On translation

I don’t trust translations. As a child, however, I did, and had great time reading all sorts of things in translation–French, German, Russian, Spanish–it didn’t matter. I took the translators at their word that they would faithfully read, interpret, and re-write a book so that I could read it in English. Of course, I lost my translation innocence when I learned Spanish, leaving behind my career as a life-long monolingual who had basked in the naivete of a one language world. I had always suspected, for example, that when strange species met on episodes of Star Trek that they would have trouble communicating–English-speaking earthlings shouldn’t be able to communicate directly with just off the space shuttle Klingons, for example–but I suspended my disbelief so I could enjoy the show. I was, however, skeptical that the Klingons didn’t even have an accent of any kind when they spoke, or was that the accent of Los Angeles that they had learned via Rosetta-stoned? Then, I kind, if not well-meaning, teacher taught me that the word for “red” in Spanish was “roja.” Again, I was skeptical, but I kept it to myself. In fact, I kept my skepticism to myself for years while I learned this other “language.” For the most part, even when using Spanish (I’m not going to brag and say “speaking” just yet), I still felt that English was right there, a crutch, a back-up, that would always save me, that is, until I landed in Spain and English was useless on most any level. I realized right away that none of these Spanish speakers knew any English at all, and their world seemed to work pretty well: the ate, communicated, fought, drank coffee, gave directions, explained, interacted, and a whole host of other things while ignoring English completely. They said “hola, buenos días” as if they meant it. After about a month of this foolishness, it began to dawn on me that there were places in the world that didn’t know English, and didn’t want to, either, to paraphrase Thorton Wilder. I began to learn and use words in Spanish that I had never seen in a text book, had never written in my notebook, and didn’t really know what they meant in English, or at least I didn’t know what their English equivalent was. At that moment, a major epiphany struck: English and Spanish don’t know each other, aren’t equivalent, and you can’t make one language mean the other, especially if the discourse is at all complex. “Roja” does not mean “red.” Both words refer to a similar darkish shade from the rainbow or perhaps the color of some apples, but words from different languages are not equivalent. The idea is absurd, especially to bilinguals. I joined that group of people in my early twenties, forever ruined for reading translations. At some point I did a translation assignment that concerned a poem by García Lorca, “Canción del jinete.” I turned in my assignment, crestfallen because I knew it was a failure–you can’t translate that poem and still keep the poem alive, and my horseman had died long before he ever made it to Cordoba–so the poet had been, ironically, right–he never did make it to Córdoba. Whenever I must read a translation today, I always try to keep an original near. I read Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago in English, knowing full-well that the Russian must have been gorgeous. I know why Dante and Petrarch were so good: their poetry sings in Italian in a way that it never could translated into English, but the best way to kill Shakespeare? Translate him out of English into anything else. There is nothing funnier than Hamlet speaking Spanish, except Hamlet is not supposed to be funny. Cervantes is brilliant in Spanish, but he’s just funny in English, and so it goes. I guess I’ll have to learn Klingon to enjoy their operas, now, won’t I.

On translation

I don’t trust translations. As a child, however, I did, and had great time reading all sorts of things in translation–French, German, Russian, Spanish–it didn’t matter. I took the translators at their word that they would faithfully read, interpret, and re-write a book so that I could read it in English. Of course, I lost my translation innocence when I learned Spanish, leaving behind my career as a life-long monolingual who had basked in the naivete of a one language world. I had always suspected, for example, that when strange species met on episodes of Star Trek that they would have trouble communicating–English-speaking earthlings shouldn’t be able to communicate directly with just off the space shuttle Klingons, for example–but I suspended my disbelief so I could enjoy the show. I was, however, skeptical that the Klingons didn’t even have an accent of any kind when they spoke, or was that the accent of Los Angeles that they had learned via Rosetta-stoned? Then, I kind, if not well-meaning, teacher taught me that the word for “red” in Spanish was “roja.” Again, I was skeptical, but I kept it to myself. In fact, I kept my skepticism to myself for years while I learned this other “language.” For the most part, even when using Spanish (I’m not going to brag and say “speaking” just yet), I still felt that English was right there, a crutch, a back-up, that would always save me, that is, until I landed in Spain and English was useless on most any level. I realized right away that none of these Spanish speakers knew any English at all, and their world seemed to work pretty well: the ate, communicated, fought, drank coffee, gave directions, explained, interacted, and a whole host of other things while ignoring English completely. They said “hola, buenos días” as if they meant it. After about a month of this foolishness, it began to dawn on me that there were places in the world that didn’t know English, and didn’t want to, either, to paraphrase Thorton Wilder. I began to learn and use words in Spanish that I had never seen in a text book, had never written in my notebook, and didn’t really know what they meant in English, or at least I didn’t know what their English equivalent was. At that moment, a major epiphany struck: English and Spanish don’t know each other, aren’t equivalent, and you can’t make one language mean the other, especially if the discourse is at all complex. “Roja” does not mean “red.” Both words refer to a similar darkish shade from the rainbow or perhaps the color of some apples, but words from different languages are not equivalent. The idea is absurd, especially to bilinguals. I joined that group of people in my early twenties, forever ruined for reading translations. At some point I did a translation assignment that concerned a poem by García Lorca, “Canción del jinete.” I turned in my assignment, crestfallen because I knew it was a failure–you can’t translate that poem and still keep the poem alive, and my horseman had died long before he ever made it to Cordoba–so the poet had been, ironically, right–he never did make it to Córdoba. Whenever I must read a translation today, I always try to keep an original near. I read Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago in English, knowing full-well that the Russian must have been gorgeous. I know why Dante and Petrarch were so good: their poetry sings in Italian in a way that it never could translated into English, but the best way to kill Shakespeare? Translate him out of English into anything else. There is nothing funnier than Hamlet speaking Spanish, except Hamlet is not supposed to be funny. Cervantes is brilliant in Spanish, but he’s just funny in English, and so it goes. I guess I’ll have to learn Klingon to enjoy their operas, now, won’t I.

On the strange paradox of time travel

Just like the next guy, I love a great time travel paradox, frustrated by the fact that hypothetically a return to the past is possible, doubly frustrated that the real world doesn’t seem to understand the hypothesis. Time travel equations seem to indicate that time runs both forward and backward, but our reality only seems to run one way, which is why the equations are deceptive. A cup that has been knocked onto the floor and breaks stays broken, and unless you have a good supply of superglue, the cup will stay broken. Yet I am skeptical that even if we could go back in time and avoid breaking the cup altogether, we should. Since our past is filled with so many errors, follies, and foolishness, I don’t think there is enough time in the world to fix them. You would have to answer the question, which errors would be worth correcting, but the bigger question remains: if you fix a mistake, what might the “butterfly effects” be? Precisely because you have corrected a perceived error, have you inadvertently created others? Is it possible that you might disappear if a mistake in 1789 were corrected? The answer, of course, is yes. Since the only timeline that we know is the result of millions of individual mistakes, we must leave history as it is because we have no conception of the possible dangers of changing the most minimal detail in the past. Well, you say, what about big mistakes such as Hitler? It is hard to imagine a world in which Hitler never lived, but then again, the current world we have now is a direct result, for better or worse, of many of Hitler’s policies and decisions. How would his death as an infant effect us now? The answer, of course, is unknowable, unfathomable, but at the same time, intriguing. So the cup falls, breaks, and gets swept into the trash, and we are unable to avoid it’s destruction. We are the result of a single direction causality stream of which we are completely unaware at any given moment, but that, with hindsight, we describe after the fact as history. Of course, a causality stream is also a bit of a mystery because human interaction, although predictable within certain chaotic parameters, is essentially unpredictable at the macro-level, is essentially unpredictable at any given moment, and if we were to run the same causality scenario at any given moment, the outcomes may be radically different. If we were to time travel, we would always be in danger of introducing new factors into the time equation. “Back to the Future” reminds us only too well that even one’s best intentions can screw up a carefully built series of causes and effects. I fear that the impossibility of time travel may be for our own good, and that if we could time travel, that this might be the end of the world as we know it. The biggest problem I see is going back and meeting your own younger self and contaminating the future or possibly even causing yourself to disappear at some point. The cup falls, breaks, and gets swept into the trash. You go to the store to replace the cup, meet a new person, fall in love, get married, have children, one of whom becomes the president of the United States who averts a world-ending atomic holocaust, and you die of old age in your bed at age 102 after 76 years of marriage to a wonderful person who you met after breaking a tea cup. You avoid breaking the cup, you never go to the store, you never get married, you live alone, never having had children, dying in an atomic holocaust that ends life on this planet as we know it. It’s complicated, isn’t it?

On the strange paradox of time travel

Just like the next guy, I love a great time travel paradox, frustrated by the fact that hypothetically a return to the past is possible, doubly frustrated that the real world doesn’t seem to understand the hypothesis. Time travel equations seem to indicate that time runs both forward and backward, but our reality only seems to run one way, which is why the equations are deceptive. A cup that has been knocked onto the floor and breaks stays broken, and unless you have a good supply of superglue, the cup will stay broken. Yet I am skeptical that even if we could go back in time and avoid breaking the cup altogether, we should. Since our past is filled with so many errors, follies, and foolishness, I don’t think there is enough time in the world to fix them. You would have to answer the question, which errors would be worth correcting, but the bigger question remains: if you fix a mistake, what might the “butterfly effects” be? Precisely because you have corrected a perceived error, have you inadvertently created others? Is it possible that you might disappear if a mistake in 1789 were corrected? The answer, of course, is yes. Since the only timeline that we know is the result of millions of individual mistakes, we must leave history as it is because we have no conception of the possible dangers of changing the most minimal detail in the past. Well, you say, what about big mistakes such as Hitler? It is hard to imagine a world in which Hitler never lived, but then again, the current world we have now is a direct result, for better or worse, of many of Hitler’s policies and decisions. How would his death as an infant effect us now? The answer, of course, is unknowable, unfathomable, but at the same time, intriguing. So the cup falls, breaks, and gets swept into the trash, and we are unable to avoid it’s destruction. We are the result of a single direction causality stream of which we are completely unaware at any given moment, but that, with hindsight, we describe after the fact as history. Of course, a causality stream is also a bit of a mystery because human interaction, although predictable within certain chaotic parameters, is essentially unpredictable at the macro-level, is essentially unpredictable at any given moment, and if we were to run the same causality scenario at any given moment, the outcomes may be radically different. If we were to time travel, we would always be in danger of introducing new factors into the time equation. “Back to the Future” reminds us only too well that even one’s best intentions can screw up a carefully built series of causes and effects. I fear that the impossibility of time travel may be for our own good, and that if we could time travel, that this might be the end of the world as we know it. The biggest problem I see is going back and meeting your own younger self and contaminating the future or possibly even causing yourself to disappear at some point. The cup falls, breaks, and gets swept into the trash. You go to the store to replace the cup, meet a new person, fall in love, get married, have children, one of whom becomes the president of the United States who averts a world-ending atomic holocaust, and you die of old age in your bed at age 102 after 76 years of marriage to a wonderful person who you met after breaking a tea cup. You avoid breaking the cup, you never go to the store, you never get married, you live alone, never having had children, dying in an atomic holocaust that ends life on this planet as we know it. It’s complicated, isn’t it?

On Chuck Norris

Where do you start with a guy who is not a guy but a very strange caricature of a guy? There is a whole sub-genre of Chuck Norris jokes: Chuck Norris is so tough he makes onions cry. (I didn’t say they were good jokes.) I mean, I don’t doubt his sincerity as a person, but thinking that just brute force and a black and white ethic about good and evil in the world will serve you in all situations is a little disingenuous. I have always wondered if he actually believes the stuff he says or if he takes himself seriously. Don’t get me wrong, his movies are really entertaining if you aren’t worried about plot, story, verisimilitude, acting, or reality, and the only thing you care about is watching Chuck kick some evil-doer’s ass. Yet, since all of his movies are the same, and even his television series is all the same, after awhile, he is not only predictable, he’s boring. But I’m not here to insult or diss Chuck Norris. He is the one with the millions of dollars, a thirty year career, and enough star power to make whatever movies he would ever care to make. His formula for hop’n chop flicks is almost infallible. Sometimes an audience does not want subtlety, a complicated plot line, artistic cinematography, incredible dialogue which discusses existential issues of human philosophy, or complex character development. Sometimes an audience just wants to see the bad guys suffer, the evil-doers foiled, the good guy get the girl, and there are no ironic, melancholy, or tragic plot twists which make everyone cry at the end. In his movies, the good guy wears a white hat, he defeats the bad guy in spite of a few set backs, and justice is served, the order of the world is restored. Yet, I wonder if such a manicheistic view of the world is necessarily a completely healthy way to live. In spite of what Chuck Norris might believe about how the world works, or how good and evil are portrayed in his movies, the world is a much more subtle place to live than he or his movies would have you believe. First, movies are not the real world–they are art and artifice, one hundred per cent, creative work that may comment on reality, but is not reality at all. Chuck Norris is an actor, of sorts, so it is his job to invent simulacra about daily life which is or can be entertaining, according to your own point of view. In the end, point-of-view is about all anyone has. Chuck’s points of view are different than mine, no doubt, but he’s the rich one, not me. His talents for making entertaining movies are multiple and varied. Gifted athletically, he can kick and punch and hit and fight in a special movie sort of way, believable but fake, a simulacrum of fighting that is not fighting or even hitting, but mostly pretending, and almost entirely phony, which is especially obvious if one were forced to watch as they filmed the scenes. He never really hits anyone at all. His stuntmen are trained to “take-a-punch” and make it seem real. So the paradox of a Chuck Norris film is palpable: he would have you think that his black and white world of good and evil may be mastered vis-a-vis his fists and feet, but it’s really all a hoax–he never really hits anyone at all. It’s all movie magic. And we all know that magic is about illusion, not telling the truth, deceiving people, dissimulating, and tricking the viewers into thinking that violence is the answer, that the evil are vanquished, that bad people do not flourish but get their just desserts. None of which is true in this complicated terrible world. Chuck Norris doesn’t read books. He stares them down until he gets the information he wants.