August Teas of the Month

Every once in a while I like to try something new, so I signed up for a Tea of the Month club. Since I was at Worldcon, I got my August selection, which contained four packets of different teas, on the 14th, and have tried them all out at least twice, except for the Lavender Earl Gray, which I gave to my sister. (Bergamot, ugh.)

I usually make black tea (along with the occasional pu’erh, or gen mai cha, or an herbal blend with mint and chamomile), so the Classic Laoshan Black was the first one I tried. They describe it as “very smooth and viscous” with “a distinct dark chocolate bite”, phrases which are descriptive and convey useful meaning while not literally describing anything real. I found the chocolate notes unpleasant, but was surprised the second time I made it, when the flavor seemed less obtrusive; perhaps my palate got used to it? A decent tea, but I liked it more when the distinctive elements were less prominent, so not something I would come back to after the packet was exhausted.

The Nirvana blend (“sencha-style green tea, peony petal, berries, and figs”) sounds like the sort of fruity herbal tea that I’ll occasionally drink as a change of pace, but which has never been a favorite. And indeed that was my first impression, although oddly enough not my second. The first cup I made was very fruity, to the point where the green tea was completely overwhelmed. Basically, okay. The other cups were less fruity, and I could taste the green tea, but the whole was less than the sum of the parts: a boldly fruity herbal tea, or an unflavored green tea, would have been preferable to a a combination in which both flavors were present but neither dominated. I’m not sure what made the difference, if my palate adjusted so the fruity flavors were less conspicuous, or if I simply used a bigger spoonful the first time I made it, or if the flavorings were unevenly distributed in the tea and I got a more concentrated dose of the fruity elements the first time. Regardless, if I were to buy another tea like it, I would get an herbal tea only, with no actual tea at all in it.

The surprise of the month was the Imperial Green Biluochun. When I first started drinking tea, I found black tea too harsh and drank exclusively green tea. After a while, I progressed to an occasional oolong, and then mostly oolong, and then I tried black tea again and found varieties I liked, until eventually I was drinking almost all black tea and hardly ever tried a green tea. This is a reminder of what good green tea is like, delicate, but with a complex and pleasant flavor. (It’s also a reminder that it is really, really easy to forget to take the tea bag out, and that when green tea oversteeps it becomes undrinkable.)

On the whole, the shipment did what I hoped it would do, which is to knock me out of my rut and get me to try different flavors. September’s shipment has a ginger lime rooibos tea, which sounds intriguing despite my usual dislike of spices in herbal tea, plus a black tea, a green tea, and a matcha/maté blend. And then starting in October, I’ll have the option of receiving only unflavored teas, which could be an improvement. I think I’ll probably only stick with it for three or six months, but for now it’s a nice change of pace.

Me vs. Google, Round 1

When I can’t find a word in any of my dictionaries, I’ll often Google it to see if I can find a definition or some other context. Doesn’t always work. And when I try Google Translate on a passage, well, maybe it will be helpful, but more often it will go like this:

My text:

It belonged to the Archbishop of Esztergom, but the king lives there now, since there is no Archbishop. They say that the Pope will not appoint anyone. Because the King wants one thing, the Pope another. Who the hell knows. The great lords squabble just like us common folk. Who the hell knows…

Google Translate:

It was the archbishop of Esztergom, but the king lives because there is no archbishop. It is said that the pope does not give arsenal. Because the king wants something else, the pope is something else. You know hell. The gentlemen are just as fools as the middle class. Do you know hell …

Points: me.

Betraying the Text

There’s an old Italian proverb “Traduttore, traditore” to the effect that all translation betrays the original. I recently showed some of my polished translation to a workshop group on the Writing Excuses cruise, the first story I thought was ready to get serious criticism, and it became obvious I wasn’t betraying the text … enough. So from now on, I will take greater liberties for the sake of readability. An example:

Everyone on the provost’s estate was fat. Only the provost was thin. But the provost spent most of his time in Buda, near the king.

In the first sentence, “a prépost házánál” basically means “near the provost’s house”, and I would have been tempted to use a construction like “in the provost’s household” or “attached to the provost’s house”. But “on the provost’s estate” is accurate enough, and makes the author’s point. And in the last sentence, “jobbára élt” could be translated as “for the most part lived” (or “resided”), but “spent most of his time” is a more natural English turn of phrase, even if it isn’t as precise a rendering of the exact words.

I’m concerned that there’s an imbalanced feedback mechanism: if I take too few liberties, people will note the awkwardnesses, whereas if I take too many, people may not even realize I’m losing some of the author’s voice. But not taking feedback is even worse than not getting feedback. It’s clear a bit more treason is in order.

Easing Back Into Things

I’ve been thinking about reactivating this blog for a while, starting of course with a quick update about how I’ve progressed since the last time I talked about it, and what my plans are, and … and you know what, it would be a lot of work to do even a half-assed summary. So I’m just going to do fragmentary posts for a while, dropping a random detail or two into each one, until I feel like I’ve caught up.

Today’s random detail: I’ve been noodling around the idea of measuring how many uninterrupted half-hours I spend on translation each week. Basically, I want to break myself of the habit of doing a little bit, then checking Twitter or something, and never getting much done. So for at least the next little while, and indefinitely if it seems to help things, I plan to sit down at least once a day and make sure I work for thirty continuous minutes before doing anything else. (I may make an exception for bathroom breaks or to make a cup of tea, but I’ll probably extend the thirty minutes a bit to make up for it.)

I’ve ordered a 30-minute hourglass (turns out the term to search on is “sand timer”) to help me stick to this goal.

Finally, a brief quote from today’s work: “Lukács was very concerned with his own dignity, like a turkey, but only when on the provost’s estate. In Buda a turkey is not dignified. True, in those days there were no turkeys in Buda, or in Fejérvár either, or anywhere in Europe. But Lukács was, all the same, as dignified and red-necked as a turkey.”

Testing Domain Transfer

My old host is going out of business, so I need to transfer my domain to a new host. This is a quick test to make sure that transfer worked. If all has gone well, this post will show up on the new site, but not the old site. If you see this post, then this means that you’re at the new site, and the DNS change has propagated correctly.

ADD Diagnosis

I was diagnosed with ADD in October. In hindsight, there are a lot of red flags, but until recently I was attributing my cognitive difficulties to chronic fatigue. After I was diagnosed with sleep apnea, though, and started using a CPAP machine, it became obvious that even when I was well-rested there was something significant going on. I brought the subject up at my annual physical in June, and after only four months of putting it off finally picked one of the psychiatrists off the list she gave me and made a phone call.

The psychiatrist started me on 10mg of adderall, then bumped it up to 20mg after a couple of weeks. (Basically, the inital dose is usually not enough to help, it’s just to establish that I can tolerate the medicine.) At 20mg, the effects were pretty obvious: I had a big spike to my productivity.

The principal effect is that it’s easier to get multi-part tasks done, even when it’s something as simple as writing an e-mail or figuring out a Hungarian sentence. I think there are two separate cognitive effects involved. First, an inhibition against switching tasks; and second, an enhanced ability to divide a single task into multiple steps while maintaining a mental image of how the parts combine to form the whole.

The inhibition against changing tasks is a really obvious effect. For instance, right now, while I’m not on my ADD meds, I’m getting up half a dozen times in each paragraph, and the interruptions are all productive—tossing out some recycling, making a cup of tea, getting a snack—whereas if I were taking adderall, I would just sit down and write three or four paragraphs and be done with them. (The tea thing is a trivial example, but an interesting one because I don’t see how it could be a placebo effect. I noticed while reading Hungarian that I would think, “I should make a cup of tea” and then not do it and think it two or three times before making an effort of will to stop and go make a cup of tea. And then half the time I’d end up with cold tea because I’m less likely to reach out and take a sip.)

Same thing with Hungarian: it’s easier to sit down and read through a whole page instead of getting through a couple of sentences and deciding to quit and do something easier. Plus, on the ADD meds, it takes less effort to read each Hungarian sentence. I feel like I’m automatically adjusting my focus to the correct level: when I need to look up a word, I’m zooming into that one word, while not losing sight of the context, so that when I get the definition it plugs naturally into the sentence, whereas before I took ADD I would look up all the words I didn’t know in a sentence, and then I would look up some of the words again because I’d forgotten them, and then I’d have to work out how the grammar made them fit together, and it was a constant low-level effort of will not to just zoom out and see the whole page and feel overwhelmed.

Staying on task isn’t entirely beneficial, by the way. If I turn on the TV while I’m eating dinner, it makes it really easy to keep watching a second or a third or a fourth episode. I’m not taking meds to enhance my ability to bingewatch Netflix, but that is an effect.

I also started carrying around a notebook to track my mental state, and this morphed into more of a to-do list, which was helpful as both an organizational and a motivational tool. I tended to get more done when I wrote out explicit goals for each day in advance, and as I got in the habit of writing to-do items down, I became less likely to lose track of stuff. In the last few months I’ve backslid a couple of times, but I have maintained and refined my to-do list a bit and it’s been very useful. (It’s important to note that even after the ADD meds started working, I still remained as prone as I ever was to forgetting about things I didn’t write down. The ADD meds don’t seem to have helped at all with my general scattermindedness. I suspect this is both a direct and indirect effect of the ADD: the fact that ADD made it difficult/impossible for me to stay organized meant I never developed good organizational skills and habits, and fixing the cognitive problem doesn’t also magically fix the skills & habits problem.)

As for side effects, well, I found myself going to bed later and later each night, which was a big problem. The reduction in appetite was also pretty significant. I went from 142 pounds to about 130 over the course of a month. I adjusted my diet some to compensate, but I felt like I didn’t really get the problem under control until around Christmas, when I started taking a two-day drug holiday each week to let my appetite and sleep cycle reset.

Unfortunately, there was another side effect which was more serious. When I went in for my annual rheumatology appointment, the nurse measured my heart rate at 136 bpm. About 20 minutes later they re-measured it and it was a bit over 100, but that was still pretty worrisome, especially since my blood pressure was also up from a year before. I ordered a Fitbit online to monitor my heart rate, and the quick summary: it is way too high. After a week without adderall, I’m averaging 70-80 bpm when I’m sleeping, and 105-115 when I’m awake. By contrast, at my last two physicals my heart rate was 56 and 60.

My psychiatrist discussed some non-stimulant ADD drugs with me, and I’m planning to start one of them this weekend. There are a couple of different options, and they both need to be ramped up from a low initial dose, and could take a month or so before they reach an effective dose. And of course if the first drug doesn’t work out, I have to start all over again. So right now my productivity is practically non-existent, and it could two weeks before I’m back up to snuff, or it could be three months, or I could never find a sustainable solution that worked as well as the unfortunately unsustainable one did.

Progress Report, 1/9 – 1/15

Have to say, this last week was below average. I read a 22-page Justice League comic book story, in Hungarian, and compared 1½ other Justice League stories which I’d read the week before to the original English. I did have a couple of medical appointments to deal with, but it’s still less than I should have accomplished. I’m particularly disappointed that I did so little this weekend. Checking my understanding of the Hungarian to the original text shouldn’t have taken too long, but I only got through about half a story. I should do more.

I noticed that at one point the translator changed “the last survivor of a noble Martian race” to “egy kihalt, nemes faj utolsó képviselője a mars bolygóról”, (roughly) “the last representative of an extinct, noble race from the planet Mars”. I’m not a good judge of Hungarian style, so maybe the sentence does sound better that way, but it looks to me like the translator decided to change “survivor” to “representative”, then had to make other changes to compensate. Not at all sure that was the best choice.

My goal for next week is to finish the Justice League comparison, then start on Margit Kaffka’s The Anthill. (I said in my last post that I was going to switch to The Years of Maria, but then I remembered that my paper copy of The Years of Maria is thick and bulky, while my copy of The Anthill is thin and light. And both sound equally good.)

What Other Translators Do

Currently I’m reading a novel called The Invisible Legion by Jenő Rejtő, but I hit a slump the week after Christmas, and decided to shake off the doldrums by reading one of the comics I bought in Hungary years ago, a translation of Justice League Adventures. Since I have both the translation and the original there was the added advantage that I could check my work.

It took about two weeks to read through the whole book (which contains five issues), and I’m now going through the process of comparing my understanding of the text to the original. Ordinarily I would judge myself on felicity of expression, but I didn’t do an actual translation this time around, so I’m only looking for errors of comprehension. (A bit humbling. I feel I’m advanced enough that I shouldn’t be making any errors, but I’m still puzzling out sentences instead of just getting them, so I screw up sometimes.)

But I also get to observe how the Hungarian translator handled the material, and it’s interesting to see how often he uses dialogue that (presumably) sounds more natural in Hungarian, but doesn’t mean quite the same thing as the original. (To be clear, I don’t disapprove, I’m intellectually curious. That’s one area where I’m still not quite sure what the right approach is.)

As an example, here are a few panels from the comic:

three-panel conversation between J'onn and Batman

My construal of the meaning:

J’onn J’onnz here (speaking) from the Watchtower. I received your transmission. What assistance do you require?

Gotham has been hit by a series of attacks. In the last few weeks they’ve targeted the water reservoir,  the hydroelectric plant and the harbor.

Who were the perpetrators?

Sea creatures. Sharks, whales, squid. There are already over a hundred victims. A section of the city is without power. People are abandoning Gotham in truckloads. Mainly from the quarter by the shore.

The original English text:

I read you. This is J’onn in the Watchtower. What do you need, Batman?

Gotham’s under an attack of sorts. In the past few weeks the reservoir, hydroelectric plant and harbor have been hit. Badly.

When you say hit, you mean …

Assaulted. By sea life. Sharks, whales, squid. The casualties are in the hundreds. Parts of the city are out of power. People are leaving Gotham by truckloads, especially those in seaside residential areas.

What I find most interesting is how the translator obviously didn’t see a good way to translate the incomplete question “When you say hit, you mean …” and substituted a different question, to which Batman’s response would still make sense. Also interesting, how the translator swapped the order of the sentences in the first panel.

This has been a good exercise. I plan to finish the comparison over the weekend, and then on Monday I’ll swap novels and begin work on Margit Kaffka’s The Years of Maria, which I’m quite looking forward to reading. (The Invisible Legion isn’t exactly bad, but the colonialist attitudes are, shall we say, very much of their time.)

Translation Exercise: The Door

I’ve been super-erratic about working on my Hungarian this year. On Monday, I decided to do at least a little bit of translation each day, even if it was only 15-30 minutes, and over the course of three days I translated the first paragraph of Madga Szabó’s The Door. My first draft, which I’ll record so you can see it in all of its awfulness, went like this:

I seldom dream. If, in spite over everything, I do, then I wake with a start, bathed in sweat. At times like those, I lean back, and wait for my heart to calm, and contemplate the irresistible, magical power of night. As a child or in my youth I never had dreams either so good or so bad, only in the current of old age do kneaded terrors again and again from the silt of the past become solid, which therefore are so frightening, because these are composed more tautly, more tragically, like I could at one time have lived through them, although in truth such things from which I awake screaming never once befell me.

The third day I polished it, smoothed out some of the stylistic infelicities, and corrected a couple of errors:

I seldom dream. When it does happen I jerk awake, covered in sweat. On those occasions I lean back and wait until my heart is once more calm, and contemplate the irresistible, magical power of night. As a child or in my youth my dreams were never good or bad, only in my old age does the flowing current of time again and again mold horrors from the silt of the past and make them solid, which are so terrifying because the things they are made of are stretched more tightly, made more tragic, than I could have ever endured, since in reality there never once befell me those things from which I awake screaming.

On the fourth day, I was going to polish it further, but I felt impatient and instead compared it to Len Rix’s version (which won the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize, and which I remember as being quite good, although I haven’t read it in years, meaning my translation was influenced by it not at all):

I seldom dream. When I do, I wake with a start, bathed in sweat. Then I lie back, waiting for my frantic heart to slow, and reflect on the overwhelming power of night’s spell. As a child and young woman, I had no dreams, either good or bad, but in old age I am confronted repeatedly with horrors from my past, all the more dismaying because compressed and compacted, and more terrible than anything I have lived through. In fact nothing has ever happened to me of the kind that now drags me screaming from my sleep.

His version is much better than mine. I can see myself moving in the same direction in some places as I polish, for instance, “When it does happen” is close to “When I do”, but Rix has moved a bit further from the original sentence structure than I have, to the translation’s benefit. I might have ended up with his phrasing if I’d considered it a bit longer.

One place where I like my version better is “As a child or in my youth”, which is both closer to the original sentence than “As a child and young woman” and in my opinion sounds better. Unfortunately, in the very next phrase I’ve made an error of meaning, caused by polishing a sloppy English translation without paying close enough attention to the original. I might also make a case for “I jerk awake” instead of “I wake with a start”, but if one sounds better than the other it’s not by much, and I think I erred in changing “bathed in sweat” (which retains the connotation of the Hungarian “fürödve”) to “covered in sweat”.

I think “lie back” is better than “lean back”, and “compressed and compacted” better than “stretched more tightly”. The stuff with age’s current and the silt of the past in my version is a clumsy attempt to retain the original’s metaphor, which Rix discards completely in favor of a paraphrase that keeps the meaning. I do think “than anything I have lived through” is further from the original meaning than “than I could have ever endured”, and I’ll give myself a point there.

Judging from this, I need a lot more practice before I’ll be satisfied with my own efforts. I do think the method is both a good way of measuring my own ability and of learning how to address the problems that most vex me. To that end, I intend not only to continue translating The Door, but also to work on other plays and stories that have excellent English translations. (For instance, Ferenc Molnár’s play “Játék a kastélyban”, which has been adapted by both Tom Stoppard and P. G. Wodehouse; it will be interesting and possibly educational to see how close these non-Hungarian speakers manage to come to the original.)