Monday, December 31, 2012

2012: Anno Populi

You know how I'll remember 2012? This was the year of people. Some I met for the first time, and will treasure their friendship forever. Some I have not seen for far too long, and got to see this year, and hope to see again, soon. Some I've seen every day, for years, and never really knew -- until now. Here's to 2013: things are bound to get better, now that the world has ended.

Oh yeah, I got some writing done, and some of it was published amid the roar of the adoring crowd (my sincere thanks to the entire dozen), and after all is said and done, it is never too late to have a happy childhood.

Come to think of it, maybe I should make that my resolution for 2013.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Cherrypicking in an Apple Orchard

Mea Culpa.

One of the occupational diseases of speculative fiction writers is a tendency to speculate and write fiction, and I seem to have had a doozie of an attack last week. The post I put up yesterday, "Gained in Translation,"contains more than a set of factual errors. It is full of unwarranted conclusions based on cherrypicked data points, its faults compounded by a lack of understanding of the historical context of the attempted analysis.

In short, I retract, and apologize for, my attempt at a glib generalization of a relationship between, on the one hand, the structure and grammar of the Chinese language, and on the other, their effects on the works themselves, extrapolated to a wide range of works and authors. The fault therein is mine. I will not delete that post, or redact any part of it, as that would be dishonest, but if I could un-write it, I would, and better yet I wish I could un-think it. Whether or not I have offended anyone with my ill-considered comments, they were an offense against truth and integrity, and I apologize for that.

Still leaves me with Russian, though. I speak the language, read it fluently, I worked my way through Princeton as a teaching assistant in the Slavic Languages Department, I switch from Russian to English and back again hundreds of times a day as part of my day job and family life, and much of the time I run against the simple and undeniable fact that many phrases, concepts, implications fall trippingly off one tongue and not the other. There are no words for "privacy" and "appointment" in Russian while English lacks  the capacity for the multiple levels of diminutives built into every Russian-language interaction, but for most of my students back in Russian 101 it was the cascade of cases and the deluge of declensions that brought them a semester's worth of misery.

Consider a simple sentence: "A dog bit a boy."

In Russian, "dog" is "sobaka," "bit" (verb, past tense, masculine - yes, verbs have genders!) is "ukusil," and "boy" is "mal'chik." So it's "sobaka ukusil mal'chik," right?

Not exactly. "sobaka" is feminine so the verb has to agree with that, and "mal'chik" is in the accusative (because you have to accuse someone before you bite them, right?) so it's "sobaka ukusila mal'chika."

Let's make this a little more complicated. "A dog bit a boy with teeth at home." This obviously brings us to locative and instrumental, so we end up with "sobaka ukusila mal'chika zubami doma."

Or do we?

Let's scramble the English sentence. "Home bit dog with boy at teeth." Uh... no.

What if we scramble the Russian? "Doma ukusila sobaka mal'chika zubami." Which makes perfect sense, as the literal meaning of the sentence did not change at all. What changed is the emphasis, the connotation, the shading: it isn't the subject that goes first, but the focus, the most important word. So if your point is, you aren't even safe in your own home anymore, you'll put "Doma" first; if you are implying it's the boy's own fault you'll start with "mal'chika;" and if you start with "ukusila" you are probably writing poetry and you need your meter to come out right.

This is not to say you can't express the same sentiments in English, but the techniques are different. Nabokov certainly expressed a measure of contempt for English in the introduction to Lolita: 
My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody's concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses — the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions — which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way.
And this, upon a single word:
Toska - noun /ˈtō-skə/ - Russian word roughly translated as sadness, melancholia, lugubriousness.

"No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.”
And so it remains: my Russian language in the back of my head, its siren song pulling at my sentences to extend them beyond all reason, shooing at my words to make them play leap-frog, tempting me to suffixate perfectly good verbs and nouns to add scintillacula of meaning not implicit in their original configurations.

On the other hand -- the closest I can come to saying "I value my privacy" in Russian is something along the lines of, "I like to be left alone" or "I appreciate peace." Not quite the same. Is there a relationship? Is toska something one feels when one's existence is devoid of privacy? That would be an elegant explanation, so neat one could almost overlook its obvious falsehood for its esthetic attraction.

How often do we say things in a certain way simply because we can? Or because we can make it sound good?

I made a big mistake in my previous post: I tried to speculate upon a subject I knew little about. It did not come out at all well. There is no question in my mind that language does not control conscience: the lack of a word for "privacy" does not in any way imply that Russians enjoy being spied on, nor is there the slightest hint that the imperfect correspondence of Russian "uyut" and English "coziness" changes the way one relaxes at a fireplace with a comforter and a cup of Glühwein. But how we write about it -- I think that's something worth considering.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Gained in Translation

 I wrote this in an email to Ken Liu all the way back in February of 2011, almost two years ago, and let me start with an apology:
Just finished PAPER MENAGERIE.  Brilliant!  And gutsy.  Speaks to every first-gen kid who ever cringed to hear his parents mangle English.  Or cook ethnic food.  Or wear ethnic clothes.  Shares a theme with SIMULACRA -- reconciliation from beyond the grave.  That's certainly universal, Hamlet to Dune. [...]  Just an exquisite story.  I think this is the year you'll [...] possibly pick up one of the [...] major awards.
 Possibly pick up one?! 

Two mistakes in one short sentence. "Possibly" should have been "For dam' sure," and as for "one of the --"

Ken swept the major awards with PAPER MENAGERIE - Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy award, becoming the first short story writer to achieve this triple crown of speculative fiction. So much for my wishy-washy forecast.

One thing Ken's writing and mine have in common is that we are both bilingual - and even that is not a major similarity: Chinese (in which Ken is fluent) and Russian (which is my second language) are very different, opposite perhaps, in ways they influence writing patterns and sentence structure.

Let's take one of Ken's translations - from The Fish of Lijiang, by Chen Quifan:

In the waterways of Lijiang live schools of red fish. Whether it's dawn, dusk, or midnight, you can see them hovering in the water, facing the same direction, lined up like soldiers on a parade ground ready for inspection. But if you look closer, you'll see that they aren't really still. In fact, they're struggling against the current in order to maintain their position. Once in a while, one or two fish become tired and are pushed out of the formation by the current. But soon, tails fluttering, they struggle back into place.
And here is a passage from his own Paper Menagerie:
She turned the paper over and folded it again. She pleated, packed, tucked, rolled, and twisted until the paper disappeared between her cupped hands. Then she lifted the folded-up paper packet to her mouth and blew into it, like a balloon.
"Kan," she said. "Laohu." She put her hands down on the table and let go.
A little paper tiger stood on the table, the size of two fists placed together. The skin of the tiger was the pattern on the wrapping paper, white background with red candy canes and green Christmas trees.

 Deceptively simple, clear, declarative sentences; a sense of being in the middle of the story, an immediacy, a closeness - such is Ken's linguistic legacy. It goes without saying that he is easily a good enough writer to transcend it; but he is also good enough to employ it to magnificent ends when that is called for.

My own legacy is rather the opposite: the highly inflected nature of the Russian language that tags each word with its role in the greater sentence, allows the sentence to be scrambled in a variety of ways to change the nuances of meaning without changing the informational content, and leads to the unbridled, exuberant verbosity of, to name its most proficient practitioner, Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol:
"Wherever, across whatever sorrow sour life is woven of, a resplendent joy will gaily race by, just as a splendid carriage with golden harness, picture-book horses, and a shining brilliance of glass sometimes suddenly and unexpectedly goes speeding by some poor, forsaken hamlet that has never seen anything but a country cart, and for a long time the muzhiks stand gaping open-mouthed, not putting their hats back on, though the wondrous carriage has long since sped away and vanished from sight."
And, in a nod to Gogol's Dead Souls, I wrote this monstrosity of a sentence (exceeded in magnitude since then in the entries to the One Sentence Stories contest) for a story called "The Choir Invisible:"
 In an incalculable loss to the record of electronic creativity, it proved impossible for Unit 108763458 to provide a description of the look on its owner's face when he read the congratulatory epistle addressed to him; nor his mien when he considered the check attached therewith; nor several expressions, one after another, as the owner, for six long seconds – an eternity in electronic terms – stared at 108763458 itself before picking it up off the floor and summarily throwing it out the window.

None of which has much to do  with why I am writing this blog.

A funny thing happened to "Paper Menagerie:" it got translated into Russian.  Having experienced its magic in print and in podcast, I expected nothing new from the translation.

Boy, was I ever wrong.

The translation was better than fair; it was quite good. In technical terms, it did not reach the levels of Bulgakov and Pasternak translations (but then, nothing ever does) -- but its effect on me was shattering. It hit me like a ton of bricks aboard a speeding train, its emotional effect unblunted by my familiarity with the text or by the minor flaws of the translation.

I wrote Ken to tell him that, and he replied that of his several Chinese translations, there is one which he likes more than his own original. Which validates my point:

Language matters.

The term "First language" is ambiguous -- in my case at least, Russian is my chronologic first while English is the language in which I find it easier to speak, read, write, and communicate. And yet it is Russian that carries the most built-in emotional content, in which the words are spring-loaded and booby-trapped with meanings I do not entirely understand but certainly feel more than adequately.

Phrases in Russian push my buttons -- perhaps because the buttons were installed before I spoke any other language. I understand what loaded words are, I use them to the best of my ability, but what I realized when reading the translation of "Paper Menagerie" is the ineffable, unquantifiable, and perhaps unpredictable effect of language, of the way, perhaps, the first language to which a developing mind is exposed can leave its imprints even when another language supplants the first in the superficial layer of the consciousness.

There is a deeper layer than that, which is a matter for a later post, suffice it to say that not only is it non-verbal, it's also neither auditory nor visual.

And here is the story that tapped into that. With a vengeance.