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am 27. Januar 2000
Autobiographical in scope and introspective in method, the usual pack of Hofstadterisms (Bognard problems; "slippability"; typefaces; creativity arising from constraint; the term "you guys") re-assembled in a low-density format. What should be relatively quick discussions are endlessly expanded into paragraph-after-paragraph dissertations that left me thinking "OK, I get it already." I found myself skimming paragraphs, and then pages, looking for the action.
At times I felt like I was reading "The Making of Godel, Escher, Bach" as the author describes for us how he saved the various translation efforts of his magnum opus from the clutches of incompetent translators. His impatience with those of lesser genius contrasts with the nice-guy persona he's trying hard to project.
The book is mostly about translation, using a simple poem, which was translated in several different ways by the author and his friends and colleagues to illustrate many important and interesting points. After awhile, though, I started to get tired of reading about what is wrong with everyone else's translations, and how no one gets it in quite the same way that Dr. Hofstadter does. In addition, the author's own poems are among the least interesting of the collection, and he repeatedly "corrects" translations of other contributors (even his mom!), producing results that are usually awful.
If you've read his previous work, you're not going to find a lot new here, and you might be disappointed at how flat this seems.
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am 17. Mai 2000
Some people say it's not as good as GEB - but it really is. It's just different. Both of these two books - Hofstadter's best, along with Metamagical Themas - are controlled by some single vision, some idea that somehow managed to spark seven hundred or so pages of ideas.
GEB was more complex. The ideas were harder. Le Ton Beau de Marot is, at its core, a book about translation. The book was inspired by the author's attempts to translate a short (28 trisyllabic lines) poem by an obscure French Renaissance poet named Clement Marot. (You'll probably have the poem memorized by the end of the book, at least if you know French - and if you don't, it's conveniently included on a detachable bookmark on the inside back cover.) Hofstadter, after tackling this challenge himself, sent out a letter (reprinted in the book) to many friends challenging them to translate it as well, including a list of some formal constraints on the poem that he wanted to point out and two fairly literal glosses of the poem for the non-francophones in his circle. The book's structure (like all of DRH's other books) is one of alternation - small groups of translations of the poem, which originally were meant to constitute the whole book but now make up a sort of sideshow and can be skipped without detracting from the understanding of the book, alternate with chapters on various issues of translation. The poems don't play the role that you might expect, a role roughly analogous to that of the dialogues in GEB. In GEB, the dialogues were meant to introduce some point that would be developed in the chapter. Here, they're not.
Most of the book consists of discussions of some of the dilemmas of literary translation, with examples drawn from various literary works. Among Hofstadter's favorite examples is Alexander Pushkin's quintessential Russian novel in verse, Eugene Onegin. EO is written in several hundred "Onegin stanzas", essentially modified sonnets, but some translators don't do a great job of keeping this form. Hofstadter didn't know Russian at the time, but he exhibits various translations and shows their merits and flaws, and does a quite good job, at least to my inexperienced eye. (He has since learned Russian, and did his own translation of Eugene Onegin, which is currently for sale.)
Poetic translation, of course, is the soul of this book, and Hofstadter subscribes to the school of translation believing that the medium and the message are equally important. He thus spends a chapter talking about Dante's Divine Comedy. One of the important things about the Divine Comedy is that it is written in a form known as terza rima - three line stanzas, rhyming ABA, BCB, CDC, DED, and so on - which contributes greatly to the interest of the poem. Many translators ignore this, for reasons of "scholarly purity" or something equally pompous - but Hofstadter convinces us that that can't be done.
Again, dealing with the issue of form, I note the large number of constraints that Hofstadter placed on himself in the writing of this book. He claims to have spent an inordinate amount of time worrying about the typesetting and such things; thus, none of the poems within chapters, for example, are broken across page boundaries. (There are literally hundreds of poetic examples - so don't say that this is just a coincidence.) Hofstadter also seems to like lipogrammatic writing (that is, writing without a certain letter, usually the letter "e"), and even translated Searle's Chinese Room anecdote into "Anglo-Saxon" (that is, "e"-less English). This raises an interesting question - why is it that translating from, say, English to French is totally acceptable, while translating from British English to American English (or vice versa) is sacrilege?
In conclusion, an excellent look at the issues involved in translation. Of course, this being Hofstadter, there is some talk about AI and machine translation - but that isn't the core of the book. Much more literary than you might expect - but Hofstadter is polymathic enough that that's not a problem. Don't let the size put you off - it will go quickly. Maybe too quickly - but don't all the best?
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am 28. Juni 1999
...I found this book infuriatingly in need of an editor!!! I bought a remaindered copy for $4 at Half-Price Books, but after reading it I realized I didn't get much of a bargain.
Doug starts out by praising himself for being in total control of this book -- typesetting, page design, content, direction... Well, he shouldn't be so smug. The typography is a jumbled mess, the chapter introductions are amateurish, the page breaks are artificial and distracting, the content wanders off the subject into numerous, endless (and pointless) digressions, and most of the 30,000 versions of the poem he translates are laughably bad.
There's a worthwhile message in here somewhere, buried under six tons of authorial effluvia -- something about the art of translation being a balance between form and content. But of the 632 pages here, only about 120 serve this purpose. Hofstadter has apparently become such a powerhouse author that he is allowed to wield total control, but it's a two edged sword and he proves himself no Galahad.
Doug man, you need an editor.
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I have seldom been more astonished in my life than in reading the obviously heartfelt but shockingly shortsighted criticisms levied by fellow readers. To myself it appears (pardon the pun) self evident that this is one of the greatest books currently in print. At this time yesterday I was only halfway through the book, and I had to (HAD TO, mark) stay up all night to finish it, ignoring my roommates, not returning phone calls, and seriously threatening my work this morning. Since this is not the sort of book one usually thinks of as an "up-all-nighter" I must explain what it was that compelled me to lose so much sleep. Simple. It's that good.
Le Ton Beau works on every imaginable level.
1) It works as a very moving piece of autobiography, not only focused on the author's tragic loss of his wife (though, I confess, I cried when he wrote after praising her own transcendent translation of the central poem, "But then I'm biased. I loved her so and still, still I do." (Apologies to the author for quoting from memory and therefore surely inaccurately))but also reflecting movingly on his love affair with Chopin, the French language, puzzles and word games, the human mind and, frankly, LIFE in all it's intricate mysteries. This is a man who, in spite of it all, has a passionate love for the world at large and the book would suffice in that alone if nothing else but,
2) It works as a work of art, it is a masterpiece of self referential, carefully constructed perfection. Just as a translator has to stick carefully to the text of the poem, and just as Marot in writing his poem had to stick to the three syllable per line, AABB rhyme scheme (and seven other restrictions that Hofstadter points out) Hofstadter gives himself literally hundreds of restraints ranging from the macro level (finishing the, enormous, book in one year in time for Marot's 500th birthday) to the mid-level (writing a chapter entirely in rhyme) to the micro level (translating long paragraphs into e-less English).
3) As a roster of great works. I found that one of the more surprising aspects of this book was how I kept reaching for pen and paper to write down things that I now will have to go look up for myself. The short list is a) I must read Eugene Onegrin b) and The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth. c) I will have to give another listen to Gershwin, d) and give Chopin a chance, e) and finally get around to reading Dante, f) and rent The Seven Year Itch. And that's only the beginning. I realize that this is a personal response, and not the most intellectual argument I could make for the book, but I so seldom come away from a book this fired up with enthusiasm to learn still more- and after a dose of knowledge this heavy I would usually feel overwhelmed if it were not for the incredibly light, loving hand of the author who steered me (not, unlike him, a physicist, or an AI expert, or a speaker of any foreign languages (though now I feel compelled to restart my abortive attempts at German and French))gently through such dangerous territory.
4) It works as a brilliant and (yes, to those of you who complained of it) exhaustive, lengthy treatise on language. Perhaps if it did not inspire you, you are simply not inspired by language. For myself, however, I was litera(ri)lly out of breath on several occassions. Although densely written, there is an overwhelming sense of fun here (as in the author's rather charming ire when he is unable to reproduce a section from The Catcher in the Rye, and his lengthy discussion of the German word for nipple), but the sense of fun is deadly serious as well, because it is such an essential element of language. Nothing is trivial in linguistics. One reviewer was upset that the author discussed typefaces, and typesetting as if this were somehow irrelevant in a book ABOUT POETRY. When, in fact typesetting and type face are often the only things that define poetry as such. If you don't believe me, look and see:
If you don't
Believe me,
Look- and see!
Still you won't?
Well ok, this is perhaps a slightly inane example, but what I'm trying to say here is that Hofstadter's point encompasses the entire range of human experience as it is capable of being expressed through ANY SYMBOLIC METHOD, with a particular emphasis on the linguistic method. Given that most of us live and die in the universe of symbols, I fail to comprehend the complaint that Hofstadter has, by any means, "Run out of things to say." To the contrary, the impression I get is that he is holding himself back in an attempt(perhaps unsuccessfully for some of you) to not run us over with the power of his enthusiasm, genius, and sheer, massive, overwhelming knowledge.
This may be the best book I have ever read. And the best part is I know I missed at least 30% of it the first time, so I will have the pleasure of picking it up again and getting 30% more ("for the price of one!") out of it. Maybe that's what I'll do tonight.
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Let me state where I am coming from at the outset. Ever since acquiring Hofstadter's "Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid" back in about 1980, I have been an unashamed fan of this man's writing. I return to "Godel, Escher, Bach" every few years and read it again in its entirety, and always find more to enjoy.
When I became aware of "Le Ton Beau de Marot", I could hardly wait to get a copy, and the reading of it has not disappointed. Once again, Hofstadter has woven for us an incredibly rich tapestry of meanings, sub-meanings, sub-sub-meanings and more. Almost every sentence of this book is overlaid with wordplay, multiple meanings, and just plain fun with language. But although it starts from the thesis of the nature of translation, it ends up giving us rich insights into the very nature of consciousness, creativity, beauty, joy and pain: in short, what it is to be human.
Sure, there were some places where he deals with some amazingly minute and recondite aspects of his subject where I found myself thinking "Douglas, who cares?!", but within the context of the whole work they are as nothing. I agree with nearly everything written by reviewer Karin Robinson, most especially that there are so many levels to this book. Even leaving aside all its masterful insights on language and translation (a huge liberty!), it is if nothing else a hymn of praise to his obviously much-loved wife Carol, whose shadow and influence on his life pervade every chapter.
For me this is a hugely rewarding read, and I look forward to many re-readings in the future.
Thank you , Douglas R. Hofstadter!
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am 12. Januar 2000
Hofstadter's Le Ton Beau, although interesting, as with the early 80s fun book GEB, has produced something of a Sears catalogue of accepted literary and scientific ideas, in this instance music and tranliteration. The problem with this text is that no one boasting such original intelligence ("original" not being the operative word here) would expend the type of attention to merely referencing and reproducing as opposed to creating. He gives himself away in this respect as he offers a fair amount of time telling us what a swell guy he is and then free asociates little more than derivative knowledge (He is perhaps the best example of one who understands less than he knows; ergo- he may actually know very little), always a motif for individuals lacking the creative capacity. Reading in the WSJ the author is producing a definitive edition to Evgeny Onegin in direct reference to the now very old Nabokov-Wilson debate of justifiable iambics or retaining an original ryhme scheme non connected to the confines of tranliteration, I was struck again by this pattern to let us know how much he knows. Do we really need another "$So there!" book? Is it essential to find another angry individual to kick around Bach like the disgruntal dogwalker who can only see life in terms as "things"? Save us the embarassment: Some of us really are very creative, intelligent and well read. Stop insulting us. Buyback remainder
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am 8. November 1998
Any young lover of linguistics will find this light-hearted account to be both fun and reflective. Hofstadter aims to present the curious art of translation, but inevitably, his attention is diverted to other areas of language, thought and even emotion - and this is perhaps the most positive aspect of his book. How could anyone ignore the interwoven intracicies that constitute the fabric of human thought and language? In this sense, the reader is exposed to well varied topics in not too much detail. This is perfect for the student or newfound admirer of language. Read this to understand some underlying principles and essentially to whet your appetite for more technically nourishing works such as Godel Escher Bach. Some critics have harshly underscored the sheer pleasure in reading this book, claiming that it does not meet the exquisite standard set by GEB. That's fine, but can't we enjoy this one as well? The bottom line is just give this book a chance. You will surely enjoy Hofstadter's playfulness with words, and even his autobiography can be touching at times, serving as somewhat of a mirror if you look closely enough. I'm only on page 32 right now, but I feel, no, I KNOW that this book will open the eyes, the ears and whatever else senses language, to a new sense of beauty, both as a science and as an art form.
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am 31. Oktober 1999
This is very readable and people who found themselves overwhelmed by GEB (a 5 star book in its own right, but the two are apples and oranges) should give this a try as it introduces this wonderful author in a much gentler, more relaxed atmosphere. Cover-to-cover is probably not the way to go about reading it; I found it best to browse here and there and make connections as I went. Peruse the vast index and you will certainly find some topic that interests you--then follow the web of connections throughout the rest of the book.
Hofstadter does frustrate me sometimes with this book and there are times when I want to grab him and say "Doug, how could you possibly think that?! It's really like this..." But that's what's wonderful about this book. It confronts you with tough ideas and makes you think through your own opinions.
I will agree with the Kirkus reviewer that Hofstadter doesn't really offer any sharp, new, or deep insights into the difficult problems. But he does give us two things: He clearly draws out what the difficult problems are, and he lets us have an intimate glimpse at the detailed workings of a brilliant mind grappling with them. The book is worthwhile for that reason alone.
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am 17. Juli 1999
I strongly suspect that those who didn't read this work (I will not presume to call it a mere "book") missed the point entirely. The stories about his wife, Searle, Nabokov,, were not meandering digressions; they were *examples* of how the many themes of translation, poetry, analogy, self-reference, etcetera, were woven into their lives.
I received this book for my graduation from high school (begged for it, in fact), devoured it in two days, and have re-read it constantly since. When I lent it to a lover of mine who was from Toronto, and with whom I later broke up, the first thing on my mind when we arranged to meet some months later was, "Can I have my book back?" I re-read it immediately.
Poetry translation is now one of my most enjoyable hobbies, and I would have to say that this book gave me the impetus in that direction. I would frankly have to class Le Ton beau de Marot as the book of Hofstadter's which I have most thoroughly enjoyed - more than GEB, more even than Metamagical Themas. Please read it.
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am 13. April 2000
Let's not compare this to GEB, but look at it for its own merits. This book puts in wonderful terms such deep ideas about language and translation, much like the way wonderful children's books bring out such deep ideas of literature and theory in simple, entertaining ways without oversimplifying these thoughts (i.e., The Stinky Cheese Man, or C D B! talked about in this very book). I think Hofstadter shows such a dear love of language in this that I gloss over objections others have.
I only quibble with Hofstadter's ending notes about the necessity of pre-ordained forms in music and poetry. An unfortunate move on his part, for even though it is expressed as his own predeliction and given with an air of self-effacement, it shortens his scope. Maybe with time will come wisdom, for his brilliance is apparent in this.
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