Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Day 100

Yesterday, April 9, was the 100th day of 2012. How do I know this? Because it was also Day 100 of my little “Resolution 2012” project, wherein I strive to write something creative every day. Perhaps it’s time to take stock of what I've "accomplished."

1) About 32,000 words, including this post. Not bad, though not as much as I had originally hoped. That said, in the last few weeks, a crazy work schedule and a bit of a creative lull have combined to slow my daily output. I initially tried to compensate somewhat by attempting the NaPoWriMo thing, but it has been an unmitigated failure.  OK, maybe not unmitigated, since I do have the start of a reasonable poem to show for it, but most of the “poetry” I’ve written over the past nine days would barely qualify as horrible prose. I’m not sure I’ll continue to bother with it.

2) Twenty published posts (including this one) on my two blogs, plus several others that I wrote but didn’t bother to publish. In both cases, this is already far ahead of previous years’ outputs. Yay for me!

3) Six or seven poems started, though most if not all need some serious polishing. Still, I am unaccustomed to this kind of output in recent years, so something is definitely working. I’m not sure if I’ll have the makings of a year-end chapbook, but I’ll certainly have some good material to work with. 

4) Quite a few “placeholder” entries. I won’t even bother going back to count them, but it must be at least 15, and perhaps closer to 20. A 20-percent “slacker” index is nothing to be proud of, but I went into this knowing there would be days I just didn’t have the energy to write anything more than “Hi Mom.” So my built-in failsafe seems to have worked… mostly… which brings me to my most shameful admission...

5) Two missed entries. I had really hoped to have an entry for every day this year, but that is not to be. While I was in Cleveland playing The Magic Flute, I missed days 79 and 84. After the first miss, I chalked it up to my absorption in the project and decided to forgive myself. And to be honest, these projects always sap a lot of my emotional energy. I have trouble focusing on anything other than the music, and it takes a huge effort of will to get any other work done. My entries for that week are mostly reflections on how I was feeling; in other words nothing more than diary entries. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s probably the way to go if I’m not going to forget to write during my other musical projects this year. But in retrospect, I am a little disappointed that I wasn’t able to at least write two words on those two days. 

6) Where do I go from here? By the ides of March, I was feeling very encouraged. I’d written some decent poetry, my blog writing was going well, and I felt like I was back in the writing groove. Then work got really crazy, and suddenly it was as if my brain said “no!” and my inspiration plummeted; I’ve written very little of any consequence since then. But I have enough experience with creativity to know that it goes in cycles, so I’m not too worried. And to be honest, this project has been a fun ride. I’m looking forward to writing a year-end wrap up.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Layton & Jobs: Idealists

The year 2011 was a tough year for the admittedly narrow demographic of left-leaning Canadian Apple aficionados. In August, we lost Jack Layton, the leader of the New Democratic Party, to cancer at the age of 61; and in October, we lost the founder and CEO of Apple, Steve Jobs, also to cancer. 

At first glance, the two men didn’t have much in common. Layton was a career politician and a man of the people. Steve Jobs was one of the most successful businessmen of our time and an intensely private man. Yet both were highly respected among their peers and inspirational to those who looked to them for leadership. And the public outpouring of grief at their untimely passing was of a scale and intensity that has not been seen for decades for a politician, let alone for a businessman. 

Both managed to take the reins of their respective organizations and lead a gradual but seemingly inevitable reversal of fortune, Apple going from a nearly bankrupt computer maker to the most valuable company in the world; the NDP going from an afterthought party to the official opposition. 
But respect and success will only take you so far. Certainly it doesn’t automatically elicit the kind of widespread public mourning that Layton’s and Jobs’ passing did. Of course part of it is that they died far too young and that their lives were cut short at the height of their success. It’s only natural that we feel the tragedy in this more acutely. 

But it occurs to me that the one important thing these two men had in common was an unrelenting idealism that they somehow managed to preserve in fields where compromising one’s ideals is pretty much par for the course. Idealists in politics are generally don't last long; they either get out of politics or make that deal with the devil. Idealists certainly do not rise to party leadership. But Jack Layton was able to stay true to his principles more than any other Canadian party leader in recent memory, and Canadian voters were just beginning to sense this when he died. Steve Jobs’ unwillingness to compromise when it came to user experience is what ultimately set Apple's products apart from those of its competitors. It was what made him a legendary badass among the Silicon Valley elite, but it was also what earned him the grudging respect and admiration of those who worked for him. And it was what endeared him to several generations of Apple fans. When we use an Apple product, we get the feeling that it has been designed specifically to delight us in a thousand different ways, not simply to coax a few hundred dollars from our wallet. This was Steve Jobs’ doing. 

The incredible impromptu public memorials that sprang up after Laytons’ and Jobs’ passing were monuments to idealism. And in this age when people simply assume that all politicians are corrupt and all businessmen are crooked, the grievers were also tapping into the same sentiment that the Occupy Wall Street protesters were channelling. I know this sounds melodramatic, but in some sense, they were mourning the death of truth and honesty and protesting against cynicism.

It’s tough when we lose the good guys. They’re too few and far between.

Monday, April 02, 2012


So April is National Poetry Month in the US and, according to wikipedia, since 1999 in Canada too. In conjunction with "NaPoMo" is National Poetry Writing Month, or NaPoWriMo (all together now), wherein we "poets" are urged to write a poem a day for all 30 days of April. 

Needless to say, as a poet who is thrilled to write—or even start to write—two decent poems a month, I've never participated. It always seemed to place the focus on quantity rather than quantity. But in this year of my own "Resolution 2012 project," in which I have basically thrown quality out the window in favour of quantity, I suppose this is my year to take a stab at NaPoWriMo (even if just saying it leaves a bad taste in my mouth). 

Yesterday, I wrote a "poem" so execrable that I'm surprised my computer didn't destroy itself in shame for having to harbour such drivel on its hard drive. It only deigned to keep it because yesterday was April Fools Day. Today I made somewhat more of an effort, though as you'll see below, the results are only just one level from the bottom on the stinking bathroom scale of "pee-ew."

There once was a poet from somewhere
who didn’t write poems or care.
he spent all his days
in a writer’s-block haze,
but he wrote this damn lim’rick, so there!

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Magic Flute

Last week I was in Cleveland for a three-show run of Mozart’s The Magic Flute with Apollo’s Fire. It was a “semi-staged” production with several very fine singers in the lead roles and a couple of excellent dancers who enhanced the production value considerably. There was no set to speak of, but the singers were in lovely period costumes, and there were a few of props to enhance the "decor." Interestingly and unusually, the orchestra was on stage, split in half with an aisle down the middle, which the choreography put to good use; indeed, the orchestra was often called upon to participate in the action on stage little ways. All in all, it made for a great deal of fun, and the audiences—especially the near-capacity house in Cleveland’s magnificent Severance Hall that instantly leaped to their feet at the end—were very appreciative.  

I brought home many positives from the week. For instance, I’ve been practicing quite a lot recently, and my chops felt very solid on this gig. It was wonderful to feel confident in my playing, to feel sure that the music I was hearing in my mind would come out of my horn. In the last few months, I’ve been working hard on a few technical issues with my playing. It’s been a slow process of unlearning some bad habits and relearning some old good habits that I have lost over the years, but I feel I’m making very good progress, and this gig was a good barometer of that.

Playing in Severance, one of the great concert halls in the United States, was a real thrill. It’s a beautiful old hall and such a nice acoustic to perform in. It’s no wonder that the Cleveland Orchestra developed into one of the United States’ great orchestras. 

But most of all, there was just the sheer joy of making music with such a talented bunch of artists. When I return from these projects, the euphoria lasts for a good week afterward. I wonder if musicians who do this full time get used to it, or do they exist in a constant state of euphoria and don’t know the difference between that and a “normal” mental state. I suppose that eventually the everyday annoyances in any job will bring even a musician down to earth, but for me, the contrast between the occasional music making and my more mundane (though, I hasten to add, very fulling) work as a translator couldn’t be more striking. As always, it’s difficult to put into words, but I feel as though making music taps into something very primal, as if I were speaking some proto-human language based solely on emotion; yet it’s no less nuanced than any modern language for all that. 

It seems to me that because this language cuts right to our emotional core, some of the friendships we forge on these projects are simultaneously superficial and significant. I had never met most of the woodwind and string players in the band before, and even those musicians and singers I do know, I only see once a year at most; still, the mere fact of making great music with them makes them special to me, so it is always with a bittersweet sense of sadness for leaving behind friends mixed with joy for having been part of it that I return from these projects. 

Monday, February 27, 2012

File management and workflow for translators

workflow diagrams for future product
Image credit: Jessica Mullen
As a freelance translator, it is essential to have good document management and an efficient workflow. Sure, it would be nice if our clients always offered us tidy chunks of work, nicely scheduled so we can keep all our various jobs and deadlines easily organized in our mental filing cabinets, but alas such is rarely the case. One moment you are chugging pleasantly through a few good sized jobs with reasonable deadlines, and then in the space of an afternoon, six clients call you for small jobs with deadlines ranging from “yesterday” to “sometime next week is fine.” If you don’t have a good workflow and file management, one of these will inevitably get lost in the shuffle—until your client calls, wondering when you plan on delivering that document you promised last week. 

So it occurred to me that other translators might find it interesting and/or beneficial if I documented my own workflow, something I’ve honed over the years and that I now find pretty effective. Of course not everyone has the same client mix, faces the same workload, or uses the same programs, so your mileage may vary. I’d be happy if other translators chimed in in the comments.

File management

Let’s start with file management. I maintain a nested file hierarchy that goes something like: Year/Client/(Project Manager)/Project/files. I doubt this is particularly revolutionary. The normal file hierarchy for the current year and that of the previous year go into my Dropbox folder. (The free 2 GB account is generally sufficient for two years’ worth of files; after two years, I transfer the year’s files into my archives.) In my Dropbox folder, I also keep a separate folder—outside of the year-by-year hierarchy—called “Current Projects,” into which I place an alias (or, for Windows users, a “shortcut”) of all current project folders. This gives me quick access to the documents I’m working on: with a couple of keystrokes, I can be looking at all my current ongoing projects. And because it’s Dropbox, I know that my files will be synced between my desktop and laptop.  


As for workflow, when a client emails me a document, the first thing I do (after replying to say I’ve received the file) is hit the keyboard shortcut for “Save Attachments.” In the Save window, I navigate to the Client folder (and PM folder, if necessary), create a new folder for that project and save the file(s) in it. Once that’s done, I use another keyboard shortcut to automatically create an alias of the new project folder in the Current Projects folder. And finally, I open my to-do list (I’m currently using iProcrastinate, but I’m looking around for something more elegant) and enter the project name and due date. The beauty of this system is that with keyboard shortcuts (more on that in another blogpost), all this takes about 15 seconds, so it’s not burdensome in terms of time. This is important, because if you’re already working to a tight deadline, the last thing you need is to spend extra time fiddling with an inefficient workflow. If it takes too much time, there’s a chance you’ll put it off for later, and we all know what lies at the end of that tragic path.

Once the project is finished, I create an invoice and save it to the project folder for easy reference. After sending the completed translation and invoice off, I delete the alias from the Current Projects folder and mark the project as completed on the to-do list. If for some reason I don’t bill the client immediately, I don’t delete the alias and use a colour label on the folder to indicate that it hasn’t yet been invoiced.

I’m sure other translators have developed other systems, and as I mentioned earlier, I’d love to hear from you if you have anything to add or can suggest an improvement. Today’s global economic climate is putting pressure on translators to decrease or at least maintain rates at current levels; one way we can counter this is by increasing our productivity, and having an effective workflow is a step in this direction.  

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Music = Language

I just finished listening to this week’s Quirks and Quarks, and the last interview was with neuroscientist Gary Marcus, who was discussing his new book Guitar Zero. You can listen to the Q&Q segment here. The book is about music and the brain, and how “nonmusical” adults can learn to become musicians, among other things. 

I should start by saying that I haven’t read the book, but it sounds like an interesting read. That said, I was struck by something Marcus said during the interview. He touched on the idea of whether or not music, like language, is innate in humans. He posited that unlike language, music isn’t “built in”; that while all children learn language naturally at an early age, not all children are musical; he suggested that music is more like reading, something that just about everyone can do given enough dedication and practice, but not something that is necessarily an instinct, as it is in, say, songbirds.  

Listening to Marcus talk about it, he almost had me convinced. If you put a bunch of kids in a beginner band, some will be better than others. Some have more “talent”; or as Marcus puts it, some have more of the genes that predispose people to have musical ability. And all this is true. The problem with his thesis is that he considers music and language separately. 

But they’re not separate at all. Music is a language. Of course some people will have more musical talent than others; we all have various talents that are different from those of others, and this is true of spoken language too. Some people express themselves verbally very well while others have trouble putting two sentences together without stuttering or stumbling over a word. Not all of us will become great orators, no matter how hard we practice, but we can all speak, and we can all communicate with others. 

The thing is, we are all exposed to spoken language constantly from the day we are born. We practice speaking almost as soon as we are born. Of course we get good at it from a very young age, especially if we’re hardwired for it. But I would suggest that Gary Marcus carry out the following thought experiment. Give a young child a flute or some other small instrument, and limit the sounds to which that child is exposed to other people playing that instrument—in other words, the child’s only method of communication is by way of the flute. How would that affect their musical skills, irrespective of their musical talent? Now, do the same thing with a baby chimpanzee. I wonder if the chimp would learn to play the flute. On the flip side, what if the child were allowed to listen to spoken language but not allowed, or not given the opportunity, to speak. How would this affect their verbal skills?

Obviously these experiments could never be carried out in the real world, and yet in one sense we carry out one of them constantly. Most children are exposed to music all the time (on the radio, at concerts, etc.) but a great many of them never get the opportunity to play an instrument. Music programs in schools are often the first things on the chopping block when budgets are cut, and unfortunately there is an increasing divide between listeners of music and performers of music. Unlike spoken language, where we encourage children to speak even though their first words are practically unintelligible (in fact, we find it adorable, right?), with music, when children try to sing or play an instrument they are often actively discouraged because, surprise surprise, they’re singing or playing out of tune or with poor rhythm—making a horrid racket. 

In the interview, Marcus mentions that while a baby bird will learn to sing in pitch and rhythm in 90 days, young children aren’t usually very good at singing, and even at age two do not really understand much more than consonance and dissonance. There is truth to this, as anyone who has heard a kindergarten choir sing knows. But nor are two-year-olds particularly good speakers. They often have trouble expressing themselves, will mispronounce words or will approximate phonemes. It’s normal because they’re learning. So it seems pretty obvious that although we seem to have a hardwired instinct for language, it’s still something we have to learn—but this is true of music as well.

If we’re exposed to English as children but not French, we’ll learn only English. But as many mixed-language parents of children here in Quebec know, if a child is exposed to both French and English, they’ll pick up both very easily. Similarly, if they’re exposed to music—and they’re encouraged to play music—from a young age, they’ll learn the language of music too. But when you pick up an instrument as an adult, it’s like learning a foreign language. With practice, you can become proficient, but you’ll never speak it like a native; music will never be your mother tongue.

The concept that scientists like Marcus seem to have trouble wrapping their heads around—something that all musicians know instinctively—is that while we think of music as an art, at its very foundation, it’s really just another language. So I find it very frustrating when they say that while language is built in, music is mere something that is learned, when it’s clear that both come from the same place.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Internet and the comeback of live music

A few days ago, one of the people I follow on Twitter posted a link to a 2011 documentary called Press Pause Play. It’s a film about the democratization of art that the Internet has brought about, and it asks the question whether this is a good or a bad thing: does democratization lead to better art, with more artistically inclined people having better access to the tools to create and distribute their art, or does this democratization cause the best art get lost in a vast sea of mediocrity?

Wherever you come down on this debate, it’s a thought-provoking film. Not surprisingly, it deals mostly with the music and film industries, illustrating the many ways in which technology has made it trivially easy to create a song or a film and distribute it online, even for people with limited knowledge of those arts. Some critics, notably the British writer Andrew Keen, say that this “cult of the amateur” (the title of one of Keen’s books) is potentially the downfall of culture, and in the film he states that today, a young Scorsese or Hitchcock wouldn’t make it, that their early creations would “get lost in an ocean of garbage.”

I’m not sure Justin Bieber would agree. Neither would niche artists such as Sophie Madeleine (yes, I’m a fan). Of course the Rebecca Blacks of this world will always be there to add ammunition to Keen’s arsenal, but on the flip side, I remain of the firm opinion that across the board—be it in the jazz, classical or mainstream pop genres—the so-called “music industry” (i.e., the huge corporations that have funded a large proportion of the recordings made over the past century) has left a great many supremely talented artists behind in favour of promoting supreme mediocrity (hello, Brittany Spears), and that the current democratic state of affairs offers greater numbers of artists with real talent and determination a better opportunity to rise to the top. 

Another thing the film touches on is that because of the effortless distribution afforded by the Internet, recorded music is becoming increasingly commoditized, to the extent that it has become almost worthless. People share mp3 files without a thought; music streaming services now provide access to millions upon millions of tracks for a trivial fee; even downloading songs from iTunes is incredibly inexpensive in today’s dollars (older readers might remember days when a CD cost upwards of $20—a lot of money in 1985). In parallel with this commoditization of recordings, there is an apparent increase in the value of live performances. A fan might download a group’s recordings, but real fans go out to the concerts. And if you haven’t noticed, the price of a concert ticket, whether for a pop act or for the opera or symphony, has risen enormously. (By way of comparison, ticket prices for a Montreal Canadien’s game range from about $40 for the super-cheap seats to about $400 for the ultra-premium seats; surprisingly, tickets to see the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal have a similar price range, though the upper end peaks at around $240). This is partly because it costs a lot of money to put on a live show; but I believe it’s also because live music is becoming increasingly desirable and valuable. 

Why is this? Partly, it’s because recorded music is an abomination.

Perhaps it's shocking that a musician might say this, but I have believed it to be true for a long time. Music is an ephemeral art. Part of its allure is that no two performances are (or should be) alike. This allows familiar pieces to be heard as if for the first time. It is what allows musicians to play the same song over and over again with delight. It’s why it’s so wonderful to hear songs performed in styles and genres other than their original intent. But when we record music, we trap it in purgatory. We start to focus on eliminating all the small imperfections in tuning, articulation, tempo—all the small, almost imperceptible, errors that a performer might make while expressing their heart. For lack of a better term, we take away the music’s soul. The only exception is the live recording, and even here, I think it’s a musician’s nature to listen to such a document and be disappointed by the “mistakes,” even if the concert was highly successful. The only recording that music deserves is the one in our memory. This is where the truly great performances should reside, and where they did reside for most of the history of Western music. 

The other problem with recorded music is that it removes another, often overlooked, part of music: its social aspect. Most of the time nowadays, when we listen to recorded music, we are alone. We’re in the car, or we’re listening to our iPods, or we may even be at home with music playing on the stereo. But rarely do people sit down anymore and just listen to recorded music with other people. If there are other people around, it’s because the music is playing in the background and we are doing something else. But if we are actually listening attentively to recorded music, it’s very likely we are by ourselves. 

But at a live concert, we are with other people, and we are all listening to the performance. It’s a social event, and there’s no doubt that one of the reasons we believe that a great concert was a great concert is because we experienced it with others: the music brought us together somehow; it was a unifying event; to use an intentional pun, the music touched a common chord. And for musicians, a significant part of the appeal of performing is that you’re doing it with others, often with people who are good friends. The experience of music creates an emotional bond between people that I feel is often overlooked and poorly understood.

Before the advent of recording technology, live music was performed because that’s the only way music could be heard. Even in the early days of recording, you couldn’t create music electronically; it all had to be recorded. A lot of musicians made good livings in the mid-20th century because the only way to achieve the sound of a string section was to actually record a string section playing. As recording, synthesizing and sampling technologies improved in the latter part of the last century, more and more session musicians lost their jobs, and musicians began to wonder if there was any future for them in the “music” business. 

But with the commoditization of recorded music, musicians and the music industry itself would do well to recognize that the whole “recording craze” may well have been a blip on the graph. Music’s very ephemerality is what makes it valuable, and it is only through live performances that people truly experience why music is a supremely human endeavour. The recording industry has had its day, and will likely always have a place, but I believe that the pendulum is starting to swing toward a more balanced position, where live music is once again achieving a place of prominence in our culture. And if the Internet has played a part in accelerating that swing, then I for one am all for it.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


I just finished reading China Miéville’s novel Kraken. Let me foreshadow my critique by saying that his most recent novel, Embassytown, is already on its way to me from Amazon. It will definitely be among the books I read this year.

Since Kraken is only the second Miéville novel I’ve read, it’s hard for me to know where to place it on the Miéville Weirdness Index. Certainly, The City & the City was out there, but at its heart it’s a detective novel, and once you get your head around the premise, the weirdness fades away somewhat. But I suspect Kraken falls higher on the MWI than The City & the City. Assuming the MWI is logarithmic, like Richter scale, with each successive MWI number being 10 times weirder than the previous one, then if The City & the City is, say, 6.8 on the MWI, I think Kraken must be at least 7.5, if not close to 8.

Which is not to say it’s not a really enjoyable novel. Miéville is just a fantastic writer: so poetic and original, and yet very readable. I particularly love the way he approaches dialogue. So often I feel that writers change the way characters speak to make it easier for the reader to follow. But Miéville’s dialogue is completely and often jarringly natural (if that makes any sense). The effect is that the dialogue seems to flow better, but sometimes it’s harder to follow because he’s using spoken rather than written syntax. It makes the reader work a little harder, but it lends authenticity to the characters.

The novel is set in London, and the characters are unapologetic in their Londonness. If you haven’t been exposed to at least some Cockney rhyming slang, you may find yourself wondering what the hell is going on some of the time. My grandfather was Cockney, so I was able to pick up on some of that; even so, there were times when I knew I was reading a local idiom but didn’t catch precisely what it meant. I love that. Miéville is British, and he didn’t dumb down the dialogue for English readers outside of Britain. This may put some readers off, but I think the novel is far better for it. 

The basic premise is that there’s a vast underground scene where certain people have special powers (or “knacks,” as Miéville calls them), of which the “muggles” are completely oblivious. There is also a plethora of cult religions, among them the “Krakenists” who worship the giant squid (see where the weirdness is going now?). In parallel with these knackers and cults is a special and very secretive police unit called FSRC (the Fundamentalist and Sect-Related Crime unit) that keeps tabs on all these strange goings on. When the giant squid housed at the London Natural History Museum goes missing, it turns out to be a big deal to the Krakenists (whom everyone suspects are the perpetrators) and a sign of the impending apocalypse. I know it all sounds very strange and improbable, and of course it is, but Miéville has a knack (see what I did there?) for drawing you in and making the weird seem almost normal.

I wouldn’t recommend Kraken or Miéville to just anyone (you don’t end up being categorized as part of the New Weird genre by being particularly accessible), but if you like speculative fiction or fantasy, or if you’re a fan of excellent and highly original writing, then you’ll probably enjoy Kraken. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Translation twilight zone

Primeiro oob - Entrando na Twilight Zone
 Entrando na Twilight Zone - Photo Credit: marcusrg

I’ve been translating for a living for about 15 years now, so I guess you could call me an “experienced translator.” I have a bevy of regular and loyal clients, at least one of whom has been with me since the very beginning, and several others who have been with me for over 10 years. It’s a strange business where you can work with people for years, talking on the phone, exchanging emails, and never once meet with them face to face.

In general, it’s work that I enjoy: it can be challenging and creative, and I greatly appreciate the flexibility of self-employment. That said, after 15 years, I’ve had to deal with pretty much all the common problems, both technical and business-related, that a translator will typically encounter. And while I don’t mean to complain, one of the things that really weighs me down is having to constantly work with at best mediocre, and often downright execrable, source texts. 

Most people are not writers, and as a language professional, I am all-too-often expected to produce silk purses out of sows’ ears. It has gotten so bad of late that I have begun to wonder if I shouldn’t start looking for a third career. As I said, I like my work for the most part, and the idea of going out and finding a “real job” is horrific to me. But I feel a little like I’m stuck in a professional Sargasso Sea, a Bermuda Triangle, a translation twilight zone, if you will, and I’m not quite sure what to do about it.

So I was overjoyed today to get word of a really exciting project that, if all goes according to plan, I will soon be a part of. I can’t provide any details right now, but once things get started, I hope to be able to blog about it. I can say that it would be a real feather in my professional cap, and my work could be read by hundreds of thousands of people every day.

It all began when one of my occasional clients recommended me for this particular project. The new client in turn asked me to do a test translation. I don’t normally do test translations for free, but I made an exception this time because the project looked interesting. The test had two parts, one more literary in nature, the other more technical. Both test texts were well written and fun to translate, and, not to sing my own praises (well, maybe a little), I really nailed them, especially the literary text.

That was a couple of weeks ago. Then today, I heard from the client, and they told me they were very impressed with my work and were eager to work with me. The hitch, as is so often the case, is that the money isn’t quite as good as I had hoped (though it’s not insulting either). But since I am generally willing to give a discount for volume, and this project will potentially stretch over three years, I told them I’d be willing to be flexible on my rate if they could meet me halfway. I’m optimistic things will work out.

It’s been some time since I’ve been this excited about a project, and I must say that it’s always stimulating and motivational when a client or potential client praises your work. But most of all, I’m very much looking forward to translating some well-written, meaningful writing. I think this contract could be just the tonic I need—a wind in my sails to propel me through these professional doldrums.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

The revenge of the mortal hand

By Mariusz Kubik, http://www.mariuszkubik.pl (Own work, = Kmarius) [Attribution, GFDL or CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

And so another month begins, and it begins with the death of one of our great poets, Wisława Szymborska, a Nobel laureate and a fascinating writer. She was 88 and apparently died peacefully in her sleep. Even though she gained much more fame after winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1996, she remains virtually unknown outside Poland. Even among poetry buffs, she is hardly a household name. And more’s the pity. She was a truly great writer.

I still remember the first poem of hers I encountered: The Joy of Writing. There are several translations of this work, but I have yet to encounter one I enjoy as much as the excellent version done by Magnus Kyrnski and Robert Maguire in the collection Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts. The poem perfectly captures the incredible feeling of power that can inhabit you as a writer; the amazing world of possibilities open to you, if only you let your imagination run free; and the sense that maybe, in some small way, you are reaching across time to touch the future. I was completely blown away by it. 

I have not the slightest knowledge of the Polish language, but I love this translation. My instincts as both a poet and a translator tell me that it’s fine work. Compare it with this one, by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh, whose translations of Szymborska seem to be generally well received. And yet there are strange little unpoetic slips in the B/C version. Take for instance “xerox her soft muzzle” instead of K/M’s “copy her gentle mouth like carbon paper”. The latter is longer, but how can one seriously reconcile the word “xerox” with “soft muzzle” in English? There is an alliteration of the "z" sound in xerox and muzzle, but the all those z's and x's aren't very doe-like. Or BC’s “perched on four slim legs” versus KM’s “poised on four fragile legs”. Again, I don’t know what the Polish says, but I know I like “poised” better than “perched” and “fragile” rather than “slim”. I could go through the whole poem like this, but it would get boring. To be fair, I think both versions have their strong and weak points, as any translation of poetry will have; and I have always felt that to truly get a feel for a poem in translation, one should read several interpretations if possible. But the KM version flows beautifully for me and works well in English. I’ll leave you to make your own conclusions. I’ve certainly made mine.

The Joy of Writing
      Wislawa Szymborska (translation by Magnus Kyrnski & Robert Maguire)

Where through the written forest runs that written doe?
Is it to drink from the written water,
which will copy her gentle mouth like carbon paper?
Why does she raise her head, is it something she hears?
Poised on four fragile legs borrowed from truth
she pricks up her ears under my fingers.
Stillness—this word also rustles across the paper
and parts
the branches brought forth by the word "forest."

Above the blank page lurking, set to spring
are letters that may compose themselves all wrong,
besieging sentences
from which there is no rescue.

In a drop of ink there's a goodly reserve
of huntsmen with eyes squinting to take aim,
ready to dash down the steep pen,
surround the doe and level their guns.

They forget that this is not real life.
Other laws, black on white, here hold sway.
The twinkling of an eye will last as long as I wish,
will consent to be divided into small eternities
full of bullets stopped in flight.
Forever, if I command it, nothing will happen here.
Against my will no leaf will fall
nor blade of grass bend under the full stop of a hoof.

Is there then such a world
over which I rule sole and absolute?
A time I bind with chains of signs?
An existence perpetuated at my command?

The joy of writing.
The power of preserving.
The revenge of the mortal hand.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Empty page

The empty Book
The empty Book  Photo credit: Kazi Hirok Al-Arafat (Bidrohi)  
And so I come to the end of the first month of my “Resolution 2012” project. The result? Just a tad over 11,000 words written—no great shakes, really, but not bad for a start. I had a few “placeholder” days, where I didn’t really write much of anything, though surprisingly, when I look back among even the placeholder days, only one of them was truly a I don’t have time to write anything today kind of entry, and there were only five days that I wrote fewer than 200 words.

But more importantly and surprisingly (to me, at any rate), I actually wrote two poems in the month. Neither of them are ready for primetime, but frankly, I can’t remember the last time I had two ideas for poems in a month. When I first started taking poetry seriously, I was writing 20–25 poems a year, but I haven’t written more than half a dozen annually in quite some time. So two in a month is astoundingly prolific for me. 

Then of course I wrote a number blog posts. With five posts here at Far From the Madding Crowd (including this one), I have surpassed my production for all of 2010 and equalled the total for last year. I also wrote three posts over at Singing the Apple, which equalled my production in 2009, the last year I posted anything at all on that blog. So, eight blog posts for the month. I’m quite pleased with that, even if not all of it was riveting stuff.

And finally, a pipe dream: I sketched out the framework for a historical novel. This actually took up quite a lot of my writing time, as it entailed a fair bit of research. I have no idea where this will lead. I may end up getting bored with it and abandon the whole thing. My problem is that while I have come up with what I think is a pretty neat background and overall structure, I have no idea what sort of story to write. I think you’ll agree that this is a serious problem for a prospective novelist. So my intention is to just keep on digging into the history of the period and see what comes up. I’ve created a few fictional characters to go along with the historical figures, but I need something for them to do. History is fine, but there needs to be some other intrigue to keep the reader interested. This is where my imagination has failed me thus far, but my hope is that, like with the poetry, if I keep whittling away at the novel the muse will whisper something in my ear.

As I’ve been telling myself all month, only time will tell. But if this month is anything to go by, there’s reason to be hopeful.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Och Islay!

One of the traditions I indulge in when I head out west to visit my family is to stop at the Kensington Wine Market and pick up a few bottles of scotch. It’s the best place I’ve found to buy whisky in Calgary, and maybe one of the best in Canada. Certainly, the selection, prices, and the knowledge of the staff are all far better than anything in our pitiful state-run liquor stores here in Quebec. 

This Christmas, I picked up a bottle of one of my favourite whiskies, Springbank, and I “sprang” for the 18-year-old version. So far I must admit being mildly disappointed. I’ve had quite a few expressions of Springbank over the years, and I’ve enjoyed them all, but with this one, I had hoped for something approaching the memorable half bottle of the 21 year old I brought back from Scotland in 1999. Don’t get me wrong, it’s lovely. But it’s not as intense as I had hoped. 

On the other hand, the other bottle I bought is nothing if not intense. The nice thing about the KWM is that if you state your intention to buy something, they are usually quite willing to give you samples of whatever happens to be open in the back. This year, the guy working the scotch section (who looked to be about 17 years old but whose knowledge of and enthusiasm for scotch was breathtaking) had me taste a scotch blind that knocked my socks off. It was peaty in a way I had never tasted before—almost cigarette smoke-like, but not unpleasantly so. It had a very unusual and intriguing mix of peat and sherry flavours and aromas. My curiosity was instantly piqued. When he told me what it was, I was pleasantly surprised. When he told me the age, I was floored. 

Are you waiting with bated breath? (OK, I guess not, since there's a picture of it right there.)

It was from Kilchoman, the youngest distillery on Islay, and first new one in 124 years. When my wife and I were on Islay in 1999, I remember the locals talking about the plans for this new "farm distillery" out on the west coast of Islay. I think we even went out to see the site, near Machir Bay. It’s only been up and running for about five years, but they have already distinguished themselves by growing some of their own barley and by being one of the few distilleries in Scotland to do their own traditional floor malting. 

And my god, you can sure taste it in the whisky. This particular expression was a single cask, cask-strength, unchillfiltered bottling that was exclusive to the KWM. The kicker? It was all of four years old. I was blown away by the maturity of this whisky after so short a time, and by the complexity it had picked up from the sherry cask. In another five or six years, once some of the first production hits 10 years old, this is going to be astonishing whisky. 

I, for one, can’t wait. I haven’t been this excited about a whisky in a long time.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Day 4: 2,500 words, but who's counting...

I suppose at some point I’ll have to address the lack of poetry—or even poetic inspiration—thus far, although to be honest, it’s only Day 4. Even in my poetry-writing heyday, I rarely wrote more than a couple of poems a month, so I suppose there’s no reason to panic just yet on that front. Again, the idea is that by getting into the habit of writing, the muse will start visiting more regularly, and perhaps she will even deliver some poetry to me. 

For now, I’m satisfied with just writing something down. And while this blog is as good a place as any, it occurs to me that I started another blog a while back as a place to post my thoughts about tech issues. Frankly, given its dilapidated state, I’m surprised Google hasn’t just deleted it, citing Internet building and upkeep codes. So try not to fall off your chair in surprise when I tell you that if you head on over there now, you’ll find a new post about my experience with the iPod nano 6th Gen.

Also, since I'm around more often, don't be surprised if the look of this blog changes. I don't think I've modified the layout since I started it in... um... 2004 (really?). Perhaps a little redecorating is in order. 

Monday, January 02, 2012

Day 2: God help me!

It’s only Day 2 and I find myself struggling. I guess it’s not that surprising, given how rusty my creative muse is. One of the premises of this project is that it should get easier as time goes by; with any luck, it will get much easier very quickly. If not, well, I left my resolution pretty open for just that contingency. By not specifying the form, length or quality of the writing, I hope to have relieved some of the pressure. In fact, I could stop here if I really wanted to and will have completed my goal for the day. 

But I won’t stop there. Something will come. For instance, I could write about Scrivener, a “content-generation” program I recently downloaded. It’s mainly designed for long-format writing, but as I wade through the detailed tutorial, it seems as though my hunch that it would be good for this sort of project too was correct. It’s probably overkill for a “write every day” project, but, on the other hand, if over the course of this year I decide to embark on something bigger (dare I utter the word “novel”?) or perhaps compile a collection of poetry for some sort of publication project, Scrivener should be able to handle the job. At worst, it’s a great way to keep track of everything I’ve written for my “Resolution 2012” project. 

It’s going to take a few days to get through the tutorial, but I think it will be a worthwhile exercise; there’s so much muscle under the hood of this program that it would be a shame to not learn more than the basics, especially since, in this era of $1.99 iPhone apps, it’s a relatively expensive investment at $45. Thus far I’m enjoying its flexibility, and I think it will be worth spending some time customizing a few keyboard shortcuts to agree with the ones I use in Word. 

But I’m not sure how many blog posts or free writing sessions I’ll be able to justify by writing about a program I bought to help me write. Beyond a single post, that kind of “meta” is both uninteresting and not particularly helpful to achieving my ultimate goal of unleashing my creativity. Can you hear the panic in my inner voice as I realize that I’m quickly running out of excuses for doing some real writing? 

Sunday, January 01, 2012

A beginning

It’s not often I make a New Year’s resolution. I’ve always thought that if you want to make a change in your life, why wait for the arbitrary date of January 1; why not just do it. On the other hand, I will admit that I can see how it might be difficult to quit smoking or lose during the holiday festivities, with their myriad social situations that don’t lend themselves to moderation of any kind. So I hope I don’t sound overly hypocritical when I say that this year, I have made a New Year’s resolution of my own, and this little blog post is its meagre beginnings.

I have decided that I will endeavour to write every day in 2012. There, I said it—or wrote it, rather. No excuses. Just do it. Write something every day (other than my normal bread-winning activity of translation, that is). It doesn’t matter what the form is, how long it is, or how good it is. Just get it done. I don’t promise to post everything I write here (which I’m sure is a relief to you), but I assume that at least some of my efforts will end up on this blog, so expect more regular updates on this space.

Why, you ask? I recently looked back at some of my early poetry journals and was a little stunned at how interesting the writing was. Most of it was utter crap, of course, but a lot of it was creative and blossoming with potential. The writer back then didn’t have the skills to polish those diamonds in the rough, but he certainly had a lot of enthusiasm, wasn’t afraid of showing how little he knew, and—importantly—he wrote very often. I’d like to recapture some of that youthful vigour, and I think the way to get there is through quantity rather than quality. I guess I’ll have to check back here in a year to see if I’m right or wrong. 

In the meantime, I wish you, my hypothetical reader, a very happy 2012, full of love, music and friendship.