Thursday, October 18, 2018

Mookie Betts's Glove Was in the Field of Play

I got the tl;dr out of the way in the title.

I've written previously about the value of multiple points of view (literal points of view in this case, but I think it's valuable for figurative points of view, too).  Last night, in Game 4 between the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros, was another example.

Here's the situation as it was in Houston (the location is kind of interesting, though not really important to the ruling).  It's the bottom of the first, and the Astros are already down 2–0, but they have George Springer on first after a one-out single, and Jose Altuve up to bat.  Altuve hits a deep fly to right, and Red Sox right-fielder Mookie Betts reaches up and seems about to make the play, when his glove is closed shut by a fan's hand.  The ball bounces back into right field, where Betts retrieves it and fires it back into the infield.  Altuve ends up on second, and Springer (who presumably had to wait to see if Betts made the catch) stands on third.

Umpire Joe West initially calls a home run, and then appears to indicate interference.  The umpires collectively go to the replay, and after a delay of a few minutes, they call Altuve out, and order Springer to return to first.  After Marwin González is hit by a pitch, Yuli Gurriel flies out more conventionally to right and the Red Sox escape without further damage.

In the aftermath of the Red Sox' 8–6 victory, however, there was considerable controversy over whether the interference call was the right one.  The ruling was that because Betts's glove did not exit the field of play—that is, it did not cross the imaginary plane of the outfield fence—he was interfered with.  Had the glove been beyond the fence, then any contact with the fans would not have been considered interference.

The problem is that it's far from obvious where Betts's glove was at the moment of contact.  The Red Sox observed (as did some others) that Betts's body had yet to reach the fence, but the Astros pointed out that Betts was reaching backward for the ball.  Both sides agreed that the ball would have gone into the stands were it not for Betts, and both sides agreed that Betts had a good chance of catching the ball.  (I've seen a few fans claiming that Betts simply closed his glove early, but neither I nor any professional commentator seems to find that credible.)

Nevertheless, both sides also thought the replays confirmed their conclusion, each perhaps pretending to a greater certainty than they really felt.  They're really not that conclusive either way, at first glance, and it was important, probably, that the call on the field was interference.  Here's a shot from one angle, for instance (the left-field camera, I think):


Can you tell where Betts's glove is in relation to the fence?  I can't.

Well, we don't have to tell from that shot alone.  Here's a second shot from another angle (maybe the first-base camera):


Hmm, it's not obvious from that shot either.

Once again, though, we don't have to rely on either shot in isolation; fortunately, the two images together will tell us what we need to know.  Both shots show the play a split-second after the fan had made contact with the glove, and with the ball just about to strike the outside of the glove.  The fans are still looking up because they're not trained to follow the ball into the glove, and because that baseball is moving fast, but that white blur is the ball in both photos.

How does this help us?  Well, let's take a look at where the glove is in relation to the wall.   Here are the same two shots, but with the same location marked on the outfield wall padding:



Notice where the glove is in relation to that mark in the two images.  It's to the right of that mark from the point of view of the left-field camera, but it's just about in line with the mark (or maybe a little to the left) from the point of view of the first-base camera.  It's simple triangulation: If the glove is directly above the fence, then it should be in the same position with respect to the mark from both views.  If it's in front of the fence, it should appear further to the right in the first view (from left field), and if it's beyond the fence, it should appear further to the left in the first view.

Since it's further to the right in the first view, the glove must have been in front of the fence at that moment, and the interference call is the right one.  (I was mildly surprised to discover this, by the way.  If I had to guess, I would have guessed that the glove was beyond the fence—but I would have been pretty loathe to guess.)  Without knowing more about the location of the cameras relative to the wall, we can't be sure how much in front it was, but at any rate, the contact was made in the field of play.



ETA: Here's a third, intermediate view (from behind home plate?), further confirming the findings:

Monday, April 23, 2018

Cicada Recurrence and the Allee Effect

One of the best-known phenomena in the insect world is the unusual recurrence of various populations of cicada.  There aren't any cicadas out here on the West Coast, where I live, but they are endemic to the Northeast.  The periodical cicadas (there are non-periodical cicadas, apparently) are notorious for having life cycles that are synchronized to one of two (relatively) large primes: 13 years and 17 years.  The big question, of course, is why: Why do cicadas have life cycles that are synchronized in this fashion?

One could divide the 13-year cicadas into 13 distinct subgroups, depending on which year they emerged, and divide the 17-year cicadas into 17 subgroups along the same principle.  Physical observation of cicadas, as shown in the Wikipedia plot summary, reveals that only about half of the 13+17 = 30 subgroups actually manifest in the United States (where the cicada is native), however, with two subgroups becoming extinct within the last century or two.  Nonetheless, the periodicity is well enough established that there should be a rational explanation of this phenomenon.



 One historically proposed reason for the synchronization has been that the long recurrence time limits exposure of the species above ground to predators, and that when they are exposed, there are so many of them that predators cannot possibly decimate them (a fact well attested by the unfortunate farmers who have to deal with them), thereby ensuring the continued existence of the population.  Although this is surely part of the answer, it only explains why the period is long; it doesn't explain why the period isn't 12 or 15, for instance, rather than 13 or 17.  These latter periods would only provide additional benefit if the likely predators of the cicada likewise had a life cycle punctuated by years of inactivity, which turns out not to be so.

A more successful explanation involves hybridization.  It is hypothesized that whatever mechanism governs the return of the population after however many years is based on a biological clock that is adjusted to activate periodically, and that if a 13-year cicada were to mate with a 17-year cicada, the result would be a substantial number of cicadas with unpredictable, but likely shorter, periods.  (Too long, and the individuals would die of old age, anyway.)  Such offspring would be more vulnerable to predation, so there is an evolutionary premium placed against hybridization.  Computer simulation studies show, however, that if we assume an initial species-wide distribution of a variety of periods—some prime-numbered, some composite—the prime-numbered periods remain, but so do some of the composite periods.

This 2009 paper, by Tanaka et al., explains away the remaining composite periods by means of something called the Allee effect.  In many population dynamics analyses, it is assumed that the fewer instances of a species exist, the more likely any instance is to survive—it being presumed that there is no disadvantage owing to an excess of resources.  There may be no such disadvantage, but it is nonetheless the case that there are situations where the reverse is true, for small populations: the greater the population, the more likely any individual is to survive to reproduce, because it benefits from the increased support and robustness of the larger population, up until the point where that larger population represents more competition than cooperation.  This reverse but very natural-seeming tendency constitutes the Allee effect.

Tanaka and company simulated the cicada species under a very simple hybridization model, both with and without the Allee effect, starting with subgroups with a range of periods varying from 10 through 20 years.  They found that without the Allee effect, there was broad survival of all of the cicada subgroups, with the 16-year subgroup thriving the best.  But with the Allee effect, the result was startlingly different: Only those cicada subgroups with periods of 13, 17, or 19 years survived, depending on some of the initial parameters.

Since the actual mechanism of the periodicity is not well understood yet, this study is more suggestive than dispositive, but the results are provocative.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Competing at the Limit

I participate from time to time at a site called Math StackExchange, where users ask and answer questions about mathematics.  Most often, the questions relate to a student's coursework, but there are some deeper questions as well.  It's one of a family of similar StackExchange sites devoted to a wide variety of topics, only some of which are academically inclined.

One question that comes up every now and then is the definition of a limit.  It looks like this:
limxaf(x)=Lε>0,δ>0,x,0<|xa|<δ|f(x)L|<ε

And it reads like this:
The limit of f(x) as x approaches a equals L, if and only if for every positive ε, there exists a positive δ such that whenever x is within δ of a (except possibly exactly at a), f(x) is within ε of L.
Understandably, to many math students starting introductory analysis, this looks like so much gobbledygook.  Textbooks typically try to aid understanding by drawing a picture of a function f(x) in the vicinity of some value x = a, showing that as x gets closer to a, f(x) in turn gets closer to its limiting value L (which might not in fact be f(a) itself, if that value even exists).

But what if the sticking point for students isn't always that notion of better and better approximations (central as that is to the definition of a limit)?  What if the sticking point is the interplay between the "for every" (symbolized by the upside-down A: ∀) and the "there exists" (symbolized by the upside-down E: ∃)?  The intent of this definition, first conceived of by the French mathematician Augustin-Louis Cauchy (1789–1857) and formalized by the Bohemian mathematician/philosopher Bernard Bolzano (1781–1848), is to ensure that we can always get as close as we want to the limiting value (without necessarily hitting it), simply by being as close as we need to be to the argument x = a.

We can represent this as a sort of (almost irredeemably nerdy) game between two players, the Verifier and the Falsifier.  The Verifier is trying to prove the limit is right by showing that everything near x = a maps to an f(x) that's close to L, while the Falsifier tries to disprove the limit by challenging the Verifier to get even closer to L.  For instance, if the function f(x) = 2x+3, the Verifier might be trying to demonstrate that the limit of f(x), as x approaches 5, is 13:
Falsifier.  I don't think it's true; I think the limit is not 13.
Verifier.  Well, if that's so, then you must think there's some neighborhood of 13 that I can't force f(x) to lie in.
Falsifier.  Right.  OK, I challenge you to get within 0.1 of 13.
Verifier.  Sure.  If x is within 0.05 of 5, then f(x) will be within 0.1 of 13: f(4.95) = 2×4.95+3 = 12.9, which is within 0.1 of 13, and f(5.05) = 2×5.05+3 = 13.1, which is also within 0.1 of 13.  [There is more to it than that, such as that f(x) is monotonically increasing, but we'll leave these details out for now.]
Falsifier.  All right, but can you get within 0.01 of 13?
Verifier.  Yes.  All I have to do is force x to be within 0.005 of 5: f(4.995) = 12.99 and f(5.005) = 13.01.  In fact, I can answer any neighborhood of 13 you challenge me with, simply by halving it to obtain my vicinity of x = 5.  If you want me to be within ε of 13, then all I have to do is be within δ = ε/2 of 5.  Then f(5–ε/2) = 2×(5ε/2)+3 = 13ε, and f(5+ε/2) = 2×(5+ε/2)+3 = 13+ε.  It's foolproof.
Falsifier.  Hmm, I guess you're right.  I'll have to concede that the limit is 13.
The exchange would have gone quite differently if Verifier had claimed that the limit was 12.  Then, for instance, when Falsifier challenged Verifier to get within, say, 0.1 of 12, Verifier would have been unable to choose a vicinity of x = 5 such that f(x) is between 11.9 and 12.1 over that entire vicinity, because any value of x very close to 5—close as we like—always has f(x) very close to 13, and that clearly doesn't fall between 11.9 and 12.1.  But if Verifier can always figure out the right vicinity to force the function to fall in Falsifier's neighborhood, then they can prove the limit to be correct.

This approach to proofs has much broader applicability; in game semantics, and in a kind of logic called independence-friendly logic, many demonstrations rely on this kind of interplay between a Falsifying universal quantifier (the "for every" ∀) and an existential quantifier (the "there exists" ∃).



Now for a digression to something that will seem totally unrelated at first.

In the late 11th century, into the 12th, there lived a Breton named Pierre le Pallet who was a precocious philosopher.  He was initially trained by William of Champeaux, but quickly grew capable of duelling wits with his teacher, and ended by starting a school of his own, against the advice of William.  By all accounts, he was a self-proud man, convinced simultaneously that he was brighter than anyone else and that no one else was giving him proper credit for this.  In his defense, he was generally regarded as one of the leading philosophers of his time, his specialty being logic, a tool that he wielded in an almost competitive spirit in defense of positions that were then considered heretical.  It was during his late adolescence that he took on the name that we know him by today, Peter Abelard.

As Abelard, his fame grew considerably, and people from all around sought his counsel.  One of these was a canon in Notre Dame named Fulbert, who wanted Abelard as a tutor for his niece.  She was then in her early twenties (we think—there is significant uncertainty about her birthdate), and had demonstrated herself to be remarkably capable in classical letters.  She had mastered Latin, and Greek, and Hebrew, and had applied these to a study of Christianity, to which she was devoutly dedicated.

Her name was Heloise d'Argenteuil, and she and her relationship with Abelard were in time to become famous.  Both of them found the other attractive, and in or around 1115, they started an affair just out of the watchful eye of her uncle.  Ostensibly, Abelard was tutoring her, but this would be interrupted periodically by a bout of lovemaking.  When they were separated, they would exchange personal messages on wax slate (parchment being too expensive even for billet doux that would have to be discarded or hidden).  A message would be incised on a layer of wax mounted to a wooden back; this message could then be read and the wax melted and smoothed over to be used again and again.

The two lovers could not necessarily deliver the messages personally without incurring Fulbert's suspicion, and so would have to rely on the discretion of messengers.  But as the messages were typically written in Latin or Greek, which the messengers couldn't read, teacher and pupil could exchange their letters under the apparent guise of lessons.  Abelard and Heloise apparently exchanged over a hundred letters this way, letters we have access to only because Heloise seems to have transcribed them onto a scroll (now lost) which was found centuries later by a French monk named Johannes de Vepria.

The affair progressed as far as Heloise bearing a son by Abelard, whom she called Astrolabe, after the astronomical instrument, and about whom we know almost nothing at all.  Around this time, Fulbert caught wind of it, and managed to force them to marry, although Abelard extracted a promise from Fulbert not to publicize the marriage, so as to protect Abelard's reputation.

Fulbert, however, had had his own reputation damaged by Abelard over other matters, and so he began spreading rumors of the marriage.  Abelard had Heloise installed at an abbey for her own protection, a gesture that Fulbert misunderstood as Abelard trying to wash his hands of her.  So Fulbert hired some henchmen, and one night, they went to Abelard's sleeping quarters, and castrated him.



Abelard went into seclusion, and it is unclear that he ever saw Heloise again after this time.  However, about a decade or two later, they exchanged a sequence of seven or so longer letters, instigated when Heloise somehow got her hands on a letter that Abelard had written to a monk about his life story.  That letter included a retelling of her own story, and the two lovers were reintroduced to one another in this way.

Except that by this time, Abelard had decided to impose a sort of pious asceticism on himself that extended to any romantic feelings he might have had for his one-time wife.  Heloise, in turn, wrote him back, entreating him to concede those feelings, feelings she was sure he still retained.  In the last pair of letters, Heloise appears to have relented, and buried herself in her religious life, and Abelard seems to have praised and encouraged this.  But these letters are permeated through and through with an almost overwrought subtext.

So who convinced whom?  As if in honor of these two, whose story has become synonymous with medieval romance, the roles of the Falsifier and the Verifier are often personified by the love-denying Abelard, whose initial is a convenient mnemonic for the universal quantifier ∀, and by the love-asserting Heloise, whose name is sometimes spelled Eloise, whereby her initial is a convenient mnemonic for the existential quantifier ∃—symbols ineluctably entwined in the cherished logic of Abelard's youth.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Racing to the End

The last of four Chinese novels on my reading list, 錢鐘書 Qián Zhōngshū's 圍城 Fortress Besieged, is its author's sole piece of long fiction, he having turned his hand to literary history and criticism after the cultural turmoil of China in the 1950s and beyond.  It is also at once the funniest and most tragic of the ones I read, too.

The novel's title shares its second character with another one of the novels I read—邊城 Border Town.  This generally does just mean "town," and the other character, 圍 wéi, generally means "to surround."  So why are the two titles translated so differently?  Because Qian's title is drawn from a Chinese rendering of a French proverb:
Le mariage est une forteresse assiégée, ceux qui sont dehors veulent y entrer, ceux qui sont dedans veulent en sortir.
Roughly translated, that reads, "Marriage is a fortress besieged, which those on the outside want to enter, and those on the inside want to leave."  And that should give you an idea of what the novel is about—but only a little.  Marriage is only one of the themes touched upon in Fortress Besieged, and though it is in the end the dominant one, the first three-quarters of the novel are bursting with other motifs contending for the spotlight.

方鴻漸 Fāng Hóngjiàn is a Chinese-born itinerant international student, spending time at a fair number of schools, but never dedicating himself at any of them.  The start of the novel, in pre-war 1937, finds him at last on his way back to China after his money has run out.  He can hardly return home empty-handed, but with his money mostly spent, he is somewhat at a loss for what to do, until by chance he finds an ad for a correspondence school willing to furnish the necessary credentials—if not the actual education—for a nominal fee.  As it happens, the school is no longer a going concern (even as a for-pay degree mill), the original advertiser having given up after failing to lure any suckers, but an American Irishman living in the same apartment sees an opportunity to make a fast buck.  After a comical exchange in which Fang gets the better of the Irishman in a battle of wits over whose intentions are more insincere, Fang gets his papers and boards a ship for Shanghai.

It is one of the few triumphs for Fang, who spends most of the novel on one end (usually the butt end) of Qian's jokes, whether it's to do with Fang's hunt for a stable university position (on the strength, or lack thereof, of his faked credentials), his talking up of various women on the voyage home or afterward, competitions with other Chinese travellers over whose colloquial English is stronger, or his escape to China's interior from the wartime turmoil in Shanghai.  Ultimately, his tenuous university position as lecturer is not renewed (partly on account of those credentials, partly because of Fang's naiveté), and after rushing into a faute-de-mieux sort of marriage with another lecturer, is forced to return to his hometown with his new bride.  The last chapter is a dazzling depiction of the marriage's dramatic denouement.

Qian's prose is a raucous, rollicking ride with Nabokovian twists and turns, tossing out quick throwaway gags in an offhand measure, as if to show (as Nabokov was wont to do as well) how much cleverer he is than his characters.  And yet it doesn't come off as excessive showboating; indeed, it sustains the novel through to its final conclusion, where he suddenly turns solemn, anguished, and revealing.

The sole translation, executed by Nathan Mao and Jeanne Kelly in 1979—well, that depends on how you like your translations.  This one is copiously researched and endnoted, much like Anthony Yu's translation of Journey to the West, but unlike Yu, Mao and Kelly must contend with a master modern stylist as well, and more often than not, they're simply not up to the task.  There's rarely anything actually wrong with the translation, but Qian's supple prose is alternately rendered sensitively one moment, then woodenly the next.  In my opinion, the uneven tenor of the translation doesn't allow the brilliance of the original to shine through entirely unobscured.  (It's also the only one of the four whose translation is not available in digital format, though that didn't really affect my consideration of it.)

Still, the translation, and its annotations, permit one a rather detailed understanding of the cultural background to Qian's novel, and that's a not inconsiderable benefit, especially for those readers who, like me, didn't grow up in China.  Some people find the incessant endnoting irritating, but not me.  And the translation is essentially always at least competent, giving us a tantalizing hint of the author Qian might have been, if the cultural environment in China had allowed it.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

On the Border

Third on my Chinese novel reading list was 邊城 Border Town, by 沈從文 Shěn Cóngwén.  This slender volume, occupying only seventy or so pages at 16 point Chinese type on my tablet, was the shortest of the four I read, by a substantial margin, and by the time I got to it, I had advanced sufficiently in my literacy that I was able to read through this book in about two weeks.

Central to the story are an old boatman, who ferries travellers both ways across a river, where the old pagoda he lives in sits, along with his daughter and his dog.  The action, such as there is, concerns a love triangle between the girl and two brothers of a wealthier businessmen from the nearby city, but even when the foreground is occupied by the youngsters, lurking in the background, everpresent, is the old man, as constant as the river and the boat he directs from bank to bank.  Meanwhile, the old ways—represented by the time-honored fashion in which the boys make their overtures to the boatman's daughter—are fighting their battle against the intrusion of the modern world, with occasionally tragic casualties.

Shen Congwen grew up, I gather, in the sort of village he depicts in Border Town, and his reverence for the town and the people who inhabit it are palpably present in his prose.  He has been called the Chinese Faulkner, and the comparison is apt, though I also see hints of Hemingway in him.  Although in English comparative literature, the two, stylistically, are likely as not to be contrasted rather than paired, they share with Shen Congwen a common appreciation for duty, and perseverence, and quiet endurance.  At the same time, Shen Congwen draws a stark spotlight on the consequences of the quietness of that endurance, for oftentimes things, and people, are gone before we have had time to appreciate what they have gone through.

The frequently somber tone of the Chinese that Shen produces is mirrored, reasonably accurately, by Jeffrey Kinkley's translation.  Like Howard Greenblatt's translation of Mo Yan's Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out, Kinkley's translation makes do without commentary, and the very occasional passages that require some understanding of Chinese language or culture are handled through parenthetical asides that don't distract from the often hypnotic rhythm of Shen's prose.  And that prose does not rely for the most part on obscure references anyway.

Border Town is a story of responsibility, and virtue, and the results of their collisions with chance and fate.  Told in its own unobtrusive way, it worms its way into your consciousness and without realizing it, you find yourself wondering how you would act, thrust into a different world, at a different time.

A Turn of the Wheel

The second Chinese novel in my reading program was Mo Yan's 生死疲勞 Life and Death are Wearing Me Out.  This absurd tale of reincarnation and redemption is the author's own choice for the work that best represents his world outlook.  If so, his outlook is sardonic, dark, and cynical indeed, yet still leaving room for optimism for the future—if only the distant, distant future.

莫言 Mo Yan—literally, "don't speak"—is in fact the pen name of 管謨業 Guan Moye, which derives (he says) from his parents' admonition not to be quite so frank and open in public as he was apparently prone to be at home.  He is the only author of the four represented in my novel-reading project to still be alive at the present time, and he is also the only one to have won a Nobel Prize for literature—even more, the only Chinese winner of that prize, ever.  He is perhaps better known for his maiden novel, 紅高粱家族 Red Sorghum Clan (1986), in large part because it was adapted into the screenplay for the award-winning movie, the haunting Red Sorghum, and perhaps in time I will read that in the original Chinese (I do have it in my library), but for now, it was Life and Death that occupied the second slot in my reading program.

The title is drawn from a Buddhist adage: 生死疲勞,從貪慾起,少欲無為,身心自在.  Loosely translated, this reads: The weariness of life and death arises from greed; when one eschews desire and meddling, the body and mind are at ease.  The title translation—chosen by Howard Greenblatt, who has translated a number of Mo Yan's books—obviously takes a different and more irreverent angle, one that reflects the twists and turns of the main character as he? it? they? trace the evolution of Chinese politics and culture over the latter half of the 20th century.

The confusion over the proper pronoun in that last sentence stems from the structure of the novel, which is divided into five parts.  西門鬧 Ximen Nao is a benevolent landowner (or so he believes), wrongly executed by Chinese communists on the opening day of the year 1950 for the crime of owning land and exercising domination over his fellow citizens.  He feels so strongly that he has been wronged that Yama, the lord of the underworld, agrees to send him back to the world of the living to give him a chance to right the wrong—though not as a human, but as a donkey under the care and stewardship of his erstwhile hired hand, 藍臉 Lan Lian (literally, "Blue Face," a reference to the birthmark on one side of his face).  As a donkey, he earns partial redemption, but only at the cost of his life.  Still unrepentant, he compels Yama to send him back again, and again, and again, each time (rather against Ximen Nao's will) as a different animal: an ox, a pig, a dog, and then at last—but that would be telling.

Because I grew up on English literature, of course, I feel a compulsion to draw an analogy between any of the Chinese authors I have read so far and familiar English-language authors.  When I read the short stories of 魯迅 Lu Xun, for instance, I saw a strong similarity to Joyce—in particular, his collection Dubliners.  Both authors have a hankering to expose the decay and inertia at the core of the culture in which they grew up, and both do so via the unremitting disillusionment experienced by some of their characters, and the callous disaffection felt by others.  In the case of Mo Yan and Life and Death, the analogy I draw is to Kurt Vonnegut and works such as Breakfast of Champions; the often impotent outrage of characters, faced with an outrageous, illogical world, is common to both.

Mo Yan has a tendency to the caustic, which works in his favor, but also, at times, to the verbose, which doesn't.  Ximen Nao's life as a pig, in particular, seems to drag on occasionally, to little end it seems beyond the reinforcement of his position as Pig Number One, Chief Porker, the Boar D'Oeuvre.  Howard Greenblatt's capable translation actually helps a little here, because although he translates Ximen Nao's life as a donkey in nearly its entirety, about 20 percent of each of the remaining sections of the novel are left out.  Mo Yan revised his novel somewhat, after Greenblatt completed his translation a year or two after the novel's original publication date, so that may account for some of the discrepancy, but it seems unlikely that those edits represent all of the difference, especially as some of the omitted passages rely on peculiar aspects of Chinese language and history, which are very difficult to translate.  In contrast to Anthony Yu's translation of Journey to the West, which is almost half endnotes, Greenblatt avoids all endnotes and footnotes altogether, instead occasionally interpolating an interpretation as a parenthetical aside, but more generally leaving tangential observations along entirely.

In the end, Mo Yan inserts himself into the story, albeit a distorted image of himself (à la Vonnegut again, I suppose).  Mo Yan the character apologizes for having to relate the pain and sorrow experienced by the characters in the novel (and created by Mo Yan the author).  But the author himself has nothing to apologize for, minor longwindedness aside, for he has created a uniquely Chinese vision of redemption and rebirth in a few hundred pages of unforgiving prose.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Monkeying Around

As I mentioned previously, my first Chinese novel reading project was 西遊記 Journey to the West (1592).  Attributed to 吳承恩 Wú Chéng'ēn, it is considered one of the four great classic novels of Chinese vernacular literature.  Serious Chinese literature was not to be written in Vernacular Chinese, or 白話 báihuà, which literally means clear speech, but in Classical Chinese, or 文言文 wényánwén.  Classical Chinese is to Vernacular Chinese what Classical Latin (e.g., what Virgil wrote in) was to Vulgar Latin, the ancestor of all the modern Romance languages like Spanish, French, and Italian.  That is to say, if you wanted to be taken seriously, you wrote in the Classical form, which was terse and dignified; if you wanted to reach the masses, you wrote in the Vernacular form, which was what the people spoke and could read—the literate people, at any rate.

Journey to the West is so famous, as a result, that there's almost no point in critically assessing it.  No critique takes place in a vacuum; it all relies on some aesthetic basis as a foundation.  In this case, though, Journey to the West is part of that foundation, so firmly that judging it is tantamount to judging Chinese literature as a whole.  I won't even bother.

It will suffice, instead, to give a general sense of the novel.  I don't have a firm handle on its character count, but it's probably in the neighborhood of half a million characters, which puts it firmly in the "lengthy epic" category.  It spans a hundred characters, and is a highly fictionalized account of the exploits of 唐玄奘 Táng Xuánzàng, known in Buddhist lore as Tripitaka, after the Buddhist scriptures that he went from China to India to gather.  In the novel, he is accompanied by three mythical creatures, the homely and sincere 沙悟淨 Shā Wùjìng, a river-dwelling sand demon; the avaricious 豬八戒 Zhū Bājiè, a pig-human; and the star of the show, the trickster hero 孫悟空 Sūn Wùkōng, the monkey king.  Though Tripitaka is the nominal main character, he appears in the novel as so ineffectual and so cowering that he needs his three attendants just to get through each day.  (The real Tripitaka was in contrast well educated, not flighty, and was of course not accompanied by three mythical creatures.)  Sun Wukong is so much the real main character that when Arthur Waley published in 1942 what for a long time was the only substantial English language translation of Journey, he called it simply Monkey.

In fact, Waley's translation covers only about a quarter to a third of the novel.  The first section of the novel, a sort of prologue that covers the background of Sun Wukong, is translated almost in full, but the rest of the novel, which is a long sequence of adventures of mostly supernatural character, is translated only selectively.

In some sense, this is justified, because the episodes (lasting a few chapters each) are self-contained and somewhat repetitive.  Nonetheless, the novel could stand to have a complete, unabridged translation, if only because of its historic place in Chinese literature.  Thus it was that Anthony Yu, born in Hong Kong and eventually to become a professor of Chinese literature (among other things) at the University of Chicago, made it his life project to produce the definitive translation of Journey.

Make no mistake about it; this is a monumental task.  The novel is mostly prose, but contains hundreds of poems in various forms, all of which were elided by Waley (because he was not really that well grounded in Chinese literature); Yu made sure to translate all of them faithfully, which mired him in all of the usual challenges involved in translation, plus the unique obstacles imposed by the brevity of classic Chinese poetry.  The novel is so long that Yu's translation is published in four volumes, each of which is rigorously researched and copiously annotated.  He also includes a lengthy introduction in which he discusses the publication history of the novel, and the specific textual issues he contended with while translating it.

Because this was my first really substantial reading project, I read both the original Chinese novel and Yu's translation on my tablet, with the original in the Pleco app, and the translation in the Kindle app.  I would go back and forth between the two, at first alternating almost sentence by sentence, and then, as I steadily became more proficient, a few sentences at a time, and finally paragraph by paragraph (they're long paragraphs) or even passage by passage.

It took me quite a while to get going, and at first, it took me perhaps a week or two (or three) to get through a single chapter.  By the end, with growing facility at reading Chinese and an increased familiarity with the characters and the flow of the story, I was able to get through a chapter every day or two.  In all, it took me about a year and a half to read through the entire book.

Wu's prose—assuming he really is the author—is puckish, but dated, a feel that I'm sure I have only a partial sense for.  He uses turns of phrase that are evidently out of step with current usage.  Some of that was apparent even to me, but other parts I could only detect because Pleco called them out as dated, or because I asked native speakers.  Still, enough of the playful nature comes through that I could feel it, if a little hesitantly.  I would liken it to Don Quijote (which I haven't read in the original Spanish, so I'm going by a translation).  Yu captures the cavalier style of writing quite well.  From time to time, there are a few stilted turns of English phrase, which I attribute to him not being quite a fully native English speaker, but these are truly few and don't really detract from the overall feel of the translation.  Of the four novels I read, this one probably has the best translation.