Dear bilingual dictionary,

You and I have been partners for a long time. Some might even say friends. (Maybe frenemies.) But we have a decent, cordial, mutually respectful relationship, and have for years.

But enough with the formalities. You and I need to have a heart-to-heart. Right here, right now.

See, there are times when I feel you’re limiting me. Like you’re cornering me into a little box of conventions and traditions, of the way it’s always been done, perhaps even the way it’s supposed to be done. Says you. I come to you with a question, an open-ended question. This is not a yes or no, black or white question. There are shades of beautiful gray, shadows in the dark and streams of dust-filled light. This question invites research, discussion, discovery. I’m looking for the many different facets and shades of meaning, the many different turns and tunes of how to say something, how to sing or mumble or cry or shout or threaten something, in my own tongue. I come to you on my knees, ready to learn.

And lately, it seems that you see this delicate and luxurious Fabergé egg that I present before you, a treasured gift on a velvet pillow, and you just slap it out of my hand. And then you shove a dull cube of lead in front of my face, and I almost choke on this unimaginative, unpolished lump. Too familiar. I’ve seen it dozens of times before. The one word that is the only possible translation of this word I’ve brought before you.

But no. No. NO! Never! There is not ever only one right answer! This translation I am doing, it is not a machine, a mechanized process that takes input and spits out deadened, predetermined outputs out, day in and day out, forever until the end of time, never changing, never growing, never creating things of beauty. This is a creative process, a process of creation, of breathing new life into something already lovely, of using a new prism of clear cut glass to catch the sunlight in a new way and spurt forth new colors to send out into the world, scattering and dancing as they go. This is not a process of boxing in, of limiting the possibilities, but one of springing the lock on Pandora’s box, and watching as all the wonderful and strange and unknown and terrifying and beautiful things go flying out of your control.

The paths that have been trodden before me are good, and solid, and reliable, and have their place. I pad and stomp over them often myself. But you must not build fences of cold steel and barbed wire, penning me in from ever leaving them! I will be forced to break free, tearing down the iron gates much as I tear apart your whisper thin papyrus sheets.

So I will slam you shut, and I will shove you off of the table in a fit of frustration, and I will curse as I stub my own toes in an attempt to injure your pages and your pride.

And yet.

Although. Still.

As it happens, lumps of lead can be beautiful, too…if combined in a new way, stacked on top of each other in precariously swaying towers, sculpting the likeness of a new creature that no one has ever seen before, nor even imagined. Even as a limited and limiting tool, you are useful. Of constant, and yes, essential use.

We shall remain partners.

Warily and forever yours,

Allison

 

P.S. I did not originally mean for this to be an ode to this creative process, something dearly loved. I have learned something new, that you are inspirational in a muse-like way I did not imagine before. You still have some surprises and tricks up your binding.

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Tailored to your audience

“Hello,” I say to the 6-year-old French boy.
“Hello! How are you?”
“I’m good. And how are you?”
Shy, silent stare.
“Are you good, too?”
Nodding.
“What did you want to ask me?”
“Uh…do you want to play with me?”
“Sure! What should we play?”
Mulling, and more mulling.
“Do you want to play Uno? Or foosball? Or something else?”
Eyes light up. “A match!”
“Foosball, then? A foosball match?”
Vigorous nodding.
“Okay! Let’s go!”

“What’s up?” I ask his 7-year-old brother.
“Do you know the game that you play on the computer, it’s called cup-eet.”
Cup Eat? A cup, like a glass that you drink out of?”
“NO! CUP! Like a police!”
“Oh, a cop,” I emphasize. “Cop is a policeman, cup is a glass you drink from.”
Cop…mais je peux pas le dire en anglais, moi…”
“Yes, you can figure it out in English. You figured out how to say ‘cop’ to me by saying ‘police,’ you can figure other stuff out, too…”

“Howdy, pardner,” I drawl to their 12-year-old brother, who picks up accents astonishingly quickly. Scarily fast, even.
Giggles. “Caooooowww,” he tries.
I giggle, too.
“Oh, remember, you told me you’d do a Scottish accent, too.”
“Haha, no, I said I’d find you an example of a Scottish accent. That one, I can’t do.”
“But what does it sound like?”
“Dude, I can’t explain it.”
“Do a British accent again.”
“Oh yes,” I quip, pinkie in the air, “this is the accent of the Brits and the BBC newscasters, and Monty Python and all the rest…”
“Nyewscahstahs?”
“Yep, that’s it.” Now if only you’d stop imitating your parents’ French-accented English so well…

As for the oldest, their 13-year-old brother, he and I sit in silence. He’s a teen, and he’s trying to figure out how to deal with that. But if I’m patient enough, I can earn his respect. And it doesn’t take long. By the time we reach the theatre, we’ve bonded over “hiding from the old people,” since we’re the two youngest there by a couple decades. Then, we’re spies. Then, he steals my cookies, my pen, my glasses — and always gives them back, so long as I let him have his fun. And then whole night has been in English, which he struggles with as much as his identity. This is a good thing.

 

You just have to know who you’re talking to, who you’re writing for. Talk to them like you would a small child or a teen, write to them like you would your best friend or that college professor you were terrified of. And in translation, it’s almost easier. The decision has already been made for you — you just have to figure out which audience the author was writing for, what kind of audience that corresponds to in your own tongue and culture, and write appropriately.

An Open Letter to the Baggage Handlers of ROC, LGA, and JFK

Thank you.

You unknown workers, toiling behind the scenes, that none of us travelers ever see, I thank you.

For getting my bag on the correct flight out of ROC, when my original flight was cancelled and I lost my head trying to schedule myself on a new one on any number of airlines because I was freaking out only slightly necessarily, thank you.

For somehow getting all of our bags onto the carousel in LGA within five minutes of pulling up to the gate, so that I could grab mine and race over to JFK in the scant 30 minutes I had, thank you. It was the opposite of a delay.

For then getting my bag onto the plane bound for London at JFK, when I dropped it off less than 40 minutes before take-off, thank you again.

It seems that we travelers are obsessed with complaining about the problems, the delays, the things going wrong. And that’s all fine and well — it’s frustrating when travel doesn’t go according to plan, especially when many of us have made carefully specified plans. But we are in error to not equally praise the good things, show thanks and gratitude for smooth travels, especially when such smoothness depends on so many dozens or hundreds of people.

And for that, I apologize, and thank you once again, for making my traveling as smooth as possible. Especially given it started with a cancelled flight.

Very sincerely,

Allison M. Charette

“Dancing isn’t creative.”

What. I’m sorry, what??

Last night, as has become my Wednesday habit, I went out swing dancing at a studio in Rochester. There’s a good scene here, nice people, lots of beginners, and a solid contingent of experienced teachers. There’s also a dearth of male leads, which means it’s very common for girls to ask guys to dance (and/or snatch them away from the 20 other girls also looking for a partner…which is fine, it hasn’t become cutthroat yet…).

So I went up and asked a guy to dance that I hadn’t seen before. Wearing a nametag, so probably a beginner from the earlier lesson, and looked like he had a good head on his shoulders. He agreed readily. And as he was leading me out onto the dance floor, he said:

“I really don’t get this dancing thing.”

Sorry? What do you mean?

“Well, it’s not creative at all.”

…Sorry?

“You’re not creating anything, you’re just doing the same steps everybody else is. I’m a musician.”

Oh. Wait, what?

“Every time I sit down to play, I’m creating something. There’s something new.”

And I just let my mouth hang open in flabbergasted astonishment for a few moments.

But wait! I have rebuttals! I dabble in both dance and music. And just last month, I was lucky enough to attend a day-long workshop put on by the current International Lindy Hop champions, Todd and Ramona, where they talked at great length about how every dance is different, because everyone dances with their own style, and putting two people together as partners will create something wonderful and fresh. I hunkered down and started probing deeper. Mostly out of morbid curiosity. And probably a little masochism.

He plays guitar. Okay. Chords. There are basic chords to playing guitar. Everything builds off of those. Everything that is “creative” is created upon that foundation. Yes?

“But nobody leaves the foundation here. Look around. Everyone’s doing exactly the same steps.”

BUT NOT IN THE SAME WAY! I don’t actually scream that, though. Instead, I continue that sure, many of them are, but they’re just learning. Lots of beginners in this scene. Here, let me point out the more advanced dancers, who are doing their own thing with their partners, more “creatively,” as you say.

“Yeah, but it’s still all the same steps. They have to know what steps they’re going to do ahead of time.”

GAH. No. That’s the difference between social dancing and choreography. New tack. “Okay, you’ve been playing guitar for how long?”

“Ten years.”

“And how many years of those ten have you been done with the basics, creating something new every time you sit down to play?” (As a side note, I know most musicians — and dancers — are never really “done with the basics.” It was for the sake of the argument.)

“Ten.”

What. Fine. But dude. All those chords have been played before, and they will all be played again.

No real point in trying to explain to him that there are people like that in the dance world, too, even in the world of partner dances.

Why are you even here? Being a really good friend with a car to his buddy with a girl. Who now owes him big time. Seriously? Dude, go to the bar, there’s a nice one across the street. Which he likes. Fine. I’d suggest not sharing your opinions, your vitriol, with any of the other dancers here. You may incur their ire. Their wrath. Don’t do that.

In conclusion…yep. Good (read: solid) head on his shoulders. Actually, just solid. Solid, rock-hard, and stubborn. I wish him all the best at his bar. Because his friends, the lovebirds, were adorable, and really interested in dancing.

He better not have driven them home drunk.

 

But look. There’s another story in this. These are the same arguments that people use to support the theory that translation isn’t creative (albeit in different clothing).

“It isn’t writing, you’re just copying what other people have said.”

“It’s all the same words, found by flipping through the dictionary. You don’t create anything.”

“Maybe literary translation is kinda creative, but those boring legal documents and medical texts aren’t.” (Don’t ever tell me this. I’ll grant that literary translation can be more creative than pharmaceutical reports, but writing is still writing. There’s an element of creation in all of it.)

Sure, think they’re wrong. But what would you tell people who express such opinions? More ideas are always welcome.

Good things come to those who wait

For a shepherd’s pie in the oven to warm all the way up to piping hot.

For the trip to far-off lands of heritage and history you always said you’d take, and finally do.

For the luscious words to be printed onto a cut-out mess of fibers, sewn together and glued to a hard plank on the edges, those luscious words you wrote.

For a present you knew was hidden in the fourth drawer down in the basement dresser filled with neglected odds ‘n ends, but you decided not to snoop at, because the surprise on the morning celebrating your birth is worth it.

For the numbers to tick slowly upward in that bank account you’ve called “Our Future Home.”

For a thick, letter-sized envelope to come in the mail, enclosing and cradling magical words of invitation and acceptance.

For your muscles to s’habituer, get used to those motions you make over and over again and perfect to the point of purest efficiency.

For the life-giving rains to come.

For the sun to break through the clouds dumping deadly monsoons.

For the bombs to stop falling.

For the lights to dim.

For the concert to start.

For life to begin. Or not.

(Careful now. You can’t be passive about everything.)

Blog envy

I have some really cool friends. That’s not bragging about myself, that’s complimenting them. Really super awesome friends.

Lots of them blog, in various capacities. This is one of the reasons they’re all awesome.

Except when I go read their blogs, which are inevitably more organized or prettier or better written or about cooler topics than mine (because I’m my own worst critic), I’m really happy for them….and slightly jealous. I get blog envy.

Take Amy, for example. She’s in Cambodia right now: http://peacecorpscambodia.wordpress.com/

Or Marsha, a crafter. I’m slightly jealous of her blog, but mostly jealous of her mad knitting skillz. Seriously. Fastest knitter in the West: http://www.midnightscribbles.com/blog/

Then there’s Renton (which is a fun pseudonym). Best writer/music-lover friend. He writes like I wish I did: http://rentonstjohn.wordpress.com/

And finally, Cordelia, the awesome animator of awesomeness, who’s in Japan right now, who I wish updated her blog more often. But it’s still great: http://theawesomeblogofawesome.blogspot.com/

These are all people I became friends with in real life, not that I met through the Internet (although there are plenty of those who are very cool, too). And these are also all blogs that have nothing to do with translation…my blogroll for work-related things is much longer. That’ll come soon enough.

Where I stand on Bookish

or: I’m glad I don’t have to be an investigative journalist, when there’s plenty of other people who will happily do that for me

Everyone in the publishing industry has been hearing about Bookish for quite some time. It had gone through a lot of leadership changes (3 CEO’s before even launching?), but it finally went live a couple of months ago.

For the blissfully unaware, it was supposed to end up replacing Amazon and Goodreads, giving people a new/better/different/sparkling way to discover and share books. But it’s not homegrown or built around the community like Goodreads, and it’s nowhere near vast enough to rival Amazon’s scope.

Also, there’s a bigger problem that people have been complaining about: conflict of interest. Bookish’s editorial team is supposed to be completely neutral and open to anything, thus making it easy for people to discover books they otherwise wouldn’t. But Bookish is run by three of the Bix 6 publishers (the mega-houses that have all the books and all the clout): Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and Penguin.

Peter Winkler started talking about it over at Huffington Post:

“The exclusive author content Bookish offers, consisting of canned interviews with authors, book excerpts, and short essays, which gets refreshed periodically, is invariably written by or about authors whose books are published by Hachette Book Group, Penguin Group, and Simon & Schuster, or one of their imprints.”

But the cooler part was when The Digital Reader picked it up. Winkler hopped over to thank them for picking up his story, but then Rebecca Wright showed up, and started defending Bookish. Which makes sense, because she’s their executive editor.

Go there, scroll down, and read the comment exchange. It’s pretty cordial, and she convinced me not to out and out hate Bookish.

I personally still won’t be using the site anytime soon — look, I just got on Twitter last autumn, and I’m barely on Goodreads yet; I can only do one social media site at a time — but if they actually manage to diversify their content, like Wright is claiming they already are, then it won’t be terrible. Benefit of the doubt, people.