Thursday, April 29, 2010

I Scream, You Scream

Rome, Italy

There's a very good running joke in my life, and it goes by the name "final draft". Countless times I have wrongfully accused one of my projects of this verdict only to find later on that what I thought was final was really just a warm-up lap. Or that final just meant final-ish.

How do you know when a book is done? When it came to painting, Picasso said he knew that a painting of his was done "when the gentleman from the gallery comes to hang it." Dermot Bolger, an Irish writer with a slew of wonderful novels, poems, and plays under his belt, has in turn said he knows a play is done "when the gentlemen and ladies of the press come to hang the playwright." But what about novels?

Unless your measure of success involves joining forces with a bar code -- and more power to you if it does -- the finish line can be much fuzzier. Characters you've lived with for years can be hard to let go, and so you may find yourself having imaginary conversations with them or still thinking up clever plot twists. Or, in an extreme example, you might find yourself -- this is all hypothetical, of course -- typing sections of your floundering first novel into Babel Fish, translating a paragraph into Italian, then from Italian into French, then French back into English. Maybe it was a distancing device designed to suck some of the pain out of my pet project's slow demise. But then maybe it brought me back to one of the pleasures that drew me to writing in the first place: the simple, sometimes useless joy of putting certain words next to certain other words.

(If you have even a sliver of doubt that odd pairings of words can be both silly and sublime, you need look no further than Stephen Fry. In an episode of A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Fry willfully unleashes on us the following sentence: "Hold the newsreader's nose squarely, waiter, or friendly milk will countermand my trousers." And if you think that's not astonishing and beautiful, you should probably stop reading this post now, for I am about to lead you down the road to utter codswallop.)

My novel-in-the-drawer -- that first heroic stab at writing a novel, started over ten years ago in earnest and abandoned five years later in dejection -- was great for this exercise. In fact, I liked some of the warped, over-translated phrases from my book so much that over time I grew convinced they were better than the original. "Please please it's very emergency" conveyed an urgency the original draft didn't have.

Imagine if, instead of beginning A Tale of Two Cities with the famous lines "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," Charles Dickens had written this: "Era improves of the periods, was he most imperfect of periods"? Ah, fair enough. It would've been complete gibberish. Still, if anyone else is feeling adventurous and wants to take the first line or favorite passage of a story and give it the Babel Fish treatment, let me know what you come up with. Or if you've any stories of your own about things you've done out of boredom or sheer desperation in trying to get over a book, project, or holiday, share away. Suddenly an Edvard Munch "Scream" punching bag may not sound like such a bad idea.


Conan Drumm said...

Oh I laughed at this.
Was it Auden who said something along the lines of, 'a poem is never finished, it is abandoned'? A line that applies perfectly to cars and parking in a nearby town.

Radge said...

I love it. I took a random line from the blog...

Folders and files and biographies of ordinary people who did remarkable things.

Which morphed into the following:

Folders and traffic-jams and biographies or ordinary people WHO did brake-Ark-able things.

Hours of fun. You've just decided my Thursday.

Therese Cox said...

Ahahaha! Dying over here. Radge, there's some spilled coffee near a keyboard on account of that sentence. More, please.

And Conan, I LOVE that quote. I did a quick search to track it down. I think it was Paul Valery who said it. Actually, I think what Valery said was: "A poetry n' never it is left ended, only."

Charlie said...

Heh. Just tried it with the first lines of my next book:

"There was an advertisement selected regularly on British television in the years ' ; 90 advances some that you could remember. Era for the beer inglese irlandese of Caffreys and I can point out each second to him. The scene is piled up bar and catches of the conversation feel on hip-hop cry of the Room of the jump of the pain around him comes clearly that we are in New York. The place is packed, noisy, while fluttering and is sweated. We put at fire on a young person who holds un' ; indication of I stagnate, his darkness, hair length of l' shoulder that flopping on the eyes color chocolate on I lie qu' they strafed meticulous person with stoppia and intended clearly for a future out of blade announces. “We test to play stagnates here, boys, „known as in an accent irlandese during qu' it strikes and encourages the crowd of the drinkers to align his blow. "

What sport there is in this! Thanks Therese. I'm heading out tonight to find a place that's packed, noisy, while fluttering and is sweated. Sounds like my kinda joint.

Conan Drumm said...

Aha Thérèse, that explains its... Frenchishness. And the line in the song, 'won't you come on over, Valéry'.

Therese Cox said...

Conan - Aw shucks, and I can't even find the accents on this keyboard.

Charlie - Have fun now. And be sure to exclaim when you enter the pub, “We test to play stagnates here, boys!"

Jackie said...

GF. LOVE. This picture. That scream is like the embodiment of weird babel fish text.

And weird babelfish text is like the embodiment of my mental state. No translations or alterations needed.

Therese Cox said...

Jackie - Yeah, that Scream guy is gonna find once he's done screaming that he still has some stuff to say. Glad we're one step ahead of him.

Radge said...

OK, one more, this one not my own.

Here's the translation:-

His eyelids, when he closes them, flickering, in order to make a point about buffed steal ash opposed to chrome, property a faint pattern on pretend them or medieval. His clothes do not mock his body. I must ask his nasty again. (Azrael).

Here's the original:-

His eyelids, when he closes them, flickering, in order to make a point about buffed steel as opposed to chrome, have a faint pattern on them of medieval veins. His clothes do not mock his body.

I must ask his name again. (Azrael).

Ray Gunn said...

I Babel Fish it all the time. It's a great fun diversion.

One of my favorite things is to Babel idioms, axioms, and other well-known sayings.

English: The early bird catches the worm.

Babeled: The previous bird restores the insect.

Therese Cox said...

Ah, these are all great. I hope I can show my appreciation for all of my Babel contributors by including some of these bizarre phrases in future postcards.

I hereby leave this comment thread open for any more phrases of unspeakable silliness you wish to see in print...

Gunn said...

This looks very much like "The scream" by Edvard Munch.
Nice and interesting blog you have!:) I´ll be back.