[Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1526-1569) – Tower of Babel (1563), oil on panel, 44.8 inches x 61 inches at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria]
AG: I wanted to find out… Let’s see.. I took over the space just as Philip Whalen was going to discourse on the languages that he spoke – and read…
I butted in. I was interested in hearing.. ((I want to) switch again, just a moment)..because, I was conscious (that), when I began my sentence about (reading) (Federico Garcia) Lorca, [editor’s note, he means Rilke] that I was answering first.
[Allen turns to Philip Whalen]. There you are! (So), What languages do you read? (to hearken back twenty-five thoughts!)
PW: I can read English and I can kind of fake it through lots of French, and I can read Chinese and Japanese dictionaries, so I can check out, I’m able to check out what translations are like, relative to what the dictionary says. But that doesn’t really amount to much, because all any proper sinologist will tell you is that the dictionaries that we have to work with are very, very poor equipment, that you actually have to be able to use Chinese dictionaries in Chinese in order to really check out this stuff. But it’s fun, in any case, to use the Mathews Chinese-English dictionary to cross-check the various translations of Chinese poems, or to use the Nelson dictionary to cross-check on (R.H.) Blyth‘s work in the haiku books that Allen was talking about, or other books where you have a bilingual text. It’s just entertaining to do, and it makes you feel somewhat closer to, maybe, to what’s going on. But I can’t claim to read much of anything, except English, and, about half the time, I’ve found out, when I was in college, that I wasn’t really reading English very attentively, or very carefully, very closely, and so I had to learn – that was one of the things I learned there was something about what “close reading” was (although I don’t think that that’s really the answer to anything – I really don’t believe in the idea of “explication de texte” so much). (Jack) Kerouac used to talk about “word-slinging”, about (how) (Herman) Melville was a real “word-slinger”.
AG: That was my phrase! He got it from me.
PW: Alright. Well, he borrowed from you then, but, in any case, what was important was that something built up fast, or it got by fast, and, sometimes, you don’t want the details, what you want is a general effect, or what the author was driving at as some big general balloon, as Allen calls it, instead of the precise, detailed thing. You can look at a passage from Melville and take it all to pieces and do that kind of number on it. My friend Don Carpenter said that he sat in a class with Walter Van Tilburg Clark out at State College in San Francisco, where they literally did take apart Moby Dick, page-by-page, and found why each word was there, and what each word meant, and so on.
I doubt that when he wrote it that Melville knew what he was doing. I mean, he said that it drove him crazy, writing the thing drove him mad, and, from my own experience, I have a number of times I have written a piece which, years later, somebody came up to me and said, “Gee, you sure did something wonderful at this point in the poem”. And I’ll say, “What are you talking about?”. And they say, “Well, where it says here so-and-so, and so”. And I say, “Oh yeah? – Well I just wrote it that way. I don’t know. I didn’t intend anything at all at the time, except that I had some idea, and it came down, and that’s it, and there it was, and it’s all over with. I didn’t have all that “malice aforethought” about it, all those complications that you found there. It’s interesting that you found them, and they clearly are there, aren’t they, but, boy, I didn’t build them there. I mean, I didn’t do it on purpose. It just came out that way”. So it’s very difficult to say anything about how that works out.
AG: Do you know any Latin?
PW: Oh yeah, listen, when I was in high school, I did Latin..
AG: I had a little Latin too
PW: …for several years and also studied French in high school, and then I kept it up, and then when I got into college, I did Russian for a while and then went back to French again.
AW: Did Russian affect your ear at all?
PW: No, it’s too close to English, although it has some wonderful sounds in it that are very exciting and charming sounds, but I don’t think that it had an permanent effect. But the real effect that it had was to remind me – I’d be trying to think about the Russian word for some particular object and I would immediately think of the French word, but I couldn’t remember the Russian one. Or sometimes, later, I could remember the Russian word but not a French one, which is very annoying.
But doing Buddhist studies, it turns out that a lot of it is in a dictionary. I mean, you just simply have to be operating.. whether you know the languages or not, you find yourself operating in Japanese, Chinese, Tibetan, Sanskrit, and Pali, (and a little bit of Mongolian thrown in on the edges), so you have to.. you find yourself responsible with having to deal with five languages that you don’t know anything about, and it’s very entertaining, because you gradually learn something by fiddling around.
It’s another place where you have to compare translations, where you take a term used in Buddhist philosophy, and some guy back in the 19th Century, who didn’t know a hell of a lot of Sanskrit, gave it some English equivalent, and so you get used to seeing that in translations of Buddhist scriptures, but then, later on, you come upon later translators who have learned more about Sanskrit philology and what-not and give a different interpretation or different meaning, and so on. And then, scholarship. Buddhist scholarship is done in a whole bunch of modern languages, though not too much of it exists in English [editorial note – this is 1976]. A great deal more exists in French, in Russian, and in German. I can’t do any German at all. I can’t even fake German, but…
(Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning approximately ten-and-a-quarter minutes in and concluding at approximately sixteen-and-a-half minutes in )