Mar 20 2009 10:14am

Arts of the Mongrel Horde

In bookstores there are sections for African-American literature, books in Spanish, a GLBT section, and a number of other subdivisions. In the bookstore in my head, there’s a Mutt Lit area.

I’m an American of Welsh, Serbian and Lebanese ancestry, with a German last name. For a long time I felt like I had no ethnicity, but I’ve decided that isn’t true. I’m a Mutt! My people are from Foreignoslavia. Or maybe Mictogenetistan. We are a proud, brownish people. As a result of fully accepting my heritage-in-a-blender, I've found myself drawn to cultural mash-ups. 

The collaboration of Edward FitzGerald and Omar Khayyam is a good example. The Rubaiyat, in English, belongs to two authors, two cultures, two times and we hear it in one voice. No question, FitzGerald went well past translation in his take on the poem. A quick comparison of literal translation with his shows a pretty deep re-write. Take a look at these two versions. One is from a contemporary Persian translator and the other is FitzGerald. Any question as to which is which?

In spring if a houri-like sweetheart
Gives me a cup of wine on the edge of a green cornfield,
Though to the vulgar this would be blasphemy,
If I mentioned any other Paradise, I'd be worse than a dog.

Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse - and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness –
And Wilderness is Paradise enow

While some would scold FitzGerald for his liberality, I applaud the mixing of East and West. It’s not a translation. It’s nothing like one. It’s a remix. In his essay “The Enigma of Edward FitzGerald” Borges writes: “All collaboration is mysterious. That of the Englishman and the Persian was even more so, for the two were quite different, and in life might not have been friends; death and vicissitudes and time led one to know the other and make them into a single poet.” What a beautiful and improbable merging. The Rubaiyat is a mutt poem of the purest pedigree. I see it as the anthem of Foreignoslavia (and should be performed by Dick Dale).

Other cultural hybrids in literature, film and music are numerous. Just a few off the top of my head: The Decameron, the strange and marvelous lovechild of Shahrazad and the plague. Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino’s Sino-Venetian tale of perspective multiplicity. Haroun and the Sea of Stories, by Salman Rushdie, an author who cites the film version of the Wizard of Oz as his earliest literary influence. Not to mention just about everything by Haruki Murakami, who is more Vonnegut than Mishima, more Kafka than Kawabata. 

If you see what I’m getting at, it isn’t necessarily the works of multiethnic authors that I’m talking about so much as stories that are, in and of themselves, points of cultural interaction.

Contrast this to, say, The Three Musketeers. Dumas may have been a mutt but his novel wasn’t. No offense intended; it’s a great book. It’s just not a cultural mixtape like the other works I mentioned. It’s pure French through and through.

Some stories try and fail to mix cultures. Though I hate to admit it, because I’m a big fan of the show, I’d place Firefly in this category. The concept is, in theory, a mixture of American and Chinese cultures. In reality, the Chinese aspect is all but missing. But for the occasional mumbled Mandarin word, the show opted for a post-civil war era motif throughout. Asian thought, customs and art are absent or presented lazily.

Then there’s David Windgrove’s Chung Kuo series. The Chinese aspect of the story is, of course, massively important and far more thoroughly imagined than in Firefly. But still, the novels don’t work for me as instances of cultural merging so much as European versus Chinese, with the Chinese in the adversarial position. It’s little different from novels in which an alien race has taken over earth. In Wingrove’s books, the aliens are from China.

I’m not saying, in any way, that in a book in which two cultures meet, they have to play nice. This  isn’t a case of multicultural naiveté; conflict is a perfectly valid avenue to explore. All I’m saying is that an authentic melding can create some pretty wonderful results. 

And authenticity is a major part of all this. Intentional, specifically planned cultural mixture in art (as with my Firefly example) seldom creates the same great resonance as art in which cultures flow into each other. In a way, what I’m calling “Mutt Lit” is like a really great kiss. The best kisses, as we all know, are inevitable. They’re natural and thrilling, a unique encounter of elements attracted by undeniable force. 

Cassie Ammerman
1. leanoir
Jason, I love that you brought up Omar Khayyam and Edward FitzGerald, because I just read their Rubaiyat for the first time about a month ago (Oxford has a new edition out this month and I'm the publicist for it--email if you want a copy!). And thanks for the list of "mutt lit," I'm definitely adding some of these to my reading list.
mm Season
3. mmSeason
Love the term Mutt Lit, Jason. Hope it catches on!

Thanx for this post which ties in beautifully with one of my pet interests, translation. Not that i'm a translator, but i am a linguist. This tension between rendering the original word for word or being truer to the spirit of it is such a difficult question to explain to anyone who doesn't get it to start with.

Aren't we all Mictogenetistani, though? Admittedly the Micto strain is less recent in some. ;0) I think it's great that you know, or at least have a pretty concrete idea of, which bits are mixed into you.

But i suppose the different cultures in one's one- or two- generations back background (ye gods, i can't write a simple sentence tonight) may have a similar effect to travel. I've lived in two countries other than my native UK, and when a friend recently told me that's one reason we get on - she's Canadian living in England - i knew exactly what she meant. You lose your parochialism somehow. You must have a similar low parochialism count, but without it being there in the first place.

Hm. Getting in deeper than i'm qualified to, here. But you've made me think, which i enjoy.

Followed the link in your profile, and enjoyed the contact juggling too. 80)
Jason Henninger
4. jasonhenninger

Glad you enjoyed the juggling. I really must make a new vid some day!

I see what you mean about travel. I think true travelers become temporary citizens of wherever it is they visit, and take a little with them.

On the subject of translation, it's a tricky balance indeed. I'm not a translator either, but I work with a lot of translated material (mostly Chinese or Japanese into English) and the sometimes contradictory pull of the literal against the figurative can be exhausting. I recently compared Hendrik Kern's translation of the Lotus Sutra to Burton Watson's, which are about 150 years apart. The difference was vast. They hardly seemed like the same work at all.

It's interesting, too, how when you read enough translated material you develop a sense for where the translation got off track, even if you don't speak the original language. I'm not sure how that happens, but it does.
Patrick Garson
5. patrickg
Jason, how can you not mention the Fitzgerald version without referencing the gorgeous Dulac illustrations of the same?

It's one of the most precious books on my shelf.
Jason Henninger
6. jasonhenninger

Because I didn't know about it. Those are beautiful illustrations!

Mine was illustrated by Arthur Szyk, circa 1940
mm Season
7. mmSeason
@5 patrickg
Thanx so much for that link! They are gorgeous. I've bookmarked it to enjoy lots of times.

@4 Jason
I really must make a new vid some day!

Wot, you're older than that?! ;0)

I think true travelers become temporary citizens of wherever it is they visit

I certainly hope so. You have worded what i've always thought of.

I was afraid i may offend you/someone, opening my mouth about mixedraceness, but i decided What The Hell. My (un-insulting) views are sincere, the subject is fascinating, and i don't like to think anyone would object to my having a view because of the white middle-class background that i had no choice about being born into. Still, glad you weren't offended. ;0)

the sometimes contradictory pull of the literal against the figurative can be exhausting.

I love the questions around translating poetry, especially. I've tried my hand at a bit (being also a poet in modest way) - a very enjoyable, and unachievable, exercise.

They hardly seemed like the same work at all.

Then of course all the versions of the Bible...

how when you read enough translated material you develop a sense for where the translation got off track

Yep, i know exactly what you mean.
Agnes Kormendi
8. tapsi
Yet another wonderful article, Jason, thank you very much!

I was quite surprised to learn that Omar Khayyam was one of the most important medieval mathematicians, and it was he who collected, classified and described possible geometric solutions for cubic equations (almost five hundred years before the Italians came up with the algebraic method).

I am a translator, and though I primarily translate novels, I sometimes end up translating poetry... which is really like an extremely exaggerated version of translating prose. First off, you need to interpret the text, identifying as many layers of meaning as possible (this can be a real challenge) and then you have to recreate it in a different language, which may or may not have the same concepts. But even if you find a word or expression that has the same meaning, use, cultural aspects, etc., as the original, you still have to try to compress it into a fixed structure (sonnets are probably the worst).

I really like to read different translations of the same poem, for example, because everyone comes up with different strategies and solutions.

So I think that any poem that you read and enjoy in translation is an example of mutt-lit, because it is essentially a new poem that tries to follow the blueprints of the original.
Neil in Chicago
9. Neil in Chicago
((Fitzgerald reputedly deliberately gutted the Sufi overtones in The Rubaiyat, but that's getting way off topic.))
I describe my ethnicity as "American Jewish". In the few generations we can trace my forebears, the span is from London to (uncertainly) Northern Persia. For an American Jew, this is not very remarkable; for about anyone else, I think it probably is.
Similarly, I am occasionally mistaken for African-American, or of Muslim heritage.
"Hybrid vigor" is one of the key things responsible for the wonder and greatness of the United States. Personally, I'd call you "American."
Jason Henninger
10. jasonhenninger
@ 8
I can't imagine any work more difficult to translate than poetry. I love it when you can see the original on the page opposite the translation. That way, even if you don't speak the original language, you can get some sense of the meter and such. And if there are enough cognates, that helps even more.

I've read and compared multiple translations of Rilke, for example, along with the original German (or French, depending on the poem). It's amazing how different the translations can get.

American is certainly a fair description! Kind of a mutt culture anyhow, isn't it?

Incidentally, when you say Fitzgerald deliberately de-sufi-ized the poem, I'm curious to know how deliberate it was. I'm not saying you're wrong; I'd just like to know more.

Was he versed in Sufism enough to know what to remove? Or might it have been a matter of course in the general Anglicizing that Sufi elements fell away?
mm Season
11. mmSeason
@8 tapsi
Would you agree it necessarily takes a poet to translate a poem?

I really like to read different translations of the same poem, for example, because everyone comes up with different strategies and solutions.

Me too. 80)
Neil in Chicago
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