Wednesday, 31 January 2018

The Politics of Self-Deprecation

A still from 30 Rock

"It’s a lot easier to paint yourself as a charming, chip-guzzling sloth whose body is not your temple when there are people who would literally build temples to your body."

I recently embraced my inner killjoy and wrote an article on the politics of self-deprecation. If you're curious and not too affronted by the above excerpt about Jennifer Lawrence, you are welcome to read it in full here

Sunday, 31 December 2017

In Which Medusa Is A Fashion Icon

Fashion advice that flirts with vice.


 Image credit to Bossy Magazine.  


I've yet to tire of satire. Perhaps because 2017 was The Year of The Thesis, writing serious work on the side often felt less appealing than having a laugh.

This love of satire seems to have snowballed, however, for I found myself at the close of the year writing tongue-in-cheek fashion advice for the chic among us. What a note on which to graduate from university...! How far we have all come, indeed.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that I am now a satirical sartorial savant, at least for five trendy minutes. Feel free to read more here, if you dare.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, 30 November 2017

"Ultimate Guide: 9 Fiction Genres You Should Know About"

What is genre? 

We often describe books as belonging to different genres: this makes them easy to categorise and market. Yet this tendency limits our understanding of the stories we read. Approach a story with  preconceived ideas about its genre, and one's reading experience will be transformed even if just through the influence of expectations.

While I tend to believe genres are at their most interesting when they cross into one another, I found myself writing an article delineating nine broad fiction genres for the online literary magazine Writer's Edit. How this happened remains a mystery. Granted, I threw in a few caveats about boundaries between genres being lines in shifting sands, but aside from that, the article actually examines fences instead of merely sitting on them. Who'd have guessed?

If you're curious to check out what my editors titled an 'Ultimate Guide' (bless their charitable souls) to fiction genres, you can find the article here. Have a lovely start to December.

Monday, 30 October 2017

Satire and the Marriage Equality Postal Survey

What do you think of when you see a rainbow flower-bed?

Almost everybody: "Hey look, rainbow flowers."

Australians, 2017: "Can flowers be a political statement?"

Whether this particular flower-bed (courtesy of this year's Floriade) was a political statement or not is irrelevant, especially as I raise it primarily in an excuse to share pictures of flowers. Yet the fact an Australian can read a rainbow flower-bed as a statement says something about our current political climate. The atmosphere has been stormy lately, and any a rainbow blocked out by clouds has yet to appear in full glory.


It's probably clear where this is going. But just in case...

What is a plebiscite? 

In Australia, a plebiscite is a vote by which people express an opinion for or against a question deemed to be of national importance. Unlike a referendum, it is not legally binding. Nor is voting compulsory.

Australia has only had three plebiscites (until now). Two were related to conscription during World War I, and and the other was held to inform selection of a National Song in 1977.

We are presently holding what was originally going to be the fourth plebiscite in our history; technically it's being classified as a survey now, but it functions in much the same way. The question of whether to legalise same-sex marriage is being put to a national poll, and results will be announced on the 15th of November. Why on Earth anyone would rather spend $122 million on a non-binding postal survey as opposed to on schools, hospitals, or roads, however, shall remain ever a mystery.

While I don't believe the aspiration of "respectful debate" has been met, I do wish it had been. First and foremost, for those who are hurt most by this debate - namely, those who have suffered both physical and verbal abuse for decades owing to their identities, and who continue to experience discrimination - it is cruel, unnecessary, and insulting to have the validity of their lives and relationships thrown to public debate. Moreover, the fear-mongering surrounding much of the debate is as inaccurate as it is alarmist: children and schools are not even relevant to the issue (n.b. children already grow up with same-sex parents and single parents, and are often conceived using IVF. Therefore, hand-wringing over children's rights to have a biological male and female parent is both unrelated to the debate and insulting to many pre-existing families - including heterosexual couples).

Nevertheless, environment plays a strong role in the development of personal attitudes; and, deterministic though this may sound, we don't necessarily exert as much control over our ideas as we might like or believe. Consequently, it is not unreasonable to argue that we should all seek to be empathetic towards those with whom we disagree. That said, however, the power dynamics in this situation can make it difficult - or again, even insulting - to suggest the more persecuted side calmly tolerate views which deem them abominations. While it can hurt to be told you're a bigot because you believe what you were raised to believe, it hurts a lot more to run a constant risk of persecution - a risk extending even to murder - simply for existing.

To write an article on this issue felt a little pointless: while it's important to speak up about political stances in which one believes, there are already many good articles on the topic, and I don't have anything especial to add in the way of logical argument. Yet considering the understandable grimness surrounding this debate, I did feel a little humour wouldn't go amiss. If you are curious, you are welcome to read my satirical article "You Are Invited To Vote In The Spherical Earth Postal Survey", here

And whatever you do... don't forget to vote.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Translator, Traitor

This article was first published here

To translate written work, especially colourful prose or poetry, is an exercise both punctuated by glee and fraught with anxiety. The ethical pitfalls of translation are many, and synonyms somehow never quite enough. If one resignedly steamrolls alliteration and meter, the yells they emit could be transliterated as anything from “ouch”, to “aïe”, to “āi yō”, depending on one’s perspective. Meanwhile, nuance flees the scene, and nobody notices.

The Italian language has a pithy saying on the subject: “Traduttore, traditore” – translator, traitor. It reflects the pessimistic but noteworthy idea that the act of translation is inherently doomed to fail, for nothing can ever be translated with perfect precision.

Reclining in her faux-leather desk chair, the philosophy professor looks smug. Does ‘translation’ even exist? Her eyes seem to say. How can any word, any perception, or any one reading of a text have a direct equivalent in another tongue? And how could you identify it anyway, trapped as you are within the framework of your own perceptions and experiences? 

Yet to engage in such a debate is a challenge for another day, another office; another bottle of vodka. Though it has its esoteric merits, the argument that no translation can ever be ‘perfect’ risks obscuring important practical considerations: that translation is necessary in a globalised world, and that translating in order to learn more about other cultures and their literary wealth is a positive undertaking.

Nevertheless, assuming the attitude that translation both does and should exist, we are already faced with several issues. For example, how loyal must a translator be to an original text? What responsibilities do they hold?

In an argument which harks back to the aforementioned philosophical point, critics and translators alike have argued that translation is not a dry affair which shuttles back and forth between languages, but rather an act of creation. Consider stylistic qualities of texts, such as alliteration and rhyme: a translator would have to be inventive in order to convey a sense of an original text’s style as well as its meaning. A nursery rhyme or a tongue-twister, to use very basic examples, would suffer if translated too literally; no-one cares about that random woman’s seaside vending enterprise at the best of times, but that ‘she sells shells’ is even less interesting in a language which loses the consonance and assonance of the English anecdote. Similarly, no Anglophone would bother repeating the entertaining (no really, it’s adorable) French tongue-twister, As-tu été à Tahiti? – “Have you been to Tahiti?” – in English for fun. Clearly, there must be some degree of creative licence in translation if an original’s nature is to be emulated effectively.

Nevertheless, to see translation as a creative act does have its problems. If one takes too many liberties in translation, translation could turn into adaptation – and if a translator has been entrusted with a text to translate, they do have an obligation to respect the original work.

Granted, questions surrounding ownership and originality are further complicated by the fact translators are, naturally, encouraged to translate ‘well’. To evoke the philosophy professor from the third paragraph, however, what is ‘well’? Should a translation be permitted to improve on the original?

To compare a translation’s merit with that of an original is highly subjective. That said, it is possible to analyse the two primary components of all texts – style and content – and consider how these might be improved via translation, and whether doing so is ethically acceptable. On the one hand, translators have a responsibility not to manipulate texts, even so as to ‘improve’ them, simply in order to represent them accurately. Yet one can still find glimmers of ethical translation innovation; turns of phrase which respect the original by adding flair, but in no way changing the meaning. A personal favourite, for example – a piece of genius I still recall from childhood – is how Harry Potter’s French translator, Jean-François Ménard, fused the words ‘choix’ (choice) and ‘chapeau’ (hat) to make the French version’s Magic Sorting Choixpeau. Such a pun is in keeping with the books’ tone, and thus a valid stylistic choice.

A more recent example of inspired translation is that of Deborah Smith, who was co-awarded the 2016 Man Booker International Prize for translating Han Kang’s prize-winning novel The Vegetarian. Judges deemed the prize to be “equal” between author and translator, considering the book to have “found the right voice in English” and to have thus been made accessible to Anglophone audiences to an unusually accurate degree, in both style and content. As with the case of Jean-François Ménard mentioned above, this example shows how a translator can perform their job without obscuring or overshadowing the text with which they’ve been entrusted.

However, in terms of content the debate thickens considerably. Naturally, it seems unlikely anyone would condone changing characters or storylines in a translationYet making such decisions is not always so simple. Take H. Rider Haggard novels, for example: enormously popular back in the heyday of the British Empire, they would now be considered ludicrously offensive for their blatant racism, sexism, and classism. Should we alter the content, and thus our understanding of Haggard, by toning down the racial slurs and the punitive deaths? Similar questions have been asked about Enid Blyton novels, still widely distributed, and those of Agatha Christie, the best-selling author of all time.

To alter these works, whether by translation or modernisation, would go beyond stylistic tweaks. Whole characters’ identities could need rewriting to fit today’s standards (it can be hard enough ), and to take such liberties with an author’s work seems absurd, or at the very least Orwellian. And yet what should one do, if translating an otherwise exceptional novel in which a protagonist makes repeated racist or homophobic jokes, for example – which, in that culture, era, and social context, may actually have served to consolidate his popularity and (supposedly) the reader’s good opinion of him? Does one simply footnote such incidents, and use them to discuss cultural and historical differences, and changing ideologies? Or does one adapt the joke, and translate the author’s supposed intent (i.e. the joke makes the character popular) so as not to jar a progressive modern readership?

Personally, I believe translating a work should ideally be unobtrusive: it’s not the place of the translator to change the tone of the original and thus influence readers’ interpretations of the text. We can’t ever fully know an author’s intent, but we can be as faithful to informed interpretations of it as possible. Besides, translation is widely perceived as an objective act, even though this is hardly the case. The common belief that a translation is accurate means a translator therefore has a great deal of responsibility, for their word will literally be taken to be somebody else’s. Translators are facilitators above all: they should consequently aim not to betray their readers’ expectations of loyalty to an original.

Yet in spite of these various quandaries and ethical limitations, translation needn’t be considered the underwhelming ‘study in beige’ of the writing arts. As mentioned previously, it can be creative without being presumptuous, particularly if an integral part of a text’s quality is owed to a memorable writing style. In these cases, it can be a lot of fun to read translations; after all, one never knows what cleverness might have been unearthed through using a set of parallel tools, and how different translators might have interpreted the one text.  What innovations might there have been in translating Shakespeare, and might these translations have developed over the years along with our readings of his works? How about Finnegan’s Wake? Or Jabberwocky?

No matter how self-effacing or otherwise a translator may be – and regardless of whether they intend to reflect or to recreate texts – there is at least one point on which we can be hopeful: that there will always be as much to be gained, as to be lost, in translation.