Putting Pen to Paper

Were I to have been asked to write an article giving advice to young writers, I would probably have begun by discussing the absolute necessity of having some real excitement about just putting pen to paper or laying one’s fingertips on a qwerty keyboard.

If you haven’t got that, meaning that you don’t get a kick out of just watching those letters tumble onto the screen, then you had better cut out now while you are ahead.

I personally have been writing for as long as a can remember. In fact, one of my earliest memories is penning a poem on the stone windowsill of the window in my room with a light summer wind blowing into my face.

Yet an earlier memory is holding an over-sized, black lead pencil and learning to form letters between the red and blue scored lines of a nearly manila piece of A5 paper.

Writing must, in short, have a thrill to it. If you don’t have some kind of immediate, unrelenting tactile gratification from it, then then there is just no point, as I said above, in pressing ahead.

That’s because real writing is a very painful, though voyeuristic experience. You may be seeing in to other peoples’ minds and may well find yourself pulling characters directly out of the facets of your own psyche. Not always a pretty dish to set before the king, to say the least.

Perhaps you can beat the rap by doing writing exercises like describing your room, some hidden sanctum of a garden or the must unforgettable person you have ever met. But if writing doesn’t mean more to you rather than mere self-expression, then you are off to a handicapped start.

Great writers, even good writers do it because writing is a kind of sickness for them, as Liza Doolittle might have said. And that is because authors can’t be done with personal or imagined experiences until they rid themselves of it by making int the kind of meaningful construct popularly considered art.

Art in this context is not something that belongs in anthologies and hangs in museum, just whatever is contrived rather than real.

As such, art is often more tantalizing than reality and more fun than fantasy, depending on how well the writer has done the job of sorting and translating what he has endured into the system of sounds, rhythms and connotations that we call language.

That means that the artist – in this case the writer – takes experience and remakes it into a kind of controlled substance.

Nor is it that the artist, as it were, always comes out on top.

A writer who has written something up, whether his personal experience or one that he endured vicariously, is now done with it. That piece of past or vision no longer has a hold on him. But that is only because the two of them – the author and his subject – have both suffered the awesome process of vocabulary, grammar and punctuation.

Fulfilling his incumbent duty to fashion reality into something that will trespass inexorably on his reader’s mind has ultimately set that bit of the authors being apart from him in terms of both feeling and even private ownership.

Once it has been written, expressed and — better yet  — printed and published and read, the author is at last at rest.

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In Search of a Reader

Now that we have considered why writers write, we’d best have a bash at how they do it. And I may as well let you in on the big secret right away, i.e. every writer needs a reader. Otherwise, there simply is no point in the exercise.

To begin with, it would be reasonably safe to assume that in any genre the first thing to get in hand is the journalistic W’s — Who, What, Where and Why. Yet that done, we’re going to be left with something we haven’t yet dealt with — How, which is only Who turned around a bit, if you haven’t noticed.

How you will write your short story, major novel or tech story depends entirely on whom you can expect to read it.

Different folks like different strokes, meaning that my high school classmate who has morphed into an atomic physicist can be expected to become enthusiastic about an entirely different piece of prose than my mother, bless and keep her, who is over eighty and wants a good laugh when she can get it or at least to be deeply moved.

But each of these people, not to mention my daughter or my wife were they up to reading English, expect the article you’re offering them to be well written, meaning that they should never for a moment be in the slightest doubt as to just what you are endeavoring to tell them.

Yet note that the reader by will design delineate your choices in structuring the article whether human interest or technically oriented.

A few years ago when they were still building the Large Hadron Collider at CERN and most of the news centered on whether the creation of anti-matter would create a local black hole that would suck all of the known civilization into a gaping crater somewhere in the middle of the French-Italian Alps, two equally competent descriptions of how that might happen appeared on the Internet.

One of these was a Reuters Newscom article, the other was a rap song video posted on YouTube. And to tell you the truth, the latter might have been a little more successful in getting the information across.

It may just be that despite the theological repercussion of the Higgs boson, a long-legged demoiselle pirouetting among the piping with backed up of swaying choristers  in orange hard hats rather took my fancy. But more likely is that the constant pitter patter of a  a rap song defused the whole situation to the extent that it was now remarkably intelligible.

Granted, when it comes to audiences, you can now wipe anyone with low tolerance for hip hop off the slate, but the message came across.

And that,  mon cher confrère, is the bottom line whatever it is that your writing. If you don’t have what to say, just go make yourself another cup of tea or coffee.

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If You Haven’t Something to Say

When I was writing poetry as a University Scholar at Princeton under John Hollander, he once advised me that Professor Frederic O’Brady had asked to see me. I had only had a glimpse of Prof. O’Brady in the E. Pyne cafeteria, where a friend who was active in Theatre Intime grew ardent when the professor nodded to him.

O’Brady was an actor and homme des lettres. Now that I think about it, Hollander must have shown him some of my poetry. Holllander once told  me, “My wife is your greatest fan. She loves your smiling toughness.”

So somehow, at an appointed time, I appeared at Prof. O’Brady’s draped and carpeted E. Pyne office. It was like nothing else in Princeton. “It did not give of bird or bush (“Anecdote of the Jar,” Wallace Stevens), but it was a slice of rive droite in that academic, Philistine atmosphere.

After I had knocked and opened the door, I found the professor standing. O’Brady was short, perhaps even shorter than me. He waved me to a chair with his great desk and table lamp between us.

I may or may not have presented him with a sheaf of my hand-typed poems. But I do remember the one sentence that he said.

“I wanted to meet the young man who writes only when he has something to say.”

After that he looked at me, and I looked back. I got up to leave and the professor may have followed me to the door.

Maintaining Silence

Remember this:  as a writer there is no sin in not adding to the discussion if you haven’t got something worthwhile to offer.

As opposed to Tweeters, Hooters or whatever, authors until the late 20th century when things went amuck were expected to have something to get across when they took pen in hand.

If you look at the 19th century (which we should now be emulating), at Hawthorne and Poe in American and Balzac and Flaubert in France, you will notice right away that though their work was thoroughly thrilling they didn’t take up their craft unless they had something to get across.

Most people now are very busy. And if they aren’t all that engrossed in the task at hand, they’ll be looking at pictures or videos rather than read. That means if you want to catch a reader and keep him, you’re going to have to serve up some new information or at least a salient point of view.

So, if you haven’t something to say, then don’t. Keep quiet, because no one will listen to you, unless of course you’ve been hyped up as someone to be heard.

But right now there is just too much noise out there to tune in.

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Michelangelo and Autocomplete

While in Florence during what must have been the summer of ’69, I first encountered Michelangelo’s I Schiavi. Supposedly among his last works, I Schiavi give the impression not of having been sculpted out of a block of marble, but rather of the figures having always been trapped inside. It was as though Michelangelo did not actually create these sculptures, but rather liberated them from the rock casing that previously kept them from our view.

When beginning to write this entry at my old venue on Blogspot, I came across a feature in the editor that I rather liked. To my great chagrin, autocomplete has since disappeared. You simply had to begin typing the next word when an auto-suggestion would pop up. Accepting/completing it required hitting the pound bar.

Probably the reason that the folks at Mountain View took it off is that there were those who claimed that it hampered their creativity –whatever that is. But what I liked about autocomplete was that it gave the impression that the editor already knew what I had to say.

But while available autocomplete created the illusion that just like Michelangelo’s incomplete statues — nearly Baroque, stone  studies detailing the human musculature from neck to knee when subject to voluminous pressure from above — my thoughts, scarcely dressed in words, were escaping into a publishable reality.

In the dawn of my intelligence when I first began writing, I liked to pamper myself by believing that I was some kind of amanuensis. But having discovered that notion had been purloined by no less than Ezra Pound, I gave it up. But the idea remains haunting.

That’s because anyone who writes seriously must perforce believe that he has a message for the world. Every writer is on a mission of some kind, whether to cajole, edify or admonish.

But more importantly as writers we have been blessed with a very special gift — we are able to listen. Attentive to the meanderings of our own souls, we should have become equally attuned to the needs of other. How else will we be able to write about them?

Given the above, it is therefore our craft to mold the medium of language in such a way that third parties can correctly assess those chunks of reality that we have ascertained as existing where the reader may not have hitherto sensed them.

Better yet, we may be teaching our audience to avoid the constraints of its own sensitivities by lending it the perceptions of others.

And so, like Michelangelo gently tapping his chisel on unmarked marble, we may watch the falling rubble reveal new contours, new strengths not in our own abilities but in the chosen reader in whom we’ve selected to confide.

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The Fine Art of Erasure

As a writer you might expect that the most important thing is to get something down on paper. But, besides the fact that almost nobody needs to know how to hold a pen anymore due to the soon to be worldwide Age of the Computer, erasure might be equally important.

That’s because what could be called “most writers” are in a rush to get as much information across at one time, which may be more than the reader can handle.

This is the kind of thing I find in music videos now all the time. Being so terribly “musical,” I’m totally overwhelmed by the admixture of sounds, harmony/cacophony plus rhythm and absent silence that I cannot possibly deal with a simple, though  largely inferred, plot line. The result is aghast rejection.

And since all of my readers may not have been trained in childhood Latin and Alexander Pope, the same may be true of the second sentence of the above paragraph.

How to Erase

Having changed into your proofreader’s cap will save you from a first reaction — to toss the whole thing out and start something else.

Besides, being at this point not the author, but rather the proofreader, is a safeguard from being  so insolent. This guy must have something to say or he wouldn’t be writing. And then too, you can always query him.

Just ask yourself, “What does this mean?,” i.e. do I really need this here? Or more correctly, do I really need this at all?

Face the fact that the fine truth of the matter is that most readers would rather do with a bare bones portrayal of reality. They want to get get on with the business of life, meaning that they want to see something happen and they want it right now.

Striking a Balance

Since we’ve already come to the conclusion that you don’t want to start all over, some guidelines as to what to cross out and what to leave in would be in order.

Think of it this way: you are essentially dealing with a timeline, be that a plot or simply the order in which you have decided to present pertinent information. But the rate at which you get it across is underscored by your readers ability to ingest these tidbits, which he may or may not be willing to get down.

So the thing to do is to stretch out above mentioned timeline by adding in bits of subliminal or even graphic presentation that will make the whole thing more palatable, just like a mother spoon feeding a baby while telling him some time-honored story.

And though as a writer you may find the filler much more appealing, you’re going to have to be careful not to overdo it.

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Spelling Counts

Not only does spelling count, it’s probably a bottom line for quite a lot of other things as well.

What that means is that spelling — especially in English — is a norm or convention. Many  commonly used words carry a lot of historical baggage due to the fact that the original Angles (said to have been nicknamed angelus by Roman conquerors because of their fair hair and blue eyes) were early a conquered and later a conquering nation. As such they learned to speak the tongue of their German and French oppressors and later brought home the exotic goods and the names for them that were part of the spoils of their earnest endeavors to create a truly civilized world.

So it is that words like hospital and beast have lost their accent circonflexe and others — like knight, light, bright and knife — still have letters that none of us pronounce. But woe to him who leaves any of them out.

These days that doesn’t happen much. What with the advent of word processors of all kinds and dimensions that can easily be set to any number of spoken and written languages, the likelihood of a typo getting past you is very slim. Unfortunately, the same is not to be said for colloquial usage and syntax.

Memorably, I once unpackaged a rice paper lantern that was apparently meant to be used with a live flame rather than an electric light bulb as the instructions warned against positioning my new acquisition in “the running air.” Poetic as that description of the common draft may have been, it wasn’t enough to suppress a belly laugh. And if your client wants to impress potential clients and investors with regards to reliability, humor is not the way to go.

What’s interesting is what lengths are required to convince non-native speakers that they don’t really speak the Internet’s lingua franca.  Not too long ago I did a couple of rounds for free with the operator of a local weather station who keeps a rather brilliant local weather station and Web site. He’s taken the trouble to make his forecasts really useful to the extent of letting the public know exactly when they can expect changes like rain and dust storm to take effect, not to mention when they will let up.

But this same publicly minded person also offers his site in English. But this weatherman’s combined creativity and dead certainty that he speaka da English are enough to make a professional translator see red.

Not only does he post the foreseen temperatures, he also kindly suggests what to wear as not everyone understands the consequences of Fahrenheit and Celsius readings. But try as I might, I couldn’t convince him that unadulterated, verbatim translations from Hebe-speak like “heat of shorts” were just no replacement for “warm enough for shorts,” and the like.

The bottom line is: know what you’re up against. As I have recently mentioned somewhere, when I first began translating for hire, it was for a professor of Jewish Philosophy who was very, very satisfied with my work. But as I was just then studying translation theory, my style improved accordingly, which caused my employer to become less and less pleased.

And I’ll tell you why. Most people who go to a translator would rather write in the second language themselves — they’d like to reach a broader audience, etc. But being smart enough to go to someone else means that they have ipso facto admitted that they can’t go it alone.

As discussed in an earlier blog, an authentic translation can never be word for word. So the better your boss knows English, the more likely he won’t be entirely happy with what you’ve done.

Not to worry. It won’t matter as long as you keep smiling and get paid.

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Traduttore, Traditore!

If you run a Google Search on the Italian adage I’ve adopted as the title of this blog entry, you’ll get to a Wikipedia entry entitled “Untranslatability.”

Don’t be daunted. Traduttore, traditore literally it means that the would be translator is a traitor to the author’s original intent. But whoever penned the Wiki decided to take an opportunity to list a slew of translation techniques dealing with how to operate within the realm of the impossible.

In this blog entry I would prefer to explore what it is that makes a hard working intellectual whom many people would like to replace with an algorithm into some kind of common thief.

Not an Easy Job

Any translating foray, be it advertising copy or an essay, has got to much going to handle. That’s because language operates at a variety of levels simultaneously.

The best comparison would probably be a song. No, I’m not talking about German lieder, just an ordinary pop song you hear on the radio or whatever. Besides the lyrics and vocal there is a drummer providing a driving beat, a lead guitar and a bass, all of whom have something to say. Then there are probably a lot of technicians doing the mix, etc.

However, at any one moment of your listening pleasure you may be aware of what only one or more of these are doing, unless you are a highly trained professional.

This is because of what linguists call foregrounding, meaning that in order to make that song into a performance rather than a free-for-all each of the components has to know how to keep out of the way until his particular time comes to shine.

Getting to Work

The above is pretty much what the translator is up against when he takes on a translation. Is he going to try to get across the mood of the piece or is his task to transfer information as neatly as possible?

In any case, a word by word translation is in most cases impossible for a number of reasons including the kinds of nuances that we have been discussing.

But above and beyond all that, languages are differentiated from each other not only by their lexicons but also by their grammars. And this, my dear reader, is the ethos of nationality and the crux of the matter.

Say you’ve been approached to translate a French novel. This novelist is super impressionist and couldn’t care less for the kind of heavy plotting the is what makes a typical English novel. So how are you going to translate this? Should you really just hit on making it some kind of tone poem, which won’t make it at all with English readers unless they are devout Gallophiles, or should you try to recast this piece of literature into something more likely to be palatable for your market?

And in another scenario, suppose you are hired to translate a speech by a great thinker and leader. Should you make this as literal a translation as possible so that readers will get word for word knowledge of the message he intended to get across? But what if doing so makes this great, exulted man sound like an immigrant laborer?

Giving It a Fair Shake

Pretty obviously, what a faithful translator has to do is to try to represent the author to the target reading public much as he would do were he to have no need for you whatsoever.

The impressionist novelist would do his best to make his novel easy to understand by toeing the line as represented by his colleagues writing in the target language without specifically trying to push any envelopes.

Similarly, were this great man to give the speech himself, it would be important for him to come across as a man of authority, since doing so is part and parcel of what he is trying to accomplish.

What this means is that the best translation may not be the most accurate one.

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