Monday, December 31, 2012


Doesn't look quite real, does it? But it is, this clerodendron growing beside my parents' driveway. I don't know a lot about plants, though I look the names up often--for translations, for poems, for no good reason. Wikipedia tells me clerodendron's common names include "glorybower," "bagflower," and "bleeding-heart," which don't seem real, either. Seem, at least, insufficient.

Here in the northwest, it's still green in the winter, and gray. We have two flowers blooming in the garden, both bright pink. The bergenia seems to be having its best December ever, tall and emphatically belled. And up on the slope, a rhododendron my uncle propagated years ago has two precocious (or deluded) blooms. I wonder what it will do in the spring, or if it gets really cold. Last winter's wet snow pulled the flowering currants right out of the ground, though I propped them up and cut them back and they seemed to survive the indignity. 

I don't know if any of this is what I'm supposed to be noticing, what I need to notice. Some days it's enough just to list, and name, and reconsider. Those blue fruits in their hot pink skirting: robin's egg or midnight? Ocean or sky? December into January: a little of both.

Wishing all good noticing--good reading and writing--in 2013!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

11 Odd Things Learned in the Course of Translation

--tidbits picked up in translating Beyond the Islands (Alicia Yánez Cossío) and Trafalgar (Angélica Gorodischer)--

Some days, translation is like a treasure hunt, a sanctioned scavenge after curious words and unfamiliar allusions. (Happily, I'm a fan of dictionaries and reference books; my dictionary stand is a prized possession.) When the project's finished, some of those definitions and associations slip back out of mind and beyond memory, but others linger. These details may already have been known to many of you, but they were new to me.

Boulevard Oroño
Riddle or rest?
  1. Aerugo is another word for verdigris (a green or bluish patina formed on copper, brass, or bronze surfaces exposed to the atmosphere for long periods of time).
  2. A tero is a Southern lapwing, a loud-voiced bird common in South America. 
  3. Rosario's Oroño Boulevard is indeed lined with "cold, serious, heavy houses, with grilles but without gardens, maybe at the most a tile patio paved like the sidewalk" -- and also with palm trees, Sphinx benches, and Sunday strollers. 
  4. José de Villamil, born in New Orleans in 1788, later became an advocate for Ecuadorian independence and was the first governor of the Galápagos islands.
  5. Baby's breath is also called gypsophila.
  6. A pair of embracing skeletons, found in an 8000-year-old burial site on the Santa Elena Peninsula (Ecuador), have been called the pre-ceramic Adam and Eve or Los Amantes de Sumpa.
  7. Newell's Old Boys (one of Rosario's soccer teams--early team of Lionel Messi) can also be spelled Ñuls.
  8. Aguamala is a word for jellyfish (not nasty water).
  9. Opuntia is a prickly pear.
  10. Cheviot is a fine, wool fabric. Also a breed of sheep.
  11. And Trafalgar is not only a the name of a battle, and--in Gorodischer's stories--a proper name, but the title of a Bee Gees song.

I'm getting ready to start a new project. I wonder what I'll learn this time around?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Verbicide, the misunderstood crime

The word of the day (happy result of a dictionary detour) is:  

1. the willful distortion or depreciation of the original meaning of a word.
2. a person who willfully distorts the meaning of a word.

Note the deliberation: verbicide is a sin of commission. This isn't malapropism, mistaken identity, well-meaning thought getting out ahead of vocabulary. Destructive of language, destructive of meaning, verbicide might be a form of lying. A cause of loss, occasion for mourning, for fury. 

But I especially like the second meaning, the thought that one might be a verbicide. What might a verbicide wear, how might she try to conceal her crimes? Is there a Most Wanted list?

Now, cross-checking this definition in the little electronic dictionary embedded in my word processor, no verbicide appears. The closest options are herbicide and vermicide. Worm poison, plant poison-- lots of poisons in the world. No human agents of destruction (think parricide, fratricide) in those definitions. Just substances, slick and dangerous and, one hopes, sparingly applied. But verbicide goes unmentioned, unrecorded--the forgotten crime, the silent killer.

Riffing on verbicide, it's true, might lead me down that slippery slope, that primrose path paved with good intentions to the hell of depreciated or distorted meanings, decapitated verbs, slaughtered adjectives. And what of the adverb, so frequently maligned by the authors of writing how-to books? Who will protect hopefully, quickly, brilliantly?

Verbicide: stop it, prevent it, punish it! You can't be too careful.

I have never said of anyone, "He is an unrepentant verbicide," but I will be looking for my chance to do so.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Proofreading and Second Chances

It has never yet happened that, reading proofs, I haven't found some dreadful if trifling error--often after 20 or 30 error-free pages, when I was beginning to wonder whether the task was, indeed, worthwhile. But there it will be, the third i in the middle of a word, the second however in a row. No matter how many times I've reread, revised, and corrected the manuscript. Is correcting proofs worth my time? Yes. Always.

I've just been correcting the proofs for Trafalgar, Angélica Gorodsicher's novel-in-stories. Sure enough, there were a few things to fix.    

Lisa Carter, in a recent post on her blog Intralingo, offers 3 Reasons to Review Galleys and Proofs. One of these is learning from the editor. The copyeditor for Trafalgar didn't make too many big changes, but there were several pointed questions (third cup of coffee? two pages ago, he ordered his fifth) I was glad to resolve. Not to mention a slew of commas I should have put in to begin with.

It's hard to read the same text again, and again, and still imagine one is reading with fresh eyes. But some months had passed since I'd last looked at the manuscript, and by forcing myself to read slowly, as if I didn't yet know the stories, I caught a number of errors (an excess letter here, an omitted  "  there) that I would have hated to see in the final, printed book. 

And, though this might seem to contradict that "fresh eyes" aspiration, this time around I also found it was fun to revisit the translation process, to remember conversations about particular points, questions I'd had, discarded solutions. I was lucky enough to meet with the author regularly while I was in Rosario, working on the translation. Reviewing the proofs was like a mini mental visit.

Finally, at a couple of points, there were still translation issues to be wrestled with, in particular a paragraph in which I found I'd omitted the verb. I read it a couple of times before I saw what was missing. The passage didn't quite make sense, but was that because I had mistranslated it, or because something odd was happening in the original? One of the challenges in translation is the need to convey the points at which the author is experimenting or playing with the source language. Maybe there was never a verb to lose. . .  

But there was. And, once I'd retrieved it, it wasn't immediately clear how to incorporate that verb into the English sentence, a long catalog that needed to accumulate and pile up and intermingle without too much interruption. Appropriately enough, the chapter in question is titled "Mr. Chaos." 

I came up with a satisfactory solution. I think. If I reread the proofs again tomorrow, there might be other things I'd want to change. But that's the case with any writing, translation no more nor less than fiction or poetry or criticism. That last-ditch chance at correction is another reason to read proofs: it's not quite as scary (though also not as thrilling) as opening the cover of the published book. There's still time.

Thanks to Small Beer Press for including this translator in the process and giving me the chance to go over the manuscript one more time. 

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Translation Detours (more signposts)

Treman State Park

Earlier this month, I was in Ithaca to give a translation talk in the Latin American Studies Program seminar series and a reading from Detours at the Cornell Store. Naturally, I visited the waterfalls  and photographed a few detour signs. Then up to Rochester for the ALTA conference and even more translation fun--including the chance to read from Alicia Yánez Cossío's Beyond the Islands, to reconnect with old friends and be introduced to new ones.  

Since then, I've kept thinking about detours, travel, ins & outs and ups & downs, and the ways (here and elsewhere) we try to direct one another and to mark where we've been or hope to go. For example: 

In the Venice lagoon
No need to translate this one, perhaps, but there's a kind of spatial translation here of the customary work icon to an impossible medium; it brings to mind Bolívar's oft-quoted (misquoted?) lament, "I have plowed the sea" ("He arado en el mar"). But failure and inconvenience can be in the eye of the beholder. And some cautionary signs might serve as advice for living, not just staying alive.

Big projects, small nuisances (Mendoza, Argentina)

New Zealand

Detour in Spanish: rodeo, vuelta, desvío. Words that suggest circles, return, deviation, misdirection. Misread rodeo back into English and you have spectacle, cowboys, bronco busting. But something to be found "a la vuelta" will be just around the corner, close at hand. Or upon your return.

I have spent delightful hours looking up the semi-relevant, searching for a near allusion, learning words in English for greens I never knew existed. In Beyond the Islands, prickly pear expert Fritz and his traveling companions first glimpse the Galápagos from above:
            "From the air they could be seen emerging serenely from the water in a changing set of every shade of green: blue green, chlorophyll and olive green, sea green, verdigris and dark green, aerugo, greenish-yellow and glaucous green. The sea shone like a jade mirror splashed with the tiny white dots of the waves that appeared and disappeared between the gusts of foam snaking around the sinuous and indolent shorelines."

Detouring within English, I click the OED's thesaurus link and find "wrying," a new word for me, with the third meaning thus: "The action of deviating or turning from a course, etc.; straying. Obs." That obs. in itself is inviting, trippingly off the tongue reeling toward that untoward, unexpected usage that might yet be fun, might yet illumine, might yet draw us off course. Wrying sounds--and looks--a bit like wring, as if one might wring distance from an ostensibly short journey; and, for the rule bound ("do not wring or twist") a hint of damage, of disobedience to those disembodied dispensers of axiom and advice. But, again: Stop, Look, Live. Go down the latter backwards.

What's your favorite word for detour? 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

New, used, ineffable

I'm enough of a curmudgeon that I still grouse now and then about those qualified-yet-unqualified "quality products"-- do they mean high quality? Fair-to-middling? Nothing to write home about? And I do enjoy a good sign. So imagine my delight, strolling with my family on Sunday afternoon, toward the end of a day of beach walking and sunshine and yes-it's-still-summer, when we came upon this lovely painted sign, offering not just quality, but quality new and used.

Looks like a warehouse, doesn't it? I bet they have lots.
Or maybe slightly used? Gently used? Still has some wear in it, too good to throw out, a (quality) solution in search of a problem, deserving of a second chance, an oldie but a goodie, don't knock it if you haven't tried it? Tarnished, but worthy of a little polish and elbow grease. Hot off the presses, brand-spankin'-new, old as the hills, down at heels, wet behind the ears, dog-earred, slightly foxed, fine condition, classic, pride of ownership, in need of TLC, great potential, a find at any scratch and dent sale, an opportunity not to be missed.

I wonder if they sold clichés, set phrases, proverbs, sayings, idiomatic tags impossible to translate, improbable promises? Sadly (or happily) it was Sunday afternoon. The shop was closed. We drove home empty-handed--on the quality front--but full-bellied and laden with beach agates, shell fragments, sand between our toes and in our jeans cuffs and still all over the back of the car, two days later.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Observer in the Frame

We spent the last days of August backpacking in the Three Sisters Wilderness, one of my favorite places on earth. Camped on a mini-ridge above Camp Lake, we watched the moon rise--fast!--and then the sunset and then, just barely (hurling myself out of the tent toward the pink glow, tangled in tent flaps and sleeping children and boots that wouldn't find my feet) the sunrise. Pink, and then bright yellow light, and then sharp shadows. And lots of photographs.

Two images from that trip in particular seem to focus my current revision preoccupations.  

I have been amply persuaded that the manuscript I'm working on (a novel I had fondly believed was finished, and beautiful, and ready to greet the world) is in need of major revision. I even have some ideas about the form that revision will take. But I'm caught between planning the revision--mapping out what I intend to do--and just jumping in. And how much will be enough--is it a matter of cutting or of adding, or more properly of replacing? It's a question, too, of framing and motivation: I know what the story is, but why is the narrator telling it? And just how far should the territory of that story extend?

Sunrise, then, above the lake, trying to arrest its different colors against the trees, and finding my own shadow contaminating the frame. Lean back, then, lean away, move the camera a bit. . . until I thought, here's my point of view picture, the narrator just off stage. But not all the way off. Whether visible or not, choosing what to include.

Framing the story just right is part of the problem. There isn't a story without a frame, something to give it shape--beginning, ending, even words trailing off at the end of the page or when the ink runs out, a de facto border, no less real for being accidental.

Other times the borders of story or observation become less and less clear. Heading up the hill above Demaris Lake, I almost walked into this spider and its home. And here's the story again, but the frame's disappearing, the web that barely shows up once I have the spider well in focus.

I don't know what kind of spider it is. That's one of the story's unknowns.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Some Detours Thanks

Detours has been out for about a month now, and I want to say thank you! to a few people:

To Karen McPherson (Sketching Elise), for poem-caching me in her Poetry Box-- and how cool is a poetry box, right? Are there poetry boxes in your town? Check out the scheme here:

To Ruth Horowitz (Giving Up the Ghost) for reading #32 aloud at home.

To my agent Linda Epstein (The Blabbermouth) for saying she was savoring Detours like a box of chocolates.

To Scott Landfield at Tsunami Books for carrying the chapbook.

To Sid Miller, editor of the Burnside Review; Shira Richman for chapbook design; Sarah Grew for sharing her piece "Asters" for the cover (I know I've said it before, but it's worth repeating); to Blake Butler, final judge for the 2011 Fiction Chapbook Contest.

And to the impromptu sign-makers who keep me on the lookout for detour signs, even when I thought I was over that. And to my family, waiting almost patiently at the sushi place, while I took more photos.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Revision Detours

The beginning

Directions were meant to be changed.
   One definition of a detour, from the OED on line:  A turning or deviation from the direct road; a roundabout or circuitous way, course, or proceeding. That's certainly the kind of trip described in Detours

"Detour" can also describe the revision process. Revision often means reaching the intended destination by an unexpected route. It means keeping the end in sight while allowing for change, serendipity, or that harsh-sounding alternative, deviation. As if there were a clearly marked path that must be followed without fail; deviation brings punishment (shades of Little Red Riding Hood). 

Go back!
Try again.
   Revision might be avoidance: skip the pothole, the puddle, the flagger ahead, the expected delay--a roundabout evasion that can be a time-saver, or just the opposite. 
Diverge, converge, diverge

   But destination is another of those fungible categories. To a point. Rewriting, reworking a piece can be a means to a different end. It can be a long and complicated route back to the beginning, trying to say what I thought I knew I was saying all along, or a circuitous route that leads somewhere else--a longcut, not a shortcut, to a place I didn't initially understand I needed to go. 
Are we there yet?

Go left. No, right. Go another way.

     As I've been collecting detour signs, I've noticed the designers of those alternate routes are revising as well. Maybe not quite making it up as they go along, but reconsidering, reusing. Stockpiling against future need. There are models everywhere of ways to write, ways to think. As the traffic engineers responsibly recycle last project's sign, I might joyfully find a place in this poem for the glowing line that wouldn't fit in the last. 

Summer possibilities

Past or future route?

Here, again, is one of my favorite detour signs, an evident work in progress: 

"Path" may have been "route"? Ahead or behind? This way or that?

Detours can be ordered from Burnside Review Press

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Detours (and Signs)

Some signs are more directive than others
Ordinarily, I grumble as much as the next person at the prospect of road work and its concomitant delays. But not lately: in preparation for the release of my chapbook, Detours, by Burnside Review Press, I've been collecting detour signs. Pictures of signs--I haven't stolen any yet. I pick out those orange signs in the distance and think not, oh, dread but oh, goody. My family laughs at me, but they help me look; strangers ask questions and I tell them, "Working on a little art project," that little meant to keep my activities just within the bounds of normal. I've gathered quite a collection, and snapped more than a few blurry smears out of moving vehicles.

Detours began as a detour from what I was supposed to be writing: my dissertation. More than a temporary variant on a routine route, it was a return of sorts--I started out writing poems and stories, not literary criticism. It's a side route I've maintained, sometimes in parallel, sometimes intersecting, as I've continued to write scholarly prose (I did finish that dissertation).

One way--only?

I think of Detours as a kind of journey. Fragmented, interrupted, but circling back on itself from time to time, the fragments interconnected. I'm interested in collecting, in splashed images and unexpected lights, in words that sound different in different places, and places that look different in different words. Roads taken and not taken, by chance or by design. 

Detours can be ordered from Burnside Review Press.

Rain or shine