On Swimming in Language

I will confess to having a fondness for astrology. Stars, Greek mythology, and the leftover trappings of the New Age movement captured my imagination at a young age, so that’s hardly surprising. I know enough about the topic to know not only my Sun sign, but all the rest of them. And perhaps—because my horoscope contains a good deal of Pisces, the dual fishes swimming in opposite directions, and I’ve consequently steeped myself in fishy lore—that’s why I think about editing and translating as swimming. Or maybe more like deep-sea diving.

(Not teaching, as much. If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say that the interactive and interpersonal nature of teaching means that I don’t have to imagine myself into someone else’s thoughts quite as often. They’re right there to interact with me, in the full spectrum of in-person communication.)

One of the psychology rockstars of the last forty years or so is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his “flow” model. If “flow” is a new concept for you in this context, you might better know it as “being in the zone.” Unsurprisingly, since I enjoy my work and am competent at it, I find myself “in the zone” quite regularly. It would be easy enough to simply describe this “swimming” state of being as flow, as being in the zone. It wouldn’t be entirely accurate, though. Swimming in language isn’t like getting lost in my own writing, or working on a new piece of jewelry. Swimming in language is something above and beyond “the zone.”

In any writing-related work that I do, there comes a point where I reach out to original writer, or speaker, or whoever generated the text I’m working on, and connect with them in my own head. I’m sure everyone in the field has their own personal metaphor for that connection; the arbitrary one that my consciousness and my physiology has lit upon is swimming. It’s like diving into an ocean with various currents that can carry you different places.

One current is the author: what did they mean? what tone are they trying to convey here? is there a better word to express what they’re getting at?

Another current is the reader: is this construction clear enough? will they get the author’s intention here? will this word disrupt their reading in any negative way?

Translating has a few more currents: the source language and all of its history and metaphors and idioms, as well as the target language. The tension between the two is yet another third stream that can catch me and send me circling for hours without going anywhere.

And beneath all of them is always my own curiosity, a nefarious undertow. A quick check on a given word’s etymology can, if I’m not careful, lead to a half-hour trip down the Google black hole: if these two are related, how about this third term? is there a Swedish equivalent of this idiom? what’s the name for this kind of grammatical construction?

(By now, anyone else familiar with Pisces as a metaphor for the dissolved ego and the collective unconscious can read a deeper meaning into all of this. But without the woo, the metaphor still holds.)

Conversely, if I can’t dive into the language and swim in the words, then work gets much, much harder. Not that editing or translating is all about inspiration and muses, of course, but when I’m properly swimming, the right word or phrase, the right comma or recasting, comes almost effortlessly. When I have to sit and consciously chop things up or look up word after word in the dictionary, the result is always noticeably worse (in my opinion). Most of the time, that belabored solution just gets replaced by something that comes to me, out of nowhere, hours later.

Like deep sea diving, some adjustment is needed to avoid getting the bends. “The bends,” in this case, being unable to communicate and express myself. Trying to think about something other than words, and trying to articulate what I’m thinking and what I want, is a little challenging after a long stretch of language work. It gets even weirder when I’ve been translating; that’s when I switch to an incomprehensible pidgin full of “non-standard” (that is, awful) pronunciation and rookie false friend mistakes I would never make in my professional work. I have to remember who I am, remember how to be myself.

Editors, translators, and other language professionals, I’m curious: what does your work feel like to you?

The Editor’s Social Network

One of the best aspects of freelancing, and freelance editing in particular, is meeting other word nerds (freelance and otherwise), and the Internet makes that easy to the point of banality.

Photo by Kevin Curtis on Unsplas

Every job I’ve worked on, I’ve of course enjoyed for its own sake. I’m glad to be helping women in their academic fields put forward their best, most polished work; I’m honored that people have trusted me with their life stories; I’ve edited manuscripts that changed how I think about things like art and aesthetics. In a vacuum, these things would be enough to make my heart sing.

But with all of this work comes an added bonus: a reason and an excuse to socialize. Some issues are so thorny or weird or obscure (or imaginary!) that it’s just easier to ask a person than consult a style guide. (This makes a style guide no less indispensable!) And there’s no satisfaction quite like watching your vocabulary or grammar inquiry in a Facebook group explode into a thread with over a hundred comments, as people engage in serious discussions on usage as well as toss jokes and animated GIFs back and forth. Or like using a query about a particular Arabic translation or Roman history terminology as an excuse to make conversation with old friends who are polyglots or classics scholars.

Is there a corollary to this? That a good editor will have a broad network of contacts that represents a diverse, multifaceted cross-section of society? I hesitate to make any proclamations about what makes a good editor from my obscure and humble little corner. But years ago, someone pointed me in the direction of an editor’s group on Facebook, and I’ve found it immeasurably helpful and encouraging. If a baby editor were to ask my advice on the field, it would be this: hang out with other editors. Follow their blogs, drop in on the Twitter chats, join the Facebook groups. Their collective wisdom will improve your editing, and their collective nerdery will make you (finally?) feel at home.

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.

Stockholm Kulturnatt 2018

A fortunate turn of events meant that a little over a week ago, I was able to finish my usual Saturday obligations earlier than usual and meet a friend in town to attend Stockholm Kulturnatt.

Even though Kulturnatt has been an annual event in Stockholm since 2010, this year was the first I’d heard of it. I’m glad I was able to make time this year, but I’m also a little disappointed at all of the years I’ve missed!

I didn’t know quite what to expect, except free admission to assorted “cultural events.” But I’d been thinking recently that I don’t really do enough to actually enjoy Stockholm (aside from my annual treks to Litteraturmässan), so Kulturnatten seemed like a good way to remedy that. I met up with a friend from Meetup, Thomas, with plans to meet other friends of his later in the evening. We queued forever, which seemed ridiculous since it was a free event.

“Maybe they’re counting heads for fire capacity?” I suggested.

“But the building’s huge!”

“Bureaucracy.”

As it turned out, the bottleneck that was leading to queuing was the clerk at the desk, explaining the evening’s program (a couple of lectures and a self-administered quiz) to visitors.

“Jesus, is this it? This is so awkward. Can’t we just walk past?” I asked no one in a low voice, but shuffled up to the desk to hear the presentation nonetheless. No ticket was given, no name taken, nothing. We smiled at the clerk and took the flyer and the quiz and then went on our way. A safe distance from the counter, we laughed.

“That was the entire reason for the queue. That was, literally, the most Swedish thing I’ve ever seen,” Thomas said. “People queuing because they’re too polite to just walk by. Oh, God. In Britain people would have figured it out and just walked past, given a little nod. Oh, Sweden.”

We had a wander around until his Couchsurfing friends showed up; a mutual Finnish friend of ours had been ahead of us in the queue and was off somewhere with her own friends.  The Army Museum wouldn’t have been my first choice, so I didn’t pay too much attention to anything (though I still learned about the S-363 incident, so that’s something); I was pleasantly surprised to see placards featuring wartime literature (George Orwell, All Quiet on the Western FrontBödeln). By the time the rest of the group arrived, Thomas and I had pretty much had our fill, so after confirming we’d missed the last lecture of the evening, we waited by the entrance for the Couchsurfers to finish the quiz.

The de facto leader of our little group, by virtue of her nerdy enthusiasm, wanted to go to the Nobel museum, so once she and the other Couchsurfer finished the quiz, off we went. Meanwhile, the Finn and her friends had since departed for the Finnish Institute without catching up to us—ships in the night. Thomas and I stayed with the Couchsurfing friends at the Nobel museum for just a brief moment; Thomas read the mood and came to the conclusion that the male half of the Couchsurfing couple was really interested in a date night with Excitable Nerd, so we broke off and made for SF Bokhandeln, with a pit stop at Storkyrkan.

“I’ve never been in here,” he commented.

“I don’t think I have, either.”

They were having a choral performance which I would have been happy to stay and listen to, but I also took the time to wander around a bit like a tourist. (I didn’t think to take any pictures, though. I guess not that much of a tourist.)

The interior of Storkyrkan in Stockholm, Sweden. The view is down the center aisle, facing a stained glass rossette. On the left hand side is a spiral staircase attached to a column, leading to a pulpit. The ceilings are high and vaulted; the columns are red brick. The seats on either side are empty.
Image courtesy Holger Ellgaard.

Such opulence and artistic finery surprised me in a nominally Lutheran church, and I said as much to Thomas.

“Yeah, that didn’t come until the Communists. They used to be Greek Orthodox or whatever before that.”

I thought of the occasional midnight Easter and Christmas services I had attended at my dad’s childhood Eastern Orthodox church, so much bigger and fancier than the Methodist church I had grown up with. “That explains it.”

We both had a chuckle over the prayer candles that now, in addition to (or maybe instead of?) the donation box, simply had a sign with a phone number where you could Swish your donation.

After a few minutes, we turned tail and headed for SF Bokhandeln. We were too late for any of their events, so we just browsed. I ended up picking up Hanabi, which I hadn’t seen the last time I was there. I also picked up a book for Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club that I was having a hard time getting from the library. I’ve since started reading it and unfortunately I’m having a bit of buyer’s remorse. So it goes.

“I wonder how long it would take you, if you just sat down and tried to read the whole shop. Years?” Thomas wondered, picking up and putting down a generic-looking space opera book. “Like, this is the kind of stuff I want to have time to read, but I just end up reading the summary somewhere instead.”

“I mean, not all books are good books. Some are only worth the Wikipedia plot synopsis.”

Finnish friend had shaken her group and landed at a bar on Sveavägen and asked us to come join her. The weather was nice, so we capped off the night with a walk from Gamla Stan to Hötorget. So clear! So warm! Nothing like moving a few degrees’ latitude north to make you appreciate the shift in seasons. If this isn’t nice, what is? But it had been a long day for me (I was up at 6 am!), so after the walk, I bowed out of drinks and went home.

There were still lots of events that I wish I had attended (concerts, primarily), but for my first year at Kulturnatt and going in completely unprepared, I had a really good time. I’ll certainly be marking my calendar for next year’s, and hopefully a little more planning means I’ll get a lot more out of it!

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth: Book Review

An appropriate book choice with Easter coming up!

I’ve been vaguely aware of Reza Aslan for a few years now, as he seems to do the news and talk show circuit fairly regularly, so I was glad that my Facebook book club brought Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth to my attention. Aslan seemed just the person to provide a popular history of the life of Jesus Christ.

Cover of Reza Aslan's "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth"
Image courtesy Random House

Author: Reza Aslan

My GoodReads rating: 5 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.83

Language scaling: C1+

Summary: The historical background and context for the birth of Christianity

Recommended audience: Anyone interested in history, politics, or sociology

In-depth thoughts: Whenever I rate a nonfiction book 5 stars on GoodReads, it indicates a book that I think the general public should read. A nonfiction book needs to meet three requirements to get 5 stars from me:

  1. The writing needs to be engaging and accessible. If it’s a not book that’s fun, or at least easy, to read, then I’ll be hard pressed to give it a full 5 stars. Since this requirement is a judgment call, it’s the one I’m most flexible about.
  2. The topic matter needs to be presented clearly and logically, so that after finishing the book I feel like I understand something better than I did before, or that I know more than I did before. You can’t just list a bunch of dry facts, or a collection of charming anecdotes, and call your book done; there has to be a structure and logical sequence that scaffolds ideas and builds on them so that readers retain what they’ve learned long after the end of the chapter, or the book.
  3. The topic matter needs to be something of extremely timely and relevant public interest. A solid resource for specialists in a field, no matter how excellent a resource, isn’t necessarily something the general public will find relevant or interesting, or even need to know.

Zealot hits all three of these sweet spots: it’s engaging reading, it’s chock-full of information that’s presented clearly and logically, and it’s on a topic that’s very much relevant today.

That said, as a book for English students, Zealot might be a reach. There’s a lot of specific and particular terms needed to discuss Roman history and Jewish history; if you’re not comfortable with the rest of the language in the book, it might feel too difficult or specialized to really get a grip on. On the other hand, if you’re already an ancient history buff, you’ll probably feel right at home.

Friday 5: Games People Play

A young white boy in a red shirt is about to pull out a Jenga piece from a tower.

How good are you at word games, and what’s a word game you really enjoy?

I’d like to think that I’m pretty good at these, but I haven’t played any except Scrabble, and every time I’ve played Scrabble I’ve come somewhere in the middle because someone aggressively outmaneuvered me to get to, or to block, the bonus tiles.

How good are you at trivia games, and what’s your strongest category?

It depends on the game. Like, a copy of Trivial Pursuit from thirty years ago (and I suspect that might be how old my parents’ copy of Trivial Pursuit is!) is not going to be my strong suit. Of course, there is something of a horseshoe effect with these things: there was a burger joint/diner near my college that included a handful of Trivial Pursuit: Boomer Edition cards at each table and out of my peers, I tended to clean up when it came to the arts and entertainment category, at least, just because of my movie and music taste.

But Best Chemist Friend and I were a two-woman trivia team for a while and consistently did well enough to win prizes, if not actual first place, until we got other people to join us, so I think that says it all. I don’t know what my best category would be, but without a doubt my weakest category is sports.

How good are you at spot-the-difference or what’s-wrong-with-this-picture games?

Considering that the only ones I’ve played are the super obvious ones in Highlights for Children, I don’t think I can really judge my ability based on my past experience.

How good are you at memory games, and have you ever played Simon?

Of course I’ve played Simon! But what does it mean to be good at Simon? I don’t have enough data to really say.

Otherwise I play a lot of memory with my students. Confession: in the interest of making the activity maximally educational, I deliberately throw the game whenever we play.

What’s your favorite party game of all time?

I have a couple!

Since I have an astonishing memory for song lyrics, I always really liked playing Encore!(My copy is still at my parents’ house, now that I stop to think about it. The things that slip your memory when you’re packing to move out!) I’m also preternaturally good at Tri-Bond, though I guess it’s up in the air whether that counts as a party game? The same could be said for the aggressive and competitive Munchkin series.

I’ve talked before about how much I love Dixitso that should come as no surprise. Apples to Apples is always a good time and I confess to getting a kick out of Cards Against Humanity, though when I’ve played with others there has always been the house rule that you’re allowed to discard anything you feel is beyond the realm of good taste, no questions asked.

A new favorite I’ve encountered in Sweden is Orangino, which is maybe the most Swedish party game ever developed. The whole point of the game is to determine how well others know you, and how well you can gauge other people’s perception of you. The game consists of cards with different personality traits and descriptions; you rate yourself (from 1 to 4) in secret, while everyone else does too, and people get points for matching your rating. There’s no English version as far as I can tell, which is a shame because as dorky and feel-goody as it sounds, it’s also a lot of fun! (Maybe a future translation project?)

Friday 5: Korea Guidance

I see your pun, Friday 5. Well played.

What would be a better name for the color of goldenrod-colored paper?

What’s wrong with “goldenrod”?

Where did you get your silverware?

Either IKEA or the grocery store downstairs.

It is a weird tradition in America (and possibly elsewhere) for parents to have their children’s baby shoes bronzed. What artifact from this past week would you have bronzed as a keepsake and heirloom?

Last week was pretty unremarkable. If I had to pick anything, it might be the toy dinosaur that lives with Chuck, one of my snake plants.

I have no sentimental attachment to the dinosaur or anything. (I bought as part of a Jurassic Park costume a few years ago.) I just think it would be funny to have it bronzed. Maybe I’ll just spray paint instead?

What was the most recent ceremony you attended?

The wedding I went to in August.

What east Asian cuisine is good for your Seoul?

I lived and taught in South Korea for over two years, as I’ve probably mentioned before, and one of the (many) things I miss big time is the food. The Korean diaspora means that Korean barbecue is familiar to most non-Koreans who live in any metropolitan area that approaches international; it seems that bibimbap is also gaining traction thanks to the recent health food obsession with “Buddha bowls.”

But that is only the tip of the iceberg, my friend.

Korean street food is the best, hands down. (Apologies to all of the gatuköks and Philly pretzel carts out there, but it’s true.) My favorite in this genre is tteokbokki: dense rice cakes in a sweet and spicy sauce. It wasn’t uncommon for teachers at my first school to spring for a whole tray of these for a “snack party” after a particular class finished a level test, since they were cheap, tasty, and filling. It helped that we had a little snack shack in the first floor of our building.

A step up from street food are the ubiquitous gimbap restaurants. I don’t know enough about Korean food history to know whether or not these restaurants predate the appearance of American-style fast food chains in the peninsula, but I would guess that they did. These places specialize in cheap, easy-to-make meals and are popular with broke students and people with criminally short lunch breaks. (This is also the kind of restaurant built into Korean spas.) The backbone dish of these restaurants is gimbap (rice, veggies, and sometimes meat rolled in a sheet of dried black seaweed) and all of its varieties, but the menus always include a wide assortment of variations on jjigaes, larger portions of popular street food, and a few odds and ends. Anything off the menu here will be fantastic, though my personal favorites are dolsot bibimbap, rabokki (a combination of the aforementioned tteokbokki and ramen), and cheesy ramen. I actually don’t care that much for gimbap, ironically enough, because I’m not a huge fan of black seaweed.

When it comes to “real” restaurants, places start to narrow down their menus to a handful of specialty dishes (or a handful of variations on one particular dish). Now you have your Korean barbecue restaurants, with various cuts of pork or beef to grill at your table. I preferred the chicken stir-fry equivalent, the marinated version known as  dak galbi; sometimes my coworkers and I even went out for duck. You have seafood restaurants, with raw fish, squid, and octopus. You have, borrowed from Japan, shabu-shabu. On a slightly lesser tier, you have chicken-and-beer joints. You have what are theoretically restaurants but are really bars with obligatory anju (bar snacks, or bar more-than-a-snack-less-than-a-meal), like stir-fried rice or seafood or kimchi pancake-fritters. (These bars are usually famous for the quality of their anju, though, so having to order to be allowed to drink isn’t a problem at all.)

But for me, the crown jewel of Korean cuisine is something else entirely. The city where I lived, Uijeongbu, is famous for budae jjigae, a relatively modern invention that takes a traditional jjigae and incorporates the kind of meat found in American military MREs: sausages, hot dogs and (of course) SPAM. Unlike other jjigaes, it’s usually served with ramen and glass noodles right in the dish.

A bowl of budae jjigae.
By LWY at flickr – https://www.flickr.com/photos/lwy/2184707139/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3402989

As far as I can tell, Korean entrepreneurs haven’t brought budae jjigae abroad yet. I guess the immediate connection with scraps and cast-offs from American military bases doesn’t really jibe with the image Korea wants to present to the rest of the world? But that’s a tragedy, because budae jjigae is so damn good. I’ve learned to make a lot of Korean food myself, to scratch my Koreastalgia itch, but the one thing that you can never just make yourself is budae jjigae. It’s a dish best cooked in huge heaping batches, tended by a watchful restaurant employee, and enjoyed in the company of others. Like, if I were fabulously, obscenely wealthy, I would open a budae jjigae restaurant in Stockholm. That is how much I love this dish. One day…!

What Makes a Classic?

One of the very few online groups I belong to is The Classics Club. (Not by way of this specific blog, but via another one.) The idea is simple: come up with a list of 50+ classics to read in the next five years, contact the moderators, and you’re (probably) in! But if you’re not much of a joiner, you can still follow the blog and make use of their spins, check-ins, and the backlog of monthly blog prompts. A recent post on the blog brought up the question: How do you define “classic”?

My own Classics Club list was based on the Top 100 Novels of All TIME. After I graduated from college, I took a year-long break from reading fiction. I’d read and written too much of it over the course of the last four years, and truthfully I was a bit despairing of fiction generally. What’s the point? Who cares about reading made-up stories about made-up people? What’s the value in that? (I don’t know where that streak of hardcore utilitarianism came from; maybe I was actually depressed at the time.) I binged on nonfiction for a while, because I felt like I wanted to learn something about the world. When I felt like I was ready for fiction again, I didn’t know how to direct myself—how to choose my own books. The TIME list was as good as any, so I picked that and went to work.

An old cover of TIME Magazine with the headline "CYBERPUNK: Virtual sex, smart drugs, and synthetic rock 'n' roll! A futuristic subculture erupts from the electronic underground." over an image of a young white male wearing a headset and PowerGlove-like aparatus, seated at a CRT monitor, with a neon purple and pink spiral behind him.

(Obviously not a cover from 2005 but I couldn’t resist using the most hilarious cover of TIME magazine I could find.)

Over time, I made alterations; the list is 79% men (73% white men), which seems a little disproportionate considering how actual America population demographics break down. I didn’t achieve gender parity, but I got closer (26% women / 74% men). I searched out more writers of color. If this list were to accurately reflect US racial demographics in 2005, there would be:

  • 13 Black writers
  • 14 Latinx writers
  • 5 Asian writers (this definition of “Asian” being a broad swathe of nations and ethnicities, from Middle Eastern to East, South, and Southeast Asian; Middle Eastern wasn’t tracked according to the above Pew Center data)

The above statistics don’t list any numbers on Native populations, but later Census data puts it at around 1%. Needless to say, these numbers aren’t reflected in Grossman and Lacayo’s list.

My criteria for replacing a book on the list, such as they were:

  • Authors listed twice had one entry booted (farewell, A Pale Fire; so long, Animal Farm; nice knowing you, A Handful of Dust).
  • Any book whose summary I found really unappealing (Falconer) or whose story or subject matter I felt I was already familiar with via cultural osmosis (Deliverance, Dog Soldiers, Gone With the Wind) could be jettisoned.
  • Any book that I still found boring after a good faith effort (around twenty to fifty pages) could be considered read and/or taken off the list to make room for another book (Revolutionary RoadThe Man Who Loved ChildrenA Death in the Family).
  • If a woman was taken off the list, she could only be replaced with another woman. The same would have been true for writers of color, but I never ended up taking any of them off the list.
  • Another book by the same author counted, if the book on the list was unavailable at the library (Martha Quest instead of The Golden NotebookThe Handmaid’s Tale instead of The Blind Assassin).
  • Books that I had already read could be retroactively counted if I felt they were classics of their own accord (Name of the Rose).
  • Writers of color were given preference when possible.

All in all, this meant that I added the following books to the list:

* this book is out of bounds of the time limit I arbitrarily decided on, which was 1999 (to make a list of great 20th century novels)

** this book is technically out of bounds of the time limit dictated by the original list, since it was published before 1923

So what made those editions “classic” for me? As opposed to other books I read but didn’t add to the list? It’s a very uneven list there, and honestly some of those I might even take off later in favor of something better, but then again the original list was also uneven so if Grossman and Lacayo can usher in some duds, so can I.

The best definition of classic is the quote from Italo Calvino: “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.”

(Surprising that I would quote Calvino when I find him to be an uneven writer overall, but there it is.)

People gush about classics being “timeless” but that means different things to different people. There are a lot of mediocre writing instructors out there who insist students avoid using things like Facebook or text messages in their stories because “good writing should be timeless,” yet they’re okay with combustible engines and electricity. (Surprise that people of a certain generation always find new technology and developments disturbing! I wonder if writing instructors in the 1920s railed against the use of horseless carriages and radio in stories for the same reason.)

There are universals of human life that have remained the same over time, even if shifting social mores and new technologies have added wrinkles to those experiences. Love, rejection, insecurity, anxiety, hope…nothing can make those irrelevant or passe. Even when you set a story in a very specific historical context (and yes, true, all stories have a historical context), the conflict and the issues related to that context are still around themes relevant to today. Cry the Beloved Country is about troubled race relations immediately preceding apartheid South Africa, but it’s also about forgiveness and fatherhood. Events in The Poisonwood Bible are intrinsically tied to the political upheaval in the Belgian Congo during the 1960s, but it alongside the white supremacy that fuels the cottage industry of Christian missionaries to Africa, it also tackles overambitious hubris, responsibility, and culpability.

But what separates a classic from a didactic lesson (“racism is bad, mmmkay?”) is complexity. Your favorite fantasy novel will definitely have an epic good-versus-evil scope. Some will have nuance, with a character who ends up being a turncoat or engaging in morally questionable choices for the greater good, but how many of them will address the complex issues that lead to the rise of evil in the first place, or the kind of evil that is the crushing indifference of a runaway system rather than a tyrannical evil overlord?

“A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.”

Friday 5: One is Silver; The Other’s Gold

Gold and silver Victorian fascinators and lockets suspended from an unseen hand or display.
Image courtesy Alex Chambers

Who made you laugh most in 2017?

I guess my sambo, since I spent more time with him than anyone else.

What’s something you learned or discovered in 2017?

A friend of mine directed my attention to Ester Blenda Nordström, about whom there has been a recent spate of new media, including a documentary and a new biography.

In what way was 2017 better than 2016?

I think worse things might have happened in 2017, but they felt less bad (for those not directly impacted, obviously) because they were largely things we could see coming. The celebrity deaths in 2017 also seemed to have relented, at least a little, though my heart broke over Adam West.

What was your most pleasing purchase in 2017?

Houseplants! A humidifier! A stepstool! I’M A REALLY BORING ADULT, Y’ALL.


When in 2017 were you pleasantly surprised?

The way that people, especially in the US, have banded together against bigotry and hatred. Love always wins, but let’s help it win a little faster!

Women in Translation

I think about gender a lot, and I’m a woman interested in translation. It’s surprising, then that I haven’t really thought about the impact of gender on translation (who is translated as well as how) until a number of articles conspired to appear in front of me at the same time. (Big shout-out to The Editors Association of Earth on Facebook; I think I came across these in there.)

Historically, men translated the Odyssey. Here’s what happened when a woman took the job.

Ensuring women are not lost in translation.

Found in translation: how women are making the classics their own.

A stack of seven different bilingual dictionaries: Spanish, Russian, Romanian, and Slovenian. They're sitting on a brown table in front of a white clapboard wall.

This is all good reading. I want to highlight one fact, one piece of raw data, from the second article: three percent of the books published in English each year are translations, and just twenty-six percent of those translations are works written by women. This reflects the larger situation in literary publishing, where men still outnumber women in being published (but women outnumber men in being the ones to publish them–even at the executive level, surprisingly enough).

A culture gains things when it has access to art and literature outside its own language. An individual gains when they have access to the experiences and voices of someone completely different from themselves. If only three percent of published English literature is going to be translation (and we can quibble about what that percentage should be another time) then it seems the least we can do is ensure that a full half of that three percent is works by women.

Which is why, in 2018, I’m going into my pet translation projects with a renewed sense of purpose. Swedish is already underrepresented in English, outside of Strindberg and “Nordic noir” (or so it seems to me); if I can bring more Swedish to the English-speaking table while at the same time bringing more women, so much the better. Translations are first and foremost labors of love; ultimately, market forces are what decide if a translation is viable publishing material. I can’t guarantee that anything I produce will be of interest to an English-speaking audience. But I can’t try to publish anything without having something to publish first.