Selected poems from Sappho

As part of an ongoing (if halfhearted) decluttering effort, I’ve recently been posting some more books to PaperBackSwap.com… including a bunch of my old college books. (Goodbye, The Faerie Queen! Goodbye, Aristotle’s Poetics!)

One that I am shipping off tomorrow is a book of Sappho’s extant poetry and fragments, as translated by Mary Barnard in 1958. Leafing through them again, I am still struck by the luminous haiku-like quality achieved by these particular translations. I looked up other renderings of some of them, and they were just dead on the page by comparison. Much κῦδος to Ms. Barnard (1909-2001). (Better scholars than I am can peruse the Greek fragments here.)

I had dogeared a handful of pages in my copy, probably from my freshman humanities class in 1989, for the poems that I particularly enjoyed. So I wanted to record them for posterity before I send the book to its new owner.

3.
Standing by my bed

In gold sandals
Dawn that very
moment awoke me

9.
Although they are

Only breath, words
which I command
are immortal

12
It’s no use

Mother dear, I
can’t finish my
weaving
You may
blame Aphrodite

soft as she is

she has almost
killed me with
love for that boy

24
Awed by her splendor

Stars near the lovely
moon cover their own
bright faces
when she
is roundest and lights
earth with her silver

47
I was so happy

Believe me, I
prayed that that
night might be
doubled for us

48
Now I know why Eros,

of all the progeny of
Heaven and Earth, has
been most dearly loved

61
Pain penetrates

Me drop
by drop

and my overall favorite:

64
Tonight I’ve watched

The moon and then
the Pleiades
go down

The night is now
half-gone; youth
goes; I am

in bed alone

Then there are a few later in the book that have an absolutely Dorothy Parker feel:

73
Yes, it is pretty

but come, dear, need
you pride yourself
that much on a ring?

84
If you are squeamish

Don’t prod the
beach rubble

Wishing much enjoyment to the next reader!

How I make art, Part 1: Resources for Hebrew text

This week, I’ve been working on a new Judaica art piece, which I look forward to releasing next week! But before I get there, I wanted to talk about my process for making art out of text in Hebrew and English.

It starts where everything starts — with an idea. Some words catch my eye and fire my imagination. Most often, it’s either a Biblical text or a passage from the siddur, the Jewish prayerbook. (Frequently, it’s both, as Biblical quotations make up a significant portion of the wording of our formal prayers.) Occasionally, it’s a quote from the Talmud, about which more below.

But how do I get going from there? First, I go to the Internet!

… Why not start on my own bookshelf? I own numerous Bibles in both Hebrew and English (one of my favorite translations, incidentally, is Everett Fox‘s Five Books of Moses, a.k.a. the Schocken Bible). But here’s Confession #1: I’m not so strong on chapter and verse. So I start by doing a Google search for the English phrasing, in order to locate the verse I’m thinking of.

From there, I look up the Hebrew. Mechon Mamre maintains an excellent complete Hebrew-English online Bible, featuring the well-reputed standard English translation by the Jewish Publication Society (JPS). I will usually go here to copy and paste entire passages. Note, though, that they provide “pointed” text, with the nekudot: vowel marks and other punctuation that are positioned around the actual letters (or, in the words of psycholinguist Dorit Ravid, “diacritics ancillary to consonantal graphemes”).* This notation is essential for study purposes, but I generally go on to strip out the nikkud, because I prefer to use just the un-pointed letters in my artwork.

* However, the Ancillary Diacritics is totally my new band name.

My next stop is, perhaps surprisingly, a Christian Bible site, one called Blue Letter Bible. While I tend to steer clear of Christian-sponsored sites, this one offers a spectacular feature that I haven’t found elsewhere: a word-by-word breakdown of the original Hebrew, as well as the Greek from the Septuagint, for every single verse of the Old Testament.

[Blue Letter Bible tools screenshot]

The language tools at Blue Letter Bible. Careful observers will pick up a clue as to the forthcoming new art piece.

My own Hebrew skills are normally sufficient to match up the corresponding words from an English translation; in fact, this is an important element in my artwork, where I frequently color-code specific words or phrases to create explicit visual connections between the texts. But sometimes I feel like the English in front of me doesn’t quite capture the nuance I’m getting from the Hebrew. When I want to refine the translation I’m including in the piece, it can be amazingly helpful to see a range of English translations side-by-side, or to click through to the Strong’s Concordance entry to see how the same word has been interpreted in different contexts. Plus, they provide a box to toggle the “vowel points” (the aforementioned nekudot) on or off, so I can copy a whole verse with just the unpointed letters. Priceless.

Now, what if I am researching a Talmud quotation? Certain sections are easy to find in translation, like the tractate of Avot, better known as Pirkei Avot, or in English as “The Ethics of the Fathers”, which is reproduced in its entirety in most traditional prayerbooks. Often, however, I will see delightful quotes attributed solely to “The Talmud”… which may be technically accurate, but not very helpful! Google is my friend here again. Sometimes it turns out that quotes attributed to “The Talmud” (such as this one, identified here) actually come from Midrash Rabbah, which is a fantastic (and often fantastical) body of interpretive commentaries, but not part of the Talmud.

Once I can get a specific citation, I can look up the Hebrew in Mechon Mamre’s online Talmud Bavli (the “Babylonian” Talmud that is the version commonly studied). Some chapters are available in English at Halakhah.com, at Sacred Texts, and at the Jewish Virtual Library. If I’m looking for Midrash Rabbah, there’s a complete online Hebrew edition at Tsel Harim.

For Hebrew text from the prayerbook, I am more likely to turn to my actual bookshelf. However, there are several useful Web resources, such as the Online Siddur, the Open Siddur Project, and the Free Siddur Project.

There are many more great collections of links and scholarly resources at sites like the following:

One last technical note: I create my artwork in Adobe InDesign. Now, if I copy a line of Hebrew text from a web page, it is almost certainly in Unicode, which the browser knows to render right-to-left… but InDesign pastes in the character sequence from left to right. Because here’s Confession #2: I don’t actually use it to handle Hebrew properly. Now that I’ve upgraded to Creative Suite 6, its World-Ready Composer gives some built-in support for right-to-left sequencing at either the paragraph or character level… but the way it behaves still isn’t very intuitive for me, and I get frustrated after just a few minutes. It’s actually easier for me to cheat with an intermediate step: reversing the string in order to make it come out correctly. On a few old projects, I did this by hand (!), but these days I turn once again to the magic of the Internet, where there are handy web-based utilities for this purpose.

  • Reverse a String Online was my longtime quick-and-dirty favorite for single lines.
  • Text Mechanic’s “Reverse Text Generator” offers an additional option called “Flip Text”, which reverses each line (or technically paragraph), but keeps the lines themselves in the correct top-to-bottom sequence — just what I need for longer sections.

Once I’ve got all my text in place, in Hebrew and English, that’s my raw material. Only then can I start to play with it to create art. But that’s a totally separate process that I will try to address in another, less technical — and probably shorter! — post.

Shabbat shalom!

This summer’s challenge project: Beginning Russian

Я теперь изучаю русский язык. Это трудно, но очень интересно!

… I’m big on languages; in my lifetime I’ve studied French (starting in grade school), German (starting in high school), Italian and then Hebrew (starting in college). The next ones on my list have always been Russian and then American Sign Language.

Last fall my synagogue (which does a lot of deaf outreach) offered a 6-week “mini-course” in beginning ASL, so I eagerly signed up for that. There was supposed to be a Level 2 class at the turn of the year, which I signed up for as well, but it was cancelled due to low registration; I have unfortunately kind of let the practicing slide, in the meantime, but that’s another story.

At the beginning of May, due to a confluence of personal circumstances, I decided it was time to tackle Russian. I signed up for 6 weeks of a beginner class through ABC Language Exchange and started at the beginning of June. There’s only one more session left now, and while I’m not going to be able to continue it right away (for reasons of both time and money), I’m definitely interested in doing more with them — it’s been a great experience. I come out of every session with that delightful “brain is full” feeling. Granted, it’s hard to get very far in 90 minutes a week without any language lab component to force you to drill, so I’m still not so solid on, say, verb conjugations (let’s not even talk about case endings). But I’ve been pretty motivated to put in practice time on my own, and for sure I got the main thing I wanted out of the class: a crash course in reading fluency that would allow me to do more self-study going forward.

To my handful of dear friends who are Russian speakers: I’m looking forward to enlisting you in my practice. :-) My [cute] Russian-speaking colleague tells me my accent is good, so I credit you all with my prior exposure.

There are a bunch of online resources out there, but I especially want to give a shout-out to a site called FunRussian.com (“Learn Russian the Fun Way”). She’s got really good articles and a truly impressive set of video tutorials. I happened on it because I was trying to track down a Winnie-the-Pooh poem that my friend Alyosha taught me some 15 years ago, during one of our few tutorials… and it was right here! in an article on Винни Пух, Vinni–Pukh, the Russian adaptation of Winnie-the-Pooh.

Спокойной ночи!

#upgoer5: Putting Things On The Face Book

Some friends were doing an #upgoer5 meme, explaining one’s profession using only the “ten hundred” most-used English words (inspired by xkcd). So I did too.

“I work for a school, putting things that parents and teachers need to know up on the computer so they can find it out. I also take pictures and moving pictures to show parents what fun things their kids do in school, or sometimes I write about things that are going on in the school. Then I share those stories and pictures on the computer, such as on the Face Book. And sometimes I help make pretty paper things that we send out to the houses of parents and friends of the school, so that they will like us and send us money.”

Crossposted from Dreamwidth.

Interesting Jewish links: art and language

School’s out for summer, which means my work environment changes pace. Normally I spend a lot of time serving as a resource person — which is to say, responding to daily requests from other folks around the school for this and that, highly interrupt-driven. Over the summer, it’s a lot more project-based: big-picture time to think about things we need, or improvements we could use, and to dither around with possible ideas in creative ways. (Also to reorganize and clean out the ridiculous piles of crap that have accumulated in my office, but hey.) So although the way I’ve spent much of today could certainly be denigrated as “dicking around online”, it’s really also a mode of study and a recharging of creative batteries. If you want to know what I love about this job… it’s the fact that that can be true. That these things matter.

Moreover, I’ve also been doing a bit of introspection lately about my Jewish and/or artistic life, which is to say, the things that interest me most deeply and the ways in which they interact. Not that there’s anything new about my interests in language and lettering and prayer and depth of connection and the nature of the Divine — not to mention singing (literal and metaphorical) and the body (ditto) and nourishment and mysticism and joy and home. But — what do they mean? :-) What’s the Gestalt? What am I doing with them?

For some time now I have been mulling around elements for a work of YA Jewish fiction I want to write — write! — and every now and then I see a new piece of the puzzle and say “aha, maybe that fits in here somewhere”. I suspect I have another much larger post brewing on all these topics for later, and maybe the summer will be a good time for that. But for the moment, I’m just going to set out some of the network of interesting stuff from today.

So:

Yonah Lavery‘s awesome Talmud Comics, and the associated blog. I already emailed the artist to order a poster version of this one.

By way of the New Vilna Review: The Museum of Psalms (really more of an art gallery, it sounds like) in Jerusalem.

The Jewish Virtual Library has a section on Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress.

In case there is anyone in the world who does not know about these (because apparently there still are such people), it is my duty to share my two favorite leyning (Torah reading/cantillation) resources: Ellie’s Torah Trope Tutor gives you the names and melodies of all the tropes. Navigating the Bible gives complete text and audio (i.e., sung through the trope) of all the weekly Torah readings (as well as the Haftarah portions). (And of course, anyone who would like to do any reading EVER at is always heartily encouraged to jump in and sign up. :-)

Lastly, in lieu of my usual Friday Hebrew lesson for my dear friend T, I commend to you all Balashon: The Hebrew Language Detective. It reminds me considerably of the work of Joseph Lowin (whose own site seems to be down or nonexistent) and the other topical Hebrew lessons at the amazing Jewish Heritage Online Magazine, one of my very favorite sites on the entire Internet. (To my mind, it’s not far from this kind of etymological exploration to Edenics and the work of Isaac Mozeson, but I’ll leave the really wacky stuff for another day. :-)

And with that, I’m out of here. Shabbat shalom, y’all.

Type/language/publishing geeking links

In honor of my first day of full-time self-employment (as it were), I present a barrage of links that will interest a certain like-minded subset of readers.

Fonts.com’s For Your Typographic Information:
http://www.fonts.com/AboutFonts/Articles/fyti/index.htm

Type Trading Cards (gotta catch ’em all!):
http://www.fonts.com/AboutFonts/Articles/TypeTradingCards/

Helvetica (a film about typography, screening, incidentally, at MassArt at 7pm on April 11, sayeth ):
http://helveticafilm.com/

Type 1 fonts for TeX use:
CTAN directory: http://www.ctan.org/tex-archive/fonts/amsfonts/ps-type1/
AMS: http://www.ams.org/tex/type1-fonts.html

Fontifier: Your own handwriting as a TrueType font for just $9 (yes, I got one and so did ):
http://www.fontifier.com/index.html

Lorem Ipsum (all true typesetting geeks know that this refers to randomized pseudo-Latin filler text) randomizing generator:
http://www.lipsum.com/

Free online graph paper PDFs:
http://www.incompetech.com/beta/plainGraphPaper/

Glossary of bookbinding terms:
http://www.uflib.ufl.edu/preserve/binding/glossary.htm

Non-typographical, but useful: Converting a photo to a “painting” in Photoshop:
http://www.myjanee.com/tuts/painted/painted.htm

Non-publishing-related, but language-geekful: the Speech Accent Archive
http://accent.gmu.edu/index.php

Bookbuilders of Boston’s list of production-related publishing jobs in the greater Boston area:
http://www.bbboston.org/pageJobs.cfm

… And now, to send out a shul e-mail and hit the showers. :-D