Category Archives: Spain

Lorca’s rivers

Translating (or even privately reading) modern free verse in a language that has many cognates and grammatical similarities to English is partly a matter of choosing an English match for each word in the original and stringing those words together. You must accept the inevitable distortions, because the sounds and senses of the two languages cannot match perfectly. The original may also present larger choices.

This is an early Lorca poem about the city where we’re living for three months. The Darro River is 800 meters from the house that we’ve rented and is about one meter wide.

“The Guadalquivir River”
A little ballad of three rivers for Salvator Quintero
By Federico Garcia Lorca
The Guadalquivir River
goes between oranges and olives.
The two rivers of Granada
Come down from snow to wheat. 
Ah, love,
gone and not come back!
The Guadalquivir River
Has garnet stubble.
The two rivers of Granada
one weeping and the other blood
Ah, love
off in the air! 
For sailing ships,
Seville has a road;
In the water of Granada
Sighs alone could paddle.
Ah, love,
Gone and not come back!
Guadalquivir, high tower
And wind in the orange groves. 
Dauro and Genil, little towers
dead over the ponds
Ah, love
Off in the air! 
Who will say that the water carries
A will-of-the wisp of cries!
Ah, love,
Gone and not come back!
Carry orange blossom, carry olives, 
Andalusia, to your seas.
Ah, love
Off in the air! 

The Spanish text is here. For the refrains, Lorca uses relative clauses that begin with “que,” starting with: “Ay, amor / que se fue y no vino …” That could mean a love who or a love that. Spanish permits this ambiguity, which might have been especially attractive for Lorca, for whom a “who” would have been a man. Like Rolfe Humphries, who translated this poem for Poetry, I opted for a past participle, to retain the ambiguity.

I chose “sighs alone could paddle” for “sólo reman los suspiros,” partly because I liked the echo of paddle and stubble, and partly because the English monosyllable “row” is too easily misread as a noun.

Humphries must have found the literal meaning of the following verse confusing or unconvincing:

Guadalquivir, alta torre
y viento en los naranjales.
Dauro y Genil, torrecillas
muertas sobre los estanques

How can small rivers be “little towers” or “turrets,” and what does it mean for turrets to be dead over ponds? Humphries loosely offers:

Guadalquivir, high tower,
Wind among orange blossoms,
Darro and Genil, lowly
And dead among the marshes.

I like Humphries’ verse better than my translation, but I am not sure his conveys Lorca.

By the way, I love that the Guadalquivir is just the Wadi al-Kabir, the Big River, transliterated into Spanish.

color-blindness makes it to an art museum

I am color-blind. I have the common red/green type sometimes called Daltonism.

I do not mind. In fact, I don’t think I would accept a permanent “cure,” if there were one. I might like to experience the colors that most sighted people see, but I wouldn’t want to leave the world I know on a one-way journey. I love what I experience.

Miguel Fructuoso, Maria Sanchez and Miguel Angel Tornero are established Spanish artists. Although Fructuoso was born in 1971, he was recently diagnosed with Daltonism. I am curious about that story. Adults realized that I was color-blind when I was still a little kid. Fructuoso is a painter, and he has the same physical condition I do. I am not sure how he remained undiagnosed for half a century. It has been suggested, but not widely accepted, that the English landscape painter Constable was color-blind at a time before that condition was recognized.

In any case, Fructuoso’s realization “initiated an intense collaboration” with Sanchez and Tornero, who have co-produced works as “formal exercises” that help them to explore “empathy and exclusion, the rare and the common, individualism and the collectivity.”

They have created several such works for the Centro Jose Guerrero in Granada. Guerrero was born here in 1914, spent a considerable portion of his life as an abstract expressionist painter in New York City, and died in Barcelona in 1991. He was known for vivid color. That makes his eponymous museum a perfect location for an exhibition about color-blindness.

The photo (above) that illustrates this post shows a painting by Guerrero from ca. 1970 (I think), copied by the three contemporary artists, with color-blind “Bill” choosing the paints. Yes, the two images look very similar to me, except along the top band.

Below is the result when many people with red/green color-blindness were offered a large selection of paints and asked to paint a line of a single color around the room in the Centro Jose Guerrero. Yes, I perceive a green line going all the way around.

Installation in the Centro Jose Guererro (Granada) showing a line painted by many color-blind people. Many would perceive it as changing color,

And here, the artists have reproduced the standard tests for color-blindness as gallery works in paint and print. (No, I cannot see any numbers, but I do like these images.)

Color blindness test reproduced as a paining for the show Daltons at Centro Jose Guererro, Granada

Since I have not felt mistreated as a result of color-blindness, I was not deeply moved by the exhibition’s message of empathy and inclusion, although it’s certainly benign. And I suppose I am sympathetic to Fructuoso, although he has done very well in a conceptual/expressionist mode.

I find aesthetic questions about color-blindness interesting. For example, how might we compare the art that I see (and love) to what most of you see? Does it matter that I don’t see what was intended? And how should I feel, as a person with Daltonism, about monochrome art, expressionist art that is meant to look different from the real world, or impressionist works that reproduce nature’s colors for me even though both the paintings and their objects look different to you?

sabbatical update

I’m in Granada, Spain, for three months, as part of a sabbatical. We’re living in a “carmen,” which is a “a type of urban housing” typical of two specific neighborhoods in this city, “with an attached green space, both garden and orchard, that constitutes an extension of the dwelling, according to the classic definition of Seco de Lucena. A Carmen is a space closed to the outside, surrounded by walls about two meters high, usually whitewashed, with lush vegetation” (per Wikipedia).

That describes our rented house quite well. We’re located near the summit of the Albaicin, the neighborhood of which the young Lorca wrote, “[El] tiene sonidos vagos y apasionados y esta’ envuelto en oropeles suaves de luz oscura” (“It harbors vague and passionate sounds and is wrapped in soft tinsels of dark light”). I see what he meant, but the views are usually crisp and vivid–with the snow-capped Sierra Nevada rising behind the sharp angles of the Alhambra–and the birds that provide most of the soundscape seem raucously cheerful rather than wistful for the lost world of al-Andalus.

I’m busy with several research projects that will benefit from concentration, including an interesting collaborative study that involves trying to diagram the logic of open-ended responses to a political survey. I appreciate the quiet hours when Americans are asleep, although I’m glad to hear from people once dawn breaks in the USA.

Although I’m certainly learning about Granada and Spain, I feel too much of a novice to post much about those topics yet. I presume I will blog normally about civic engagement and related matters.

Europa was an Asian woman, and other thoughts on the definition of Europe

Europa was Phoenician. She was a princess of Tyre, now in Lebanon, which is in Asia. If we take the myth literally, her native tongue would have been Semitic, part of the Afroasiatic language family. Zeus, disguised as a bull, carried her off to Crete, where she bore him three sons who ruled domains from Anatolia to the Cyclades. She gave her name to the continent where she landed.

That is one story about Europe and its neighbors. Here’s a more influential one. Long ago, Spain was populated by people who were Christian and European and whose language and culture derived from ancient Rome. A conquering army arrived from Africa, bringing a foreign religion and language (an Afroasiatic one, in fact). Their advance was checked by a European army at the Battle of Tours. Then, gradually, the surviving Christian leaders “reconquered” the peninsula and drove the foreigners away.

Now here are some problems with that story. Both Christianity and Islam (and Judaism) began in the same region of western Asia. Many people in both northwest Africa and the Iberian peninsula converted to one of those religions, or to one and then another. Members of the same families belonged to both. ‘Abd al-Rahman III, the powerful monarch who founded the Caliphate of Cordoba, had a Christian grandmother, Princess Onneca of Pamplona, and a Christian slave mother, Muzna. He dyed his fair beard dark to look more like one of his very distant patrilineal ancestors from the Arabian peninsula (Brian Catlos, Kingdoms of Faith, p. 130).

Although the origins of the peoples of both modern Spain and Morocco are unclear, there’s at least some evidence that they descended from a common “Ibero-maurusian” culture that spanned the straits. The invaders in 711 included many Christians as well as Muslims. Some people whose ancestors had lived in Spain before 711 thoroughly acculturated to Arab language and customs while remaining Catholic. However, it was largely because of the influence of the Muslim and Arabic-speaking Abassid Caliphate far to the east that texts, ideas, and aesthetic values that had been important in ancient Rome spread into the Iberian peninsula, and from there into northern Europe.

It is hard to shake an equation of European with Christian, Latinate, and white. But this is a misleading mental model, as well as often a racially prejudiced one. The Spanish story of “reconquest” is one of its sources.

We can trace the model one step back from Spain to the court of Charlemagne, where Alcuin of York (c. 735–804) used the word “Europe” for the region where he lived. For instance, Alcuin wrote, “Almost the whole of Europe was destroyed by the fire and the sword of the Goths or the Huns. But now, by the mercy of God, as the sky shines bright with stars, so Europe shines with the ornament of churches, and in them the offices of the Christian religion flourish and increase.”

Alcuin wanted to differentiate Charlemagne’s empire (headquartered in what is now the French/German border) from its pagan Nordic enemies, the Slavic peoples whom Charlemagne raided for slaves, the Iberian Arabs whom Charlemagne’s grandfather had fought at Tours, and especially the Greek-speaking Christians based in Constantinople. Hence Alcuin defined a continent that encompassed Charlemagne’s possessions while excluding all other lands, including the empire of the Greeks.

Alcuin didn’t invent the word “Europe”; he reformulated ancient precedents. For Herodotus (485-425 BCE) the line between Asian and Europe ran through the Kerch Strait (the site of Putin’s bridge today), the Bosphorus and Sea of Marmara, and then between the coast of Asia Minor and the Aegean islands. Herodotus described many closely associated cities and people on both sides of this line. Meanwhile, he defined the border between Asia and Africa as the River Nile, which split the Kingdom of Egypt between two continents:

I cannot guess for what reason the earth, which is one, has three names, all women’s, and why the boundary lines set for it are the Egyptian Nile river and the Colchian Phasis River [now in Georgia] … ; and I cannot learn the names of those who divided the world, or where they got the names which they used. For Libya is said by most Greeks to be named after a native woman of that name, and Asia after the wife of Prometheus … But as for Europe, no men have any knowledge whether it is bounded by seas or not, or where it got its name, nor is it clear who gave the name, unless we say that the land took its name from the Tyrian Europa, having been (it would seem) before then nameless like the rest. But it is plain that this woman was of Asiatic birth, and never came to this land which the Greeks now call Europe, but only from Phoenicia to Crete and from Crete to Lycia. Thus much I have said of these matters, and let it suffice; we will use the names established by custom.

Herodotus, The Histories (trans. A. D. Godley) 4:45

Thus, for Herodotus, the distinctions among continents were arbitrary (there was one connected “earth”) and did not mark cultural boundaries. These distinctions were basically local, because he admitted that he did not know how far the continents extended. He did not intend to contrast people from China, Scotland, and Nigeria, but rather those from Lycia and Lesbos, which lie a few miles apart. (One of Europa’s sons by Zeus, Sarpedon, was the mythical founder of Lycia, which Herodotus counted as Asian. Another son was Minos, the mythical king of Crete, which he considered Greek.)

However, Herodotus begins his histories with a strong binary opposition between the “Hellenes” and the “barbarians” (Hdt. 1.1.0). He retells a series of mythical tit-for-tat abductions or rapes–from Europa to Helen–and then blames the Greeks for escalating these conflicts into full-scale war by invading and destroying Troy. He offers what he calls the Persian take on this matter:

“From then, we have always held the Greeks to be our enemies.” For the Persians claim Asia and all the barbarian peoples who live there as theirs, and they consider Europe and the Greeks to be separate.

(Hdt. 1.4.4, my trans.)

Thus, for Herodotus, the Europe/Asia distinction is really a Persian construction–but it matters deeply to him because he sees the Persian Empire of his time as the chief threat to Greek liberty.

Thucydides may obliquely criticize Herodotus when he notes that Homer never named Agamemnon’s forces as “Hellenes,” nor did Homer use the word “barbarian” at all. Thucydides argues that the concept of Greekness arose long after the Trojan War, once the city states centered in Greece had developed sufficient wealth and power that they could act in concert (Thucy. 1.3). In other words, for Thucydides, Greek identity and opposition to Persian power were political accomplishments, not natural facts.

Twenty-five centuries later, these distinctions–much evolved and redefined–still influence us. Herodotus would be perplexed to hear barbarians from the distant west define themselves as Europeans, yet a long thread connects him to them.

The idea of “Europe” can be inspiring. I was exposed to benign propaganda in favor of European integration when I was a child in London in the 1970s, and for me, the EU still invokes cosmopolitan, peaceful, and democratic values. I was moved to see EU flags on many private buildings in Lviv and Chernivtsi in 2015. On the other hand, “Europe” can also be an exclusionary idea, a boundary. In the case of Brexit, it even serves as a way of turning very close neighbors into foreigners. It’s always worth recalling the arbitrary origins of the concept and remembering Herodotus’ point that the earth is really one.

See also: the history of the phrase “the West”; don’t name things Western but call out imperialism; to whom do the ancient Greeks belong?Jesus was a person of color; Brexit: a personal reflection; etc.

cities in an era of migration

(Montreal) I’ve had opportunities to visit several cities since July and have enjoyed watching migrants in those spaces.

In Cordoba, Spain, the cathedral was once one of the world’s great mosques. I watched many Muslim visitors, especially young Francophone Arabs. I wondered how they interpreted this space, with its Islamic heritage and its boldly Catholic symbolism. (In a terrible act of vandalism, Charles V dropped a cathedral right in the middle of its coolly harmonious aisles.) Meanwhile, Grenada now has a mosque for the first time since the renaissance, serving its substantial and growing Moroccan population.

Forty-five percent of Augsburg’s population consists of migrants. I heard second-hand about an African migrant’s strong critique of structural racism, which reinforces what I have learned on other recent visits to Germany. (I was in Weimar last November.) However, superficially, Augsburg appears to be a lively and diverse city in which people from many part of the world–including, now, thousands of displaced Ukrainians–interact quite productively. It’s also nice that Augsburg doesn’t seem to draw many tourists, despite being very attractive and interesting. That means that the diverse population seems committed to the place. For instance, they are rapidly learning German.

Iceland’s national citizen population is about 366,000, and each year before the pandemic it was receiving about 2.3 million visitors (counting the ones who stayed at least one night). Meanwhile, citizens of the Schengen zone can easily get Icelandic work permits. As a result, Reykjavik has turned into one of those global transit zones, where a sample of the world’s wealthier countries–plus a few refugees–parades through public spaces, being greeted and served by people who are almost as diverse as the visitors. Although Dubai is Iceland’s opposite in many other respects (from climate to politics), it is another example of this category.

Now I’m in Montreal, which I always enjoy as a bilingual city that is also a magnet for migrants from the whole world. I love the “bonjour hi” greeting, which invites one to respond in French or English. (As someone whose French is not bad, but is generally much worse than the locals’ English, I’m not sure what is expected of me.) I also enjoy watching the trilingualism of many recent immigrants. The men who served me my “shawarma poutine magique mix” communicated amongst themselves in Arabic, and with their customers in rapid-fire English and French. The actual dish combined tater tots, shawarma meat, hot sauce, cheese, and fresh parsley in an apt melange.