Monthly Archives: January 2013

Article, revisited

My most recently published article, “The Auctour, the Translatoure, and the Impressoure: Translating Boccaccio’s Authorship in Early Modern England” came out officially a while ago (2011), but due to a combination of circumstances, the paper version has only just hit my desk.* It’s material that is also part of my dissertation, so it hasn’t been completely out of my mind since I sent in the final version and checked the printer’s proofs, but it has been a while since I really thought about that material. Fortunately, it’s work I liked and still like, so I don’t have the unfortunate experience of looking at it and wondering what I was thinking.

The article looks at two published translations of tales from Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron that were translated in the early 16th century by William Walter, “somtyme servaunt” of Sir Henry Marney. The two tales, “Tytus & Gesyppus” (c. 1525) and “Guystarde and Sygysmonde” (1532) are printed by Wynkyn de Worde, with editorial interventions by Robert Copland.

My contention is that the authorial structures of the framing device of the Decameron are replicated by similar structures of responsibility attributed to a new variety of figures within the English printing house. I discuss Boccaccio’s self-construction within the various levels of his text in light of narratological theories of authorship, medieval authorship, and Foucault’s author function, before showing how many of the roles that Boccaccio explicitates within the framing narrative are replaced in the two printed translations by non-narrative bibliographical framing structures that point towards the authority of the translator, editor, and printer. Although the narrative frame of the Decameron is gone, and with it the fictional characters who share authorial “responsibility” with Boccaccio, the presentation of the printed English text is, through such conventional print means as titles, woodcuts, editorial commentary, and the printer’s device, able to substitute a new set of authorities whose work guarantees the text.

It’s nice to be reminded of this work now in particular, since it intersects very neatly with some of the directions I’m trying to take my work on translation. This research, and the paper itself, are in fact a sort of case study for my ideas on the connections between translation and book history.


* These circumstances also mean that it might be more difficult to find this particular volume of the journal Textus than it is to find other volumes; if anyone is interested in the article and can’t find a copy of this volume, there is a pdf of the article on my profile.

PBS and Public Interest

I’ve recently (in the past year) become something of a PBS addict, which, given that I grew up without a television, only means that there has been more than one show on PBS that I planned ahead in order to watch. Most recently, I’ve been making time for The Abolitionists, which I have found fascinating, although I do want to hear what my historian friends think of it, particularly those who work on that period in U.S. history. It’s made me wonder, though, about the role of public academic practices, and in particular, of course, since I’m in comparative literature, public literary practices.

I don’t mean things like book signings by famous authors, or poetry readings or bestseller lists or book reviews or even performance pieces by writers who do something exciting like writing a poem in the window of a bookstore. I mean something along the lines of what PBS manages to do with so many of their series: explaining one of the objects of study to a wide audience. Of course, I don’t delude myself that a PBS show is in any way as in-depth or as complex even as the variety of work that historians do, and I’m not about to send a pitch to PBS for a new series about, say, Boccaccio’s Decameron.

But it’s interesting to consider what kind of models might exist for such an enterprise.

We have, of course, museums dedicated to famous authors: the Emily Dickinson Museum just down the road from me, Hemingway’s house in Florida that was just in the Times because the cats that live there come under federal regulations about zoos. Or one of my favorites: the Casa di Dante in Florence, Italy, which was completely remodeled after a major fire maybe a decade ago, and where I had a friend take a picture of me “with Dante’s own elevator,” much to the bemusement of the museum docent. (I was joking.) But these museums are mainly about the history of the house and the author’s connection to it, about the author’s biography, about the historical period in which the author lived. And while certainly connected to the practices of literary study…

We have as well the BBC miniseries, the “major motion pictures,” the plays based upon prose works; the performances and recordings of dramatic literature; the readings; Burns Suppers; the liturgically-timed (or not) readings of Dante’s Divine Comedy; these last admittedly mostly the province of Scots and New Zealanders, and Italianisti, respectively. In this respect, we are lucky as scholars of literature. We have texts, objects of study, that lend themselves to performances of various kinds. In some ways, of course, and for some pieces of literature, the existence of a text is the result of the scholarly activity of textual editing and philology. I wouldn’t argue if someone said that to a certain extent, all literature relies on that kind of intervention. But I would still say that these performances and recordings, while more or less textually-bound, more or less historically and literarily informed, are not to the discipline as I practice it what PBS shows are to the discipline of history.

I don’t doubt the existence of television shows about works of literature, about the creation, history, “biography” of a particular piece, even including, as PBS history does, “re-enactments” of the text in cinematic form. I can think of one: Looking for Richard. What is it, though, that makes these less prominent? Am I again simply ill-informed (these are professional reflections in the sense that they are about the profession and the field, but not in the sense that I pretend expertise in all the areas that attract my attention for blog posts)? Is the practice of literature as a discipline so esoteric that it can’t be presented in a manageable form? Or so uninteresting?

In order to think about this, I also need to wrestle with questions of audience. PBS is not universal, although it’s got “public” in the title. And I, of course, am not an average television consumer (not for being superior, just for hardly ever watching television). But I think that the question is worth asking: what is it that I find so compelling about literature that is so incompatible with one of the major communication formats of today? What is it that I do as a scholar that is hard to portray engagingly through this medium? It’s not just that I am a scholar–so are historians. It’s not just that I am interested in distant and sometimes cryptic objects–so are paleontologists.

I’m not suddenly planning to shift to some kind of cinematic pedagogy that allows students to interact with text solely through this particular medium. But I do wonder whether the reasons that literature as a discipline is difficult to film are the same reasons that students have trouble connecting to it. What can be added to the study of literature to allow access from this particular perspective and then convert, if we wish, that interest into study?

Good and Evil

One of the main courses that gets assigned to TAs in my department is called “Good and Evil, East and West” (I’m not going to get into what a weirdly problematic title that could be construed to be). Usually graduate students are assigned to teach it as one of the first two stand-alone courses they get, which usually happens in their second year. I had an unusual teaching situation—I taught in the Italian department for two years while a graduate student in Comp Lit, so I started teaching in Comp Lit “late,” but with a bunch of teaching experience already, and then got assigned an odd assortment of classes—so this is my first time teaching “Good and Evil.”

I’m pretty excited about it. I’ve actually been planning syllabi, or at least preliminary reading lists, for it for years, since I kept expecting that I’d be teaching it soon. I think I only got it this coming semester because I pointed out to the people responsible for teaching assignments that I hadn’t taught it yet, and said that I’d really like to.

I’m so excited that I’m going to tell you all about it.

Last year (or the year before?) when the movie Drive came out, I went to see it, partly because I like action movies and partly because my housemate at the time really liked Ryan Gosling, who was starring. As far as action movies go, it was weird. I’ve seen a lot of them, including a lot of really terrible movies that are good action movies, and a lot that are even terrible action movies. (I’m making a distinction between the quality of the film and the movie’s ability to function as mindless genre entertainment.) As a film, it seemed like someone had perhaps put more artistic thought into Drive than goes into many action movies, although many people I know saw this as merely pretentious. I won’t argue that point too strenuously. As an action movie, though, it had all of the right elements, but somehow they all came out wrong.

That fascinated me. These are pretty simple elements. Violence. Sex. That loner attitude that marks the hero-cowboy. Why were they not working “properly” in this movie?

I realized that actually, Drive is the same movie as The Transporter (starring Jason Statham). And then I figured it all out.

Here’s a brief outline of the plot(s). Our hero is someone who works with criminals as a wheel-man, but does not associate with the criminals otherwise, because he is morally and intellectually superior. He positions himself as doing a very simple job—driving—without being part of the other criminal aspects of the people he drives for by adhering to a relatively small set of fixed rules. In short, he does exactly what he says he will do, for exactly the money he says he will take, doesn’t ask questions, and doesn’t get involved. The idea is that this protects him, as well as making him more “professional.” Near the beginning of the movie, he takes a job. During the course of the job, something happens that requires him to make a decision about breaking his rules in order to fulfill a higher moral objective that he perceives. Of course, breaking this rule means that he eventually has to break all of his rules, chaos ensues, things blow up, people get injured, and at the end, … well, I won’t spoil them. There’s sex, too. They’re action movies, after all.

In my reading, though, what’s different about Drive is how these materials are treated. If you’re a narratologist, we could say that it’s the “story” rather than the “fabula” that changes. (See Mieke Bal’s Narratology.)

A quick example: In many action movies, the hero is able to move from kissing the love interest to beating up a bad guy and back to kissing with hardly a pause. In Drive, the hero is kissing the love interest in an elevator when he realizes that the other man in the elevator has been sent to kill him. He pushes the woman behind him and proceeds to (literally) stomp the man’s face in. While he’s doing this, the elevator arrives at the floor and the door opens. In many action movies, if not most, he would step out, shielding the woman’s eyes, perhaps, and guide her towards their next adventure. In Drive, when he looks up, she’s about 10 feet away already, outside the elevator, backing away slowly with a look of horror on her face, because, after all, he’s just stomped a man’s face in. This is not a normal man, and she knows it.

In fact, he’s something of a sociopath. Actually, when we get right down to it, most action heroes are. We just ignore that part of them. They live alone (often), lie frequently, ignore the social and moral consequences of their actions (which are of course subordinate to their own vigilante morality), the list goes on.

But this isn’t just particular to contemporary cinematic pop culture.

In medieval and ancient heroic cycles, some of the main story types are the birth of the hero, the deeds of the hero, and the death of the hero. We need that death, and the closure of the heroic age itself, because heroes are fundamentally unstable, sociopathic beings whose presence in society is a threat to stability. Once they have achieved their goal (establishing their king in power, destroying an enemy), there is no space for them. And even while they’re doing their deeds, we have to keep a lookout to make sure that they don’t accidentally exceed their usefulness and do harm to society.

Another quick example: in the Old Irish Ulster Cycle, the hero Cú Chulainn as a 7-year old proves himself to be a hero by tricking the king into arming him and letting him ride in a chariot (with the king’s own arms, chariot, and charioteer, no less). Cú Chulainn then goes out and defeats some enemies. I’ll skip that bit. When he comes back, though, he’s still in his battle-rage (what Thomas Kinsella translates as “warp-spasm”—his hair stands on end, one eye sinks into his head and the other pops out, you get the picture). The king and queen see him coming in the chariot across the plain, and they know this means trouble, because he won’t be able to recognize that he shouldn’t destroy the town. The queen gathers up the women of the town and they all go out to meet him on the plain. They show him their breasts, and when he drops his weapons and covers his eyes (because mammary glands and war are incompatible), they grab him and dunk him in a series of vats of water. The first he causes to boil, the second simmers gently, and the third gets to the temperature of warm bathwater. Then they know it’s safe, and they pluck him out, towel him off, and get on with life. Except that in their midst, they have this 7-year-old kid who might one day accidentally destroy the town if there aren’t enough half-naked women to stop him. [This tale is in Cross and Slover’s Ancient Irish Tales, but I’m not overfond of that translation. If you want more information, email me.]

So this is the idea I’ve built this course around. Not, I think, particularly novel (a lot of this comes from existing knowledge about heroes and heroic and epic cycles), but fun. We’ll spend the first half of the class (before Spring Break) looking at ancient and medieval literature, with a little Renaissance and folk literature sprinkled in. After Spring Break, we’re going to take the skills in close reading and textual analysis and apply them to more modern texts: Alan Moore and David Gibbons’ Watchmen, Drive and The Transporter, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, and Ken Liu’s The Man Who Ended History. We’ll get to talk about themes of war, sacrifice, religion, loyalty, gender… and whatever else my students or I find most interesting and productive.

The goal, as with most of these gen ed classes, is to teach students skills that they can use to analyze all kinds of texts that they encounter (most of my students are not literature students). Critical reading, analysis, argumentation, writing skills. Also thrown in is the idea of introducing them to some new texts, both Western (some Greek and Latin epic literature in this case, for example), and non-Western* (the Bhagavad-Gita). My decision to include some less literary genres in the second half is aimed at convincing them that not only do the issues we talk about in class appear, frequently, in contemporary culture, but that the skills that they’ve learned can be applied to these works as well as to, say, Boccaccio’s Decameron (ca. 1348), which, to be honest, I don’t expect most of them to read any more of than I assign in class. [DecameronWeb is a great resource, but I don’t like their translation either. I recommend G.H. McWilliam’s version, but as far as I know, it’s not available for free anywhere.]

My class, as it stands now, is more than half seniors, and out of 30, I have one single English major. The rest are a mix of mostly science, social science, and business. The biggest challenge will come, I think, if the senior-heaviness means that half of the class is just there as a last-gasp distribution-requirement-filling obligation, chosen because we don’t meet on Fridays and the schedule works out. It’s much easier to connect to students who at least chose the course because it looked interesting (and fulfilled requirements), and who don’t believe that I owe them a good grade just because they made it to their final semester. Wide variety of interests and majors? Great. Students from every academic year? Sure. The challenge of getting students to read who don’t read much? Definitely. The frustration of students who don’t see the need to come to class and then insist that they need to pass so they can graduate? Let’s see if we can avoid that.


* I use “non-Western” advisedly; it’s not my favorite term, but as a shorthand, especially given the title of the course, …

Hirnea vermium

So I had this lovely idea for a post on pseudotranslators (as opposed to pseudotranslations) that I was going to write, and then decided a) that I wanted to make it a conference paper first, and b) that this was a little more timely, if less pleasant.

We all know that the academic job market is… difficult. This is about one particular aspect of it: scheduling.

Here’s my situation. I’m trying to negotiate between the deadlines for informing the Graduate School about my intent to graduate and the fact that I won’t hear about any postdocs before those deadlines have passed. So if I tell the GS that I’m graduating, and then don’t get any jobs, I’m in a bit of a jam for next year. If I don’t notify them (and hence don’t graduate in May), and then I do get a postdoc, that’s awkward, because many of the postdocs want you to graduate by midsummer (i.e. not in the August graduation).

I went to one of the job counsellors at the MLA Job Center, who was very friendly and knowledgable, and gave me what is simultaneously the most and least practical advice: graduate. Most practical because it is, in fact, time for me to graduate, and least practical because if I do and then don’t get something, I’m stuck in a part of the country with pretty high saturation of college grads, competing with them for short-term jobs that don’t require a Ph.D. and probably would prefer someone who might stay a bit longer, and doesn’t need time off to go to conferences.

The purpose of this post isn’t, however, to whine about this. It is what it is and I’ll make a decision about it after getting as much information as I possibly can about my options.

What the post is about is interrogating what’s happening with schedules. I’ve heard from many people that one of the big changes in recent years in the job market is the fact that more and more jobs are being listed post-MLA, which puts interviews and acceptances much later spring and even summer than I assume used to be the case. Presumably postdocs have always been later, although I do know that postdocs are a sort of recent development in the humanities too, so “always” for us isn’t very long.

The University of Massachusetts Amherst (my school) requires that for May 2013 graduation, paperwork (including the dissertation) must be filed by April 16, 2013. Assuming that you file after your defense (so that you can incorporate any changes the committee recommends), this means that, cutting things impossibly and impracticably close, the latest you can defend is April 15. You must notify the graduate school one month in advance of your defense date (March 15, appropriately enough). If we are more practical about things, then we allow perhaps a month for editing and submission between the defense and the April 16 deadline, which puts the defense at March 15 and notification of the defense in mid-February. I know of some postdocs that will be notifying people by mid-March. I know of very few notifying people by mid-February.

This all means that if we are defending in the spring, it’s not early enough to talk about at MLA as a done deal, but also on a pretty tight timeline. And if we defend in the fall, there’s still that unpleasant chance that we won’t get a job, maybe not even any interviews, and that we’ll be expected to graduate in the spring anyway, because, after all, we’ve defended already.

Again, I’m not posting this to complain about my situation. I’ll make a decision and that will be that. But the situation remains, and is something I think that we should at least discuss. So the questions become: how do other schools handle these scheduling issues? What advice have people gotten from professors and search committees? Are any schools shifting their own requirements to compensate for changes in the academic hiring calendar? (Accompanying question: have I been misinformed about the increase in post-MLA hiring?)

On cultural myth and teaching literature

Every once in a while, mixed in with the lists of things that I frankly don’t even understand half the time, has a list that I find interesting. Of course, since I don’t actually check the website, I often get to them really late. Here’s one from August, “5 Ways You Don’t Realize Movies Are Controlling Your Brain.” Briefly, it goes something like this:

5. We can’t tell the difference between fact and fiction when they’re presented together.

4. Fiction (historically in the form of myth) is a medium intended to instruct.

3. Writers deliberately activate certain cultural and emotional tropes to manipulate your reaction.

2. Much of our “knowledge” of the world actually comes from pop culture, not experience or research.

1. Our brains like to create narratives around events.

While there are certainly some quibbles with this list (2 and 5 are quite similar, 4 is a bit simplistic, neuroscientists could probably disagree with some of the science behind 1), it is, in disguise, an interesting argument for the study of literature.

In our culture, we do tend, as a society, to try to create narratives around events, and those narratives, like all texts, are conditioned by culture, history, society, and the motives, conscious or unconscious, of the authors themselves. In literature classes, we teach students how to analyze narrative, among other things. How to interpret the relationships between narratives or between narrative and culture. How to break down the textual practices that encourage particular reactions. How to look at the distances between the textual world and the “real” world in all sorts of ways. We expose, or try to, the mechanisms that create texts as well as the ways that people receive them. We can’t unprogram culture, but we can, and do, make students aware of their own position in it, and give them the tools for critical analysis, as well as the knowledge that any analysis must be made from a particular cultural position.

In the terms of the article, we ask students to separate historical fact from fictional interpretation, while at the same time reminding them that historical fact is also narrative. We show them how to interrogate the subtexts of literature, to question the hidden intents as well as the stated goals of a text, to think about the purpose of stories. We remind them that writers are also participants in society, and that they have their own goals and agendas, and we help students examine how writing can be used to further those aims. We teach students to do research, and to figure out why certain myths are perpetuated. And we can try, too, to challenge their mental structures. We can point out that they are immersed in a world of narrative, and have them think about what that means, but we can also challenge them to find other models and stretch their minds.

Reading this article, I found myself thinking about the reasons that I give for teaching translation studies and translation theory. While there are many excellent programs that teach students how to translate– linked to national language departments or to comparative literature or, on rare occasions (rare in the U.S., that is) in their own departments or schools– that has not been my focus. Instead, I look at translation studies as teaching many of these same lessons about how to read culture and how to interpret the narratives that we find everywhere. In some ways, translation makes these issues even more evident. I see translated texts as the concrete form of interpretation: a particular approach fixed (as much as text ever is) at a particular moment in a particular culture. Particularly through divergent, resistent, or creative translations, I can show students examples of textual interpretation. To analyze a text and its translation, we answer similar questions, but answer them twice, and in doing so, expose the ways in which text moves and changes.

Of course, it’s all reflexive as well. One could even design an exercise around the article itself, asking how, as a piece of writing, it also creates a narrative, and serves all of the purposes it describes.