Thursday, January 27, 2011


I have not met my blogging quota this month (4-5 posts). Can I make it up by the month’s end? Probably not.

This post was originally part of another translation post that is to come. But it became too too large and so I wanted to break it down into two parts. Plus, that puts me closer to meeting my quota.

The reason I have not been around is because I’ve been consumed with applying for a grant to translate Anna Aguilar-Amat’s newest book Color Charge. It's put out by Meteora, a Spanish press, and has never been published here, and has never been translated into English before.

I am really nervous about translating it. But I am also feeling defensive because I do not speak Catalan. I don't. It's not a secret!

I really really wish I did speak Catalan. If I can learn (I've taken a few private classes) sometime in this life, I will. I can stumble along now, reading Catalan (if I already know the content). It's painful, but I'm getting better.

Sometimes when I say, "This author and I are translating her poems from Catalan to English, I find myself getting anxious, thinking, Do not ask me how I learned Catalan! Do not ask it!

I know many people in poetry understand the idea that you can do a literal word-to-word translation of a poem, and that literal translation will not turn out to be anything that could be recognized as a poem. You need an ear for music, an understanding of line breaks, an ability to pick up on tone, on intent, on and on . . . but I felt especially awkward in Europe, where most people tend to speak more than one language, with a title of translator.

Once when Anna introduced me to her friend, like, "This is Elizabeth, my translator." Her friend's response was, "Oh, really? You know Catalan!?" And then Anna jumped in, to explain that she was doing the literal translation and was translating the literal into the poetic. Arg!

There are many "serious translators." They know several languages and all about linguistics. I feel odd calling myself a "translator" (and poet). I just consider myself a poetry friend--a writer helping a poetry friend who speaks and writes in another language. But I don't feel odd calling myself "serious." I feel responsible for these poems.

Do you think that a translation always suffers if someone does not know the language? I would say most definitely it does if you don't have access to the author and therefore can't ask questions about context or intent or basic grammar. But I'm not sure, when working with a living author, that translation would necessarily suffer at all. I think it would suffer much more if you were fluent but had a tin ear. It's easy for an author to correct a translator's verb tenses, but how could an author correct bad music when he or she may not have words or phrases in mind to present as alternatives? In fact, I'm not entirely sure that an author who wasn't incredibly fluent would even know that a translation wasn't absolutely as musical as it could be. Would they? Maybe they would. I don't know.

I have had an interest in other languages for a long time. I am not naturally good at learning languages. People say, "Oh, you're a writer, so I'm sure you are." But believe me. I'm sure I'm not. It does not come easy to me. I'm like one of those people who loves running but you watch them running and you're thinking, Oooh, [cringe] I guess they REALLY love running!

I just thought of a story that I will add that proves my difficulty with language. My first year of high school, my Spanish teacher was the writer Achy Obejas's mom. I thought she was a good teacher and very fun and I liked that she named me "Isabel" and all that, but then I transfered schools, and I went into Mr. Hakim's class. We called Mr. Hakim El Rey Gordo (The Fat King) because that is exactly who he was. My high school was terrible and it's a miracle I can read today. Mr. Hakim always complained about Michigan City schools because the students were stupid and poor, and he wanted rich smart students like in Valparaiso. To capture this desired demographic, he made his classes SO HARD that everybody would drop out.

A high school Spanish class should have, generally, 25 or 30 students? That class had TEN students. No, maybe less actually. Maybe 8. And out of those eight students, all but two of us (me and this other poor girl), were in the top ten of my graduating class. The first week of class, Mr. Hakim came up to me and said, "I think you should drop my class. I'm going to have to fail you. I don't want to fail you. But: YOU ARE WAY TOO FAR BEHIND AND YOU WILL NEVER CATCH UP; YOU JUST DO NOT SEEM TO BE CATCHING ON. I said, "But I got good grades in my last Spanish class!" He said, "Well, that means nothing. You will fail my class, based on what you know, which is, essentially, nothing." I said, "BUT I LOVE SPANISH!" Then he sighed, and he said, "You're going to need to study NO LESS than two or three hours a night for this year if you want to pass." I said, "Okay!" So I did and he was not super encouraging. He used to yell at me when I was reading aloud, "Hurry up! Who do you know who reads like that, so slow?"

But anyway, by the end of three years? I was woven into Mr. Hakim's pep speech which went something like, "Take Liz Hildreth. If she can learn Spanish, anyone can. You should have seen her when she walked in this door. If you had told me she would be sitting here today, three years later, I would have never believed you. She is a perfect example of how someone who has NO NATURAL TALENT but WORKS EXTREMELY HARD can learn a language."

Mr. Hakim always said he had never had a student who hadn't tested out of at least two semesters of college Spanish. NEVER! I was terrified I would be this student. When I came back after college testing and told him I tested out of two or three semesters, whatever it was, I thought he was going to be so happy but he just looked at me like I was insane. He said, "Of course you did. I was your teacher. I told you I've never had a student not test out of AT LEAST two semesters of college Spanish."

It sounds traumatic, but looking back, I really wish every single one of my teachers in high school had been exactly like Mr. Hakim. Teachers don't really need to be nice. They don't even need to be overly encouraging. Encouragement is overrated. Expectations aren't.

Anyway, here is a brief summary of my experience with languages.

You don't sé! At Ball State, where I got my undergrad degree, I took a bunch of Spanish classes, so I have a minor in Spanish.

One time, long ago, I could read Spanish fairly well; I remember this distinctly and here’s why. Between Ball State and NYU, I went the University of Chicago for one semester and studied with Richard Stern. I was living with my parents and so I took the train in a couple of times a week.

Quick aside: BTW, that class was horrible; the U of C was horrible. It’s true what the T-shirts say:

The University of Chicago: Where Fun Goes to Die.

Maybe the t-shirt actually says:

Hyde Park: Where Fun Goes to Die.

Whatever, same diff.

The class was set up American Idol style, pre-American idol. Stupidly, the U of C overbooks all its classes, I guess? All its workshops? I don't know. So you’re in there with a crowd of people the first day, but of course, it’s a workshop which means it can’t HAVE a crowd of people in it, so then the professor says,"Hello all fifty of you. Drop five poems in my mailbox tomorrow and I’ll see you next class."

Huh? I just took a train here from Indiana.

Then you come back the next class and then the prof is like, “Mr. U, Ms. V, Ms. W, Mr. X, Ms. Y, Mr. Z.? You can stay. Everybody else can leave. Thank you.”

Awkward! Then you have a class with six poets, instead of fifty. That is the most awkward system ever. And that is just one skin flake off the gangly acne-covered body that is the U of C.

The thing about the U of C people? They are nerds and they are mean. How can nerds be so mean? They don’t even know how to do anything useful, just think. You would think nerds would just be so grateful for anyone to associate with them. But they’re not. They’re vicious! For example, this one girl, here was her useful feedback to me about my poem:"Is that line from a Bruce Springsteen song? I’m pretty sure that line is from a Bruce Springsteen song."


Okay, back to the point. On the train back and forth to that terrible class, I was reading Shakespeare (can’t remember which play) and then I would switch off and read El Tunel in Spanish, and I remember El Tunel being a much, much faster read--and more fun.

I just looked at a page of it now. I’m not sure how that ever happened. How did I once understand that? I don’t know. All I know is, as of present, my listening, speech and reading comprehension skills are as follows:

1. If I listen to the Spanish channel, I catch about 10 percent of the conversation.

2. I can say some Spanish things a two year old might say, like "No!"

3. I can read some of celebrity magazines, but nothing that has ideas in it.

Opa! Ball State had no minor in Ancient Greek, but I have more than enough credits to have a minor in Ancient Greek.

I had this professor that I LOVED--Edward Kadletz. I loved this man in all kinds of different ways.

He was from New York City, and he said and did the most curious things. For instance:

1. He never shopped in the Midwest because all he wore was suits and he bought all of his suits in New York. When I asked him why he always wore suits, he said, "I don't own anything but suits." I said, "That is not possible. No jeans?! No pants?! Not even khakis or anything?! No way!" He said, "I assure you, it's true. Well . . . I do have gardening pants. And pajamas."

Are you falling in love too?

2. He said he had never eaten in Muncie. He said his wife was a great cook and they just bought groceries from the "yuppie Marsh" (my phrase, not his) and made food at home, and I said, "Oh, come on, you've NEVER eaten Taco Bell? Is that what you're telling me? Because I just refuse to believe that." I really did, too. Not eating Taco Bell in Muncie? It's just not done!

But then, after a while, I realized, he was not lying.

Indeed, if you opened up Edward Kadletz, you would find him lined in gold leaf.

That man was UNREAL. Do you know the country called I AM SO LARGE IN EVERY WAY!? That was his country. He was president and founder and owner of that country.

3. Edward Kadletz would also drive to cities to eat food that those cities were known for, like that city's "specialty." Like one day he said, "My wife and I drove to Kansas City yesterday and had the barbecue. It was wonderful." But he had a really singsongy deep voice, so he said it more like "It was WONdafull."

Do you have any idea how far KC is from Muncie? EIGHT HOURS AND FIFTY MINUTES.

I said: "No." He said: "Oh, but it was worth it. Have you ever had the barbecue there?"

This was incredible to me. I had no idea that places were known for special things, or that any food any more special than any other food. Like I thought food was special if it was your birthday and there was cake and it had your name on it. Or it was special if you had food in your house and you usually didn't.

To my dismay, Edward Kadletz did not love me in any way, but he liked me well enough as a student and maybe as a person. He also knew I liked poetry. We used to eat doughnuts in the basement of the Classics department (and by "we" I mean Classics geeks, EK would never eat doughnuts) and one day I was eating doughnuts and he walked up to me and had a copy of a poem for me. He was so sweet. He was always really shy about poetry, and he said, "I don't know what you think of him," then he handed me the poem. "But I really like this poem." God's Grandeur!

Later when I went to NY, a year or so had passed and I called him to tell him the amazing news, "Hi, Dr. Kadletz! I'm in New York. You used to live in New York. Total coincidence, right?!"

I remember him saying, "That doesn't surprise me at all. I could always see you living in New York one day."


I wanted to scream I LOVE YOU YOU CHANGED MY LIFE.

But I didn't say that. I just talked to him about Ancient Greek and I'm not sure what else, probably restaurants.

I Googled him last year, and found out he died, maybe of cancer? It was sad. My heart fell as soon as I read it. He wasn't a snob though reading this, you probably think he was. He would never ridicule anybody for what they were doing or what they did or what they liked or didn't like. He just knew what he liked and everything that he liked (to my mind) just happened to be what everybody who is beautiful and perfect in every way should like.

Oooh, I just found a memorial for him the University Senate's notes. It pretty much says it all.

Described as a “classicist, humanist, and epicurean who spent his life in quest of what was most beautiful and best,” Dr. Kadletz was an accomplished teacher of Greek and Latin, as well as ancient religion, history, and culture.

"In quest of what was most beautiful and best!"

In any case, when I was in school with him, I just wanted to keep being around him and around him, so he kept approving my independent studies with him and I took a million of them. Like 4 independent studies in a row. Maybe two actually. By the end, I was reading novels in Ancient Greek with him, but I don’t remember which ones or anything about them. I read Thucydides in English and I did not understand a word of what was going on. Hundreds of people were fighting, and it was complete chaos.

From what I remember, Ancient Greek was very easy to learn. The grammar was easy and it was also extremely cool because you could move the words anywhere you wanted and people still knew what parts of speech they were because of their endings. AND, for this reason, it was possible to make sentences with attention to shape! Like physical shape! You could load up the long words at one end or whatever, or put a word that ends in an O next to a word that begins with an O to make it like two mouths were open saying “OH NO!” Or maybe saying, “I am opening my mouth because I want to kiss you. Do you want to kiss me? Oh, it seems you do!"

At least that’s how I understood it when I was 19—and it was mindblowing. Is that true? Am I misremembering this about the Ancient Greek language?

As for vocab, Greek life in the ancient days was simple. People didn’t do a lot back then. They got water and they plowed the field with their oxen, and they prayed to gods, and they fought each other. Sometimes they took a bath by slathering olive oil on their skin and scraping it off with a tool I used to know the name of. As you can imagine, then, Ancient Greek does not have so many words, so many verbs. The words it has are for ideas. Granted, all the words it does have, I cannot remember now. That’s why the header is called Opa! It’s not Ancient, but people associate it with cheese and cheese is well-loved.

BIBSET! My grandmother was Lebanese so she spoke, mix-y/match-y, in Arabic/English, so we in our family know some food and cuss words in Arabic.

As her brain got more and more eaten up with Alzheimer’s, she went back to her baby mind, and almost spoke all in Arabic and this was not good because unless she was cussing at us, we could not understand her. Toward the end, everything was something that sounded like Bibset!

Bibset this, bibset that.

I guess bibset, or whatever she was saying, means, “I’m scared.” Life is not fear-free. Still, it’s sad. I wish her last word were something different. She also said “masadi” [sp?] (money) a lot at the end. Once when we were over at my mom’s, she nodded toward my husband, “Lebanese?” I said, “Yep, Lebanese!” She said [nodding approval], “Masadi?” I said, “Total masadi!”

My husband’s dad is from Palestine so “Lebanese” is actually not so much of a lie, at least compared to “total masadi." I just wanted to make my grandma happy for that second, as she wouldn’t remember that second once it passed. Details aren’t important when you don’t have a brain--it’s the gist that counts: Good or bad?

She nodded, like, “Whoa. That is such good news on the Lebanese/money front.”

STRESS ON THE PETIT I spent a little time in France, so I can understand a little—stress on the petit!--French.

H, our foreign exchange student, had stayed with us for my senior year, and then I went back and stayed with him for the summer before I started college. I had such great times with H, and I love him because he is my brother. He FEELS like a brother to me, like a real one, though many people say that and I never believe them. He was not the typical exchange student either. He was not scholarly and academic but he was fun and had great shoes. For instance, here are some things he did.

1. His mom came to visit from France while he was living with us. His mom is rich and very fancy, and he called his mom and my parents (who are not especially rich or fancy) together in the same room, and he was like, “Well, C’s pregnant! And we’re going to get married and she’s going to move to France!” C was his girlfriend, this creepy Goth cutter who my sister and I hated.

His mom almost died. She was pleading with him to make it otherwise and he was protesting protesting that he would always have undying love for Creepy Cutter, and that is just the way things are with him and that is just who he is deep in his heart.

Later, his mom was walking around, pissed. She looked at me and rolled her eyes, “This is H. This has ALWAYS BEEN H! [dramatic ridiculing voice] 'To be . . . or not to be!'” She was right, H was like that. But anyway, his girlfriend had a miscarriage early in, and then they mutually broke up, so there’s not a huge narrative behind the C story, except that it had a happy ending. H went home C free, and no baby.

2. H thought it was extremely cool that they did blood drives at our school so he couldn't wait to give blood. So he gave blood and then later that night he smoked a bunch of weed with his friend S (who kept a (real) alligator on a rope and brought it to parties). Later H he thought he was dying and he made me get my parents up so they could take him to the hospital. He kept saying, "Get your parents up, I’m dying. I need to go to the hospital."

I kept saying, "You’re not dying. You’re just high." My sister said, "Yeah, you're high, dude." He said, "I am dying . . . do I breathe when I say that?!” I said, “Yes, you’re breathing because you were able to ask me if you were breathing.” He said, “Oh good, I feel like I don't breathe . . . do I breathe when I say that?!” It was hilarious, and went on forever, and my sister and I tape recorded the whole conversation so I could play it for him later, and finally I woke my parents up, like, “Sorry. H’s high but he thinks he’s dying and he wants to go to the hospital.”

The end of that story is: They took him to the hospital and the doctors said he was having an anxiety attack and not dying and he probably shouldn’t give blood and then get high because the effects tend to be enhanced.

Then he came home and slept and the next day my dad said GODDAMNIT, H! DON’T DO THAT AGAIN! NO MORE GIVING BLOOD AND POT SMOKING! I DON’T CARE WHAT YOU DO IN FRANCE!

3. Also, speaking of substances, the first night H stayed with us, like the very first night he was our exchange student, he came home really drunk, but my parents didn’t know because they were sleeping, and I didn't know because I was sleeping, and the next day, he was like, “Leez, last night, I was so fucking drunk! I throw up on your floor! But zeez is okay. Because I take some mousse and clean it.” This was the late 80s and we had so much hair mousse in our house so I was like, “OMG, mine?! Or Nicole’s (my sister’s)?!” He was like, "Zeez mousse." [Holds up a pump bottle of Soft Soap.]

4. H said later, like much later, like he was maybe 35 at this time, “Oh, god, I did so much stupid shit at your house, I feel so embarrassed. I feel so bad for your parents.” He said, “I remember having sex with C in my bedroom and all of a sudden, your mother coming down the stairs: [high singsongy voice] WOULD YOU GUYS LIKE SOME . . . POPCORN?

I loved that story because I feel so bad and so embarrassed about a million things like that but of course, with somebody else’s popcorn story, it’s like “Why on earth would you EVER still be thinking of that after 15 years?”

5. Before I went to France, H taught me some words and phrases. But what I remember most is he said, "If you get lost, you just walk up to somebody and say zees! Repeat after me."







Je suis Impuissant.

Je suis impuissant.

Then he was har har and I asked him what it meant and he explained, “Well, zeez does not really mean, 'Where is a telephone?' It means 'I cannot fuck. My dick is flat.'"

In other words In a very circuitous way, I’m saying I speak English. I speak it okay. I understand English.

There are exceptions to this, e.g., any character in “Trainspotting” or the character "Daisy" in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," which I watched last night and found incredibly disturbing.

Old man baby turns into Brad Pitt!

It happens. That's why the movie had to be made.


  1. Instead of a "translator," maybe you could bill yourself as a "camena amica" (Latin, "poetry friend"). Yes, it's a machine translation.

    You know of my misadventures with foreign languages; asked not to take a fourth year of French by my high school teacher. (She probably didn't want me to ruin her winning record as far as her pupils’ success on the AP exam.)

  2. Hellooo, Bug.
    From your lovely tribute, Dr. Kadletz seemed both nice and encouraging.

  3. Poor Dan. Now that we're partnering with Middlebury, maybe you can finish up that last year of high school French? I hear classes have animations and videos and whatnot these days. You can do it!

    Hello, Bug. Yeah, he was perfect. I wish everybody I know could have met him.