Sunday, November 11, 2018

Divinely great but confusing

A few days ago, as I was driving along the main road to Acco and passing a neighboring Arab village, I noticed a message painted on the exterior of a house in clear white English letters: God is great.  My initial reaction was not theological but linguistic.  In other words, I wondered which God the houseowner meant.

To explain, if the letters had been in Arabic and read Allah Akbar, I would have known the sign was referring to the Moslem God. Likewise, the sign saying Dieu est grand in France would be referring to the Catholic God although the same sign in Algeria would probably refer to Allah. However, back to our allah akbar, in Iraq, it is not clear whether the Shiite or Sunni master is the subject of the sign.

For that matter, a German Gott ist groß is no less ambivalent as Germany is historically a mixture of Protestant and Catholic provinces. By contrasts, in the American south, that sign in English would most probably refer to the Baptist or other Protestant diety. Likewise, in Spain or South America, Dios es grande is directed at the Catholic commander-in-chief.

The Hebrew version possesses another question.  While there is no dispute among Jews about the identity of the Chief Engineer (we focus our disputes on what exactly he wants us to do), the expression Elohim Gadol has two twists. For some, it imbibes the omnipotence of God.  However, the term is also used in slang to express a complete lack of control.  For example, if asked whether the contractor will finish the job on time, someone could answer Elohim gadol, the English equivalent being God knows.

So, upon seeing that sign, I responded in a typical Israel way: Yes, but.  That is I did not formally disagree but immediately complicated the issue.  Theology can be so confusing.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

18 Karat Israeli

I have spent half my life in Israel. I married Israeli women. I raised my child in Israel. I no longer feel at home in the United States. I would never live in another country.  Still, I am not 100% Israeli nor will ever be.  I have to accept that fact.

My impurity goes beyond my accent or love of American football and baseball, remnants of my previous life. It is expressed in subtle things, experiences shared by most Israelis but not by me. It is too late to correct them either even if I so wanted.

First of all, I do not eat or like bamba, a fried peanut snack adored by Israelis of all religions. In my mind, it reeks of burnt peanuts but for people of my adopted homeland, brings back memories and causes their mouth to water. The closest American cultural equivalent is root beer, a non-exportable American product.

Likewise, winter in Israel is not snow but instead krembo, a sweet, fluffy marshmallow foam in a thin chocolate shell wrapped in aluminum foil. Traditionally, ice cream production stopped in September and was replaced by these krembo.  The debates on the proper technique for eating it are as elaborate as those regarding Oreo cookies. In my mind, it is a waste of calories but good luck persuading any Israeli of that.

In terms of coming of age, aside from getting sick drunk, a universal ceremony, there are two rites that almost all Israelis go through.  The first one occurs in 7th grade, when all school children are required to prepare their family tree, at least for a few generations back, and interview their grandparents, a one-time honor for many of the golden age. In the past, this search for the past could be a little difficult, even strange, as the Holocaust erased many of the people behind the names but that is less true today. I have to admit that I have very little idea of my distant roots nor am I, even today, that interested in it.  Still, Israeli children, albeit under coercion, know from whence they came, not a bad thing really.

The other rite is the famous bakkum even if not experienced by all Israelis for one reason or another. It is the sorting center of the Army where potential recruits go at the age of 18 after they finish high school.  From what I understand, they are poked inside and out, assessed and classified and then sent to prospective training bases or home, as applicable.  I was 28 years old, married and suffered from hypoglycemia. IDF was not sufficiently desperate for manpower to want me, as Uncle Sam would say. So, I never passed through that gate. In some ways, I do regret not having passed down that road as it would have an interesting experience.  On the other hand, as my first wife once said, I have no idea of how to probably make a bed.  Oh well, it is far too late to remedy.

Lastly, most Israelis have spent a day at the beach in Tiberias, a town located next to the Sea of Galilee, a name no less misleading than Greenland. To explain, it is a fresh water lake 166.7 km2 (64.4 sq. mi) at its fullest, which was some 20 years ago at least, and located in a basin. In the summer, it is the largest natural sauna I have ever seen.  The beach itself is mainly sand, to give it credit, but neither very long nor deep. Any beauty the location has, mainly very early morning, is ruined by the mass pilgrimage of Israelis of all ages to its beaches on holidays, especially Independence Day.  Every square meter is occupied.  Imagine a Tokyo subway with barbeques. One man’s poison is another man’s meat. 

Don’t get me wrong. I love living in Israel but everything has a limit.  The search for purity does not justify being totally miserable. I am perfectly contented being 18 karat Israeli.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Musical normalcy

It is hard to unlearn a mistake.  Whether first learning how to play an instrument or having heard a song sung in a certain way, once it gets into your brain, the error become a norm and refuses to leave.  For example, those that first read National Lampoon’s Bored of the Rings will eternally think that Frito and Pepsi are the actual names of the lead characters. In my cases, I can recall the lyrics to several songs from youth but not exactly those that would be found in the Wikipedia entry.

For example, there is the famous Disney classic from the movie “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, whose lyrics are as follows:

Heigh ho, heigh ho, it’s off to school we go
With switchblade knives and forty fives, heigh, heigh ho
Heigh ho, heigh ho, it’s off to school we go
With handgranades and razor blades, heigh heigh, heigh ho.

It should be noted, in all fairness, the movie version does not describe the manner of their return at all. So, we merely added details.

Regarding that same love of school, being forced to go to Hebrew school, some of us used to chant:

Why do we have to rush, rush, rush? why do we have to rush, rush, rush? Why do we have to rush, rush, rush, to go to Hebrew school.

I just asked my wife what the real words are:

Hava narisha, rash, rash, rash, repeat, vaharishim.

It is actually a Purim song, rather joyful:

Another song that we (collective responsibility) massacred is the classic “David Melech Israel, chai , chai vekiam”, which came out as follows:

Coca Cola, ginger ale, hi fi, pizza pie

Slightly different, I admit, but sweeter in a certain way and much more modern.  The original (as sung by more innocent children):

Of course, popular songs did not escape our damage.  One of the most important influences of my youth, MAD magazine, thoughtfully provided the lyrics to a leading single of the time, Downtown by Petula Clark:
Here is just a sample:

When you're at home and life is getting so hungry,
There's a meat you know,
Ground round.

You're in a hurry, but there's no need to scurry
It will help to know
Ground round.

Just mix it with some mac and cheese and you will look so witty
Add some Campbell's beef stock and your eatin' really nifty 
"How can you lose?"

There is no way you can err.
Some of the recipes double, and go in the fridge, cook slow

Cook brown
All meals taste great for sure
Ground round.
Use any place that your
Ground's sound
Won't taste like leather of shoe

And the original, not bad in their own right.

Nobody was safe from our mischief. Even the Beatles had their famous submarine dirtied:

We all live in the yellow submarine.
It used to be green but we couldn’t keep it clean.

Actually, our version showed much more creativity than the original, which merely repeated the words “Yellow submarine” as you can hear yourself:

So, this small sample shows how normal is how normal was learned, for better or worse, the latter in the case of my piano playing.  I am sure everybody has a catalog of songs in the brains whose lyrics do not match the youtube version.  As they say, variety is the spice of life.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

The importance of apprivoiser, Candidely late

That trite expression, youth is wasted on the young, has a grain of truth. For example, there are many supposedly children’s books that are only fully appreciated long after adolescence.
To demonstrate, as part of my Advanced Placement French program in high school, I read Saint-Exupéry’s famous The Little Prince in the original French. While I was somewhat aware of the existence of its more profound points, I concentrated on the charming story as have millions of readers.

However, recently I remembered a certain incident, more specifically a word, from the text, namely apprivoiser.  The dictionary translates the word as to domesticate, win over or tame, the latter appearing in the English translation. In the context of the story, the word is applied in regards to the friendship with the fox (chapter XXI), the value of friendship and its price.

Alas, I would strongly disagree with the translation of the word into “tame” both in terms of linguistics and emotional intelligence. The fox does not become compliant as a tame animal would. Instead, it is won over, like a cat, free to act but choosing to create a tie.  I would consider translating apprivoiser as “to make special” even it does not fit the literary style of the book because it better expresses the concept of the word.  Moreover, my divorce, subsequent second marriage and wild voyage with my daughter has taught me the importance, even essentialness, of apprivoiser.  To have a strong social structure, you must make the people important to you feel special by investing time in them. Like the fox said to the Little Prince, go back to your rose. All roses may be created equal but we can and should choose to make certain roses special, whether they are plants or people. The price may be occasional tears but you gain, as the fox says.

So, now, several decades later, I finally understood the morale stated in that chapter: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye." Or as Voltaire wrote at the end of another deceivingly simple tale, Candide,il faut cultiver son jardin” (let us cultivate our garden).

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Valencia, plus or minus

My wife and I recently visited Spain, more specifically Valencia, for the first time, spending a total of a week in that city. The purpose was to attend a conference (see previous post) but we also played tourist. Seven days does not make you a connoisseur of a city but still creates clear impressions, however errant they may be.  So, I apologize in advance for any rushed judgments.

As the name of the city suggests, the oranges and orange juice were plentiful and good.  For that matter so were the coffee and beer, which I thoroughly enjoyed (but did not abuse). As for the Sangria, I am allergic to grapes and chose to avoid it but not because of its taste.  In terms of meat, there was lots of jamon (ham) and its cousins.  Of these porcine delicacies, I acquired a tasted for certain sausages (whose name escapes me but they are small and red) but found the bacon rather limp. We spent the whole time in the old city and ran into two phenomena, churches and smiles.  Our walking guide said that there were 24 churches in only the old city only, albeit with only a few actually regularly active. They do provide interest, both architecturally and historically, but that is a matter of taste. Actually, the most interesting site to visit in the old city is the covered market. It is clean, large and filled with tempting food, especially oysters, one of my favorite foods.  The oysters I sampled, twice, were among the largest I had ever eaten. In terms of atmosphere, the smile and good humor of the residents is contagious.  The Spanish way of rolling through life is a nice contrast after the tension of Israel.

Less is not always worse but sometimes detracts. For example, the level of knowledge of English outside the hotel was close to absolute zero.  For example, I had to ask a question at a bank and entered a branch of a major European bank.  There were at least 10 bankers, assumingly with college degrees, but only one could speak French while none could speak English.  I was rather surprised to see this level of monolinguism in a city of 1 million people.  Likewise, the desserts and pastries in particular were far from tempting and not worth taking seconds. I find this surprising given the high-quality raw materials that we saw at the central market. A bit spoiled by my French heritage, I also found local use of spices in food to be a bit minimal and unbalanced, aside from saffron, of course. Furthermore, the lack of light in the sky until 8:00 in the morning was almost uncomfortable but the Valencians are not to blame for that. On the other hand, I was impressed by train system in Spain.  We took the express train from Madrid to Valencia and sat in the quiet wagon.  The trip was indeed fast and quiet.  Speeds reached some 300 kph with almost complete silence in the cabin.  We took advantage of it on the way back to Madrid and enjoyed our siesta.

On the bright side, we didn’t see much of the three things and were quite happy to make do without them: sugar, salt and litter. Those sweets we did eat lacked the overbearing sugar content typical of American and many Israeli desserts. Likewise, people with high blood pressure can relax in Spain, apparently, as cooks don’t overdo the salt, at least where we ate. Finally, the Valencia I saw is a clean city, almost without the plastic bags, cigarette buds and sunflower seeds that are typical of many Mediterranean cities. You can  call it addition by subtraction.

All in all, we had a wonderful time, discovering an unknown world and fueling a desire to explore other regions in Spain. Writing this post, I thought of Alexander Dumas, who funded his writing by writing travel guides, including to Spain and Russia, funded by hosting governments of course. I paid my own way but enjoyed the never-ending process of unfolding the world and discovering alternative realities.  Hasta la vista, Spain.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Premature death notice – in translation

My wife and I just attended the IAPTI (International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters) conference in Valencia, Spain. Some 200 translators and interpreters from five continents participated. A good time was had by all. While there was no formal theme to this conference, we learned (as we already knew) that the reported imminent disappearance of human translation is mistaken. On the contrary, translators and interpreters can look forward to a long, fruitful career.

The conference began appropriately by bridging the past and present. Emily Wilson explained her new translation of Homer’s Odyssey into English in terms of elucidating the many individual perspectives embedded in the narratives of that book, which had been often ignored by previous translation. In other words, her modern translation emphasizes the diversity of viewpoints. On a similar level, Sergio Viaggio make a strong argument for interpreting from the first language into the second language in handing testimony of witnesses in international crimes against humanity hearings by emphasizing the importance of strengthening the voice of the victims, even at the expense of the ease of understanding of the justices. This need to amplify the voice of the underprivileged, a modern concern, was present in many lectures, including in regards to women’s rights, the handicapped and IAPTI African initiative. These were only a few of the lectures and topics.

As for the future of the profession, it is clear that human translators will continue to exist, albeit with adjustment to the modern world. Clearly, machine translation, whether neural translation or Google translate, will take on an increasing role in both general and standardized texts. However, whenever complete understanding is necessary, professional translators have a clear role. As several lectures explained,  one role is to transcreate, transferring the message without using the exact and inappropriate words of the original. Moreover, as Ralf Lemster explained, translators have two main paths to success: attack the mass market applying the technical time-saving tips that Xose Castro succinctly and enthusiastically provided or specialize in narrow area applying the business savvy of Allesandra Vita.

In any case, we left Valencia with hope, direction and optimism and fueled by the content of the lectures, lecturers and participants. The challenge they consciously and unconsciously posed to the translators, that is to grow, observe, adapt and improve, is a bit daunting but actually quite achievable. If we do so, translation will be alive and kicking for a long time to come.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Foreign insecurity

Going abroad exposes people to the unknown and unfamiliar, with the feeling becoming severe as they grow older.  The innocent abroad may have to cope with alien languages, customs, foods, sights or any combination of those. Granted that some people are more flexible than others for reasons of nature or age, these differences still cause stress. Travelers deal with this discomfort in many different ways.

For frequent fliers, furniture provides an island of security. One of the charms or peculiarities of many international hotel chains is that the rooms are alike regardless of the country in which it is the hotel is located. This predictability even includes the mattress, which is why I won’t stay at a Marriott hotel anywhere. So, for the traveler whose senses are being overwhelmed by the strange world outside the hotel, the room provides an island of peace.

Food serves other functions besides nurishment. It is way of coping with emotional turmoil. So, many travelers seek familiar friends when travelling to help them ease the load of overexposure. Brits may seek an English breakfast while Americans may seek a pancake but both receive the comfort food they need to continue on their discoveries.

Alcohol is also a tried and proven way of relaxing. People used to this method at home often increase their consumption abroad, sometimes to the embarrassment of their friends. As they say, when life gets tough, the tough go drinking or is that shopping.

The opposite of chaos is order. So, people struggling to make sense of the foreign world around them often grasp the tool of routine and schedule to keep their sanity. There may be 50 different sites that they want to visit but some visitors need to spend a certain, i.e., significant, amount of time every morning, afternoon and night going through their motions at their pace. These acts include washing, pampering, sleeping, meditating or email writing, to name a few activities. This insistence on routine may drive their fellow travelers crazy but it allows sensitive souls to enjoy whatever activates they do actually get to.

One of the most discerning aspect of foreign travel is language. All around you, people, including small children, are talking but you do not completely or sometimes even minimally the content or subcontent of the words.  It is like Kipling’s Mogli entering a village for the first time, an extremely humbling experience. After a day or two of such linguistic isolation, the best medicine is mame lushen as they say in Yiddish, one’s mother tongue. It is amazing uplifting to find someone that speaks the same tongue as you do. All of a sudden, you are no longer dumb, in both meaning of the words.

For those with only partial fluency in a language and a certain sense of humor, puns are a way to release the stress. On a recent trip the United States, my wife, whose English is rather good but still not native, constantly made puns with words in English.  I also do so in my secondary languages. Again, our companions may not always appreciate them but humor, however poor, is a solution to mental overexertion.

Like all changes, even positive ones, travel creates stress. There are countless ways to deal with it but it almost always has to come out somehow. Curiously, often after returning to the familiar grounds of home and country do people realize how insecure they felt abroad.

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