Sunday, August 12, 2018

The joys of detour

My wife and I hosted a group of translators and editors at our house this last week. Some seven colleagues travelled to Karmiel for an evening of conversation and enrichment, enriched by a short lecture by Uri Bruck on websites and Internet strategy. The group brought together a wide range of specializations, from literary to CNC as well as a wide variety of backgrounds.  It was a pleasant and fruitful gathering.

Upon analysis, the most striking element shared by the participants was the fact that everybody had “fallen” into translation after a successful career in something else. Otherwise phrased, each translator had acquired a body of knowledge in specific fields, including its lingo and techniques, and then began translating. Some of the previous (and current) lives that came up included nursing, teaching, machining and planning. While today more young people study translation as part of their initial higher education, traditionally translation has begun as a second career.

However, the timing of this choice is actually an advantage. When asked by aspiring translators about the elements of success in this business in the age of Google and machine translation, I emphasize this point: you have to be expert in some field in order to carve out a niche.  Language and process are unique in each field of endeavour. Once a person becomes a maven in an area, however narrow that field, the quality of the translation will lead to success. Linguists that do not understand a field, no matter how skilled they are in search techniques, simply cannot produce the same quality translation. By contrast, people with language skills can learn translation techniques at any time.

The old Carnegie Hall joke, “How to you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice!” applies in a different way to translation.  How do you have a successful career as a translator? Practice something else. Then practice translation.

Photo by Ashley Batz on Unsplash

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Sibling performance – a trivia quiz or, to paraphrase Woody Guthrie, what were their names?

Relations between brothers and sisters range from non-existent or hostile at one extreme and best friends at the other.  Most siblings can spend an evening or even a weekend together and maintain comfortable civility. A few go way beyond that and build careers together, becoming collectively famous.  Of course, fame is short lived since new stars replace the aging ones. 

As a personal challenge, one that I failed, I tried to remember the names of the siblings in some famous groups of at least three brothers or sisters. For those who like quantitative measurements, you get two times the points if you recall the names of a group that is not from your era.

1930’s – 1950
The group that made the best transition from vaudeville to Hollywood, the Marx Brothers never stopped making me laugh, no matter how many times I saw their movies. I was able to remember three of the four, yes four, brothers. One point for each name.

There was nothing classier than the Andrew Sisters, elegance personified, even today.  Their renditions of the songs remain the benchmark. Given their time period, take two points each for each of three sisters.

1960’s -1970’s

The symbol of 1960’s pop music was the Jackson Five, who actually lived down the street from me when I was growing up, not that I actually ever saw them.  They have long since become adults and had successful solo careers, making remembering their names easier. I remembered three.  1 point of each.

Baseball had a unique trio of brothers that played at the major league level simultaneously and doing so quite respectively.  The Alou brothers even once played in the same outfield.  I remembered all three, giving me 6 points.

1980’s – 1990’s

The rebirth of disco was due to two performers, John Travolta and the Beegees. Since I was not a fan of this music, I failed to remember the names of any of the three Gibb brothers that played in that band.  Add 1.5 point for each brother to your score.

Alas, R&B is not my cup of tea either.  Still, I have heard of the Pointer Sisters, one the top groups of the 1980’s.  Again, I paid the price, not remembering the name of any of the three sisters and failing to get any of the six points available.

I am sure that many of my readers can do better than me, a measly 15 points.  I should mention there is a 5 points bonus to those who can identify the ship that is the subject of the Woody Guthrie song mentioned in the title. On the other hand, if you succeeded in getting all of the points, do you have any time to spend with your brothers and sisters? If anybody gets a high score, let me know so I can bow down in awe.

(Answers below for those too lazy to google them.)

1.       Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo
2.      Laverne, Maxene and Patty
1.       Jackie, Tito, Germaine, Marlon, Michael
2.      Moses, Jesus and Matty
1.       Berry, Maurice and Robin
2.      Anita, June and Bonnie

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Foggy mirrors

Dance is a form of expression reflecting the culture, value and symbols of its genre(s).  My home town, Karmiel, Israel, is blessed to host a dance festival every summer in which not only people can dance for two and a half days straight but visitors have a wide choice to view dance forms from all over the world (at a reasonable price). This year, my wife and I chose three very different styles: a (subcontinent) Indian modern dance group, Sarit Hadad and a Columbian Salsa group.  In each case, we were given in a peek into worlds far away from our own.

The Indian group, the Nvdara India Dance Company, performed something called Agami. It was an hour-long series of movements, generally but not always accompanied by music, some of it Indian-like, by some talented and well-condoned dancers dressed in dark, gray clothing. To be honest, they spend a lot of time rolling on the floor.  I know very little about Indian culture and not much more about modern dance. During the whole performance, I strove to try to identify the story and interpret the movements.  Alas, I did not succeed. Still, I left with the feeling that the performance has some content, even if I could not perceive it, and had gained from the exposure to a very alien world.

That evening, we saw the Israeli singer Sarit Hadad at the amphitheater. She is well-established singer famous for her love ballads, Arab style in Hebrew, I would describe it.  I have to admit, to quote from the name of an Israeli play, that I was there because of my wife. In any case, her fans, most of them female, quickly were near the stage singing, swaying and interacting with her.  I felt like a non-smoker of marijuana at a college party – missing the whole point.  Despite our good seats, it was quite hard to understand the words, which I was told was no great loss, similar to the love songs of the 1950’s. Although the genre was Israeli and lyrics in Hebrew, the content was in many ways as alien to me as the Indian dance.

The next day, we saw a Columbian group, Salsa Vita.  They performed various salsa dances with a short taste of tango.  The dancers were incredible, energetic and captivating.  The costumes were extremely colorful and sometimes quite minimal.  The variety of colors in the faces of the dancers, music and costumes made sure that there was never a boring moment. It was possible to see the open sexuality and Spanish colonial background of Columbia, something so different from the Middle East.

All in all, regardless of how much I enjoyed any of these performances, I was given the opportunity to expand my horizon. The reality may be distorted by the performer and the form. Still, I am much richer than before and look forward to next year’s looking glass.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Three dimensional moving objects

When I was growing up in Los Angeles in the 1960’s, every “mom” (but not mine) seemed to have a station wagon, a long vehicle with an elongated open trunk. The reason was quite obvious: due to the baby boom and carpooling, everybody needed a car in which you could throw four kids, 2 bicycles and a dog in or put some 20 paper grocery bags. Dad’s fancy car was clearly not relevant nor did anybody worry about the price of gas. Alas, OPEC and the end of the baby boom killed off the station wagon.

In Israel, the vehicle of conveyance was the Subaru station wagon, occasionally still seen in some Arab vehicles. While it was true that if you merely gave the car a dirty look, you would create a dent in the metal, the material was so thin, it served the same purpose for many a family.  It was mechanically reliable, not too expensive and very practical.  It met the need for a family vehicle.

Today, the people mover of choice is the SUV, a squarish, jeep-like vehicle with a high center of gravity.  From Los Angeles to Tel Aviv, everybody and their cousin seems to own one or want to own them. They come in all sizes and types, from mini-SUV to massive Hummers, from diesel to hybrid. Even Mercedes Benz has a version. They are filling up the roads and parking lots of the world.

On the one hand, I can understand their popularity.  People still have kids, bicycles and dogs to transport.  Families do not eat any or travel less.  They are safer than a standard car due to their higher vantage point and greater weight. I imagine some of the them are quite comfortable.

Still, I dispise them both in theory and practice. They create a lot of pollution, except for the hybrid version possibly. They also create the ability to go off road, irresistible to some people. I love nature as it is, not with 4 by 4 tracks stamped on it.  The biggest problem is their dimensions.  They are higher than standard vehicles, giving the driver the feeling of confidence and encouraging aggressive behavior on the road. They are wider than other vehicles, paradoxically creating uncertainty in regards to lane position.  That means that they frequently are on or beyond the dividing line. They are also in many cases longer.  The practical effect is that parking lots, many of which were planned before the era of SUV’s, pose a challenge to them.  Even in more recently planned parking lots, too many drivers have no sense where the nose of the car is and park half a meter, 1.5 feet for North Americans, from the edge, causing the car’s ass to stick out in the traffic lane.  In the worst case, the driver takes no chances and uses two parking places, the great faut pas of modern city social etiquette. 

I may one day have to eat crow and buy one but still, to paraphrase Dr. Seuss, I do not like SUV’s, Sam-I-am.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Uncertain measures

Words are inheritance of previous generations.  Like diamonds or furniture, several generations down the line, few appreciate their value or history. This phenomenon can be clearly seen in measures.

A common currency in the world is the pound or lira. Whether UK or Egyptian, it defines a value of a good or service.  What is forgotten that the pound actually refers to gold.   In the centuries before “greenbacks”, paper money, money was coined from precious metal, usually gold or silver, and worth its weight in that metal. By the way, due to the constant shortage of those coins, especially in the distant colonies in North America, people turned to barter, in particular “buck” skins, which could be sold at trading stations. The modern buck is certainly much lighter.

On that same note, something of little value is worth “grushim” in Hebrew.  This coin was actually the small coin of the Egyptian pound from 1918-1927. Of more value were “asimonim”, phone tokens, used in Israel until phone cards came in.  They formally were not coins but coin-like disks with a notch going through the diameter. They were purchased at the post office and were considered a good value as they were less affected by inflation.  When young Israeli say, נפל האסימון [nafal haasimon], the assimon dropped, meaning at last someone understood, they don’t really understand that they are talking about.

In terms of power, people talk about the horsepower of cars forgetting that it literally means the power of a horse.  Since no two horses have the same power, there is more than one time of horsepower, the two most common being mechanical (745.7 watts) and metric, of course, (735.5 watts).

On the subject of relative measures, everybody has a different size foot, which created great problems for creating a standard measurement.  In fact, archaeologists have found a stone with three different “foot” lengths, apparently used as a conversion tool by artisans.

At least most people know how long it is. It is true that Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers but how many pickled peppers did he really pick?  The answer is around one quarter of a bushel or nine liters.  Now, we all know how much a peck is, right?

Speaking of right and wrong, as any stylish person knows, it is quite important to buy the real McCoy.  Why buy a fake Gucci when you can afford the real one?  As a matter of historical record, McCoy was an alcohol smuggler during Prohibition (1920 – 1933) in the United States, who made a good living boating in real rum from the Caribbean to the Florida, a bit like today’s drug smugglers. After getting caught and a short stay in prison, he changed his route to the Great Lakes, joining Joe Kennedy, the father of the JFK, in the profitable Toronto-Detroit booze run.

He must have had a good life, working bankers’ hours, i.e., short work days. Yes, once upon a time, banks did you a favor by opening a few hours each day, five days a week.  For the tellers of the world, it was a far better world then. 

Admittedly, knowing that your great, great grandmother wore those pearls at your great grandmother’s wedding is not that interesting but it does add a little shine to them.  Likewise, knowledge enriches our use of words, a bit of certainty in an uncertain world.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The home of the brave

There is nothing more dangerous than a little bit of knowledge. This truism has been the bane of many intrepid diners at foreign restaurants.  Trusting to their memory of their high school foreign language studies, people bravely order dishes with foreign names without asking for explanations and are rather surprised by the contents of the plate they receive, occasionally positively.

French restaurants are an infamous minefield for the uninitiated. As Disney so wonderfully demonstrated, ratatouille is made from eggplants and tomatoes without any rodent protein source. For that matter, if a dish has a farce, it is not a quaint version but instead contains a stuffing, generally with breadcrumbs or rice. One of my old favorites, a pomme de terre en robe de chambre, is not Mr. Potatohead wearing a bathrobe but instead a standard baked potato. As foreign tourists quickly learn when traveling in the summer, la glace is creamy ice cream, which admittedly can be a bit shiny.

Alas, tourists to the United States are not immune to this issue. In Colorado, prairie oysters do not come from the sea but are instead bull testicles. For that matter, sweetbread, a delicacy to Persians among others, is neither sweet nor doughy; it is brains, generally of sheep or cows. Foreigners may think shepherds pie is a desert. However, it is actually a main course made of potatoes and ground beef, rather delicious in fact. Finally, the contents of a baked Alaska seem rather unclear to the unfamiliar but should be rather satisfying as what could go wrong with a brownie and ice cream combination?

Hebrew also has its red herrings. The innocent that orders a סטיק לבן [steak lavan], white steak, does not receive beef but pork. חלב דגים [halav dagim], fish milk, is not a dairy product but instead fish sperm. (I have never tried it and am not so sure I would). מעורב ירושילמי [me’urav yerushalaimi], a Jerusalem mix, is quite tasty but does not hint at its contents: grilled chicken, liver, spleen and heart with onions. Watch out for compote: Israeli compote is cooked fruit served in a liquid, a syrup, while English compote is more of a jam.

These are only a small sample of potential mix-ups for the unwary. Like in most matters, a good sense of humor easily overcomes any sense of dismay. You could say that blind ordering can be best way to discover new foods.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Soft(ware) Selling

Three days ago, I had a quintessential digital experience. I bought my father, 93, living in Los Angeles and suffering from what was once called “failing legs”, a gift for Father’s Day, specifically two books from Amazon.  The whole experience took a total of three minutes.  To explain, I perused a review of a book in the New York Times edition that I receive via email. I then logged into my Amazon account, wrote in the author’s name, clicked “add to cart”. I magically saw a related book that I knew my father would like and added it to the cart.  I then placed my order within 30 seconds as the site remembered my address and credit card number. Instantly, I received an email from Amazon that my order had been placed. All this is 180 seconds. For some people, it is the epitome of the modern age, instant pleasure.

However, I cannot say that it was a pleasure. I am not alone in thinking so either. Strange as it may seem to some people, I would have preferred driving my father to the bookstore, finding parking, wheeling him around the store, glancing at books, both relevant and irrelevant, waiting to pay at the cashier, and driving him back home. I say so not only because I live in Israel, rather far from him physically, but also because I enjoy the book buying experience.  The books that are purchased are only the icing on the cake.  It is touching the books, seeing books that I may (but probably won’t) buy in the future, and soaking in the environment.  Two years ago, I was in a beautiful, huge bookstore in Dublin.  Due to weight limitations for my valise, I was limited a few paperbacks but I felt that I could have bought half the store.  I became outright euphoric. 

Alas, I cannot say that about my Amazon experience.  I can describe the latter as time-efficient, convenient and even hassle free. I am sure that the books will arrive on time and that my father will like the books.  Yet, somehow, my virtual shopping was so emotionally sterile. Sterility is very desirable in operating theatres but fundamentally less so in the act of purchasing. I am truly looking forward to going to that bookstore on my next trip to LA.