Lost in Translation

I was once told, “If you want to be a decent writer, you’d better be a good translator too”. I am not sure of how veritable this advice is, but personally I am convinced that possessing strong ability in translation can elevate my own writing because of the process’ requirements for linguistic sensitivity and the cultural susceptibility.

Last month I finished the book, Maya’s Notebook (El Cuaderno de Maya), written by Isabel Allende and translated by Anne McLean. The smooth rhythm that is the book’s narrative made my reading experience seamlessly pleasant. I was showered with splendid sentences such as this one:

“The tongue is a daring and indiscreet snake, and I’m not talking about the things it says. The heart and the penis are my favorites: indomitable, transparent in their intentions, candid, and vulnerable; one shouldn’t take advantage of them”. (pp.228)

I can’t help but wonder whether the original is as biblically poetic as the one christening my mind.

Growing up bilingual, if not bicultural, I have my fair share of running across bad translated materials. In Taiwan blemished translation novels and poetries from foreign countries are endemic, except Japan. Haruki Murakami, the most influential Japanese writer in Taiwan (and New York), has an ordained Taiwanese translator, who not only captures his writing quirks but essences. However no one here dares to touch Edith Wharton. My first introduction to this magnificent writer was back in 1993 when Martin Scorsese’s movie, “The Age of Innocence,” came out. Greatly impressed by the elegant movie, I dug out the novel’s sole translation available in the market place. Sadly I vomited in the midst of reading it, decided to go kaput and burned the book in my garage. There was zero complete sentence; the translation of “absence” as in “Absent—that was what he was: so absent from everything most densely real and near to those about him…..” was unfortunately explained literally as ”AWOL”.

Last year I spent some time translating the book (The Age of Innocence) and had to stop after a few weeks. I was stuck in building the connecting bridge between two languages (English and Chinese). Some terms, such as “shabby red and gold boxes of the sociable old Academy,” was difficult to find comparable equivalence. The word, shabby, can be easily misinterpreted as contemptible in Mandarin.

What’s the best translation novel you’ve ever read? Why do you think it’s successful?

Where Do the Beats Go? (Happy Birthday William Burroughs! )

Blogger’s Warning: This post contains strong language and adult content. Reader’s discretion is advised.

This week marks the 101st birthday of William Burroughs, one of the pillar presences in the Beat Generation and post-modern American literature. Last weekend the reputable audio program, This American Life, paid him a proper tribute by re-broadcasting a fantastic radio documentary, commissioned by BBC in 2014. “Presented”(the English term for radio narration) by a somewhat unhinged Iggy Pop, whose 1977 hit “Lust for Life” was inspired by Burroughs’ “The Ticket That Exploded,” it was a fun listening hour for me to get reacquainted with this eccentric rebel, whose genteel appearance only accentuated the abiding dissonance to his life and works. Learning about Burroughs’ vicissitudes also propels me to revisit this ridiculously cliché argument—“Do vices really enhance literary work?”

I am always drawn to a dark narrative and mesmerized by its blunt and unapologetic exposition of the rawness in humanity. Most of the writers I admire such as Oscar Wilde, Scott Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf, James Baldwin, Gore Vidal, Edmund White, Mary Gaitskill, etc., all dare to explore the cruel discourse of human conditions creatively, and establish themselves with certain controversial reputations personally. I often feel that for them words are a weapon to self-mutilate, with gory wounds as rewards, and denude human being’s quiddity for survival. The Beat Generation is markedly the epitome of this school of inherent vice (a la Thomas Pynchon, another one!). The dark knights–William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac—relentlessly challenged their lifestyle perimeters, hoping to achieve the literary excellence existing in their overly indulgent minds, and ultimately bred the generations of restless and mostly listless acolytes, myself included.

As a writer I don’t have the gumption nor pampered selfishness to appeal and develop an addiction to heavy substances to set free the inner demons. But these literary daredevils (especially the Beats Boys) and their plangent beats resonate the cut-up texts, collaged and rearranged, in the back of my chaotically mental universe. Politically speaking I want to be a better writer and a better person, but sometimes I just fail miserably. My desperation for life, in the forms of artistic creation, intimate relationship, and congruous individuality, has been disarrayed and later morphed into a hallucinatory anaconda biting me long and hard, abetting the numbness, and worse, death wish. Therefore I take comfort in knowing other famous writers’ plights, sensing their struggles with morality and mortality, sympathizing with the contexts of cold and harsh human conditions, and admiring their mustered courage to write the heck out of self-destruction. Their cynical demise may lead to my singular salvation of waddling through the putridity in life, and I have no qualms about making this confession: yes, my literary beat is that potently narcissistic, ready to be burned at a stake saved only for a wiccan.

I am dedicating the below poem to William Burroughs. Happy Birthday, you charming silly fag!

A Hearty Nympho 

He says my vagina tastes like a string of pearls / Fuck me against a kitchen counter, fingers gaging my throat, solid and cold / Hair pulled tight, no face in sight, only pounded thighs

I bet a dictator’s dick must be limp / When squeezed hard between my supple and juicy racks / He’s too afraid to man his shiv cutting through my heart, rip it out in display

I dream of blue sky and plum blossom, a warm spring / The pink and blue, fresh and clean as my pussy / Spare bliss, raw libido vibrating every nook and cranny

I have 8 vaginas and each of them / births and breeds hilly tykes who betray and crucify / digressing into misogynists, persecute me and my fellow kinds

Rigor only hones the desire to survive, grinds my blowjob to a better vibe / claim confidently my femininity with no shame; head up, tits out / Radiate compassion to slay those rapy and flaccid motherfuckers

Eventually I am going for consistent and everlasting orgasm / To naysayers, turn around and show them my succulent butt cheeks and moist anus / They will never take away my salacious conviction, my robust appetite

I will have all, dick fucking and clitoris devouring, my erotic entrepreneurship / True revolution, make love to whoever at whenever and wherever / Squat and cough, brown vulva will be your eye shadow and chocolate milkshake

You want to beat me into servility?

Have my twat droop cum for mercy?

Beg slavishly for whipping, flogging, and defacing?

Suck my titties so you can be satisfied / Genius and generous, take no more from me / Lick my wet cunt, the pleasure is all mine

A Tale of Broken City (Teaser)

Below is the poem that serves to anchor and provide the foundation for my new story about New York. For me poetry is the best way to test and experiment the “essence” of a story, not the “moral” and never will be.

What is your style or method to create the foundation of a story?

*********************************************

Gust tempers down, clouds spread out,

the bare decorated with a few sparkles

faint and trying

 Overpowered largely by manmade flashes

Glamour continues to razzle dazzle

Makes believe the real never leaves the surface

Jungle is never safe

Tangled chaos have their own gestures

Wild yet stylish, cast a spell of a remarkable assumption

 That a straight yet lifeless monument

Can rule how we walk on the moon

Offer an achievement of concrete illusion

 Sun just beams, wind whispers in caution

Seems intangible but filled with veracity

In its original form, simmering the collapse

 The Lust for everything

The Loneliness of having all

The Learning with long form writing

 Save an urban cynicism of being passive aggressive

Take a break, sip an ice tea

Some fires still wait to be ignited

 A caveman once made a discovery

An obelisk can float again

To witness the fall and salvage climb

A Practice for Unpacking

Fame author Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club and Rant) recently wrote an inspiring piece for Lit Reactor, Nuts and Bolts: Thoughts Verbs. In the article he argued that the so-called “thought verbs” such as Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, Love and hate, etc., could limit a story’s character development or fritter away the potential for plot expansion. He would like us to “unpack” when it comes to description: do the legwork and take no shortcuts. Instead of saying “Lisa hated Tom” like a statement for thesis, we should try to present each piece of evidence, detail by detail, like a lawyer in court.

At the end of the article, he listed some homework for practice, and I want to take on the challenge. He also encouraged: “Be ruthless”.

Here they are—

  • “Marty imagined fish, jumping in the moonlight…”
  • “Nancy recalled the way the wine tasted…”
  • “Larry knew he was a dead man…”

I.

Marty was on the way to fishing when the accident happened: He was preoccupied with some radio program discussing the pros and cons of divorce, while his car brushed against a moving moped on the side, prodding the rider away from her seat. She was flying briefly in the air, and her metal helmet gleamed in the sun. The reflective glitter made his eyes squint, his breath pause for a split second, before it pulled his consciousness back to what was happening in front his eyes.

II.

The 2003 Château Ramage underscored fruity flavors, low in tannins, and concentrated on a medium note of fullness. It was mellow, ripe, profound with cedar wood, cassis, and liquorice complexity. Nancy poured some, took a sip and closed her eyes. The image of her childhood vineyard appeared, filled with rows of dark merlot grapes. The gun in her other hand slowly waltzed away to the ground.

III.

The siren blare got louder minute by minute, jabbing Larry to find the right window for observation and counter attack. He knelt down to replenish his Daewoo K3 and gave a quick span across every shivering body in the embassy. They all lay prostrate on the floor so he didn’t need to see the faces. He already accomplished the mission of disposing that pigsty ambassador. He was waiting for the best time to detonate the bombs taped in front of his front torso. The approaching sirens would be his signal.

What will you do to unpack these three thought verbs’ sentences? Let’s practice together!