Archive for September, 2007

verloren in vertaling

Which, in Dutch, means “lost in translation.”

While in Amsterdam I checked out a number of bookstores hunting down the impossible: a discovery. The art of discovering something uncommon (or at least uncommon in one culture that might be totally popular in another) carries a certain cache “That proves you were there/That you heard of them first” as John McCrea once sang. I always do this when I travel, keep an eye out for that one unique thing I can bring back and say “Looky what I found!”

This time I was on the lookout for children’s book authors whose primary language was not English. I had hoped to find some French editions of Polo books — because I knew they were out there — but frankly the French sort books on the shelves funny and the one person I tried asking about Regis Faller’s books looked at me like I was from Mars.

In Amsterdam I was casually not looking for anything specifically when I spotted a number of books by a gentleman named Toon Tellegen. At an Internet cafe I did a quick search and found a site that said he was an award winning poet and writer of children’s books. Good enough. Next time I was in a bookstore I checked out the poetry section and — holy macaroli! — the man has an entire shelf to himself! So then I’m back in the children’s section looking at his books, trying to get a bead on what he’s up to.

But I never studied Dutch, I took German in high school, and where there are a lot of words in Dutch that sound the same as their German counterparts they aren’t written the same and I felt totally lost. I debated with myself — do I get something her and look for a translation when I get home, or do I just wait until I get home? I finally decided I was going to pick up one of his books and, hang it, if they weren’t in translation I’d translate it myself for fun. I had Suze help me decide on a book based by it’s cover and that was that.

Information was scarce, scarce in English at least. And translations from various Internet sites proved rough at best. Here’s the summary of the book I purchased — Maar Niet Uit Het Hart — as I was able to translate it.

The squirrel must take farewell of the ant. And ‘ not with lamentation and what I your missing will rapidly return and and this way ‘, because to that the ant has a hekel. But that cannot promise the squirrel. He certainly that he will continue think of the ant and him might weet forget. In but from the heart the most beautiful animal tales concerning farewell have not been brought at each other. For the tales concerning squirrel, ant and other one the animals tone Tellegen was among other things rewarded with the Woutertje Pieterse price, gouden the owl and twice with gouden the griffel. In 1997, he received the Theo Thijssen-prijs for its complete oeuvre.

Okay, I get it. I think. It didn’t take long to discover that, to date, only one of Tellegen’s books has made into English translation, and it was a book of poetry. The poems I was able to track down were extremely interesting and I had high hopes for my translation because it was clear I was going to have to work the book out on my own.

One sleepless night I sat at the computer and tackled the first chapter — three published pages — of the book using on-line dictionary and translation site, Babel Fish, for better or worse. Within a few sentences I began to be reminded of all the German grammar I suffered through, all the strange little rules for verbs and those little things that change the meaning of words but have no direct translation themselves. I worked line by line, then broke down specific words or phrases when their meaning seemed jumbled.

The word stof, for example, came up as substance. But contextually the characters were looking through a window and everything was covered in substance. I took a chance that the word was dust and tried translating it back into Dutch to see if I was correct. I was, and then the game got more complicated. The word rozenstruik came up as shrubshrub shrub in translation. A simple phonetic reading of the Dutch word seemed to indicate that it was a rose bush but the word rose came up as nam toe, which translates as the past tense of to rise, or increase.

Then I tried something wacky: I tried a Google image search for rozenstruik and came up image after image of shrubshrub shrubs: rose bushes.

I never pretended to imagine the work of a translator to be an easy one, nor did I imagine that the Internets, in all their glory of tubes and whatnot, would make quick work of the subtleties of written translation. What I didn’t fully expect or appreciate until I spent the wee small hours of the morning at it was how much like a puzzle it was, like code-breaking, cryptography. Each sentence contains a literal translation, that in turn requires the reader to make an interpretative translation in order to recover the meaning, followed by a contextual translation that works with the author’s intended meaning for the whole. Awesome stuff.

It’s been a week or so since doing those first pages. I’m not on a deadline with this, it’s just something to do when I need a diversion. I sincerely doubt it will even find a state where it could be published; assuming it’s worth the translation for an English speaking market, I’m sure someone else will get to it before I could anyway.

But in an odd way it’s fun. One day I hope to discover what exactly the Ant and the Squirrel saw, and how farewell (which I suspect may be a euphemism for death) plays into it all. It’s certainly still a discovery for me as I unlock the mystery of what is written on the pages.

It feels like learning to read all over.

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As I mentioned, when I was originally putting my application package together I had finished the spit and polish on my critical essay and went back to check and make sure I didn’t screw up the page length requirement. It seems a small thing, but I really didn’t want to look like a dingledork chowdermonkey: I got the page count right but the focus of the essay was all wrong, wrong wrong.

See I was supposed to talk about a book in relation to the craft of writing, an analysis piece that showed I knew how to pick the meat from the bones and examine the undercarriage. Under the gun with only four days before I had to send off my application materials I decided against rewriting the essay I’d just finished and took the college at its word when they said I could submit something previously written.

And that meant finding something suitable.

A cruise through the archives of the excelsior file dragged me back to a review I’d done for a YA title called Joker. I liked something about the tone of the piece, and that it allowed for a direct comparison with that fluffy playwright Bill Shakes, so with my nose to the whetstone I hacked it to bits and made it fit Cinderella’s slipper.

Herewith is the souped-up final draft.

A Portrait of the Dane as a Young Adult Character
by Ranulfo, HarperCollins 2006

Shakespeare’s Hamlet contains all the elements necessary for great Young Adult fiction. There’s a remarried mother, a devoted-yet-tragic girl, a sadistically vengeful boy, the haunting of the dead, meddling friends and families, in-jokes and meta-drama, double-crosses and, yes, even multiple murders both accidental and premeditated. Perhaps murder isn’t a necessary element for Young Adult fiction when a good suicide will do (and Hamlet also has one of those) though it does add an extra jolt of drama.

But at it’s core Hamlet is the tragedy of an individual driven to self-destruction. Hamlet’s father is dead, murdered we later learn (from his father’s ghost) by his brother, Hamlet’s mother remarries said brother, and the young prince is urged onto a mission of revenge against all parties. Hamlet plays at madness as part of his vengeful scheme and though it pains him on some fronts to take down innocents along the way, the collateral damage is a necessary part of his single-minded determination. Hamlet correctly draws out the guilt of all parties, the bodies pile up, and he pays for all this righteousness with his own life.

No such luck here with Ranulfo’s Joker, and if that counts as a plot spoiler then it should also serve as a warning that the book isn’t so much the self-proclaimed adaptation of Hamlet as it is a relatively bloodless variation on a loosely-based theme.

It’s safe to say that wearing the skin of a bear does not make the person a bear, nor does wearing a necklace of sharks teeth give the bearer the bite or the ferocity of a killer. Assuming the audience isn’t familiar with the original it follows that fashioning a costume of modern dress over the amateurishly assembled fossil remains of Shakespeare does not necessarily guarantee a fully engaging tale of teen angst or feigned madness. To a modern audience familiar with the source material it seems fair to expect an updated version would provide new insights and relevance, otherwise why retell the story? The exercise then becomes one of appropriation with little to show for itself.

Particulars appear to be rearranged for our modern age. We teach school children the blood and guts of the original Hamlet but it appears we could never tell the same story in a modern setting for fear of appearing gratuitously violent or histrionic. Ranulfo opens with Matt – our modern Hamlet – reeling from his parents divorce. No, his father is not dead, just drunk and broken from having been fool enough to let this cypher of a Gertrude slip away from him. The interloper in this case isn’t even a relative but some smooth-talker from the sales department at dad’s company. The dead party is Matt’s best friend Ray who died off-stage in an arson fire set at a youth hostel. Matt may be feeling some guilt over this because it was a holiday trip he backed out of, but his feelings are a bit muddied here. Already, by splitting up the death-and-remarriage, and by making that death a random act on another character rather than a closely personal loss integral to the plot, Ranulfo has drained the original story of it’s potency and emotional center.

In an attempt to compensate Ranulfo has created the character of Joker to bring out Matt’s inner demons, an evil trickster of a free spirit who, if removed entirely from the book, changes nothing. Serving as occasional alter ego, the book’s title character does little to convince us of Matt’s madness, internal suffering, or of providing Matt much in the way of guidance. At best Joker seems a literary contrivance aimed at convincing readers of some dark, sinister force at work behind the scenes.

Ophelia – Leah here – is as much the clinging girlfriend as she is in Hamlet. There’s a lost opportunity in this where Ranulfo might have shown us the greater reason for her devotion, or better mirrored what Hamlet/Matt was once like before the great tragedy came. There’s a fine line between undeveloped and under-developed being trod here, neither being a great position to take.

And it continues. Hamlet’s journey abroad with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern becomes a mere blip of self-exile at a trailer parked along the beach, with the messenger’s bloodshed replaced by their dropping out of society to join the circus. The play-within-a-play is translated as Matt’s attempt at social commentary through artistic expression — an abusive retelling of the musical South Pacific — and not the thing wherein he captures the conscience of the step-dad from sales, much less a king. Finally, where emotions should be driving everyone mad and bodies should be piling up, Ranulfo has Matt running away to the big city for an encounter with anti-World Trade Organization protesters that leaves him feeling like he needs to return home.

But home to what? On the bus ride home Matt dreams all his possible futures (well, a handful at least, and only the most extreme versions), back to Leah, to his senses, and mostly to the conclusion that love triumphs over anger and vengeance any day.

That makes for a tidy little ending, almost trite, and with so much source material to work with therein lies the tragedy.

When she read it my Suze thought I spent a little too much time talking about the original Hamlet, but I maintained (and still do) that this great tragedy, properly handled, could yield an amazing YA novel. I’m not saying I’m the one to do it, but I think it’s out there.

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This is it, the one I finally settled on. The edit was a bloodbath — it was twice and long and four times as meandering as it needed to be originally. I think if I hadn’t been on a short deadline (of my own design) I’d have written at least 20 different versions, each with merit, and not be able to decide on which to go with. I’m the same way with opening chapters, by the way.

Without further ado, as submitted with my application:

The Personal Essay
of David Elzey

I published my first book in the fifth grade, co-written with my best friend Marc, entitled This Book Is Not Very Punny. Eight mini-sized mimeographed pages of illustrated puns, the book was poorly received, the criticism crushing; the boys were jealous because it made them laugh, the girls felt the humor juvenile and beneath them. Shortly thereafter I announced I would one day be an animator for Disney.

I wasn’t ready to be a writer.

I went to art school and learned that the history of art grew out of storytelling. The history of film taught me I had no stomach for Hollywood. French New Wave and German Expressionist movies spoke to my soul but I didn’t know how to decode the language. I graduated from college with a major in Experimental Film and Video and a minor in Confusion. I seriously considered becoming a Buddhist monk.

Instead I went back to school and became a junior high school teacher.

Little accidents began to take place. A friend’s daughter told me to read a book by Daniel Pinkwater called Fat Men From Space. The book was new to me but it reminded me what a joy the books of my past had been. I happened onto a bookstore reading by Francesca Lia Block for her debut Weetzie Bat and it was as if a window had been opened into my past. Childhood memories flooded my thoughts and I began to see my classroom experiences from a different perspective. A character sprang to mind, a series of stories, a young adult novel fluttered. I took ten vacation days from work and hammered out a rough draft. It had some fun, a smudge of promise, but I was uncomfortable with the novel format. Still, I was writing and that felt good.

I began working with screenplays, movies intended for adults, believing they were somehow more “serious” than books for kids. At the same time I volunteered at a radio station and began reviewing movies. I learned the art of writing the 20-second public service announcement and eventually taught courses in writing for radio. I also formed a writer’s group that met weekly to discuss and critique each other’s work. I felt like things were moving along. I also felt like I was running in place.

So I quit my job, liquefied my assets, and went to Europe. I didn’t intend to become the cartoon stereotype of the American abroad on a journey of self-discovery but, as is often case, the minute you stop looking for something is when you find it. I had been trying so hard to be a writer that I had forgotten what it was to enjoy the process. Worse, I had ignored my own instincts by abandoning children’s books when that was the very thing that sparked my writing in the first place.

I returned to the States and began by working in bookstores. I began reading and studying children’s books. I read the professional journals and joined the SCBWI, believing every time I renewed that “this year” would be the one I would be able to list the dues as a tax deduction.

It was only a year ago that my wife Suze delicately pointed out that her salary was three times the size of mine and, well, we could afford it if I wanted to take time off to write.

I supplemented my writing with an internship at the Horn Book where my education continued and I was asked to write reviews. Afterward I took up (and still maintain) a part-time position at a children’s book shop in town which provides me time to devote to my own writing. I’ve set up shop on the Internet reviewing children’s books in all formats and genres. Short of mimeographing my stories and handing them out to classmates, I feel I’ve come back to the point where it all began, to take on the revisions and suggestions of instructors and fellow classmates, to tell the stories I’ve been longing to tell.

I’m ready.

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adjective capable or worthy of being accepted.

Which is to say, I got into grad school.

I started putting this blog together at around a month ago just after I applied. I had a September 1st deadline for a January start and I honestly didn’t expect to hear anything before the middle of October. In the meantime I pressed ahead with the idea that I wanted a place to lay down some of my non-review kidlit (and non-kidlit) related thinking. I also sort of envisioned this blog as an occasional diary of my progress through school and all the ways various aspects of my life intersect through it. On a larger scale, this blog will be a bridge between my quasi amateur kidlit blogger self and (hopefully) my full-on post-graduate published author self.

I am nothing if not a grand schemer.

Early on I put up the story of my personal essay hell from high school and one from a job.  I also tossed out the critical essay that I didn’t use because I screwed up on the requirements when I wrote it and tried something totally different at the very last minute.  I knew at some point I’d post the writing samples I sent, but I was just superstitious enough to hold off until I was sure I was in.  Later this week I’ll drop the personal essay that I used, this weekend I’ll follow up with the critical essay that I did send.

It hasn’t sunk in that I made it, or at least it doesn’t feel different.  Yet.  At some point it’s going to hit me that I got what I wished for and we all know how careful we have to be about these things we wish for.  Even when we earn them.  I’m looking forward to this with a mild glee now that I’m sure will become sheer terror come the first day of classes.  Or as I have to remind myself at times it’s not fear, it’s excitement!

I’ll be attending classes here, for those who are interested.   Yes, I’m excited!

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big stinky review fun

I just finished up my most recent batch of books to review and was thinking “Hmm, what should I read next?” when a ginormous padded mailer came from the nice UPS man filled with my next batch of books.

Wow. So many trees, giving up their lives so valiantly in the name of books that should never have been published.

I don’t have it worked out scientifically, but if I had to guess I’d say maybe 10% of what I read for review was worthy of the ink and the rest are not. I’m spared the truly dreadful self-published items (truly, truly dreadful, I must say) but occasionally a stinker lands in my lap and there’s nothing to do but hold your nose and dive in.

Out of kindness for all involved I am not revealing the title, but there’s a tiny little sticky note on one of my review books with a small handwritten “sorry” printed on it. It’s nice to know that my editor (or their assistant) cares enough to acknowledge the inherent pollution involved.

Sorry indeed.

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ant farm by simon rich

This collection of shorter humorous pieces — I hesitate to use the word story as so many are written only to hit a punchline — are either the first inklings of a major force in humor or the short, brilliant sparks of beer-infused talent at the cusp of spiraling into oblivion.

Personally, I’m hoping for the latter.

Simon Rich, with his Harvard degree and his being all Mr. President of The Harvard Lampoon, who does he think he is having his oh-so-clever little observations published just in time for graduation? Who the hell is this kid with testimonial from Jon Stewart on the front and back cover — what, you couldn’t find more than one person to say nice things about you? I noticed, Simon, that half of these little stories of yours (if you can call them stories, most are just little fragments of dialog) were previously published in that paragon of literary lights The Harvard Lampoon; were you unable to get anyone outside of your alma mater to give you a few inches of space in their journals and magazines? I bet you didn’t even try, I bet the whole thing is just a bunch of back-slapping good-ol-boys insider club wheeling-dealing. And as for the other half of the book, what was that, contractual filler that the publisher requested after you handed in a twenty-five page manuscript? Your success is a farce, my friend, your talent…

Actually, your stuff is pretty damn funny, I have to admit. I’m not going to say you hit it out of the park because there are a few items that do feel a bit like filler, where the humor is stretched a bit thin. Where you do hit, you hit well, strong and solid. The pieces are like finely crafted commercials, dialog and description succinct and powerful, and just like that on to the next.

“a conversation at the grown-ups’ table as imagined at the kids table” is nothing short of brilliant. It’s the kind of thing that The National Lampoon Radio Hour wished they’d written, the kind of thing the early Saturday Night Live might have tried, and exactly the sort of thing Hollywood would use to build a movie franchise out of… a bad movie franchise. Think Look Whose Talking meets Charles Bukowski. No, don’t think it, don’t even reread that sentence! Hollywood can hear our thoughts and that’s why they make the crap they do. That’s how they get away with saying “We’re giving the people what they want!” No! We don’t want it, we’re just joking! It’s a joke! Please, don’t make any more crappy movies! I beg you! Get out of my head!

This isn’t much of a review. Sorry about that. Let me rectify the situation here and now. Most of what Rich writes about concerns the life of children, kids of all ages, and those childhood perceptions that sometimes get in the way of our world view. There’s a short drama about what a third grader imagines the UNICEF headquarters are like (UNICEF is a tyrannical despot using kids to collect money to make himself rich), a seventh grade fantasy where all the jocks become slaves to the nerds, the best friend who has a sex-addicted fashion model girlfriend that clearly is a figment of his friend’s imagination, and a variety of other (57 in all) situations where things don’t go as planned. Simon writes what he knows, and at the age of 22 he still remembers vividly and painfully how unfair middle school was, taking the even-handed lack of justice from the principal’s office and applies it to the adult courtroom.

How was that, did that sound more like a book review? I tried to keep that paragraph factual without letting my bitter jealousy and rancor seep through.

What? No, I’m not jealous. Did I say that? I don’t think I did. No, no. Not at all jealous.


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the sweet spot

My blog subscriptions are a funny collection of who I am, what interests me. I’m sure everyone’s collection of interests has a few odd pieces.

One of the places I visit regularly is Seth Godin’s blog entitled, uh, Seth’s Blog. Seth is marketing guru, a guy who is constantly looking at and rethinking the ways business works (and doesn’t work) in this modern age. I like his approach, and I’ve found over time dozens of posts that bring up ideas that can be applied to *ahem* authors looking to increase their visibility in the marketplace.

A recent post, however, brings out a very interesting factoid about publishing and reviewing.

If you want to get reviewed by the New York Times Book Review, don’t even consider self-publishing. Don’t write a how to book. Don’t write something particularly funny, either. But it sure helps to be published by Knopf. Literary fiction by respected writers published by Knopf is the sweet spot (history comes in a close second).

He’s not reporting fact so much as he’s providing statistical documentation. Finding the “sweet spot” — that mythical place that allows for an extra advantage — often appears to be the analysis of practical data and applying it judiciously. The Writer’s Market books will tell you which publishers prefer what subjects, and in doing so indicate their bias in terms of interest which they can measure and calculate into earnings. Part of this equation also has to do with what can be generated from reviews, good press and exposure.

The bias probably isn’t so much intentional as it is institutional. Over the years the folks at Knopf have become close with the folks at the NYT Book Review and, naturally, those books gain favor as a result. Not as a favor, but by proximity and availability. A publicist builds a relationship with a particular critic or media host, that publisher gets more books in front of that one person, the scales are going to tip that way. I saw it happen at the radio station I worked at. It isn’t conscious, it just happens until one day someone goes “Say, we’ve seen a lot of people from Running Nose Press lately, let’s try and open things up a bit.”

That said, I’m now wondering how these things play out in children’s publishing. I’ve seen smaller houses with exceptional books get barely a sliver of the coverage that mediocre (and worse) books get from the bigger houses. It underscores how much harder smaller publishers have to work to get heard above the din, equally highlighting the fact that larger publishers can “take more chances” (i.e. be lazier about selecting better books) because in the end something is bound to hit. The old quality versus quantity thing again.

I don’t write with hitting a publisher’s sweet spot in mind, but I’m beginning to wonder if that isn’t how a lot of books get on the shelves.

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