
Swan Lake, Puigcerda



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 it along.

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.

What is 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 results.

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 Chinese poem 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!

Good 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 towns.

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.

My next stop was to be Paris again, then Berlin.


At Sol y Sombra