Clipped Rhythm & Omitting Subjects in English

1.

I’m reading some of the essays of George Steiner’s Extraterritorial now, and it’s quite interesting how he analyzes writers who have appropriated the language rhythms of another language for their own. I was thinking about my own rather idiosyncratic attempts at translation, and writing rhythms that I built up from Chinese & Japanese.

For example – let’s take the first sentence that I translated from Shakanetsu by Romeo:

“The fourth floor classroom. Gazing at the street, the dancing Sakura petals colored the view.”

Which, in Japanese, is 四階教室から望む街並みは、舞い踊る桜の花弁に彩られている

I think a ‘Proper English’ translation of this would be: “When he looked at the street from the fourth floor classroom, the dancing Sakura petals colored his view.”

On the other hand, I purposely clipped the rhythm by making it into a series of fragmented images without a subject.

If an English teacher were to come into the room, he would say

“Who is ‘gazing at the street’? What viewpoint is being colored?”

Furthermore when you do that you have to shift between tenses a bit, which can get confusing if you don’t have control of your prose.

e.g. “She was headed for home. Making her way through the street. Shadows walking past. An orange sun. The street was orange. Shadows growing large.”

Some writers have done this kind of thing before, but in strange experimental works. Beckett maybe:

“On. Say on. Be said on. Somehow on. Till nohow on. Said nohow on.”

Joyce over here:

“A seachange this, brown eyes saltblue. Seadeath, mildest of all deaths known to man. Old Father Ocean. Prix de paris: beware of imitations. Just you give it a fair trial. We enjoyed ourselves immensely.”

This kind of thing has precedent in the English language, but no one has ever really tried to make normal un-experimental prose with such heavy clipping of the subject.

As an experiment – I will try to hyperminimize this passage from Dubliners by cutting out subjects:

“When the short days of winter came dusk fell before we had well eaten our dinners. When we met in the street the houses had grown sombre. The space of sky above us was the colour of ever-changing violet and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns. The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed. Our shouts echoed in the silent street.”

“The short days of winter – dusk fell before eating dinner. Meeting – street grown somber. Space of the sky – color of everchanging violet – towards, the lamps of the street lifted feeble lanterns. Cold air stung – playing till bodies glowed. Shouts echoed in the silent street.”

One of the methods I picked off from Dickinson was to abuse to dash as a tool for cutting down as many intermediary words as possible. I feel that the effect, if done well, can be very impressionistic – but there’s a problem with the rhythm. Let’s do another experiment

Here’s Proust:

“For a long time I used to go to bed early. Sometimes, when I had put out my candle, my eyes would close so quickly that I had not even time to say “I’m going to sleep.” And half an hour later the thought that it was time to go to sleep would awaken me; I would try to put away the book which, I imagined, was still in my hands, and to blow out the light; I had been thinking all the time, while I was asleep, of what I had just been reading, but my thoughts had run into a channel of their own, until I myself seemed actually to have become the subject of my book: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between François I and Charles V. This impression would persist for some moments after I was awake; it did not disturb my mind, but it lay like scales upon my eyes and prevented them from registering the fact that the candle was no longer burning. Then it would begin to seem unintelligible, as the thoughts of a former existence must be to a reincarnate spirit; the subject of my book would separate itself from me, leaving me free to choose whether I would form part of it or no; and at the same time my sight would return and I would be astonished to find myself in a state of darkness, pleasant and restful enough for the eyes, and even more, perhaps, for my mind, to which it appeared incomprehensible, without a cause, a matter dark indeed. “

“For a long time, going to bed early. Sometimes, after putting out the candle – eyes closing so quickly, with not even time to say “I’m going to sleep”. And half an hour later – the thought that it was time to go to sleep – awakening; trying to put away the book which – imagined, was still in hand – to blow out the light; thinking all the time, while asleep – what was just read – but thoughts running a channel of their own, until – actually becoming the subject of the book: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between François I and Charles V. Impression persisting for some moments after awaking; not disturbing the mind, but laying like scales upon eyes – preventing them from registering the fact that the candle was no longer burning. Then – beginning to seem unintelligible, as the thoughts of a former existence must be to a reincarnate spirit; the book’s subject separating itself – leaving free choice whether to form part of it or no; and at the same time sight would return – and astonishment – to find a state of darkness, pleasant and restful enough for the eyes, and even more, perhaps, for mind, to which it appeared incomprehensible, without a cause, a matter dark indeed. “

With a large chunk it becomes a strange word salad.

Let’s try something more contemporary:

“The way I figure it, everyone gets a miracle. Like, I will proba¬bly never be struck by lightning, or win a Nobel Prize, or become the dictator of a small nation in the Pacific Islands, or contract terminal ear cancer, or spontaneously combust. But if you con¬sider all the unlikely things together, at least one of them will probably happen to each of us. I could have seen it rain frogs. I could have stepped foot on Mars. I could have been eaten by a whale. I could have married the queen of England or survived months at sea. But my miracle was different. My miracle was this: out of all the houses in all the subdivisions in all of Florida, I ended up living next door to Margo Roth Spiegelman.”

“The way it figures, everyone gets a miracle. Like, although probably never getting struck by lightning, or winning a Nobel Prize, or become the dictator of a small nation in the Pacific Islands, or contracting terminal ear cancer, or spontaneously combusting. But – consider all the unlikely things together, at least one of them will probably happen. Seeing it rain frogs. Stepping foot on Mars. Being eaten by a whale. Marrying the queen of England or survived months at sea. But – mine was different. Out of all the houses in all the subdivisions in all of Florida, living next door to Margo Roth Spiegelman.”

It was hard to omit the last ‘mine’ – although I’m not exactly sure whether the stuff before makes as much sense.

From the examples given, you can see the plusses and minuses of the technique. When you omit that much, the fragments become open-season. They ambiguous float in a general space. In order to root them down, you must understand what type of cues to give. Another minus is that they break the flow, which becomes detrimental to someone who’s writing in a slower cascading style.

2.

Let’s say I write:

“She was seated next to me.

Eraser dropping. Leaning over. Picking up. “Thanks”.”

My instinct would be to say that she dropped the eraser, because ‘she’ appears at the start and seems more significant.

“I was seated next to her

Eraser dropping. Leaning over. Picking up. “Thanks”.”

When you swap this, it places a bit more burden on the ‘I’ – but I can also envision a scenario where the reader still perceives that she was the one who picked it up. For example, because that seems like a kind of high-school slice of life stereotype, so that may be the first notion that appears.

So it can be clarified like this:

“She was seated next to me.

Eraser dropping. Leaning over. Picking up. “Thanks”.

I put the eraser in my pencil-case”

I think that this provides a kind of criteria for the extent to which you can drop the subject if you’re translating a Japanese work or a language which allows for that. Balancing the cues, and then using dashes and cutting the subject to create the impressionistic kind of feeling that you can get from certain stretches of text in Japanese.

3.

An interesting thing I heard from my boss at my internship was that he said that abuse of commas seemed to be a trait of the younger generation. A couple of interns that worked over there before were doing that. I was also doing that.

It could have been because Chinese commas are kind of lax, as are Japanese commas, and so I was fully used to seeing it in that context already. Either way I use commas to delineate rhythm and to properly split apart certain sections, rather than – I think – proper grammar. My grammar is very intuitive anyway.

Anyway let’s look at a particular moment from Iriya no Sora:

ダッフルバッグをばたばたさせて、身を隠すもののない最後の30メートルを走り抜けた。更衣室の入り口をくの字型に目隠ししているブロック塀の陰に転がり込む。呼吸を整え、再び周囲を見まわしてやっと少しだけ安心する。更衣室入り口のドアノブを両手で思いっきり回す。磨耗しきった金属がこすれ合う「がりっ」という感触を手に残して、ロックはひとたまりもなく外れた。

Nanodesu translates it here as:

“Knocking around the duffle bag on his back, he ran the final 30 meters, with nowhere to hide. He rolled into the shadow of the L-shaped concrete wall that concealed the doorway to the locker room. He caught his breath, looked around once again, and finally felt a little at ease.

With both hands, he turned the doorknob with all of his might. The lock disengaged without the least resistance, leaving in his hands the sensation of worn down metal chafing against itself with a click.”

My translation is:

“Duffel bag flapping by the side, undertaking that last 30 meters without cover, tumbling into the shadow of the L-shaped concrete wall that hid the entrance, taking a breath, peeking out once again at the environs – and finally feeling a bit of relief. He turned the knob with both hands, forcing the wear as the metal chafed with a clack, and feeling the sensations that ran through his palms. The lock snapped open without much resistance.”

I omitted subject during the first part and abused commas in order to get the action-flow rhythm down.

Strangely Akiyama’s original prose has the least amount of punctuation marks. His has 8 punctuation marks. Nanodesu has 11. Mine has 10.

4.

Is appropriating this kind of clipped style or subject-less style strange? Maybe – but I think it’s a very interesting technique that can shine if used by the correct person. Also it can be combined with the light-novel tactic of using line after line rather than having particularly large paragraph, and having repetitious lines and words in order to establish emotions.

Let’s try that with the John Green extract above

“The way I figure it, everyone gets a miracle.

Like, I will probably never be struck by lightning, or win a Nobel Prize, or become the dictator of a small nation in the Pacific Islands, or contract terminal ear cancer, or spontaneously combust.

But – consider all the unlikely things together, at least one of them will probably happen to each of us.

An unlikely thing – happening to one of us.

Like raining frogs. Like stepping foot on Mars. Like being eaten by a whale.

Like marrying the queen of England or surviving months at sea.

But my miracle was different.

It was my miracle – especially mine.

A miracle belonging to no one else.

It was this: Out of all the houses in all the subdivisions in all of Florida,

Out of all the houses. All of the neighborhoods. All of the streets.

I ended up living next door to Margo Roth Spiegelman.”

Compare to – Toradora:

“There is something in this world which no one has ever seen.

It is soft and sweet.

If it is spotted, I’m sure everyone will want to have it,’

Which is why no one has ever seen it.

For this world has hidden it quite well, so that it is difficult to obtain.

But, there will come a day when it is discovered by somebody,

And only those who should obtain it will be able to find it.

That is all.”

Compare to – Kara no Kyoukai:

“When I was still small, I once cut my hand while playing house.

Borrowed things, imitated things, fabricated things…

A real one was mixed in with all those cooking utensils.

While I was playing with this sharp toy, I cut myself between the fingers.

I returned to my mother with my hand red and painful,

I remember her scolding me, then crying, and then kindly embracing me.

Mother said it must have hurt.

I was happy, not because of those words that I did not understand; rather, I was happier about the fact that mother embraced me, so I started crying with my mother.

“Fujino, the pain will go away once the cut heals…”

Mother said so as she wrapped bandages around me.

I do not know what those words meant…

Because not even once did I feel any pain. ”

5.

STOP WRITING PARAGRAPHS – START WRITING FRAGMENTARY LINES.

(Incidentally – this post was made over some reflections on language I had after coming across a tweet by Conjueror on how these were awkward and bad translations – although I thought it read okay in form but melodramatic in content. To me it just reads like clipped rhythm.

I was also thinking about Bobduh’s critique of repetitiousness in Gahkthun & my critique of his critique.

I would say that it definitely feels more artificial than the kind of normal mainstream English style, for example used by Koontz or most other writers. Since it has precedence in Beckett & Stream of Consciousness & more poetic variants of Literature.

I think a writer who openly embraces artifice – like a Nabokov or something – could find some way to make clipped rhythm or LN rhythm shine in English in a way that no one has seen before. I think a person who writes a purposefully artificed and exuberant plot can abuse the style as much as possible.

I myself have been trying various experiments with emotional repetitiousness, line by line writing combined with paragraph writing, omitting the subject, and clipped rhythm. Let’s see how it turns out in the end.)

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