Saturday, April 30, 2011

Teachable moments: vosotros and thou

Every spring, the U. of Oregon hosts some 1500 high school language students and their teachers for Foreign Languages and International Studies Day (FLIS). They attend performances and short workshops on folksongs, food, poetry, jokes, family life, handy vocabulary for getting lost, for not getting lost. . . the list goes on (on the UO website), so I won't. But what a chance to show off, right?

And what a chance to get another generation of readers thinking about translation and the choices it demands. This year, I talked about some of the challenges in translating jokes (which draw on cultural knowledge and, often, cross-cultural stereotypes), wordplay, and regional usage variations. In particular, what to do with what is described, in Alicia Yánez Cossío's Más allá de las islas, as "el difícil tiempo habéis" and "el inusitado empleo de la voz éis." That is, the verb forms that go along with the second-person pronoun vosotros (normative in Spain, bizarrely out of place in Ecuador).

Gratifyingly, I had a standing-room crowd. More gratifyingly still, they were engaged in the topic, ready to ask questions, to share ideas. Roughly half of the 35 or 40 present raised their hands when I asked if they were Spanish students. All of them allowed as how they were learning the vosotros form. "We have to," one called out, with a little edge in her voice.

Translating, I pester colleagues, friends and relations with questions-- what do you think this means? would you ever say. . . ? Talking about word puzzles and quibbles is one of the secret (or not so secret) pleasures of translation. It is also an occasion to air pet language peeves. So, queried about "el difícil tiempo habéis," one of my long-suffering informants, a linguist colleague I greatly admire, groaned at my question about that "difficult" tense. "Can we stop calling it that hard vosotros form?" he begged. "Please?"

Well, as it happens, no. Not always.

The point isn't that it's any harder to learn to use vosotros than it is to use . The point is that the character in the novel adopts the form in order to show off, trying to make herself sound more like a priest and give her impromptu sermon an authority it doesn't deserve. And, making it funnier, she can't maintain the pose for more than a few sentences. The point is the jarring--and funny--mix of Spanish varieties, a mix that can't be ironed out in translation without losing something important.

I finally called it "the difficult thou tense," and elsewhere referred to the character's "antiquated and pretentious grammar."  

I hope the students left with a chuckle and, more than that, with a sense of some of the choices that contribute to any translation they might read. With apologies to anyone whose teaching life is made a little harder by the joke.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Travel Journal (Peru, 1987)

Today, for the second time this week, I saw a hummingbird perched on one of the spindly maples by the jogging trail. They haven't graced the white-flowering currants in my yard this spring the way they have in past years, so perhaps they've moved. The currants are nearly done blooming by now. Maybe it's just been so rainy that I haven't been outside, and missed them.

As I was thinking about migratory hummingbirds relocating across town, and congratulating myself that all my zigzagging to dodge the deeper mud pits was surely adding at least a mile to my workout, I met up with a friend. This friend is much fitter than I am--when she says "running," it's not a euphemism for creeping lope--but I tried to keep pace. She's planning a trip to Peru. I've been to Peru so, when asked, I naturally tried to offer advice. Huffing and wheezing all the while, for greater drama and impact.

None of it practical advice, of course. I was twenty, traveling on my parents' dime and my parents' planning efforts. When she asked if we made hotel reservations in advance, I didn't have a clue.

But I remember the trip. I used to keep detailed travel journals, trying, at the end of each day, to mentally retrace my steps and note everything down. I've lost that habit, but it fed a fine discipline of noticing that I have tried to hold onto, even as I've gotten lax about the recording. I have the journals, all of them. I've scarcely opened one after coming home; maybe the initial writing was enough. Sill, I'm glad they're there.

Some details of the Peru trip--Dad's hypothermia on the Lake Titicaca, the giant spider in the bathroom, the unsugared oatmeal on the Inca trail--have become the stuff of family legend: often rehearsed, repeated--altered? No doubt. Memories can be stories we tell ourselves, and when we tell them to others, they slip further beyond our control and become their stories, too.

I listed destinations and remembered stonework. Misadventures and an extraordinary moonrise. Go to Ollantaytambo, I told my friend. And when she praised my memory for detail, I said, "I spent years trying to write a poem about it." Almost as an excuse. 

I did write that poem. It was published in The MacGuffin 9.1, 1992. The journal doesn't have an online archive that I can link to, so I'll share the poem here, with thanks for the editors' early hospitality, and hope they won't mind. In honor of National Poetry Month, and travel journaling and embroidering, and trying to remember it all and get it down in words. And, always, missing something big.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Dappled praise

I was going to write about mixed-language stage plays today, and I may get to that (if not, stay tuned--it's one of my ongoing preoccupations, sure to reappear), but dabbling around, sampling other people's blogs, I came across the Poetry Society of America's request that people share via Twitter the line of poetry that first made them fall in love with the art. 

The line that jumped to mind was "Praise God (sic) for dappled things." (When I went to look for the poem, it turns out--surprise, surprise!--I had misremembered that first line; should be "Glory to God.") Anyway, it's the dappled things I remember, the quilted landscape, the piper. When we read Gerard Manley Hopkins' Pied Beauty in English Lit. (or was it AP?) I was already in love with poetry and writing lots of poems. I was the preached-to choir. But I remember the relish

mischievous glint
true generosity

with which Mrs. Niblock presented the poem. She loved it. Loved the sound of the words and the strange combinations that are nonetheless just right and the message, too: the crumpled, pied, dappled, unexpected is beautiful, worthy of praise. When I was there, Helen Niblock was legendary at East Lansing High School. She stood at the front of the class in her pink and black houndstooth suit, matching salt-and-pepper hair piled in a disarranging bun, and pulled us into the poem. So this is my small shout-out in her memory. I have held Hopkins' lines, and her teaching of them, in the back of my mind ever since: "rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim"-- praise them!

(other poetry-related blogs I've enjoyed today: Giving up the Ghost and Cut out the Stars)