The translation lie

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In some other universe, when I was young and attended university, I thought a lot during long commutes about translation. This was during a time in my life when language was the be-all, end-all. How it fit together, where it came from, how it all formed the pieces of a puzzle. I loved nothing more than to learn new languages and delve into semi-obscure poetry (at least in the English-speaking world). My mind was opened by the broad field of linguistics. I never specialized, and never pursued a professional career relating to language or linguistics, but that low-level passion bubbles away under the surface.

I wrote a paper during my first year at university about lying and forms of lying. It was in response to a book by Sissela Bok: Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life. I think I took the assignment in a different direction than the professor sought, but it nevertheless kept coming back to me as I drove the 50 miles to campus and back, contemplating how I could frame translation as its own form of lying, unintentional though it is.

I don’t have the paper any longer, nor any copies of the Bok book (haha – bok book!). But the basic concept: translation as lie, comes back to me frequently, particularly as I move through the world and experience everything as a foreigner, as a non-native speaker, and constantly observe the non-native use of English as the foremost business language. It endlessly fascinates me, and thus when I recently read a dazzling book, Tram 83, by Fiston Mwanza Mujila, I was all the while curious about the book in its original French. The translation seemed vibrant and vital (which I say without having the original to look at for comparison), but then I stumbled on an interview with Mujila in which he voices very similar sentiments to those I’ve been carrying around with me for 30 years:

The interviewer asks: “But how did you experience the process itself?”

Mujila: “The process? I think that translation is not like getting a photocopy, or a printout. The translation of a text involves a process of re-creation. The English version of Tram 83, is not the French version of Tram 83. They’re two different books, because the translator doesn’t translate… Perhaps even the word ‘translator’ is… It always irks me…”

“I might say ‘re-creator’. Because the word ‘translator’ is like someone who buys beer and then goes and sells it, while the translator does more than buy and sell beer: he buys the beer and then he adapts the beer to the taste of his customers. A person doesn’t translate a text, he re-creates a text. It becomes another text. The English translation will be another text, and the Italian or Swedish or Dutch translation will be yet another text, particularly since this novel is aimed at a wide range of cultures and imaginations; it’s aimed at readers who may or may not have a connection to the Congo. When I wrote my characters, I didn’t think that these characters would one day speak German or English. I think that translation is a precious profession – more than one might think. I myself constantly slalom between languages. I speak several languages, and I myself have had to translate my own poems and texts into German, before I began writing in German too. And so I think that translation is more a work of … perhaps re-writing, but I think that above all we need to find another term instead of translation, or translator, another term that can illuminate all of these energies, because one doesn’t translate sentences, one translates a culture, one translates imaginations, one translates countries, one translates characters, one translates impressions, one translates sounds, smells, the smell of Kinshasa, the smell of Lubumbashi, the atmosphere of the mines, everything that happens around the mines, noises, the sound of glasses… And so a translator is not just somebody who buys beer wholesale and sells it retail, it’s more than the work of a salesman. A translator is like a ferryman, but beyond being a ferryman, a translator is a creator in his own right.”

Beszél magyarul?

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An interesting overlap between the latest season of the TV show Louie and my work trip to Budapest has been this Hungarian connection. Louie begins to date a Hungarian woman this season. They can’t communicate – she speaks no English. She speaks quite a lot of Hungarian during the show. No subtitles. We are not meant to understand – and probably to assume and “grope” as much as Louie has to. I, of course, don’t speak Hungarian. Just before departing for Budapest, though, I started paging through my old Hungarian textbooks, and read an article on a website that tried to position Hungarian as “a language as easy as any other”. I learned a few fundamentals that actually were never explained well in textbooks – including a piece of information that helped in trying to figure out which bottles of water were carbonated and which were not (later I discovered that the color on the bottle could just as well have decoded that little mystery – but hey, I worked with what I knew!). In one of the latest episodes of Louie when the Hungarian woman started chatting with a Hungarian-speaking waiter, I was happy to understand a few words (basic!) – but the whole feeling produced by Louie’s relationship with this woman he could not understand (and who could not understand him) was certainly a hallmark of the Louie “sitcom” style. It’s not a sitcom, it’s not a comedy show. It lacks linear storytelling, goes in sometimes strange, unusual and even sometimes boring directions – but the fact that it dares to do so is what makes it unique. There has been a good deal of everything from discomfort to controversy generated by the show this season (e.g. attempted rape, “This would be rape if you weren’t so stupid.”) and some meandering – but it’s Louie. It’s what I’ve come to expect, even if in expectation, I can’t predict anything. On a side note, Charles Grodin showing up as a doctor in Louie’s building has been highly enjoyable. “Enjoy the heartbreak while you can, for god’s sake! Pick up the dog poop, would you please?* Lucky son of a bitch, I haven’t had my heart broken since Marilyn walked out on me when I was 35 years old. What I would give to have that feeling again. You know I’m not really sure what your name is. But you may be the single most boring person I have ever met. No offense.” My final thought after returning from Budapest (apart from having noticed a plethora of coffeehouses – a dream for a coffee lover like me) was its continued clinging to a complete lack of service-mindedness, reminiscent of Communist-era eastern Europe. It may have improved slightly since I last visited Budapest in 1999, and it might not even be an eastern bloc thing so much as part of the mentality of the Hungarians (since people working in the services now would not have been that exposed to and trained in “customer service” of the past). Everywhere I went – and everywhere many of my colleagues went – we’d ask for something very normal (e.g. exchanging money at a money-exchange desk or asking a normal question in a store), and the employee(s) would give a short, uninformative answer and stare/glare at me (or whomever) as though I had just asked the dumbest question in the history of questions. How could I have been so stupid? In one coffee place, there was a sign by the cash register in English, which read: “We only accept euros” (and then something about the denominations of euros accepted). I found this misleading – it should probably have been clearer that they accept euros in addition to their own currency (the forint), so I asked about it (dummy!), and the barista looked at me like I had just dumped a bag of dog shit on the floor and just repeated the amount I owed her (in forints). (Incidentally my favorite coffee place – maybe due to its convenience in the place I stayed in the city during non-work-conference days – is Coffee Cat. Not the place that had the misleading “only euros” sign!) Sigh. The fun of traveling to different places.

everything's gone kuka - budapest

*everything’s gone kuka – budapest – another coincidence

PhD in dilettantism: Everything is an ecosystem

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If I could get a PhD in being a dilettante (a nice way for saying that I can’t focus and want to know and learn a lot about everything without really becoming an expert), I’d sign up now.

Today I dabbled and dealt in so many different disciplines, tackled so many things in so many languages, worked on hands-on fix-it things but also read poetry, marketing theory papers and some clinical research (in healthcare), that it could never be said that I do the same thing all the time. What I do with my time would probably bore the majority of people, but that’s what makes the world tick. Some of us want to drive trucks; some of us know how to mix drinks; some of us want to drill teeth (hopefully as dentists); some of us want to write about destination weddings in Italy while baking coconut macaroon tarts and filling them with dark chocolate ganache (recipe and pictures to come). I also saw a record number of cats prowling around the immediate vicinity, answered a lot of overdue email and told someone what a “croque monsieur” is (even if I have never made nor eaten one myself).

I write all of this, though, as a preface to a debate I often have running in my head about the value of focus versus multidisciplinary meanderings. I conclude that there should be no “versus” in that statement because it is not really something about which one can make a value judgment – both ways of doing things have their own value. They accomplish different ends.

What prompted this was the recent death of activist Billy Frank Jr. One of the articles I read after his passing pointed out that Frank’s life work, dealing almost exclusively with fishing rights, restoring salmon habitat and the ecosystem was sometimes criticized by Native American groups that felt Frank should use his voice and platform to fight for or pursue broader Native American issues in his agitation and political work. Frank was direct as always: he worked with what he knew. He wanted lawmakers, when they saw him coming, to know exactly what he wanted from them and would talk about.

“I know there are other problems, but the one I know about is the salmon, and when these politicians see me coming I want them to know that’s what I am here to talk about.”

While this singular focus served Frank, does a singular focus on an important issue sometimes prevent us from seeing a bigger picture or looking outside a given discipline to find a solution to a big problem? This might not have crossed my mind except that around the same time Frank died, and I had salmon populations and the whole “ecosystem” idea on my mind, I had seen a program (multiple times), Lifelines, on Al Jazeera English about how an overabundance of a parasite in Senegal led to epidemic levels of schistosomiasis. The disease is one of the world’s neglected tropical diseases (have you ever heard of it? I hadn’t) and can have very severe consequences.

In the story presented on Al Jazeera, the freshwater snail that carries this parasite basically overpopulated the river once the river had been dammed. The population using the river water would then become infected. Even though the infection is treatable, reinfection occurs when the person uses infected water, of course, making it a neverending cycle unless something could be done about the overpopulation of snails.

Doctors and specialists working in Senegal on this public health issue decided to look outside their own sphere of expertise. They knew, according to the documentary, that damming was responsible for the outbreak but were not sure how or why.

“…until a development specialist linked the explosion of schistosomiasis to the extinction of river prawns in the river system caused by the dam.

River prawns prey on the snails that carry the schistosomiasis parasite. Without prawns, the snail population increased, and so did the risk of schisto infection for everyone who entered the river”

It took some different thinking to look outside, for example, the immediate problem of a dammed river or outside the medical problems at hand to see the entire ecosystem and discover what had changed (the prawn population) that could have caused this. In this case, a focus on one thing (suddenly 90% of the population was infected with schisto) led to expanding the focus to consider different disciplines that could explain the problem and come up with a solution (repopulating with prawns).

One could argue, of course, that all of this makes sense because regardless of whether you are a specialist or a generalist, so much of what gets done is well-integrated with everything else. It’s an interdisciplinary world, and much like the natural ecosystem, the manmade ecosystem relies on this interdependence and the different types of skills and expertise its parts and people have. (More reason to cheer for my unorthodox but totally interdisciplinary higher education at The Evergreen State College, eh?)