Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Not quite bilingual

Lately, I seem to be using more and more English. This is understandable, because the majority of what I read - or write - is in English. But that's not my first language. I don't even live in an English-speaking country. So why does this language of the angles and the saxons fall so trippingly off my foreign tongue?

I suppose it started when I was five or six, and encountered my first English textbooks before even going to school. I remember vividly how later on, after having my first formal lessons, I stumbled upon one of those easy reader books and puzzled over the irregular verb forms. The context showed that 'ate' must signify the act of eating, but the verb looked funny. That dilemma resolved itself soon enough, and with time, I graduated into regular science fiction, fantasy, romance, classics etc. etc.

Another strange milepost was when I encountered the wide reaches of Internet. There I saw hordes upon hordes of native speakers, all using their language with varying degrees of proficiency. There was 'teh' for the, 'thier' for their and 'oppologize' for apologize. Not to mention the wild irregularities of British vs. Irish vs. Australian and (naturally) American English. And there I was, floating on the tumultuous seas of actual linguistic practice without the anchor of a good prescriptive grammar. Or nearly so.

You see, I'd been taught how to use this second-learned language of mine in a manner that was polite and grammatical, and this technical knowledge of the standard form (or forms) of English was better than many of those who were speaking English as their first language. But this only meant that whatever mistakes I did make were often of the foolish and ridiculous kind no true native speaker would make! Yet I persevere.

For despite living in a country where another language is spoken, English has become the favourite of my adopted languages. I may catch myself thinking in French or Swedish if the situation calls for it, but not with the clarity and fluency of my English thoughts. In times, the first word coming to my mind for some object or phenomenon may even be - English.

And so, despite the innate foolishness and frivolity of this excercise that is doomed to an occasional failure, I continue using English as my second language. 'Coz, y'know, I <3 English.

The English language and its varieties are the property of their native speakers. All mistakes, idiocies and grammatical errors mine.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005


I thought of this when seeing a headline about a drunkard sleeping in a kindergarten bed. Now there isn't (obviously) anything unusual about drunkards, or sleeping drunkards, or beds in kindergarten, or human beings sleeping in kindergarten beds, but the combination of the person (male, intoxicated, asleep) and the place (small bed, kindergarten) was so unusual as to be newsworthy.

My first reaction was the usual and natural one: after all, the word 'drunkard' recalls a person who may be violent, dirty and disorderly, and therefore shouldn't be around children. I imagined all the ensuing brouhaha with accusations of not enough supervision (how did he get in anyway?) and general upset (he might have hurt somebody).

The problem was one of displacement. The person was somewhere he was not supposed to be. There was no scheme ready for the people around him to deal with the situation; it was unexpected. A normal scheme for a sleeping drunkard might take place almost anywhere (bed, roadside, under an upturned rowboat). On the other hand, the scheme for a kindergarten bed allows only for the children who go to that kindergarten to sleep there.

My point is, we humans process reality through stories and schemes. Life is tolerable, because it is to a large extent predictable. You go to work and do certain things, go to get groceries, clean house, read books and so on. If something happens outside the scheme, we react to it and try either to create a new scheme for the situation or force the events to conform to an existing one.

A truth is that our lives consist of events, and the connection between these events is created by our minds. No physical force causes you to go to work in the morning, like gravity causes objects to fall down on earth and the Earth to orbit the Sun. Instead, the memories and thoughts stored in your brain create a scheme for going to work that you follow.

For the purposes of my speculation, it is only important to note that we rely on schemes, that is, we have a good idea of what's supposed to happen in a given situation. The question of displacement is one which causes interesting effects: consider our drunkard.

I posit that in addition to the potential risk of violence and the general ickiness of dirty old men, the situation was disturbing because it did not follow the normal scheme. It required the personnel to resort to another scheme (most likely, calling the police), or perhaps even write a completely new one. The person was displaced.

This displacement is also a frequent source of humour (although not the only one): consider the amount of jokes where a person, who is normally expected to behave in a certain way, is portrayed committing an act , which is normally expected to be committed by a different kind of person. Two incompatible schemes are mixed. For example, a horse in a bar, the bishop and the actress, a small child saying something adult-like, etc.

What's fascinating is that all this happens inside our heads. The displaced element or person is not necessarily doing anything evil or funny, the humour or distress is born of our perception of wrongness. After all, the drunkard was merely sleeping (a peaceful action if anything is), he was not trashing the place. And in the case of jokes, none of the actors are actually present. The physical reality does not - quite - match the one in our mind.

So the next time when something bothers you, think about it. What's wrong with this picture?

Dr. Catharine Keatley: An Introduction to your mind

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Schrödinger's Cat

I just completed the fist draft of the Sullivan translation. Curious, how I've done a dozen different drafts in my head; one stanza at a time, one sentence or metaphor. It is difficult to know what any expression means when it can mean a dozen different things at the same time: and any translation collapses this beautiful amorphous field of meaning much in the same way as opening Schrödinger's box collapses the probability wave which results in either a living or a dead cat. Or no cat: my favourite interpretation of this thought experiment is the one where on opening the box, it is found empty.

Some time ago, I read a novel by Ursula Le Guin where conducting Schrödinger's experiment in the fictitious reality resulted in the whole world's becoming completely unpredictable, with the breaking of the law of cause and effect. In the end, only the cat was left licking his (her?) whiskers while the storyteller her(him?)self dissolved in a wave of improbabilities.

Does my translation, in its first and purposefully very literal draft collapse the wave and kill the cat? Surely, a better solution would be to find the poem alive after its transformation. How to achieve this? Some degree of metamorphosis is necessary to create a new probability wave, for the readers to collapse in this or that meaning at their whimsy.

It is difficult to achieve this when I do not know what the writer wants to say in this poem, what are the thoughts and feelings she would like the reader to experience when faced with this text. What were the thoughts which inspired this poem? Does it have some personal significance to its author, did some particular incident (a car crash? suicide?) cause her to write this?

Of course, I could ask her, she is still alive. But I'm not sure if I should. There is a tradition among the Canadian feminist translators of discussing and/or altering the text with the original author, but I question its helpfulness with poetry. What if I did ask her and found out, for example, that the poem was written after the death of a close friend/relative as a result of her (the author) attempt to understand the situation and her own mortality - if I knew, would it change the words themselves? This is a poem, without any room for explanations or footnotes. There are only so many changes that can be made without moving from translation to rewriting.

This is something I must consider. In some degree, this poem also becomes mine through the translation/rewriting process, but I acknowledge a debt of loyalty to the author's original creation. Whatever the end result will be, it won't be something done blithely or off-hand.

The box is still closed.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Warning: may cause shortness of breath

Things such as motorcycle maintenance manuals. Oh, not just those - physics equations, java programs, math problems too. Notice a trend here?

For some reason, I start panicking a bit while trying to figure out How Stuff Works, or to solve certain types of problems (Such as maths, physics and programming languages). So why do I do it? I guess there's a certain fascination in trying to push your limits.

You see, it isn't the easy stuff, it's those thoughts that I almost understand. Almost, but not quite. And trying to bend my mind around this new idea is frightening. It's like when I tried to grasp the concept of eternity and the void of space when I was a child and ended up having nightmares. It just wouldn't stop.

I feel like I have to somehow build a model of the concept in my mind. With usual things like fiction books this is easy; after all, there aren't that many original plots in existence. Philosophy is harder. But so are java programs.

The concept of void stopped frightening me after I grew up and understood that I could not understand it. Accepted that there are some things that a common human brain is not equipped to handle (but I won't vouch for Stephen Hawking).

The problem is, however, that my brain refuses to accept that I can't run a computer program in my mind, or to create an animated model of a bike's gearbox in my imagination. There must be people who can do that; after all, somebody wrote the program and invented the gearbox. And when my stubborn, stupid one-track mind can't accept that yes, there are things beyond my imagination, it goes into panic.

One of these days, I'll learn. Before that, though, there's this description of the inner workings of a carburettor that I've been meaning to check out.

Remember: slow, even breaths.

Motorcycle Carburetor Theory 101

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

The Sullivan poem

Today, I had the thought to do a blog. As you can see. I was actually supposed to do about a dozen other things, but as usual, I wanted to do something else. It could've been coffee deprivation, I suppose. But after all the trouble of finding the right place, and setting up, I seem to have forgotten what I was supposed to say. Is this much of a loss?

After all, I created this page to have a place where I didn't need to have something to say.

It isn't a stream of consciousness. While writing, I always find myself editing what I've written, deleting, rewriting and thinking things over and over again. Sometimes just to find the exactly right word. Sometimes changing entire paragraphs and rearranging the things on a page. It was no different when I was restricted to pen and paper at school - why not now, with the incredible speed and smoothness of a keyboard that turns pixels on and off on the screen?

One of the things I am supposed to do (now) is translating a poem.

I waded through a dozen poems, several books, many pages on the web but nothing spoke to me and said: Do Me. Like Alice in Wonderland and her magical potions? But no. And one day (last year, actually, if I'm totally honest, and why should I not?) I stumbled upon a poem by Rosemary Sullivan: "The Universe Is As Close As the Veins In Your Neck" and knew that I might translate this one.

It flows nicely. The words seem to say nothing and everything, at once. It could be about love, or about death, or about existentialism, and as I have flirted with that particular line of thought these days, or perhaps because of some completely different reason, I wanted to translate it.

Then, of course, it was written by a woman. Somehow I wanted - no, somehow I did not want to deal with something written by a man at this point. Why? Simple prejudice, I suppose. Although I should say that I shied away from one text by a woman, well written, because of its unashamed sensuality. Not sexuality as such, but the thought of translating it, thinking about it, writing about it and analysing it both by myself and in the group, was disturbing all the same.

This is not the case with the Sullivan poem. It could be about love, as much as anyting might be, but love in the abstract. It is very much a poem of the mind, rather than the body. Or is it only the way I read it?

Rosemary Sullivan: The universe is as close as the veins in your neck