Thursday, August 30, 2018

Going native

Natural and foreign are relative concepts.  A good example of that is my personal perception of foreign language use in Israel. I will explain.

Hebrew is official language and, more importantly, the language of daily use for almost 75% of the residents of Israel.  Thus, in contrast to pre-State Israel, speaking Hebrew is a natural act for most Israelis.

 Likewise, at the college where I teach, Muslim, Christian and Druze Arabs speak Arabic to each other as they would do naturally in their own villages and families.  That makes complete sense.

In my neighborhood, there are many Ethiopians. In the morning, I can hear from my office the older generation talking to each other in Amharit as they sit on the benches surrounding the playground.  Many barely know Hebrew. So, Amharit as a language belongs to Israel.

Likewise, in cafes and squares, older Hungarians and Romanians sit and discuss the world in their mother tongue as they have for some 50 years, at least.  As the song notes, this is a tradition.

French is also heard throughout Israel. Older immigrants from North Africa and recent ones from France are more comfortable using their mother tongue than their adopted tongue, something I can understand.

In ultra-religious neighborhoods throughout Israel, but mainly in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Zefat, the street language is Yiddish because Hebrew is a holy language that should not be used on banal matters. While I would disagree politically, I have to respect a person’s choice to use a language.

All this brings us to English. Immigrants from numerous English-speaking countries have come to Israel, including myself.  Many came as families with English as the language of communication in the house. Not only that, there is no need to learn Hebrew as almost everybody can understand English. Yet, for some reason, I find the use of English in the street foreign and even offensive, however illogical that is.

The only reason I can find for this feeling is that I am imposing my ideology on my fellow Anglo-Saxons. Specifically, I came to Israel determined to be Israeli and use Hebrew in my personal life.  While I teach English in English, I have always spoken Hebrew with my family and friends. It is a matter of pride. I find it lazy and unacceptable for English speaking immigrants not to try to speak Hebrew. Of course, I don’t hold that standard to speakers of other languages.  That is another story, isn’t it? So, I concur with Bertrand Russel who said, “"Man is a rational animal — so at least I have been told.”

[Rendering of an ancient picture of the Tower of Babel from a 2500 year old, one of four such images from]

Monday, August 20, 2018

Childish name calling

All languages label important stages of human development. It is even more vital in a modern society where services and expectations are dependent on the age of the human being.  For example, people over 60 are called senior citizens so discounts, health services and funeral arrangements can be directed at them. The fact that a 60-year-old can be a full active member of the workforce, an invalid or world traveler is irrelevant to the label. However, the manner of this labeling does vary. For example, English treats stages of child development by their practical impact while Hebrew tends to be descriptive.

In English, babies become toddlers as they learn how to walk. In fact, the word toddle is a rather archaic word for unsteady walking. Then there is a rather unclear stage of several years between mobile independence and forced schooling referred as children or preschoolers. After this stage, they become school age children, a rather industrial description. Then, the fun begins, unless you are a parent of course.  The responsible child becomes a young adult, excuse me teenager or is that an adolescent? The first term is either hopeful or sarcastic although there are moments when 15 years old do behave like  adults. The second term is based on the teen suffix in the numbers between 13-18, giving hope that this too shall pass, sometime around the last “teen”, 19.  That last term is much clinical, coming the Latin term for growing up, which is technically correct even it does not always seem so.  As you can see, there is no much judgment in the terms themselves; the speakers need to add the correct tone of voice as in: listen to me, young lady (man)!

Hebrew has slightly more explicit terms. A  תינוק [tinok] becomes a פעות [paot] as it learns to walk, from the root meaning small, who then enters the  גיל הרך [gil harach], the period when children generally obey their parents. The last term is literally the soft age, implying the period of time when children must be protected. Then begins the fun. The word נער  [na’ar] means young and applies to someone in junior and senior high school. The parental term is טיפש עשרה [tipesh esre], which is based on the words for stupid and teen (as in the numbers 13-19). This word more accurately describes the behavior of the age group although, to be fair, I know quite a few senior citizens who are even more foolish. The word מתבגר [migbager] is the equivalent of adolescent.

As a word of disclaimer, my daughter is now 21 years old. Even she would admit that she often acted very foolishly during those years. Fortunately and unexplicably, we both survived the experience. So, happily, she can walk, does not need protection (as she has a rather scary dog, a bull terrier), is no longer is forced to attend school, sometimes acts like a lady and is noticeably growing up. She is now an adult, whatever that means.

*Picture by Toa Heftiba and not of my daughter

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.