10 abril 2018

RIP Isao Takahata, magician extraordinaire 1935 - 2018

Obituary from The Guardian

For more than 50 years, Isao Takahata, who has died aged 82, played an instrumental role in forging the international reputation of Japanese animation. He was one of the two key figures behind Japan’s leading animation house, Studio Ghibli, which he co-founded in 1985 alongside Hayao Miyazaki, and the director of such poignant works as the antiwar film Grave of the Fireflies (1988) and the Academy award-nominated The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013), based on a 10th-century folktale and realised in a style influenced by traditional Japanese ink-wash painting.
Yet in contrast to the freewheeling and design-based approach of his more prolific colleague, Takahata never put so much as a pen to paper during the animation process. Nonetheless his sophisticated, character-driven animations explored a diverse range of themes and aesthetic styles, often confounding expectations as to what was possible within the medium. Grave of the Fireflies presented an emotionally harrowing account of a young brother and sister left to fend for themselves at the tail end of the war after their mother is killed in an allied bombing raid.

Adapted from a short story by Akiyuki Nosaka, the film contained several sequences drawn from Takahata’s own memories as a nine-year-old of the night-time raids over the city of Okayama, running barefoot through the night in his pyjamas with his sister. In Only Yesterday (1991), a Tokyo office girl’s nostalgic recollections of her childhood in the late 1960s bubble to the surface when she returns to the mountainous Yamagata area where she grew up.
There were more fantastical works too. His feature-length debut at Toei Animationstudios, The Little Norse Prince (1968), about a boy’s quest to defend his village from an evil sorcerer, anticipated the style and ambition with which Studio Ghibli would become associated. Pom Poko (1994) was a colourful tale of a community of tanuki, the mischievous, shape-shifting environmental guardians of Japanese folklore who take the form of a raccoon dog, as they rally together to protect their natural habitat from falling prey to a new-town development.
Born in Ujiyamada (now Ise), in Mie Prefecture, the youngest of seven siblings, Takahata moved with his family to Okayama in 1943. After graduating from Okayama prefectural high school, where his father was the headteacher, he enrolled at the University of Tokyo in 1954 to study French literature. It was at this time that he encountered the work of Jacques Prévert and, more crucially, a film that would change the course of his life, Paul Grimault’s animation Le Roi et l’Oiseau (1952; released in Japan in 1955), for which the French poet had written the screenplay. In 2006, Studio Ghibli would distribute Grimault’s extended director’s cut of the original film, while Takahata published a collection of his own translations of Prévert’s poetry into Japanese in 2006.
After graduation, in 1959 Takahata entered Toei Animation, a company that aimed to produce animations of the scope and quality of Disney. He worked as an assistant on the feature-length Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon (1963), before making his directing debut that same year with several episodes of the television series Ken the Wolf Boy (1963-65).
The younger Hayao Miyazaki joined the studio the same year, initially in the lowly position of an “in-betweener”, drawing the intermediary movements between the key images. Takahata and Miyazaki immediately formed a close friendship and working relationship that would endure for more than five decades.
Both shared the ambition to create more dramatic, spectacular and cinematic animation than the kind of children’s-oriented films and TV programmes the studio was increasingly focusing on. By the time of Takahata’s debut with The Little Norse Prince, Miyazaki had been elevated to scene design and key animation duties. Nevertheless, the production went over budget and over schedule, and failed to pull in audiences. Toei withdrew the film from distribution after just a couple of weeks and Takahata was demoted to television assignments.
Frustrated, the two left, along with another Toei animator, Yasuo Ōtsuka, working together to join A Production on the first animated television series of Lupin III, based on the popular manga series created by Monkey Punch, about the adventures of a suave swindler who is the grandson of Maurice Leblanc’s fictional master thief Arsène Lupin. Takahata also directed the short children’s film Panda! Go Panda! (1972) and its sequel the following year.

For much of the 1970s Takahata and Miyazaki would work together on animated TV adaptations of classics such as the popular Heidi, a Girl of the Alps (1974) and Anne of Green Gables (1979), with Takahata directing and Miyazaki responsible for the artwork.
Takahata returned to feature directing with Chie the Brat (1981) and an adaptation of Kenji Miyazawa’s Gauche the Cellist (1982), while working as a producer on Miyazaki’s breakthrough animated version of his own manga, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984).
The film’s huge success led to the establishment of Studio Ghibli, the name, due to Miyazaki’s love of aviation, taken from an Italian second world war plane, with Takahata producing Miyazaki’s first work for the new enterprise, Castle in the Sky (1986).
Takahata directed just five features at Studio Ghibli, beginning with Grave of the Fireflies. The critical and commercial failure of My Neighbours the Yamadas (1999), with its rough sketch style and vignette-based narrative derived from a popular newspaper cartoon strip about an everyday Japanese family, saw him move to a more behind-the-scenes role at the studio at the same time that Miyazaki’s films were gaining international acclaim.
He returned to directing in 2013 with the critically lauded The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. In 2016 he produced and provided significant creative input into Ghibli’s first non-Japanese production, The Red Turtle, directed by the Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit. Takahata’s suggestion that the film would be more powerful without dialogue turned out to be absolutely right.

08 março 2018

Dia Internacional da Mulher 2018

A mulher não é só casa
mulher-loiça, mulher-cama
ela é também mulher-asa,
mulher-força, mulher-chama

E é preciso dizer
dessa antiga condição
a mulher soube trazer
a cabeça e o coração

Trouxe a fábrica ao seu lar
e ordenado à cozinha
e impôs a trabalhar
a razão que sempre tinha

Trabalho não só de parto
mas também de construção
para um filho crescer farto
para um filho crescer são

A posse vai-se acabar
no tempo da liberdade
o que importa é saber estar
juntos em pé de igualdade

Desde que as coisas se tornem
naquilo que a gente quer
é igual dizer meu homem
ou dizer minha mulher


07 março 2018

From Book to Great Song

Did you know Kate was born on the exact same day and month as Emily Brontë, 140 years apart?

The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov’s Russian satire about the devil and the Soviet Union, first by the Rollling Stones, then by Guns' n 'Roses - my favourite:

The following text is from Billboard magazine.

George Orwell’s legendary dystopian novel 1984 was the central thesis for Bowie’s 1974 glam rock album Diamond Dogs. It’s present in tracks such as “Big Brother” and, of course, “1984.” It’s haunting, timely and ahead of its time -- just like the book it was inspired by.

Led Zeppelin are hardly the only J.R.R. Tolkien nerds in rock n’ roll history (Rush certainly gives them a run for their money) but The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit soundtracks could have very well been set to the sounds of “The Battle of Evermore,” “Misty Mountain Top,” and, of course, “Ramble On.” Gollum with that precious name drop from Jimmy Page and Robert Plant!

Like Papa before him, James Hetfield has had some things to say about war. In addition to the song “One” (which took cues from Dalton Trumbo’s film Johnny Got His Gun), Metallica paid homage to Ernest Hemingway’s honored Spanish Civil War novel with their own hard rocking take on who time marches on for.

For a children’s book released in 1865, Lewis Carroll’s legendary fantasy novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has some seriously trippy elements. The book, which raises some pretty heady questions about life and death and time and space (and, you know, features a hookah-smoking caterpillar), has inspired countless artists over the centuries. However, nothing captures the “Whooooooa” nature of Alice and her wild adventures quite like Jefferson Airplane’s psychedelic tune.  

Named after the seventh chapter of William Golding’s essential novel Lord of the Flies, U2 closed out their 1980 classic Boy with this rattling musical translation of youth and chaos.

21 fevereiro 2018

6 things you don't know about the AXOLOTL (yes, I love it)

From Mother Nature Network:

Amphibians aren't exactly charismatic, but, somehow, the axolotl attracts a lot of attention from people who may normally get squeamish around frogs. Perhaps it's their goofy smile and cute little frills that disarm people.
But these salamanders have a number of other special traits that may explain such keen interest all around, from scientists to conservationists to folks who just really love animals.
1. Axolotls stay 'babies' for their whole lives. Axolotls are neotenic creatures meaning they achieve sexual maturity without losing any of their larval features. So while many amphibians, like the salamander, will eventually develop lungs and head to land, axolotls keep their trademark feathery external gills and remain aquatic. This also means that their teeth never develop and that they must rely on a suction method to consume food.
2. Axolotls, however, can be given a little boost to become 'full' salamanders. Scientists discovered that if an axolotl is given a shot of iodine, it will experience a rush of hormones that triggers the animal's growth processes, and it will "grow up" and resemble a mature tiger salamander, their closest relative. However, this is not the axolotl's natural state. "Grown-up" axolotls are typically listless and die about a year after the injection.
A gray-black axolotl at the bottom of a tank Four genes affect the colors of axolotls. (Photo: Faldrian/Wikimedia Commons)
3. Axolotls are native to one spot in the world (and they may not even be there any longer). These aquatic amphibians are only found in the wild in one location: Lake Xochimilco, located in southern Mexico City. They once also resided in Lake Chalco in central Mexico City, but that lake was drained to avoid flooding. Xochimilco is only a shell of it former self, reduced to a series of canals. Given Xochimilco's diminished state, the axolotl is considered critically endangered, and a 2013 survey failed to find any specimens in the wild.
4. Axolotls come in a variety of color patterns. Four genes control the pigmentation of axolotls and can result in significant variation in their colors patterns. Typically, however, they're brown or black with specks of gold or olive. The white axolotls with black eyes are more common as a result of breeding among pet traders, so they are rarely seen in the wild.
A white axolotl with black-blue eyes and pink frills Axolotl have a huge genome that we are only now beginning to decipher. (Photo: Ulmus Media/Shutterstock)
5. Axolotls can regenerate pretty much any body part. A number of amphibians are capable of regenerating limbs, but axolotls take this habit up a notch by regenerating jaws, spinal cords, skin and even portions of their brain. Axolotls can also receive organ transplants and will not reject the new organ. Their regenerative abilities are obviously of interest to researchers hoping to understand how it works and if this amazing quality could translate to humans.
6. Axolotls have a genome 10 times the size of the human genome. Across organisms, genomes have plenty of junk, repetitive DNA that doesn't have a function, and the axolotl, with its 32 billion DNA bases, is no different. But this also means sequencing and isolating the genes that may help us understand the creature's regenerative abilities is difficult. A 2018 study in Nature finally made a small breakthrough, identifying five genes that aren't present in other reptiles, amphibians or humans but are active in regenerating limbs.

09 janeiro 2018


Amphibians are not often considered charismatic. The axolotl is different.

With its ear-to-ear grin, pink feathery headdress of gills and frantic underwater dance, this amphibian has captivated generations of admirers. Once revered by Aztecs, today the axolotl appears in many forms. It is a symbol for Mexican national identity in anthropologist Roger Bartra’s book La Jaula de la Melancolia (The Cage of Melancholy); Mexican muralist Diego Rivera includes axolotl swimming near a male figure’s genitals—the center of creation—in his mural “Water, Origin of Life.”

You may have heard of the axolotl because its image is so ubiquitous—and so, it seems, is it. Millions of the creatures thrive around the world. The axolotl is a popular pet, particularly in Japan, where they are bred so widely that they are also served deep-fried at some restaurants. They are also distributed so commonly to labs for research that they are basically the white mice of amphibians, thanks to their unique genetic profile and their potential to unlock the secrets of evolution and regeneration.

But few realize that, in nature, the axolotl is in peril. It is native only to Lake Xochimilco, a UNESCO World Heritage site outside Mexico City, where it has long played a role in Mexican tradition. And there, it is on the brink of extinction.

In 2006, the species was declared critically endangered due to habitat degradation and the pervasiveness of invasive fish in the lake, introduced decades ago in a well-intentioned attempt to create fisheries and alleviate food insecurity. In 2009, experts estimated that the axolotl population had fallen 90 percent in the past four years, a decline further exacerbated by urbanization. In 2015, scientists briefly believed that the critter might have gone fully extinct in the wild—only to find one a few weeks later.

When Luis Zambrano started working with the axolotl in 2002, he knew only a little about the curious critter’s cultural significance to Mexico and their popularity throughout the world. Zambrano, a biologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), had previously focused on food webs of fish; he started working with axolotls when fellow researchers in his lab asked if he would help them find axolotl in his by-catch. He was eventually instrumental in designating the axolotl as a threatened species and is now the leading expert on their conservation.

At first, Zambrano dreaded working the amphibians. Axolotls are frustratingly difficult to catch (besides that, there are very few left) and the local people initially didn’t seem keen to work with him, he says. But as he learned of the animals’ rich cultural and biological significance, he quickly grew entranced by the amphibians. He even found a connection to his prior research: as aquatic predators, axolotls are highly important in food webs. Zambrano started to explore how they interact with different species, how they predate, and how they are preyed upon.
“It was like starting with a bad date and falling in love,” he laughs now.

According to Zambrano, axolotls face a variety of threats in their natural habitat. They are only found in Lake Xochimilco, but Lake Xochimilco is suffering. The lake system is highly eutrophic, meaning it is so rich in nutrients from agricultural runoff that the booming plant life kills the endemic species by depriving them of oxygen. Invasive Asiatic carp and tilapia, introduced by the government to increase food security in underserved communities, have now supplanted the axolotl as the top predators, and are known for picking off the scrumptious juveniles.

Pollution from Mexico City is also an issue: strong storms can cause the city’s sewer system to overflow and release human waste into Lake Xochimilco. With their permeable amphibian skin, axolotls are particularly vulnerable to the ammonia, heavy metals, and other toxins carried by human excrement.

At the same time, Mexico City is rapidly expanding, and outlying areas like Xochilmilco become hotbeds for legal and illegal development. Developers view areas like Xochimilco opportunistically and have been grabbing up permits for large-scale developments in critical areas. As people migrate to Mexico City for work, those who cannot afford to live in the central areas look for places to live on the outskirts. Zambrano has observed that not only is the axolotl stressed by noise, but the rapid urbanization also presents untold threats to its only habitat.
The problem is, having captive populations of axolotls is not enough, says Randal Voss, a biologist at the University of Kentucky. Voss, who maintains a collection of axolotls for distribution to labs around the world as Resource Director of the Ambystoma Genetic Stock Center, knows the problem intimately. When he looks at his pedigree records, he knows the stock is inbred and thus has less genetic diversity due to the mating between related animals.

In one sense, a homogeneous stock can be good for science, as it is much more likely to facilitate reproducible studies. “On the other hand, it can compromise the health of a captive population,” Voss explains.

Captive populations are more vulnerable to catastrophe. Disease, or even an accidental fire, could wipe out an entire lab population almost instantaneously. Between the inbreeding and efforts to cross the axolotl with the tiger salamander to introduce some genetic diversity, the collection is also very different than the wild populations; not only are their genomes different, but they are highly domesticated and adapted to humans.

Researchers like Voss are working on sequencing the wild axolotl genome, but the sheer size of the genome and the lack of access to wild populations means they have not yet completed it. If the animals went extinct before they could complete the sequencing, they would lose the groundwork for many studies that use the axolotl’s unique molecular toolbox.

That’s key, because axolotls are one of the most important animals we have for studying regeneration. When an axolotl loses its limb or crushes its spine, it is able to regenerate the lost or damaged body parts with stunning perfection. Scientists have seen these creatures regenerate an entire limb in as little as 40 days, with immune cells called macrophages building up tissue until a new limb is formed. As scientists are now learning, certain microRNA groups give axolotls and other salamanders this superpower.

They aren’t unique in this trait. “Regeneration is not special or specific to axolotl,” Voss explains, “It’s just that the axolotl is the best model amongst all the salamanders for doing this research.” Moreover, axolotls have enormous embryos, the largest amongst amphibians, which are useful for stem cell research.
Yet perhaps the axolotl’s most crucial trait to scientists goes back to that adorable baby face. 

Few realize that the lovable, cotton-candy-pink amphibian is on the edge of extinction.

1920px-Ambystoma_mexicanum_at_Vancouver_Aquarium.jpg Axolotls are richly represented in captivity. These two, at the Vancouver Aquarium, are leucistic, meaning they have less pigmentation than normal.
Axolotls are neotenic, which means that unlike other amphibians, they reach sexual maturity without undergoing metamorphosis. Frogs, for example, are aged tadpoles; axolotls maintain their youthful, larval visage throughout all stages of their lives. Axolotls evolutionarily shed the thyroid hormone that triggers metamorphosis to adapt to habitats with low levels of iodine and other resources necessary for maturation.

And because axolotls don’t go through metamorphosis, they don’t depend on the seasons and other environmental factors for breeding. That means scientists can breed them throughout the course of the year. Axolotls may also offer insight to the genetic controls that regulate the switch in life for processes like puberty.

With the race against the clock growing ever pressing, the axolotl conservation efforts ramped up in the early 2000s with a proposed captive breeding and species reintroduction project. Richard Griffiths, professor of biological conservation at the University of Kent and leader of the axolotl conservation efforts for the Darwin Initiative, the UK Government’s funding program to assist with biological diversity projects in the developing world, recognized early on that reintroduction was a long shot given the threats to the species in Lake Xochimilco.

“There really wouldn’t be any point to doing captive breeding and reintroduction,” Griffiths explains. “One of the rules of captive breeding is you have to sort the threats out first.”

Thus, the team developed an action plan in 2004 to raise the profile of the axolotl in the local community through education programs, workshops, and public meetings. They focused on integrating the axolotl into the tourism in the community. One of Griffiths’s favorite projects was the training programs for romeros, or boatmen, to become guides for tours about the axolotl for tourists visiting the lake.

“It’s the best captive audience,” Griffiths jokes. “You have eight people in a boat, and they can’t get off!”
Local businesses like La Casita del Axolotl breed axolotls for sale and conduct tours with their guests and clients. “We work with the tourism that we see at the traditional piers,” explains Karen Perez, one of the managers of La Casita del Axolotl. “We give our guests an explanation about axolotls and what they can do for them.”

The local community was always essential for the axolotl conservation efforts. The difficult method of collecting axolotls—searching for subtle bubbles and casting the net just right—that is needed for censuses is hard to teach, but it is a skill that is passed down through generations of local fishermen. 
It wasn’t always smooth sailing in Xochimilco. “When I started to work in Xochimilco, it was not easy,” Zambrano says. Locals distrust scientists, who have historically exploited the community for data in the past without coming back or paying them sufficiently. Zambrano approached the relationship differently. He knew the community had all the knowledge he needed, so he offered his data collecting skills and credibility as a way for them to have their voices heard—and to help their livelihoods.

These efforts have scaled up in recent years as Zambrano involves local farmers in the process. Local farmers are encouraged to farm with traditional chinampas, or “floating gardens” constructed with aquatic vegetation and mud from the lake, to create sanctuaries for the axolotl. The productive and sustainable agricultural system does not use chemical pesticides—they have even experimented with grinding up invasive tilapia for fertilizer—and creates a semi-permeable barrier to provide refuge for the axolotl with clean, filtered water.

“We are not discovering anything new that wasn’t discovered 2,000 years ago,” Zambrano explains.
It may not be enough. “Despite all this work, there is no doubt that the axolotl is in decline within the larger system,” says Griffiths, pointing out that the threats to the lake system are simply too great. Zambrano is hopeful. He has seen a steady increase in interest in the axolotl, which he hopes to leverage into local government action. The first step, he says, is to save Xochimilco.

In Julio Cortázar’s 1952 short story “Axolotl,” the narrator writes that “the axolotls were like witnesses of something, and at times like horrible judges,” before turning into one himself. If history doesn’t change, experts warn, real life axolotls may witness is their own demise.

 “I think that we are in a threshold in this moment,” says Zambrano. “But if we follow the path that we have followed for the last 50 years where the government is trying to rescue Xochimilco through more human development, then [the axolotl] will definitely be extinct in the next 10 years.”

Smithsonian Magazine

07 janeiro 2018

The Remarkable Influence of "A Wrinkle in Time"

(My translation for Oficina do Livro)

When Léna Roy was 7 years old, her teacher read the first chapter of A Wrinkle in Time aloud to her second-grade class. After school, Léna ran to her grandmother’s house, which was around the corner from her school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, to finish the book on her own. She curled up in bed and devoured it. She felt just like the hotheaded, stubborn heroine Meg Murry, and took comfort in the fact that a flawed adolescent girl could save the world. “It was almost like your permission to be a real person,” Roy says. “You don’t have to be perfect.”
Millions of other adolescent girls (and boys) have made the same liberating discovery while reading A Wrinkle in Time. What’s different about Roy is that her grandmother happened to be Madeleine L’Engle, the book’s author, who revolutionized serious young adult fiction with her clever mash-up of big ideas, science fantasy and adventure—and a geeky girl action hero way ahead of her time.
Since its 1962 publication, Wrinkle has sold more than ten million copies and been turned into a graphic novel, an opera and two films, including an ambitious adaptation from the director Ava DuVernay due out in March. The book also kicked open the door for other bright young heroines and the amazingly lucrative franchises they appear in, from whip-smart Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter books to lethal Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games. Leonard Marcus, author of the L’Engle biography Listening for Madeleine, says Wrinkle “set the stage for the reception of Harry Potter in this country.” Previously, he says, science fiction and fantasy were suitable for high-end British authors like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien in Britain but in the States were relegated to pulp magazines and drugstore paperbacks.

Then came L’Engle, a 41-year-old writer who spent three months in 1959 writing the hard-to-categorize story that would become A Wrinkle in Time. While Meg Murry and her companions traveled through time and space to save her father, a scientist trapped by evil forces on a distant planet, readers had to wrap their minds around the fifth dimension, the horrors of conformity and the power of love. L’Engle believed that literature should show youngsters they were capable of taking on the forces of evil in the universe, not just the everyday pains of growing up. “If it’s not good enough for adults,” she once wrote, “it’s not good enough for children.”

Publishers hated it. Every firm her agent turned to rejected the manuscript. One advised to “do a cutting job on it—by half.” Another complained “it’s something between an adult and juvenile novel.” Finally, a friend advised L’Engle to send it to one of the most prestigious houses of all, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. John Farrar liked the manuscript. A test reader he gave it to, though, was unimpressed: “I think this is the worst book I have ever read, it reminds me of The Wizard of Oz.” Yet FSG acquired it, and Hal Vursell, the book’s editor, talked it up in letters he sent to reviewers: “It’s distinctly odd, extremely well written,” he wrote to one, “and is going to make greater intellectual and emotional demands on 12 to 16 year olds than most formula fiction for this age group.”

When it debuted, not only was Wrinkle widely praised—“wholly absorbing,” said the New York Times Book Review—but it won the Newbery Medal, the most important award in children’s lit. “The almost universal reaction of children to this year’s winning book, by wanting to talk about it to each other and to elders, shows the deep desire to understand as well as to enjoy,” said Newbery committee member Ruth Gagliardo. American publishers, initially resistant to genre bending, soon were producing their own teen epics, including Lloyd Alexander’s Newbery-winning Chronicles of Prydain books and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series.

L’Engle went on to write more than 40 books, including works of nonfiction and poetry, though none was as acclaimed as Wrinkle. None was as controversial, either. Libraries and schools frequently banned the novel because of its entanglements with religion. In one passage, Jesus Christ is compared to Shakespeare, Einstein and the Buddha—a heretical notion to some authorities. On the American Library Association’s list of most “frequently challenged” for the 1990s, Wrinkle was No. 23.

Among the countless girls changed forever by L’Engle’s book was Diane Duane, who first read it as a 10-year-old in 1962. She’d consumed all the science fiction and fantasy at her local library but had never encountered anyone like Meg. “Finally,” Duane recalls, “here was a girl character being treated as if her take on what was going on around her, her analysis and her emotional reactions to the things that were happening around her, were real and were worth paying attention to.” Today Duane is hailed as the best-selling author of So You Want to Be a Wizard and other titles in her Young Wizards fantasy series, which features a young female protagonist, Nita. “All the time L’Engle’s shadow—and a very bright shadow, it has to be said—was lying over that work for me,” she says. “It would have been very difficult for me to do that writing without thinking about her a lot.”

Léna Roy, who is a writing teacher in New York and the co-author of an upcoming biography of her grandmother, Becoming Madeleine, doesn’t remember L’Engle ever calling herself a feminist, though she was proud of being what Roy calls a “trailblazing woman.” L’Engle had spent her years at Smith College editing the campus literary magazine alongside Betty Friedan, who later penned The Feminine Mystique. L’Engle herself suggested it was easy to make her protagonist a strong girl. “I’m a female,” she once said. “Why would I give all the best ideas to a male?”

Now the movie adaptation of Wrinkle is poised to make L’Engle’s creation even more groundbreaking. DuVernay, the first woman of color to direct a live-action film with a production budget over $100 million, intentionally cast nonwhite actors in lead roles. (Storm Reid will play Meg, and Deric McCabe will play her younger brother Charles.) In 1962, it was radical to see a young girl in charge. Now a new generation of black girls (and boys) can see themselves onscreen and dream of saving the world.

The Smithsonian Magazine

Pathological consumption, NOT for 2018!

George Monbiot:

There’s nothing they need, nothing they don’t own already, nothing they even want. So you buy them a solar-powered waving queen; a belly button brush; a silver-plated ice cream tub holder; a “hilarious” inflatable zimmer frame; a confection of plastic and electronics called Terry the Swearing Turtle; or – and somehow I find this significant – a Scratch Off World wall map. 

They seem amusing on the first day of Christmas, daft on the second, embarrassing on the third. By the twelfth they’re in landfill. For thirty seconds of dubious entertainment, or a hedonic stimulus that lasts no longer than a nicotine hit, we commission the use of materials whose impacts will ramify for generations. 

Researching her film The Story of Stuff, Annie Leonard discovered that of the materials flowing through the consumer economy, only 1% remain in use six months after sale(1). Even the goods we might have expected to hold onto are soon condemned to destruction through either planned obsolescence (breaking quickly) or perceived obsolesence (becoming unfashionable). 

But many of the products we buy, especially for Christmas, cannot become obsolescent. The term implies a loss of utility, but they had no utility in the first place. An electronic drum-machine t-shirt; a Darth Vader talking piggy bank; an ear-shaped i-phone case; an individual beer can chiller; an electronic wine breather; a sonic screwdriver remote control; bacon toothpaste; a dancing dog: no one is expected to use them, or even look at them, after Christmas Day. They are designed to elicit thanks, perhaps a snigger or two, and then be thrown away. 

The fatuity of the products is matched by the profundity of the impacts. Rare materials, complex electronics, the energy needed for manufacture and transport are extracted and refined and combined into compounds of utter pointlessness. When you take account of the fossil fuels whose use we commission in other countries, manufacturing and consumption are responsible for more than half of our carbon dioxide production(2). We are screwing the planet to make solar-powered bath thermometers and desktop crazy golfers. 

People in eastern Congo are massacred to facilitate smart phone upgrades of ever diminishing marginal utility(3). Forests are felled to make “personalised heart-shaped wooden cheese board sets”. Rivers are poisoned to manufacture talking fish. This is pathological consumption: a world-consuming epidemic of collective madness, rendered so normal by advertising and the media that we scarcely notice what has happened to us.

In 2007, the journalist Adam Welz records, 13 rhinos were killed by poachers in South Africa. This year, so far, 585 have been shot(4). No one is entirely sure why. But one answer is that very rich people in Vietnam are now sprinkling ground rhino horn on their food or snorting it like cocaine to display their wealth. It’s grotesque, but it scarcely differs from what almost everyone in industrialised nations is doing: trashing the living world through pointless consumption. 

This boom has not happened by accident. Our lives have been corralled and shaped in order to encourage it. World trade rules force countries to participate in the festival of junk. Governments cut taxes, deregulate business, manipulate interest rates to stimulate spending. But seldom do the engineers of these policies stop and ask “spending on what?”. When every conceivable want and need has been met (among those who have disposable money), growth depends on selling the utterly useless. The solemnity of the state, its might and majesty, are harnessed to the task of delivering Terry the Swearing Turtle to our doors. 

Grown men and women devote their lives to manufacturing and marketing this rubbish, and dissing the idea of living without it. “I always knit my gifts”, says a woman in a television ad for an electronics outlet. “Well you shouldn’t,” replies the narrator(5). An advertisement for Google’s latest tablet shows a father and son camping in the woods. Their enjoyment depends on the Nexus 7’s special features(6). The best things in life are free, but we’ve found a way of selling them to you. 

The growth of inequality that has accompanied the consumer boom ensures that the rising economic tide no longer lifts all boats. In the US in 2010 a remarkable 93% of the growth in incomes accrued to the top 1% of the population(7). The old excuse, that we must trash the planet to help the poor, simply does not wash. For a few decades of extra enrichment for those who already possess more money than they know how to spend, the prospects of everyone else who will live on this earth are diminished. 

So effectively have governments, the media and advertisers associated consumption with prosperity and happiness that to say these things is to expose yourself to opprobrium and ridicule. Witness last week’s Moral Maze programme, in which most of the panel lined up to decry the idea of consuming less, and to associate it, somehow, with authoritarianism(8). When the world goes mad, those who resist are denounced as lunatics. 

Bake them a cake, write them a poem, give them a kiss, tell them a joke, but for god’s sake stop trashing the planet to tell someone you care. All it shows is that you don’t.

3. See the film Blood in the Mobile. http://bloodinthemobile.org/
7. Emmanuel Saez, 2nd March 2012. Striking it Richer: the Evolution of Top Incomes in the United States (Updated with 2009 and 2010 estimates). http://elsa.berkeley.edu/~saez/saez-UStopincomes-2010.pdf

10 dezembro 2017

Translators are people who read books for us.

Gained in Translation - Tim Parks for the NYRB

“But isn’t it all just subjective?”
The scene is a Translation Slam, so-called. Two translators translate the same short passage and discuss their versions with a moderator in front of an audience of other translators. “Slam” suggests violent struggle and eventual victory or defeat. In reality, it’s all very polite and even protective. There will be no vote to decide which version wins. Nobody is going to be humiliated.

All the same, the question of which choice is better comes up again and again. Right now, we’re looking at the difference between “group” and “phalanx” in the phrases “commander of a group of loyal knights” and “commander of a phalanx of faithful men”—both translations of the Italian “comandante a una schiera di fedeli.”

The translator who has used “knights” explains that since the “commander” in question is King Arthur, the “fedeli” or “faithful” whom he commands would surely be the Knights of the Round Table. The translator who has used “phalanx” explains that the Italian word “schiera,” as he sees it, means men arranged in a particular formation or order. And a phalanx would be such a formation.

What about “faithful” and “loyal”? “Faithful” alliterates with “phalanx.” “Loyal” commonly collocates with “knights,” and perhaps borrows a corroborating aura from its assonance with “royal.”

We discuss all this for some time, until someone in the audience objects, “Isn’t it all just subjective?” Meaning, this debate is pointless. De gustibus non est disputandum. Once the literal meaning has been more or less respected, a translation choice, or indeed any literary usage or style, is merely a question of personal taste. You like it or you don’t.
The objection is persuasive, but is it true that aesthetic preferences are “just subjective?” We need to put some pressure on this idea. Does such a description match our experience of books, theater, films, and music? Not all our dealings with books are arbitrary. Young children tend to like a certain kind of story, a certain manner of storytelling, then they “grow out of it.” This or that narrative formula begins to seem too simple, perhaps. Adolescents might enjoy romance or fantasy fiction, then their accumulating experience leads them to look elsewhere. 

Two facts seem obvious here. Any element of choice is limited. The child cannot help first liking such and such a story, then eventually putting it aside. When your mother reads you Where the Wild Things Are, you are immediately hooked. Or not. So it’s true that one simply likes or doesn’t like something. You can’t choose to respond positively to “Earth hath not anything to show more fair” if it doesn’t grab you. And if you like Fifty Shades of Grey, you like it, even though it might be convenient to say you don’t.
But it’s also true that when preferences shift they do so for a reason, if not as a result of reasoning. Growing up, one brings more context and experience, more world, to one’s reading and this “more” changes one’s taste. We might even say this new experience changes the person and with the person the book. At this point, earlier preferences will likely be disparaged, or fondly set aside.

From this observation, it’s a small step to the idea of education and learning. I deliberately, systematically, increase my experience and knowledge in order to have a richer encounter with what I read. The appropriateness of this approach is obvious when, say, reading in a second language: I know enough French to read Bonjour Tristesse, perhaps, but not enough to appreciate Proust. Or when reading things from other times: I pick up The Faerie Queene and am soon aware that the experience would be less frustrating if I knew more about the period and the genre. Our responses and preferences are not arbitrary; they depend on what we bring to what we read or watch.

Does this mean we can say that this preference is better than that? Or that this critical reading is superior to another? Let’s go back to the Translation Slam. The passage we’re looking at is the opening, three short paragraphs, of L’isola di Arturo, by Elsa Morante, which was a major bestseller when it was published in 1957. The first thing that strikes the reader is the way a highly elaborate style, packed with parentheses, subordinates, and rhetorical outbursts, has been placed in the mouth of someone remembering what it was like to be a little boy. Here is an unapologetically literal translation of the first paragraph, to give you an idea:
One of my first boasts had been my name. I had soon learned (it was he, it seems to me, who was first to inform me of it) that Arturo is a star: the fastest and brightest light of the constellation of Boötes, in the northern sky! And that what’s more this name was also borne by a king of ancient times, commander of a band of loyal men: who were all heroes, like their king himself, and by their king treated as equals, like brothers.
As an evocation of childhood, this is hardly Huckleberry Finn or The Catcher in the Rye. Or even David Copperfield. How to deal with it? One of the translators felt that the challenge of the Slam was to translate the passage in isolation, so he hasn’t, he tells us, looked up the novel or read any further. In the Italian, he finds the style over-elaborate in places; it needs reining in, he feels, because English doesn’t do these things.

The other translator says she initially felt disoriented by this extravagant voice and so found a copy of the novel and read on. What did she find? The narrator tells of his lonely boyhood on the island of Procida off the bay of Naples. His mother died at his birth. His father—who turns out to be the “he” of the second sentence—is mostly absent. Aided by a couple of elderly peasant folk, Arturo grows up in a house mysteriously known as the House of Rascals, in the company of a cheerful dog. The house is full of classical literature, myths and heroes and epic wars, which become the boy’s only education; so he spends his days in a fantasy world imagining grand exploits, beside his dog, in his Mediterranean paradise, yearning for the presence of a father, who, Ulysses-like, is always traveling. Alas, with time Arturo will discover that the reality behind the House of Rascals and his father’s absence is depressingly squalid. The book ends as he abandons his boyhood island for the continent of adulthood.

The elaborate nature of the style aligns with pleasurable illusion, pretensions, posturings, and boyish boasts that are inflated only to be later deflated and disappointed. Looking at the translations, one of the slammers has talked about being “proud of my name”; one has kept the idea of boasting. One has talked about Arturo being “the name of a star”; one has stayed closed to the original and said, “Arthur is a star.” One has simplified and shortened the paragraph; one hasn’t. Perhaps we can’t decide which of these two brief translations is better in absolute terms, as a passage in English, but we might begin to sense which is more in line with the book’s pattern of inflated illusion followed by disillusionment. And if we want to translate a book because we admire the original, perhaps that pattern is worth keeping. Fortunately, to warn us what she has in store, Morante gives us the emotional cadence of her story in miniature right on the first page. Thus the second paragraph, again in merely literal translation, begins:
Unfortunately, I later came to know that this famous Arturo king of Britain was not definite history, just legend; and so I left him aside for other more historical kings (in my opinion legends were childish things).
It is exactly the learning process we mentioned before. Discovery of the problem of historicity has altered Arturo’s appreciation of his name. But no sooner has the Camelot boast been shot down than the boy launches into another self-aggrandizing reflection:
But another reason, all the same, was enough to give, for me, a heraldic importance to the name Arturo: and that is, that to destine me this name (even without knowing, I think, its titled symbols) had been, I discovered, my mother. Who, in herself, was no more than an illiterate girl; but more than a queen, for me.
Of course, the verb “destine” is rarely used, aside from the past participle “destined,” and won’t do in a final translation, but I put it in this literal version to suggest just how much the narrator is puffing things up. One of our two translators felt this long sentence (which, in spite of the period, actually continues in the relative clause “Who, in herself,…”) was really too much; it was overheated, he thought, and manically indirect. In fact, both translators have split it into three, more standard segments. As if to show, though, that the overheating was precisely the point, Morante’s next paragraph again begins with a splash of cold water. Translated literally, we have:
About her, in reality, I have always known little, almost nothing: since she died, at the age of not even eighteen years, in the very moment that I, her first son, was born.
Have we done anything to counter the objection that response to translator choices are “just subjective,” and so beyond discussion? If we turn to the published translation (1959; by Isabel Quigly), we notice that our three paragraphs have been reduced to two; the boy’s disappointment that King Arthur was only legend is now included in the first paragraph, while the second begins with the fact that it was his mother who chose the name. At the same time, the register in this translation shifts radically toward something colloquial and recognizably boyish: “ages ago there was some king called Arthur as well… I thought legends were kid’s stuff… a sort of heraldic ring.”

Here we have neither the rhetorical puffing-up of the boyish boast, nor the paragraph interruption that underlines its deflation. This observation is not subjective, any more than it is subjective to say that “phalanx” is a word generally used in the context of ancient Greece rather than ancient Britain. It’s true, though, that we might find, in spite of these observations, that we prefer Quigly’s version. There is no reasoning that can make us like or dislike something. But with the knowledge we now have of the original, we might also wonder how Quigly’s different, more laconic voice can possibly be made to fit with the story that is going to be told. Just as, once it is pointed out, you might start to feel that Arthur’s knights are not the 300 Spartans.

Translating literature is not always more difficult than translating other texts—tourist brochures, technical manuals, art catalogues, sales contracts, and the like. But it does have this distinguishing characteristic: its sense is not limited to a simple function of informing or persuading, but rather thrives on a superabundance of possible meanings, an openness to interpretation, an invitation to measure what is described against our experience. This is stimulating. The more we bring to it, the more it offers, with the result that later readings will be different from the first in a way that is hardly true of a product description or city guide.  

Translators are people who read books for us. Tolstoy wrote in Russian, so someone must read him for us and then write down that reading in our language. Since the book will be fuller and richer the more experience a reader brings to it, we would want our translator, as he or she reads, to be aware of as much as possible, aware of cultural references, aware of lexical patterns, aware of geographical setting and historical moment. Aware, too, of our own language and its many resources. Far from being “just subjective,” these differences will be a function of the different experiences these readers bring to the book, since none of us accumulates the same experience. Even then, of course, two expert translators will very likely produce two quite different versions. But if what we want is a translation of Tolstoy, rather than just something that sounds good enough sentence by sentence, it would seem preferable to have our reading done for us by people who can bring more, rather than less, to the work.