The Local Yarn

The Live Sparrow: Poetry & Translation

From the little I have seen, I have hopes that J. R. R. Tolkien’s soon-to-be published translation of Beowulf may do the same thing for the Old English poem that Fitzgerald did for the Persian. For example, here’s Seamus Heaney’s 1999 translation:

Fyrst forð gewát flota wæs on ýðum bát under beorg
beornas gearwe on stefn stigon — stréamas wundon,

Time went by, the boat was on water, in close under the cliffs.
Men climbed eagerly up the gangplank, sand churned in surf…

Tolkien does something much better with his version:

On went the hours: on ocean afloat under cliff was their craft.
Now climb blithely brave man aboard;
breakers pounding ground the shingle.

How much of this is Tolkien and how much is the original? At the time of this writing, we don’t have much to go off of2, and I know very little Old English, so I could be mistaken; but if Tolkien can look at, for example, “stréamas wundon” and derive, in English, the music of “breakers pounding ground the shingle”, it seems reasonable to hope that the rest of the thing will be real English poetry: that is, a living sparrow rather than a stuffed eagle.

Further notes to this page will focus on other examples of translated poetry (what about the German hymns? what about Dante?), as well as more thoughts links about Tolkien’s translation once it is released next week.


  1. Letter to E. B. Cowell, Apr 27, 1859

  2. These lines are about half of the excerpt that is currently all we have to go on: a few lines Tolkien included in an introductory chapter to a 1940 edition of John R. Clark Hall’s Beowulf translation. (Notably, Hall, too, took the poetic approach to translation we are advocating here, and was criticized for it.)

A note from Mark Frost, re: Resting Rows

Sanctuary at AllSouls Anglican in Wheaton by Mark Frost
Sanctuary at All Souls Anglican in Wheaton by Mark Frost

Mark Frost

Imagination and Self-Doubt

This article has a title. Maybe you want a title when you are writing about some big idea that really could use a title. That happens a lot less often since I had kids, because I have less time and energy.

In a 2005 episode of This American Life, titled “A Little Bit of Knowledge”, we hear the story of an electrician, who, despite being fairly smart, nonetheless deludes himself into thinking he has disproved Einstein’s theory of relativity. The fact that he’s reasonably intelligent makes it all the harder for him to see his own error, even when confronted by actual experts.

Bob Berenz: All right, in this point I have to be completely honest. I did write a paper early on, and I submitted it to a physics site. And it was summarily rejected out of hand. But I did learn an important lesson, that physicists and what’s being done by them is very complicated, very mathematically intensive. What I’ve got is none of that, so it completely, almost in reverse, goes over their heads.”

Whenever his theory is challenged, Bob’s response is to reject the messenger as being narrow-minded or unintelligent. In fact, of course, Bob is the one whose mind is not quite up to the task he has set for himself. But he can’t allow himself even to suspect this. In this episode’s narrative, Bob goes from brushing off simple, obvious clues to his own crackpottedness (the rejection of his paper) to dismissing direct personal demonstrations of his ideas’ incorrectnesses. Even after a PhD in nuclear physics takes time to meet with him and explain what’s wrong with his theories, Bob comes away totally unfazed.

Bob Berenz: Well, this is not really fair, but I’m going to say it anyway. It’s like he [Dr. Brant Watson] was talking the party line. He didn’t strike me as being all that bright. I know he has a couple of patents, and he’s this big professor, and it’s probably not fair for me to say that, but I’m not claiming to be this incredible genius in this one area. It’s very simple what I ran into. And I need some help to get it put into a forum where people can understand it. But it really isn’t that difficult.

I listened to all this with great interest, because I fear that I myself might be just like Bob. In fact, I waver between thinking I am in danger of becoming like Bob, and thinking I have been like Bob for years and am just now realizing it. I have big, long-nursed theories of my own about subjects I have no formal training in, and I even write & tweet on those subjects, with few to no disclaimers.1

When an idea captivates your imagination, you can’t really do anything but ponder it, discuss it, write about it, and live it out — at least, not until another idea captivates it even more strongly. And there, I hope, is where Bob and I part company: because while he will not even admit the possibility of a new idea displacing his old ones, that possibility is deeply appealing to me. In fact I genuinely enjoy being proven wrong much more than the feeling of being proven apparently correct. In that moment there is a kind of clarity that is real and rare. I may put up a fight and kick a lot of tires before I get there, but really this is because I want that clarity: to know I’m wrong, and not to have to go on just suspecting I’m wrong.

I regret that I don’t have (or don’t know that I have) the direct knowledge or tools to construct with certainty my ideas on theology, metaphysics or economics; I fear I will never have them. But being, thankfully, aware of this shortcoming, I can do no other than to explore these ideas with humility and the hope of further discovery; and I invite my readers to humour me, and join with me in the same spirit.


  1. Consider this article my life-long disclaimer. 

This article has no title. When you write in a journal (a real one with paper), do you title every entry? No, you don’t. You just write the date. The date is the title.

So yeah, titles are generally unnecessary except they’re handy when you need to refer to an article in a table of contents or something. But also, this article has no little “sub-heading thing”, because it’s just a journal entry. Any time you don’t add a title, the system assumes that other stuff (collection, additional notes, etc) isn’t important either. You just get a date, nothing else.

  • A bulleted list. Where to put the · bullets?
  • Robert Strauch studied – as we all did – graphic design in the same old brick building in Augsburg, Germany (1994–99) and extended this »basic training« through another year at the École Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in Strasbourg, France. He founded his own shop in 2001 and teaches calligraphy, type design and typography in various workshops and seminars.

Re: Making a Book-Making Machine

The first version of the LaTeX template pictured in the previous note is now available on github as part of Simple Book Machine, which is a shell script and a system for using LaTeX templates to build a book from a collection of text files.

The output generated can theoretically be uploaded straight to CreateSpace for use in a 5.25″ × 8″ sized bound book. (I have yet to actually try this, but the PDF does meet all their requirements.) I plan to add options for a few other book sizes and designs in the future.

A note from James, re: How the Born-There Rule Would Fix Pro Sports

The Indian Premier League, which plays 20–20 cricket, requires that 8 of each team’s 16 players hail from the home province.

James

The Way of our Errors

Twenty years ago, when your computer had a problem, it would notify you with ?SN ERROR IN LINE 5740. The World Wide Web has improved little in this respect.

Page Not Found (HTTP 404)
The page you are trying to access does not exist.

Some have whimsically described HTTP 404 as a kind of signal that you have dropped off the edge of the world; in reality, the 404 is actually more like an “access denied.” It is a signpost signifying the boundary of the real universe, forbidding passage. Additionally, the HTTP 1.1 specification states:

“This status code [404] is commonly used when the server does not wish to reveal exactly why the request has been refused, or when no other response is applicable.”

So the server does not wish to reveal why it returned the error; that would explain the rude brevity. But as to Reasons Why, there are several possibilities, each of them intriguing and philosophically revealing.

1. The file never existed

What we have here is a genuine, undeniable attempt at Creatio Ex Nihilo, an unsatisfiable demand for a piece of information which does not exist. Although, technically, it may actually exist in some alternate location, you did not request it from that location; you requested it from here, and it does not exist here.

Short of actual thought, bits of magnetic polarization on a hard disk platter may be the most pliable, easily manipulated information medium known to man; but even using such a lightweight ether, it is unreasonable to expect a missing page to be spontaneously created from nothing.

Taming of the Tigger

Dramatis Personae

  • RABBIT, Archbishop of Canterbury
  • PIGLET, Bishop of Ely
  • TIGGER, Pistol
  • POOH, Ensign
  • CHORUS, Narrator

Act I

CHORUS

Vouchsafe to those that have not read the story
That I may prompt them; and of such as have,
I humbly pray them to admit th’excuse of things
Which cannot in their huge and proper life
Be here presented. Now we bear Rabbit,
Piglet, and Pooh toward Rabbit’s porch.
There is the playhouse now, there you must sit,
And thence to the forest shall we convey you safe.

Enter RABBIT, PIGLET, and POOH

RABBIT

I’ll tell you, that self Lord Tigger is urged
That yesterday was like to have bounced against us
By zany hazard and unnatural humours
Which him constrain to bouncing acts,
Scambling, and unquiet time.

PIGLET

But my lord, how shall we resist him now?

RABBIT

It must be thought on. If he bounce against us
We’re like to lose the better half of our possession:
For all the temporal lands and carrot gardens
Which by testament are given to us,
He would rend the harvest thereof in a twinkling
A ruin and unprofit.

PIGLET

This would drink deep.

RABBIT

’Twould drink the cup and all.