Monday, April 16, 2018

What Do Translators Do?

[Note: The following is an excerpt from a paper that my spouse Katja L. presented to the Contemporary Club, her Cincinnati women’s writing group, on April 9, 2018.]

Dear George,
The art of translation has been of longstanding interest to me.  Primarily because I was surrounded by relatives and friends who chattered away in languages that I couldn’t understand.  English was the lingua franca of our home but my earliest memories of non-English are of my father and mother speaking in Yiddish.  My father loved to recite long passages from King Lear and the Merchant of Venice in Yiddish, whereas my mother belted out musical numbers on our well-tuned upright piano in that hysterically funny sounding language which she spoke effortlessly with her father.  My weekends were spent with my grandparents in Germantown, Philadelphia, and they spoke Yiddish in between the hours when we all listened to the Metropolitan Opera on the radio in Italian, German, French, and occasionally Russian.  My grandparents would translate the operas into Yiddish (for me), and I would try to make sense of it all by nodding my head and translating a word or two into some shred of understanding. 

My grandparents kept an orthodox household which meant we sat in the dark all day Saturday, waiting for our beloved opera to begin and then, for four hours, we sat in silence (except during the Opera Quiz).  After the opera, we all went on our Saturday walk, both adults discussing in Yiddish and English the pros and cons of the afternoon opera.  If Richard Tucker had sung that afternoon, their lives were made complete.  “A cantor and an opera singer!”  What could be better!  I was five years old at the time this routine began, and to my young ears Yiddish mimicked gibberish — a crazy mixture of sounds that sounded like perpetual jokes.  It was the lilt, the tone, the gestures which accompanied it, and the fact that I was unable to read it or understand it which frustrated me.

Moving on to other languages, I remember the relief I felt when I learned to read Hebrew and received a reward (a Bible) for translating the chapter about the Jewess Rebecca in Ivanhoe from Hebrew into English.  Of course, the fact that the original was in English helped enormously although there were no Cliff Notes at the time. 

In high school I was introduced to Montaigne and Rabelais, and that was when I began to learn the importance of translation.  Years were spent learning to understand the vocabulary, word-play, and acrobatic sentence structure of Rabelais, the serious, clarity, and irony of Montaigne.  Translation became terribly important to me during my many years of graduate study in French for it introduced me to a different culture, religion, history, ideology, philosophy, and above all meaning. 

Graduate study led me to a variety of jobs as a translator.  One was with the the Ford Motor Company where I managed to turn a manual into English that had originally been written in Japanese and previously translated into French.  This task required numerous trips to the Ford plant in Batavia where I met with the engineers and learned the functions of various auto parts.  I then spent hours searching through engineering dictionaries trying to decipher French and English engineering vocabulary. 

While working for Laura Strumminger, French historian and Head of the Department of Women’s Studies at UC, I had the opportunity to translate articles and books from the French into English. 

When Kings Island was being built, the need for a French-English translator for signage throughout the park was needed, and guess who ended up translating the golf course and miniature golf course signs!

The utilitarian aspects of translation are certainly important.  Once in France I had a job as both interpreter and translator for the Bic ballpoint pen company.  They were in negotiations with the Texas instrument company called Casio. 

It was during this period that I was introduced to some of the conundrums of translation and interpretation.
•     Does one interpret word for word?
•     Does one interpret bad or ugly remarks or does one smooth things over?
•     How does one choose the words one uses? 
In November, 2017, I came across a fascinating article in the New York Times Review and Magazine section regarding translation.  It referred to a wonderful new translation of Homer’s Odyssey by Professor Emily Wilson of Yale University.   Dr. Wilson is the first woman to translate the Odyssey into English.  As I read the article and then the book, I wondered if the translator’s gender had an effect on the translation.  So many other things have an effect on a translation (scholarship, cultural background, history, linguistic evolution, choice of words) that it seems reasonable to think that gender is an additional factor.

Modern literary scholarship can actually be redefined by the translator’s word choices.  The whole question of “what is the story you are trying to tell depends on the word choices that you choose.  For example, the Greek word “polytropos” appears in the first line of the Odyssey as a description of Odysseus.  A literal translation of “poly” is “many”, and “tropos” means “to turn”.  Thus, polytropos literally means “many turns”.  However, the translator must choose a word in English that describes Odysseus. Sixty different translations have been made of this word, including: crafty; full of resources;  of many a turn; many sided man; deep; sagacious; adventurous; shifty; ingenious; various minded; of many  of twists and turns; cunning.  
Emily Wilson chose the word “complicated” in order to answer the question, “What sort of man is Odysseus?”…. 

Monday, April 9, 2018

At the Cutting Edge

Dear George, 
I see from our local newspaper that Greater Cincinnati is about to get its second axe-throwing bar.  I’m embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t even aware of the first one.  Coming from Menominee, of course, there’s a history of axe-throwing that dates back to the late 1800’s when we were the world’s largest lumber port.  Lumberjack competitions still feature axe-throwing as a mainstream event.  As children, we spent most of our time throwing our hunting knives, though we did try throwing our axes from time to time.  Not at one another, but at a stump or a fallen log.  It’s hard enough to get your knife to stick into a log, much less your axe. 

I’m proud of Cincinnati for being an axe-throwing pioneer.  It attests to our ruggedness and virility.  I doubt if they have any axe-throwing bars in Savannah or Martha’s Vineyard.  The promoters are pitching this to local business organizations, recruiting corporate teams who can then compete against one another.  Probably there aren’t any corporations that actually use axe-throwing in their daily work activities, but it is another way of encouraging cutthroat attitudes and excitement about violence.  

The ads for our new bar feature lots of women.  All are white, all are in their twenties or thirties, all are beautiful, and all are having a thrilling time.  One night a week will be “Axe Your Ex” night in which participants can throw axes at a large photograph of a man.  Whether or not it’s a photo of one’s actual ex is unclear to me.  In any case, this is definitely not a male-only pasttime. 

It seems important to drink alcohol while throwing axes.  In fact, I can’t even imagine sober adults throwing axes as their leisure activity.  I do worry a little bit about the volatile combination of drinking, inter-group competition, and axe-throwing.  Reportedly there have been no known cases to date of bar patrons turning their axes on one another, but we’ll keep an eye on the news. 

I thought about asking Katja if she wanted to go to the new bar, but I don’t think she’d be that interested.  Also it’s probably not a good idea to encourage axe-throwing by your spouse (for much the same reason we don’t have a gun in the house).  Next time that our son J visits, I’ll see if he wants to go.  This seems like more of a father-son activity.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Recalcitrant Spring

Dear George, 
Spring used to be a lot more reliable in Cincinnati.  The season regularly arrived in the second week of March, just in time for spring break at the university.  My tennis partner Irv and I headed out for the courts nearly every day.  Sunshine, warm weather, gentle breezes.  Life was good. 

That was then, this is now.  Our second week in March was a dreary affair.  Temperatures remained stuck in the thirties.  Cold rain most days, snow the rest of the time.  Sweatshirts, winter coats,  and gloves.  It’s as though Spring has been protesting the miserable state of the world with its own vengeful boycott.  I’ve been going out and looking at our yard every morning, always hopeful.   Still lots of dead grass and brown leaves.  Maybe a sprinkle of green here and there, and a couple of lonely blue flowerlets.   However, this weekend we may have turned the corner.  I went out yesterday and took some photos in our yard and our nextdoor neighbors.  Lots of dead stuff, but actually some touches of spring in full bloom.  Here is how it’s looking (from more wintry to more springy).  
P.S.  Happy Easter and April Fool’s Day.  (Such an unusual combination).  

Saturday, March 24, 2018

It's a Dog's Life

“It’s a dog’s life,” I said to my wife
“I’d love to do something like that”
My wife thought it best to let sleeping dogs lie
Although later she gave me a pat

The next day at dawn I was working like a dog
Digging holes and burying my bones
Who said you can’t teach an old dog new tricks
A dog’s life, so full of unknowns

By day’s end I’d gotten dog tired
The dog house was out in the back
I went in, lay down, and slept like a dog
I dreamt I was out with my pack

“I’d like to run with the big dogs,” I said 
So I went for a jaunt down the street
I was happy as a dog with two tails
Who’d been given a beef jerky treat

I met a cute Yorkie down by the lake
Her puppy dog eyes caused me to sweat
We jumped off the dock, did the doggie paddle
There’s life in the old dog yet

 These were truly the dog days of summer
A respite from the dog eats dog world
Every dog has their day, I would have to say
I stretched out with my tail unfurled

But then a Pit Bull started hounding me
He was meaner than a junk yard dog
“You’re barking up the wrong tree,” I said
I turned tail and left for a jog

I trotted back home to my family
Who were fighting like cats and dogs
I gave them my dog and pony show
Then I barked a few dog monologues

Hot diggity dog, I was glad to be home
“Dogs”, my mom noted, “are man’s best friend”
This, of course, was a shaggy dog story
Though mom’s love is best in the end

Upset with my absence, my wife got quite crabby
She said now I was in her doghouse
She added, “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you”
I’m rarely top dog with my spouse

So that is the story of my life as a dog
Each day I just roam about town
For years it appeared I was going to the dogs
But they can’t keep a good dog down

Saturday, March 17, 2018

A Morality Tale About Two Patients

Dear George,
There is an oldish couple who live on Ludlow Ave.  The husband has been bothered by sore leg muscles for a year or so.  It makes his walking unpleasant, and consequently he does about 90% less exercise than he normally does.  This has resulted in weight gain, heightened a1C scores, and overall melancholy.  His wife suggested numerous times that he see the doctor.  His friends have encouraged him to see the doctor.  Even casual acquaintances have urged him to do so.  However, it makes the husband nervous to see the doctor.  He feels he can take care of this problem by himself.  So he’s stretched his legs, used a heating pad, taken Ibuprofen, meditated, elevated his legs, searched the Internet, watched a lot of Netflix.  All to no avail.  He recently mentioned his problem to his pharmacist who suggested that his cholesterol medication may be causing the problem.  At the pharmacist’s recommendation, the husband made an appointment with his doctor.  The doctor recommended stopping the cholesterol medication for a while.  That was two days ago.  The husband’s legs are already feeling better.  The husband wonders why he put up with pain and limping for a year when this could have been resolved a long time ago.  

His wife, meanwhile, went in for a gastroenterological procedure.  When she came home she felt terrible.  Fever, cold chills, a severe cough, sick sick sick.  The husband thought this was a normal reaction and was just a matter of needing some bed rest.  The wife instead called the doctor’s office.  The nurse suggested she go to the emergency room.  The husband thought this was ill-considered and unnecessary.  The wife insisted on speaking to the doctor, and, when the doctor called back. he suggested she go right away to the emergency room.  She went, was examined, was given an antibiotic for pneumonia, and was admitted to the hospital overnight for monitoring.  The doctor said it had been very important that she called and had stayed overnight in the hospital.  She’s, of course, doing much better and seems back to normal. 

These are different ways of being a patient.  The husband is to be admired for his self-sufficiency and confidence.  Unfortunately he is also stupid and dysfunctional.  The wife, more assertive, knows what she is doing and takes action.  Hopefully the husband will learn from her example (though he hasn’t seemed to do so in some sixty years).

Thursday, March 8, 2018

TV's Weirdly Gendered World

Dear George, 
Katja and my TV watching has been creeping upward since we retired.  That’s not surprising since we do have a lot more time on our hands.  And, between cable and Netflix, there are many more viewing possibilities than there used to be.  Americans watch a lot of TV — about 35 hours a week for the average adult (1).  Adults 65 and over watch more than any other age group, approximately 48 hours a week (2).  What has struck me for a long time is that the content of TV shows is more about gender than any other topic.  Recently I’ve been collecting brief plot summary statements from to illustrate some of these themes.  Here’s a sampling of  storylines from TV Guide, subdivided by “women”, “men”, and “women and men together”. 

Piper has an epiphany 
Allison has to lose weight 
Peggy suffers from a migraine 
Mary Lou takes French lessons
Charlotte volunteers for the blind
Violet provides comfort to a friend 
Elena serves tilapia for Thanksgiving
Samantha is uneasy about holding hands
Bride Bridgette needs a dress to say yes in
Cindy uncovers a family secret — her adoption 
Stefanie sells makeup at school as a side business
An unflattering photo of Jade is posted on the internet 

Josh and his team search the Brazilian jungle for a giant anaconda
Jim sees a monster holding the lifeless body of his foster mother 
“Pharma Bro” jacks up the price of a life-saving drug 5000%
A guy asks a friend to shoot him because “I like the scars”
Mike and his poker pals bond during colonoscopy prep 
Chase and Jacoby struggle for command of the boat
A cross-dressing professor goes on a killing spree
Eli finds farming more than it’s cracked to be 
Alfie leads a lonely life hidden in a cave
Frenchy and Gee battle a cannibal
Hoyt is moved from death row 
Michael severs all family ties 

Women and Men Together 
A small-town beauty queen is terrorized by a wealthy would-be suitor
Katie’s ex hides video cameras and microphones in her home
A young woman’s ideal man has the heart of a monster
Christine feels intellectually inferior to Max’s friends
Sammy Jo is ready to wash Jeff out of her hair 
Diana learns the truth about Richard 
George gets a girlfriend (and a rash) 
A distracted Jeremy forgets Tasha’s birthday 
Hank butchers his marriage proposal to Karen
Bella and Will struggle to enjoy one another’s hobbies
Cooper confesses to Angela that he’s married with children 
An escapee from a mental institution aims to avenge a ruined romance 

Because it’s all familiar the examples may not be too surprising, but they do remind us how stereotypic, often sexist portrayals of women and men dominate the media.  Women are generally depicted as emotional, caring, concerned about beauty, worried about finding men, and engaged in domestic pursuits.  Men, meanwhile, are off in adventurous and dangerous pursuits, striving for power, and engaging in violence.  When women’s and men’s relationships or transactions are portrayed, they are often conflictful and on the verge of collapse, usually because of men being ne’er-do-wells. 

The examples I’ve given here, of course, haven’t been randomly selected and represent only a tiny percentage of the plot summaries of currently available TV shows.  Extensive social science research, however, paints a very similar picture.  UNC communications researcher Julia Wood (nyu) describes findings from empirical studies of TV and film content:   “Men are presented as hard, tough, independent, sexually aggressive, unafraid, violent, totally in control of all emotions, and-above all-in no way feminine…Women are portrayed as significantly younger and thinner than women in the population as a whole, and most are depicted as passive, dependent on men, and enmeshed in relationships or housework.”  (3)

Browsing in TV Guide is food for thought.  I doubt if we’ll stop watching TV.  However, it’s helpful to be conscious of what it is we’re watching.  Rather than reflecting reality, all this stuff creates a fantasy world which serves to reinforce traditional sex role expectations.   The viewer should beware.   (Actually I thought we had moved beyond this in the seventies.)

(1), “The average American watches so much TV it’s almost a full-time job” 
(2), “The State of Traditional TV: Updated with Q2 2017 Data” 
(3), Julia T. Wood.  (Dept. Communication, UNC)  “Gendered Media: The Influence of Media on Views of Gender.”

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Martial Bliss

Dear George,
Oh no, I did it again.  Every time I set out to write the word “marital” I wind up spelling it “martial”.  Why is that?  I never spell “partial” “partail” or “capital” “captial”.  One of my college roommates told me it’s a Freudian slip, but that’s hard to believe.  Why would anyone confuse marriage and martial?   In any case, Katja’s and my marriage has always been extremely idyllic.  Here are a few anecdotes from my daily journal which prove  this.   

Male Cleanliness Standards
Katja had been out of town about five days when Frya, our
cleaning lady, called.  She asked if Katja were back and said she had
us scheduled for the coming Wednesday.  Though I almost never play a
role in such decisions, I said to Frya, “It’s really strange but whenever Katja goes out of town our house doesn’t seem to get dirty. I think we should postpone.  How about if you call Katja back early in the week?”  Frya said o.k.  Afterwards I wasn’t positive my opinion was correct.  Maybe the house just seemed less dirty to me.  Actually it never seems dirty enough to me to warrant a visit from the cleaning
lady.  Probably Frya will be relieved when Katja gets back so she can
deal directly with the woman of the house.

Distressed by Non-Disasters
Katja noticed that the auto insurance card in her wallet listed an
expiration date of several months ago.  She called the company, and
they explained that we haven’t had any auto insurance for the last
seven months.  Apparently we didn’t pay the bill, and the insurance
company never contacted us again.  That put both of us in a state of
shock.  It’s crazy and hazardous to have been driving around for seven
months with no insurance.  I keep thinking of all the terrible things
that could have happened.  Happily, none of them did. 

Sleep Is Scary
Katja learned a while back that Frank M., one of her long-term
colleagues from her social service agency, had died in his sleep that
week, even though he was only in his early fifties.  She was very sad
about it.  At midnight she said that she didn’t want to go to sleep.
I’d begun to nod off myself, and, puzzled, I asked why.  Katja said
she just didn’t want to.  Waking up a bit more, I asked, “Is it
because of Frank?”  Katja didn’t answer directly, saying, “I have too
much left to do.”  Lacking empathy at the moment, I said, “Dying in
your sleep is probably the very best way to die.”  Katja repeated that
she has too much to do, and I repeated my opinion about good ways to
die.  Then I fell back asleep.  I guess Katja did too because she was
sound asleep when I woke up in the morning.

Quite a Big House
When Katja went out shopping, I said I might go to the office but I
stayed at home instead to work on my blog in our upstairs den.  A few
hours later I got a call on my cell phone.  It was Katja.  She said
she’d tried my office phone number, but then she realized that it might have been the wrong  number.  I said no, that I was home.  She sounded sort of confused, and I asked her where she was.  She said she’d been home for half an hour.  I asked whose home she was at, and she said she was at our home.  She wondered whose home was at.  I was upstairs; she was downstairs.  We both started laughing.  Apparently we have difficulty keeping track of who’s where.  

Incriminating Evidence
I was working at the computer when Katja came up to the door, held out
her hand, and said she’d found two women’s earrings in the TV room.
Her facial expression was sort of intimidating, like ‘what sort of unknown women have you been cavorting with in our house?’  Our friend Royce had visited two nights before to watch an episode of “Homeland” with us, and I suggested they were probably hers.  Katja gave me a suspicious look and said that Royce doesn’t wear earrings.  A little later I speculated that they might belong to one of the women who helped clean our house last week.  Katja gave me an even worse look.  Apparently she considered that idea was preposterous.  She gave the earrings to me as if I knew what to do with them.  I put them on the railing at the top of the stairs.  Later I was able to reach Royce by phone.  She’d left the earring here.  I told this to Katja, but I don’t knew if she believed me.  I personally think we’ve been married too long to get jealous, but you never know.

Fashion Frenzy
When I volunteered to type up Katja’s minutes for the Opera Guild board
meeting (for which she is the secretary) I ran across the following
statement: “At the ball women will be expected to wear formal ball
gowns, and white ties and gloves will be expected for men.”  I rushed
into the next room, and our conversation proceeded as follows:
D: Who in the world made this decision?
K: Everybody thought it was a good idea.  It will be nice.
D: I’m not going to any ball like this.
K: The arrangements are already made. Beside you agreed to go to one
ball during the year.
D:  What does this mean about the rest of my clothes.
K; The men will be wearing dark suits.
D: You mean tuxedos.  I don’t have a tuxedo.
K;  You have your black felt sport coat.  That will look nice.
D:  With white gloves.
K (laughing): You can wear your fur-lined gloves.  Or even your
gardening gloves.
D:  Stop laughing.  This isn’t funny.  I’m serious.
K:  I know you’re serious.  We’ll have a really good time.
D (grits his teeth and scowls):  I’m not going to go! I’m not going to
go!  (Though, in his inner self, he knew he had no choice.)

Night burglar
The other night I went to sleep at midnight.  As is often the case, I
woke at two a.m., took half an Ambien, and worked at the computer for
a while so the pill could take effect.  After about ten minutes I
thought I heard a noise in the dark from downstairs, perhaps
a footstep on the landing.  I stopped typing and listened intently, but
there was nothing.  Minutes later I heard something again, perhaps the
sound of a drawer being opened.  I held my breath, exceedingly
nervous.  We aren’t one hundred percent reliable about
locking the kitchen door at night, and I’ve always feared that a
prowler might test the handle and come in.   I turned on the radio, then clapped my hands loudly to let any intruder know that someone was awake upstairs.  Then I heard a voice call out my name.  It was Katja.  She was down in the kitchen doing dishes.  She wondered what I was clapping about.  I explained and went back to bed.

Candle Dangers
For some time Katja has kept a candle burning in a glass jar in the
living room because she likes the fragrance.  Recently she added a
second burning candle to the table in our sunroom where we eat most of
our meals.  On Tuesday morning we were reading the newspaper there
when Katja shrieked.  She had been holding the New York Times just above the
candle, and it caught fire in her hands.  Then on Wednesday morning
her newspaper caught fire again.  It occurred to me that we could set
the paper down some day, leave the room, and our house would soon be on
fire.  I did move the sun room candle to a safer location, but it still leaves me nervous.