Monday, May 17, 2010

Lost in Translation

We have been having conversations about translation lately, especially, as it happens, the translation of the word "evil" from the Aramaic to Greek and then to English. When I was still naive and idealistic, I wanted to be a translator. I have had a few opportunities to exercise or exorcise this desire since then, and I now realize that the task involves much more than words.

For starts, one must be truly bilingual, which I am not, with my smattering of French and my kitchen Greek. But one must be truly bicultural or multicultural as well; one must know something of the history of the cultures involved in the languages. I once was so rash as to "translate" a large collection of German poems.

The result would have been called, had it been music, something like Variations on a Theme or Fantasy Upon. What relationship the "translations" had to the originals was probably mostly in my mind. The only positive outcome of this effort was that it got the German poems, whose author had gone to that great Iamb in the sky, out of the grocery bag in the poet's son's basement.

While cleaning out the mountains of paper in my house, I came across a little essay made for a French class. On a whim, I had Yahoo's BabelFish to translate it into English, with this result.

A Life of Trompe-l'oeil My friend the painter liked the art of trompe-l'oeil. He made small tables with the watercolour with the postage stamps, however well realize that one cannot know where was the stamp and where was painting: Mislead the eye. Its small house also was folds up of this merry art. Its room had flowers with oil on the wall. With the kitchen there were false briks. The fence of the garden had a painting of vines. If something in the house were broken, Howard repaired it with ribbon and color. My friend lived eighty-two years. He had many things, neither car, neither money, nor luxury articles. But its life was also rich parce au' it had good mood so much. When it was dying, I visited him to the hospital and spoke to him about a film which I had seen, “Babette' S Feast”. “My dear Howard,” I said to him, “This film had a wise message… that the artist is never poor.”

If you read French, here is the original as corrected by the College of San Mateo French teacher:

Une Vie de Trompe-l’Oeil (9 June 1989)

Mon ami le peintre aimait l’art de trompe-l’oeil. Il faisait de petits tableaux à l’aquarelle avec les timbres-poste, si bien réalises qu’on ne peut pas savoir où était le timbre et où était la peinture: Trompe l’oeil. Sa petite maison aussi était replie de cet art gai. Sa chambre avait des fleurs à l’huile sur le mur. À la cuisine il y avait des briks faux. La clôture du jardin avait une peinture de vignes. Si quelque chose dans la maison était brisé, Howard le réparait avec du ruban et de la couleur.

Mon ami a vécu quatre-vingt-deux années. Il n’avait pas beaucoup de choses, ni voiture, ni argent, ni objets de luxe. Mais sa vie était aussi riche parce au’il avait tellement de bonne humeur. Quand il était en train de mourir, je lui rendais visite a l’hôpital et lui parlais d’un film que j’avais vu, “Babette’s Feast”.

“Mon chèr Howard,” je lui ai dit, “Ce film avait un message sage...que l’artiste n’est jamais pauvre.”

Thursday, May 6, 2010

A Respectful Apostrophe

June Morrall's last book, Moss Beach, published by Arcadia, came out last week. Because June is no longer with us, Deb and Mike Wong and others who helped out with the book were at a sort of signing party in a Half Moon Bay book store.

I have a Facebook group called Apostrophe Control, born of a curmudgeonly proofreading moment. I think people who don't know how to use apostrophes should have to take a remedial English class, so I was stunned to see a photograph of a place called The Reef's (as in belonging to a reef) on the cover of June's book.

Actually, the photograph of this beach place in Moss Beach had two apostrophes (or a close quotation mark). Whoever edited the book--maybe even June herself did a respectful and fascinating bit of apostrophe control in the text. It made me think of William Blake's Tyger, which would not be the same with conventional spelling.

Every mention of the club in the text retains the apostrophe (but not the double apostrophe or quote mark, which would just be silly.) After the club was washed away by the ocean and rebuilt farther away, the apostrophe did not appear in the sign, and so the book calls this place The Reefs II (no apostrophe).

I got a kick out of this quirky little bit of editing. I could imagine someone saying "Well, even if the person doesn't know you don't make a plural with an apostrophe, that's how the sign is written." Or "We could correct that; maybe nobody would notice." Or "Well, we have to be consistent. The second club doesn't have the apostrophe."

You can tell a lot about a person by the way he or she punctuates, and not just whether they made As in English class. In this case, June or the editor or both showed themselves to be careful proof-readers and faithful historians. I hope June's spirit celebrates the launching of her book.