Language scaling: High intermediate and above (B2+)
Plot summary: In 2019, humans finally receive and decode extraterrestrial messages. The aliens aren’t too far away, so The Society of Jesus sends an expedition to meet them. Things do not go as planned.
Recommended audience: Science fiction fans who are also interested in the humanities, particularly comparative religion, anthropology, and/or linguistics.
Content warning: Sexual assault; violence against children
In-depth thoughts: What Russell does best in The Sparrow is world building. She’s clearly given a lot of thought to both of the distant alien races, in terms of evolutionary biology as well as culture. World building is something I’m usually very picky about, so praise from Caesar is praise, indeed.
As far back as 1996, Russell also had a pretty good sense of what sort of technology we would have in 2019. We might not be mining asteroids in three years, let alone going on interstellar missions, but I think (and hope!) we’ll be surprised by what SpaceX will accomplish. Meanwhile, in 2016, tablets are already ubiquitous. How prescient!
That said, there were some flaws. Like a lot of science fiction, the characterization suffered a bit. Many of them are only vaguely described; others who are more fully fleshed out have significantly out-of-character moments. This would be okay, except that some of those moments are important plot points. Whenever that happens in a book, it always feel like the author is shoehorning a character into a certain role rather than letting the story develop naturally. There are a couple of plot points that I felt were glossed over, though these are apparently addressed in the sequel, Children of God.
Overall, I enjoyed it and I appreciate the thought and work that Russell clearly put into it. I would definitely recommend this for any science fiction fan, though with the warning that towards the end, things get quite brutal.
Say what you will about rote memorization, vocabulary is the foundation upon which language fluency is built. While Anki remains the king of flashcard tools, there are other options. Maybe you don’t have time to learn the interface and make your own decks (you can download other people’s hard work, though!). Maybe you want something in addition to Anki, or maybe you’re just looking for a way to kill some time online. Enter Babadum.
Babadum is a free online flashcard tool that claims to use 5 games to teach you 1500 words. Not bad!
The “games” are nothing revolutionary: just standard flashcard training. To say that there are 5 is also a bit of a misnomer; in reality, there are 4 different activities. You can:
Match the spoken/written word to the correct picture (out of 4 given)
match the pictures to the correct word (out of 4 given)
Match the spoken word to the correct picture (out of 4 given)
Spell the word to match the picture
The fifth game is to just go through a mix of those 4 activities.
What makes Babadum stand out, for me, is the design quality. The website itself is attractive and intuitive (a rare find) and the artwork is cute. Every time I switch from this browser window to the one where I’m playing Babadum (for research purposes, you know), I get sucked into answering three or four more questions. The site is just that inviting. The audio is also fantastic: high quality recordings from native speakers in careers like broadcasting and teaching.
You can read more about the history and design of Babadum by the creators themselves. Unfortunately, the one area I’d like them to expound upon at length is the one they skip over: their word list and how the word-selecting algorithm functions. I can only assume that their “1500 words” are taken from frequency dictionaries or other similar sources. What’s clear from the behind-the-scenes-peak is that the 1500 word list is common across all languages. This is important: Babadum is a top-down program. You cannot add your own vocabulary into the corpus. This aspect does limit its usefulness, making it the most effective for beginners and early intermediates. More advanced learners won’t see as many benefits. Unless you’re like me and have some surprising gaps in your knowledge:
Confession time: I never remember silverware vocab, even though I use it every day. Spoon? Chopsticks? Fork? Doomed to eat monolingually.
Babadum is free to use. There are no ads, and the only feature you unlock by donating is a progress bar. There is no minimum or recommended donation, so you can pay however much or little you like for that option.
Of course, learning whole bunch of words won’t make you fluent. Any site or app that boils down to flashcards can only take you so far. But used in conjunction with other tools (such as Lang-8), or to supplement a course, they can be the difference between knowing the word you want right away and having to scramble for it.
What flashcard apps do you use? What do you think of them? Let me know here or on Twitter (@KobaEnglish)!
An earlier version of this post said that there was an iOS version of Babadum. This is incorrect; it is only available on the Web. The post has since been corrected.
I will preface this (and my previous review of DuoLingo) with the caveat that as of this post, I use DuoLingo for two languages: Russian and Turkish. The lessons for each language are designed by different groups of people and cover different topics; as far as I can tell, DuoLingo doesn’t enforce any kind of strict universality across different languages. Later Russian topics include “History and Fantasy” and “Spirituality,” which Turkish lacks; instead, there’s “Nature” and “Turkey.” So what I see in my trees will not 100% reflect what you see in yours (unless you’re also using English to study Turkish and Russian).
At some point I will have to work my way through the English tree and offer my commentary on the available material, but that’s another post altogether. A study has linked competency in DuoLingo with competency in that gold standard, TOEFL, but it was a study sponsored by DuoLingo so it’s worth taking with a grain of salt (for now). For now, I will repeat my earlier concern with DuoLingo: it’s great for grammar and vocabulary, but lacks in long-form reading and writing practice. Also, returning to the Turkish tree has only reinforced my belief that DuoLingo requires supplementation to truly be effective; relying only on DuoLingo will not get you far. Fortunately, there are free options like Anki and Lang-8 to fill in the gaps.
What are the differences between DuoLingo web and DuoLingo mobile?
First and foremost, I want to say that the DuoLingo app has been really well modified for mobile. It’s really easy and intuitive to use. If you had to do as much typing as you do in the web version, it would be really tedious. Instead, you have the option of drag and dropping words. You can also opt out of the listening exercises without any penalty, which is great when you’re on a noisy commute or waiting room.
As far as structure and guiding principles go, there obviously isn’t much different. You still have all four language areas represented, there’s still a spaced repetition model that guides review, and there’s still a focus on individual words or single sentences instead of longer texts. What’s different is the implementation, though it does seem to depend on the language you’re taking. For example, in Turkish DuoLingo Mobile, one of the exercises on the mobile app is matching word pairs—a useful and effective review exercise that seems completely absent from Russian. Other things are consistent across both languages (and presumably across the entire board). For example, if you choose to review a specific lesson (rather than the catch-all “strengthen” option), right at the beginning DuoLingo mobile will show you the specific words that you’re weakest on (and that will presumably be the focus of the review). It also balances the lowered difficulty of dragging and dropping words with the increased difficulty of no translation hints. The occasions where you do have to write things out, of course, you get your standard mouseover translations.
The gradient on DuoLingo mobile is more nuanced, which I like. Here is the last leg of the Russian tree as of my progress today, as viewed on the web:
There’s a clear demarcation of five levels, and you can see that “Science,” “Politics,” “Colloquial,” and “Nothing” are all at the same level: 4 out of 5. Here’s how the same lessons look in the mobile app at exactly the same time:
At a glance you can see that “Colloquial” and “Nothing” are weaker than “Politics” and much weaker than “Science.” I suspect by tomorrow they’ll both be at 3 out of 5. This is really great if you want to work ahead and target (relatively) weak areas; I wish the web version did this.
And, finally, in the mobile version you have the option to spend your lingots on cute costumes for the little owl mascot. It’s trivial and obviously imparts no new content or skills, but it’s adorable and that’s enough for me.
Which version do I prefer?
While I spend most of my day in front of a computer, making the web-based version of DuoLingo more or less a habit by now, I have to say I actually prefer the mobile version. Thanks to matching word pairs and cut-up sentences, there is a greater variety of activities on the mobile version than on the web. In terms of both usability and challenge, it’s probably a little easier on mobile than web, which means that on tough days I’m more likely to keep up my practice on my phone than at my computer. Challenge is important, but so is repetition. Whatever gets you to keep at it and keep training is good.
Hey, what about the Windows version?
I don’t use Windows myself, so I can’t really comment on it. But feel free to comment or Tweet at me (@KobaEnglish) with your thoughts—that’s something I would love a guest post about!
Plot summary: In Victorian England, Charles Smithson and Ernestina Freeman are engaged to be married. While visiting Ernestina in the town of Lyme Regis, Charles meets and eventually falls in love with the tragic Sarah Woodruff, known around the village as “The French Lieutenant’s Woman.”
Recommended audience: Hardcore English literature fans
In-depth thoughts:The French Lieutenant’s Woman is the first book I’m discussing here to be part of my larger goal of conquering TIME magazine’s list of the Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century. I’m almost done, but it’s taken quite a while. There have been a lot of snags and pauses along the way; The French Lieutenant’s Woman is my first foray into the list after a lengthy dry spell.
I knew nothing about the book going into it. Considering that John Fowles is listed among Great Britain’s top 50 writers, that makes me maybe one of the worst English majors ever, but so it is. That’s exactly why I decided to tackle the TIME Top 100 Novels list: to fill in the gaps of my literary education. (English literature, at any rate.)
Image courtesy Jonathan Cape/Random House
Where to start with this book? Well, the writing is complex and dense. This is not a complaint; it’s good to stretch the little gray cells once in a while, and once you accustom yourself to the faux-Victorian style of the novel things continue at a relatively snappy pace. But it’s still work, and for so much work one expects some kind of reward.
By “reward,” I don’t mean a good or at least satisfying ending, plot-wise; I mean the entire reading experience. Contrast The French Lieutenant’s Woman with a book it inspired: A. S. Byatt’s Possession. On the surface, the plot isn’t too terribly exciting. What’s commendable about Possession is Byatt’s thorough commitment to her fictional poets and her parallel narrative structure. All told, Possession includes: a modern-day narrative; a Victorian narrative; considerable personal correspondence from a variety of fictional Victorians; journal entries from a Victorian-era French teenager; and a small corpus of highly formalized poetry for the two aforementioned fictional poets. That is some dedication to the craft.
The French Lieutenant’s Woman lacks any such dedication, particularly in the variety of viewpoints. The narrative chugs along in a consistent third person that is sometimes quite close and other times quite distant, with only a few winks and nods at the fourth wall to make it feel at all modern. We spend exactly zero time with Sarah Woodruff, the titular character. Instead, we spend most of the time with Charles. Sometimes we leave Charles to get to know other male characters, such as the Irish doctor or Charles’s servant, Sam, but most of the time we’re with Charles. Women are treated even more distantly, and no woman is treated more distantly than Sarah. Because of this, everything else falls apart. Without the privilege of an interior monologue, Sarah remains nothing more than the tired trope of “hysterical attention whore” and the entire novel feels much staler and older than its 1969 publication date.
The bell cannot be unrung; the book cannot be unread. Fowles’s The Magus sounds like it might be more my cup of tea, but other than that I won’t be coming back to this author anytime soon. Not even Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons can save this one for me.
First of all, what is a MOOC? “MOOC” stands for Massive Open Online Course: free courses you can take online, usually alongside dozens, maybe hundreds of other classmates from around the world. They’re created by professors at prestigious universities and experts in the field and usually consist of video lectures, readings, and homework assignments.
Whenever I have a lull in my schedule, I like to see if there are any MOOCs coming up that pique my interest. I’m a member of Coursera.org, but I hear that edx.org also has a lot of great classes and will be looking into it in the future. MOOCs can be hit or miss, so I thought I’d collect some of the hits here.
In my experience, it’s really easy for MOOCs to fail. There are two traps they end up falling into: (1) spoonfeeding you almost no information, or (2) throwing you in the deep end right away. Learning How to Learn charts a middle course; it might even err towards spoonfeeding, but because the information is immediately applicable to learning and habits generally, it maintained my interest throughout the course. The videos were short and punchy, making them the perfect thing to watch while taking a break from something else. There are quizzes with every module, but to be honest they are low stress and not excessively challenging. They’re clearly designed to repeat and reinforce information rather than to challenge students or freak them out.
Learning How to Learn covers these areas:
What is learning?
Procrastination and memory
Renaissance learning and unlocking your potential
The video lectures are in English, but if you’re not comfortable enough to take an entire course in English, the subtitles have been translated into a variety of languages: Arabic, French, Russian, and Chinese (among others). As far as I’m aware, the quizzes are still in English, though I could be wrong.
The most helpful parts for me came in the third week (procrastination!) and in the weekly email digests. I finished the class long ago, but I still get the weekly “Cheery Friday Greetings” newsletter. Normally email newsletters are not my bag, but Dr. Oakley and Dr. Sejnowski manage to dig up a lot of great book recommendations on memory, learning, and psychology—it’s a really great free source, in my opinion, especially for anyone studying or teaching a foreign language.
Overall it’s a casual but nonetheless helpful MOOC that I think anyone, especially students, can immediately apply to their lives. Take it! Let me know what you think!
First of all, when I talk about “Lang-8,” I’m talking exclusively about the free version. I don’t have a premium membership—quite frankly, I don’t feel I need one, and I’ll come back to that later—so everything in here refers to the free experience. The two aren’t really substantially different, anyway.
While language study is often broken down into four discrete arenas (speaking, writing, listening, and reading), the truth is that all four interact with each other. Even if your focus is on speaking or listening instead of writing, spending some time on your writing will help strengthen all other areas. And overall, Lang-8 is a great resource for practicing your writing. You can post a journal entry and for free it will show up in front of thousands of eyes. There are nearly 200,000 users who have given Russian as their native language and English as their language of study, for example. I can put up an exercise and get corrections within hours. My journal entries average something around 100 views (each), with corrections from 12 or 13 different people.
I don’t even know 12 native Russian speakers here in Stockholm!
But the biggest strength of Lang-8 for me is also related to its greatest drawback: anyone can join and correct your writing.
I have seen some poor English corrections in my day, and while some of this can be written off due to varying levels of pedantry or different philosophies on which errors are “worth” correcting and the goals of writing (to be grammatically perfect? to be grammatically perfect and natural-sounding? to just be comprehensible?), some of it seems to come down to the fact that native speakers don’t often have a firm grasp of the rules of their own language.
Never mind how often a user has misunderstood the author’s intention and provided a correction that substantially changes the phrase’s intended meaning.
This means that you will sometimes get differing or even conflicting corrections. Sometimes users will comment on their corrections and explain their reasoning, but more often than not they don’t. If you don’t have a guide on hand, it can be impossible to understand which of these corrections is the best one, or is actually counter what you were trying to communicate in the first place.
This is where a good teacher or tutor comes in. They can sit with you in real time to make sure they understand exactly what you wanted to say and show you which corrections can help you say that, and which ones would mean something totally different. They can explain why “go on a walk” and “take a walk” are okay but “take on a walk” isn’t. If you aren’t in a position to take a class or hire a private tutor, then you should supplement your Lang-8 corrections with a good grammar book and a good usage guide. (More on those in a later post.)
Despite this, Lang-8 is a powerful tool for your language acquisition; even more so because it’s available for free. There are premium features available for paying users ($7 US/month or $63 US/year), some of which are quite useful, but the site is most definitely very usable and helpful if you’d rather stick with the free version. These are the three features that would most likely get me to upgrade:
The biggest limit on free users is probably the number of languages you’re allowed to study. For paying users, it’s unlimited; for free users, it’s just two. (I chose Russian and Korean.) Sure, there are other writing exchange networking sites out there, but Lang-8 is huge; it’d be easier to have all of your language learning on one site than cobbling together a patchwork of resources. For the price, I think it’s a good value for the language nerds out there.
2. Another premium option that might be worth paying for is the ability to download entries—weirdly enough, any entry, not just ones you wrote—along with their corrections as PDFs, so that you can study them offline. While we live in a digital age, I’m the first to advocate for dead trees and pencils. Sometimes there’s just no substitute for taking notes and marking things by hand. And the PDFs are surprisingly well formatted and clear to follow, instead of some kind of ugly screen shot.
3. And finally, paying users have the ability to search their own journal. I don’t have enough entries yet that I really need a search function, but if you give yourself a daily or even weekly writing goal, your journal entries are going to start racking up pretty quickly. I can see that being very useful.
Overall, Lang-8 is a powerful free resource for developing your writing in English (or any other language you wish to study). It’s not without drawbacks, but in the absence a language course or tutor, it’s the next best thing for your writing.
Have you tried Lang-8? What do you think? Share your profile here or on Twitter (@KobaEnglish)!
Lang-8 (lang-8.com) is a free, collaborative language-learning resource focused on writing. If you’re studying English outside a formal classroom, this is a great resource to get immediate feedback from native and advanced speakers. If you’re taking a class, Lang-8 is a great supplement. But it has its drawbacks, and it can be a little tricky to get the hang of. In this post, I’ll only go through the basics of using Lang-8. In the next post, I’ll discuss it more generally in terms of pros and cons.
The basic premise of Lang-8 is that you correct other people’s writing and they correct yours. Every time you submit an entry to your journal, it shows up in two streams: the generic “every English (or any other language) post” stream, and the specific “every post from my friends” stream. In your home page, posts from your friends are at the top, with the entire tidal wave from the entire site below.
Posting an entry is pretty straightforward. The tricky bits come with correcting other people’s writing, as the correcting interface is a little messy. Since everything is web-based—you write and you correct directly in the browser, instead of uploading or downloading documents—there isn’t a great built-in way to track or show changes. You have a WYSIWYG editor, with options for bold, strikeout, gray, red, and blue text. There are no official or even suggested guidelines for how to implement these particular typeface changes, so the corrections any given piece receives will be (relatively) inconsistently formatted. My biggest protip here is to make liberal use of the color options, especially for small mistakes like typos or capitalization. It makes things much easier for the author when they go back to look at the corrections.
Let’s take a closer look at the corrections menu. Many thanks to user Vera Vakhrusheva, whose recent essay on a LGBQT+ demonstration in Russia is featured in my screenshots. It’s kind of hard to show you how the website works if you obscure the entire text, but given that someone could have easily uploaded an exercise with the intent to keep it relatively private, I will only be using one or two extracts and blurring the rest.
If you click on a journal entry on your Lang-8 landing page, regardless of whether it’s from a friend’s journal or somewhere else, this is where you will end up. At the top you’ll see the title, and then the essay in its entirety. On the right are some stats: privacy level, how many people have viewed it, how many comments it has, how many corrections it has, what language it’s written in, etc. Here, we can see that this was a public entry with 7 views, no corrections, and no comments at the time of this screenshot. Sometimes an exercise will be given in the target language and the original language, but not always. This one was given only in English.
You can “like” a journal entry or not at the bottom. Clicking on the big blue button takes you to the text boxes where you’ll be doing your correcting. (You can also just scroll down.)
Here is where it gets a little tricky.
Every journal entry has two fields: the title and the body. The title is optional, and if you don’t have one, it just uses the first however many characters of your entry. The title stands on its own in the corrections interface (and disappears if there isn’t one given), but the body can get quite long: Lang-8 parses text into sentences and gives each sentence its own section. If you want to correct the sentence, you click the blue “Correct” button to open up the WYSIWYG editor. A green “Perfect” button also appears when you mouse over (making it hard to nab in a screen capture); select this if the sentence is fine. This image features the title of the piece and the first sentence of the body, both of which I’ve already begun to correct. As you can see, you don’t edit the text directly on Lang-8; you provide corrected copies.
You can only save your corrections all at once. You do this with the big orange button at the top or bottom of the corrections interface.
Also note that at the bottom of the corrections interface is the option to comment, generally, on the entry itself. (You can also comment on specific corrections after you open the “Correct” menu.) You can comment without making corrections, if you really feel moved to do so, by typing a comment and then hitting “Post corrections,” but considering the fact that people post here for the explicit purpose of receiving grammatical instruction rather than social media style “wow cool!!” comments, corrections are very much appreciated.
If someone else has gotten to an entry before you, you can simply recommend their corrections instead of making the same correction again. Their corrections and comments will appear right under the essay, before the corrections interface.
You can distinguish someone’s corrections from the actual corrections interface by the blue border. Here you can see the original (gray pencil icon), the correction underneath it (green checkmark icon), and the option to vote for a correction as “good” or to quote it (if you wish to discuss someone’s correction in the comments). You can also see in the gray box that this user left a comment explaining one of his corrections.
After you scroll past all of the corrections and comments, you’ll see the familiar corrections interface at the bottom of the page. This time, each section includes the original text and all of the corrections that other users have made. Once again, you have the option to vote for a good one in addition to providing your own. You also still have the option to mouse over for the green “Perfect” button if there’s nothing wrong with the sentence. If none of the corrections are good ones, then you can click the blue “Correct” button and add your corrections.
From the perspective of a Lang-8 user, it’s better to vote for good corrections instead of mindlessly entering in the same one. Things can quickly get cluttered otherwise. At least, I think it’s cluttered.
That about wraps up my guide to Lang-8! Tweet at me or comment if you have questions, confusions, or suggestions. Next time I’ll take a step back and discuss its pros and cons as a language-learning tool. Have a great weekend!
Authors: Timothy Rasinski, Nacy Padak, Rick M. Newton, Evangeline Newton
Genre: Specialist non-fiction
My GoodReads rating: 4 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 4.44
Target audience: English teachers and etymology nerds
Topic matter: The classical roots of English vocabulary
In-depth thoughts: If my affixes series didn’t make it abundantly clear, I’m a big fan of teaching (at appropriate levels) etymology along with vocabulary. A solid background in prefixes, suffixes, and bases helps EFL students learn words quicker and easier. This is the philosophy of Rasinski, Padak, Newton, and Newton, the authors of Greek and Latin Roots: Keys to Building Vocabulary.
This is a must for any English teacher, EFL or otherwise. English looks random and chaotic on the surface, so the more systems teachers can provide for their students, the better. Greek and Latin Roots does a very thorough job on how and why teachers of every grade and ability level should focus on classical roots when teaching English, with numerous activities and even a couple of sample lessons. They also provide a brief history of the development of English, useful for placing certain words and constructions in context. (My only quibble here is they have the usual breathless “Shakespeare invented so many words!” history without considering the context in which he was writing, but this is a book on teaching vocabulary and not a comprehensive history of English, so it’s easily ignored.)
As Greek and Latin Roots is a book for teachers, it might not be immediately useful for students, except for the appendixes. Appendix A has recommendations for student resources, both digital and dead tree. The recommendations in Appendix B are intended for teachers, but students might still find the word lists and puzzles helpful. Appendix C is a goldmine: a good, foundational list of classical word roots, arranged alphabetically. Finally, Appendix D has a collection of English’s many loan words from other languages categorized by language or language family. (There’s also Appendix E, but that’s a professional development section intended specifically for teachers who want to hone their craft.)
It took me a long to realize it, but I love organization. Specifically, I love record-keeping: diaries, lists, even some sad attempts at scrapbooking. One of my favorite record-keeping tools is GoodReads. Reading is important to me, and being able to keep track of what I read, when I read it, and what I thought about it is immensely satisfying for reasons I can’t really identify. Since 2007, everything I’ve read has been meticulously rated and catalogued. One unintended result of this records obsession is that I can effortlessly track my reading habits and trends. What were my favorite and least favorite books in a given year? What did I read the most of?
My Favorite Books of 2015
I gave only four 5-star reviews last year: Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale For the Time Being (quite recent), NoViolet Buluwayo’s We Need New Names (also quite recent), Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano (not so recent), and Pär Lagerkvist’s Barabbas (also not so recent).
February 2015: Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry
It’s been my goal for the last few years to read every novel on the TIME Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century list, which is how I stumbled across Under the Volcano. As a revered English classic, the book needs no selling, no praise, no recommendation.
What struck me was Lowry’s complex and intricate prose and the examination of expatriate life. Having lived for a few years in South Korea, the genre of “expats and tourists behaving badly” holds a special place in my heart: The Sun Also Rises, The Sheltering Sky, Tropic ofCancer, and Giovanni’s Room were some of my favorite reads in my tour of 20th century English literature. Under the Volcano is part of that genre, but also more. It’s a lyrical character study, a sympathetic, heart-wrenching exploration of alcoholism and interpersonal relationships, and a study of Mexican politics in the 1930s.
May 2015: A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki
I think the only reason A Tale for the Time Being isn’t on the TIME Top 100 list is because it was published in 2013 and the TIME list was assembled in 2005. I hope so, anyway.
In brief, A Tale for the Time Being is about a woman in Canada, Ruth, who finds and reads a diary that washed up along the coast. It turns out to be written by a Japanese schoolgirl, Nao, some years earlier.
Of course it’s also about much more than that. There’s prehistoric flora, quantum entanglement, philosophy, Zen monks, and insects (among others). But everything falls under that found diary and Ruth’s relationship to it.
Ozeki displays an incredible technical range. She ends up writing from the perspective of five different people (not all of them are equally prominent; I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the book focuses primarily on two of them, so the book is much more focused than it sounds like it would be with five different protagonists) and gives them all incredibly distinct and personal voices. There are other metatextual indications when the writing shifts perspective, like a different font or a chapter title or so on, but Ozeki gives each of them a strong enough voice that you would be able to tell anyway.
A Tale for the Time Being is not only a technical achievement, though. Ozeki also creates a compelling story. After rationing out portions of the book like literary chocolate, at maybe halfway through I just binged and read the whole thing. I might have cried. (As in: I cried.)
If you’re in the mood for experiments with narrative form, bildungsroman, or a sampling of Japanese history and philosophy, A Tale for the Time Being is for you.
December 4th, 2015: We Need New Names, NoViolet Bulawayo
This book was a mostly-random selection from the “world literature” shelf at the library. “Mostly-random” because I’d heard a little buzz about it beforehand; enough that I checked this book out when I couldn’t find anything from my TIME Top 100 list. (It seems Stockholm biblioteket’s copy of The Buddha of Suburbia is lost forever.) Like A Tale for the Time Being, I think We Need New Names would be a strong contender for an updated and more diverse TIME Top 100 list.
We Need New Names is about the Zimbabwean Darling, first as a child in Zimbabwe and later as a teenager in the United States. Bulawayo’s short story “Hitting Budapest” won the Caine prize, and she later expanded it into a novel. The book lends itself to comparisons with Adichie’s Americanah; I think readers who like one will like the other. The difference (aside from setting) is in focus: Bulawayo focuses on details and short episodes, leaving much implied or suggested, while Adichie went for a grand epic of everything. Bulawayo’s voice is also unique and clear. For a sample, you can read “Hitting Budapest” online.
December 27th, 2015: Barabbas, Pär Lagerkvist
This one was a reread for me. You might recall my earlier lament that Lagerkvist English translations are few and far between. Barabbas is one of his works that has an English translation, and a good one at that. That’s how I originally read it in university. Last year I picked up a copy from the library to give it another go, this time in the original Swedish. Lagerkvist’s style is sparse and straightforward, and the novel itself is quite short, so it was good Swedish practice for me. Likewise the English translation would be good English practice.
Barabbas is the story of Barabbas, the criminal who walked free while Christ was crucified. Lagerkvist tells us the story of this marginal figure, exploring the issues of faith, doubt, and belief through Barabbas’s struggle to understand his fate and the nascent Christian faith.
In my private life, I follow a lot of book bloggers. Sometime last year, at least one of them brought The Room to my attention. No, not Tommy Wiseau’s “masterpiece.” This The Room is a novel by the Swedish Jonas Karlsson. The premise sounded interesting and I looked high and low for the original Swedish edition, only to turn up empty-handed. I shrugged and moved on to other things.
One of those other things was NetGalley. I finally bit the bullet and signed up a few months ago. I could rationalize that decision with “it’s important to stay abreast of literary trends when you’re an editor” but really I just wanted free ebooks. (When you live outside the US and Canada, you don’t get the free physical copies.)
Last week I noticed a new title in the Literary Fiction section: The Invoice, by Jonas Karlsson. I recognized his name immediately and requested the book as a way to give him a test run. I was also curious about how the translation was handled, as my luck with English translation of contemporary Swedish books (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) has been much worse than with English translations of Swedish classics (Doctor Glass). Where would The Invoice fall in this spectrum?
The answer: somewhere in the middle.
In the case of The Invoice, there was something clunky and choppy about the writing. I noticed it, frowned, and continued reading, because at least it didn’t use any archaic or awkward turns of phrases I had seen elsewhere, and by elsewhere I mean in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. (No one uses “anon” anymore; at least, not to mean “soon.”) I eventually stopped noticing the choppiness, but only because something bothered me even more: an uncomfortable mix of American and British English.
I’m all in favor of standardizing English; it would make my job (both as a tutor and as an editor) that much easier. But we haven’t accomplished that standardization yet, and while usage may dictate rules, I don’t think individual publishers deciding on their own “blends” will successfully further the International English cause. When it comes to The Invoice, this blend was:
So we had a character walking into a gray granite building, taking a lift up to the eleventh floor, and talking to a Mr. Something-or-other.
This is a minor quibble on my part, I realize. Once I figured out was going on, I was able to put my discomfort in a box and read the story for the sake of the story. It certainly didn’t hamper my understanding in any way. But I think it’s a point worth discussing: when translating into English, how much should consistency and localization matter?
After all, I had no trouble understanding the writing. The differences between British and American English have been thoroughly documented, to the point where any adult English-speaking reader (usually) knows there are differences and can (usually) switch between the two without difficulty. And how many people, exactly, really notice those differences? Literature translated into English isn’t done for the exclusive sake of native speakers. There is a huge market for non-native speakers as well; readers who might not be attuned to the differences, or who might prefer “color” and “analyze” but also “lorry” and “dustbin.” Does that make the distinction between conventions nothing more than a shibboleth on par with “rules” about ending sentences in prepositions?
For me, not quite, though I couldn’t give you a satisfactory answer as to why. I just like consistency! (Hobgoblin of a little mind it may be.) If I had been working on this project, I would have favored American terminology and made the appropriate changes, with a comment explaining why.
I asked other editors (informally) and the majority response seemed to be that this was an inconsistency, and one that “should” be rectified, validating my own thought on the issue. A not-insignificant portion replied that they had been instructed to mix conventions in similar ways, or had heard of that happening to other editors. I was surprised to learn that this is something that deliberately happens, but if that’s how a publisher or author wants to roll, that’s what they’re allowed to do.
But something that bothers word nerds might not bother the general public, so I put this question out to you, Internet: how do you feel about mixing different English conventions?
Legal “CYA” moment: in case context didn’t make it clear, I received a free preview copy of The Invoice in exchange for honest feedback and review. The translation issue I described here (in as much as it’s an “issue”) may be addressed by the time the book goes to print.