Sunshine Abroad

The trials and rewards of French translation and beyond

"Dancing isn't creative."

What. I'm sorry, what??

Last night, as has become my Wednesday habit, I went out swing dancing at a studio in Rochester. There's a good scene here, nice people, lots of beginners, and a solid contingent of experienced teachers. There's also a dearth of male leads, which means it's very common for girls to ask guys to dance (and/or snatch them away from the 20 other girls also looking for a partner...which is fine, it hasn't become cutthroat yet...).

So I went up and asked a guy to dance that I hadn't seen before. Wearing a nametag, so probably a beginner from the earlier lesson, and looked like he had a good head on his shoulders. He agreed readily. And as he was leading me out onto the dance floor, he said:

"I really don't get this dancing thing."

Sorry? What do you mean?

"Well, it's not creative at all."


"You're not creating anything, you're just doing the same steps everybody else is. I'm a musician."

Oh. Wait, what?

"Every time I sit down to play, I'm creating something. There's something new."

And I just let my mouth hang open in flabbergasted astonishment for a few moments.

But wait! I have rebuttals! I dabble in both dance and music. And just last month, I was lucky enough to attend a day-long workshop put on by the current International Lindy Hop champions, Todd and Ramona, where they talked at great length about how every dance is different, because everyone dances with their own style, and putting two people together as partners will create something wonderful and fresh. I hunkered down and started probing deeper. Mostly out of morbid curiosity. And probably a little masochism.

He plays guitar. Okay. Chords. There are basic chords to playing guitar. Everything builds off of those. Everything that is "creative" is created upon that foundation. Yes?

"But nobody leaves the foundation here. Look around. Everyone's doing exactly the same steps."

BUT NOT IN THE SAME WAY! I don't actually scream that, though. Instead, I continue that sure, many of them are, but they're just learning. Lots of beginners in this scene. Here, let me point out the more advanced dancers, who are doing their own thing with their partners, more "creatively," as you say.

"Yeah, but it's still all the same steps. They have to know what steps they're going to do ahead of time."

GAH. No. That's the difference between social dancing and choreography. New tack. "Okay, you've been playing guitar for how long?"

"Ten years."

"And how many years of those ten have you been done with the basics, creating something new every time you sit down to play?" (As a side note, I know most musicians -- and dancers -- are never really "done with the basics." It was for the sake of the argument.)


What. Fine. But dude. All those chords have been played before, and they will all be played again.

No real point in trying to explain to him that there are people like that in the dance world, too, even in the world of partner dances.

Why are you even here? Being a really good friend with a car to his buddy with a girl. Who now owes him big time. Seriously? Dude, go to the bar, there's a nice one across the street. Which he likes. Fine. I'd suggest not sharing your opinions, your vitriol, with any of the other dancers here. You may incur their ire. Their wrath. Don't do that.

In conclusion...yep. Good (read: solid) head on his shoulders. Actually, just solid. Solid, rock-hard, and stubborn. I wish him all the best at his bar. Because his friends, the lovebirds, were adorable, and really interested in dancing.

He better not have driven them home drunk.


But look. There's another story in this. These are the same arguments that people use to support the theory that translation isn't creative (albeit in different clothing).

"It isn't writing, you're just copying what other people have said."

"It's all the same words, found by flipping through the dictionary. You don't create anything."

"Maybe literary translation is kinda creative, but those boring legal documents and medical texts aren't." (Don't ever tell me this. I'll grant that literary translation can be more creative than pharmaceutical reports, but writing is still writing. There's an element of creation in all of it.)

Sure, think they're wrong. But what would you tell people who express such opinions? More ideas are always welcome.

Behind the Scenes of Walking the Walk

Setting:  Doing a translation of a French cantata libretto for a chorus' December concert, for program insert and possible supertitles.

What they see:

After a conversation in which I try convince them that a more complex (read: not as literal) translation is preferable, citing poetic flow and the like, I offer to do a sample of the well-known lullaby-like section to prove my point, that the rhyme scheme can kept intact without sounding forced.

They receive the sample shortly thereafter, and see that yes, indeed, the rhyme scheme makes it easier to read, without sounding disjointed.

What actually happens between the two events:

Oh FRACK rhyming is hard, I mean I knew this already but it's still hard, where's that rhyming dictionary gone to, oh FINE now which of these rhyming websites works best, WHY isn't there a rhyme for "angel" besides "archangel" because that just defeats the purpose, this doesn't make any sense anymore, I've completely lost the original meaning, well crap, start over, okay, now here's a list of all the words that could possibly be at the end of this line so do ANY of them match up with ANY other words that could possible be at the end of the NEXT line? no? okay, square one, right then, time to MAKE UP WORDS, English is stupid anyway, it's so freaking hard to rhyme in English, I mean, mother and father are fine feminine rhymes but that sounds so WEAK and the original libretto is so simple here so why is it so HARD in another language? oh right. translation. hard. fun, yes? fun? I guess, sometimes, maybe, so wait, can you make "lowly" rhyme with "woe" and "grow," maybe if it's at the end of the first line which runs into the second so you can fudge a bit and say that the second syllable really belongs to the second line not the first because that obviously makes TOTAL SENSE (sarcasm) (but maybe not, because Shakespeare did that, or did he only do that with different words of the same sentence, not different syllables of the same word) oooooh, hey, "abhorred" is a good word, but maybe it doesn't work in context, maybe it's too complex of a word, but WHY is it too complex? the "b" next to the "h" is unusual? it doesn't look English? or just that no one uses it ever, even though it's only two syllables, so maybe it's not that complex after all...hmm, I wish I knew more about linguistics, because there must be a way to quantify if a word is complex or not, and I wonder how many variables there would be, and if they take its usage in common speech into account -- STOPIT. you're rhyming, not leading a research on word complexity, you chose THIS field, not computational linguistics. okay. translation. ooooh, "Lord" rhymes with "sword," and "abhorred" actually DOES work in context, this could be kinda cool.........

That happens.

On a loop.

For three days straight.

I love my job. :-)

Exit Waking World, Enter Subconscious

I had a very vivid dream this morning just before my alarm clock went off.  It was an Indiana-Jones-meets-video-games puzzle, a carnival booth in a dank cave in which I had to open a chest in order to receive my prize, or move onto the next level, or not die (dreams are sometimes weirdly non-specific about motivations).  There were pressure plates, and supplies for small explosives, and pulleys and levers, and buckles and snaps, and lots of sand.  And an egg, but I don't think that's relevant. I had to use contextual clues to figure out how to open the chest, plus a healthy dose of trial-and-error.  What happens if I connect this buckle to this pulley, then to this pressure plate?  Nothing explodes?  Okay.  What if I connect all six pressure plates to the same weight?  The chest moves closer?  Great.

Of course I woke up before the dream ended, but I'm still intrigued.  Puzzles!  Logic!  Mental tests!  Tips from the context!  Trial and error!


Oh.  I must be translating literature again.