Riders on the Storm Drain

Storm DrainIt is 1981.

I arrive at Ken Spears’ condo to find Mark Reynolds pulling up the manhole cover in the back patio. Mark has shaved off his long hair and there is definitely a ‘Taxi Driver’ vibe. Anything can happen.

An extension cord is dropped into the bone-dry storm drain and a floor lamp is lowered for illumination. Mark descends purposefully and we lower his amplifier and guitar to him.

He turns on and tunes up, and begins to assault the guitar at ear-splitting volume. We replace the manhole cover and I head out into the night. Iggy Pop and Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd come from every storm drain I pass.

That night the Irvine Police are frustrated in their attempts to find the source of the mysterious music.

The Second Thing to Go

Last Weekend.Guitar

Mike Pearce and I get together for beers. We haven’t seen each other in fifteen years. He brings his girlfriend, who I have not met.

He makes a comment – something about ‘Are you now or have you ever been’. I acknowledge the McCarthy reference but he shakes his head. I suddenly realize he’s making a sly reference to a song I wrote back in the day called ‘The Enemy Within’. I’m touched. It’s really REALLY nice when people remember something you’ve created so many years later.

Mike starts to tell a story about something that happened thirty years ago, in the early ‘80s.

“Do you remember that time that you and Paul (Another friend of ours) came over to my apartment in Tustin? We were jamming in the living room – recording on my little four-track with two microphones in stereo.”

We never jammed that much, unless we were playing a party. So this is starting to ring a bell. And we NEVER recorded anything, except for…

Mike turns to his girlfriend, who is ten years our junior. ““Do you know that Beatles song? Do you know how ‘Back in the U.S.S.R.’ starts? You know, with the jet flying through in stereo.”

She knows.

He looks back at me. “I hit the record button, and just as the tape starts rolling, a motorcycle started coming down the street outside.”
It’s coming back to me now.

“We counted off and started playing the intro as the motorcycle approached. Then it passed and faded as we went into the verse.”
It’s a great memory. I haven’t thought of that in many years. The coincidence of the motorcycle’s passing at that precise moment speaks to me as an artist.

I ask him:

“Do you mean that apartment in Tustin where you and I lived?”

He stops. His face goes blank.

His girlfriend looks at him and laughs.

“On Walnut. At Redhill. The Briarwood Apartments.”

“Oh my God!” he exclaims. “I totally forgot that we lived together.”

For a year. So much for HIS memory.

But he remembered the lyrics to a song I wrote.

I say forgive and forget.

Gained in Translation: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Stanislaw Lem and Umberto Eco

TranslationConsider The Bible.

The first list of books of The Bible was assembled at the Council of Rome in 382 CE. Saint Jerome was commissioned to produce translations of the original Greek and Hebrew texts into Latin, later known as the Latin Vulgate Bible.

I don’t read or write Latin. So I’m reading one of the English translations – The King James Bible, for example. There are approximately 7000 languages in the world today. The Bible has been translated into over 500 of them. According to Wikipedia, there are 120 complete translations in English alone.

That’s a Lot of Translation

According to Yardenne Greenspan, writing in Plowshares at Emerson College, the Hebrew language is profoundly steeped in biblical references, passages and turns of phrase. In her article ‘Out With the Old and in With the Ancient: The Bible as Literature in Translation’, she writes that no other language has so many such allusions.

“When translating Hebrew literature, these allusions would usually be transformed into an equivalent English phrase or slang, whether biblical itself or not. While ‘hoseh shivto sone bno’ would be translated into ‘spares the rod, hates his son’—an accurate translation of the same biblical quote, equal in meaning and awfulness—a phrase like ‘b’rachel bitha haktana’, which originates from the story of Jacob and Rachel and translates literally as ‘in exchange for Rachel, your youngest daughter’ (used in Hebrew as a metaphor for being painstakingly clear about one’s intentions), would probably be translated in the context of a non-biblical story as ‘explicitly’ or ‘no two ways about it’—leaving the matriarch entirely out of it.”

Translating Culture: The Advent of Translation Studies

The challenge of translation transcends merely finding words to replace words. The greatest challenges facing translators occur when language is being pushed to its limits, in poetry and word-play. Translators have been around for centuries, but translation studies as a formal pursuit is still relatively new. In translation studies they talk about the SC and the TC – Source Culture and Target Culture.

In her paper ‘Translating Culture: Problems, Strategies and Practical Realities’, Ana Fernández Guerra wrote about the theory behind translation studies:

“One of the problems a translator can face arises from the fact that some words or phrases denoting objects, facts, phenomena, etc… are so deeply rooted in their source culture (SC) and so specific (and perhaps exclusive or unique) to the culture that produced them that they have no equivalent in the target culture (TC) be it because they are unknown, or because they are not yet codified in the target language (TL).”

Further, some theorists support untranslatability when terms are so culture-bound as to defy translation.

Translation practice and theory have been split. The study of translation (usually literary) saw its origins in comparative literature and has expanded greatly.

In ‘On linguistic aspects of translation’, Russo-American structuralist Roman Jakobson (1896–1982) described categories of translation: ‘The first, intralingual translation, is an interpretation of verbal signs in the same language’.

Consider this expressing a concept ‘in other words’. You are trying to express a concept within the same language, but seeking other words to express the same concept.

The second type is interlingual translation – translation proper. This is the focus of translation studies. The goal of interlingual translation is to achieve “close lexical fidelity” between the SL (Source Language) and the TL (Target Language).

Finally, intersemiotic translation, or ‘transmutation’ – ‘an interpretation of verbal signs by means of signs of non-verbal sign systems’.   Emphasis is on the overall message that needs to be conveyed rather than the ‘words’. Thus the translator, instead of paying attention to the verbal signs, concentrates more on the information that is to be delivered.

Translating Garcia Marquez and the Language of Magic Realism

Gregory Rabassa is referred to as ‘the translator’s translator’. He translated Nobel Prize winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’, ‘Chronicle of a Death Foretold”, and ‘Autumn of the Patriarch’.

The challenge he faced wasn’t so much translating the author’s work from Spanish to English. The challenge was translating the surreal sensibilities of ‘magic realism’. This is a genre in literature and art in which realistic narrative and naturalistic technique combine with fantastic elements of dream.

According to Rabassa, the translator is invisible. The translation never calls attention to itself.

“I am not sure that I have any technique. I certainly have no strategy (I am more of a tactician, if it comes to that) and I am not sure whether I have an approach or not. It is really very simple: I just sit down with paper and a dictionary handy and go to work. About the only preliminary effort expended was a reading of the book. Sometimes this had taken place a while back so that it is all a bit hazy. This might be to the good, if my experience is any example.”

While Rabassa has engaged in convoluted processes involving as many as five drafts back and forth between author and translator, he has also worked quickly and instinctively.

“I must confess, and I have confessed to Julio (Cortazar), that I translated Hopscotch as I read it. I did have to go back and change some things, but only a snippet here and there, nothing important. I think that this bears out my contention that a translation is nothing but a close reading, perhaps the closest reading possible. When I do a book I go along as fast as I can, trying to get the meaning down so that I can use this first draft with confidence. If a phrase resists me I put it down in some awkward but accurate form to be dealt with later. More to give myself a break in routine than anything else (although it enables me to ship chunks of translation off to the author periodically), I will stop after twenty or thirty pages of manuscript text and go back over it for the re-write.”

Translating the Poetic Science Fiction of Stanislaw Lem

Michael Kandel has translated the Polish author Stanislaw Lem’s work and has received accolades for his abilities with the difficult material.

Writer and Editor Franz Rottensteiner described Kandel’s work:

“The quality of his translations is considered to be excellent; his skill is especially notable in the case of Lem’s writing, which makes heavy use of wordplay and other difficult-to-translate devices.”

As with Rabassa struggling with Magic Realism, Kandel’s greatest challenge translating Lem’s writing was the totally original and complex universes Lem conceived and described.

Kandel, a fan of science fiction, explains how he approached this aspect of translating Lem, as well as the work of other authors.

“Well, if you know that this happens in science fiction, then it’s not so strange and you don’t have a problem with it at all—in fact, it’s almost easier to make up words because you know how to do that, to come up with something that corresponds to what the author’s made up.”

Kandel described the frustration of finding so many words he didn’t know when reading an early Lem novel.

“The first book I read in Polish that was SF was Lem’s The Invincible, and I really had a hard time getting through it. I thought it was a great book, but I spent a lot of time looking through the dictionary, and later someone told me, those words aren’t in any Polish dictionary!”

Relay Translation vs. Direct Translation

According to the blog ‘Life in Translation’, one of Lem’s most famous novels was once only available in poorly translated versions.

“Now it turns out that the only available English version of Stanisław Lem’s 1961 Polish science fiction novel Solaris had been relay translated from a poor French version. The Guardian reports that a new direct translation by Bill Johnston has just been published which ‘removes a raft of unnecessary changes and restores the text much closer to its original state’.”

Umberto Eco Translates Himself

Umberto Eco’s work, both fiction and non-fiction, has been translated from Italian into many languages. In addition to writing extensively on semiotics, the language of symbols, he has written several novels, including ‘The Name of the Rose’ and ‘Foucault’s Pendulum’.

Eco has written extensively about his experiences with the translation of his work, and the phenomenon of translation in general. In his book ‘Experiences in Translation’, Eco expresses a similar notion to the one presented earlier by Michael Kandel.

Matteo Poles, writing about one of Eco’s speeches on the website Terminology Coordination, describes Eco’s observations about translations and translators:

“He (Eco) concludes that even though the Italian translator failed the translation, a reader, even though not so experienced and skilled, will always perceive the ‘world’ of the book. Eco states that in his search for the perfect translation he first tried to use images taken from his own cultural world and only afterwards he counted on his linguistic knowledge, in order to verify if the pun can have an equivalent in Italian.”

Eco enumerates his ‘commandments’ for translation:

“A translation, Eco states as a first commandment, is not simply the comprehension and an interpretation of a text. Second rule, an interpretation introduces us to multiple possible “worlds”: an idea that Eco, as semiotics professor, had always underlined in his essays. Third, in the translation of a book it seems legitimate to violate some rules in order to produce the same effect the original author intended.”

Eco provides an additional rule: the translation can be more complex than the original text.

He points out that in Italian there is only a word for the concept of nephew, while in English we could have niece, nephew, grandson or granddaughter, which define more precisely the family relationships and the sex of the person.

Close Encounters of All Kinds

Steven SpielbergIt is 1975.

I am 16. I walk with Steven Spielberg across the parking lot at Orange Coast College where we have just seen a retrospective of his work (Duel, Sugarland Express, Jaws). I ask him what his next film will be. He tells me “It’s called Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but I can’t tell you anything more about it”. Hmm.

It is 1976. I receive a publication from the US GPO for a project in Mr. Ramseyer’s Political Science class. It describes the government’s position on UFOs. It includes the definitions of the three types of ‘Close Encounters’. And I realize Spielberg is making a movie about contact with alien life forms.

It is 1977. ‘Star Wars’ releases in May and triples the value of 20th Century Fox stock within weeks of its release. My parents tell me they want to buy me some stock for my graduation present. I tell them to buy as much Columbia Pictures stock as they can. They say “We want you to study stocks, to learn something about the stock market”. I explain why I want this stock. They buy it immediately. Within a week of its November release, ‘Close Encounters’ doubles the value of my stock. A week later it’s worth three times what my parents paid for it, and rising.

A week later, actor Cliff Robertson goes public about Columbia’s VP of Production, David Begelman, who is embezzling money by cashing checks in Robertson’s name at his bank. The stock tanks.

The end.

The Space Between

MusicIt is 2002.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic is playing its final season at the Music Center. Conductor Esa Pekka Salonen pulls out all the stops, as it were. The full orchestra, augmented with a full choir, performs Arnold Schoenberg’s ‘The Survivor of Warsaw’ and Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. The program requests that the audience not applaud until the conclusion of the program. There is no intermission.

‘Survivor’ is a gut-wrenching cacophony. There is a vocal part, called ‘The Narrator’, but very much a performance. He is a survivor of the camps. He is struck on the head by a soldier and falls down. They mistake him for dead and ignore him as they order the Jews to count out so they can know how many to send to the gas chambers.
These are his memories now. ‘The Narrator’ tells us he found himself living in a sewer beneath the Warsaw Ghetto and doesn’t know how he got there.

‘The Narrator’ is performed by Leonard Nimoy.

It is a heartfelt performance. Nimoy was the son of orthodox Jews from the former Soviet Union who emigrated to Boston. He grew up experiencing persecution, living in a community where Yiddish was spoken as often as English. He was exposed to the faith in every way.

It is an experience he shared with the world. The Vulcan culture drew heavily from Nimoy’s upbringing. Perhaps most famously, the Vulcan salute was contributed to ‘Star Trekby Nimoy, who drew from Birkat Kohanim, the Hebrew Priestly Blessing. It is a sign for the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet that spells God.

The Schoenberg piece ends abruptly. I am falling through some inner space, spent. And then, without pause, Salonen’s baton rises and the opening strings of Beethoven’s ‘Chorale’ lift me on wings of angels.
I am saved. My hope is restored.

But that moment between the two pieces where I was hanging in space – I shall never forget that moment as long as I live. It was the most profound music I have ever heard.

#TBT A River Runs Through It

Hudson River Valley School#TBT

It is 1998.

It is a warm Friday in Manhattan. I am at the Met, enjoying the string quartet, the art and the air conditioning.

I look at amazing art from around the world. I pass the ‘American’ section. I almost don’t stop, but I blaze through the early American work and then confront a painting of a forest by Albert Bierstadt. I am stunned by his technical mastery, evident in the light filtering between the boughs.

This is the Hudson River Valley School.

There is another painting by Frederick Church. It is older, and slightly less impressive than the Bierstadt. Church was the founder of the school.

I want to know about where their inspiration came from. A month later I drive up the Hudson River. The leaves are turning. The gray skies and the sheen of rain give them an entirely different quality of color than sunny skies.

I get it.

I have arranged, through the Albany weekly newspaper, to dine with a woman who knows about art in general, but specifically the Hudson River Valley School. We have a great evening. She tells me Frederick Church built a Moorish-style house called Olana on a hill overlooking the river.

I stop there on my return south. It’s an amazing place, with an equally amazing view. And the colors of the leaves were stupendous.

Some time later.

I am in Seattle. The art museum is showing the retrospective of Thomas Moran, one of the Hudson River Valley School. He is called ‘The Father of the National Parks System’. There hasn’t been a retrospective before because the core pieces are extremely large – 7 feet x 12 feet, something like that. And they are astonishing.

He painted ‘The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone’ down to the lizards on the rocks. When Congress considered establishing a National Parks System, one of Moran’s giant paintings was transported to Washington, delivered to the House floor, and examined by Senators and Congressmen, who decided to go forward with the National Parks.

Sure glad I stopped and looked in on the ‘American’ section at the Met.

#TBT Drawing Outside the Lines

Young love.It is 1965.

We line up. We walk single file to recess. We line up to slide on the slide. We line up to swing on the swings. We line up to go back inside.

It is nap time. We line up to get our mats from the stack. The mats smell. It’s a combination of the material the covers are made from and all the bodies sweaty from the playground that have been using these mats since – maybe since the school was built.

The boys go to one side of the room. The girls go to the other side. They unfold their mats and lay them on the linoleum shiny with wax.

I pause.

Celeste Trevera unfolds her mat on the girl’s side. I like Celeste. She wears her dark brown hair in bangs, with the rest to her shoulders. She has brown eyes. I don’t know why I like her but I do.

I make a decision. I take my mat and go to the girl’s side of the room. I unfold it and lay it down next to Celeste. I lay down next to her.

It takes Miss Long a minute to realize what I have done. She comes over after giving out the last mat and tells me to move to the boy’s side of the room.

Poor Miss Long. This is not the first time I have crossed this kind of line with her. We had an assignment to label and color figures of a man and of a woman – clothing and body parts – in Spanish. They were cartoonish diagrams, a couple of steps removed from stick figures. They were reproduced on Dittos in that purple color.

I finished and took my sheets up to Miss Long. She looked at the one of the mujer, made a couple of corrections and handed it back to me. Then she reviewed my hombre. She didn’t have a problem with the labels. But I was unsatisfied with the accuracy of the primitive drawing and  had augmented it, extending the groin area slightly with my blue crayon.

Miss Long looked up from my paper. She held it out and pointed to the blue pantalones I had drawn.

“What’s this?”

“Oh,” I replied. “That’s the part that hangs down.

Talk about drawing outside the lines.