Tuesday, March 18, 2014

My favorites, or the Facebook meme of listing 10 books

I was tagged a few times on Facebook to List 10 of your favorite books and tag others!, but I had a hard time picking out my favorites. It's not like I read so much that I wasn't able to decide; I just first had to figure out what "favorite" even means to me.

In addition to that, listing favorite books comes with weird elements. I was just recently amused by this hilarious debate on Reddit about how David Foster Wallace's favorite books could not have been the genre books he lists because he's a smart guy. He never claimed that everyone should read these as brain-enhancing and enlightening classics; they were books he enjoyed. But there must be something else to it... He must be ironic! Or, or... he's trying to assimilate himself as the common man, so that we mere mortals won't be intimidated by his huge brain. That's it! Phew... Now back to secretly enjoying Janet Evanovich behind my carefully crafted, fake Paradise Lost covers. God forbid anyone enjoys bestsellers.

That debate helped me understand my own favorites. My favorite books are completely different from the ones I might list should people ask me, "What would you recommend?" When someone asks about my favorites, I think back to books I have read more than once; books that have become important to me for a variety of reasons. As an example, I will not recommend Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy to a person who is not at all interested in silly sci-fi humor, although it's a book (series?) I grew up reading and re-reading, chatting with my old  friends about it and making new friends over it. Later in college, it became the please take me to a happy place book I had to read every ten or twenty pages of horror I was subjected to in the Wasp Factory. I have a hard copy of the collection, but I bought a Kindle edition as well in case I need a bit of cheering up on the road, wherever I am.


Add to that the brain space the books I've read most recently are taking up: I was tempted to just list the ones that had impressed me in recent years, right about the time when my reading habits had dramatically shifted (this seems to happen to me every 5 years or so). And all these nonfiction books kept on wanting to creep in!


Here are mine, in no particular order, and while typing most of them I thought, "Man, I need to read that again..." Except LOTR. I've read it so many times that I do not have any immediate need to read it again.

1. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
2. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
3. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
4. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
5. Diamond Age, or a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson (although... the older I get, the more I like Cryptonomicon. It's like a Skywalker vs Solo kind of a thing)
6. The World According to Garp by John Irving
7. American Girl by Monika Fagerholm
8. Vihreä tukka by Aila Meriluoto
9. The House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
10. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

The more I look at this list, the more doubtful I'm of some of them... Maybe I don't have "favorites" at all; just books I really like when I'm in a certain mood.

Riikka Pulkkinen's True and Peter Watts's Blindsight almost made it to the list: I loved every single sentence in these extremely different books and I can see rereading them both over and over--but it's too soon to call them favorites. I'll need to wait for the initial infatuation to die down.

Quite frankly, this is the main reason why almost all of the books I have listed aren't anything I've read within the past two years. I just finished that Steve-O biography and right now, I feel like it's among my favorite nonfiction books ever--but will I feel that way in two months? We'll see.

EDIT: I cannot believe I completely and utterly forgot the book that I always tell people is one of my favorites: The Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card. See!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Found in Translation. How Language Shapes our Lives and Transforms the World by Nataly Kelly and Jost Zetzsche

Although this title may sound grandiose, especially for people who may not use a second language, it's not as hyperbolic as you may think.

The authors of this nifty little book document well the variety of work translators perform, often undetected by the public at large. After all, being a translator is not unlike being an IT professional: when what you've done is done well, people do not even notice you exist. Mistranslate one word, and the world goes down in flames. Well, almost. It has been known to cause millions of dollars spent in rebranding an image or a moment of highly flammable situations at the UN council.

It's a great book for people who think of translators as working primarily on newspapers, novels or nonfiction books, but it's also a book for translators: it validates our work and made me feel gosh darned good!

Then again, I honestly had a slight moment of PTSD reading about the interpreter who helps 911 callers. The first (and consequently the last) time I have been in a situation like that was when I had to tell a patient about the options she had for the rest of her life--which were counted in mere minutes. My palms were sweating a good half hour after the call, and I retreated back to working with software manuals and chemical labeling. My hat's off to interpreters who make those phone calls.

Luckily, Kelly and Zetzsche are good at switching gears when the topic gets too heavy. As a counterweight to the medical, legal and political stories they cover how translators all over the world dealt with the anagram name Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter; how The Simpsons is translated and subtitled into Finnish and by whom; and why Ikea's bathroom furnishings rub the Danes the wrong way.

Some of my favorite stories about translation challenges in the book are about marketing, such as this iPod Shuffle's marketing image, which was the small device between two fingers and the words "small talk" underneath:

Just two basic words. Easy to translate, right? [...] If you had to describe the phrase small talk to someone who did not understand it, what words would you use? Chances are, you would discuss the importance of exchanging pleasantries. You might describe asking someone about the weather. Basically, you'd be describing something superficial, and perhaps unimportant. How would that translate exactly, and would your explanation of the concept reflect well on Apple? [...] In cases like Apple's, an entire atmosphere of content must be translated to support those customers who speak other languages and want to know how to use their products.

You'll need to read the book to find out the clever solutions!

The book also interviews simultaneous interpreters at the UN and their favorite gaffes, and talks to people taking part in automated translation campaigns that help relief organizations in receiving accurate and current information on disease outbreaks or natural catastrophes in hard to reach areas.

To put the gist of the book shortly, the device you are reading this entry from has either been localized into your language, or into another language, so that a person from another country can access the same information as you. Translation is about leveling the information play field, from ads selling rejuvenating creams and make-up to agreements between warring nations.