Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The innocents aboard

This Rosh Hashana, the train arrived. I mean that the line between my home town, Karmiel, finally opened after many years of work, including a 2.3 kilometer tunnel, two new fancy stations with plenty of parking and bus lines from neighboring Arab villages to feed the stations. The Galilee is now connected directly by train to almost all of Israel, as far south as Beer Sheva. Given the ever worsening traffic jams in the once pristine North, it is a blessing for thousands of commuters.

Since it opened during the High Holidays and is free for three months to local residents, many people, including families with many children, have been taking advantage of the opportunity to travel for free.  It is interesting to see the excitement of many travelers, both young and old, when taking it for the first time. Although carriage and track transportation dates from 1825, the joy of countless faces was no less than that of playing with a new iPhone, a much more modern innovation. The exclamation “the train has arrived. I can’t believe it” is heard everywhere both on and off the train. The magic of the train lives on.

Unfortunately, in my eyes, Israelis behave in trains as they behave in home.  First, as a matter of comparison, I clearly remember a five hour train trip from Paris to Brittany. In addition to the quietness, possibly due to the fact that the cellular phone was not yet invented, I was shocked that I didn’t even notice that there were children in the carriage until some four hours in the trip.  Everybody sat quiet and passed the time in an unobtrusive manner. The Mediterranean being the Mediterranean, that self-control is not to be expected on an Israeli train. Aside from loud phone conversations and playing video games at full volume, parents let their children run up and down the corridor and play musical chairs. The blind, originally intended to block the sun, became a way of entertaining the smaller ones. The parents are not much better, albeit preferring to sit the whole trip.   Cutting the trip to Haifa to 30 minutes is nice but it is not that much more relaxing at this stage.


Still, I am optimistic that some of the excitement and annoying noise will decrease as people get used to taking a train. For all those working in Haifa and Tel Aviv or going to and from Ben Gurion Airport, the train is definitely a blessing. In the meantime, I may have to become modern and attach an earphone to my telephone and enjoy some music……

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

It ain’t necessarily so

Tourists and translators often struggle with local linguistic idiosyncrasies. Words and meanings seem at odds with each other, leading to misinterpretation (and worse).  The United States, being a large country, has a few terms that might confuse the newcomer.

The California stop is not a stop, but a slowdown. Specifically, when approaching  stop sign where everything is clear, California drivers, and not only them, have a tendency to slow down but not necessarily come to complete stop (out of concern for gas economy, of course) as they approach the stop line. After checking that the way is clear, they continue. While not considered dangerous driving, such rolling approaches are nonetheless against the law, probably worldwide. California stops are most prevalent where the chance of being ticketed is much less than the effort of the going against the momentum of the car.

An Arizona snowbird does fly on a seasonal basis but not necessarily using its own wings. Arizona winters are extremely pleasant by east coast standards. The weather tends to be slightly warm, sunny and lack any snow or even ice cold wind. As a result, many retired New Yorkers and other east coasters have taken to wintering in the West to avoid the harsh winters. They are even magazines dedicated to such seasonal migrants, featuring ideal rental and purchase homes.  Winter over, they return to their permanent residences to enjoy the wonderful summer humidity, but that is another story.

It is nice to receive applause d but a Bronx cheer is not a good sign of affairs.  The difference between a regular and Bronx cheer is the preceding series of events. In the latter case, the players, athletes generally, have performed so poorly that the fans are almost shocked that the schnooks can do anything right.  For example, during a recent football game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns played in Cleveland, the home team was doing awful, with one specific receiver dropping passes left and right.  When he finally managed to hold on to the ball, the audience cheered him. The message was not positive, i.e., that was a great play, but instead highly critical, i.e., that is what you are getting paid to do, idiot. Cleveland fans, although not from the Bronx, New York, know how to give a Bronx cheer.

There is an Israeli example of this, albeit rather dated. During the first two decades of Israel’s existence, goods were rationed to ensure that everybody had something to eat. In addition, imports were strictly limited to the necessary. Alas, everybody’s definition of necessary is a bit different. For Jews from Iran and Iraq, rice is a necessity, almost a religion. Yet, the government limited importation of rice. Instead, they sold wheat cut into the shape of rice, a bit like pilaf, known as ptitim in Hebrew. Its unofficial name was Ben Gurion rice, after the long serving, first prime minister of the country. Curiously, decades after the import rules have been dropped and rice is plentiful in the stores, many people still enjoy eating Ben Gurion rice.


So, as that song goes, when you hear locals speak and cannot believe your ears, remember that it ain’t necessarily what its sounds like.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Hazards of the trades

Too much knowledge can spoil the fun. Specifically, when a person has deep knowledge of a specific process or art, it becomes difficult to consider the element in its simplicity, as most people do. Instead, the connoisseur analyzes it, often to death.

One area you can see this is language. Most people are interested in the point of communication, not its form. By contrast, writers of all types are often more interested in the form and quite critical of it. For example, writers tend to judge text as much by how good it is written as what it is trying to day. Likewise, translators, including my wife and me, immediately notice over-literal translation and source text interference, especially in menus and signs. Musicians may not even notice the total sounds due to their focus on individual performances, good and bad.  Choreographers sometimes tear down complicated dances into their component parts, negating the effects of synergy. So, language experts insist on proper language, occasionally forgetting the ultimate purpose of communication.

In a world filled with visual information, certain experts immediately focus on a specific aspect. Barbers (or hair designers, as applicable) probably focus on the cut of the hair, with a bit of a critical note I imagine. In the same way, optometrists catch the form of the frame of the glasses, generally ignored by most people unless it is violently inappropriate. Since my wife is a knitter, I see how fast she checks out any knitted object and checks if it is machine or handmade, with a comment on the skill level if the latter. Potters do not see plates as objects on which you put food but instead as works of art, or lack thereof. Like flies and light, certain professionals are immediately attracted by certain visual clues.

This attention often enters the realm of judgment. After years of assessing damage, insurance assessors probably cannot pass a dented car without doing a calculation in their head of the cost to repair it. On my favorite cooking show, Les Carnets de Julie, I watched a baguette judge name the 16 tests, no less, of a proper French bread, of which only the last was taste. For this person, a baguette is not a loaf of bread by any other name. I pity dog breeders, who find it difficult to say “what a cute dog” without trying to figure out the breed(s) of the dog and how well it would do in a show.


There are many advantages of being an expert. However, sometimes, it would be nice to enjoy the world at its face value, without adding complexity or judgment. Unfortunately, once gained, knowledge is hard to lose. As Milton might say, it is paradise lost.

Monday, September 18, 2017

The price of (ex)patriatism

For some people, the grass is definitely greener on the other side. Such adventurers leave their place of birth and circle of family and friends to settle in some far off land. The motivations for such a move may include income, climate, culture or lifestyle. Whatever the cause, expatriates plant their roots far away from parents, but ultimately pay a price for their act of freedom.

Some costs are relatively temporary.  Difficulties involving language and cultural interaction decrease over time, depending on the level of integration chosen. Ex-patriots generally attain a reasonable standard of living by local standards even if the income numbers may not compare with those of their land of birth. If they arrive young enough, immigrants can start their own family and enjoy their grandchildren in their old age. All these issues are manageable and tolerable.

However, there is one cost of residing abroad that cannot be mitigated. As parents age, expatriates find themselves distant and unable to physically help. Of course, telephone and Skype provide affordable communication.  However, the simple acts that elderly people appreciate cannot be provided from a distance. They include trips to the doctors, help with computers, picking up heavy boxes and even sitting together and watching a football or baseball game on television. Isolation and physical weakness are companions of old age, especially in the American context and after the age of 90, as is the situation of my parents.


Having just returned from a bi-annual trip to my parents, I am much more cognizant than ever of this price. I do not regret my life choice nor do my parents reproach me for it but nothing in life is free. Yet, I have never been more aware of the price of the cost.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Of words and truth

Can a name of an object be true or false or does custom determine its virtue. I was surprised that in a Plato dialogue Cratylus, cited in translation to English by Anne Fremantle in her Primer of Linguistics (1974), the issue of the essence of words was discussed. Interestingly enough, words were described as an instrument just as a shuttle or an awn. In other words, any person can use these tools but only experts know how to use them correctly. A linguistic example is the use of the word basically. While it does have a specific and correct meaning, many people throw it in as a breath stop, without meaning.

Plato through Socrates in the dialogue argues that instruments should be defined by the wise, i.e. experts in their use. In regards to words, he specifies politicians but apparently they were a bit more educated in his days. Nobody would praise the precision and truth of the words that politicians use today. The closest current institutions are the various national language institutions, such as in France and Israel but not in the United States. They attempt to establish correct usage and meaning, with varying degrees of success.

The problem is that language, including the name for an essence, is almost always established by popular consensus, i.e., how people use it.  A modern example is the acceptance of blog for web blog. No academy proposed or approved it but it is the correct word. On the other hand, funnest is still incorrect (as far as I know) even if thousands of children say it.


In terms of the classic debate between Hamilton and Jefferson, the people always decide but the former would say that they don’t always do correctly while the latter would say that argue collective wisdom. In other words, can one million references in Google be wrong? Yes and no. The debate continues.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

A Place in the Sun

Festivals are very important for the life and identity of small towns. They provide exciting, around the clock life to quiet and staid villages for a few days, which is generally enough for most of the locals, and an important source of income for the area. More importantly, they create an identity for that place: X, home of the Y festival. It doesn’t make a difference how unusual the theme is. What counts is to have a fun event to attract outsiders and break the monotony of the summer. Some of my favorite ones are the Scandinavian Festival in Junction, California, where everybody turns into a Viking; the fire ant festival in Marshall, Texas, where virtue is made out of necessity; and the garlic festival in Gilroy, California, where everybody is welcome except for vampires, I suppose.

Karmiel, my home for the last almost 30 years, is a small town of some fifty thousand people.  It is a great place to raise a family but, alas, rather quiet after nine o’clock in the evening. Fortunately, for the last 30 years, for some three days in the summer, it is filled with several hundred thousand dancers and dance lovers enjoying numerous venues, big and small, to both dance and watch dancing. The major theme is Israeli folk dancing, with dancing around the clock, but also includes Balkan (my favorite), salsa, ballroom, hip hop, to name just a few. In terms of performances, all styles of dance are available starting with the top Israeli groups and branching out to foreign ballet troupes, Israeli and world modern dance troupes, national dance companies and unique styles, such as flamenco. This year, my wife and I saw a modern dance version of Carmen by a Hungarian group and a performance by the Georgian national company. For three days, there was music in the air and lots of happy feet. The organizers even got lucky with the weather, which was much more pleasant than in most of the country.  I imagine quite a few of the visitors were not looking forward to returning to the humidity of the Tel Aviv and surroundings. Then, it ended.


Karmiel has returned to being a nice, quiet place to live. Still, when I mention my home town, people generally say, “Oh, where the dance festival is. What a beautiful place!” So, as I wait for my aching leg muscles to recover and the tennis courts to be restored to their normal function after the dancing, I appreciate the beauty of a good festival for both visitors and locals.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Imitation and flattery revisited

All languages are not created equal as each has a different creator. The context here is neither the virtue nor beauty of languages but instead their structure.  Many translators in their loyalty to the form of the source language err by applying it to the target language. I will demonstrate by showing three differences between French and English form.

It is accepted use and quite logical in terms of logic to capitalize last names, places and company names in French.  For examples, in a French legal document, there may be a reference to M. Jacques COLON, residing in NICE working for the SONY company. This use of large letters makes it easy to identify key facts. By contrast, in English, capitalization of all letters in a word is the written equivalent of screaming, only to be used to accentuate in extreme cases. DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME NOW? Therefore, applying French capitalization rules in English makes the text sound verbally violent. Mr Jacques Colon, residing in Nice, works for Sony. That is all.

Some punctuation rules are also not equivalent. The French, for reasons unclear to me, put a space between the word and the following colon, as in “les explications :” By contrast, in English the extra space is generally after the colon as in “the explanations:  fatigue…” Retention of the redundant space is generally the sign of an overzealous translator or non-English native speaker.

Finally, prepositions and articles must be restated before every noun in a series in French. Note the following sentence: Je suis protecteur de la liberté, de l’egalité et de la fraternité de chaque citoyen français.  By contrast, English tends not to repeat shared elements of parallel structure. The same sentence in translation would be: I am the protector of the liberty, equality and fraternity of each French citizen. Of and the are not repeated because they are redundant.


It may seems proper and even flattering to copy the exact formatting of the source language but it is neither correct nor professional to do so in all cases. As the French say, vive la difference!