An Honest Book


A weekly letter from the founding editor of The Browser. Topics may vary. Correspondence and criticism welcome: robert@thebrowser.com

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This week: Language in translation, books I have been reading, long words


WHAT IS the opposite of "fluent", for language? That is the word I need this week to describe my competence in the Latvian language, after and despite several years of residence in Latvia. I am roughly at the level of what, in typing, would be called "hunt and peck". Give me a newspaper and a Latvian-English dictionary and I can work out what is going on in the world. Engage me in conversation and I seize up.

Can one have the opposite of a "gift for languages"? A "liability for languages", perhaps? I feel that I have been moving steadily into deficit since I learned minimal viable French in my twenties. My happiest moment as a French-speaker came when a Parisian asked me whether I was Belgian. It was only later that I realised they had taken me for Flemish.

Still, I felt that with the help of Google, and dictionaries, and family, and friends, I could make a stab at translating a single line by Isaiah Berlin into Latvian, for possible use as an epigraph. The line was: "The first public obligation is to avoid extremes of suffering". It came from an essay called The Pursuit Of The Ideal, delivered first by Berlin as a speech in Italy, then published in the New York Review Of Books.

Berlin was balancing tolerance ("let's all try to be accommodating") against realism ("people want conflicting things"), and arguing that at least one objective priority ("avoid extreme suffering") should be respected, whatever trade-offs might be managed elsewhere.

But if the meaning seemed clear enough, the words were another matter. Was "first" best translated in the sense of "first-in-order", or "first-in-importance", or "fundamental"? Did "public" point in the direction of "people", or "society", or "nation", or "everyone"? Why "avoid" rather than "prevent"? And, come to think of it, was the whole proposition even true, when the first public obligation of Ukraine is arguably to endure and even impose extremes of suffering?

I was suddenly in awe of translators. I had no idea of the work involved, the choices to be made. It took me a day to translate a sentence. How did anybody ever translate a book?

Thanks to that experience I realise that when I say (in the note below) how much I have enjoyed reading Boris Pasternak's Dr Zhivago, I am saying in large part how much I have enjoyed the 1958 translation by Max Hayward and Manya Harari.

Pasternak's niece, Anna Pasternak Slater, a considerable scholar and translator herself, also admired the Hayward-Harari translation, and thought that it gained in quality from the haste with which it was produced. The smuggling of Pasternak's manuscript out of Soviet Russia in 1957 produced a political uproar and a race among publishers to bring it to market.

"I remember Max [Hayward] saying he would read a page in Russian, and then write it down in English, without looking back", wrote Slater. The result was a Dr Zhivago rendered in easy, natural, idiomatic English — but often at quite a distance, in its exact wording, from the original Russian.

This natural language is most obvious in dialogue. For example, nobody would ever say: "Yes, yes, it's vexing in the highest degree that we didn't see each other yesterday". They might easily say: "Oh, I wish I'd seen you yesterday". Yet both of those are translations of the same spoken line in Dr Zhivago. The first comes from a more studied translation produced in 2010 by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. The second comes from Hayward-Harari's rush-job in 1958. Slater thinks that the Hayward-Harari falls more easily on the ear, and so do I.  


Books I Have Been Reading

Dr Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak (1957)
Translated by Max Hayward and Manya Harari (1958)

I think it was Ivan Klima who, when asked why Communist regimes had banned the works of Franz Kafka, replied, "Perhaps it was his honesty they could not stand". I feel that way about Boris Pasternak's Dr Zhivago. This is an honest book.

There are a couple of stylised villains and zealots in Dr Zhivago, but mostly the story is populated by people with doubts, people with other things on their minds, people who, by choice, would live uneventful lives, and yet, caught amid a revolution and a civil war, have no choice but to shift as best they can.

So gentle and persuasive is Pasternak's writing voice that I can visualise him, pen in hand, working away in Peredelkino, feeling that if he does not tell this story of ordinary people in extraordinary times then nobody else will — and all the while knowing that he will suffer for that exact quality in his writing, honesty, which in writing should be valued above all.

I saw David Lean's 1965 film of Dr Zhivago in my childhood, enjoyed it, and retained a few images (was it Tom Courtenay with the broken spectacles?) in my memory. But nothing in those fragments prepared me for the directness, the intimacy, of Pasternak's book, when I listened to it last week, read by Phillip Madoc.

So much of what makes Dr Zhivago great is Pasternak's modesty, his genius for seeing that the recent turmoil of his vast nation could be captured in a few lives closely observed, the lives of people who were not quite in control of themselves, let alone in control of events. I love Pasternak's writing for its hesitancy. Nobody in Dr Zhivago is ever quite certain about anything. They are always changing their minds. I am like that myself. I have found my book.


Chip War, by Chris Miller (2022)

I said last week that I was puzzled to find that only one company on Earth — a Dutch company called ASML — was capable of making the machine tools needed to produce the latest generations of microchips, without which the technological progress of the world would grind to a halt.

My thanks to Henry Farrell for recommending Chris Miller's Chip War, which is an excellent account of the evolution of the microchip industry over the past 70 years, and which tracks closely the rise of ASML.

Thanks to Chip War I now understand, at least schematically, how a semiconductor works. I have a sense of just how difficult it was to work with William Shockley. And I feel the place of Morris Chang in world history. Chang, after working for Texas Instruments, went on to found the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, which is now so far ahead of the global competition in fabricating the tiniest of chips that if China does invade Taiwan any time soon, control of Chang's factory will be high on its list of reasons.

As for the peculiar position of ASML, I came away from Chip War less puzzled, but more worried, than I was before.

There is a lot of Clayton Christensen's disruption theory in Chip War, but it seems to me that the triumph of ASML is more a case of Hirschman's Hiding Hand.

As far back as the 1960s the most advanced integrated circuits were becoming so tiny that the best way of making them was to "print" them, by shining narrow beams of light on to photosensitive coatings.

As the chips got smaller and smaller, even visible light waves became too big and clumsy to do the printing. By the 1980s it was clear that the point would soon be reached at which extreme-ultra-violet light would be needed to print new generations of chips — and the machines capable of such precision would be fantastically difficult to make. They would not be the sort of things that even an Intel would want to make in-house.

Nobody in the industry anywhere in the world was especially averse to co-operating with, and co-financing, a potential producer of these extreme-ultra-violet light machines in the Netherlands, spun off from Philips. This was seen partly as a way of getting the thing done at all, and partly as a way of forestalling the emergence of an eventual monopoly producer in America or Japan.

Then, as the decades rolled by, the semiconductor industry changed almost beyond recognition. Companies and countries rose and fell, came and went, had trade wars, focused on other things.

ASML, meanwhile, stayed doggedly focused on its machine tools, secured new rounds of financing from new investors and partners who knew its tools would be needed eventually, built a supply chain of hundreds of other companies making components to its own impossible standards, and, by the time it finally got all its ducks in line, there was nobody left standing who was even pretending to compete with it. Intended to avert a monopoly, it became the monopoly. In Miller's summation, ASML "builds 100 percent of the world’s extreme ultraviolet lithography machines, without which cutting-edge chips are simply impossible to make”.

So there you are. The most strategically valuable place on Earth is not the Taiwan Straits, nor some nexus of oil pipelines in Saudi Arabia, but a suburb of Eindhoven. I hope ASML has a high fence, a large and well-padlocked inventory of raw materials, several back-up power supplies, and a special deal with Nato for air cover.


Early Modern Texts, edited by Jonathan Bennett

Not technically a book, but near enough; Early Modern Texts is an archive of downloadable PDFs containing classic works of philosophy rewritten in plain English. Nigel Warburton recommended it to me after I wrote to compliment him on his piece in the New European in which he argued that it was perfectly possible to write philosophy in terms comprehensible to the general reader, and gave Schopenhauer as an example:

Schopenhauer wrote lucid prose because he wanted to be read and understood. “Truth,” he declared, “is fairest naked”: the simpler its expression the more profound its influence. Humans, he believed, can only think clearly when dealing with one thought at a time.

Three cheers for that. If a person can think clearly then they ought to be able to write clearly. And since philosophers are in the business of thinking for a living, the sheer difficulty of so much philosophical writing strikes me as a logical problem if not a deliberate discourtesy.

Even philosophers find some philosophy heavy going. Here is Derek Parfit on Immanuel Kant:

The first problem is Kant’s style. It is Kant who made really bad writing philosophically acceptable. We can no longer point to some atrocious sentence by someone else, and say "How can it be worth reading anyone who writes like that?" The answer could always be "What about Kant?"

We have translations of the Bible into plain English which are generally agreed by those in the trade to have lost nothing of their sacred character. Why not great works of philosophy (including those first written in English) translated into plain English? Luckily, before I got too excited about the originality of this idea, Nigel pointed out Bennett had already delivered on it.

I am starting my reading of Bennett with his version of Spinoza's Treatise On Theology And Politics, since philosophers often claim Spinoza, along with Hume, as the most likeable of their number, but I have never managed to get more than three lines into any of Spinoza's works without feeling out of my depth.

First impressions are encouraging. Here is how Bennett's Spinoza begins:

If men could manage all their affairs by a definite plan, or if they never ran into bad luck, they would never succumb to superstition. But often they are in such a jam that they can’t put any plan into operation, and can only trust to luck, wobbling miserably between hope and fear. That makes them ready to believe anything that will calm them down; when they are in doubt, a slight impulse drives them this way or that — especially when they are tormented by hope and fear, and don’t know which way to turn. At other times they are over-confident, boastful and presumptuous.

Yup. I can live with this.


As for my quest last week to find a word which meant "using a particular word to show that one knew the particular word", we had several near-bull's-eyes, and one inspired winner.

"Sesquipedalian" was the hands-down favourite for describing words that are notable for their length, and also speech in which such words are used. But I think it would have to be used ironically, if one wanted to mock, as showing-off, the use of long words. Used in all seriousness to describe the use of long words, "sesquipedalian" would become an example of exactly the sort of showing-off that we are seeking a word to describe.    

Does this start to sound a bit self-referential? I hope so, because that will bring us nicely to our winner: It is "self-reverential", which Andrew John dropped into his email so lightly that at first I misread it, and only then, doing a double-take, did I grasp its genius. Everything is in there: Not only the use of attention-seeking words, but attention-seeking behaviour in general.

My thanks to correspondents for comments and suggestions relating both to the long-word word, and to other points in recent letters. I am especially indebted to Henry F, Paul M, Jonathan B, Nathaniel J, Jay W, Reed H, Amy S, Neil O, David R, Benajmin W, Richard K, Andre M, Jack H, Anar B, Jack A, Sean C, Nancy D, Galen S, Philip W, Stephen Y, Scott M, John M, afwaz, Robert B, Doug R, Alex M, John K, Scott S, Kate N, Rory O'C, Dan N, Naftali F, Francesca B, bvann, and, of course, Andrew J. I apologise for not writing more personal replies more promptly; I am at fault; but I do read and value all of the emails which you are kind enough to send.  

A giftable Browser subscription is on its way to Andrew John. Which may also be a good moment to mention that giftable Browser subscriptions are readily available for purchase at the button below — Robert


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