Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Narrative forms, translation issues, and more

Recently I listened to a lengthy interview by "The Skiffy and Fanty Show" of my friend and former co-worker, Sabrina Vourvoulias. It was an interesting and wide-ranging conversation, and I'll definitely be checking back on that podcast.

The interview was sparked by her recent publication of "Ink," a near-future dystopia that explores some foreboding implications of immigration-law trends. I haven't had a chance to read the book yet, but that wasn't a problem, because the interview talked far less about the plot than about inspiration, the craft of writing, forms of writing, translation, and other issues.

One thing Sabrina talked about was different forms of writing. She compared poetry to jazz, and journalism to folksy ballads, in which direct simplicity is a virtue. One of the interviewers suggested symphonies for comparison to fiction, and she agreed because of how symphonies -- and fiction -- draw on many different threads, and weave them together. She expanded on that, talking about the inclusivity of fiction,  how it can encompass other forms of writing.

That made me think of "Dracula," which comprised diary entries, letters, news clippings, and telegrams, and "World War Z," which is cast as a collection of oral histories about the zombie apocalypse. There are many other examples of this in fiction, and all this is a reminder that there are many other options besides first- or third-person character narratives, or even epics that switch perspectives among multiple characters.

I was also very interested in the segment about translation, and thinking in different languages. My dad took a course in Greek this year and was struck by the difficulty -- some words just don't have direct equivalents, and sometimes words have multiple meanings in one language, and the translator just has to choose one of those meanings instead of being able to find an equivalent that embraces the ambiguity.

Many of C.J. Cherryh's books deal with conflicts between different mindsets, but her Foreigner series deals specifically with a human translator who basically ends up by default as the ambassador, because misunderstandings are so dangerous...

Here and now on Earth, of course, it's very easy to think of examples of dangerous mistranslations between members of the same human species. It's not necessarily just that words don't correspond, but that ways of thinking, as reflected in and fostered by language structure, can be so different. I could write a whole essay just about that, so I'll stop here, but I'd love to see some comments! 

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving!

"What is best in life?"
"To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women."

Strong words, aren't they? This quote from  "Conan the Barbarian" seems pretty inappropriate for Thanksgiving, unless you're sociopathically driven, and/or Genghis Khan, but bear with me.

This quote will always remind me of Thanksgiving, because I first saw the movie on Thanksgiving Day, during my first year in college. Two other people and I had wangled invitations to visit a friend's family for the holiday, being too far from home to visit our own families.

The friend's dad graciously agreed to put us all up. Prior to this invasion, he had been planning to cook one Cornish Game Hen each for himself, his daughter, and his son. When the numbers doubled, instead of trying to learn how to cook a turkey, he simply got another three Cornish hens and crammed them all into the oven.

While he wrestled with the birds, the younger generation watched television. For some reason, even though this was in Texas, we didn't watch football, but caught the movie instead.

When I hear this quote, I know the words are about pitiless violence. However, because of the associations the movie holds for me, I always feel a trace of warm nostalgia, for a generous man, a nice family, and good times with good friends.

So I always try to remember: Unless I know the context of somebody's words, I may not really know what is meant.