English Keys and Turkish Heads

•October 17, 2010 • Leave a Comment

There are great benefits to living in a multicultural city. Not just the opportunity to eat different foods and listen to a different language  every day of the year, but moving in this kind of landscape develops your sensibility as well. There’s the sensibility of your ears learning to distinguish between Cantonese and Mandarin, even if you don’t understand either; there’s the ability to recognize the curries of different regions of India, without ever having been there; and finally, on a more general level, there’s the increased awareness of ethnic/cultural profiling.

Normally the first step is becoming aware of being profiled by others. Then after a while, if you’re open to it,  you notice your own tendency to profile, which lies latent as an easy sorting mechanism. Through profiling and applying stereotypes we make life easier for ourselves: it makes us think we already know something about people. And possibly there’s nothing wrong with that.

Recently I started reflecting on how these profiling strategies are sedimented in language, and how certain behaviours and objects are connected to specific cultural groups or nations in language.

In Norwegian we say “ta en spansk en” (do it in the Spanish way) for when we don’t follow rules or instructions perfectly, but instead make shortcuts to get results more quickly.

Italians use the expession “fare il portoghese” (behave like a Portuguese) to describe someone who uses services without paying for them (especially getting on the bus or train without buying a ticket).

In English the term “Dutch treat” means “each pays for himself”, which in certain situations is considered tight-fisted, at the limit of common decency. In Italian, the very same action is called “fare alla romana” (do it like the Romans).

German efficiency” applies both to the capacity to produce high quality at a reasonable price, but also hints at the German ability to look away from anything not directly related to the end-result and being over-focused.

The term “French kiss specifies a kind of kiss that is, and I suspect has been,  practiced way beyond France. It plays on the idea of the French being promiscuous,  sexually charged and lacking the Anglo-Saxon self-control. The French, of course, use a different term, simply embrasser avec la langue (literally to kiss with the tongue).

And then of course there’s the blame game: The very same sexual practice that in Italy is calledFare la spagnola” (do the Spanish [style])- the Spanish have labeled “Hacer una cubana” (Do the Cuban [style]), implying that we may be doing it, but it’s someone else’s fault for having invented it.

But sometimes awareness of how profiling works turns into hypersensitivity.

For the longest time after hearing the expression “Dutch Courage” which refers to courage gained from intoxication by alcohol, I was dead sure this was an example of stereotyping people of the Netherlands (and possibly all Northern Europeans) as being taciturn and quiet and only able to speak their mind when under the influence. It turns out this has nothing to do with the origin of the expression, which actually referred to Dutch Gin (jenever), and the effects of that specific drink.

In Italian, industrialization brought with a multitude of new words, and quite a few were labelled as connected to the country where they were produced. The common adjustable wrench is called  Chiave inglese (“English key”); Leno weave (A construction of woven fabrics in which the resulting fabric is very sheer, yet durable)  is called a giro inglese (With an English twist). Neither one of these expressions carry any value judgement or stereotype.

A couple of months ago a new expression was added to my collection: A client asked me to translate the term Testa di Turco, as part of some technical documentation belonging to a miter saw. Testa di Turco literally means “head of a Turk”. Despite the vivid imagery contained in this term, I had no idea what it might mean.

My first step was to go through my dictionaries for clues. The Italian Norwegian one was, as usual, no help at all, and even my two huge technical Italian-English volumes gave no clues.

The next step is usually to call my husband, who’s a full Italian, and should know the language even better than me, but since he lately has been using the line “but that’s not Italian” as his standard answer, I decided I could probably skip that step.

Next in line in my toolbox, is to turn to google images. Now that search certainly didn’t turn up empty: There they were on a plate of  Sicilian delicacies, right beside the “cannoli” that appear so frequently in the TV-drama Soprano’s. Distracting as the image was, it was pretty clear to me that this was probably not the Teste di turco I was looking for.

Less attention-grabbing was a knot a bit further down in the search results. This is a decorative knot that turns out to be called “Turk’s Head knot” in English and Tyrkerknop in Norwegian.

At this point I started gaining hope. If this term that I’m looking for has some resemblance to a Turk’s Head knot, maybe searching for a term within mechanics that included the word Turk or Turkish in some way or another.

Hours later, I was no closer to a translation of the term, but I had found an image if what it must look like:

And it was at that point that I, thanks to German efficiency, started getting really close to a solution.

A German company specializing in producing machinery that draws, rolls and straightens metal sheets, had had the good grace to upload manuals for their products in several languages, and after locating the term in English and German (roll frame and Rollenzug, respectively) my hopes were up. Still short of a Norwegian translation, that input gave me the necessary base to start guessing, and a few minutes later I found that the word rulleramme was used frequently in similar documents in Norwegian.

After having solved that mystery, there was still an element missing: How on earth did the Testa di turco become such a widely used expression in Italian?

The following week I attended a lecture  entitled The Dragoman Renaissance: Diplomatic Interpreters in Early Modern Istanbul, and while looking at the slides accompanying the lecture, all of a sudden it became clear as crystal. The close connection between Italy and Turkey lasting centuries, during and after the Byzantine era,  must have brought a lot of people into contact with pictures and accounts of Turkish life, where the typical Turkish headgear would be a prominent feature. Clearly the shape of Turban used by the Sultans in portraits of them that proliferated in Europe must have been picked up, and after giving  names to both a turban-shaped sweet and a knot, centuries later someone must have seen a roll frame and said: Can you give that thing shaped like the head of a Turk?


“No fly zone”

•September 27, 2010 • 1 Comment

Parenting metaphors often develop a life of their own after being coined. I doubt Foster W. Cline, M.D. and Jim Fay had any idea of how popular the term “helicopter parenting” would become, when they used it in their 1990 book Parenting with Love and Logic: Teaching Children Responsibility. I have to admit I never read the book myself, but it is perfectly clear to me what a helicopter parent is. I’ve had several direct encounters, and although there’s always a certain humour to it, the laughter often gets stuck in my throat when I realize people are actually serious.

The helicopter parent suffers from an acute distrust in their child’s ability to cope, and is at the same time very anxious about the threats of the outside world. There is also a lack of boundaries between where the parent ends the child begins, making the child’s and parent’s emotions blend into one big, boiling emotional soup. The helicopter parent over-compensates for everything that went wrong in their own childhood: not being seen enough by their own parents; not getting ahead academically; not being popular enough; not discovering and developing their hidden talents in time. I sometimes feel deeply for the hovering helicopter parent, but I’m desperately aware of the danger of being caught up in all the movement, even as a by-stander.

The Danish psychologist Bent Hougaard has a similar metaphor, which has become very popular in Scandinavia: “Curling parents”. After last year’s Winter Olympics, the term may even be ready for export to the rest of the world, judging by the TV audience curling reached.

It’s in reference to the sport of curling, where players sweep the ice to remove obstacles in front of the gliding stone. Likewise, curling parents try to remove all the obstacles in the way of their children.

As funny as the image is, once again I ask myself, how can I enjoy my own and my children’s life, if all I do is sweep frantically the whole time?

I catch myself attempting to sweep myself sometimes, but my innate laziness has no doubt kept me from going overboard.

Last week I came across a new parenting metaphor at the Children and Nature network’s website, a metaphor that tries to meet the need of parental control, while at the same time distancing itself from the by now infamous group of hovering helicopter parents:

There, Bethe Almeras promotes a “new” kind of parenting style, “the hummingbird parent” as she writes, “In the range from helicopter to neglect — I probably fall a bit more toward helicopter. In fact, I call myself a hummingbird parent. I tend to stay physically distant to let them explore and problem solve, but zoom in at moments when safety is an issue (which isn’t very often).”

It’s been a while since I last saw a humming-bird, but the idea of having to flap my wings 200 times per minute, exhausted me even as I read it. A humming-bird wouldn’t be very suited to save anyone from anything, let alone train our offspring to protect themselves from danger and be competent to deal with the world.

It’s probably too late for me to become a parenting prophet, but as I look at my two teenagers, I realize that the one thing I want for them is a no-fly zone.

Let me explain: When my (then) 11-year-old was unhappy with the friendship dynamics in her class, and asked several times a week if she could change schools, any kind of flapping sound would have made her more confused. That phase eventually passed, and she learnt a tremendous lot from having to deal with emotions like that herself.

When my (then) 16-year-old wanted to travel on her own with a friend for a few days, the helicopter instinct (that was hidden in me) almost had me suggest I’d go with them. Instead it became a great learning experience about keeping your stuff under control (almost lost her i-pod), about packing lightly (3 days of travelling with an enormous weight almost killed her back) and the value of money (“I can’t believe how much it costs to eat, mom”).

If I were to pick my own metaphor for parenting, I think I’d like to be  an oak-tree mom. I’d like to define myself as well grounded in my own experience, remembering my own childhood in a way that helps me see my daughters’ experience from a different angle.

I’d like to be tall, so I can see beyond the current situation, both forwards and backwards. Being tall also gives my daughters a point of reference when they wander off, they can see me, and I can see them from a great distance. I can’t flutter off to help them in no time to save them. But just being there is help.

I’d also like to think that I’m a resting place, something to hold on to when it storms, and something to rest under in the shade on a sunny day, while they tell their stories, and I tell mine.

And I believe that all the energy I save from not flapping, must make oak-tree-parenting more sustainable than the alternatives.

Artificial Landscapes – from Eco-system to Deco-system (and back again)

•September 24, 2010 • Leave a Comment

When my parents built their house in the late 70’s, the inside decor they chose was pretty much standard Scandinavian fare: plenty of simple wood panelling, wooden floors and earth tones; their choices reflecting perfectly their right-out-of-college urbanized taste.

The next door neighbours, who built their house at the same time, went in a different direction: in their living room a whole wall was dedicated to a stunning sunset scene.  Reds, oranges and yellows were competing for attention, and in the foreground the dark shadow of a couple of palm trees. The novelty of the tropical sunset photo wallpaper made their living room into a tourist attraction for neighbouring kids.

In hindsight, I see the irony of putting a fake sunset on one wall, when you on the other side of the room had a view of one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, albeit considerably less tropical.

I had completely forgotten about my former neighbours’ wall, when the memory hit me like a hangover a few weeks back. The occasion was my first ever walk down to Toronto’s “Sugar beach”.

From the “product description”  on the website : Sugar Beach is a whimsical new park that transformed a surface parking lot in a former industrial area into Toronto’s second urban beach at the water’s edge. Located at the foot of Lower Jarvis Street adjacent to the Redpath Sugar Factory, the 8500 square metre (2 acre) park is the first public space visitors see as they travel along Queens Quay from the central waterfront.

And indeed, Sugar beach is a nice break from a dismal record of city planning in Toronto, where any open lot near the lake has been exploited for outrageous real-estate developments. No attention has been wasted on esthetics or the public’s access to the waterfront, and that’s been going on since long before we landed in Toronto. So, yes, making a parking lot, in the middle of an industrial area into a public space, is almost revolutionary, locally speaking.

But what is it exactly? It is a beach that isn’t a beach; with water you can see in the background but not swim in; with foreign-looking sand that could be mistaken for sugar; pink parasols in durable plastic that don’t function as parasols since you can’t tilt them to get better shelter from the sun. And that’s when I remembered my neighbours’ wallpaper.

Sugar beach brings a lot of the same emotions. It looks real, but un closer inspection, there’s a dimension missing; and though you can’t pinpoint what it is, it leaves you with an eerie feeling.

Our shared imagery of beach-life is of course far from that of a natural landscape. The famous and fashionable Versilian beaches in Italy were once thin little strips of sand, that have been added to over the years to create business and recreational opportunities. Nowadays, renting a parasol in the furthest row on the beach leaves you so far from the sea that you can’t see it without binoculars. The sand is groomed meticulously every day, to keep it smooth and to get rid of any plankton or seaweed that may discolour an expensive bathing suit.

It is part of a trend spanning over several centuries of trying to keep nature within certain boundaries, to protect ourselves from it, to only enjoy certain chosen fragments of it. Most of the landscapes we consider particularly beautiful in Provence and Tuscany, were cultured at an early date. Completely untouched nature, with impenetrable forests, or unknown wild beasts, scares us.

And I have seen all that, and experienced the confines between the cultured and artificial landscape before. So how is it that the gut reaction to Sugar beach is even stronger?

Even the most cultured and groomed landscape, will in the long run be unable to control the force of nature. Animals that weren’t supposed to be there will show up. Eco-systems that include the fox eating the hens in the hen-house will develop. Iron weed and dandelions will make paths in any field. Little crabs will find their way and bite bare feet walking along an expensive beach.

It’s the lack of all this that triggers my memories of tropical sunsets in a Sub-Arctic living room.

But there’s hope: The way things are going in large cities across North-America, wildlife and nature have a way of creeping in, without it ever being part of the plan. Coyotes in NY-city, raccoons in Toronto, and the chipmunk in my backyard, are all testimony to that.

So I’m guessing, in a year’s time the seagulls will have discovered the place, the pristine sand will have traces of insects, and dandelions will have started making cracks in the pavement. And that will be the end of the pure “deco-system”.

And that’s also when I’ll enjoy coming back.

Are we drowning feminism in home-made tomato-sauce and breastmilk?

•September 11, 2010 • Leave a Comment

When I walk into my kitchen these days I want to weep. And, no, it’s not because we’ve started much-needed renovations.

Canning season is over us, and the Canadian summer/early fall doesn’t give you much rest these days. It’s now or never for so many products from the farmer’s market; the tomatoes are at their best, I may still get last-minute peaches at a good price; wild blueberries still abound, as well as pears, zucchini and soon also apples. My special headache is the great quantity of tomatoes I’m dealing with this year.

I wish I could say they’re all home-grown, but far from it. My 6 plants have yielded a few kilos, but definitely not the quantities needed for canning. The local farmers, on the other hand, have had a good year, and I’ve been able to buy amazingly sweet, perfectly red, organic  San Marzanos. Almost too many amazingly sweet, perfectly red organic San Marzanos.
Whenever I walk into the kitchen I feel attacked by the remaining baskets of tomatoes, realizing that each of them will bring hours of work, and that I need to take that time from my already packed schedule.

There’s a host of good reasons to can veggies and fruit:

  • It lessens dependency on imported, far-travelled greens in the winter.
  • It limits waste since you can preserve what you’re not able to eat at the moment.
  • It gives you control of what’s goes into the tomato-sauce, relish, jam you consume.
  • It’s a way to live the seasons in a more natural way.
  • It’s a more sustainable alternative to freezing food, and consumes no energy after it’s been produced.
  • It’s a great way to support local farming.

According to Michael Levenston of City Farmer, “the canning comeback is tied to a do-it-yourself food movement that has seen vegetable gardens sprout up everywhere from “the White House to Buckingham Palace to the Vancouver mayor’s front lawn.”A shadow from the past?

Though this may be true, I must say that on my side of town, I do feel pretty lonely when I stand in my kitchen at night, trying to ladle tomato-sauce into Bernardini-jars, without spilling too much. And as the time passes, I also start thinking about how sustainable living, even in my own, imperfect, patchy way, eats huge chunks of free-time out of my life. Not just the tomatoes, but the line-drying of clothes; the spot-cleaning of laundry prior to washing it; the organization of alternative transport solutions to the car; it all seems to have landed on my table, making my life more complex.

I’m certainly not the only person who’s thought these very thoughts. The paradox that environmentalism and feminism sometimes seem to be on a collision course has been pointed out by a few writers.

In a book  I only leafed through (realizing my French wasn’t up to level where I could comprehend the finer details), but that has still been widely talked about in the English-speaking world, Elisabeth Badinter strikes back with a vengeance against the pro-breastfeeding movement, and ecologists of all sorts. The book’s title is Conflit, la Femme et la Mere (Conflict, the Woman and the Mother),

Mrs Badinter makes the claim that there’s a “holy reactionary alliance” of green politicians, breast-feeding militants, “back to nature” feminists and child psychologists that is turning Frenchwomen into slaves to green “fads” like re-usable nappies and organic food.

In an interview with The Times she  goes on to describe the change she’s seeing in France in the following terms:

“If you don’t want to breastfeed, you are asked, ‘But Madame, don’t you want the best for your child?’. It makes you feel terribly guilty.” So most mothers breastfeed anyway, and many go on to do so for months or years. “This worries me, because we are creating another model of motherhood where the mother is with her baby 24 hours a day for at least six months. This is a model that eats the personal part of each woman as an individual,” she says.

Thinking about my own past, I’ve “wasted” even more time breastfeeding than Ms. Badinter’s horrifying example from France, and even if I don’t regret one month of it, I do realize that having children, firstly, and choosing a parenting model that was intense, secondly, certainly made me less competitive on the labour market, and probably will have adverse effects on my pension – if and when  I’ll be able to retire.

However, Badinter sharpens her argument and goes on to state that:

““Between the protection of trees and the liberty of women, my choice is clear,” she continues.  “It may seem derisory but powdered milk, jars of baby food and disposable nappies were all stages in the liberation of women.”

And at this point I don’t follow her any longer. I see that women gained more freedom to join the capitalist way of production by using all of the above environmentally unfriendly alternatives, but would argue that being tied to a  model  of production that uses the male biology as its prototype, isn’t much more free (if at all) than being tied to your baby. I also find it astonishing how she can see the organization of industrial society as primary and nature secondary.

Last time I checked, neither women nor men could live without air, food and water. Seeing women’s equality (within a consumerist and industrial context) as primary, and nature as secondary, seems like social science gone off its reels (and I say that as a somewhat trained sociologist). Some of her arguments can also be dismantled by simply applying statistics. If it were, as she claims, that green practices and breastfeeding correlate with more inequality for women, one would expect that the higher the breastfeeding rate, the worse the inequality. Based on European statistics, this is far from true, French women breastfeed far less that Scandinavian women, but are much more unequal to men in political representation and labour market participation.

However, the fact that Badinter’s line of thought demonstrably has some flaws, doesn’t resolve the basic problem of women taking the main part of the burden of environmentally friendly behavioral change. Neither does it change the fact that I spend many nights alone canning in my kitchen.

As part of the debate around Badinter’s book, head of France’s Green party,  Cécile Duflot responds, “She has completely missed the point. The real issue is to find out why today there is still inequality between men and women on pay and domestic chores, not to consider that today having a child is a problem,” she said. “She blasts washable diapers as an extra burden for mothers, without thinking for a second that a man could put them in the washing machine. What she completely forgets is the notion of pleasure. One can take pleasure in raising one’s baby – that goes for men too.”

Since I’m past breastfeeding and diapers a while ago, I need to implement the same rationale on tomato-sauce production, looking up transit schedules and hanging clothes on a line.

The rest of the family is going to wonder what hit them!

The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions

•September 5, 2010 • 1 Comment

As the heat breaks records around the world, making it ever more probable that indeed 2010 will be the hottest year on record, I can’t help but think about the huge gap between our understanding of the issue of global warming and actually doing something about it.

Last week, while the outside temperature hit 35 degrees C in downtown Toronto, and I was still working without A/C, the old saying “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions” seemed real and true in a very physical way.

I’d have plenty of ammunition to go on a rant about how our politicians can’t seem to muster up the actions to match their words about climate change. There is real and tangible lack of political will out there. Even seemingly convinced politicians, like Obama, Gordon Brown, Stoltenberg, have great qualms about implementing policies that efficiently cut our carbon emissions. Not to speak of how the voters are turning to political candidates that are climate skeptics and even ridicule any conservationist strategy; the front runner in the Toronto mayoral race, Rob Ford, being an excellent case in point.

But this time I’ll start closer to home, with my own shortcomings. In Italian there’s a saying that goes “Fra il dire e il fare c’è di mezzo il mare” – There’s an ocean between what you say and what you do. And that’s where I’ll start my confession: Last week was amazingly hot. On top of the heat that was already hard to deal with, Monday night set in with an extended smog warning. While city smog is a completely different problem from that of human-driven climate change, some of the causes are the same. Modern smog is a type of air-pollution, derived from emissions from vehicles, combustion engines and industrial fumes that react in the atmosphere with sunlight to form secondary pollutants that also combine with the primary emissions to form photochemical smog. In Toronto, where I live, smog is usually the result of the migration of pollutants from the United States combining with unfavourable weather patterns. The cure for smog is to wait until the weather changes, staying indoors during the hottest hours, meanwhile reducing the use of cars, air-conditioners and similar devices that contribute to making things worse. At least that’s what the smog-warning tells you to do.

Tuesday morning I had a doctor’s appointment with my youngest daughter, the smog warning still in effect. So I consider my options; look up the transit map and decide that one subway-ride and 3-4 stops on a northbound bus would get me there easily. Estimated travel time 40-45 minutes. Very pleased with myself, I go about my business; wake up my daughter; have breakfast with her; try to wake up my other daughter; answer a few e-mails; translate a few lines; put on make-up; yell at my eldest daughter again…

Then I look at my computer clock, and realize there are only 32 minutes left before our appointment, and no yelling in the world is going to bring us to the appointment on time. So I grab for the car keys and archive the idea of going by subway.

The regret started settling in already during the drive. Despite the repeated smog-warnings on TV and radio, it looked like everybody and their brother had decided to take the car on that particular morning. In the end it ook me more than half an hour to make it to the doctor’s office, a ride that under normal, non rush-hour conditions would take only half that time. So in the end I took the car to save 5-10 minutes, and we’re still late.  And the smog is worse.

And I catch myself thinking,’: If I, who is convinced by the science, who believes it is my duty to act now, whether my neighbour does or not, if I can’t manage to make my actions match my words, then what hope is there for sweeping change?

It’s filled with people out there who either

  • don’t believe human-driven climate change is a real phenomenon,
  • or that it’s a big conspiracy of tree-huggers wanting to ruin their life,
  • others think it’s impossible to do anything at this point, so why bother.
  • There are fundamentalists of all extractions who believe that as a prize for their belief, God will give them a new Earth, so why worry about the current one.
  • There are people who won’t do anything because it would be unfair to do anything your neighbours, the Chinese or the Americans aren’t forced to do.
  • And then there are those who just cover their ears and go “LA-LA-LA-LA” as soon as they hear whisper of changing course to level off climate change.

If even I can’t change my habits, then who of the above will ever be convinced to do so?

Much of the World Bank’s World Development Report 2010 is dedicated to this predicament. There is a whole chapter dedicated to how to overcome behavioural and institutional inertia.

Understanding the drivers of human behavior is essential for climate-smart development policy. First, myriad private acts of consumption are at the root of cli­mate change. As consumers, individuals hold a reservoir of mitigation capacity. A large share of emissions in developed countries results directly from decisions by individuals—for travel, heating, food purchases. U.S. households account for roughly 33 percent of the nation’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions—more than U.S. industry and any other country bar China [ibid. p. 322]

Technological development doesn’t seem to “do the trick” unless followed by political or behavioural change:

Many cost-effective energy-efficient technologies have been available for years. “No-regret” invest­ments such as improving building insula­tion, addressing water leaks, and limiting building in flood-prone areas yield benefits beyond mitigation and adaptation. So, why haven’t they been adopted? Because concern does not mean understanding, and under­standing does not necessarily lead to action [ibid]

The report offers some explanations:

What explains the disconnect between perception and action? Concern about climate change does not necessarily mean understanding its drivers and dynamics or the responses needed. Polls show that the public admits to remaining confused over climate change’s causes and solutions..  This “green gap” in public attitudes stems partly from how climate science is communicated and how our minds (mis)understand cli­mate dynamics.

I’d like to add my own analysis of “the disconnect” between perception and action:

Sometimes making the wrong choice isn’t understanding what to do, it’s about lack of time, lack of planning, and at the same time having the wrong choice alternative readily available to you. And I hereby wish we’d elect politicians that have to guts to make them less readily available. I wish that when considering how to get from home to my doctor’s office, I’d have to consider some kind of obstacle put in my way by the city. Anything that will make my more prone to using public transit. And that when I consider what house to buy, there’ll be something steering me towards the more ecological solutions, so that there’s more leading me in that direction than my own moral compass.

Poets, translators and untranslatables

•August 22, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Maybe it’s a sign of middle-age, this return to books I read years and years ago. Whatever the reason, this past week I’ve re-read some of Emily Dickinson’s poetry, this time with the eyes of someone who has gained directly a lot of the experience Dickinson herself was cut off from due to her secluded life. Last time I read her, I felt in many ways as cut off from the outside world as she was, and the deep well of late-adolescent emotion, typical of the 18-year-old, bonded me to her poems, written in such a different context 100-130 year prior to my reading them. Reading her again was an interesting experience, bitter-sweet at times, and one question kept popping up in my head: What did I really understand, and what imagery did these words evoke when reading this for the first time?

What strikes me more than 20 years later, is how almost all her imagery has nothing to do with the sub-arctic nature I grew up in. When  she talks of gardens, fruits and sitting in her orchard, at 18 I would have known nothing about it, except what had been filtered through books and films. No fruit tree ever survived more than 2-3 years in that kind of climate; no snakes survived the winters; and for bobolinks and bats, they’d be creatures I only knew from the Animal Encyclopedia. So when reading these poems, at 18, in a language I still considered foreign, I really wonder what it was that actually touched me.

According to the French philosopher Derrida, the poetical is exactly the untranslatable part of language. Untranslatable because it isn’t connected just to the terminological meaning of words – but to their physical body. The visual impact of the word is important, its history, how it sounds and what other sounds it connects to in the language, sometimes take precedent. Derrida would say “Words refer to other words, not to things or thoughts“, and though I’m not willing to give up the idea of words conveying experience and ideas, I find Derrida’s point of view worth exploring.

The importance of the mere phonetic aspect of words really hit me when my youngest, trilingual daughter started rebelling against certain adjectives in Norwegian. She hated it when she heard adjectives like “nydelig” “skjønt” (that both mean beautiful/wonderful), and when I asked her why, she simply said “I can’t stand the sound of them – all those squeaky “ee”-sounds, the ugly sch-sound”. “Those are sounds that you find in bad and naughty words in English and Italian, and then it sounds fake when someone says something nice using those sounds”.

I’d never thought of that, and probably could have proven her wrong by digging out examples like “shining, ship, shore” or “sciare, scintilla”. But then again, this was her authentic perception, and who am I to say that what sounds ugly to her, actually is beautiful.

The idea of poetry being untranslatable, doesn’t put my translator’s mind to rest. If it is untranslatable, then how can I experience it, enjoy it, despite the linguistic boundaries? Am I kidding myself?

As a translator who once upon a time dabbled a bit in poetry, I recognize the struggle of the poet in translating or transforming experience into words. I realize that when this is successful, there is a wholeness to the poem, where sound, visual impact, meanings and etymology melt together. And translating, or rather “re-creating” the poem becomes the labour of Sisyphus. When you’ve succeeded in transmitting one level of the poem, you often have to start from scratch again with the other elements that make it great. Truly great poems strive towards the limits of translation – and poets like to consider themselves untranslatable.

As Walt Whitman says in Song for myself:

O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues, And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for nothing.

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women, And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon out of their laps.

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable, I sound my barbaric YAWP over the roofs of the world.

When I read translated poetry, or even when I read poetry in a language that I’m only partially familiar with, I’m painfully aware of missing bits and pieces, sometimes big bits and pieces. Re-reading Emily Dickinson reminds me of how there is an intrinsic quality to poetry, where certain sounds and certain rhythms resonate with you, even when you understand only partially. It’s like hearing sounds through a wall, but hearing fragments is better than not hearing. And sometimes a good translation makes the wall paper-thin.

“I want you to admire me for my style of consumption” – The Case for Tantric Shopping

•August 20, 2010 • 1 Comment

“You have to buy that dress, it is so you”!

My daughter’s exclamation isn’t making it any easier for me to resist temptation. I’m trapped in the dialogues between myself and the mirror image; myself and my pocket-book; and myself and the other (represented by my daughter in this case). There’s a major negotiation going on inside my head, where I’m debating economy, self-identity, sustainability as well as what makes me feel good. And it’s never easy to tell the outcome beforehand.

Girls of  all ages spend a great deal of time  looking for that perfect match. I’m not talking about the mister Rights, or the Mister Right-Nows (or “miss Rights” to avoid being orientation-biased); rather, I’m pointing to the time  dedicated to finding that one dress that will make you feel pretty or sexy or different or part of a group; exactly what you need at a given moment. If television is any reflection at all of reality, the right dress, or shoes or interior design, don’t just keep us warm and dry and gives a place to sit or sleep; they give us an identity, tell others who we are, and, if things go right, change our whole outlook on life (for the better, one hopes).

The great success of the “Shopaholic” book-series relies heavily on how women identify themselves in the thinking of Rebecca Bloomwood. She’s like us, when we’re in that shopping mood, she’s just more eloquent about it:

A man will never love you or treat you as well as a store. If a man doesn’t fit, you can’t exchange him seven days later for a gorgeous cashmere sweater. And a store always smells good. A store can awaken a lust for things you never even knew you needed. And when your fingers first grasp those shiny, new bags… oh yes… oh yes. (Confessions of a shopaholic)

I smiled my way through the first book of the series, and I saw myself in certain moments of my life : that swimsuit addiction I had in my first year of university, awarding myself a new swimsuit whenever I felt a bit down; the deep connection I’ve felt with certain small boutiques, where I may have been able to buy just one item, but even being there gave me solace.

Over the years I’ve turned into more of a surgical shopper, who determines need, decides to intervene, goes in, and closes up; but I still enjoy window shopping at night, commenting on the esthetics of display windows with whoever I’m with. So while I’m no shopaholic, I’m someone who definitely feels the allure of a good cut, a flattering colour, and that intoxicating feeling of new shoes.

The shopping itch, however, usually comes with a sour aftertaste. The psychological “high” you get from shopping, can give serious lows once you get home: because you overspent; because in a different light that colour makes you look like a vampire; because you remember you already have a similar pink t-shirt; because your friends don’t seem to value what you bought. Shopping hangovers usually last longer than hangovers from too much wine, and frequently give headaches too.

Beyond our personal shopping failures, shopping has even more far-reaching consequences. Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World report 2010 deals with the effects of consumerism on the environment. Under the subtitle “Transforming Cultures: From Consumerism to Sustainability“, it  tries to chart a path away from what Worldwatch president Christopher Flavin calls “the consumer culture that has taken hold, first in the U.S. and now in country after country over the past century”.

This consumerist culture is the elephant in the room when it comes to solving the big environmental issues of today, the report says, and those issues cannot be fully solved until a transition to a more sustainable culture is begun. The motor of the world economy has been American consumption. Our culture and politics are centered on it, and ever-increasing levels of consumption has built the US economy. Our economic structures are dependent on consumption, and consumption, at a personal and symbolic level, expresses who we are socially, and is an important ritual that binds us together with our families and peers.

The impetus to change our style and volume of consumption is in this way hindered, both on a political and on a personal, psychological level. It would be political suicide to implement policies that effectively put obstacles in the way of consumption, since economic growth, in its current definition, relies on growth in consumption. And giving up shopping, cold-turkey, even when done by the most convinced, is hard because it challenges so many of our social relationships, our traditions and rituals.

According to the sociologist Giddens, cultural meanings are necessarily embodied (or ‘encoded’) in every object we make. In acquiring or using (consuming) goods, we associate ourselves with the meanings embedded in those goods. These adopted meanings therefore become part of the perceived ‘self’. We use these goods and services to tell others who we are, what others in our social group mean to us, and to gain status, respect,
admiration, a sense of belonging etc.

So what can we do about our addiction to consumerism that doesn’t leave us “naked” of the symbolic meaning of our shopping?

There are 2 primary problems our shopping-habit poses:

First of all – the fact that most of our consumption becomes trash within an embarrassingly short time. According to the short film “The Story of Stuff“, 99% of what we buy is no longer in use after 6 months.  The cost of this very short life-cycle on the environment; on our resources; on our landfills, is tremendous.

Secondly, the joy of shopping and the self-expression that comes with it, is very short-lived. Reality TV tells us daily how hard it is for people to deal with all the stuff they have, how we get overwhelmed, how we still wake up with “I’ve nothing to wear” even right after a shopping spree, how we don’t know where to put our stuff.

The political solution to our over-consumption would be adding taxes to pay for the real environmental cost of the products we buy, or even making laws that make some products not even reach our shelves. If we had to pay for the real cost to the environment of the plastic stuff from the dollar store that breaks after 2 days, it wouldn’t be so convenient anymore.

On a woman-to-woman level, I don’t see banning shopping all together as feasible. There is too much cultural meaning attached to shopping for that to be a sellable idea. But shopping as a frenetic leisure activity, where we shop as if we were buying fast-food, doesn’t give us much long-lasting pleasure either, so maybe we need to restructure our shopping habits instead.

Buying stuff in a hurry, without any knowledge of where it comes from, with no attachment to its production process, often feeling guilty and unsatisfied afterwards, has a lot in common with one-night stands.

You believe there’ll be satisfaction, and indeed there is some, but it’s neither long-lasting, nor something that makes you proud.

And that brings me to my tag-line. The slow-food movement has brought attention and credibility to the fact that food is more than filling your stomach to keep you going, and to the fact that real enjoyment comes with the rituals and preparations that surround eating. “Slow shopping”, though, is a term that doesn’t ring quite right. I’d propose “tantric shopping” as better expression, not only because it reminds me of Sting and his 8-hour Tantric sessions, but because it stresses the tension between doing – and not  doing – as an intrinsic part of the act, and it is much less concerned with the quick and final climax (“buying the object”- in shopping terms).

Thinking of shopping as a tantric experience will inevitably make you shop less. You’ll feel the need to know about what you buy, understand whose hands and what materials produced it (probably turning you away from some very “unfair trade” goods). You’ll stop yourself more often to reflect, and in the end the satisfaction will be much greater.