Author: Yale University Press

Celebrating Yale Press Founder’s Day with the Two ‘YUPs and a Nope’ Quiz

As faithful readers of our blog will no doubt already know, the Yale Press was founded in 1908 by George Parmly Day and his wife, Wilhelmina.  What you probably don’t know is that those early years were a little odd.  Below, we’ve included our favorite party game from our annual George Parmly Day Day celebration: Two YUPs and a Nope.  Each question includes two Yale titles from the early twentieth century along with one title of similar vintage from a sister university press. Our staff averaged around 50% correct, can you do better?

Your Score:  

Your Ranking:  

George Parmly Day and Party Hat from Yale Press

George Parmly Day
and Party Hat

Yale Press Best Wishes

Yale Press snacks

Yale Press portrait and flag

Translating Trans-Atlantyk: Behind the Scenes with Danuta Borchardt

Trans-Atlantyk CoverMany consider Polish novelist Witold Gombrowicz one of the greatest writers of the past hundred years and Danuta Borchardt is undoubtedly one of his finest translators. Her rendering of Ferdydurke won the 2001 National Translation Award given by the American Literary Translators Association, and her recent edition of Trans-Atlantyk has garnered praise as well. Trans-Atlantyk recounts the often farcical adventures of a penniless young writer stranded in Argentina, and it does so in the style of the gaweda, a tale told by the fireside in a language that originated in the seventeenth century.

Trans-Atlantyk is notoriously difficult to render in English, and Borchardt has written eloquently about the challenges she encountered while translating Gombrowicz’s novels. Borchardt’s account blends translation theory and memoir as she confronts generic questions of style and authenticity with necessarily personal approaches. Yale University Press is pleased to present, over the next few weeks, excerpts from Borchardt’s as yet unpublished memoir on translating Gombrowicz, beginning with her thoughts on Gombrowicz’s unusual language: a variation of Polish that resists description and lacks a straightforward English equivalent.

Danuta Borchardt—

Since Trans-Atlantyk’s previous translation published fifteen years ago, I have been mulling over how I would translate it in order to convey Gombrowicz’s most unusual language that he chose for this novel. I focused first on its deviation from the literary to the colloquial language of the less educated folk (yes, their language is different both in Polish and in English) and of the Polish peasantry. So what would be the English equivalents, more or less? Cockney? No, this is an English dialect and not for American readers. One of the American dialects? No. It seemed I was being clever in this line of thinking but something seemed out of kilter. Why did the previous translators use words like “fain”, “perchance”, “ergo” over and over again? Their translation seemed somewhat pompous.

Finally, after several months of this, I decided to ask Jerzy Jarzębski, my colleague and the Gombrowicz scholar, for advice. As you will glean from what follows, had I written to him sooner, I would not have been so inane in my thinking.

Jarzębski responded, in essence, that this was no simple matter, that Gombrowicz used a variety of the Polish language from the turn of the 17th century. Moreover, he filtered it through the language of the Polish gentry’s gawęda from the beginning of the 19th century. He also used a lot of peasant language, rather archaic, modeled on that of the Polish peasants who had arrived in Argentina from Poland in the 19th and 20th centuries. Furthermore, there was also the language of the Polish romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz. “In a word: quite a mélange, but try and see what you can do,” Jarzębski said. Clearly, Gombrowicz’s most untranslatable work.

Thus I arrived at and accepted the notion of Gombrowicz’s archaic language.

A few words about the gawęda. Historically, the gawęda was a tale, a mode of interaction at social gatherings of the sixteenth- to nineteenth-century Sarmatian Polish nobility in their country manors. This was reflected in seventeenth-century Polish literature and has persisted in some twentieth-century writings, as well as in fireside social gatherings. I have been unable to find an equivalent to the gawęda style in American literature. In Gombrowicz’s gawęda, the narrator chats directly with his listeners. Spoken mostly in the past tense, the narrative often reverts—awkwardly to the English speaker’s ear—to the present tense, thus insinuating the narrator into the present and among his listeners.

Having recently, by a fluke of fate, picked up and read Moby-Dick, I was becoming convinced that this was one of the varieties of English applicable to the translation of Trans-Atlantyk. Another book, a much earlier of course, was Gulliver’s Travels, as well as Tristram Shandy. All three novels, even though baroque, read easily. These works were important from the point of view of the period when gawęda has thrived, and for my ability to reproduce a “quick-read” of Gombrowicz’s spoken tale.

I was learning a new language.

However, I did not entirely surrender to the archaic because Gombrowicz did not throw contemporary language totally to the winds. I recalled the gawędas from my early adolescent years—campfire chats during my girl-scouting days, or rather evenings. This was well into the 20th century.

For further guidance into the language, I went to the author himself, who had written to his friend Dominique de Roux:

     “This Trans-Atlantyk always makes me laugh… It frolics without restraint, it is sclerotic, absurd, in the gawęda-style from one hundred years ago but mixed with another class of words, often with words invented by me.”

“Sclerotic” also referred to the way Gombrowicz used language. I read a critique of the previous translation by Jerzy Jarniewicz, the Polish poet and critic, published in a literary journal. The message I, the translator, gleaned from it was to forgo any fancy rendition of the Polish into English (except where Gombrowicz’s inventions make it necessary), and to adhere to his well-worn expressions and idioms, as yet another manifestation of that “sclerosis.”

In order to convey the archaic language appropriate to the gawęda, Gombrowicz used expressions and rhetorical devices typical of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Polish. For example, he sometimes reversed expected sentence order, moving the verb to the end of a clause. He also mimicked the use of uppercase letters common in earlier texts (in English as well). He also employed archaic orthography, spelling też as tyż (meaning “also”), in the older Polish style.

It is interesting to note that the Polish peasant language has retained some archaic forms that Gombrowicz used; many of these are of course untranslatable. Also, going to his eastern Poland roots (Kresy or Borderlands), Gombrowicz used some forms of language still typical of those regions.

The translation needed to convey, by the use of colloquialisms, an informal mode. It must flow quickly, easily. Yet it also needed to preserve the author’s use of repetition. However when the use of synonyms was appropriate I used what my OED denoted as Middle or Old English. My task was also to simulate as effectively as possible the beautiful lyrical passages that elevated the narrator’s spoken tale into a written work of art.

Rock is a Mix Tape: Enter the History of Rock ‘n’ Roll Playlist Contest for a Chance to Win!

History of Rock 'n' Roll Playlist Contest posterGreil Marcus shared a collection of tracks that define rock ‘n’ roll for him in The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs. Now is your chance to challenge his list. Create your own playlist of ten songs on YouTube, SoundCloud, Spotify, or just write them down and submit them on the History of Rock ‘n’ Roll playlist contest website. If Greil Marcus selects your playlist as the winning entry, you’ll receive:

Five runners-up will also receive a signed copy of the book and a promotional coaster.

The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll playlist contest runs through October 13th, so it’s time to dust off your old LPs, grab that cassette player from the basement, or pop in those earbuds. Submit your playlists here for your chance to win! And if you’re looking for inspiration, give Greil Marcus’s ten songs another listen below.


What SUP From Your Favorite University Presses, September 26, 2014

sup-300x209Welcome to our weekly roundup of news from university presses! Once again, there is a lot to share this week from our fellow academic publishing houses and much to learn on What SUP at the social university presses. This week, we reflected on adulthood, celebrated T.S. Eliot’s birthday, and reevaluated the nature of money.

Columbia University Press shared “The Sounds and Scripts of a Hong Kong Childhood,” the final chapter of Rey Chow’s Not Like a Native Speaker. Chow discusses the hallmarks of radio drama and her mother’s career as a popular broadcaster and performer.

Harvard University Press considered what it means to be an adult with the author of The Prime of Life. Steven Mintz responds to pessimistic books and editorials by illustrating how American attitudes towards adulthood and youth have changed over time.

Indiana University Press documented the itinerant people known as Travellers. The trailer for Irish Travellers features a montage of photographs from George and Sharon Gmelch’s new book.

Johns Hopkins University Press wished T.S. Eliot a happy birthday  and introduced readers to his newly published complete prose. Jewel Spears Brooker and Ronald Schuchard shed light on the beginning of Eliot’s intellectual life and literary career.

Oxford University Press asked if health apps really matter, citing the limited initial success of fitness apps and apps for diabetes patients. Andrew Larkin argues that although health apps have had a rough start, they are poised to become more useful and important.

Princeton University Press interviewed Nigel Dodd, author of The Social Life of Money. Dodd lays down the framework for a new understanding of money in the aftermath of the financial crisis by studying thinkers such as George Simmel, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Jacques Derrida.

Stanford University Press explained Jack London’s reputation as a novelist and socialist. The Press notes, on the occasion of Banned Books Week, that The Call of the Wild was banned in parts of Europe because of London’s political leanings.

Temple University Press celebrated Jewish New Year by highlighting seven Jewish studies titles. The books describe the Catskills resort culture, recall the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association basketball team, and explore community and immigration.

Translating Place In Literature: An interview with Rodrigo Rey Rosa

We are pleased to release a new interview with Rodrigo Rey Rosa, author of Severina and The African Shore, both available to the English speaking world through Yale University Press’s Margellos World Republic of Letters series. In the interview, Rey Rosa talks about his writing and about the intricacies of translation.

Severina by Rodrigo Rey RosaYale University Press: Your translator, Chris Andrews writes in his introduction that Severina is an exception among your recent novels in that it “glances only momentarily at Guatemala’s pervasive politico-criminal violence.” What sparked this departure?

Rodrigo Rey Rosa: I don’t normally look into the impulses that drive my writing. Writing is for me a kind of exercise in freedom, and I try to work tapping into what is usually called the unconscious. I guess that one of the reasons for what you call “this departure” might be just a desire for change. But the need for change was not something I decided upon, I’d say I simply felt it, and followed it.

YUP: You spent a year in Morocco when you were 21. Morocco appears in Severina, as well.  What does Morocco mean to you? Does Ahmed in some way represent that relationship?

RRR: I’m afraid I need to clarify a bit on this point. When I was 21 I only spent six weeks in Morocco. I went back there two years later and stayed a couple of months, and started going back there each year, until I finally decided to rent a little apartment stay on. During the 80′s I constantly moved back and forth between Tangier and New York. Back then, Morocco was for me the place where I could dedicate myself completely to reading and writing. I would go to New York to work or try to make, or get, money, in order to go back to North Africa and write. One of the reasons for this was of course that life used to be very, very cheap in Morocco, even cheaper than in Guatemala. Ahmed for me does not represent anything beside himself; he is a real character, not a symbol.

YUP: You’ve written in English—it was Paul Bowles, the teacher of a creative writing workshop you attended in New York and later your translator, who encouraged you to write in Spanish. How is writing in English different for you than writing in Spanish?

RRR: Again, I need to clarify. It was in Tangier, in 1980, that I was part of a creative writing workshop conducted by Paul Bowles. I did write a few pages of fiction in English then, because I was not aware that Bowles knew Spanish very well. He advised me not to write in English–there was no need for me to do so, since he could read my work in Spanish. And a little later, towards the end of that six week workshop, he asked me if it was OK with me if he translated the pieces I had showed him during the workshop (he had this very formal way of doing things), because a publisher back in New York had just asked him for material, and at that moment he had nothing to give them, and he thought that they might like what I was doing. I have not kept those stories written in English, but I’m sure they were a sorry sight. My English has never been quite up to mark.

YUP: What is working with a translator like for you? Are you often surprised when reading the English version of one of your works by what is lost or transformed?

Rodrigo Rey Rosa

Rodrigo Rey Rosa

RRR: It usually is a very satisfying experience to read one’s work in translation. You can see what you wrote as if it were not yours, or as if you had written it a long, long time ago. So you can be a bit objective about it too, in a way, and that is very important and hard to do, being objective about one’s work. Mostly I think that a good translator can do a lot of good to a piece of writing. Of course, something must be lost when passing from one medium to another. What they call “the poetry” or “the music” of the writing might be difficult or impossible to keep. Or the humor, which is worst. But the spirit usually manages to stay or find it’s way even through a sloppy job.

YUP: Your narratives often take place in real spaces (Guatemala, or Morocco in The African Shore) yet they are also highly imaginative. What inspires your writing? Can you please talk about your creative process?

RRR: I think that with stories it is a bit like with dreams: fear and desire dictate them. But again, I do not like –and anyway, I don’t think I’d be good at it at all– to analyze these processes. That is something I’d rather leave to the critics. A good critic can teach a writer a lot about these things. I think today we are badly in need of good critics.

Rodrigo Rey Rosa is perhaps the most prominent writer on the Guatemalan literary scene. Along with the work of writers like Roberto Bolaño, Horacio Castellanos Moya, and Fernando Vallejo, Rey Rosa’s fiction has been widely translated and internationally acclaimed. His books include Dust on Her Tongue, The Beggar’s Knife, and The Pelcari Project, all of which were translated into English by the late Paul Bowles. In addition to his many novels and story collections, Rey Rosa has translated books by Bowles, Norman Lewis, François Augiéras, and Paul Léautaud.

What SUP From Your Favorite University Presses, September 19, 2014

sup-300x209Welcome to our weekly roundup of news from university presses! Once again, there is a lot to share this week from our fellow academic publishing houses and much to learn on What SUP at the social university presses. This week, we studied the classics online, compared Scottish and Quebec nationalism, and took a quiz on the Constitution. What did you read this week?

Columbia University Press interviewed John Pickrell about his book Flying Dinosaurs. He explained why birds are dinosaurs and how dinosaurs likely used their feathers.

Harvard University Press introduced the digital Loeb Classical Library with the help of its general editor, Jeffrey Henderson. Henderson commented on the challenges of moving the library online and described the exciting new ways of reading, studying, and teaching the library will enable.

Johns Hopkins University Press connected physics and art with a guest post  by Dr. J.R. Leibowitz, the author of Hidden Harmony. He showed how the fields overlap in their principles and motivations.

McGill-Queen’s University Press offered a timely comparison between Scottish and Quebec nationalism. Books including Hierarchies of Belonging and Liberal Nationalisms delve into the related political and cultural contexts.

Oxford University Press celebrated the anniversary of Harriet Tubman’s escape from slavery with a post about her life. Wilma Peebles-Wilkins described Tubman’s efforts towards civil rights and social justice as well as her legacy for black feminists.

The University of Pennsylvania Press investigated Jewish travel writing in a Q&A with Martin Jacobs. His book, Reorienting the East, engages with postcolonial studies and the meaning of Orientalism.

Stanford University Press tested our knowledge of the U.S. Constitution with a quiz derived from Your Rugged Constitution. The Press has reissued the classic 1950s resource on the architecture of the nation’s founding document.

The University of Chicago Press congratulated Alison Bechdel, the cartoonist, graphic memoirist, and 2014 MacArthur “genius grant” recipient. The post offered a quick recap of the Bechdel test and video footage from a 2011 interview.

After Bannockburn—After the Referendum: Robert the Bruce and the difficulties of Settlement

Michael Penman—

Scotland’s medieval icons William Wallace and Robert the Bruce and their military encounters with England only occasionally reared their heads during the party leaders’ recent campaigning for and against Scottish independence. In January 2012, former Scottish Secretary and Stirling MP, Michael Forsyth, charged that SNP leader and Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond, probably preferred June 24, 2014, the seven hundredth anniversary of the battle of Bannockburn, as the date for the referendum vote—so as best to exploit “centuries old grievances and romantic mythology.” September 11 was in fact at first proposed with the Unionists and the press rounding on the SNP’s choice of the anniversary of Wallace’s victory at Stirling Bridge in 1297 in an attempt to allegedly launch a “second war” for Independence (even though the 1997 Yes-Yes Devolution referendum, which embraced many Unionist parties, had also been held on that date).

Thus September 18, 2014 was a compromise choice for the “Yes-No?” vote. But this was not enough to stop former Conservative Prime Minister, John Major, from criticizing what he saw as Alex Salmond’s stoking of “anti-English sentiment” through proximity to the Bannockburn anniversary, allegedly detracting from commemoration of historic “British” military events like the anniversaries of the D-Day landings and the outbreak of World War One. Yet Unionist Ministers also played this game. The scheduling of rival events thus led to a very uncomfortable handshake between Mr. Salmond and Prime Minister David Cameron at British Armed Services Day, held in Stirling on Saturday, June 28, 2014, clashing with the same weekend’s plans for the festival of Bannockburn Live! And just a couple of days later the Queen and PM hosted the launch of the British Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, Elizabeth, at Rosyth docks (in the constituency of former Labour PM and reinvigorated Union-campaigner, Gordon Brown). Then, almost at the death, on September 8, Mr. Salmond invoked the famous Bruce-era “Declaration of Arbroath” of 1320—a pithy statement of Scottish sovereignty sent to the Papacy in the name of Scotland’s nobility— and offered the Scottish people a “Declaration of Opportunity” with promises on the NHS, welfare, social justice, and the right “[to] choose a government to protect their interests.” In response, Unionist commentators only nibbled a bit at this bait, gently poo-pooing such “harking back to a very different world” as the fourteenth century, and then returned to contemporary policy rhetoric. This then was but a mere faint echo of the use which all parties had made of the Declaration of Arbroath as a touchstone of patriotism and political idealism during the 1997 Yes-Yes Devolution campaigns (with Sean Connery’s broadcast for the SNP deploying history from “Sheven Shenturies Ago…”).


Bannockburn: Bruce Reviewing His Troops Before the Battle via Wikimedia Commons

Admittedly, it is surely a positive that in 2014 all parties made a conscious effort of restraint not to mangle centuries-past historical events and figures in their efforts to persuade (with the SNP in particular having moved away after 1997 from such ploys as annual Bannockburn rallies calling for an Independence vote). But with the votes now cast and counted and 55% of the Scottish electorate in favor of retaining Scotland’s place in the Union in some form, the history of Robert Bruce’s reign might again be (cautiously) instructive. For after his triumph at Bannockburn, King Robert had to oversee a resettlement of lands and offices and to win back the territory and hearts-and-minds of several Scottish lordships, towns and regions still in English control or sympathy. The first parliament he called to do this after the battle, in November 1314 at Cambuskenneth Abbey outside Stirling (just a few miles from the battlefield), was by no means an easy affair. As much as the king and his ministers with their battle-mandate may have sought to control that assembly and its agenda, there is evidence of difficult debate on a number of issues: forfeiture of past opponents, lobbying for new lands and offices for supporters, a need to tidy and modernize Scotland’s laws, to rebuild her economy, and settle the royal succession.

This may have been a gathering which Robert sought to use for reconciliation and to avoid any mood of triumphalism and vindictiveness against both his Scottish and English opponents. Indeed, the assembly may have opened by marking All Souls day (November 2) with a procession and mass for the dead, remembering some of those who had fallen on both sides at Bannockburn. It is clear, too, that the key decision of this parliament—an act of November 6 to now forfeit those holders of Scottish lands who remained outside Robert’s peace—was a highly contentious issue for all concerned: the parliamentary record states that “it was finally agreed, adjudged and decreed by the counsel and assent” of the king and his subjects that these individuals should now be disinherited “although they had been often summoned and lawfully expected.”

Nevertheless, it is very telling that such was Robert’s continued need to win support and stabilize his regime that some key individuals still in English allegiance had their forfeiture further delayed, allowing them more time to submit to Bruce. Moreover, although the Bruce government clearly tried to tread carefully in this regard, upheaval and disfavor to past opponents was unavoidable. By 1318 this had provoked a crisis. With his last surviving brother killed in battle in Ireland and only an infant grandson as his heir, Robert was vulnerable and there was growing disquiet about his landed favor to key supporters. An emergency parliament called to Scone in December that year may have been an even more fractious, tense affair with uncomfortable questions and contingencies over patronage, the succession and law reform. Despite the royal regime’s attempts in this parliament to use statute to gag those spreading rumors about a rift between king and subjects there was clearly a substantial plot underway against Bruce, led by former Scottish opponents and in favor of Edward Balliol, a vassal-claimant of the Scottish throne then in Edward II’s court and pay. In 1320 this erupted as the so-called “Soules Conspiracy” with Bruce’s “Black Parliament” condemning those implicated in this sedition and his supporters moving to hunt them down throughout the realm.

So the great medieval turning point of Bannockburn heralded a rocky, often bitter period of settlement with quite partisan outcomes. The political and popular response in the wake of the majority “No” vote in 2014 will also surely be challenging and compelling.

Michael Penman is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Stirling and co-author of England and Scotland in the Fourteenth Century: New Perspectives. His most recent book is Robert the Bruce: King of the Scots.

Further Reading:

An Interview with Jody Gladding, translator of Rimbaud the Son

We are delighted to release an interview with Jody Gladding, translator (with Elizabeth Deshays) of Pierre Michon’s Rimbaud the Son, now available through the Margellos World Republic of Letters series.  In the interview, Gladding discusses Michon’s groundbreaking book and addresses questions of translation.


Yale University Press: Although Rimbaud the Son is something approaching a biography of Rimbaud, much of the book seems to assume that the reader already knows a fair amount about his life. For example, pages after Verlaine’s introduction, Michon begins a sentence with, “It is also said—to explain the herring and the six-shooter…” Who is the audience for this book? Do you think that sentence requires the reader to already know the story of Verlaine’s shooting Rimbaud, or is there a kind of surreal delight in reading a sentence that begins this way without preparation?

Jody Gladding: There may be a kind of surreal delight in coming upon that sentence unprepared, but I think there’s greater delight in recognizing the reference, even if only faintly  The best audience for this book would be those readers as intrigued with Rimbaud’s myth as Michon is, although the writing is so beautiful, I think anyone who appreciates virtuosic prose, Rimbaud enthusiast or not, would enjoy it.

YUP: In your introduction, you say that a “Michon sentence is an architectural feat,” made of stacks of phrases that are set to topple if a single semicolon is out of place. He also seems to create his own language of metaphor which the reader must learn to understand the work—an example that comes to mind is his use of June to represent some kind of poetic beauty or authenticity. What effect does his writing style have on you, and do you think it has an increasingly small place in the literary world?

JG: By calling Michon’s sentences “architectural feats,” I mean that he constructs them with incredible skill, and their intricacies become even more apparent–and awe-inspiring–when, as a translator, I try to tamper with them.  Michon’s writing is dense and poetic and I think it will always have a select, passionate audience, even more so among English readers than French ones.  Personally, I find his prose really gratifying to translate.  This is the third Michon book I’ve translated with my good friend Elizabeth Deshays and, since I’m also a poet, it was an especially enjoyable experience.

YUP: Rimbaud and Michon both grew up in rural communes speaking something close to a patois. They both loved Victor Hugo, and both had sisters who died as infants and fathers who left when they were young children. How do these parallel childhoods shape the way Michon writes about Rimbaud? Do you think Rimbaud the Son is unique among Michon’s work because of this relationship?

JG: Yes, there’s definitely an autobiographical strain running through Rimbaud….  The absent father, the smothering mother, the backwater upbringing and how they shape the artist:  these are Michon’s recurring themes.  The author’s own experiences, obsessions, and aspirations inform his fictions, and to my mind, bring them to life.  Rimbaud… is no exception.

YUP: You write in your introduction that Michon’s “imagination is visual,” that he sees Rimbaud’s life through photographs. For example, the penultimate chapter of Rimbaud the Son is devoted to describing a single photograph of Rimbaud in intense and emotional detail. Was the visual and dramatic nature of the text a particular challenge of the translation?

Jody Gladding

Jody Gladding

JG: In fact, Michon’s attention to photographs throughout was a great aid in translating.  The images of Rimbaud that Michon draws upon, especially the iconic photograph of him with the crooked tie, are all easily available.  So we could view the photos in conjunction with the French text and come up with a more precise translation.  I love the visual imagination at work in Rimbaud….

YUP: I noticed while comparing the translation of Rimbaud the Son to the French how carefully you have preserved the original writing, down to the sentence structure. In your opinion, which is more important: avoiding the risk of reminding the reader that they are reading a translation, or creating the illusion of an untranslated work?

JG: I think the best translations constantly remind readers that they are in the presense of the unfamiliar, expressed in languages not their own.  I think it’s very important that readers, especially US readers, are mindful that they’re reading translations.  Whatever discomfort or resistance such reading experiences prompt can be transformative, and can begin to open whole new worlds.

YUP: Only about 3% of books published in the United States are translations, and the number is even smaller for literary works. What do you think is the future of translation, and translation into English?

JG: With some newer publishers specializing in translation, like Archipelago Books, and university presses creating translation series, like Yale’s Margellos Series, the future of translation looks brighter.  That figure of 3% is abysmal when you compare it to European publishing:  in Germany, 8% of all books published are translations, in France, 14%.  For literary presses, the numbers are even higher:  40% of all novels published in France are translated from English.  By making the works of major writers like Michon available to US and UK readers, publishers like Yale UP are helping to correct that imbalance.  Their contribution to literary culture is invaluable.

Why Aren’t We Celebrating Constitution Day?

Lorri Glover—

Today is Constitution Day, not that you would know it. The anniversary has never sparked the public imagination. Forget rivaling the 4th of July. Constitution Day doesn’t garner the publicity or even the retail sales of Presidents’ Day.

This blasé attitude toward Constitution Day runs counter to Americans’ zealous defense of their Constitutional rights, frequent yearnings for the “original” meaning of the Constitution, and near-sanctification of the Founders. Maybe it’s the fact that the Constitution created the federal government, about which Americans have often felt skittish and occasionally downright hostile. Or maybe two weeks after Labor Day—itself fascinating given America’s fraught history with unions—we’re too busy with work and back-to-school. Whatever the current cause of the indifference to commemorating September 17, we’ve actually gotten the history right. Nothing was settled on September 17, 1787, except that a long and difficult road lay ahead.

In July 1776, when the Revolutionaries finished their mammoth task of justifying the overthrow of imperial rule, they celebrated. John Adams said he hoped that future generations of Americans would always commemorate Independence Day “with Shows, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations”—the eighteenth-century word for fireworks—“from one End of this Continent to the other.”

But in September 1787, not even the staunchest advocate for the Constitution felt much like celebrating. The work was not done, not by a long shot. James Madison was the principal architect of the Constitution, and even he saw that on September 17 delegates to the Constitutional Convention only completed a proposal. It was, he said, “nothing but a dead letter, until life and validity were breathed into it, by the voice of the people, speaking through the several state conventions.”

cene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States" by Howard Chandler Christy

“Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States” by Howard Chandler Christy via Wikimedia Commons

For the Constitution to become law, citizens needed to approve the plan, which required representatives to meet in popularly-elected state ratification conventions, debate every nuance of the design, and decide whether or not to consent to this radical restructuring of the union of states. Only if nine of the thirteen states agreed would the Constitution become law. To find the real meaning of the Constitution, Madison understood, “we must look for it not in the general convention, which proposed, but in the state conventions, which accepted and ratified the constitution.”  That process took nearly a year. James Madison was a thirty-six-year-old bachelor, living with and supported by his wealthy father, so he had the wherewithal to work full-time lobbying for the Constitution. He spent six months campaigning for the federal plan in New York and then continued the fight to his home state of Virginia.

In Virginia, in some of the most dramatic and important political debates in all of American history, James Madison took on Patrick Henry. Henry was the greatest orator of the Revolution and the most powerful man in the largest and most important state in the union. Madison’s national ambitions and continental point of view ran counter to Henry’s state-centered priorities. Henry had sixteen children and was deeply worried about their financial futures as well as about the sovereignty of the state of Virginia. The Constitution, he believed, jeopardized both by giving the federal government boundless authority over long-standing Virginia rights. Not one to mince words, Henry announced: “As this Government stands, I despise and abhor it.”

The deeply-divided Virginians were hardly alone. From fall 1787 to summer 1788 and across the whole country, advocates and critics of the Constitution engaged in fierce debates involving allegations of mendacity, craven self-interestedness, willful ignorance, and outright treason. If they accepted the Constitution, critics insisted, Americans would deservedly find themselves “broiling in a Hell of Slavery.” Without the Constitution, supporters pronounced, they would “sink into contempt and anarchy” and cause “a total dissolution of our short existence as a nation.” The only thing Americans generally agreed on was the stakes: they were deciding “not the fate of an individual, but that of millions.” Their country was counting on them to do the right thing.

So, for ten months citizens interrogated the meaning and implications of every part of the federal design. Fitfully and finally, the Constitution was ratified in June 1788. The exact day is tricky, though. On June 25, Virginia narrowly voted to ratify, 89 in favor, 79 opposed. A mere six votes, then, would have redirected the course of American history. Patrick Henry accepted defeat while vowing to work toward “seeing that Government changed so as to be compatible with the safety, liberty and happiness of the people.” James Madison breathed a sigh of relief and his side briefly celebrated Virginia becoming the 9th and crucial state. What they didn’t know, because information traveled by horse, was that New Hampshire beat them to the punch, voting in favor of the Constitution just a few days before.

Either way, things remained unsettled even after June 1788. Completing the Constitution spilled into the first Congress. In 1789, at the insistence of voters demanding their rights be codified, Congress sent the states a series of proposed revisions, which we today call the Bill of Rights. Usually Americans forget that these after-the-fact changes, which most of the original framers of the Constitution had long dismissed as unnecessary and impractical, transformed the Constitution. Since then (though not too often) we’ve continued to alter the fundamental nature of their plan, to make it our own.

Americans often lament the lost world of the founders. But on this Constitution Day, take heart: we’ve not strayed all that far from our Founding Fathers after all. On closer look, our civic life, like theirs, often seems messy and divisive and sometimes downright vicious. Things never get decided as soon as we’d like, and we often fall into reflexively disparaging the motives and patriotism of those with whom we disagree. But we also publicly proclaim our opinions without fear of governmental reprisal, and we move toward consensus when we can and otherwise reconcile ourselves (often begrudgingly) to peaceful disagreement.

Historically, then, we are right in our non-celebration of a Constitution Day. Creating the Constitution was and remains a work in progress. But we are civically wrong—dangerously so—when we fail to understand the history of the Constitution and its language and meaning. So, forget the forgetting to celebrate today and use the time instead to read the Constitution and weigh in your own mind what it means. Your country is counting on you.

Lorri Glover is John Francis Bannon Endowed Chair, Department of History, Saint Louis University. She is author of four previous books on early American history, including The Shipwreck That Saved Jamestown. Her most recent book is Founders as Fathers.

Further Reading:

Founders as Fathers by Lorri Glover

What Does Independence Mean for Scotland and Britain?

James E. Cronin—

Great Britain, the nation that teamed up with the United States to defeat Germany in two world wars and, after each, to do what it could to bring order into a disordered world and that did so much to shape the contours of the post-Cold War world, might soon cease to exist. The Scots vote on whether to leave the United Kingdom on Thursday, September 18th. It would be a hugely important choice for Scotland, for the rest of Britain and for the world.

The referendum campaign has been long, and mostly unexciting, and until recently the “no” camp was way ahead. The effect was complacency, with few outside Scotland giving much thought to what might happen if the “yes” vote prevailed. The polls have recently narrowed, however, and there is now a reasonable possibility that the Scots will choose independence. People are beginning to pay attention and political leaders in Britain are close to panic. What might actually happen?

Perhaps the least helpful guide to the likely consequences is the set of arguments that have been made during the campaign. This was deliberate. The pro-independence camp adopted the strategy of reassurance and claimed that a yes vote would not produce any radical change: Scotland would keep the Queen; it would continue to use the British pound as its currency; it would stay in the European Union and perhaps forge even closer ties with the continent; university students would still not pay tuition fees as they do elsewhere in Britain; benefits and social services would be maintained if not improved. An independent Scotland would not have to pay for another generation of nuclear weapons and it would stay out of foreign ventures like Iraq. In short, there would be no negative consequences and the Scots would keep what they had, and liked, and now also get control of their politics. The pro-union camp—“Better Together” they called themselves—did not confront the argument directly, for fear of appearing to bully or threaten and of provoking a backlash. The “no” camp poked at their opponents’ optimistic claims and sought to raise doubts. The Scots, they suggested, could not necessarily keep the pound; their membership in the EU and NATO would not be guaranteed or quickly settled; the nationalists’ estimates of revenue from North Sea oil—the appropriate division of which had yet to be determined—were overly optimistic; and Scotland’s finances might therefore not suffice to maintain the welfare state so prized by nationalists. But the opponents of independence refrained from an all-out attack in favor of messages about how much everyone loved Scotland and Scots and things Scottish.

Vandalized No Thanks Sign in Scotland

Vandalized no thanks sign courtesy of K . R / flickr

Both sides chose, in effect, to downplay the likely consequences of independence. And both were wrong. It is impossible to say with precision what will happen, but certain consequences are at least likely. It is likely, for example, that the Scottish economy will suffer, for investment in a newly independent nation with an uncertain and unsecured currency involves more risk. Already, several major employers, including the Royal Bank of Scotland, have said they would move their headquarters south. Forcing Britain to removes its stock of nuclear weapons from the Clyde naval base, which the Scottish National Party (SNP) has promised, will cost many jobs and seriously weaken its defense industry.

There is also no doubt that secession, should it happen, would have a very big impact on British politics. In the short run, David Cameron will be seen as the Prime Minister who lost the union. If he managed to hang on as party leader until the general election next May, something that is not guaranteed, he would most likely lose that context. Labour would probably win, but its majority would rest on Scottish Labour MPs who would soon leave Parliament altogether, at which point Labour would find itself in a near permanent minority.

Equally, and possibly more, important effects would come in matters of foreign and defense policy. Traditionally, the SNP opposed membership in NATO, but changed its position in 2012 in anticipation of the referendum. The new commitment is unlikely to hold if the Scots insist on ridding the country of nuclear weapons, for that would not only irritate Britain and the United States, but also throw into question NATO’s broader strategic orientation. In such a situation it seems unlikely that Scotland would be allowed to sign up to the alliance once again. Whatever one thinks of specific NATO policies, it is central to the network of alliances that the US and its allies have put in place to provide global security.

The EU is another institution that, while troubled, spans most of the European continent and organizes its relationships internally and with the rest of the world. The nationalists profess their attachment to Europe, but an independent Scotland would have to reapply for membership, a process that would take time and whose outcome would be uncertain. The unresolved issue of Scotland’s currency would be a particular stumbling bloc.

The biggest impact is the simplest to grasp: Britain without Scotland would instantly be transformed from a serious player in international relations into something much less. How much this would matter to the Scots is hard to say, but it would matter to the rest of Britain and it would matter to the world. Great Britain is no longer the dominant world power, as it was at the height of empire, but it retains a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, it played a huge role in the creation and maintenance of NATO, and it is the closest and most reliable ally of the United States. It can be argued, in fact, that the present global order is fundamentally an Anglo-American product, a set of institutions and relationships that were cobbled together mainly by the United States and Great Britain. It is easy enough to locate flaws in the post-Cold War order and to query its guiding principles and it is impossible not to notice the many ways it is currently threatened. Still, the case against fails utterly for lack of anything better. An independent Scotland would not signal its imminent demise, but it has to weaken one of its strongest supports. Can that be a good thing?

None of this means that independence is not or will not someday be the right thing for Scotland. There will be consequences, however, and costs that will be borne not just by the Scots but by the rest of Britain and, indirectly, by many others. It is important that these be recognized before rather than after the vote.

James E. Cronin is professor of history at Boston College and an affiliate of the Minda De Gunzburg Center for European Studies, Harvard University. His latest book, Global Rules: America, Britain and a Disordered World, is available in October 2014.

Further Reading:

Global Rules by James E. Cronin