Lost marble in translation


Before I say what I am about to say, I need to warn that what you are going to read here was used (in 1991) as evidence by one of my colleagues to try and convince the Dean of Arts at the University of Fort Hare (South Africa) that I was insane. Six years later the article was eventually published after being rejected the first time for publication in 1995. On that first occasion, there were three referees; one said, publish without changes, the second said, trash it, the third said he didn’t know what to do with it. Remarkable, especially as the article was a lot of BILBOOL (“confusion”) from which we get “BABEL;” or is it the other way round, that is, BABEL causing a lot of BILBOOL . Oh well that’s what the article – and the confusion at the university – was all about.


It’s truly remarkable the kind of internet searches that are directed to my site. Today a search on the words “marble scattering down pyramid” found my “Mind your marbles” post. That’s not what is remarkable; after all, the words “marbles” – “scattering” – “down” – “pyramid” all come together in my post. What is indeed remarmable is that in 1997 I published an article on Derrida’s Babel and the problems in translating (languages – not people; into heaven).. The remarkable thing is that the whole piece is filled with allusions to marble, yet the word “marble” is not mentioned once. The searcher who typed the words “marble scattering down pyramid” into the search engine found my marbles pyramid in my “Mind your marbles” post, but not the marble pyramid in my Babel post, which would have been much more relevant than my description of marbles cascading down a pyramid in the school yard. I know; there are no pyramids, only ziggurats, in Babylon, but at least Babylon is closer to Egypt than Wynberg School, Cape Town. It’s a pity we can’t just have thoughts without the clutter of words. If we can have empathy, why can’t we have telepathy? The only difference is the one is near – very near – the other, far. As a chassid would say: “feel your thoughts, don’t (just?) think them.

Here is an excerpt from the article. It is a parable about the difficulties of translation. When I say “translation”, I don’t just mean translating from one language like English to another language like French, or Hebrew to Greek, but translating from English to English, French to French. The problem is not the words, which the same language shares, but the thoughts that we intend by those same words. For instance, you probably know all the words I’ve used so far in this post – except perhaps “deconstruction” and “remarmable,”  You still need, however, to “translate” – INTERPRET – my thoughts into your thoughts. Enough. Here’s the parable, which I think the internet searcher would have found more relevant to his search than “Mind your marbles,” but not necessarily more gripping. The parable is all about marble, but nowhere is “marble” to be found! Exactement.

The parable (On the difficulties of translation; start with a pyramid and end up with a mosque).

Like Leonardo chipping away at the white stone, the translator/interpreter endlessly chips away at the articulations between the cladding stones, seeking entry into the sacred tetrahedron (pyramid). After each disappointment he gapes in bewilderment at the bavel of bevelled tiles below. Reluctantly, he abandons the hope of ever finding the entrance which would lead him to the tomb of priceless treasures. But he cannot return empty-handed. Exhausted, he sits down on a heap of tiles. The limestone feels cool to the ruptured hot skin. Bemused, he strokes the smooth surface with bruised fingers, fondling its subtle textures. He arises, refreshed, packs his camel high with claddings, and returns home to build a mosque out of past failures. And so, our translator, although he couldn’t move the right stone, is happy; after all, he did save face. (During the previous centuries no one managed to find the inner chamber of the Great Pyramid until Caliph Al Moumon, who upon finding no treasure, planted his own in order to placate his crew of weary diggers. About the year 1000 A.D. the Caliphs of Egypt stripped the polished white casings of the Great Pyramid, which were then used to build mosques and palaces. What made the stripping easier was a great earthquake that shook the casings loose).

You might say that there’s nothing mad about this piece, and ask why my colleague at Fort Hare thought I was insane. Hang on. Here is another excerpt from the beginning of my Babel article:

An expected surprise is not a surprise. The same applies to rhetorical journeys. If one is not all pumped up and ready for a tour (tour in French = “trip”, “excursion”, “tower”, “trick”, “turn”), but instead merely wants to get from point B to point B – Babel to Bethel, the journey that we are about to take will turn out to be merely yet another well-trodden and tedious detour of Babel and its limitrop(h)es.

The journey begins on p.5 of Derrida’s (1984) Signsponge: Consider the translation of the following sentence: Francis Ponge se sera remarqué; “Francis Ponge will be self-remarked.” Is Rand’s translation a good one? Compare the original French with the English translation. The dictionary meaning of the verb remarquer is “to notice”, “to observe”.

Se remarquer “to notice oneself”, “to observe oneself”. Derrida’s object, however, is different to the dictionary meaning. Marque is also the mark, the margin, the step (the step in marching, and the step in ladder, stairway; marche “step”). Se remarquer contains at least the following deconstructable signifieds: 1. The doubling (re-) up of one’s self in the margin-text. 2. The double self in the double mark. The self in this context belongs, it seems, to Francis Ponge.

The title of the article is “Babel: can Derrida’s tour surprisingly translate us anywhere.” You can see why my colleague wanted to translate me out the University.

(marmar – Central Asian for “marble” as in Iran)

Mind your marbles

The wandering Jew by definition rambles. In the previous few posts I strayed off the path of my biography proper into the lives of the Herzls. But this Herzl interlude was more than a ramble; it is a preramble to the rest of my life story. All the main themes of my bography are sewn into the hem of those frayed lives. This will become clearer when I return to Hans Herzl later on.

In an earlier post, I described my early school years after leaving the Cape Jewish Orphanage. At the end of that post, I mentioned that after two years (1951-1952) at the Homestead in Wellington, I returned to my Claremont home where I lived for the next three years (Jan 1953 to Dec 1955). I attended Wynberg Junior and High Schools. I now describe the year I spent at Wynberg Junior School.

Wynberg is a suburb of the city Cape Town, about 10 kilometres from the centre of the city. The suburb has a rich architectural and cultural heritage. Its beginnings are owed to the freshwater stream that wandered down to the Diep River. The surrounds of this stream developed into fertile farmlands where a village was established along the banks of the stream. Wynberg means Wine Mountain. It has preserved a lot of architecture from the 1800’s, which can be seen in the churches, schools, stately homes, and cottages. Many of these cottages are now shops, art galleries, picture framers and antique shops. Other cottages are tucked away in quiet little streets.

The picture, however, is not so rosy today, but you wouldn’t think so if you were to believe this description of Wynberg from a tourist blurb:

“Drive around the village of Wynberg, and the little streets delight with quaint cottages, tangled trees and bushes that create wonderful little havens away from the bustle of the city.” Today, many of those little havens are far from heavenly. Those tangled trees and bushes are now the criminal’s hiding place. Burglaries are common in the suburb.  A year ago, my daughter Natasha, husband and children were living in one of those quaint cottages in one of those delightful little streets. They were burgled twice.  The tourist blurb is not talking about the real suburb, but a figment; a sublurb. Natasha and family emigrated.

Before the forced removable of residents during the Apartheid era, Wynberg was a mix of cultures and ethnic groups. Since 1994, this vibrant mix has been partly restored. Wynberg is green with several parks. In the middle of Wynberg is Maynardville Park, which is a famous  venue for its Shakesperean productions. I saw several of these while at the University of Cape Town in the 1960s.

Wynberg Boys’ Junior School was established in 1841, and is the second oldest boys’ school in the South Africa: South African College Schools (SACS), also in Cape Town, is the oldest.  I played rugby against SACS when I was at Wynberg High. Wynberg Boys’ Junior and Wynberg Boys’ High operated as one school for over a century. In 1943, a separate Wynberg Boys’ Junior School was established. The Junior School was situated right next to the High School. In 1953, I entered the Junior School into Grade 5.

Hendrik Verwoerd, a former Prime Minister of South Africa attended Wynberg Boys High. I mentioned Dr Verwoerd in the “Cape Jewish Orphanage days”. So far I have two things in common with Verwoerd, the architect of Apartheid: the Orphanage and Wynberg School. But there’s actually a third thing I have in common with Dr Verwoerd. It is this: I never protested against apartheid – mea bulka. (mea culpa – Latin for “my fault;” bulka is a Jewish egg bun). In the “new” South Africa (since 1994 when a black government came into power)  it is almost impossible to find a South African – Afrikaner or English  – who had promoted or (tacitly) approved of apartheid before 1994.

Why some events stick in the mind and others melt away remains a mystery. Yet because I live in a mindful universe, there is good reason why I remember the marbles so vividly – and why I take such care to do them proud.

My happiest memories at Wynberg Junior were the marble tournaments during break time. You didn’t just “play” marbles; the Marble Games took on Olympian proportions. The inner braiding of each marble was consummate art, meticulous science, deep mathematics, ardent poetry – a release from the tedium of the classroom, a fair attitude, a renewal, a Te Deum[1] to truth and beauty; Keats[2] come alive.

O Attic shape!  Fair attitude! with brede (braiding)

Of marble men and maidens overwrought,

With forest branches and the trodden weed;

Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought

As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!

When old age shall this generation waste,

Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe

Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

It was not just the quantity, nor the size of the marbles, but also their chromatic variety. They were not merely objects of play. Every facet – size, sparkle, and sphericity – was exquisite. The slightest flaw diminished their value. And yet, how could you win more marbles unless you were prepared to abuse your own.

At break time, the wandering Jew rambles the schoolyard rattling his marbles, like Izzy, my father, jingling his invigorating pocketful of loose change. The dull thuds of marble against marble bear witness to this onedaringjew’s singleminded intention. When predictable dull thuds fall on deaf ears, he warbles “Plaaaay me maaarbles.” They come. We play. Draw a chalk ring on the tarmac. Spread a few of your marbles in the middle of the ring. Your partner squats on the perimeter. He bends the thumb of his right hand and curls his forefinger over the tip of the thumb. With the left hand, he places a marble in a flicking position behind the thumbnail of the right hand. He squats and places his left hand, extended fingers in a parachute position, firmly down on the ground. Locking the marble firmly in position twixt bent thumb and curled forefinger, he swivels his wrist inward and rests the knuckles of his upturned right hand on the roof of the parachute. He squats lower, knees digging into his horizontal rib cage, neck cranked upward. He aims, shoots his thumb outward, propelling his missile at the nonchalant marbles lazing on the tarmac. As I am not only a onedaringjew, but also a left-handed onedaringjew, the whole process would have to work in reverse: I bend the thumb of my left hand…

The marbles that I knock out of the ring, I keep. If my marble doesn’t flick any out of the ring or I miss the marbles altogether, I lose my marble. After an agreed time or number of flicks, we exchange roles. Each has a turn to win or lose his marbles.

The best game was “marble pyramids”. No one’s countenance shone more than he with the hefty bag of marbles, for he was the only geezer who had the resources to build a Khufu Pyramid. The bigger the pyramid, the more visible and inviting it appeared. If your marble managed to collapse the pyramid – a tall order – the pyramid was yours. You could build any size pyramid depending on how many marbles you had or were willing to use. The smallest pyramid requires five marbles – four on the ground and one on top. A bigger pyramid requires more support around its base. The rough surface of the tarmac could support a pyramid of about 12 marbles without any danger that the base would give way. But what if the pyramid is much bigger? Some pyramids had a hundred marbles or more. If you try and build it up too high on the tarmac, it could collapse, scattering your marbles across the free-for-all schoolyard. To prevent this catastrophe, the bigger marbles formed the base. You then hem the base with sand. To increase the odds for such a huge pile, the thrower had to stand almost at the other end of the playground. The boy with the pyramid usually came off best; he was a statistician.  Because of the great distance between thrower and pyramid, it rarely toppled. But if you did manage it, there would be one very delighted and highly winner and one very crestfallen pyramid builder, who had – unstatistically – lost all his marbles.

Marbles are like facts. Take a handful of marbles; throw them on the ground, Repeat the procedure as many times as you like, you won’t repeat the pattern. In fact, you’ll have no pattern at all because a pattern is, by definition, repeatable. We can know about natural laws because our minds are in sync with the world outside our minds. But postmodernists, of course, would disagree. If I’m modern, my brain perceives what is really out there; if I’m one step ahead of modern – if I’m “post” modern– my brain would be out of sync with the world out there; in fact, my brain would not be in sync with my brain; indeed, my brain would not be in sync with any of the fortuitous words I speak. I’d have lost my m#$%^&bles – plain and pimple.

[1] A hymn of praise composed in the 6th century. Te Deum laudamus “To God we give praise” are the first words of the hymn. A Te Deum may also be a short ceremony of blessing.

[2] His “Ode to a Grecian urn.”