Apr 072017

Today is the birthday (1890) of Victoria Ocampo, an Argentine writer and intellectual, who was described by Jorge Luis Borges as La mujer más argentina (“The most Argentine of women”). She is mostly known now in Argentina as an advocate for others and as publisher of the legendary literary magazine Sur, which helped launch the literary careers of many writers (including Borges). She was also a writer and critic in her own right and one of the most prominent South American women of her time. Borges admired her as a rare women who stood up for what is right at a time when women’s voices were largely silenced in Argentina, and who was fiercely independent.

She was born Ramona Victoria Epifanía Rufina Ocampo in Buenos Aires into a high society family and educated at home by a French governess. During her family’s 1906–1907 trip to Paris, her parents  allowed the 17-year-old Victoria, “well-chaperoned”, to audit some lectures at the Sorbonne and at the Collège de France. She remembered particularly enjoying Henri Bergson’s lectures at the latter. She never matriculated at either. Her old traditional wealthy family frowned on formal education for women. In 1912, Ocampo married Bernando de Estrada (aka Monaco Estrada). The marriage was not happy, and in 1920, the couple separated, and Ocampo began a long–lasting affair with her husband’s cousin Julián Martínez, a diplomat.

In Buenos Aires, she was a lynchpin of the intellectual scene of the 1920s and 1930s. Her first book, written in French, was De Francesca à Beatrice (1923), a commentary on Dante’s Divine Comedy. Other works include Domingos en Hyde Park; El Hamlet de Laurence Olivier; Emily Brontë (Terra incógnita); a series called Testimonios (ten volumes); Virginia Woolf, Orlando y Cía; San Isidro; 338171 T.E. (Lawrence of Arabia) (a biography of T. E. Lawrence) and a posthumously published autobiography. There is also an edited book of dialogues between Ocampo and Borges.

Her own writing is arguably derivative, but she was founder (1931) and publisher of the magazine Sur, which became the most important literary magazine of its time in Latin America. Among the writers published in Sur were Jorge Luis Borges, Ernesto Sabato, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Julio Cortázar, José Ortega y Gasset, Manuel Peyrou, Albert Camus, Enrique Anderson Imbert, José Bianco, Ezequiel Martínez Estrada, Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, Waldo Frank, Gabriela Mistral, and Eduardo Mallea.

During the 1930s, Ocampo grew to be an ardent admirer of Benito Mussolini whom she met in person in March 1935 in Rome, hailing him then as “genius” and Caesar reborn. “I have seen Italy in blossom turn its face towards him.” With the start of World War II, however, Ocampo became disenchanted with fascism. She supported and edited from Argentina in collaboration with her friend and translator, Pelegrina Pastorino, the anti-Nazi magazine Lettres Francaises, directed by Roger Caillois and in 1946 she was the only Argentinean who attended the Nuremberg Trials. In 1953, Ocampo was briefly imprisoned for her open opposition to the regime of Juan Domingo Perón.

She was made a member of the Argentine Academy of Letters in 1976 (the first woman ever admitted to the Academy). The “cultural dialog”, initiated in 1977 by the de facto government but organized by UNESCO, was held in her home, Villa Ocampo, in San Isidro, Buenos Aires Province; she eventually donated the house to UNESCO in 1943.

All manner of people stayed at “Villa Ocampo” including Igor Stravinsky, André Malraux, Rabindranath Tagore, Indira Gandhi, José Ortega y Gasset, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Ernest Ansermet, Rafael Alberti, Graham Greene etc. Here’s a small gallery. Spot the celebrity:

Ocampo died in Buenos Aires in 1979, and is buried in La Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires.

To celebrate Ocampo I have chosen sandwiches de miga – a common party food in Argentina. There is some debate as to how they came to Argentina mainly because of partisan pride. Are they English, Italian, or home grown? The argument is silly, in my opinion, but I strongly suspect that this type of sandwich was introduced into Argentina by the English. Simple, yet elegant, crustless thin sandwiches are a staple of the tea table in England. The word “miga” means “crumb” and refers to the center part of pan de miga – a large white loaf.

Cut the crust off a large loaf and then slice it thinly. In Argentina thin slices of bread without crusts are available in markets ready made. You can make a single or triple sandwich. The single is a conventional sandwich, but a triple has three slices of bread with fillings in two sections. You should spread the inner parts of the sandwich with mayonnaise or butter and then choose your fillings.  You can use any meats common in Argentina such as ham, prosciutto, cantimpalo (smoky sausage) or the like, cheeses including Roquefort, brie, or provolone (which are produced in Argentina), and other ingredients such as tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, olives (green or black), hearts of palm, roasted red peppers, peaches, pineapple, cooked asparagus, and lettuce.

To make a sandwich de miga worthy of Ocampo I suggest you get really creative with your choice of ingredients. I’ve always liked fresh figs and prosciutto, as well as Roquefort and thinly sliced hard-boiled eggs. Of course, to get authentic ingredients you will need to travel to Argentina. But either way, whether you stay home or make a trip to South America, don’t be boring.

Sep 302013
St Jerome

St Jerome

International Translation Day is celebrated every year on 30 September on the feast of St. Jerome, the Bible translator who is considered the patron saint of translators. The celebrations have been promoted by FIT (the International Federation of Translators) ever since it was set up in 1953. In 1991 FIT launched the idea of an officially recognized International Translation Day to show solidarity of the worldwide translation community in an effort to promote the translation profession in different countries. So let’s have a little fun with the art of translating.

FIT chose this date because it is the feast of St Jerome who, although he wrote extensively, is most widely remembered for his Latin version of the Bible known as the Vulgate, which was the standard Latin Bible used by the Catholic church for centuries. Pope Damasus I commissioned the translation in 382 to replace older, less reliable, translations.

It is probably true that the Bible is the most translated book of all time. Currently it is available in about 518 languages as a whole work, but there are parts of it in as many as 2798 languages. Obviously these numbers are constantly changing.  Translating the Bible highlights some of the basic problems of translation in general.  How, for example, do you go about translating Isaiah 1:18, “though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow,” into a language that has only two color terms, or for an equatorial people who have no idea what snow is, let alone have a word for it? There’s also the daunting question of what the original Hebrew and Greek texts actually meant. When Paul refers to pneuma or psyche both of which can be translated as “breath” or “life” (and get translated variously as “soul” or “spirit”) what was his understanding of these concepts? And, in a related vein, which English translation of the Bible is the most accurate, or most effectively renders the original ideas? There is precious little agreement among scholars.  Failures of translation can lead to considerable misunderstanding.  Jerome himself made many mistakes.

Jerome learnt Hebrew so that he could translate the Hebrew scriptures directly from Hebrew manuscripts rather than relying on the Septuagint which was a Greek translation that Jews in the Diaspora, who could not read Hebrew, had used for centuries. His idea was to avoid compounding errors that would inevitably arise from translating from a Greek version that was already on an approximation of the original Hebrew. Best practice, then as now, is to go to the source. The problem is that Jerome was not a great Hebrew scholar and so made a number of errors.  The classic is his description of Moses descending from Mt Sinai after receiving the Law from God.  In Hebrew he is described as Q-R-N. The original text has upper case consonants and no vowels. The reader fills in the vowels.  Usually there is no ambiguity, but in this case there could be.  The word that was meant was “qaran” (radiant), but Jerome read it as “qeren” (horned), thus spawning centuries of art showing Moses with horns, and engendering the belief among non-Jews that Jewish babies were born with horns.


Mistranslation can be a very serious problem. In 1980, 18 year old Willie Ramirez was admitted to a Florida hospital in a comatose state. His friends and family tried to describe his condition to the paramedics and doctors who treated him, but they only spoke Spanish. Translation was provided by a poorly bilingual staff member.  The family said that Willie was “intoxicado” which has several meanings, but in general means “poisoned” and typically refers to food poisoning – which is what the family thought was wrong.  The translator, however, told the doctors that Willie was “intoxicated.” He was actually suffering from an intracerebral hemorrhage, but the doctors proceeded as if he were suffering from an intentional drug overdose, which can lead to some of the symptoms he displayed. Because of the delay in treatment, Ramirez was left quadriplegic. He received a malpractice settlement of $71 million.

Spanish and English share a large number of cognates – words that sound similar and mean roughly the same thing.  But there are also false cognates – words that sound similar but have distinct meanings (even though there is usually some root connexion). These are sometimes called “false friends.”  Obvious ones are “actual” (current),” embarazada” (pregnant), and “decepción” (disappointment). But the one that might cause you most problems is to go to the doctor and say you are “constipado.” Literally it means “stuffed up” but in the nose, not the other end. “Estoy constipado” means “I have a cold.”

Spanish has the additional problem that there are so many dialects worldwide due to 16th colonization followed by isolation.  New populations cut off from Spain drifted off linguistically from the mother tongue, sometimes by incorporating words from local native languages, and sometimes because they retained old ways of speaking that died out in Spain. For example, in Argentina and many other regions of Latin America the informal second person pronoun is “vos” (not “”). This was common in 16th century Spain but has long since died out there.  Here’s a humorous song about Spanish dialects.  It’s in Spanish but there are English subtitles if you need them.

Qué difícil es hablar el español

In the 1950’s in Japan chocolate companies began encouraging people to celebrate Valentine’s Day. Apparently one company, because of a mistranslation gave people the idea that it was customary for women to give chocolate to men on the holiday. And that’s what they do to this day.  Men get to reciprocate on March 14.


Back translation is also an interesting phenomenon. This involves taking a translation and translating it back into the original work without seeing the original.  Mark Twain discovered a French version of his short story “The Frog Jumping of the County of Calaveras” which he then proceeded to translate literally word for word back into English retaining the French word order.  He then published all three together to much laughter.  You can do something similar with the app you will find if you click here.

It’s called Bad Translator. You enter an English phrase which it then translates into another language randomly, then back into English. It then picks another language at random and repeats the process.  You can instruct it to repeat up to 35 times.  Given my Biblical theme I entered Psalm 23:1 with the result:

“The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.”
…35 translations later, Bing gives us:
“The Lord is my shepherd, and will not work.”

Have fun with it.

Jorge Luis Borges once wrote, “El original no es fiel a la traducción” which is quite reasonably translated as, “The original is not faithful to the translation.” Typical Borges.  He is well known for his translations and for his playfulness with the art. At nine he translated Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince” into Spanish. It was published in a local journal, but his friends thought the real author was his father. Later he translated works of literature from English, French, German, Old English, and Old Norse into Spanish. At the end of his life he produced a Spanish-language version of a part of Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda. He also translated (while simultaneously subtly transforming) the works of, among others, Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Kafka, Hermann Hesse, Rudyard Kipling, William Faulkner, André Gide, Walt Whitman and Virginia Woolf. Borges wrote and lectured extensively on the art of translation, holding that a translation may improve upon the original, may even be unfaithful to it, and that alternative and potentially contradictory renderings of the same work can be equally legitimate. Along with publishing genuine translations, he also published original works, for example, in the style of Emanuel Swedenborg or One Thousand and One Nights, claiming them to be translations of works he had chanced upon (but which did not exist).


I have often had the need to translate recipes. Translating a modern recipe in a modern European language is usually fairly straightforward.  But recipes from cultures that are vastly different from Europe, or come from centuries-old cultures, present deeper problems.  Besides basic concerns about translating the text, there are issues such as knowing what the ingredients actually are and if you can substitute (i.e. translate) them for ones you have to hand without doing too much violence to the original. There’s also the question of replicating cooking methods. Take, for example, this 14th century English recipe for roast swan.

11. For to dihyte a swan. Tak & vndo hym & wasch hym, & do on a spite & enarme hym fayre & roste hym wel; & dysmembre hym on þe beste manere & mak a fayre chyne, & þe sauce þerto schal be mad in þis manere, & it is clept:

12. Chaudon. Tak þe issu of þe swan & wasch it wel, & scoure þe guttes wel with salt, & seth þe issu al togedere til it be ynow, & þan tak it vp and wasch it wel & hew it smal, & tak bred & poudere of gyngere & of galyngale & grynde togedere & tempere it with þe broth, & coloure it with þe blood. And when it is ysothe & ygrounde & streyned, salte it, & boyle it wel togydere in a postnet & sesen it with a litel vynegre.

The language itself is reasonably easy to understand.  You just have to look up a few words such as “dihyte” (prepare), “enarme” (lard), and so forth (as well as understand that the letter “þ” (thorn) stands for “th”).  Otherwise the roasting part is simple, even a bit longer than it need be. I mean, what’s to know? Gut the bird, lard it, put it on a spit, roast it, then carve it.  There is, of course, the minor question of where to get a swan to roast in the first place. In a sense this is the “untranslatable” part of the recipe.  Any bird you choose, such as a goose, will not be right. The larding is also not fully clear.  Swan would be dry and tough, and therefore would need some additional fat injected into the meat. Nowadays you would thread bacon strips with a larding needle. You could also make deep slits and push in fat pork. The instructions here are not clear.

The sauce represents a different sort of challenge.  You can replicate the ingredients well enough but can you make it anything like the original (assuming that the innards of a duck or goose have a similar taste to a swan’s)? The basic ingredients are giblets, salt, broth, bread, ginger, galingale, blood, and vinegar. Galingale (or galangal) is related to ginger and is used commonly in SE Asian cooking. It’s not hard to find.  Blood is a bit harder to come by.  Here in Argentina I can buy undressed fowl, so there is usually enough. I don’t think it is so important anyway; it seems to be mainly for color. However, without knowing the ratios of the main ingredients it is impossible to know whether this should be a thick sauce, like bread sauce, or thinner like a gravy, or somewhere in between.  Here’s a stab at it:



1 set of giblets plus whatever blood there is
2 pints chicken stock
1 tsp ginger
1 tsp galangal
1 cup white breadcrumbs
2 tbsps vinegar


Simmer the giblets (and blood) in the stock until tender (1 hour or more).

Remove the giblets and chop them very fine. Return them to the stock with the breadcrumbs and spices. Simmer gently again for at least an hour, until the bread and stock are fully incorporated and smooth. Add salt if necessary.

Add the vinegar just before serving.

Aug 242013


Today is the birthday (1899) of Jorge Francisco Isidoro Luis Borges, Argentine short story writer, poet, essayist, and social activist. His most famous books, Ficciones (1944) and El Aleph (1949), are compilations of short stories interconnected by common themes such as dreams, labyrinths, libraries, mirrors, animals, fictional writers, philosophy, religion, and God.


A great deal of Borges’ writing plays with the nature of reality. Many of his earlier works were hoaxes, such as book reviews of non-existent books, or short stories he wrote supposedly as translations of foreign language originals, but where no original existed.  The latter were often convincing frauds because he did actually do translations of foreign works. In the 1930’s he began working in a genre which some credit him with inventing, sometimes known as “magical reality,” or “irreality,” influenced by philosophers of phenomenology and existentialism.  One of his most influential short stories was “El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan” (“The Garden of Forking Paths”), published in 1941, in which he proposes that time is not linear but a is constructed out of a series of decisions we make, each of which is possible, with distinct outcomes, but, more importantly, with all the choices and their outcomes existing simultaneously somehow. Thus, the world consists of an infinite set of forked paths stretching ever outward, or, perhaps, forked paths that fold back in on themselves. Not easy to explain; go and read the story.


This notion of time and reality as non-linear is reflected in such later novels as The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles (1969) and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s 1953 murder mystery Les Gommes (The Erasers).  It is even reasonable to assert that Borges invented the basic concept of the modern hypertext novel in which the reader, using a computerized text, follows the story to certain nodes and then, via a hypertext link, chooses where to go from there.  The story unfolds according to the whim of the reader, and when done, the reader can return to the beginning and start again making different choices at each node.


Borges was deeply Argentine in his sensibilities, yet also addressed ideas that cut across cultures. He played with such reflexive puzzles as whether an author creates the story, or whether the story creates the author (sometimes called the “Borgesian Conundrum”). This is a phenomenon well known to writers (myself included), who often feel that a story is writing itself through them, and in the process changing them.  Borges was also fascinated by the idea that words and stories can create a reality that has no link to the physical world, yet is real. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in his short story “Emma Zunz.”

The story is set in Buenos Aires and the locations are unmistakable. But the setting is just a convenience, and not germane to the story.  At the opening, Emma Zunz has received news that her father, Manuel Maier, has committed suicide.  Emma knows that his suicide was prompted by his disgrace and ruin when he was accused of embezzlement, an act actually perpetrated by his business partner, Loewenthal, who not only took the money but framed her father. Emma, who is an 18 year old virgin, foments a plan.  First she visits a few sleazy bars pretending to be a prostitute and chooses a man who disgusts her to solicit.  The deed is appalling to her, but she distances herself from it.  Next she goes to Loewenthal’s office where she shoots him dead with a revolver.  After it is over she disarranges the office, unbuttons Loewenthal’s clothing, and then calls the police.  The story she tells is simple – she tells the police that something incredible has happened. Lowenthal had asked her to come to his office on a pretext, he had raped her so she had killed him. Borges ends the tale as follows:

“La historia era increíble, en efecto, pero se impuso a todos, porque sustancialmente era cierta. Verdadero era el tono de Emma Zunz, verdadero el pudor, verdadero el odio. Verdadero también era el ultraje que había padecido; sólo eran falsas las circunstancias, la hora y uno o dos nombres propios.”

(“In fact the story was incredible, but it impressed everyone because it was substantially true. True was Emma Zunz’s tone, true was her shame, true was her hate. True also was the outrage she had suffered; only the circumstances were false, the time, and one or two proper names.”)

Classic Borges.  What is truth? What is a story? What is meaning? What is real?


Which Argentine recipe can I pull from my arsenal to honor Borges? Arroz con pollo argentino fits the bill, I think (just be sure to pronounce “pollo” as we do: the “ll” sounds like the “s” in “measure”).  In the same way that Borges’ writing is Spanish with an Argentine twist, so our arroz con pollo is Spanish in origin, but done our way.  The most important thing about the Argentine version is that it does not contain saffron or any other coloring/flavoring for the rice except the meat and vegetables.  This is my version. If you want to be really Borgesian about it, make your own choices at every turn. You’ll get the idea from my ingredient list.  Makes me want to experiment with the notion of a hyper-recipe.


Arroz con Pollo Argentino


1 2 lb (1 kilo) chicken
1 onion, peeled and chopped coarsely, or 1 leek chopped (optional)
½ green bell pepper, chopped coarsely, seeds and ribs removed (optional)
½ red bell pepper, chopped coarsely, seeds and ribs removed (optional)
2 cups long grain white rice
4 cups chicken broth (or water, or vegetable stock, or veal broth)
1 cup fresh peas – or frozen (both optional)
parsley for garnish (optional)
4 tbsps olive oil


Cut the chicken into eight parts, (2 thighs, 2 drumsticks, 4 breast pieces).

Brown the chicken pieces in oil over medium-high heat in batches in a heavy pot.  Set aside.

Sauté the chopped pepper and onion in the pot until the onion is translucent.

Add the rice, stirring until slightly transparent.

Add the chicken, peas, and broth.

Simmer uncovered for 20 minutes over medium heat, stirring occasionally.

Cover the pot, remove from the heat and let rest for 5 minutes.

Stir the mixture and serve the chicken and rice sprinkled with chopped parsley.

Serves 4