He can talk plainer than that

I love the English language.  I find it versatile and flexible and good for just about anything you want to say.  As long as you want to say it in English, of course.

Something got me started listening to songs in Spanish the other day.  I've been quite a fan of salsa and of the group Mocedades ever since my days in Central America.  That was a long time ago, and I hadn't really expanded my interests to any other Spanish-language songs until maybe 10 years ago when Megan asked me to help her buy a Shakira album.  As I recall, she'd heard some Shakira songs in her Spanish class at school.  So we found Dónde están los ladrones? at a local store and I listened to it with her and that's how I became a somewhat fan.

I say "somewhat" because I like the Shakira of yore, before she dyed her hair blonde and misplaced most of her clothes.  But seriously, even though there are a few songs I like from later in her career, I think Dónde están los ladrones? is, so far, the best of all her albums.  When it comes to her crossover albums, where she sings in English, I can pretty much take her or leave her.  In fact, from what I've read, most people prefer her songs in Spanish to those in English.  That's fine.  But some of them make the untenable claim that she sounds better in Spanish than she does in English.  One person even commented that her songs are better in Spanish  because Spanish is such a beautiful language and English is such an ugly language.

I am all smiles and agreement with the statement about Spanish.  That it is a beautiful language is the opinion that fire cannot melt out of me.  But there is no way I can let the statement that English is an ugly language go unchallenged.  And I believe that, if the individual who made such a misguided statement would rethink their position, they would see that acknowledging the error of their ways and agreeing with me would make the world a better place.

The problem with Shakira singing in English is not that she sounds better in English or that English is an ugly language.  The problem, as I see it, is with the translation.  I shall explain with a rather lengthy example.  Take the song "Whenever, Wherever".  Take it far, far away.  But seriously . . . no, there is no seriously when it comes to this song.  It's just a ludicrous piece and there's an end on't.  Okay, here we go.  The song in Spanish starts with this verse:

Suerte que en el Sur hayas nacido,
Y que burlemos las distancias
Suerte que es haberte conocido,
Y por ti amar tierras extrañas

Yo puedo escalar los Andes,
Solo, por ir a contar tus lunares
Contigo celebro y sufro todo,
Mis alegrías y mis males.

Here's my translation:

Lucky that you were born in the South
that we can laugh at the distance
Lucky it is that I met you
and through you love foreign (or strange) lands

I can climb the Andes
just to go and count your moles
With you I celebrate and suffer all,
my joys and my sorrows.

Now that's a more or less direct translation, but, as you can see, it won't do for song lyrics.  They'd have to be changed about at least a bit or maybe a lot for reasons of rhyme and rhythm.  Here are the corresponding English lyrics that Shakira sings:

Lucky you were born that far away so
We could both make fun of distance
Lucky that I love a foreign land for
The lucky fact of your existence

Baby I would climb the Andes solely
To count the freckles on your body
Never could imagine there were only
Ten million ways to love somebody

I see problems with this "translation" as well.  For one thing, changing "moles" to "freckles" is only the slightest of improvements.  For another, the third and fourth lines don't really mean anything:  those lyrics are horseshoes pitched at the stake of meaning and yet there's not a ringer among them.  And the seventh and eighth lines seem like non sequiturs.  There are funny things about translating.  For instance, sometimes a direct, word-for-word translation gives less of the meaning of the original than a looser translation that nevertheless captures better the overall sense of what's being translated.  I don't pretend to be a songwriter, or a translator, but if I had to turn the Spanish lyrics into English ones, I'd probably do it something like this:

Lucky for me you were born far away
and that we can laugh at the distance
Lucky for me I ever met you, and,
like loving a strange land, lose my resistance

That fourth line ends up being less apt because of the need to rhyme with "distance".  There are other options (persistence, admittance, government assistance, three little kittens who lost their pittance), but this one keeps the reference to foreign lands, which is in the original.  And if I'm going to complain about strange, twisted, or meaningless lyrics, I guess I should remember there are plenty written in English, by native English speakers, that make no sense at all, except possibly to the person who wrote them, and even then I'm not so sure.  Just take a look at "Red Rabbits" by the Shins.  Or "Lucky" by Laura Nyro.  To continue:

I can climb the highest mountain
just to go and count your moles
With you I celebrate and suffer all,
my joys and sorrows, heart and soul.

I personally really dislike the reference to moles.  It just seems weird to count the moles -- or yes, even the freckles -- on someone's body, whether up in the Andes or not.  Perhaps some people enjoy counting moles.  (Also, I admit there's the possibility here for laughs with the reference -- intended?  accidental? -- to the old proverb about making mountains out of molehills, but somehow I don't think that's what the songwriter had in mind.)  To me, counting moles sounds like dermatological drudgery.  But let us suppose that some individuals find romantic pleasure in counting moles and freckles.  What image does that phrase then convey?  To me it conveys that someone would give anything to know someone else so intimately that they would even be familiar with the tiniest details of their lover's body.  So the line about counting moles could be replaced with something that conveys that sense of intimacy without sounding like there's a cancer screening in process.  But let that go.

The chorus in Spanish is thus:

Contigo mi vida,
Quiero vivir la vida.
Y lo que me queda de vida,
Quiero vivir contigo.

Literally translated, it means:

With you, my life,
I want to live life.
And all that remains of my life,
I want to live with you.

A nice sentiment, if a repetitious one.  Here's the English song version:

Whenever, wherever
We're meant to be together
I'll be there and you'll be near
And that's the deal my dear

Okay, doesn't the phrase "that's the deal my dear" sound sort of like a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum?  Like, "This is how it's going to be if you want to be with me", instead of the "I want to be with you for the rest of my life" sentiment in the original Spanish.

But now comes the really crazy part.  The Spanish:

Suerte que es tener labios sinceros,
Para besarte con más ganas
Suerte que mis pechos sean pequeños,
Y no los confudas con montañas

The literal translation:

It's lucky to have sincere lips,
to kiss you with more desire
Lucky that my breasts are small,
and that you don't confuse them with mountains.

And the English song version:

Lucky that my lips not only mumble
They spill kisses like a fountain
Lucky that my breasts are small and humble
So you don't confuse them with mountains

Hmmm. . . .  First things first.  You'll see how they had to totally change the lines about lips -- and consequently lost the original meaning -- to get the end words to rhyme with the lines about breasts.  But "mumble" is not a felicitous word to use in a love song, even if it does rhyme with "humble".  Mumbling lips are more often a sign of insecurity or discontent.  On the other hand, the line about the lips spilling kisses like a fountain is quite a beautiful image and right there gives the lie to the person who said English was an ugly language.  But now, the real problem:  no one -- but no one -- is ever going to confuse anyone's breasts with actual mountains.  Not nobody, not nohow!  Not even if she were a quadruple D cup size would that happen.  No matter how you say the lines comparing breast size to mountains, no matter what language you say it in, it just sounds stupid.  Sooo many rejoinders to those lines enter my mind, but in the interests of space and modesty, I will not share them.


Is Spanish a beautiful language?  Yes.  There are myriad examples.  Here and here and here are a few.

Is English a beautiful language?  Yes.  Again, there are myriad examples; here and here (scroll down to the last poem, called "English Sparrows") are a couple.

I acknowledge that what is beautiful in one language will not always translate into something equally beautiful in another language, not without some license taken, anyhow.  And I acknowledge that what is beautiful to one person may not be beautiful to another.  But English, though it may be the official language of computer technology and air traffic controllers, can be ever so beautiful and romantic as well.  And so I conclude with two more links and a link.  The first is a Shakira song that is lovely and poignant in Spanish, and would probably be the same in English.  The second is an Elton John song that is lovely and poignant in English, and would probably be the same in Spanish.  And for an added treat, the last link is to an old American song telling of frustrated love, and it would probably be untranslatable to any other language.


Listen everybody, we've got nothing to be ashamed of

Day 29:  Something I'm listening to

Well, it's more like day 43 or something, but I figured I'd finish the February list before the month of March is over.  Here's something I was listening to a couple of weeks ago, when I took Nathan and Rylie to a book fair at the local elementary school:

He was saying, "Here's the book I want."  His teacher had read it to the class, and he enjoyed it so much he wanted it for himself.  I understand that desire.


Nobody in our family has that kind of money

Day 28:  Money

People use the strangest things for bookmarks:  napkins, airline tickets, credit card receipts, facial tissue, bank statements, letters, nail files, leaves, toothpicks, and sometimes even actual bookmarks.  I've found all these and more in the books that come to the Bottom Shelf.  My favorite is money.  Apparently people traveling back from abroad don't mind using leftover foreign money as bookmarks.  Here are a couple of samples of what I've found recently.  The best one, though, was the book that had $500 in US money stuck in amongst the pages.  The Bottom Shelf did very well that day!


Trying to eat smarter, brother

Day 27:  Something you ate

The literary reference for this one is, I'd say, self-evident.  Only at my age, I think I better go with Robert Southey's 1837 version.


Where were you last night?

Day 26:  Night

This is a picture of Orion, my favorite constellation.  I didn't take this picture.  It was too cloudy at night, and I'm not sure I could've found Orion anyhow. 

My literary reference is that John Dos Passos, in his memoir The Best Times, called Orion "the patron saint of nocturnal adventure", a phrase that has stayed with me since I first read it 30 years ago.

Also, in the lower left section, that really bright star is the Dog Star.  And you're supposed to say, "Are you Sirius?"


There it will be ever green

Day 25:  Green

The original dust jacket for this book (published in 1938) was mostly yellow, with illustrations by Edward Shenton.  The book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1939 and was subsequently reissued in that year with illustrations by N C Wyeth, although the dust jacket still wasn't green; that came with a later reprint.  It was this later reprint that became probably the first "grown-up" book I ever read, a big step from books like The Phantom Tollbooth and By the Great Horn Spoon, and I was sort of left reeling by the wallop it gave my young mind.

For two years, when I was in 7th and 8th grade, I had a scary and wonderful teacher named Mrs Robinson.  She was short and thin and old and strict and had bright red hair and a commanding voice.  She imparted discipline and a love of literature in equal measure.  During those two years I was in her classes, she was responsible for introducing me to -- among other literary discoveries -- The Yearling, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Cheaper by the Dozen.  All three books had a foundational influence on my development as a human being, and all three became lifelong favorites.

After reading The Yearling, I sort of in my mind became Jody for three or four months.  Why doesn't that happen anymore?  What is it about being an adult that prevents you from becoming part of the book, if not the book becoming part of you, with such ardency as there was in those days?


Put him in the cabinet quickly

Day 24:  Inside your bathroom cabinet

I had no idea how to make the inside of the bathroom cabinet relevant to literature, until I opened the cabinet and found therein a copy of Poesías Completas by Antonio Machado.  Lucky for me!

Antonio Machado wrote one of my favorite poems ever.  Here it is:

Yo voy soñando caminos
de la tarde.  ¡Las colinas
doradas, los verdes pinos,
las polvorientas encinas!...
¿Adónde el camino irá?
Yo voy cantando, viajero,
a lo largo del sendero...
-La tarde cayendo está-
"En el corazón tenía
la espina de una pasión;
logré arrancármela un día:
ya no siento el corazón".

Y todo el campo un momento
se queda, mudo y sombrío,
meditando.  Suena el viento
en los álamos del río.

La tarde más se oscurece;
y el camino que serpea
y débilmente blanquea,
se enturbia y desaparece.

Mi cantar vuelve a plañir:
"Aguda espina dorada,
quién te pudiera sentir
en el corazón clavada".


You have some very large shoes to fill.

Day 23:  Your shoes

Two things:

1.  I've been watching a lot of reruns of High Chaparral lately.  The reason for doing so involves a long story; I can summarize my reasons by saying I'm watching mostly because I like the character of Victoria.  She's just about the only female character in a relationship with a main character in a 1960s western tv series (except possibly Miss Kitty on Gunsmoke) who didn't die after an episode or two.  But there's one thing that bothers me about her character: her outfits.  In season 1 her whole mode of dress looked wrong, except for maybe her traveling outfit and her riding outfit.  In season 2 (where I am now), the dresses have improved, but her shoes haven't.  She's always wearing flats, like little house shoes, even when she travels.  I really think she should be wearing boots like these (except in a way smaller size) when she's traipsing around in the Arizona desert.

2.  In an episode last night, Victoria's brother, Manolito, told a bad guy to take off his boots.  He said it in Spanish, though.  The word for "boots" is "botas", which sounds like "boats", which my boots are as big as.

PS  Obligatory lit ref:  Steampunk


You look like you're hard to work with

Day 22:  Where you work . . .

. . . when I feel like it, that is.


Photos don't lie, Chief

Day 21:  A fave photo of you

The day I sought the Bird Woman at St Paul's


I only meant to draw your attention to this beautiful handwriting over here

Day 20:  Handwriting

I found a book a while ago that was in really bad shape:  detached covers that had been taped back on, signatures that had come loose, soiling and rubbing to the covers, smudges in the page margins.

But I kept the book partly because I felt sorry for it and partly because I like Doctor Dolittle.  He's one of my childhood heroes.  What I wouldn't have given to be able to talk to my cat when I was a kid.  Well, I did talk to my cat.  He just never answered, except I could tell by the way he looked at me that he thought I was being an idiot.

Anyway, when I began to look through the book to see if it was worth salvaging, I discovered this handwriting on the flyleaf:

Yes,the book was signed by the author.  So in spite of the lousy condition of the book, and even though it's nearly impossible to read it without it falling apart, I'm hanging onto it.


I hate to do this, but I guess I'll have to...

Day 19:  Something you hate to do

I don't hate much, but one thing I hate to do is see what careless people have done to their books.  I've seen books come into the store that have been gnawed on by insects, cats, dogs, and children; that have pages missing and covers missing; that have been used as doorstops, chew toys, notepads, coasters, picnic plates, and blotters.  The other day a couple of books about ancient Greek art and architecture came into the store that would have been lovely and a welcome addition to our stock, except for the dirt and stains left by someone's leaf and flower collection, not to mention the collection itself.

All this came out of two books

PS  I just had a thought:  not that I believe books should continue to be used in the preparation of botanical specimens, but I'd like to see someone try and press a leaf collection using an e-reader.


It ends when you decide and we both drink

Day 18:  Drink

I know I'm supposed to post a photo, but I couldn't resist sharing this video.


All good stories start with "Once upon a time"

Day 17:  Time

Part of my collection of children's books:

 A mix of old and new favorites

 The top shelf includes my young collection of Caldecott books

Anybody who loved to read as a child can remember how enchanting it was at times to be caught up in a book.  I was going to say "magical", but it's not quite the word I'm looking for.  I spent a bit of time with a thesaurus and found synonyms like "bewitching", "necromantic", "spooky", "thaumaturgic".  "Bewitching" comes close to what I mean but just misses the mark.  "Spooky" fits for certain suspenseful books I've read.  I can't say there's ever been a time when I felt the experience of reading a book was necromantic, but I can say now, after having looked up the last word, that certain books have been thaumaturgic for me.  Still, I think for the time being I'll stick with "enchanting".

I've found with the passage of time that it's hard, if not difficult and downright challenging (time to put away the thesaurus), to find books that instill the enchantment I felt as a child.  It happens, but rarely.  So I collect children's books partly as a sort of time travel -- not necessarily to re-experience the wonder, but to remember it -- and partly to help pass that wonder on to my children and grandchildren.


I find myself in need of something new

Day 16:  Something New

This is my newest book.  I bought it two days ago.

I went to a book signing for Kevin Henkes a couple of days ago and bought Owen from the bookstore sponsoring the event.  It's not Henkes's newest book, though.  That would be Penny and Her Song, his first easy reader, and the main reason for the signing.  But I bought that book a few days earlier.  I also took along a couple of his other books that I already had.

I really like Henkes's picture books.  They're tender, funny, and friendly.  He also writes chapter books, which I haven't read any of, but after listening to him at the signing, I think I will.

Henkes read a couple of his stories (including Penny and Her Song) and then talked about the process he goes through in writing and illustrating a picture book.  He then took questions from the audience, and I got called on!  I asked an intelligent question in a clear, calm voice, and was quite proud of myself.  Listening to Henkes gave me inspiration for my own somewhat faltered writing ambitions.

Afterwards, during the signing process, I hadn't planned on talking to him while he signed my books because I figured I'd said enough during the Q&A.  But I hadn't counted on him asking me questions.

Q:  Do you want the date and signature?
A:  Huh?
Q:  Do you want the date, too?
A:  Oh, just the signature is fine.
Q:  How're you doing today?
A:  Fine, thank you.
Q:  Are you a teacher?
A: ...!?... I ... No.
A:  [commence incoherent babbling about not being a teacher, sort of]

You see, it was that last pause that undid me.  I figured after I said "No" that it was his turn to talk.  He had several options.  He could have explained why he asked that question by saying something like, "Oh, well you look like one", or "Oh, the lady before you was a teacher, so I just wondered", or "Oh, the signing is taking place in an elementary school, so I thought it was a logical assumption."  Or he could have closed that line of inquiry by saying "I see" and left it at that.  But no, he said nothing.  And I became confused as I considered his question, and then there was this silence, and he still had two books left to sign, and so I started babbling, which, if you know me, is Nothing New.  I'm hoping that I did it sotto voce enough that, with the noise of other people in line, he didn't hear anything I said. 

By the time he finished signing my books, I had gathered my scattered wits and was able to give him my hearty thanks.  I left the signing feeling pretty good, though, because I had asked that intelligent question, and I'd got four books signed by a talented author and illustrator.


Mr. Hammond, the phones are working

Day 15:  Phone

When I get a Room of My Own where I can keep my special book collection and other fine stuff, I'm going to have a dashed splendid phone on my semi-antique desk.  I just can't decide which one I like better.

 Replica of an 1892 phone with an Eiffel-Tower inspiration

Replica of a 1920s phone


Figures you'd be at the heart of this mess

Day 14:  Heart

He stole my heart when I was 14 years old, and never gave it back.


The blue ones don't do anything, they're just blue!

Day 13:  Blue

"Ah, the dainty little porker"

I thought I had a copy of Andrew Lang's Blue Fairy Book around, but it must be in storage.  So here's the next best thing, Tanglewood Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne.  I bet you didn't know that the author of The Scarlet Letter (which you may have worked really hard at not reading in high school) also wrote about gluttonous pigs.  Well, he did, in a retelling of Ulysses' visit to the palace of Circe.