Ibrahima Sarr, a Senegalese coder, led the translation of Firefox into Fulah, which is spoken by 20m people from Senegal to Nigeria. “Crash” became hookii (a cow falling over but not dying); “timeout” became a honaama (your fish has got away). “Aspect ratio” became jeendondiral, a rebuke from elders when a fishing net is wrongly woven. In Malawi’s Chichewa language, which has 10m speakers, “cached pages” became mfutso wa tsamba, or bits of leftover food. The windowless houses of the 440,000 speakers of Zapotec, a family of indigenous languages in Mexico, meant that computer “windows” became “eyes”.

Madman’s papers

How Boris Pasternak survived the necropolitics of the Stalin era was a mystery ... Nadezhda Mandelstam (whose husband, Osip, became ‘camp dust’ in 1938) put it down to a combination of sheer luck and Pasternak’s ‘incredible charm’. Others wondered whether Stalin had personally ordered him to be spared – ‘Leave him alone, he’s a cloud dweller’ – after gifting him what were called, in the political slang of the day, ‘madman’s papers’. True, Pasternak had written some boilerplate patriotic verse during the Second World War, ‘civic poetry’ that encouraged some party hacks in the belief that he had finally found ‘the correct path’. And the translations of Georgian poets were known to have pleased the Boss. But in the main, where others, fatally, confronted argument with argument, he replied with the reveries of a yurodivy, a holy fool, marking his distance from the idiom and events of his era to the point almost of vegetal insouciance (‘What century is it outside?’ he asks in one poem). In his youth Pasternak looked, Marina Tsvetaeva said, ‘like an Arab and his horse’.

QSL card

Georgette Berger & René Magritte, 1920s


In Kathmandu, Brian Houghton Hodgson was stranded for years with little to do for his employer, the East India Company, and passed the time collecting ornithological specimens for the British Museum and Buddhist scriptures. The original, Sanskrit versions of Buddhist texts had been lost in India, and were only known to exist in translations into Chinese, Tibetan, Pāli, Mongolian and other languages. Hodgson had found them among the Newars, a Buddhist community in otherwise Hindu Nepal. Many of the books he sent to Eugène Burnouf in Paris. Burnouf, a professor who never visited Asia and never met a Buddhist, had moved from his studies of Avestan, the sacred language of the Zoroastrians, to Sanskrit, having caught from German Romanticism the fever of the time: a passionate belief that, as the study of Greek and Roman antiquity had brought on the Renaissance, so the knowledge of India would transform modern times.

Burnouf was the greatest Sanskrit scholar of the period, and his translations of the texts Hodgson sent – including the most influential of Buddhist texts, the Lotus Sutra – and his vast Introduction to the History of Indian Buddhism were read by Thoreau, Emerson, Schelling, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Wagner (who left an unfinished ‘Buddhist’ opera at his death), among many others. Burnouf’s Buddha was neither idol nor god, but the teacher of a humanist philosophy which, unlike the Hindu caste system, offered a liberation that was available to all. The original Sanskrit texts offered the clearest views of the Buddha’s own philosophy – in Burnouf’s words, the ‘most ancient, the human Buddhism’. They were, he wrote, ‘of incontestable value for the history of the human spirit’.

It was remarkable how quickly the image of the Buddha had changed. In 1796, Father Paulinus, a Carmelite missionary on the Malabar coast and author of the first European grammar of Sanskrit, had proved that the Buddha was not a man, but the planet Mercury. By the 1840s, the West had more or less the image of the Buddha that we still have today. It was not, however, a complete triumph. Two years after Burnouf’s early death in 1852, H.H. Wilson, the leading scholar of Sanskrit in Britain (director of the Royal Asiatic Society, appointed to the country’s first chair of Sanskrit at Oxford), lectured that the Buddha was a fraud who had never existed, that ‘ignorance and superstition’ are the ‘main props of Buddhism’, but that fortunately it will be ‘overturned’ by the Christian missionaries ‘before whose salutary influence civilisation is extending’. Wilson, almost needless to say, found the admiration of the Buddha typically French.

From Richard Nonas’ notebooks, undated

‘Things mean’ is what structural thinking is always about—expeditions into the interior: the invasion of reason into the interior; the search for information (that turning everything into information is what is dubious about anthropology, and much of art too). I’m not looking for clarification (which is just dull), but for something I don’t have words for: a kind of confusion or doubt which excites me the way some women do. Analysis is too violent, too specific, and too slow. I like my violence ambiguous, but quick—weakened by time, but strengthened by the depth of its wounding. (Words, analysis, make their object nothing more than object, but object—ambiguous object—left alone is something more.) As an anthropologist I destroy (or change, which is the same) whatever I touch. What do I do as an artist? What I touch is tainted; what I’ve touched is tainted. I destroy what I don’t know, by understanding it. Is that what art is about? Is art a kind of extended suicide? What we know, we destroy. What we can’t face, we kill. Art is about failure.

Michael Wolf. Paris Abstract, 2014.

Excerpts from an interview with Roberto Bolaño, 2001

I suppose one writes out of sensitivity, that’s all.

The truth is, I don’t believe all that much in writing. Starting with my own. Being a writer is pleasant—no, pleasant isn’t the word—it’s an activity that has its share of amusing moments, but I know of other things that are even more amusing, amusing in the same way that literature is for me. Holding up banks, for example. Or directing movies. Or being a gigolo. Or being a child again and playing on a more or less apocalyptic soccer team. Unfortunately, the child grows up, the bank robber is killed, the director runs out of money, the gigolo gets sick and then there’s no other choice but to write. For me, the word writing is the exact opposite of the word waiting. Instead of waiting, there is writing. Well, I’m probably wrong—it’s possible that writing is another form of waiting, of delaying things. I’d like to think otherwise. But, as I said, I’m probably wrong.

Plots are a strange matter. I believe, even though there may be many exceptions, that at a certain moment a story chooses you and won’t leave you in peace. Fortunately, that’s not so important—the form, the structure, always belong to you, and without form or structure there’s no book, or at least in most cases that’s what happens. Let’s say the story and the plot arise by chance, that they belong to the realm of chance, that is, chaos, disorder, or to a realm that’s in constant turmoil (some call it apocalyptic). Form, on the other hand, is a choice made through intelligence, cunning, and silence, all the weapons used by Ulysses in his battle against death. Form seeks an artifice; the story seeks a precipice. Or to use a metaphor from the Chilean countryside (a bad one, as you’ll see): It’s not that I don’t like precipices, but I prefer to see them from a bridge.

Nicanor Parra says that the best novels are written in meter. And Harold Bloom says that the best poetry of the 20th century is written in prose. I agree with both. But on the other hand I find it difficult to consider myself an active poet. My understanding is that an active poet is someone who writes poems. I sent my most recent ones to you and I’m afraid they’re terrible, although of course, out of kindness and consideration, you lied. I don’t know. There’s something about poetry. Whatever the case, the important thing is to keep reading it. That’s more important than writing it, don’t you think? The truth is, reading is always more important than writing.

Naomi Sims in 1972. Ph: Barry Berenson