Archive for the 'translation' Category

Shadows in the fog: WATCHMEN

Like everyone else remotely connected with comics, I’ve been considering the Watchmen film all week. My reactions to it (in the aftermath of a Wednesday night advance screening, thanks to some very kind local connections) are kind of strewn around the internet, largely on my Twitter feed, but also commenting on posts by Sean Collins and Pádraig Ó Méalóid.

[Edited to add: for the sake of preservation, here are those comments:

  • leighwalton accepts that Zach Snyder probably made the best movie he could 1:18 PM Mar 5th from web
  • leighwalton do I just love movies less than most people? Guess I don’t see why a pretty-good WATCHMEN film is so fulfilling (aside from book sales bump) 11:42 PM Mar 5th from web
  • leighwalton for my personal take, I’m somewhere between Walter Chaw ( and Tasha Robinson ( 11:54 PM Mar 5th from web
  • leighwalton “he would ejaculate only energy”: I’m not sure how to feel, seeing Roger Ebert encounter WATCHMEN for the first time 8:53 PM Mar 6th from web
  • leighwalton Ebert is working SO HARD to reconstruct the graphic novel from the movie – seriously, dude, it’s a $20 book. DC will send you a free copy. 9:03 PM Mar 6th from web
  • leighwalton Ebert:300 was empty. but WMEN, “maybe it’s the material, maybe it’s a growing discernment on Snyder’s part, but there’s substance here” ARGH 9:06 PM Mar 6th from web

reply to Pádraig:

Aside from some big-picture considerations (e.g. the tone wandered all over the place), I was frustrated by a lot of stilted line-readings. Oddly enough, a lot of the unconvincing lines were actually Moore’s — in WATCHMEN as in much of his writing, he often leans upon a line to carry double or triple meanings, so of course it’s going to sound unnatural if you take it “straight.”

It was most obvious to me during the Chapter III scenes — did the screenwriters really not understand why the TV man says “that’s certainly dark enough for my purposes”? Or that when Laurie says “shadows in the fog” she is hidden behind the steam from a teakettle? Without that double meaning, it’s an idiotic line (especially delivered by Malin Akerman, but let’s not go there). Snyder kept holding these long interpersonal scenes, which are not his forte — look, man, you’re an MTV-style director; make an MTV-style film! The book shows you how to do it! Cut rapidly between scenes, with lines bleeding over from one to the next! If you’re going to use the book as storyboard, friggin’ do it!

Your point about wasting time with the opening fight scene when so many important things were left out is right on. Why the hell was there so much emphasis on the Gunga Diner (and its Pink Floydian floating elephant blimp)? It’s a pun that Moore and Gibbons tossed off in a single panel, and it’s not even particularly relevant thematically. Meanwhile, where was the Gordian Knot Lock Company? Veidt’s decision makes less sense without the model of Alexander’s legend. Why include Bubastis at all? And why, in God’s name, change “I did it thirty-five minutes ago”?

It’s certainly a better film than most crews would have made. But I guess it’s just good enough to fall into the uncanny valley where we take its virtues for granted and see only its flaws.

Reply to Sean:

I thought it was cold when it needed to be flashy (no alternating jump-cuts between scenes? did they READ the book?) and flashy when it needed to be cold (fight in Blake’s penthouse, fight in Antarctica, bone-protrusions).]

The task of writing a full review of the film is daunting, and I’m afraid the perfect may be the enemy of the good in this case.


What it ultimately boils down to, where I’m sitting right now, is that Snyder et al adapted Watchmen more or less exactly as they would have adapted Kraven’s Last Hunt or Emerald Twilight or Secret Wars II. “Here’s a great comic book story, and we’ll bring it to life on the big screen.” But Watchmen is fundamentally unlike those other stories — there’s a reason Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo put it on their 100 Novels list (as you’ve heard ad nauseam), but declined to include Crisis on Infinite Earths. Spelling out what sets Watchmen apart could take a year, but broadly it’s 1) the self-conscious ambivalence of its thematic approach and 2) the Byzantine grandeur of its storytelling. Both are missing in Snyder’s film.

This is Watchmen without the irony and without the technique, which is still pretty fun, but it’s not the Watchmen that I read anymore.


Beowulf, God, and reception

My friends Fiona and Serena have started this blog, Literary Iditarod, for vague purposes that seem to involve reading the entire canon of global literature(!), possibly to prepare for grad school. They’ll quickly move out of my comfort zone, but while we’re on the really old stuff (and specifically Beowulf, which I have read), I’ll join the conversation. I’m going off of this post, in which Serena wonders about “the hopeless muddle that is the story’s theological situation“:

…the narrator can be a Christian who is describing the events of pre-Christian times. But no. That would be too straightforward.

This is one where the textual criticism is essential. And impossible, but we have to at least understand what the situation is and why it’s impossible.

The situation is strikingly similar to Homer, where we have a text that doesn’t have a lot of precedents but also obviously describes situations considerably earlier than itself. It makes dating the thing, or even isolating and dating the various layers within it, almost impossible, but maybe what’s interesting for your purposes is that it represents a literate Christian scribe (or series of scribes) trying to make sense of an illiterate pagan society (and possibly working from an oral text, or group of texts, that he’s received). I’ve always found the “emendations” to be somewhat clumsy — as though someone went through a “pure” original text with a red pen, haphazardly adding references to God.

Then down the brave man lay with his bolster
under his head and his whole company
of sea-rovers at rest beside him.
None of them expected he would ever see
his homeland again or get back
to his native place and the people who reared him.
They knew too well the way it was before,
how often the Danes had fallen prey
to death in the mead-hall. But the Lord was weaving
a victory on his war-loom for the Weather-Geats.
Through the strength of one they all prevailed;
they would crush their enemy and come through
in triumph and gladness. The truth is clear:
Almighty God rules over mankind
and always has.
[688-701, tr. Heaney]

It’s like the part of Josephus where he’s going along describing the affairs of the Jews during the first century and then suddenly says “There was also this guy named Jesus, who was a miracle-worker, and also, he was the Messiah, and Pilate executed him but then he came back to life and did ten thousand other wonderful things.” Then he picks right back up with the history. Hmm, seems a little suspicious!

We know that such things have happened throughout history whenever one civilization absorbs the culture of another but needs to “edit” the absorbed texts to fit its own orthodoxy (the Aeneid, the Spanish inquisition, Stalin, etc… and indeed most translations). I just read Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book, which features such a scene. Arthur Golding’s preface to his 1567 Ovid translation is an example of one manifestation of this impulse, the translator’s apologia. It’s pretty adorable:

I would not wish the simple sort offended for to be,
When in this book the heathen names of feigned gods they see.
The true and everliving God the paynims did not know:
Which caused them the name of gods on creatures to bestow.
[he explains that Mars is really intended as a symbol for aggression, Venus for sex, etc]
Now when thou readst of God or man, in stone, in beast, or tree
It is a mirror for thyself thine own estate to see.
For under feigned names of gods it was the Poet’s guise,
The vice and faults of all estates to taunt in covert wise.
And likewise to extol with praise such things as do deserve,
Observing always comeliness from which they do not swerve.

“I know it seems sacrilegious, but look, there’s actually good stuff in here if you read it as an allegory!” Golding mostly confined his editorializing to the preface, though, and allowed Ovid to speak for himself during the actual poem. The Beowulf poet just spreads this stuff throughout the text. Or is it that simple? There is a narrator character, which complicates things, plus we don’t even know for sure what sources he was working from… The “bewildering array of linguistic forms” in the surviving text suggests that it’s been through quite a few hands before it got to us, anyway.

Plenty of interesting questions, though. For whom was it composed? “As yet we are no closer to finding out why the first audience of Beowulf liked to hear stories about people routinely classified as damned. This question is pressing, given […] that Anglo-Saxons saw the Danes as ‘heathens’ rather than as foreigners.” [Richard North in Wikipedia]

Despite all the “God is the king of heaven” talk, Christ is never mentioned. Is the poet attempting to bring the Danes as close to orthodoxy as historically plausible (“nobody had told them about Christ yet, but look, at least they worshipped a single all-father deity”)?

If the Anglo-Saxon Christian editorializing is scattered throughout, both in the narrator’s voice and in the characters’, it is possibly extricable from the hypothetically “original” pagan content? Or is that a fool’s errand? Is this essentially the same as Athenian theatre and Rennaissance theatre, where you’re telling a story about your contemporary society but dressing it up like it’s long ago and far away?

It’s an interesting question, because I see two strong tendencies that would work in opposition here: A) the assumption that everybody everywhere at every time is just like us, and B) the assumption that foreigners are Other and Evil and Monstrous.

Or to put it another way, A) the Spartans in 300, B) the Persians in 300. I guess we tend to switch between these tendencies based on who the Good Guys are supposed to be?

You don’t have to look at Beowulf as a moment of reception. There’s plenty to discuss about its structure, mythic significance, poetic form, etc. But to the extent that it is a moment of reception (an Anglo-Saxon community receiving and interpreting tales of ancient Denmark) I think that — like most moments of reception — it tells us more about the receiver than it does about the thing being received.

According to this view, Beowulf can largely be seen to be the product of antiquarian interests and that it tells readers more about “an 11th century Anglo-Saxon’s notions about Denmark, and its pre-history, than it does about the age of Bede and a 7th or 8th century Anglo-Saxon’s notions about his ancestors’ homeland.” — Kiernan

What a piece of work is this comic


In the spirit of Chris’s ranty ranty post, here: SparkNotes’ line of No Fear Shakespeare graphic novels is actually really awesomely good, and none of the artists are credited on the front cover, only on the back cover, which is laaaame. Hamlet by Neil Babra is my favorite, but Macbeth by Ken Hoshine and Romeo & Juliet by Matt Wiegle are also solid. All three creators deserve way more critical attention.


Here’s my brief review of Hamlet:

Neil Babra’s done an outstanding job with this one. His character designs, graytones, page layouts are all superb. The characters’ “acting” is strong, the pacing works well, and (most impressively) the script is a hybrid of Shakespeare’s original and SparkNotes’ dumbed-down “translation,” capturing the best features of both (and leaving Shakespeare’s best lines undamaged). Note also the fantastic frontispieces drawn by Babra for each act – each one a masterpiece I’d be proud to hang in my house. Hats off to Babra for taking a project that could easily have been phoned in (SparkNotes? Seriously?) and knocking it out of the park. This is a fine graphic novel.


“a cat may look at a king”

From BoingBoing: A recent episode of Public Radio International’s To the Best of Our Knowledge dealt with remix, reuse, and plagiarism:

Author Jonathan Lethem talks to Jim Fleming about his “Harper’s” Magazine essay, “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism.” As the subtitle indicates, Jonathan Lethem appropriated the words of many authors to cover the subject of plagiarism, although he provides full attribution of his sources at the end of the essay. Also, Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky, That Subliminal Kid) talks to Anne Strainchamps about his book, Rhythm Science, and how the art of music sampling relates to plagiarism. We also hear a DJ Spooky/TTBOOK interview mashup.

MP3 link: here

The Lethem essay is online: here. I remember hearing about it but never read it all the way through till now; it’s astonishingly good — a fantastic summary of today’s cultural moment.

As I quoted in my senior undergraduate thesis:

Am Ende ist alle Poësie Übersetzung.
In the end all literature is translation.
Novalis, a.k.a. Friedrich von Hardenberg

As I wrote in the conclusion chapter, my own translations were intended to “illustrate (and hopefully validate) my twofold assertion: that emulation is not bad literary practice but a respectable and indeed essential part of creation, and conversely that the insertion of one’s own personality and culture is not a sign of bad or unfaithful translation. On the contrary, both processes are unavoidable, and so we might as well do them openly.”

Leigh Walton talks comics and maybe other arts. (RSS)
He also works for the very excellent publisher Top Shelf Productions (which does not necessarily endorse the views and opinions, etc, herein).


Header by me. Contains an interpolation of the final panel from All-Star Superman #1 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. Speaking of which.