Category Archives: Aphorist1

Roundup #4 “Translation and Revisiting Classics”

This week I read about the newly published JRR Tolkien translation of the epic poem Beowulf which touched several ideas I find interesting, particularly about translation. I think it is a well worn trope that things get lost in translation but what is important is that translation IS possible, especially in literature. It is the human experience after all that is essentially common to us, and language. So perhaps we in the United States will never understand the words for the fine gradations of types of snow, or the German word for how life is like the bit of burnt coffee in the bottom of a mug (I made that up) but we do incorporate other words into our vocabulary from other cultures (like schadenfreude) and it enriches us. As we have learned from psychology, to be able to define or describe a variety of emotional states allows us to feel more feelings, leading to a more enriched interior experience. This is the ultimate translation.


  •  JRR Tolkiens “new” Beowulf translation by Joan Acocella   Review
    I can’t wait to read this translation, having loved the Seamus Heaney version.    
  • War and Peace translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky reviewed by James Wood  Review
    Very interesting article about the husband/wife translators approach. I listened to this incredible novel on audible (the Constance Gardner translation) and compared certain sections to the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation. There definitely were some differences, and I like to re-read certain sections of their translation. I think a book like the Brothers Karamazov is more susceptible to failures of translation, Gardner is criticized for making the books more narrative and “Victorian” although in War and Peace this doesn’t seem particularly problematic. I think Pierre’s and Prince Andrey are the characters whose interior lives we find most compelling and the descriptions of their experiences may suffer slightly in Gardner’s version.  
  • Perfidious Fidelity by Sarat Maharaj Review
    This is an essay I read in grad school that I come back to from time to time when I think about translation. Here is a paragraph that will hopefully entice you to read the whole thing: Translation, as Derrida therefore puts it, is quite unlike buying, selling, swapping – however much it has been conventionally pictured in those terms. It is not a matter of shipping over juicy chunks of meaning from one side of the language barrier to the other – as with fast-food packs at an over-the-counter, take away outfit. Meaning is not a readymade portable thing that can be ‘carried over’ the divide. The translator is obliged to construct meaning in the source language and then to figure and fashion it a second time round in the materials of the language into which he or she is rendering it. The translator’s loyalties are thus divided and split. He or she has to be faithful to the syntax, feel and structure of the source language and faithful to those of the language of translation. We have a clash and collision of loyalties and a lack of fit between the constructions. We face a double writing, what might be described as a ‘perfidious fidelity’ or, to use Joyce’s words, a ‘double-cressing’ loyalty – tressing, cross-dressing, double-crossing, treacherous.  



  • Grendel by John Gardner   Review
     I can’t mention Beowulf without recommending this incredible book. I devoured it in an afternoon and I am forever changed. Told from the perspective of Grendel, the monster plaguing the Danes, it is a tale of loneliness and anguish. Perhaps this ties in nicely with the theme of translation, how can this monster bridge the gap between his world and those of the great hall he menaces. Even the non-violent interactions are upsetting to put it mildly. What a poignant and beautiful book.

Moby Dick Deep Dive

  • I recently re-listened to Moby Dick on and I know, you’re thinking why am I talking about Moby Dick!?! But hear me out! MORE
    Moby Dick is a wonderful book, although to make it more enjoyable  it could/should be read in an edited way. There are long and tedious sections explaining the “art” of whaling and the various subtleties of the whaling vessel, the division of labor, etc. that belong in a more more boring book or manual on whaling. It is one of those books that is foisted on us in High School when we are too young to absorb or appreciate it. Melville justifies the more tedious sections as necessary but his warning about interpretation are also useful: “So ignorant are most landsmen of some of the plainest and most palpable wonders of the world, that without some hints touching the plain facts, historical and otherwise, of the fishery, they might scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory.” That said, if you skip the sections about whaling, it is a beautiful book.

    There are simply too many beautiful passages to quote but Melville is both a keen observer of humanity and a poetic writer that I kept wanting to book mark each page for passages that are just perfect. Here are my two favorites, both from the chapter “The Gilder”:

    “At such times, under an abated sun; afloat all day upon smooth, slow heaving swells; seated in his boat, light as a birch canoe; and so sociably mixing with the soft waves themselves, that like hearthstone cats they purr against the gunwale; these are the times of dreamy quietude, when beholding the tranquil beauty and brilliancy of the ocean’s skin, one forgets the tiger heart that pants beneath it; and would not willingly remember, that this velvet paw but conceals a remorseless fang.”

    “Oh, grassy glades! oh, ever vernal endless landscapes in the soul; in ye,—though long parched by the dead drought of the earthy life,—in ye, men yet may roll, like young horses in new morning clover; and for some few fleeting moments, feel the cool dew of the life immortal on them. Would to God these blessed calms would last. But the mingled, mingling threads of life are woven by warp and woof: calms crossed by storms, a storm for every calm. There is no steady unretracing progress in this life; we do not advance through fixed gradations, and at the last one pause:—through infancy’s unconscious spell, boyhood’s thoughtless faith, adolescence’ doubt (the common doom), then scepticism, then disbelief, resting at last in manhood’s pondering repose of If. But once gone through, we trace the round again; and are infants, boys, and men, and Ifs eternally. Where lies the final harbor, whence we unmoor no more? in what rapt ether sails the world, of which the weariest will never weary? Where is the foundling’s father hidden? Our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them: the secret of our paternity lies in their grave, and we must there to learn it.”

    And how strange/beautiful are these lines: “Oh, immortal infancy, and innocency of the azure! Invisible winged creatures that frolic all round us! Sweet childhood of air and sky! how oblivious were ye of old Ahab’s close-coiled woe! But so have I seen little Miriam and Martha, laughing-eyed elves, heedlessly gambol around their old sire; sporting with the circle of singed locks which grew on the marge of that burnt-out crater of his brain.”

    My mind reels, that is all. 

  • Digitally annotated Moby Dick called Power Moby Dick where you can read “The Gilder”!
  • There are about 10 unabridged versions of Moby Dick on Dana Stevens of fame recommends the version read by Anthony Heald. I listened to the Norman Dietz version. You can’t go wrong with either!
  • Follow Moby Dick on Twitter


Roundup #3

Some ideas about the self

For this week’s roundup I’m doing things a little differently. I read Zadie Smith’s novel NW and it made me think about an episode on The Partially Examined Life podcast about Soren Kierkegaard’s notion of the self in “The Sickness Unto Death” so this roundup is centered on this theme. The Partially Examined Life podcast/website is an amazing resource if you are interested in philosophy, if you are wanting more philosophy in your life, look no further!


Book Review

  •   NW by Zadie Smith   Review
    This is the only Smith novel that I have read and I loved it. For most books, there is not a huge difference between reading or listening  but I think in this case there are some major differences. I listened to it but checked out the physical book and was quite surprised to see bizarre/inventive text formatting that I had no idea were part of the book. The excellent narrators did speak in sections in a rhythm that suggested that there was some interpretation of the text happening, but I had no idea the extent. I can’t decide if the audio book is actually superior to the written book; certainly Smith wrote/formatted it in a specific way but I wonder if the distraction of the formatting made it less comprehensible? After listening to the Slate Audio Book Clubs discussion, I think I might fall on the “listen to it” side of the debate. At any rate, this is an excellent novel which tells three stories, two of which are related and one which is almost stands alone. The book takes place mostly in the NW area of London. It is about how place forms you, about family, and most importantly, friendship. It is inventively written, switching between first and third person, and Smith’s use of language is simply captivating. Here is where the audio book really shines, the inflection of INNIT (isn’t it) as an all purpose exclamation is done to perfection by the narrator Karen Bryson. While it is difficult to summarize this complex novel, the most interesting theme for me was identity and sense of self. I sometimes feel like I don’t have a strong point of view, that I process experiences as if I don’t have a rigid framework and am open to many interpretations. I could identify with Leah and Keisha in their existential struggles though maybe I am more comfortable in the “not knowing” or as Keats called it, Negative Capability – “capable of being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” It is possible to hold onto the self while being open, and this novel reinforced this way of trying to stay in experience for me. The character of Felix is especially likable/relatable in this regard, he has his own struggles but unlike Leah and Keisha, he revels in his ability to move through the city, people watching and imagining their various realities, constructing narratives around what he observes. I found his story the most satisfying and that section of the novel almost reads as a separate book although it is tangentially linked to the other stories.  

Grab Bag


Roundup #2


  •   John Cassidy on Piketty    Review
    I suggest reading anything by John Cassidy, his epic How Markets Fail is an excellent explication of the financial crisis, and indictment of Greenspan, and a history of the US Economy. Comprehensive and imminently readable. 
  • Alec Wilkinson’s piece in the New Yorker about physicists resurrecting the earliest recordings A Voice From The Past  Apology
    Sorry that this article is behind the New Yorkers paywall, I hate to link to something that you can’t read if you’re not a member but it is an awfully good article. 
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates tweets two articles to read about his Reparations piece and a reply.


  • Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything     Review
    Maybe “interiority” is a theme in this week’s Roundup but I find Bejamen Walker’s TOE to be a delight. It is sometimes a surreal fantasy, sometimes a conversation with a cast of friends, or a quasi-sound-journal-time-machine of growing up in the 80s. You can never tell if there is any “truth” to what is being said and that is my favorite part. Just accept the narrative as it unfolds, and let Walker’s excellent sound design and production values take your mind away from whatever you are currently thinking about.
  • Slate Moneybox Podcast   Review
    I am not shilling for Slate, this new podcast featuring Felix Salmon, Cathy O’Neil and Jordan Wiessman is actually too short in my opinion. I have been a fan of O’Neil since her appearance on EconTalk and read her blog when possible. Felix Salmon is the host and he is getting his sea legs but off to a good start. He is known for his skepticism about Bitcoin (among other good qualities). Check out his “bet” about Bitcoin on the other great money podcast, Planet Money 


  • Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel    Review
    I know I am late to the party on this excellent book (it was published in 2009) but it is definitely worth a read if, like me, you were daunted by the subject matter or length. I had known Thomas Cromwell as a villain but this book explores the many facets of his character, including his ruthlessness. The narrative is compelling and it is written exceptionally well – the point of view alternating from Cromwell’s interior thoughts to third person descriptions in an ingenious way. Of course we have not idea what Cromwell thought in “real life” but because Mantel captures the time with such authority, it is easy to forget that this is a work of fiction. I listened to this book and the narrator was wonderful, using a variety of voices to act out each character. Thomas Cromwell came from the most humble circumstances and fled his abusive father before he was 16, striking out on his own. By force of will, curiosity and a prodigious intellect he rose to the highest office in the King’s court (and later to be executed for treason. I don’t think any description of this book quite captures way it relates the poetry and beauty of our every day experiences. The sense of interiority is very moving, in a way that almost reminds me of Swanns Way by Proust though things certainly move a lot more quickly in this book…..Five Stars  
  • The 4-Hour Chef by Tim Ferriss   Review
    If you want to learn to simplify cooking and make a delicious steak dinner, this is the book. Also includes the typical Ferriss deep dives into various interesting topics such as learning, hunting, skinning, but for me the chapters and recipes in the section of the book “The Domestic” are an excellent primer on cooking that will improve what you do in the kitchen. 

Research: The Biome

Grab Bag



Roundup #1


  • The Case For Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates    Review
    This is a MUST READ {period} {FULL STOP}
  • School Reform is Complicated in the New Yorker by Dale Russakoff    Review
    Funny how people think they have all the answers….sometimes things are a little more complicated than we’d like them to be. This article traces efforts of the then mayor of Newark Cory Bookers attempt to reform the Newark school system in an unlikely partnership with Chris Christie and Mark Zuckerberg. Turns out money and reason can’t fix everything


  • WTF Marc Maron interview with RuPaul Charles   Review
    I always thought RuPaul was entertaining but after listening to him, I have to say I admire his personal philosophy. His ideas about personal identity are very compelling. And he calls Marc out in helpful ways
  • The Gist with Mike Pesca, part of Slate Magazines incredible podcast production Review
    Pesca is a lot of fun to listen to. He has strong opinions and is well spoken, with a great guest list and a nice mix of serious analysis and levity. Especially admire his calls for moderating our internet outrage. I look forward to this every day!
  • Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen on EconTalk    Review
    I am a devoted listener of EconTalk even when the host Russ Roberts gets a little condescending with his Libertarian nonsense. He is 90% a great interviewer and 10% Libertarian partisan. He has an amazing ability to pick interesting guests and treats them with respect even if he doesn’t agree with their point of view. This interview with Adreessen is no exception


  • The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner     Review
    This is an amazing book that every artist or anyone who thinks about art should read. Centered around the young heroine nicknamed “Reno” as she moves through the 1970s New York art scene. Themes of time, youth, class, revolution and love make this poignant novel deeply philosophical while wrapped up in a narrative that sweeps you along in the heady times of the period.
  • Spook Country by William Gibson     Review
    The second in his “Bigend” series, this book is much more than a thriller. It is not science fiction per se, in fact it is firmly based in reality, but Gibson’s descriptions of every day objects and experiences capture such subtle nuances that I feel like he is describing an alternate reality. Like someone has removed all the furniture in my house and replaced it with exact replicas. You can’t tell exactly what has changed, but something is not quite right.

What to watch

  • Fargo, the new absurdist series on FX is one part Fargo the movie, one part Twin Peaks(ish) and one part Game of Thrones-type-murdering-of-main-characters.
  • Rubicon which originally aired on AMC is now streaming on Netflix.    Review
    This smart series starts off a little slow but builds to a deeply paranoid climax. No one gets very much sleep in this show and you get some great interior experience of the main characters. This will affirm all your secret suspicions that there is a conspiracy everywhere. It is perfect for a weekend Netflix binge

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