Becoming a Translator: An Introduction to the Theory and Practice of Translation

I’ve decided to adjust how I go about my book posts. Nothing much will change, except that I’m documenting what I term “continuing professional development” reading separately from the fun reading, or the reading I might recommend to English students. My purpose here is not to review anything as such, but rather to publicly document my own reading and my commitment to professional improvement. Hence these will be rather brief and say-nothing.

Becoming a Translator: An Accelerated Course is one of a number of books recommended by the IoL Educational Trust in their DipTrans Handbook for Candidates. It’s a companion book to Becoming a Translator: An Introduction to the Theory and Practice of Translation. I was able to borrow the second as well as third editions of the latter from Stockholm University Library in March of 2018, though I’m still looking for An Accelerated Course.

There is a lot of useful material in both editions of An Introduction, including thought-provoking translation exercises. However, the second edition is from 2003, making it fairly out of date; the third edition has a tighter and more updated focus. Specifically, it excises what is very much an over-reliance on appealing to learning styles from the early chapters of the second edition and includes a section on machine translation and its impact on the profession. The appendix at the end of the book has also been jettisoned in favor of “recommended reading” lists at the end of each chapter, making finding further research on a particular topic much easier. Academia is notorious for an endless churn of new editions that have nothing new in them (the textbook racket is very much a racket); this is a case where the new edition is a measurable improvement over the last one.

Congratulations, Olga Tokarczu and Jennifer Croft! Man Booker International 2018

I’ve never been a very au courant person in any field, including literary prizes. But ever since Deborah Smith and Han Kang won the Man Booker International Prize with The Vegetarian in 2016, I’ve paid a little more attention—at least to the Man Booker International prize. (You can get me to care about your prize by including Korean authors. You can get me to not care about your prize by including already over-lauded and overrated artists.)

Cover of the English translation of "Flight" by Olga Tokarczuk

I’m still bad at staying up to date, though. Last year’s award passed me right by. But this year I’m top of things, since I’m subscribed to Asymptote’s newsletter and LitHub’s daily digests. Tokarczu’s Flights sounds like an unorthodox and interesting choice (not a novel but a collection of shorter pieces), and Asymptote even has extracts from Flights available online! I hope to get my hands on the whole thing as soon as possible.

Friday 5: Know When to Fold ‘Em

Four aces on a background of black playing card backs with a Wild West motif.

What did you last place into a file folder?

Physically? Some hard copies of comments and revisions I got back from a critique group member. I have an accordion file folder for this project (I’ve been working on it since 2014) and each slot is feedback from a different reader. I should probably go through and clean it out. Some comments are about revisions I’ve since made, others are on sections that have since been discarded. It’s not really worth it to keep that much of a record around.

What do you know how to fold a piece of paper into?

Not much. A paper airplane? And I could probably make a cootie catcher, still.

What’s your laundry-folding procedure like?

I don’t fold laundry.

When do you next expect to invite someone into your fold?

Making friends in Sweden is hard. Maybe I haven’t met the right Swedes, just, but all of the new friends I’ve made (if the word “friend” can even be applied) have been other immigrants and expats. I think this moment is coming soon, though; I have quite a few acquaintances on the periphery that I’m ready to befriend.

When have you slept on a foldaway bed?

Probably not since high school. One of my friends had a fold-out couch in her rec room and if I slept over, it was on that bed.

The Spider King’s Daughter

The June selection for my Facebook book club was The Spider King’s Daughter, the debut novel by Chibundo Onuzo. I went in hoping that it would pull me out of the book slump brought on by RadianceHow I Became A North Korean, Gena/Finn, and the middle grade books I previewed for some of my students. The Facebook book club has the best hit/miss ratio out of all three that I’m in, after all.

 

Author: Chibundu Onuzo

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.42

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: Abike, the daughter of a wealthy (and shady) businessman, encounters “Runner G,” a street hawker with a tragic past, and the two begin a relationship. Things take an unexpected turn when Runner G takes a fresh look at his own history.

Content warning: The book opens up with a gruesome scene of animal cruelty, but everything else afterwards is fairly tame

Recommended audience: Thriller fans; YA fans looking for something a bit grittier; those interested in Nigerian literature

In-depth thoughts: Onuzo is an engaging writer and I hope she continues down that path. (Her second book, Welcome to Lagos, came out last year. Hurrah!) This was engaging at a time when nothing else I was reading could capture my interest and Onuzo deserves a lot of praise just for that.

My favorite parts of the book all involve spoilers. I will say this: what starts as a meet cute adolescent love story takes on an unexpectedly darker tone. Or maybe I should have been expecting that, considering that the book opens with Abike telling us about how her father had her beloved dog deliberately run over.

Most of the reveals were more or less obvious, but the book doesn’t rely on the shock of those reveals for impact. I think, even, Onuzo expects readers to already know the truth from the very beginning. It’s how the characters react to these reveals that’s engaging and unexpected.

The book switches between Abike and Runner G’s perspectives, with Abike’s in italics. Reading extended passages in italics is straining, at best, but Onuzo’s prose (and the short paragraphs) make it much easier than in other books (James Agee’s posthumous A Death in the Family, for example). At the book’s climax, when we switch between Abike’s and Runner G’s perspectives rapidly—at every line, for a short while—this typesetting choice proves very necessary.

Set in Lagos and with secondary characters from poverty classes with little or no education, there is a fair amount of pidgin English and Nigerian slang in the dialogue. Readers will be able to discern meaning from context in most if not all cases, but EFL readers might be a little disoriented at its initial appearance.

Critique Groups and Fiction Editing

No matter how busy I get, I try to always make time for critique groups. I run the Stockholm Writing Group Meetup’s critique sessions*, and I participate in two private ones. While they’re a great excuse to socialize according to the Swedish model of “plan out your social calendar two weeks in advance,” I also consider them indispensable professional development when it comes to fiction editing.

"What I sing when I forget to make plans 2 weeks in advance with my Swedish friends" and a gif of a blonde woman singing "All by myself"
Post from the extremely relateable An Immigrant in Sweden tumblr. Screencapped because Tumblr’s embed code is a mess.

Most of my editing has been academic writing (scientific academic writing at that), which is its own linguistic kettle of fish; the good news for me is that by the time I get a paper, I only have to worry about the mechanics of the language. There might be technical jargon I have to parse, and judgment calls to make on whether a turn of phrase would be unclear to specialists (as opposed to the layperson), but those are details that tend towards the relatively objective. Few people read academic articles for fun; “style” here is about clarity rather than sparkling prose, and as long as the sentence says what the author intends, with precision and no ambiguity, everything’s good.

The absolute opposite applies to editing fiction (and, to an extent, popular non-fiction). Suddenly you’re in big picture land. Where do you start?

Critiquing, for me, is a way to edge into the shallow end of developmental fiction editing. It’s easy to say whether I like something, hate it, or just don’t care about it; it’s much, much harder to pinpoint why that might be. But being forced to do that on a regular basis (I’d say that three weeks out of four I’m meeting with one of my critique groups) makes me slow down and pay attention to writing and think about what works for me and what doesn’t. Other people catch things that I missed, too, no matter how many times or how slowly or carefully I read a manuscript. They ask questions I wouldn’t think to ask; I can take those questions and apply them later to other manuscripts. They challenge my suggestions and force me to back up what I’m saying with solid argumentation beyond “I just like it better this way.”

More ambitious freelancers than me would call this “networking” and I guess it’s that, too. Except that’s not why I do it; I don’t anticipate picking up a single paid project out of my critique groups, and I don’t know if I’d want to. But I’m fine with making my editor self publicly available, so to speak. It’s my equivalent of a free trial. If you like the preview, you can purchase the whole version!

*Full disclosure: I’m also a sponsor of this Meetup, which basically amounts to splitting the annual Meetup fee with the other woman who runs it in exchange for having my logo buried three clicks deep somewhere on our page. I don’t really benefit from you joining it or anything.

Friday 5: Vive le Difference

Fried chicken in paper boxes.
Image courtesy Brian Chan at Unsplash

What’s a food that tastes completely unlike anything else you can think of?

This one is taking a lot of thought. I mean, lots of things have a relatively distinct taste, right? Even if everything also tastes like chicken.

I imagine surströmming is singular in its taste. (I say that having never tried it. I don’t dig on fish.) I also have a hard time with the artificial sweetener Splenda: it leaves a distinctly coppery aftertaste that ruins anything it touches.

What’s a movie that’s completely unlike any movie you can think of?

Russian Ark  is a weird but surprisingly enjoyable artsy look at the history of the St. Petersburg Hermitage that’s all one long 90-ish minute shot.

Who’s a musician or band you consider completely unoriginal but whom you still like?

I think it’s a given that most popular top 40 bands and artists cleave to the lowest common denominator instead of doing anything groundbreaking, but most of the music on my phone is popular top 40 bops (and obscure international indie bands) because it’s good workout music.

Who or what are two people or things you keep mixing up with one another?

To this day I still confuse Silent Hill and Resident Evil (the video games, not the movies). No doubt there are countless celebrities that I mix up as well, because I’m not good at keeping track of famous names and faces.

What’s something you’ll do this weekend that’s different from your normal weekend activity?

Concerning the weekend after I’m writing this, there’s a small chance I’ll be attending the Japanese Flea Market in Sundbyberg. Concerning the weekend after this will actually go up (about a month later), it’s hard to say.

Radiance: Book Review

The June selection for Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club was Catherynne M. Valente’s Radiance. I didn’t know it, but Valente was already on my book radar thanks to The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. Now I’m wondering if I can bring myself to read it.

UK cover of Catherynne M. Valente's "Radiance."

 

Author: Cathrynne M. Valente

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.77

Language scaling: C1+

Summary: In an alternate history, where the human race masters interplanetary travel at around the same time they figure out movies, a young woman disappears on Venus while shooting a documentary about a ravaged diving village.

Content warning: Some surreal gore here and there.

Recommended audience: Fans of postmodern literature, alternate history fans

In-depth thoughts: I wanted to like this one and I didn’t.

If I had to pick one word to describe Radiance, it would be “overindulgent.” The structure Valente chooses (or rather, the lack of structure) does nothing to contain this tendency towards overblown wordiness or direct us to an understanding either of events or character.

Take, for example, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? Like Radiance, there is a whole bunch of documentation (rather than narration), but in Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, it all works to move the story forward and every single scrap in there contributes something to the story. Not so in Radiance. I quickly sorted out the bits that were most likely to move the plot along, read those, skipped the rest. At least the book is well labeled, which makes for easy fast-forwarding.

The other thing that makes Radiance overindulgent is the style. Valente’s writing is, as another reviewer put it, “high-octane purple prose.” It’s overwrought, it’s too much, and while I get it’s supposed to be an art deco gothic and therefore can be expected to be a bit much, it’s a bit much everywhere. It works in some situations (gossip columns, a few personal diaries) and falls flat in others (transcripts of conversations: actual human beings don’t talk like that).

There’s another layer to Radiance, or at least there’s supposed to be, about how the narratives of our lives and celebrity lives are constructed and so on and so forth, but it was just really hard to care because the writing and presentation is so distant from what it’s conveying that it’s impossible to care about any of the characters. It’s impossible even to know them, for the most part.

Valente is clearly a competent, if not talented, writer, but in Radiance she gets caught up in her own hype and it feels like no one around her told her “no.” As far as novels for EFL students go, or postmodern science fiction, there are better choices out there.

DuoLingo Updates Spring 2018

Any good app will be consistently updated, if not necessarily often. Bugs are fixed, security flaws are fixed, improvements are made, among other things. But DuoLingo recently made a fairly substantial change to their model in a relatively recent update.

Earlier, the visual cue for “mastery” of a lesson was the icon appearing in gold rather than full color.

 

This has been replaced with a “crowns” level in a given lesson.

Screenshot of the DuoLingo Android app.
RIP my 54-day streak.

Whether this is a better or worse model than the “golden” badges probably comes down to personal psychology. Some people will find it more motivating than the old model, and vice versa. What I personally find annoying is that there seems to be no way to test out of the crown levels (the same way you can test out of the initial levels). Really, DuoLingo, I promise that I’ve mastered reading and writing Cyrillic and Hangul. I shouldn’t need to sit through redundant, tedious review just to prove to the algorithm that “no really, I got this.” This was also true in the old model; you periodically had to refresh your levels even in the very, very basics. But it’s more marked here, I think. Maybe if you get to level 5 in a lesson, DuoLingo considers it “mastered” and you never have to review it again? I haven’t had enough initiative to find out, yet.

My big issue, though, is less with this change and more, after years of using DuoLingo in a variety of languages, that the SRS system underlying the app is surprisingly primitive. It’s static and top-down rather than genuinely responsive.

DuoLingo doesn’t atomize based on individual lexical units, but rather simply on its own lessons. While a given lesson will repeat a question you got wrong (and not let you complete the lesson until you get it right), the system as a whole seems to have no memory of what you’ve messed up over the long term, because it’s only keeping track of the last time you reviewed a particular lesson, not which words or phrases you consistent mess up.

Let’s say that I have a comfortable mastery of 60% of the words in a given lesson, struggle a bit with 30%, and then struggle a lot with the last 10%. A productive review session would focus on that 40% I struggle with and sprinkle the ones I’ve mastered throughout, both to maintain them and also for motivational purposes. That kind of data would be trivial to track: which words do I get right every time; which ones do I almost get, or forget somewhat frequently; which ones do I only get after repeated attempts or provide totally wrong answers for. It would, presumably, also be trivial to come up with an algorithm to prioritize future lessons based on that data. That’s exactly what Anki does when you choose “incorrect” or “hard” rather than “good” or “easy,” after all.

But a DuoLingo review session will simply be 60% “needless” review and 40% productive review (depending exactly on how your own mastery of a lesson breaks down). It’s a wasted to chance to review what actually needs reviewing, and it possibly borders on over-reviewing (which can actually be counterproductive!). The “weak words” that will be tested in the next review aren’t the ones you’ve gotten wrong in the past; it’s all of the material from whatever lesson in the unit has gone the longest without review. It doesn’t matter if half the words in that lesson are ones you actually know well.

The other problem is that simple review (that blue barbell in the corner) doesn’t seem to count towards any crown levels. The XP you earn at least counts towards your daily goal, so you can maintain your streak (a powerful motivator for many Anki users), but it seems silly to not connect those reviews to crown levels as well. But maybe this is simply a bug that will be addressed in a new update.

Friday 5: Aloon Again, Naturally

With which Looney Tunes character do you have the most in common?

I didn’t care much for Looney Tunes as a kid. The physical humor that’s inherent in the genre has never been my cup of tea. I’ll cheat and say Shirley the Loon from Tiny Toons.

Who or what are your metaphorical Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote?

I don’t think I have a Wile E. Coyote (I hope not!). But we all have a Road Runner, don’t we? Mine is a totally stress-free vacation. One day…

What’s up, doc?

That’s all, folks!

When did you last hear some opera music?

I listen to a lot of classical music while I edit and translate. That doesn’t usually include opera, since I find vocals distracting, but the Fidelio overture came up in my playlist yesterday.

What’s a good life lesson you learned from Looney Tunes?

You can’t always get what you want, and often when you do, it’s not as good as you hoped it would be.

How I Became a North Korean: Book Review

I’ve been interested in Korean politics ever since I lived and taught there in 2009/2011/2012. It’s an “automatic read” category of literature and books for me, which is why How I Became a North Korean was my first impulse library book in over three years.

The cover of "How I Became a North Korean" by Krys Lee

 

Author: Krys Lee

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.5

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: Danny, Jangmi, and Yongju are three young people unexpectedly caught up in the complicated web of North Korean refugee movement along the Chinese/North Korea border.

Content warning: There is an unwanted abortion that happens outside the story, and a couple of murders that happen right on the page, though not particularly gruesome or extended.

Recommended audience: Those interested in Korean politics and North Korean defectors

In-depth thoughts: The book summary promises a “found family” sort of story, which is one of my favorite tropes. The story doesn’t really deliver on that promise, however. The three main characters don’t interact all that much and their connection to each other, emotionally as well as story-wise, is tenuous at best. Nor does Lee really find a strong voice for each perspective, meaning that the different parts of the story and the different characters begin to blend together.

There is also the question of how much of a foreign language to include when you’re writing, in English, a story where no one speaks English. Some choices were the same as I would make, but some felt a little unnecessary. Of course, Lee is bilingual and I’m not—I really only know “just enough to be dangerous,” as the expression goes—so maybe her Korean/English bilingual readers would disagree with me.

Ultimately, the story moves along at a good clip and Lee’s writing style is fluid, so it’s a quick read. But at the end of it, I felt like I would have rather read an account of all of her research rather than the novel I had just finished.