Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Why books tell better stories than films do

Yesterday I saw the film Prometheus. The reception of this film has been mixed. While it is generally considered to be visually stunning, many viewers had serious problems with the plot and the characters. Without entering into this specific debate, I want to address the wider question of story-telling in different media.

I enjoy films, but reading was and remains my first love. Perhaps this is because I have a linguistic mind and a vivid imagination. Words written by a skilled writer can express the entire range of stories that the human imagination is capable of creating. Films have other advantages: the ability to show visuals, which can create a strong response in viewers, as vision is one of our two primary senses; the use of music, arousing emotion through the second of our primary senses; and acting. Since we are strongly programmed to understand human facial expressions and body language, acting can be one of the most profound forms of communication.

However, story-telling originated in language, in oral recitations of both daily and fantastical events. When writing was invented, story-telling was naturally transferred to the new medium, and has developed there ever since. While it can be argued that theatre also developed story-telling, using acting and visual effects, I think it is relevant that theatre originally had a ritual function, and in many cases is very formalized.

In my opinion, there are two main qualities of films that make them a less suited vehicle for story-telling compared with writing. First, the visual aspects (including the acting) are given precedence over the narrative. Second, a film is always a collaborative endeavour, requiring many compromises.

Film makers necessarily have a strong visual skill-set, enabling them to visualize the scenes in terms of camera angles, the actors' positions, and so on. A vast amount of money is currently invested in visual effects, both physical and digital. Some films seem to contain impressive effects just because they can now be portrayed, rather than because the plot requires them to be shown.

The teamwork required in film making, and the way in which commercial considerations triumph over artistic merit, often lead to the script being considered the least important part of the process. The story has to contain certain common motifs, the ending has to satisfy viewers in early focus groups, and the characters tend to be simplistic stereotypes.

In contrast to all this, the author of a written story has complete freedom of imagination, and is limited only by his or her verbal skills. Things that would be difficult or expensive to recreate visually can be described vividly in language. The words create a direct bridge between the author's imagination and the reader's imagination. Characters can be studied intimately, with the ability to write their internal monologue, thoughts, emotions, and motivations in a much more detailed way than can usually be portrayed in film. The larger scope of a novel allows more time to be spent with each character, while in films the steps of their personal journeys often have to be expressed in a simplified way in brief moments.

Authors usually work alone, and maintain almost complete control over their work. Even when they ask for feedback from early readers and their editor, they have the final say over how much to change. Some authors may adapt their writing to suit various publishing considerations, but I believe this is less common than the sort of compromises required in film making.

To conclude, I recommend that viewers who become disappointed at the level of story-telling in films should try reading books instead. The experience is more active than watching a film, and I believe this makes it more satisfying.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Interview about academic translating

The following interview with me was first published in Hebrew on translator Yael Cahane's blog. I am publishing this English version with her permission. Thank you, Yael!

* How did you become a translator?
I was born in England to an English mother and an Israeli father, and grew up bilingual from birth. When I immigrated to Israel at age 9, I continued speaking English with my mother and kept the language alive. Unlike most translators, I translate in both directions, Hebrew-English and English-Hebrew. I started translating for students while studying at university, and translation seemed to me a natural and suitable career choice. I eventually chose to specialize in academic translation in the Humanities and Social Sciences.

* What do you like about the profession?
Working with language and the translated contents, exposure to a variety of research subjects, and the constant personal development. As a translator I enjoy the three important components of any work (according to Daniel Pink): autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

* What would you do if you were not a translator?
In addition to translating I write fiction and non-fiction. In my blog, Reality and Fiction, I write about books I read and anything that interests me. If I had no need to make an income, I would prefer to write my own work rather than translate the work of others.

* What are the challenges in academic translating?
First of all, you have to understand the subject and the methodology, and therefore you have to specialize in specific areas. Academic translating requires academic writing skills in the target language, and adapting the book or article to the requirements (sometimes arbitrary!) of the journal or publisher in terms of style and bibliographical references.

* Academic translating, particularly in the Humanities and Social Sciences, can be politically loaded. How can one maintain neutrality? Should one be neutral all the time, or stick to the author's intentions?
The translation should reflect the author's intention and world view, but also suit the target audience. I don't believe it is possible to write neutrally. I collaborate with the author to reach agreed solutions.

* How do you market yourself, an area so many translators find difficult?
In recent years most of my work comes from referrals from customers or other translators. In the past I was a member of a BNI business networking group for four years.

* What qualities, knowledge, and tools are important for academic translators and translators in general?
First of all, a great love of languages, reading, and writing. Creativity alongside analytical thinking. Self-discipline in order to work as a freelancer. The wish to learn and develop constantly, and the ability to accept constructive criticism. And of course, good human relations in order to create a fruitful collaboration with the customers.

* Do you have advice for beginner translators, in the academic area and in general?
Decide in advance about the language pair and the specific area of specialization, and don't try to translate "everything". Have daily passive (reading and listening) and active (writing and speaking) exposure to your source language and target language and to the type of materials you translate. When I started out, I worked for translation agencies who sent me back my translations after editing, which helped me learn and improve. Say "no" to work offers in the following cases: the price is too low, the schedule is too tight, the material is not in your specialization area, and the customer is "problematic". It is worth joining the Israel Translators Association and translation discussion groups.

* What resources do you recommend? (Not necessarily online)
I check terminology in printed and online dictionaries, and in general Internet searches. You have to know to select the information sources and prefer relevant sources. When the customers know the target language, it is worth consulting them about accepted terminology.

Friday, June 15, 2012

William B. Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life

William B. Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, Oxford, 2009.

When the the term "philosophy" is mentioned, most people think of something abstract and complicated, in the realm of pure thought, not relevant to everyday life. In fact, philosophy can and should be applied to life. People who live an "examined life" and think about the way they think and behave can benefit from formulating and applying a consistent philosophy of life.

This book describes a philosophy of life close to the way I think and live, the Stoic philosophy. I have sometimes been called a Stoic, as a compliment. Since this is the way I live, I would obviously recommend both this book and the lifestyle it advocates to others. No background in philosophy is required, and the writing is clear and aimed at the general public. Readers approaching Stoicism with an open mind, without prejudice, will be able to improve their experience of life.

The author has studied the ancient Stoics and derived from their writings lessons that can be applied in any society. Some of these lessons may be familiar to modern readers. For example, Chapter Five, "The Dichotomy of Control: On Becoming Invincible", discusses the Stoic technique of not placing emotions on things beyond our control. This will remind readers of the famous AA  serenity prayer: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference". This seems to be such a good guideline to life that I wish everyone would adopt it, though of course that is beyond my control...

Chapter Four, "Negative Visualization: What's the Worst That Can Happen?" is also something I have practised. I have learned to make my own adaptation to this, however, since pure negative visualization tends to feed my anxiety. Instead, I use this technique to nurture my gratitude for the things I have in my life, by imagining no longer having them. I also believe I am strong enough to handle loss and hardship better than others because I don't take anything for granted.

Readers of this book may find some of the advice to be obvious, part of how they already live, while other parts may touch a nerve, indicating areas of their life they still need to work on. One of the joys of life is the constant learning and development we can experience. All it takes is awareness, honesty, and a conscious, deliberate effort to improve. The benefits are well worth it.