Down and Out in Paris and London / George Orwell

Well, what did I expect from a book with such a title? An upbeat tale?

Despite my reluctance to read depressing books, this was fascinating. The description of not having a penny (or a sou) to one's name, to the extent of not eating for three days, is difficult to grasp to anyone who's never been in such a situation. I guess young Eric Arthur Blair subsisted on water (even weak tea is not to be taken for granted) and cigarettes during those days. Cigarettes don't go bad like milk nor stale like bread, say, so you could keep a stock, bought in more "affluent" days (all is relative.)
Anyone who's fasted seriously on Yom Kippur knows how unpleasant it is not to eat a thing for 24 hours. So try to imagine three whole days, which often included walking for miles. On a totally empty stomach.

The description of the squalor in the cheap Paris "hotels", or boarding houses for the destitute, is unsettling: the bug-infested rooms, the dirty sheets, the need to pawn one's spare clothes to be able to afford tea-and-two-slices.

But far worse is the colorful description of what used to go on in the kitchens of Paris hotels and restaurants. Read on, and it might just ruin your appetite for days:

It was amusing to look round the filthy little scullery and think that only a double door was between us and the dining-room. There sat the customers in all their splendour--spotless table-cloths, bowls of flowers, mirrors and gilt cornices and painted cherubim; and here, just a few feet away, we in our disgusting filth. For it really was disgusting filth. There was no time to sweep the floor till evening, and we slithered about in a compound of soapy water, lettuce-leaves, torn paper and trampled food. A dozen waiters with their coats off, showing their sweaty armpits,
sat at the table mixing salads and sticking their thumbs into the cream pots. The room had a dirty, mixed smell of food and sweat. … There were only two sinks, and no washing basin, and it was nothing unusual for a waiter to wash his face in the water in which clean crockery was rinsing. But the customers saw nothing of this. ..  (Chapter 22)

The writing is matter-of-fact, honest and appealing. (Though I did feel like editing it a bit here & there… but rather glad nobody did.) The humor is extremely understated and low key, but it is definitely there, under the surface.

When I was just about to finish the Paris part and move on to the London part, and having gathered that his lot would not be any better, I thought that in England Orwell may feel more "betrayed"; in Paris he was a foreigner; England should, theoretically, be his home, and as such more… caring?

I could barely believe my eyes when I read how the young Blair deteriorated from being a Paris plongeur to a London tramp. The life of a British tramp is explained, as was his Parisian life, very matter-of-factly, yet the descriptions are painfully vivid.

I learnt the terms "spike"  and "casual ward" – the deplorable accommodations designed for vagrants:
At about a quarter to six the Irishman led me to the spike. It was a grim, smoky yellow cube of brick, standing in a corner of the workhouse grounds. With its rows of tiny, barred windows, and a high wall and iron gates separating it from the road, it looked much like a prison. (Chapter 27)
By seven we had wolfed our bread and tea and were in our cells. We slept one in a cell, and there were bedsteads and straw palliasses, so that one ought to have had a good night's sleep. But no spike is perfect, and the peculiar shortcoming at Lower Binfield was the cold. The hot pipes were not working, and the two blankets we had been given were thin cotton things and almost useless. (Chapter 35)

Orwell has a unique talent of describing something both subjectively and objectively, as it were. On the one hand he is part of the tramp scene, shares their squalid existence and some of the ugly aspects of their behavior, while at the same time reporting it in a dispassionate, precise way. I wouldn't say "detached", though. He is thoroughly involved and empathetic.

As sorry as the reader may feel for him, one can still take comfort from the knowledge that Blair/Orwell does extricate himself from this life. Even as he was experiencing, observing and taking notes, and before he knew that he would one day become a well-known (and hopefully financially comfortable, or at least secure) author, he did have a friend to lean on. A friend who twice lent him 2 pounds – quite a fortune, for a tramp – and quite likely saved him from starving or … or I don't know what.

Would anyone who has, say, a half-decent family to fall back on [not that there is any mention of Blair having such a family] let himself go through such degrading and excruciating living, just for the sake of "experience"? And if you do, isn't the whole experience contaminated by the fact that you're there by choice, not because Life has been cruel to you? And even if you don't have a backup system, surely all this suffering is more bearable when you know it's definitely temporary, and all you have to do is grit your teeth and continue breathing, and walking from Casual Ward to Casual Ward, secure in the knowledge that, come next spring, say, your time will be up and you'll rejoin "normal" society?

If this were a novel, I'd be devastated by the protagonist's suffering. Knowing that, while true, it was but temporary for the writer, makes it more bearable, though no less shocking, when one thinks of the writer's fellow tramps, who didn't have a way out.

And just in case you were wondering, what makes a tramp a tramp in the first place, Orwell's explanation is an eye-opener:

Why do tramps exist at  all? It is a curious thing, but very few people know what makes a tramp take to the road.... It is said, for instance, that tramps tramp to avoid work, to beg more easily, to seek opportunities for crime, even -- least probable of reason s--because they like tramping. … And meanwhile the quite obvious cause of vagrancy is staring one in the face….. A tramp tramps, not because he likes it, but for the same reason as a car keeps to the left; because there happens to be a law compelling him to do so. [emphasis mine.] A destitute man, if he is not supported by the parish, can only get relief at the casual wards, and as each casual ward will only admit him for one night, he is automatically kept moving. He is a vagrant because, in the state of the law, it is that or starve.
(Chapter 36)
This has given me an appetite for more of Orwell's non-fiction, plus perhaps those of his novels that are heavily based on his own life and experience. If I do indeed read more (see huge selection on Amazon), I shall report.

Note: I read the Penguin Books edition; copied the quotations from this online version.

Meantime, I've switched to something lighter: Bill Bryson's Notes from a Small Island.
- to be continued -

Here comes the 2011 ITA Conference

February is approaching fast, for better and for worse.
For better, because I'm looking forward to the conference.
For worse, because I should have, by now, submitted my presentation, but I have not.
Which means I should turn down work, for a few days at least, and get that lecture and presentation down on record!

Several of my colleagues have already posted links to the conference program, and said all sorts of nice things about it. There was one guy, however, who – a propos of conferences in general, apparently – wrote on FB that he just doesn't see the point in conferences, where people come mainly to mingle, drink lousy coffee and eat rogalach. Or something to that effect. I'm not his FB "friend" so I don't have access to the precise quote.

Dear T.P., I guess you've had unpleasant experiences of conferences. I can't argue with you, because I don’t recall attending any serious conference other than the ITA's. There was one totally commercial "conference" organized by in June 2006, about inter-cultural business and communication, where I gave a lecture-cum-presentation entitled Good Translation as a Way of Dealing with Inter-Cultural Gaps. But it didn't feel like a "real" conference. And I know Hubby has been to several work-related conferences over the years, in Israel and abroad, but I couldn't get a proper description out of him of what those were like. Mostly they involved spending time in airports and hotels. So all I have to go on is the ITA conferences I took part in over the past few years. And let me tell you, they were great.

I started small, by attending for only a few hours, but I quickly got hooked, and graduated to "Full Program", minus the first-day workshops. So what's so great about them? Briefly:
  • Call it mingling, schmoozing, networking, or whatever: it's being with like-minded people who know what you're talking about when you complain about a difficult text or vent about an awkward customer.
  • You are not alone in the universe! There are intelligent beings out there! For a person who works cooped up at home at least 5 days a week, seeing mostly his/her computer screen and physical cluttered desktop, and talking to oneself or one's pet, be it cat or rock, this is a delightful change. You catch up, exchange tips, commiserate and whatnot, in real-time! Face-to-face! Not on chat or FB or email or even phone; real, live, human communication! You step on their toes, they actually let out an audible "Ouch!"
  • No cooking, no washing up, no dieting, no shopping. Just eat and drink. I have nothing against rogalach – when they're good, they're delicious. But at most conferences rogalach et al are just a footnote in the general fare. The food is plentiful, varied, and actually rather tasty. The choice of desserts is mind boggling. Though if you're strict – like my friend LBO who must watch his weight if he wants his ultralight to stay afloat with him plus a passenger aboard – you can make do with a healthful piece of fruit. See ultralight: 
  • Other people's lectures and presentations: I love the wide choice. The weighing of pros and cons, which lecture might be more interesting, more fun, more useful. Sure, they don't all live up to expectations. But then some surpass expectations. So yes, I have learnt quite a bit and laughed quite a bit. (And yawned here & there – so what?)
  • Giving a lecture/presentation can be nerve-racking and stressful… at least until you're well into it and on a roll. But it's also extremely satisfying and gratifying. Seeing your audience nod in agreement and understanding… Hearing them chuckle (at the right places), and knowing that you're being helpful and useful.
  • I get to see and hear people whose work – whether in the language professions or other fields – I admire, and can ask them questions and/or go up to them and express my admiration. This year, for example, I'm looking forward to hearing Prof Gabriela Shalev, Israel's Ambassador to the UN until late 2010. Also, having been involved in amateur dramatics for years and interested in translation for the stage, I'm curious about Prof Shimon Levy and his team of actors' take on translation for stage.

Well, that's enough. I feel like I'm preaching to the choir. What I'd really like to do is convince "unaffiliated" colleagues to join the ITA and attend the conference. Yes, I mean you – HG, JT, HF, GB – among others. Try it. You'll like it; and if you don't overdo the food stuff, you won't have to reach for the Alka-Seltzer.

New Year's Resolutions – following in my colleagues' keyboard strokes

Two of my colleagues, who write the most enjoyable blogs, have recently written a New Year's Resolutions post. I usually do my annual soul-searching and the jotting down of well-meant resolutions on or around Rosh HaShana, the Jewish New Year. Force of habit, from childhood. But having read my friends' posts, and not remembering where I wrote and what I did with my most recent Resolutions, I thought I'd chime in.

The first post is by Yael Sela Shapiro, see, if you read Hebrew. Her Point #1, though sensible, did not appeal to me: for heavens' sake, she talks about working more and blogging less! I'd rather do things the other way round. Point #2, viz., work more, waste less time on aimless web browsing, is a touchy one. I plead guilty, blush, and pretend I never read it.
Two points which I endorse wholeheartedly are:
  1. Say no to yukky texts (See my previous posts, of December 2010 and July 2010.)
  2. To help achieve that goal, peruse a text carefully before accepting the job. How often do we just glance at a text, see it's more-or-less doable, and say Fine, only to regret it bitterly as we discover the true horrors lurking in those innocent-looking paragraphs.

The second post, by Inga Michaeli, is more my cup of tea, since Point #2 advocates fun things like more blogging and less work. However, to make that possible, there's the important issue of pay. If we get paid more for our work, we can afford to work less and spend more time on the joys of life. This is Inga's highly commendable Point #4. Sure – we love our work, and sometimes it is pure joy, or at least very satisfying. Still, more time for family, friends, dinners out, trips abroad – well, they all contribute to our, ahem, professional development, our sanity, our wide horizons, our emotional and mental well-being. No one wants to deal with a disgruntled, stressed-out translator/editor, right??? So you see, it's in everyone's best interest that we balance work and play.

By now, I have found the notes I made last Yom Kippur. Funnily enough, the notebook was precisely where it ought to be. Let's see what observations and resolutions I made only 3 months ago, and what I've done about them, so far:

1. Procrastination is a killer. Fight it.
Progress report: I'm not alone in the battle against it, but that's not much help.

2. The trick to Happy Work is working on enjoyable material. To that end, get in touch with people who might supply same. I have a few names. Get in touch with them. Do not put it off.
Progress report: Er… maybe after the ITA conference?...

3. Sort the huge pile of notebooks, letters, diaries etc that my mom left me.
Progress report: Started to. Got discouraged. Will have to wait.

4. Start new blog, about all sorts of things that don't fit into the current two blogs. Speak to website/blog expert recommended by Yael.
Progress report: Have name for new blog: Nina Tracks Changes. Jotted down ideas.

5. Turn daughter's room into a study.
Progress report: Winter is not the right time – it's the coldest room in the house! But I can still plan… like if I move the bookcases over there… and maybe my desk would fit over here…

6. Go for a brisk walk every day. Okay, at least every other day.
Progress report: Excuses, excuses.

Happy 2011 all. May you be successful with your resolutions. And if you're only partially successful, don't beat yourself over the head – you'll just get a headache which, in turn, will cause you to procrastinate.

The Problem with Lie to Me

The problem with the TV series Lie to Me is, that it somewhat ruins all other police and detective series – good, bad, new, old, British, American… They could all use Cal Lightman or his skills, and solve their cases in half the time. In all these other shows, you see the macho, stiff-upper-lipped detective or his ridiculously high-heeled female partner interrogating a suspect or a witness, and they're at a total loss as to whether their interlocutor is telling the truth. Now, where is Dr. Lightman when you need him?!

As an aside, it's mostly the American girl-detectives and crime-scene investigators who wear high heels and skin-tight pants, whose makeup is always perfect and who contaminate a crime scene with their long, flowing hair. British girl-detectives tend to look like real women. They are not necessarily pretty, they wear little or no makeup and sensible shoes, they don't look like they've just stepped out of the beauty parlor, and – believe it or not – they often wear the same outfit throughout the entire episode! With no cleavage showing!

If a tree falls in the forest…

OK, so the jury is still out on that one.
But what about big mistakes in tiny print in boring ads that no one reads? Do they count? Does it matter? Does anywhere out there care, except for a few persnickety editors/proofreaders and compulsive ad readers?...

Take this Mega ad the in the J. Post…

I'm pretty sure nobody reads it. If anything, you just glance at the pics of the products and their prices, and say to yourself, "Hmm… interesting… I wonder how much I paid last week for a kilo of this type of laundry power… I think it was buy one get the second one at 37.4% off, or maybe buy two, get the third for 23 shekels plus points, or stars, or stamps…" And then you just shrug it off and throw out the paper.
So obviously no one but me noticed the "handwritten note" that says, and I quote:

"Every family and it's
shopping – and shopping
is done at Mega chains!"

I don't know, maybe it makes sense if you've seen the original Hebrew version. But I wouldn't count on it.

You've learnt to expect stupid mistakes in ads.
But what about a catalog of an art exhibition by a respectable cultural institution?
Or rather, what about a mistake in a work of art that includes words as a visual element?

The other week I translated some texts for the highly aesthetic catalog of the delightful exhibition, Mythological Gods Step Down from Mount Olympus. I wasn't asked to edit the catalog. And I certainly wasn't asked to edit the illustrations hung up in the exhibition. But why, oh why, didn't anyone tell this artist that the text embedded in her illustration is in incorrect English?

The text in the right-hand bubble, which you probably cannot read in my scanned version, reads:

"I had a dream about my
mother in law again. I think
I am loosing it."

And the same mistake is repeated in the left-hand bubble.

(I only noticed it when looking closely at the 50x70 cm illustration, at the exhibition, on opening night.)

Why, oh why, do teachers worldwide fail at instilling in their students the difference between its and it's, lie and lay, lose and loose, to mention a few common offenses? I'm sure they (the teachers) do their best, I'm not blaming them. I'm blaming the students. I don’t think they're dumb; I think they just don't care. Its, it's, lose, loose -- why make such a fuss over it, they seem to say; the language will eventually change to reflect our usage anyway, so why bother?...