An American in Berlin
9 July, 2018
Oh, hey. So remember way back in January of 2017 I did a sort of New Year’s Resolution post? Except it wasn’t so much a “resolution” post as “here’s the shit I want to get done, or at least, get started” post? Well, one of those things was to translate this fairy tale thing I’d written into French. So yeah, like 2.5 weeks ago – which, you’ll note, is firmly in 2018 – I finally got started.
Really fascinating process. And really hard! But also really gratifying. Until it wasn’t. And then it was again. I’ll explain. Right, so the story itself, in English, is 20 pages, single-spaced. By now, I’ve spent about two weeks on it. Which has worked out to just over seven pages. So like, half a page a night. And after the first night, I was like, “Hey, you know what? This ain’t half bad! I think I can do this!”
Which isn’t to say it was good, either. Just, you know, not half bad. And I knew, off the bat, there would be problems. Basic shit, like prepositions (impossible), idioms (possible, but mad hard) and the finer points of grammar (not impossible, but I don’t know what I don’t know kinda thing). But after the first night, I thought I was off to a decent start.
After the second night, though. Not so much. What I mean is, I read the whole thing over, and I just thought, “Jeez, this is fucking terrible!” See, I was out of the ‘working’ headspace and into the ‘reading’ headspace. And to whatever extent I can or can’t write French, I can certainly read it. And when I read what I had wrought…yeesh. No, really. I wanted to burn it and never ever even try to write French again as long as I live. Seriously.
But as luck would have it, Charlotte was visiting that weekend. More on that later. But the point is, she’s a French teacher with a background in lit. So she knows what she’s talking about. Anyway, I asked her if she wouldn’t mind taking a look at it. Which, turns out, she was pretty excited to do.
So she did. And sure enough, wrong prepositions all over the place. Some grammar problems that are easy enough to fix and which I can learn from and hopefully get better at. And she helped out with some idiomatic stuff which I just don’t have access to. But there were also more than a few things which she thought I did really well, and one or two things I may even have impressed her with.
And then we talked about approach. Because when I started, I really was trying to “translate” my English. Which is what lead to the ‘idiom traps’ if I can call them that. What I mean is, I was trying to translate English idioms directly into French, which just doesn’t work. So what we talked about was basically this. That going forward, I should stop trying to “translate,” so to speak. What I should really be trying to do, is simply to tell the story in French.
After all, it’s my story. I don’t owe it to some original author to try and create a “faithful translation,” whatever that might mean. I’m the author. It’s already mine. Which means I have the freedom to just tell it in French, the way I can. And so, I guess it won’t be so much a “translation” as a “French version” of my story. My French version. Which, the more I think about it, is actually pretty cool.
So we decided that I’ll create a google doc so she can edit as I go, basically. But she’s the perfect person to be doing this with. Because her attitude is essentially, “I’m not trying to re-write your story. I just want to fix the things that are wrong and give you suggestions where things don’t work.”
Which is great. Because there’s something that’s very important to me here. And maybe this is a bit venal on my part. But when it’s done, I really want to be able to say that I wrote it. In fucking French. And obviously I’m happy to give credit where credit is due, right? Like, obviously I can’t just do this alone. But I really want for it to be mine, you know? I hope that makes sense. Just, I feel like that would be such a huge accomplishment, to be able to really write a story in another language. And have it not suck.
But she’s also the perfect person to be doing this with for another reason. Not to sound corny, but she gets me. What I mean is, working with her was pretty effortless. Hand-in-glove kinda thing. She explains something with a minimum of words, and I get it. I ask a question, she knows exactly what I mean and how to answer. She doesn’t get something I wrote, I can tell her what I was trying to do, and in a flash, she’s on it. Just easy, you know?
Anyway, two big takeaways from going over just this first page with Charlotte. The first is, keep trying. Because I asked. “Do I suck at this? Should I just give up and never try to write French again as long as I live?” And she’s like, “No, of course not.” Because, like I said, that’s where I was at the end of the first page.
But the other takeaway was really special. To me, anyway. She said, “Looking at this, it’s very obvious that you read literary French.” Or words to that effect. But I mean, fuck yeah! Because, come on, how long have I been reading Verne and Dumas and now Hugo (more on that later, too). Like, yeah, I hope that shows through. I hope I’m learning something from all this reading I do. Well, I guess I am. But to have that sort of be noticed and appreciated, well, yeah, that’s kind of a little feather in the cap, you know?
So yeah, Charlotte came for a short visit the last weekend of June. A short visit, but a lot of fun. And productive, obviously. I picked her up at the airport around 11 on Friday night, which means we only had time to come home (an hour ride) and drink a bunch of wine. Classic. Saturday we played some music, went for a short walk in the woods out east (bad weather), and took a look at my story.
We realized we were hungry around 10. Which is annoying because nothing out here is open that late, even on a Saturday. But in the end we found a traditional German restaurant which Yelp said was open til midnight. We got there at like 11. And it was empty, save for the three people working. And by working, I mean sitting around a table drinking beer.
So I asked if it was too late to order food. And they were so nice about it. Of course it’s not too late, we’re happy to have you. That kinda thing. And you guys. The food was uh-mazing. We both got schnitzel. Which itself was fantastic. But it also came with a little salad, string beans and fried potatoes. And in the string beans and potatoes were little bits of bacon. And all of it cooked in so much butter. I mean, it was outa this world. And the waitress, who didn’t speak a word of English, was just adorable. The sweetest lady.
And also, the place was so empty and so quiet, we could actually hear the chef whistling and singing in the kitchen while he cooked for us. I mean, what a win, you guys.
We actually, oddly, didn’t really get drunk. So we came back, listened to music for a bit1 and just sorta fell asleep. Just a nice, peaceful night. And then Sunday was more music playing. We had to leave to get her to the airport around 2:45, so there wasn’t really time for much else.
But you know how last time I was saying we had been working on Simon and Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence, and just not getting it? Well, yesterday, finally, we got it. I mean, it took a lot of work. And nobody’s gonna confuse us for S&G. But we can do it. And you know what? It sounds pretty good! She does the melody and I do the harmony. And it works. It just works. And holy shit, y’all, that is fun!
And we also came back to this song by some band called Moriarty (which may or may not be how it’s spelled). I mentioned this song last time she was here, I think. It’s probably called “Jimmy,” but we just call it “The Buffalo Song.” Anyway, I worked up a new guitar arrangement. She does the singing. On the choruses I started experimenting with some harmonies. Some definitely didn’t work. Some worked a treat.
But there’s this too. She’s got a good voice, you guys. Like, she’s still figuring out how to use it. But she’s got no problems with pitch. And her tone is really sweet. I mean, I just enjoy listening to her sing. You would too. So we recorded it. And when I listened back to it, I was like, “Shit, that’s you? You sound good!”
And I know I said this last time, but I love this now. I love when I can just play the guitar and listen to her sing. It’s really great. And then when we get some good harmonies going, I fucking love it. Because, that’s something that’s brand new for me. Harmonies I mean.
All those years playing in bands, I never once stepped in front of a microphone. And then, all these past years doing my own stuff, I’ve always sang alone. So I don’t know the first thing about harmonizing. I mean, Shyer, for example, that dude could just harmonize on top of anything and it would be instant gold. Not me, nossir.
So this is new for me. And it’s not easy or natural. But I guess I can kinda do it. And when it works, damn. Fun City, Population: Two.
Anyway, that was that. Basically a 36-hour visit. But crazy good times, as always, (if a bit less crazy than always). The plan is to hopefully meet up in the north of France sometime in September. Already looking forward to it.
So, Victor Hugo. I guess I decided it was finally time I see what this dude is all about, seeing as how he’s such a big deal and all. Now, the obvious choice would have been Les Misérables. But that shit’s crazy long. And I’m not done with my Musketeers yet, so that one’s gonna have to wait. So I decided instead on Notre Dame de Paris. Which, in English, we know as The Hunchback of Notre Dame. But that’s a bit misleading. The French title is more accurate. Because so much of this book, apparently, is just about the fucking church. And architecture in general.
No, seriously. He has whole chapters that have literally nothing to do with the story. They’re just about architecture and Paris in general. The guy’s passionate about buildings, whaddya want?
Anyway, it’s good, obviously. It’s hard though. First of all, he’s dropping Latin left and right. And not words or phrases, mind you. Whole sentences in Latin. And not bothering to translate them either. He’s just, “It’s like, ‘blah-us blah-us blah-us,’ know what I mean? Of course you do. On with the story!” Uh, thanks?
And the vocabulary is hard. Lotta words I’ve never seen before. Which, on the one hand, great. That’s how you learn. But on the other hand, uh, what? The upshot being that I find myself skipping a lot of words. Because I’d like to finish this book before I die. So it’s a challenge.
But it’s worth it. Because he does a lot of things where I’m just like, “Wow, nice!” Like, yeah, OK, I see why this guy is a big deal. Also, did you guys know Quasimodo has only one eye? I mean, I guess he has two eyes. But he’s got some awful growth that completely covers one of them. So effectively he’s a Cyclops. And he’s deaf. Not born deaf. But he went deaf from all the chruchbell-ringing. Did you guys know that? I didn’t know that. Anyway, it’s pretty great, is what I’m saying.
Staying on the subject of reading. I’ve just finished the Book of Numbers, maybe two weeks ago. So that’s four out of five books of the Torah read. Crazytown. But I’ll get more into that next time maybe.
More interestingly, I’ve decided to get a bit more serious with regard to my curiosity about/passion for Yiddish. Like, let’s see if I can teach myself to read this language. After all, it’s basically German (which I speak, but ironically can’t read) with a smattering of Hebrew. So there’s this newspaper, The Forward, out of New York. It started life in the early 20th century as a Yiddish-language daily. At some point it switched to a weekly English paper. But they still publish in Yiddish online. So, I figured, Fuck it. I printed out an article.
And I just started hacking away at it. Usually just in the mornings at work, before class starts. It’s going very slowly. But it’s going, absolutely. Basically, I’m just working with my (admittedly imperfect) knowledge of German and Hebrew, my general (admittedly limited) linguistic knowledge and a dictionary. And yeah, I guess I’m working with what I guess I can call the overall background music of my life. What I mean is, I’m finding words that I just know because I heard them growing up. Which is cool.
Anyway, it’s endlessly fascinating. But more than that, there’s a joy in it. Like, I feel like I’m connecting with something that belongs to me, but which is hazy, that hangs out in the past, but not the ancient past. This is the language of my grandparents and my great-grandparents. This is the language my parents heard around them growing up, even if they never learned it. It’s words that are a part of my parents’ English vocabulary.2 It’s woven into the fabric of my life and yet largely out of reach.
I can’t talk to my grandparents anymore, never mind my great-grandparents. But maybe I can learn their language a little bit. It’s a way to connect with my ancestors that I didn’t have even when they were alive. But not my ancient ancestors. Hebrew does that, in a very different way. Hebrew connects me with people I never knew, who died thousands of years before I was born. Yiddish connects me with people who I knew and loved, and who loved me. And that’s powerful. Yeah, there’s a power in that.
So where is this going? I mean, I’m not about to go start hanging out with the Chasidim, thank you very much. Nor can I dig up The Olds and ask וואַס מאַכסטו (Was Machste?, What’s up?). So I ask again, apart from the spiritual mumbo-jumbo, where is this going? I guess, my goal – for now, anyway – is, first just to finish this article.3 And then read another. And another. Until I feel good enough about it to try my hand at, I dunno, Shalom Alechem? I mean, why not?
But yeah, I guess I’d love to get to the point where I could read Yiddish on the subway about as easily as I read French. Is that attainable? No idea. Maybe. But there’s only one way to find out.
So that’s a side project. Among a million side projects. But it’s a good one, I think. And a fun one. Because whatever else, there’s something undeniably fun about Yiddish. To me, anyway. But the way it’s almost sort of an argot. Like, on the one hand, it really is just a dialect of German. But the pronunciation is different. And the idioms are different. The word order and sentence construction are different. And then there’s the Hebrew sprinkled throughout. So that, I think, you could speak Yiddish in front of a German and, yeah, maybe they’d catch some of it, but they probably wouldn’t really understand it. That’s what I mean by argot, I guess. But that’s fun. Like cockney rhyming-slang. But for Jews. Now if only I could find anybody to actually speak it with…
Right, well that’s probably enough for now. Vinny is in Berlin now, so of course that’s fun – you know, drinking and philosophizing about sandwiches. Plus he brought meat and cheese from Italy, so added bonus there. And then in August I’m off to Italy myself for a week of desperately needed vacation. And hopefully France in September. And in between, work and work. My job work and my projects work. My Federalist Project, this translation project, Torah, Yiddish, Greek – I’ve got to get back on track with this Demosthenes oration; and Homer, I’ve got to get back to Homer.
And the guitar. I’m trying to learn the whole of Gaspar Sanz’ Suite Española. I’ve been playing the Canarios4 for years; as have two of my uncles. But I don’t know that either of them ever learned the whole suite. I should ask. Anyway, I’m working on that now. So yeah, much to do. But so much of it is wonderful. It’s good to be busy, when this is the kinda shit you’re busy with. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
- Turns out we both sorta secretly love Ace of Base. Who knew? [↩]
- I sent my mom a picture of the article I was working on, all marked up with my grammar and vocab notes. And as it’s properly in Yiddish, it’s using the modified Hebrew alphabet; it’s not been anglicized. And she just writes back “Fershtayce?” Which in Yiddish would look like פאַרשטייסטו and in German, Verstehst du? “Do you understand?”, in other words. Only one answer to that question, obviously. “A bissell.” [↩]
- So I drafted this last week. But since then, I have actually finished the article. Like, oh shit, I just read an actual newspaper article in Yiddish. Fucking cool! So now I’ve started a second… [↩]
- Canarios – the last movement of the suite. [↩]