Professor Irina Lynch of the Wellesley College Russian Department was one of the pioneers of machine translation, something we now call artificial intelligence. She told our class how they tested the success of a translation by running a phrase through, English to Russian, and then running the Russian phrase back, to see how close or far it was from the original. Sometimes the results were good. Sometimes they were bad. Sometimes they were hilarious.
Her group used English aphorisms and Bible verses. They tried “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” It came back, “The vodka is good but the meat is rotten.”
They tried again, with “Out of sight, out of mind.” The result? “Blind idiot.”
I have sometimes been surprised, while workshopping a piece I’ve written, but the way it was perceived. “Wow, that’s really catty,” they said of a heartfelt poem about why I hadn’t contacted friends in a while. “That’s really funny,” they said of another work which was about something I thought tragic.
It can be entertaining and even useful to see how your writing comes across in translation. Take something short that you’ve written, use Google Translate or the program of your choice, and then translate it back into English.
I tried this with Shakespeare. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” I turned it into Mongolian: “Би чамайг зуны өдөртэй зүйрлэх үү?” And I flipped it back into English. “Can I compare you to a summer day?”
The translation is technically accurate, but the nuance has changed.
Writing Prompt: Translate a piece you wrote into another language.
Translate it back into the language in which you wrote it.
Ponder the differences. Is the translation more direct? Does it lose something you loved?
You might try rewriting the piece using the tone of the translation, just to see what it would be like.
For an added twist, compare the translation into two or more languages. How does the Italian differ from the German? What if you translate it into a language that doesn’t use articles?
When I was a student, we listened to the radio for Jess Cain on WHDH to call no school for Boston, as part of a long list of public, private, and parochial schools who cancelled classes for the day. (The S’s were long, because of all the saints.) Snow days meant shoveling snow first and then playing in it. Other times when school was cancelled, as for the Teacher’s Strike, my parents created assignments for us, forcing my younger brother and me to learn a song in Spanish from an album they checked out from the Boston Public Library. My high school cancelled classes for only ten days during the Great Blizzard of ’78, and then only because the T, Boston’s subway system, was not running. When the trains were running again we were back in class.
We had one snow day when I was at Wellesley. I was supposed to meet with a visiting professor, the ever-memorable Dimitri Obolensky who I only later learned was also a prince and, later, a knight. I was taking two classes, through the Religion Department; “The Making of Eastern Europe, 800 – 1100 AD” and a three hundred level course, “The Mission of Cyril and Methodius to the Slavs.” The meeting was to discuss my paper on the Bogomils. But the snow changed all that.
We had a beautiful, empty day in front of us. I was one of 54 freshmen in Shafer Hall, and we were something of a giddy pack. about to run in five directions. Some students were going to go “traying,” sliding down the hill near Severance. Others were gathering in the rec room with its orange couch to watch television. Some were gathering in the more formal living room, with its good couches, framed paintings, and shelves of books. A group of Hawaiians were going to build their first snowman. I was contemplating having Constant Comment Tea and reading something non-academic, and both thoughts were delicious.
However, I was thwarted. Boston, where my family lived, of course cancelled school. The town of Stoughton, where my father taught high school English, had also cancelled. Dad called to make sure that the dorm had electricity and food — I am pretty sure he would have brought me home otherwise, storm or no. I assured him that I was fine and told him that I guess that means I wouldn’t be meeting with my professor.
Dad exploded. He knew that Professor Obolensky had translated the much beloved “Penguin Book of Russian Verse” which both he and I had both worn out with much reading, and that the professor was visiting from Oxford. “That man,” Dad said, “is a professional. He will not care how much snow there is. He will find a way to get there and you had jolly well better be waiting there when he comes!”
I doubted it, but I knew my father was serious. I grabbed my research materials and bundled up and trudged to the Religion Department, which was empty. But there were cups and tea bags and a means of heating water. I took off my snowy clothes and boots and made a cup of tea, settling into a couch in my stocking feet, when the doorway was blocked by a tall, snowy being. Professor Obolensky had somehow borrowed a pair of snowshoes from another professor, because our meeting was that important to him. He was dressed, as Russians are, appropriately for the weather, with a huge hat, a muffler, gloves, and an appropriate overcoat, all covered with snow. “I am rather proud,” he said, “that I only fell three times.”
I jumped to attention, offered him tea, and scrambled to put my thoughts in order. Later I did write the paper. It turns out that the best book on the Bogomils was written by Prof. Obolensky himself, which made quoting him problematic. Do I write, “As Obolensky writes,” as I would of any other author? That seemed presumptuous. Do I write “As you write?” That would be brown nosing. After much tea, prayer, and thought, I wrote, “As one author puts it,” and put the name of the author and the book in the footnotes. Professor Obolensky returned my paper to me with a good grade and a wry smile.
I got married, had children, moved to Texas, and had more children, and no snow days, although a few days were lost to the after-effect of hurricanes. By then we watched the television for storm coverage, so there was no waiting by the radio. But when we moved to Boston, my children were thrilled with three new discoveries: delayed openings, Jewish holidays off from school, and snow days. I didn’t need to listen to the radio or watch the names of school districts scroll across the television screen. I could lie in bed and listen to the cheers or moans from upstairs.
Then I became a substitute teacher, and I listened to Jerry Kristafer on WELI and then Tony Reno on WICC with the keen interest that I had in Jess Cain’s list. Whatever children were home and I shouted when “Stratford” was read from the list, whether for delayed opening or no school at all. There is no age at which it is not wonderful to be given the unexpected boon of a free day. When everyone was finally launched and we moved to Ohio, I thought those days were behind me.
However, I was supposed to have an operation for cataracts on Thursday, and I spent most of Wednesday going through the pre-op physical, blood work, etc. that surgery entails. I understand that the operation is for the best, that it is a blessing that we live in a place where I can have it done, and that I will be so much happier after it is over. But that is then, and this is now. Now I just try not to think of Locutus of Borg.
But as I drove around from the hospital to the pharmacy to the gas station to the grocery store, signs on the road warned of bad storms ahead. The radio announced that the Governor asked everyone to stay off the road tomorrow. It rained Wednesday. It is supposed to snow, extensively, on Thursday, melt a little on Friday and then re-freeze. Good weather for reading at home.
I had my phone’s ringer off and I try not to check it when I drive. When I got home and looked at the phone, I had a message — surgery is postponed because of the weather. Internally, I did the Happy Snow Day Dance. Externally, I made supper. But I smiled while making it.
Thursday I get to sleep in, eat breakfast, wash my hair, get water in my eyes, and, yes, help dig out the cars. The surgery will be rescheduled and then I will enjoy the benefits that come from no longer having cloudy vision. But I can hear the rain outside my window getting ready to transition. The thermostat is dropping. By the time the sun is up, I can sit inside and watch the flakes fall out there, where I will not be. It is a huge inconvenience and a big disruption. But it is a glorious boon.
Writing Prompt: Write about a snow day in your past. You could write a poem, like “Snow-Bound” by John Greenleaf Whittier, set in a time when the snow plows were pulled by oxen. You could write prose for children, like “The Long Winter” by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Use detail. What did you wear in the snow? Mittens or gloves? Or unmatched socks on your hands, because you had no gloves? Were you allowed to frolic or forced to stay inside — or did you have to shovel?
Did you shovel for money? What did you do when you came in? Did you miss school or were you glad for one day of respite?
Use details, colors, textures, smells.
If you have never seen snow, you could write about what you imagine doing.
At St. Seraphim Camp a few years ago, some old friends and I sat around talking about all the various groups and charismatic men that had tried, and failed, to hijack our church and use it for their own ends, some nefarious. As we listed name after name, I thought of the Psalm that we sometimes sing before Communion, Psalm 135 in the Septuagint and 136 in the King James Version. “Oh give thanks unto the Lord for He is good, Alleluia, for His mercy endureth forever, Alleluia.” In the Psalm, we sing of first of the wonders of God:
“5 To him that by wisdom made the heavens: for his mercy endureth for ever.
6 To him that stretched out the earth above the waters: for his mercy endureth for ever.
7 To him that made great lights: for his mercy endureth for ever:
8 The sun to rule by day: for his mercy endureth for ever:
9 The moon and stars to rule by night: for his mercy endureth for ever.”
But then follows a list of everyone who ever tried to overtake God’s people, and who failed, either at once or eventually:
“10 To him that smote Egypt in their firstborn: for his mercy endureth for ever:
11 And brought out Israel from among them: for his mercy endureth for ever:
12 With a strong hand, and with a stretched out arm: for his mercy endureth for ever.
13 To him which divided the Red sea into parts: for his mercy endureth for ever:
14 And made Israel to pass through the midst of it: for his mercy endureth for ever:
15 But overthrew Pharaoh and his host in the Red sea: for his mercy endureth for ever.
16 To him which led his people through the wilderness: for his mercy endureth for ever.
17 To him which smote great kings: for his mercy endureth for ever:
18 And slew famous kings: for his mercy endureth for ever:
19 Sihon king of the Amorites: for his mercy endureth for ever:
20 And Og the king of Bashan: for his mercy endureth for ever:
21 And gave their land for an heritage: for his mercy endureth for ever:
22 Even an heritage unto Israel his servant: for his mercy endureth for ever.
23 Who remembered us in our low estate: for his mercy endureth for ever:
24 And hath redeemed us from our enemies: for his mercy endureth for ever.”
All of us could make such a list, and perhaps it’s time that we did.
The writing component:
When I started writing my MFA thesis, a memoir that I’m still not ready to share with the world, my advisor, Carol Ann Davis, was only half joking when she said, “The nice thing about writing nonfiction is that you already know that you survived.
From ancient war songs to modern songs of triumph, whether you reach for the sacred or the profane, the lists are there. John Donne’s Holy Sonnet “Death, be not proud” rebukes death itself, while Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise” addresses those who would oppress her:
“You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.”
Edwin Markhan’s “Outwitted” takes on an unnamed “he” tries to exclude the speaker:
“He drew a circle that shut me out—
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.”
Victory takes many forms — some of them just look like survival.
Maybe you’re not ready to write a whole book. But you can write an essay, a poem, or a scene.
In fiction you can have one character give another a pep talk listing the things they’ve already overcome. Your speaker can be reliable or unreliable. A reliable speaker who never-the-less is lying would be Wesley in “The Princess Bride” (on Hulu this month) telling Buttercup how they’ve already overcome the dangers of the Fire Swamp. But it could also be a coach giving a half-time talk or a parent trying to reassure a child about a new situation that is not what either expected.
Poetry and Nonfiction lend themselves to lists. Like the Psalmist, you could make a list of people or situations that almost killed you, and put a lyrical twist on it. It may be comical to alphabetize your tormentors, or informative, to list them chronologically.
Thanksgiving The psalm that came to mind is one of thanksgiving rather than complaint. Without giving it away, the last paragraph of the last chapter of the last book in the Hunger Games trilogy has much the same feel. You might write (or have your character write) a list of the strengths that came from each assault. Because you believed the first person who lied to you, you were protected slightly against the second. You never would have taken the self defense class where you met your best friend if you hadn’t had your purse stolen as you walked down the street. Look at your own life or the adventures of your characters, and trace the Hand of God.
What did you win? We know about King Og’s bed because Moses captured it. And told us about it!
“For only Og king of Bashan remained of the remnant of giants; behold, his bedstead was a bedstead of iron; is it not in Rabbath of the children of Ammon? nine cubits was the length thereof, and four cubits the breadth of it, after the cubit of a man.”
Did you win a job? A boyfriend? Something intangible? Something very tangible? Take some time to reflect upon it in writing. Look, describe, appreciate. Think of your nephew describing his new Transformer and all the things it can do. Look at your own prizes with child-like appreciation.
How do you express your joy at winning? Trust me, not all of us can or should, like Maya Angelou, “dance like I’ve got diamonds/ At the meeting of my thighs.” But there should be a follow-up to each revelation. The pain that you or your character overcomes should lead to a virtue (generativity, compassion, a little healthy self-doubt). Overflowing joy should spill on someone else. You might look at something kind you’ve done and ask who taught you how to do that, and what you were going through at the time.
We’ve all overcome some serious dangers and craziness in the past year. Write it down and see where it has led, and where it could lead, and what you can build with it. What did you not know that you could endure? But through the mercy of God, here you are!
I was thrilled to be part of a small cadre of writers asked to write ekphrastic poems or flash fiction about art on display at the Fairfield University Art Museum. Ekphrastic poetry relates to a piece of art — the way it was made, the experience of seeing it, the experience of being in the picture. I had read some and gone to readings by friends, but this was my solo voyage. I chose to write the poem in two parts, the first about the experience of being able to choose a piece about which to write, the second being what happened to me when I saw the sketch.
The exhibit was “Sketching the Landscape: A Plein Air Journal” by artist Michael Gallagher. I was moved by the sketches, and chased down the artist at the opening to ask about his technique. He sketches in charcoal and paints in water color, but he enhances his work with wax — beeswax. candle wax, even crayon — which changes the quality of light in the piece.
In the poem, which I will link to, I describe finding the piece of art that captured me. I wrote about the one that left me breathless. I took a picture, Carey Weber from the Museum took a better picture, and I looked at it, repeatedly. I visited it at the museum a few more times. I looked at the lines and the colors, the strokes of the brush and the pencil and wax, squinting close and standing back, until finally the words bubbled out. I had been torn between writing about the experience of choosing a picture or about what the picture evoked within me, so I decided to do both.
Others wrote poems and stories about different pieces, and the Museum had them all in a binder. Visitors to the exhibit could walk around the gallery with the poems and stories and stand in front of each piece, reading. I enjoyed seeing all the different takes as much as I enjoyed seeing all the different sketches.
Finally came the day when the artist and writers converged. First Michael Gallagher gave a lecture on some of his restoration work. I was fascinated at the amount of detail that goes into analyzing the pigments, stripping the varnish, replacing the damaged section, and insuring that the repairs can be fixed again when time wears away again at the colors. In his restoration work, the artist removes himself, and focuses on keeping the work intact, restored rather than repainted. In his Pleine Air sketches, he does the same, he said, leaving no sign that he had been to the places (temples, seasides, forests) that he depicted.
Later, we had a reading of the pieces. It was a joy to watch the artist actively listen, leaning in toward each of us as we read our pieces in the gallery, surrounded by writer and artist friends who themselves crowded in to see and to hear. As a group, we walked from sketch to sketch, listening to each new response by a writer. Over wine and cheese after, we talked about writing and the museum, art and what it inspires. I went into the experience feeling like a recent grad student. I left the museum feeling like a writer among writers and artists. I am so grateful for the opportunity, for the inspiring art, and for all those who brought together words and images.
Many thanks to Carey Weber from the Museum both for organizing the event and for obtaining for me both such a brilliant copy of the sketch and permission to post it. I also appreciate Elizabeth Hastings and our program leader, Sonya Huber, from Fairfield University’s MFA in Creative Writing Program for connecting us with the museum and for attending the reading. And special thanks to Michael Gallagher, whose striking images inspired each of us differently.
Not since my uncle gave us a one hundred dollar gift certificate
for Filenes of Boston for our wedding
have I had this sense of being a discerning shopper
choosing among so many quality things.
“Twelve of you may each choose a painting to write about.”
At Filenes. I had ogled the things no one buys any more –
china and silver, mohair and linen – with two thoughts in mind:
“I could buy that!” and
“I don’t have to!”
Downstairs from donors sharing champagne and shrimp,
I could choose what I liked best,
amid the exotic temples and azure skies,
paintings in water color, pencil and wax
of places so much more substantial,
mountains and oceans, sea and sky,
places I never had been.
A dizzying gift.
In a humble corridor, narrow walls were hung
with glimpses of Maine, a different sort of place
that I also had never been to.
Here were no jewel tones, no azure skies, no piercing sun.
The trees defied color and even shape.
Grey and white clouds with ocher shadows
copied the outline of the landscape
above the stony shores
in skies that attempted to be blue,
and fought being brown.
I tried to walk past one painting,
but had to stop.
That was the piece I was missing.
2. The Painting
This was the place that my grandmother left.
Mother of twelve, grandmother of forty,
porcelain skin concealing flint,
humble smile disguising brains;
She gave us this without us even knowing.
I thought she had chosen Boston, had left Maine because
it was ugly, or dull, or boring, or poor.
When I saw the painting, I realized she left
because she was ready.
The place had formed and informed her.
And she had infused us, in turn.
This strangely familiar unknown place is mine.
I do not know the name for the colors of the rocks,
but I have seen each of my aunts wear them.
The shaggy trees are the kind that each of us plants,
because they surrounded the house we loved.
You cannot put a blanket on those stones,
nor would we want to. We seek out seas
like these for contemplation, not for sport.
We want our water cold.
Swimming, then, becomes an act of prayer.
We throw ourselves on something big
and trust it to support us as we part it and kick,
part it and kick, until the sand is no more with us.
Then we float, belly to the sky of muted grays and blues.
Our eyes come in these colors. Like into like,
we stare and wait for answers
and the questions they create.
This painting, though, has no one on the shore –
no bird on any tree, no fish, no crab;
a birdless sky, no crafts float in the sea.
It is waiting for the viewer
to come, fill the seascape,
just as the seascape waits
to fill the watcher.