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Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Translator: On The Unreliability of Perceptions

Translation is an interesting topic.  There are always terms in any given language that can only be approximated in a translation.  I have always wondered how translators handle such dilemmas and whether they believed themselves successful.  I mentioned a translator of the Koran who considered himself relatively unsuccessful in my review of Halal Monk here

The Translator by Nina Schuyler is a contemporary novel whose protagonist, Hanne Schubert, is a professional translator.  As the novel opens, she has just finished translating a Japanese novel into English and submitted it to the publisher.  An accidental fall causes her to lose the ability to speak any language except Japanese.  Japanese was a language she acquired as a teenager.  This is considered late for language acquisition.  People who experience memory loss generally don't lose the ability to speak their first language learned from their parents or other caregivers in early childhood, so this is a highly unusual circumstance.   Ignoring the advice of her doctor, Hanne Schubert decides that a trip to Japan would be the best way to deal with her problem. Although I rarely read contemporary literary fiction, this sounded like an original plot. I wanted to know how it would end.


I have to say that any cover that includes masks attracts my attention.  The Noh Drama masks and the cherry blossoms definitely evoked Japan for this reader.  I have often enjoyed novels that take place in Japan, though they are usually historical rather than contemporary.

Noh actor Moto comes into the narrative as the basis for the protagonist in the novel that Hanne Schubert had translated.  It occurred to me that a fictional version of a real individual is also a translation.  The author translates a living being into a character.   So Moto had gone through two levels of translation.   He was translated by Kobayashi, the author of the Japanese novel within Schuyler's novel, before Schubert's translation.   Then I realized that Moto as an actor is a translator as well.   The actor translates characters portrayed by authors into the medium of stage performance.

I was already aware that artists are translators.  I am fond of  Surrealist RenĂ© Magritte's famous painting of a pipe with the caption "Ceci n'est pas une pipe".  In English the phrase would be "This is not a pipe."  It's a two dimensional translation of a real pipe in oil paint on canvas.  Magritte selected a very safe subject.  A pipe isn't capable of complaining about the accuracy of the translation.

Translation goes wrong due to the subjectivity of the translator's perception.  Material involving two levels of translation is further away from the original.  The subjectivity of two individuals has intervened.  Each level of translation could vary according to the perception of each of those individuals.

I noticed my own subjectivity intervening in my interpretation of the book when a boy spoke to Hanne Schubert at an indoor artificial beach (a translation of the outdoor original).  He said "This is a pen."  In English, there is more than one definition of the word "pen".  It could be a writing implement or it could be a structure for the confinement of animals.  I thought the boy was expressing a sense of being confined by the artificial beach inside a building.   This felt like an important statement to me.  Then I read further and learned that "This is a pen," is one of the first sentences Japanese students are taught in English classes. The boy was trying to practice his English.  I had over-interpreted and given the boy's statement added significance that was unintended.  It was hard for me to let go of my interpretation even though it was essentially a translation error. 

On the macro level, the theme of The Translator is the limitations of perception.  All human perception is a translation of reality through the interpretation of our minds and senses.  No one ever perceives reality directly without it being translated.  Character relationships in this book are encumbered by differing perceptions of events and motivations.

 A huge misunderstanding separates Hanne Schubert from her daughter, Brigitte. Some may find it ironic that a translator who facilitates intercultural exchange of ideas can't communicate with her own child.  I felt that there was a tragic inevitability in their separation.  Their relationship was particularly vulnerable to mistranslation because of cultural differences.  Their backgrounds would necessarily cause mother and daughter to have completely variant understandings of their experiences.  This happens to all mothers and daughters to a certain extent since each generation is born into a world that diverges from the world of the previous generation. Yet when mother and daughter were born in different countries, their relationship becomes even more problematic.  Translation difficulties abound.  Only a conscious effort could bridge the gap between them. 

This is an intellectual review because the central concept of this book is a complex one.  It is matched by equally complex characters whose painful process of evolution is quite moving.  The Translator is a masterful novel that both engages and enlightens readers.




Saturday, May 16, 2015

A Dangerous Place: Jacqueline Winspear's Terrible Dilemma

I've just had the experience of reading through reviews of A Dangerous Place (Maisie Dobbs #11) on Goodreads after having read it myself.  I was looking forward to this book, though I admit I was at first disappointed when I discovered that it took place on Gibraltar rather than in India which is where Maisie had been headed after the end of the last Maisie Dobb's novel, Leaving Everything Most Loved.  A number of the reviews on Goodreads went far beyond disappointment.  This review is in part a response to them and a defense of Jacqueline Winspear's choices.  I am not associated with either Winspear or the publisher of this book, and I obtained my copy from a public library. 


It bothered me to see tirades  from readers about how they felt cheated of a HEA by this book as if this were a romance.  Reviewers even voiced the expectation that Maisie Dobbs could marry and continue her work as a private investigator.  These readers praise author Jacqueline Winspear's feel for the historical period,  yet they still had this extremely unrealistic expectation that would be totally false to Maisie's  context.

 My own response to the first few pages of this book was relief.  I was so glad that Winspear had found a way to continue the series.   I know that this sounds unfeeling when Maisie had gone through such tragic events, but I selfishly didn't want to be deprived of the future adventures of Maisie Dobbs. 

In Maisie's era, only lower class  Englishwomen worked outside the home after they married.  The main occupations of middle class and upper class women were running the household and having babies.  Aside from those, they could draw,paint, play a musical instrument, learn flower arranging or take dancing lessons.  They could also socialize,go to the theatre,visit museums and do limited charity work that didn't expose them too much to the realities of lower class life. These were a lady's socially approved activities.  For Maisie to continue investigating crimes would create a scandal.

 I'm sure that Maisie was aware that she couldn't continue with her work after she married.  This is almost certainly why she hesitated so long about marriage.   Yet she very much wanted to marry and have children.  It was a dilemma for any woman who had a career before marriage then, and it's a dilemma for any author who chooses to write about a woman's life before the second wave of feminism in the 1970's.

It's true that there are other historical mystery series that take place in the U.S. in which married women such as Rhys Bowen's Molly Murphy continue their investigative careers.   I ought to point out that since her marriage, Molly has had to deceive her husband, or invent excuses for her scandalous behavior.  Maisie's situation is also quite different from Molly's due to a difference in social class which has always been a much more important issue in England than it's ever been in American society.

As for the readers who wanted a Canada book, I have to repeat that this isn't a romance series.  It's a mystery/thriller series.  Given the circumstances, nothing could have happened in Maisie's life while she was in Canada that would have been of any interest to readers of mysteries and thrillers. 

I can understand but not sympathize with the readers who just wanted some more space devoted to Maisie's brief period in Canada in the form of flashbacks.  In  this case, Maisie has come to Gibraltar in order to avoid her memories.  People respond to grief in different ways.  Some people immerse themselves in memories because they consider them a comfort.  Others find memories too painful.  Because Maisie couldn't bear to remember her more recent past, she wouldn't have flashbacks to Canada in this book.  I've seen the argument that Maisie has never reacted to loss that way, but it seems to me that she behaves differently because of the impact of these particular losses.  I have also felt differently about losses that were particularly important to me.   I consider the portrayal of Maisie in A Dangerous Place psychologically authentic. 

Now let's get on to discussion of what was in the book rather than what wasn't there.  I hadn't fully realized what Gibraltar would have been like during this period.  I hadn't thought about the connection of Gibraltar to Spain.  I have read books and seen movies that took place in Spain during this period.  So I do have some familiarity with the Spanish Civil War.  I have seen the tapestry copy of Picasso's Guernica painting that was displayed at the United Nations building in New York until 2009.  None of this prepared me for the situation that Maisie encountered on Gibraltar.

 I hadn't understood the implications of German warplanes flying over Gibraltar.  Once I did learn why that was significant, I was as appalled as Maisie had been in the novel, and I completely empathized with the actions that Maisie felt compelled to undertake at the end of this book.  It demonstrated that Maisie is a "loose cannon" from the perspective of the British authorities.  This means that she is a woman who thinks for herself and acts on her beliefs.  I love that aspect of Maisie's character and very much liked the way this novel ended.



Saturday, May 9, 2015

Feeling For The Air: When Darker Elements Work In A Romance

Romance has requirements that cause it to be a rather formulaic genre which is why I read it so rarely.   Yet Feeling For The Air sounded very different.  Both the hero and the heroine aren't the sort of people that I'd expect to see in a romance novel.  I was curious and wanted to see how this totally non-formulaic story plays out.  There were also monarch butterflies.  How could I go wrong with romance plus butterflies?  That's why I purchased it from Amazon and reviewed it for the Bookplex.


  Feeling for the Air is the middle book in a trilogy about the relationship between bad boy Dace and his academic minded cousin, Liza.  So any HEA ending can only be provisional.  This is the first novel that I have read by Karen Black, but she introduced all the important background information that I needed to know from the first book in the trilogy in a very natural way.

 I do have to say that the cover didn’t really attract my interest. On the cover of the first book, From the Chrysalis, the monarch butterfly was the central image.  Since the search for the home of the monarch butterflies in Mexico was an important plot strand in this book, I wished that Black hadn’t already used that cover and that title for her first novel.  Emerging from the chrysalis also implies metamorphosis.  The two lovers begin to transform themselves in Feeling for the Air, but we only get a small symbolic butterfly on the cover.   I wish there could have been a monarch butterfly poised to take flight on this cover.  It would have echoed the title and the life stage of the two protagonists. 

I have nothing but praise for the writing. The sharp focus on the character viewpoints is magnetic, and the harsh realism of the characters’ dilemmas gave this novel impact.  From the beginning of the book, I threw my support to Liza.  I wanted her to finish school and make a good life for herself and her baby with or without Dace.   I could see that Dace was badly damaged and that all his instincts lead him toward trouble.  As I discovered more about his background, I understood what motivated his self-destructive pattern.  Yet I didn’t sympathize with him at all until he started to make a real effort to change his behavior at around the halfway point in the book.  I could see that his progress was shaky, however, and I wondered if he would ever become completely trustworthy.  Liza is also unsteady in her development as a mother.  She isn’t the ideal mother.  She doesn’t always put the interests of her child first and sometimes thinks about escaping her parental responsibilities. I did consider these truthful portrayals.  Major change in people’s lives takes place gradually.  They will hopefully mature as a result of their experiences. 
I was especially impressed with Liza’s choice of a midwife assisted home birth and the author’s choice of depicting the entire birth process.  Romance tends to shy away from the messier aspects of birth.  I consider this a bold choice because there are probably many readers who would consider it unromantic.  They would prefer a hazier approach to childbirth in which a mother enters a birthing room and emerges from it with a healthy child in the very next paragraph.  I very much appreciate Karen Black’s willingness to take on aspects of life that are usually airbrushed out of conventional romances. 



Sunday, May 3, 2015

Common Ground On Hostile Turf: When Resolving Conflict Isn't Enough

I discovered this book because I follow the science fiction author Cary Neeper on Goodreads.  She was really enthusiastic about the book.  I was motivated to read it because the protagonist of The Pipe Woman Chronicles, which I reviewed here, is a mediator.  Author Lynne Cantwell's portrayal of a mediator caused me to become interested in real life mediators.  I wanted to know about real life mediation cases and whether the results of mediations are honored by their participants.  So I obtained this book from the library to find out how mediation works.


Lucy Moore's stories about her mediation cases were fascinating to me.  Yet I wished that she was more committed to getting the best results for the environment rather than resolving conflict between  the parties in the mediation.  The compromises necessary to resolve conflict didn't always bring about any changes that would benefit the environment.  This would happen when a mediation prioritizes the concerns of government and industry, but marginalizes those of environmentalists.  Moore deals with the question of defining success in a mediation, but I don't think she gave enough thought to the topic due to her professional biases as a mediator.  I think that the perspective of the profession is short-term. If the main stakeholders have been included, she doesn't consider whether the failure to address the concerns of other stakeholders could reflect on the success of the mediation in resolving long-term conflict on the issue. 

Since she had lived on the Navajo reservation, Moore had credibility with Native Americans.  So she mediated in conflicts between the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) and the governments of Native American nations that didn't have to do with the environment.

 Moore considered a mediation dealing with BIA schools a success. She didn't really consider the interests of Native American students. The purpose of the mediation was to implement No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in BIA schools.  NCLB is a failed educational policy that has caused all Americans to be left behind.   Our educational system has worsened as a result of this policy, and this is  negatively impacting the U.S. economy.   I am convinced that NCLB is one of the underlying causes of  our recession.  NCLB emphasizes the results of standardized tests which aren't an adequate measure of learning for all student populations.  Under NCLB, teachers have been  discouraged from employing creative approaches that will allow all students to succeed.  It's briefly mentioned in this book that Native Americans are one of the populations that aren't being well-served by standardized testing, but this issue wasn't brought up during the mediation.  A mediator who understood the educational issues involved would have assisted the Native American participants in preparing better.  They could have come armed with criticisms of  the effectiveness of standardized testing among Native Americans and gotten the government to address that concern.  No one at the mediation questioned whether NCLB would really be a desirable improvement for BIA schools. The mediation accomplished the goal of Moore's client, the BIA, but I considered it a terrible loss for the children it was meant to benefit.

Probably the worst example of conflict resolution without any benefit to the participants was when Moore's firm took on the running of the EPA's annual meeting at a Superfund cleanup site.  If I were her, you could not have paid me to take on that job. The EPA's purpose in hiring her was to make the meeting run smoothly for them.   They had no intention of actually doing anything for the residents.  These were people who had no potable water.  No government agency or NGO was even stepping in to search for a source of pure water for them.  Moore applauded an EPA official for recording the concerns expressed in the meeting, but the inadequacy of that response in the face of their emergency situation was staggering.

Reading this book showed me the limitations of mediation and conflict resolution in resolving many serious problems.  If a government entity is one of the parties in the mediation, the current political situation will be the most important factor in determining the results of the mediation.   This decreases my interest in mediation.