Trying to deal with a foreign language

When we have foreign guests staying with us, I have to watch is the need to speak slower and more distinctly. (Well, that’s obviously on hold during the Covid outbreak, though we have heard from one back in China assuring us she’s fine.) The exchanges can start to sound comical, even before I face the difficult challenge of using smaller words. Me? Smaller words? Look, we have more than 200,000 in the English language for a reason!

You can imagine our situation when they’re Chinese students here for a month or so as they volunteer at ono-profits internships. Somehow, shorter visits just don’t seem to rise to the more complex communications.

~*~

My daily Spanish lessons raise the translation issues from an opposite direction, but I think I’ve crossed an important threshold there, one that goes beyond vocabulary.

Have you noticed how a spoken language becomes a musical line rather than individual words? My wife remembers her shock learning that “come on” was two words, not one, as in “cumon.”

When the Duolingo voice tells me, “Type what you hear,” I know to write what I’m supposed to hear rather than what I actually encounter at fast speed.

You could say that in common usage our sentences lose all of the spaces between words. In Spanish I sometimes notice this more as a rhythm across where a word should be between two other words rather than hearing that word or even a letter itself.

Somethinglikethispoorexample.

Rather. Than. Some. Thing. Like. This.

I’m also noticing that the endings of some words are vanishing, as they do in so much French, especially a final “s.”

Must happen in English, too, ‘cept we just take it for granted and naturally fill in the meaning.

Now, as for all of those hearing-aid solicitations I keep getting in the mail? I doubt they’d help my Spanish any.

What do you have to say here? (Please type slowly and distinctly.)

Apparently, Tolstoy never knew about kefi

In my novel What’s Left, Cassia’s clan wasn’t like a typical happy family. Hers was more like a hippie circus extending from the restaurant they jointly owned and operated. Much of their joy sprang from the fact they were different.

Only when tragic events rocked their course did they begin to resemble others around them.

It’s an inversion of Tolstoy’s great opening to Anna Karenina.

Likewise, their road to recovery includes their distinctive application of kefi, a Greek approach to living that defies precise translation. Still, I try in my novel. Cassia’s aunt Pia embodies it.

What would you suggest as a secret to happiness?

Do we really mean the same thing?

I’ve had to learn the hard way that a word can mean something quite dissimilar for two people. Sometimes it’s based on assumptions or misunderstandings. Sometimes, on deliberate deception.

Either way, one person can be deeply injured by the outcome.

Take “I love you” as an example.

A used car is in “perfect condition.”

“I’ll be right there.”

In the hippie era, we had a raft of phrases that glossed over differences – “Hey, I’m cool with that,” “Don’t hassle me,” “I dig,” “Chill out.” Meaning?

It comes up especially with “God” or even “peace.”

There are plenty of other examples, some of them keeping lawyers in business.

What’s one from your own experience?

 

Why settle on one explanation?

In developing sections of The Secret Side of Jaya, a novel upcoming this fall, I found myself applying a technique I’d developed in a genealogical project. There, as I had conflicting accounts regarding a specific instance or detail, rather than trying to lean toward one over the other, I let them all stand in contrast to each other. Sometimes there were two sources, sometimes three, each seeing a person or event quite differently.

It makes me recall the way forest fires are located from lookout towers. Each observer has a horizontal azimuth for determining the direction of the fire from the tower. Once two other lookouts can zero in on the plume of smoke or the flames, the position can be triangulated on a map and forest firefighters dispatched. My technique resembles looking along that line and seeing what comes in front of the fire and what lies beyond.

By acknowledging the different observers in my stories and histories, I also allow for the wider terrain and error in positions. (The smoke might be rising from an unseen valley or be blown by wind.) In these applications, I feel the alternatives make for a richer, more lifelike story.

Well, that’s how it looks from here.

What I’m encountering in a raft of ebooks

As an author of ebooks, I’ve been lately engaged in an orgy of reading works by my fellow Smashwords writers. Admittedly, many of my selections have veered toward writings that reflect topics in my own novels – hippies, yogis, subway riders, millennials, Buddhists, Greek-Americans, and the struggles of new adults, especially. Still, it feels good to get a sense of what others are up to, and their formatting does give me a better sense of my digital options.

As I do so, I often leave brief reviews as a guide for other readers with similar interests. You have no idea how much these mean to a writer, so let me urge you to do the same whenever possible. As one responded, just knowing that she was heard was warm and welcome affirmation.

Just because many of these books are what the big imprints would deem “not viable for commercial publication” does not mean they lack value.

One of my favorites is a two-part memoir by the daughter of Lebanese immigrants who wound up in Nebraska somewhere around the turn of the 20th century. Her candor and details, however simply told, strengthen my understanding of what I present as Cassia’s ancestry in What’s Left. I dread to imagine what would have happened to the memoir in an attempt to jazz it up for wider sales. We should feel honored being allowed in behind the doors of a particular family history so honestly revealed.

It’s something like visiting artists’ studios or art galleries rather than going to the big museums. The scale’s definitely different.

One thing I’m finding is that I apply a more laid-back standard in reviewing these volumes. Yes, they are cheaper, for one thing, but I also read these more like manuscripts than finally processed books. I’m looking especially for freshness and energy, the edge often absent in the book industry. Remember, the big houses no longer nurture talent in the hopes of reaping a hit five books later. Everyone has to start somewhere, and this is where the action is now. Besides, even commercially published works these days aren’t particularly well edited. Alas.

Still, I’m having some common complaints, the pet peeves of an aging copy editor.

“Grey” instead of the American “gray.”

“Towards” rather than the American “toward.”

“That” instead of “who.”

Punctuation errors, especially with single and double quote marks.

Short stories posing as novels. Admittedly, I’m frugal, but these short entries are rarely worth the same as a fully fleshed out book.

To see what I’ve been reading, go to the book reviews at my Jnana Hodson at Smashwords page.

Got any favorite ebooks to recommend?