Translations and International Relations

I just sold the Chinese (Simplified) rights to my publishing book to an academic press in China for $1000. I've written in the past that selling foreign rights is a risky proposition for self publishers, but my main motivation for agreeing was to have a Chinese copy of the book to send to my friend from graduate school, who loaded me down with gifts brought from China some 15 years ago. I ate the chocolate, I don't think I ever worked my way through the green tea, and I learned quite a bit about how Americans relate to Chinese waiters through him. He is a brilliant man who maintained a 4.0 in Physics with a limited command of English (though he had read "The Godfather") and who now runs a hedge fund.

All of this came to mind tonight as I sat in my favorite Jazz Bar in Jerusalem, the only full schedule Jazz club in Israel that I know of, where I wrote the creative bits of the last two books I published. On some nights, I sit at the bar writing on scrap paper, in other instances, it's more a question of carrot and stick. In any case, tonight the band is playing Oriental influenced Jazz, the sax reminiscent of a snake charmer is backed by the piano and the drummer plays something that looks like a 20 gallon gourd, backed by the bass. It could be a studio recording, these guys are so good.

The cook, who studies biology in university and translates films to Hebrew in his spare time, brings me a bowl of soup to try on the cuff. After I eat two spoons, the barman says, "Morris, what's this" and takes two spoons for himself. The barman is part of the Russian/Israeli culture. Although he was born in Israel, his cultural norms are Russian, and Russians are constantly sharing food and eating utensils. For me, it was the first time in my life I can remember that I ended up using a spoon another man had eaten from, but I'm trying to learn some Russian, so it's par for the course.

The waitress is a beautiful Czech girl who is studying art restoration in Czechoslovakian graduate school, but taking some time off to learn Hebrew in Israeli Ulpan. She may be the only person in the place who couldn't order a beer in Russian because she's young enough to have opted to learn Slovak in public school. We're in a conversation about how you say "Check" in various languages, and ignoring the irony, I throw a monkey wrench in the works by pointing out in America we run a bar tab. This reminds me of an oddity I noticed in reading an Anthony Trollope novel (mid 1850's) this week, in which the game Tic-Tac-Toe was referred to as Tit-Tat-Toe. The cook suggests that this may be where the expression "Tit for Tat" comes from, which suggests he's worth more than the $50 for the first one and a half hours plus $10 for each additional ten minutes he gets for the films he translates to Hebrew. Of course, he gets another $30 for synchronizing the subtitles with the speech.

There's something Celtic about the music, and an American sits next to me and strikes up a conversation because I'm speaking English with the Czech waitress and the Israeli cook, as it's the best language we have in common. He's studying religion at a quasi Orthodox institute that tries to reconcile science with God. I wish him luck. When he calls the barman to pay his tab, it turns out that he didn't understand that there was a 20 shekel cover charge (about $5) for the band who would have commanded $40 or $50 a head in a quarter-decent NY club. "I asked you what language you wanted to speak" the exasperated barman says to him in Hebrew. "I understood" my American neighbor replies in Hebrew, "But I thought it was buy a beer OR pay the cover charge." In other words, he didn't understand.

Music may be the international language, but it doesn't always fare well in translation. Last year I saw a Chinese film about a musician who believed he was John Lennon's son, though I missed the beginning and was a little lost throughout. The translation of the lyrics that preoccupied the protagonist showed up in the subtitles as "It's only natural, it's only natural." It wasn't until the end of the film when they brought up the music that I realized it was the chorus to "Let it be, let it be." My book is full of American references that won't translate into Chinese even if the translator is an expert. What could they make of my salad inspired joke, "I wouldn't bet the ranch dressing"?

I don't view translation or international relations as part of my business model, but I try to hold up the side. When I cashed out my tab, I told the barman to add the cover charge for the American who had sat next to me. He asked why, and I told him I wanted to write it up when I got home. "But Morris," he told me, "You don't actually have to pay for him in order to write it up." True, but it wouldn't have been the same. The barman is in his last year of the five year Bezalel art school program, and next year, will start studying to be a film director.

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