"Epic fail": The nominalization trend

Henry Hitchings turned out a superb and insightful article in the Sunday New York Times, "Those Irritating Verbs-as-Nouns," on the nominalizations that are terrorizing the English language. These cannibalized active nouns seem to have become particularly popular among business writers and bureaucrats alike, as they seem to strive to simultaneously express complex ideas and create abstraction.

The article really struck a chord with me, as I find myself constantly denominalizing during translation. Romance Languages have a penchant for employing punchy abstract nominalizations when a vigorous verb is readily available (for example, globalization in place of globalize). Moreover, Romance Languages have an affinity for jargon-generating strings of infected nouns (see antidisestablishmentarianism). 

The take-away:--while I can offer no condemnation of the nominalizations that have that have stricken a plague on the written word--the solve here is the resolve to use aesthetic reasonableness to create richer, more concrete verse.

In the meantime, check out The Writer's Diet Test and diagnose your prose!

Casatiello.. the ultimate Pasquetta recipe

The Monday after Easter Sunday, Pasquetta, is a holiday in Italy traditionally enjoyed with picnics, parks, and beaches to celebrate the arrival of spring. One thing that is particularly synonymous with la Pasquetta is a type of rustico, or rustic bread, Casatiello. Made in a round pan similar to an American bundt pan, the shape is said to symbolize the crown of thorns. The recipe dates to at least the 1600s and Napoletani say it is not Casatiello without sugna (or strutto in Italian) - pork fat/lard. Served as part of the antipasti on Easter day, it tastes even better the next day--on Pasquetta.

Watch Italian and English videos below for a reliable Casatiello recipe, if you dare.

Buon appetito!

Tongue Twister: Macaron or Macaroon?

Move over cupcake, with the US's import of Ladurée has come the indomitable rise of the macaron... or is that macaroon? Not that I mind of course, but I can't tell you how many people keep asking me why I am schlepping coconut macaroons back from the Upper East Side or why I insist on being such a francophile, insisting on my oh-so-French "macaron" pronunciation.

So, why don't we delve into this culinary confusion. Let's start with the important differences: the French macaron is the lovely sandwich-like pastry consisting of the two shells made of almond flour, sugar, and egg whites joined with different and delicious fillings such as ganache and fruit jam. The American macaroon, on the other hand, is the moist, chewy, cookie-like coconut treat, often dipped in chocolate.

Of course this sweet debate required a little bit of further investigation, beyond the taste-testing variety, that is. According to the English edition of Larousse Gastronomique , a macaroon is "a small, round, biscuit with a crunchy outside and soft inside, made with ground almonds, sugar and egg whites. Macaroons are sometimes flavoured with coffee, chocolate, nuts or fruit and then joined together in pairs." 

 So technically, using macaroon (for the French macaron) in an English context, is correct. However, my suggestion would be to specify that it is a French macaroon and not the coconut macaroon to aid those who are uninitiated with these culinary delights.

Going into the nitty-gritties in a little more detail, you may ask what the French call the American coconut macaroon America's. Well, that would be a congolais (literally "Congolese") in French, although it is also called "le rocher à la noix de coco," quite a mouthful.

Well, that's enough culinary etymology for now.

Bon Appétit!

Translating Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei is one of the most famous and/or infamous artists on the international art scene. The designer behind the bird's nest at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the subject of the 2013 Oscar-nominated documentary, Never Sorry, and a regular in museums and biennials, in China he is a controversial presence. 

The artist's show, "According to What?" just closed at the Hirshhorn here in DC and I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to take another look at the artist's work and at Lee Ambrozy, the translator of Ai Weiwei's Blog, published in English by MIT Press in 2011. 

While Ai was already a well-established artists, in 2005, his celebrity began to take off and saturated the Web and Twitter as he started churning out a zealous steady stream of social and government commentary, calling for the Chinese government to be held accountable for events, such as the "tofu-dregs engineering" that led to the unnecessary deaths of schoolchildren following the Sichuan earthquake.

In 2008, Ambrozy, who has translated Chinese for MoMA in New York and the China Pavilion at the Venice Biennial, and now oversees Artforum’s Chinese language website and maintains her own blog, Sinopop.org, received a call to collaborate with Ai and produce an English-language print edition of his political writings.

Ambrozy has produced a formidable translation--walking the fine line between staying true to the Chinese source text and maintaining a smooth and readable English translation.  She has taken the angle of preserving the literal meaning and tone, rather than making Ai's writing easily digestible and transparent, a particularly difficult task when considering that many of Ai's entries verge on the academic and blend musings on his artistic practice with uncensored political critiques. One such entry reads:

"China still lacks a modernist movement of any magnitude, for the basis of such a movement would be the liberation of humanity and the illumination brought by the humanitarian spirit. Democracy, material wealth, and universal education are the soil upon which modernism exists. For a developing China, these are merely idealistic pursuits."

Yet, Ambrozy also noted the difficulty translating Ai's blog as a print compilation, "his writing is completely erratic, it’s all over the place. Different styles. You know, various levels of cynicism, irony, sort of literati language, and then he’ll just starting cursing. He’ll just let loose a stream of curses in the same paragraph."

For more insight into Ambrozy's experience translating the blog and collaborating with Ai Weiwei, I recommend listening to the hour-long interview by Endymion Wilkinson of New Books Network that I have posted below. She further details her experience creating the volume, the challenges and joys of the translator’s practice, and the story of the Grass Mud Horse, among many other things. 

The Elephant in the Room

Last week, the National Capital Area Translators Association (NCATA) hosted a movie night at the Goethe Institut with a screening of the Vadim Jendreyko’s documentary,The Woman with 5 Elephants (Original Title: Die Frau mit den 5 Elefanten), an award-winning 2009 Swiss film about Russian-to-German translator Svetlana Grier.

In case you were wondering, this is not a film tracking pachyderms across the savannas of East Africa—the five elephants are Ms. Grier's masterpieces—translations of Dostoyevsky's major works into German, completed in between relocating from occupied Kiev to Freiburg during Soviet rule.

The film brings to light interesting parallels between the preeminent translator's work and her life, also focusing on the fundamental incompatibility of the Russian and German languages.

One of the most eloquent quotes from the film is when Ms. Grier explains the internalization of the text during the translation process:

[...] one doesn’t translate from left to right, following the text, but only after one has made the sentence one’s own. It first has to be internalized, taken to heart. I read a book so often that my eyes ’gouge holes’ in pages. I basically know it by heart. Then the day comes when I suddenly hear the melody of the text."


I have also posted a two-part interview at San Francisco's 15th Berlin & Beyond Film Festival with the film's director, Vadim Jendreyko, and some interesting production anectodtes.

The Woman with 5 Elephants is available for online viewing via Netflix. In German and Russian, with subtitles. 93 minutes run-time. Check out the trailer in German, French, or English here.