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The Hammering Heart

Still beating.

Month

March 2010

This Year’s Ponchorita

Although it’s too shameful for homeless people to pester others on the streets asking for money in Japan, many large companies dispatch their most bottom-feeding staff members to the streets when business is slow, to do essentially the same thing. The only difference is that these bottom-feeding Japanese beggars do so by passing out crap with their company logo written on it, burdening you for the rest of your outing should you choose to accept the charges. Sometimes it’s just a little flyer, others, a pack of tissues. In the summer, some companies will hand out big plastic fans, the kind that you operate by hand so that the amount of heat banished is exactly equal to the amount of heat your body generates by doing the work. Some people like receiving these, but as advertisements go, they’re fairly large and unwieldy.

That said, I’ve been the bottom-feeding, walking advertisement before. Once. In my Nova days. Even if things were slow at the office, nobody was allowed to look unbusy, so they would give us busywork. The most dreaded variety of busywork given was “Tissue Distribution”. Most Novas were located above supermarkets, inside shopping malls, or adjacent to generally lively streets. Nova employees would thus be ordered to venture into these heavily populated areas, fully adorned in Nova garb (ponchos and such), and pass out tissues to the busy, disinterested denizens passing by.

I’ve known the pain of the bottom-feeding distributor, the desperation of trying to get rid of that one final tissue packet so you can hurry up and get out of the freezing wind. So generally I just take whatever people are passing out and chalk it up to empathy or someritanism or what-have-you. Yôko does this too, which I guess makes us Democrats or something, but the point is that we do it foremost as a charity to the hardworking.

Today, I parked my bicycle illegally in the lot behind the local supermarket as I do every day (to avoid parking at a pay garage) and walked through the supermarket to make it look like I might be a customer, again as I do every day, and I saw someone out front in a poncho, passing out something. The few customers in front of me soldiered on through without accepting whatever was being thrust at them, without even acknowledging the existence of the desperate distributors currently marauding them with scripted begging. Out of pity, mixed with the guilt of using the supermarket’s parking lot without making a purchase, I decided to be nice and accept the ponchoed beggars’ junk. Not that they were affiliated with the supermarket. Just standing in front of it. But you know, pay it forward and stuff.

I extended my hand–this is key–and smiled at one young, ponchoed woman. Let us dub her the Ponchorita. She extended her handed towards mine, tissue packet gripped. Or maybe it was just a piece of paper, I can’t be sure. I can’t be sure because she took a look at my face and then retracted her hand.

My eyes and cheekbones bulged as my jaw dropped and veins threatened to burst all across the forehead-and-neckal area. Not really, but I was amazed. Impressed, even. “What is it this time?” I thought. I kept walking to avoid anyone becoming embarrassed by any sort of interpersonal exchange that might not go exactly as dictated by the guidebook. When I’d reached a fair distance of about three yards, I looked back. They were employees from Aeon, one of the major English Conversation Schools in Japan, and one of Nova’s prime competitors back when Nova had money to squander on things like advertisements and tissues.

“A-ha,” I eureka’d. About a year ago, a different young Ponchorita from that same Aeon had indiscriminately handed me the tissues. I probably still had them somewhere. This time, our lovely Ponchorita had noted that I was white and thus probably didn’t want to learn English at Aeon. Last year, I had scoffed a bit at the silliness of me, an English teacher, being handed an ad for English lessons. But this year’s Ponchorita made me realize how wrong I was. This time felt much worse.

To explain, let us look at the instant replay, in slow motion. The key here, I repeat, is that I extended my hand. “I accept your desperate plea for business and will dutifully look to your tissues next time I wish to expel the mucus from my mucus-ridden, fifty-percent Jewish nose.” I said this, was looked at, judged, and subsequently denied. Slow motion. “At last, a taker!” the Ponchorita beamed gleefully. She extended her tissued hand, and for a sliver of a moment we were, beautifully, reaching for one another. Our eyes met and she made a grim realization. “This is not the face of a customer, this is the face of a teacher!” Glee transformed to shock to embarrassment. “ABORT! ABORT!” she screamed. Her hand snapped back like a snake from the proverbial English-teaching mongoose. This was one Ponchorita who didn’t want to tango. Baffled and with nothing but momentum to guide me, I too retracted my hand, arced it towards the itch on my head so as not to embarrass my hand, not to mention the itch, and feigned as though I had never even extended my hand in the first place. In a hair’s pluck of time, we’d lived out the fundamentals of a tragic romance. The pitiful damsel in distress. The compassionate male courter. A moment of cosmic, mutual longing–her for freedom, me for a snot rag. An epiphany–it was never meant to be. Withdrawal. Denial in all its futility. I was never that into her ass anyway.

Without even a memento of our encounter left to cherish, I was instead left with questions. What if I just wanted to pass the advertisement to an interested Japanese friend? Was that so unthinkable? Wouldn’t I have been exercising the same exact concept as the Aeon employees themselves? It would be one thing if I didn’t even look interested, but I extended my hand. What if I was a Frenchman thinking of learning some English? What if I was Dutch? They’ve been in Japan far longer than any English-speakers.

Granted the reality is that I’m an English teacher. But she sacrificed an opportunity to get rid of one more tissue packet in favor of an assumption, and on behalf of Dutchmen everywhere, I’m vaguely miffed.

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Metarap

I listen to rap and such every once and again, but the thing that always gets me, always repels me a bit like the proverbial bad breath of the proverbial coworker, is that so much of rap is comprised of metarap–that is, rap about rapping.

I mean, call it hypocritical if you must, because technically more than half my writing is about writing, or else about words. But I guess the difference lies in the ego-flashing involved. Someone totally new to rap might try it out one day and catch a line like:

I’m blickety-black, lay my raps like the mad hatter,
My rhymes is fresher than a caesar salad party platter,
Got more zest than my momma’s tuna casserole,
You can wolf it down whole, but my beats is much phatter.

For example, anyway. So someone would listen to this. What would they make of it? Their first reaction might be, “For someone acting so tough, he sure is obsessed with food.” My fault. But their second reaction might be, “This guy’s kind of a douche.” It’s no small feat and no small opportunity to release an album. And all this guy has to say, all he wants to express is how good he is at rapping? Can you imagine that kind of behavior anywhere else? Like a writer, where all he ever writes about is how good he is at writing? It’s like every damn rap song is a commercial for itself. But if the song is the commercial, then where’s the song? Where are your guts, rappers? Whatever happened to letting your work speak for itself? It’s like an architect who only designs giant block letters reading “I’m the shit” and idolic statues of himself. Or herself.

Ultimately I believe people should do what they want with their creative time. But it seems to me that the cosmos have dictated a direct correlation between the amount of masturbation in a song and the number of dollars that song earns the artist responsible. Artist? I’m not sure how this works or what moves people to make these purchases when they hear a guy stroking his proverbial schlong on the radio, but I think it’s that people just aren’t listening to the words. Consequently, the meaning only enters their heads on a subliminal, subconscious level. Before they even know what’s going on, they’ve got all these ideas about how much of a badass the guy is.

Best Buy Customer 1: “Who’s this G-Mac dude?”

Best Buy Customer 2: “I dunno, but I’ll bet dollars to donuts he’s blickety-black AND his rhymes is phatter than his own mom’s tuna casserole.”

Best Buy Customer 1: “Yes, let us bet some dollars on this. Post-haste. Donuts not currently being available.”

Best Buy Customer 2: “I concur, amigo. I concur.”

There you have it. Soundest theory I’ve ever presented.

P.S. Rappaz R N Dainja!

“In hip-hop’s atomic structure, I an the NUcleus that represents the GROUP we us.”

We us.

Footnotes

In my recent post, “Obsessive Linguistics Rant No. 29”, I concluded something to the effect of “Good translation relies heavily on lying.” Often, it’s impossible to translate something both accurately and deliciously. When you go for accuracy, you end up with incoherent oddities, the products of regional idioms and such. Raining cats and dogs avoids the status of “traumatizing imagery” only when you’ve been thoroughly desensitized to the concept. Going for delicious writing that is pleasing to the senses (whichever ones command reading) means replacing those oddities with something reasonably comparable in some capacity, or in certain not uncommon circumstances, with something you just made up. Take a simple example:

FUCK YOU.

Think about the literal meaning. Arguably, someone unfamiliar with the expression could potentially take it as a compliment. “Sex? Me? In the same breath? S’wonderful!”

Let’s say you’re a Japanese translator doing an Englsh-to-Japanese translation. “Fuck you!!” your source material screams. It goes without saying that this won’t be translated literally, by the token that a verb meaning “to fornicate” applied to the direct object “you” does not necessarily, or even intuitively, equate to a harsh epithet. The translator then has little recourse but to replace the English with the angry Japanese exclamation of his or her choosing. Any number of options are available to our young translator, just as there’s no quantifiable difference between “fuck you”, “you son of a bitch”, “you bastard”, “go to hell, scum”, and “Go off somewhere and eat shit, shiteater”. Herein lies the inexact science of translation. The good thing is that these are the moments in which translators may leave their personal stamp. When translating Zaregoto: Book 1, I opted for “crammit” over “shut up” or “be quiet” wherever feasible, figuring the editor would just tell me to stop if it wasn’t working. I’ve been meaning to see if any of that made it into the final print.

But with these personal stamps, this freedom of choice, comes an inevitable variance in nuance. There’s no quantifiable difference between “shut up” and “crammit”, but one is decidedly more colorful. Is this color justified, or is it the translator overstepping a translator’s bounds? Another time, at a loss for an appropriate English word, I tried to get away with using the Yiddish word kvell. The editor’s response? “Somehow I doubt a Yiddishism is appropriate here.” Fair enough, I guess. The majority of American readers out there might see a word like kvell and immediately formulate an image in their head of Barbara Streisand, or worse, one of her fans. Yiddish conjures too many specific images. But if you have to avoid conjuring specific images, that essentially means draining the translation of any color. Any color in the translation, after all, is a form of bias, and a reflection of the translator rather than the writer. Choosing “cram your pie chute” over “quit yer gum-bumpin'” is a conscious decision, but “be quiet” is neutral enough that it doesn’t call any attention.

Beautiful, good, or entertaining writing is all about the precise selection and arrangement of words. In translating two languages as disparate as English and Japanese, there is literally no way to translate both the functionality–the actual meaning–of the words and the precise beauty or sharpness of their selection and arrangement. The translator is tasked with becoming the writer and rewriting the book. A good translator (and writer) will produce something that reads well, but cannot produce something that reads the same. There’re simply too many gray areas, too many options. Japanese to English translation is almost never as simple as one-to-one. At least, not when we’re talking literature. I sometimes tell people I used to translate technical design documents for a complex satellite system and they say things like “Wow, how’d you translate those design documents, man?” But in reality, technical Japanese is the easiest kind of Japanese to translate because all it has to be is utilitarian. Sure it’s nice if you can make it read like poetry, too, but certainly that’s no requirement. Things like video games can get away with the blandness that often accompanies translation simply because no one expects the same level of storytelling from a game that they would from a book, or even a movie. Most games have stories, but precious few of them even approach anything like literature. And those that do tend to achieve so by smartly utilizing the other strengths of the medium, not just words. Comics, too, have much of their soul in the artwork, so that a lackluster translation (or even lackluster plot) may be forgiven if the pictures pull enough weight on their own (translating the Afro Samurai comic meant little more than trying to find convincing onomatopoeias to match the Japanese ones). But translating novels? That’s hard shit.

What I neglected to consider in my previous post was the option of footnotes. I like footnotes very much. I think all translated works of literature could benefit from footnotes, if not all translated media. The popular opinion seems to be that footnotes are appropriate in scholarly or classic literature, inappropriate anywhere else. Something like Tale of Genji would be thoroughly peppered with bonus little tidbits and explanations, while something modern, like a Murakami Ryû book, just tosses you into the ocean without any flotation device. Some fan-translated TV series, especially anime, include the video equivalent of footnotes, where little tidbits flash on screen a la pop-up video, but critics of this seem to be in the majority, arguing that the translators should have just found a way to make everything transfer seamlessly into the psyche of Western viewers.

This is wrong. Ever see that episode of Simpsons where Marge runs a pretzel franchise while her competitors, “The Investorettes”, reluctantly take over a pita franchise after the pitch lady changes “falafel”, “tahini”, and “pita” respectively to “crunch patties”, “flavor sauce”, and “pocket bread”? Surely a large portion of these pop-up video naysayers are those who watched that scene or could hypothetically watch that scene without realizing that it was a joke and that they were the butt of it.

The reason I like footnotes is that they allow for a more faithful translations, and you get the bonus tidbit to boot. Example!

He sat at the patula altar1 and nibbled his bukathi bread2 in solemn dignitude3.

These foreign words are best left in as is, because they present very specific imagery. You can’t just go around changing things to make a buck. Bukathi bread is bukathi bread, and it ain’t the same as wafers, puff crisps, or whatever else you might have up your sleeve. And a patula altar ain’t just a dinner table4. Let’s not insult our readers by formulating gross equations. Let them see it like it is.

1A wooden landing used mainly for placing divine ornaments of worship used in rituals honoring the respective gods of chastity, fertility, and banquet-havingness.
2A light, oily bread baked in a cupped plate forged out of bat shit.
3Not a word.
4I made all that stuff up though.

Inflated Lungs, Inflated Problems

Sometimes I get to panicking, in a way far more specific than I ever imagined panicking to occur in my more level-headed days. You hear about “panic attacks”, and I always thought this referred to an unfocused, chaotic sort of panic, like, “I’m freaking out and I don’t know why” kind of thing. But for me it takes more tangible form. “My breathing is weird,” I think. “Perhaps I’m having heart failure,” I advance. “Perhaps if I inhale giant, controlled gulps of air I can conquer cardiac arrest, and hey, that’s not so hard so why didn’t John Hughes, Michael Jackson, or any of the other millions upon millions of people who’ve died of cardiac arrest think of that?” I do this and it does nothing but to make my lungs hurt because I’m not breathing naturally, I’m breathing consciously. Obsessively.

I arose from bed this morning at the crack of one p.m., body aching with the atrophy that accompanies too much conscious breathing, which accompanies too much conscious living. Some things you’ve got to ignore and let take their course naturally. Breathing’s one of them.

In the last month or so, I’ve (re)discovered the wasteful futility of over-thinking decisions. The truth will reveal itself when you’re out picking apples and dancing jigs, not when you’re hunched over in the corner of your darkened den, gritting your teeth and gripping a magnifying glass. It’s true. I think.

Your brain, your problems, will inflate like badgered lungs, to the point of nullifying the initial purpose of rational thought. Next time a friend says “How you doing?” do yourself a favor ad answer “Hey not bad got any Kudos bars?” and be done with it. These things are not to be brooded upon.

They still make Kudos bars? Back in the day, that was my bar.

Epic Humor Fail at Japanese Bar

I was at some bar I’d never been to before with the bartender of another bar and another guy, and the topic of confessing one’s feelings to a girl came up.

“Greg,” one of them asked, “What’s a cool way to do it in English?”

I thought about it for awhile, but couldn’t think of a single serious answer. So I went with the old standby. “Well, this is far too corny to use in real life, but sometimes you hear the line ‘You complete me’ in movies and stuff. But I can’t stress enough how corny this is.”

“‘You. . .complete me,'” he repeated, stars glistening in his eyes. “You know, I like the sound of that! That’s really nice!”

“Yeah, well just remember what I said about it being co–”

“‘You complete me.’ I believe I’ll use that!”

“Oh, or another one you could use is ‘I have protection.’ That would be the better of the two, I’m quite certain of it.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Well, it means you have a condom.”

“. . .”

“Yeah, it’s supposed to be funny.”

“So you’d say that to a girl you liked?”

“Well yeah, I guess. I mean, it’s a joke.”

“Japanese girls would find that unattractive.”

“It’s a. . .right. But–”

“But ‘You complete me.’ Now that’s classy. I think you may have something there, Greg.”

I let it go at that, but surely nothing could mask my disappointment. I chalked it up to cultural differences yet again, but is that really what it was, or was it just not a funny line? I was going for one of those, so-bad-it’s-funny pick-up lines, like the infamous “Nice shoes” one. But it only works in response to the question “What’s a good way to express my feelings to a girl?”

Can someone back me up that it was decently funny, or am I on my own?

Is Japanese Curry Supposed to be. . . Indian food??

There’s no use belaboring the concept of Japanese curry. Sure there are ways to bring out the flavor better: Yoko adds chocolate to hers. Others use apple extract. Surely there’s room in this crazy world for a beer curry, too. But at the end of the day, it’s pretty much just brown and water. To combat this grim reality, Coco Ichiban-ya, the largest curry chain in Japan and possibly, the world, offers a variety of curry-complementing side dishes, such as salad, fried pork cutlets, and the almighty“Hurricane Potato”.

I was amazed to see that they’ve also started selling naan. Really? Are they seriously still trying to play the Indian angle? Granted curry is originaly Indian, the same way chocolate is originally Central and South American beans. It’s an Indian concept distilled to a point of Japaneseness, and the Indian curry restaurant across the street has all the proof you need. If CocoIchi is Indian food, then I’m like nine different nationalities at once. And if this is their way of desperately groping for credibility, then maybe they shouldn’t be advertising the naan right beside another ad for kei-chan curry. Because nothing screams “Japanese” quite like half-raw chicken neck meat. And I’m no India specialist, but I wouldn’t guess they’d be too big on flirting with salmonella, what with the sweltering heat and the masses upon masses of poor vegetarians with insufficient medical coverage. Just a guess.

Kei-chan curry. I think the US equivalent would be the club sandwich masala. Feh.

Strange Things I Found at the Supermarket

Let me smash your reality, as I do with every successive post.

A lot of things come to mind when one utters the phrase “Japanese food”. Things like “healthy”, “uncooked”, or “basically pulled out of the ground and eaten as is”. Japan’s most famous food, sushi, is–let’s face it–not all that creative. They had fish and rice. They killed the fish, cut it, and put it on the rice. Voila. To make it look more intentional, sometimes they tied it to the rice with seaweed, which they also had in abundance since it lines the entire freaking sea. That said, sushi sure is a healthy choice. If you can stand the taste and the concept, then it’s essentially a perfect food, near as I can tell. But to accuse Japanese cuisine of being healthy would be a massively unjust blanket statement, because let me tell you–monstrosities abound.

There’s a general stereotype both in Japan and in America, that Japanese food is healthy and leads to long lifespans, while American food is fried or consists only of hamburgers. And yet it’s in Japan that we see horrific inventions like the Pizza Hut Double Roll Pizza:

If the picture isn’t clear enough, it’s a pizza covered with mini-hamburgers and green beans, and the crust is stuffed with cheese-covered hot dogs wrapped in bacon. Sure, it’s an amalgam of American ideas, but blown out of control. An American would never buy this, unless it was done in irony, which young Americans seem obsessed with at this point.

Well, today at the supermarket I also found some ham-egg tempura, which is exactly what it sounds like. They’ve taken a hard-boiled egg, placed it on a big slice of ham, and deep fried the whole lot of it, forming a sort of precious jewel of cholesterol.

Forgive me for not having a better picture. It’s in the bottom left.

You’ve got to hand it to them for solidarity of concept. No use halfwaying it. Once you’ve wrapped an egg in ham, you’re already in for a cholesterol bath. Might as well get into it.

Then the other thing I found today probably isn’t that unhealthy, at least not in comparison. But it was kind of weird, so I might as well post it while I’m here.

It’s just a juice box, but it’s filled with “The Power of Black Vinegar”. It’s also got honey and apple juice added for flavor, but officially, it’s black vinegar that you drink. So curious was I that I actually went and bought some. Tasted like vinegar and apple juice, with just a spot of honey. The box recommends you drink black vinegar everyday, but I think Kool-Aid says the same thing about Kool-Aid.

Come to think of it, I suppose you’ve got to fault America a little for coming up with the “Ecto Cooler”, which for some reason has long outlived the popularity of the Ghostbusters franchise.

My Favorite Sandwich OR Giving Up Girls Who Cut Themselves

I don’t think I have writer’s block, but since LJ is kind enough to provide these daily topics, I thought I’d do this one.

I don’t have a specific favorite sandwich, but in general I’m a fan of sandwiches of the turkey-based varietem. This topic is lame.

The End.

OR

I suppose I could talk about the emotional sandwich in which I find myself as of late, mashed turkey-like between the proverbial white bread of not fully satisfying decisions, enslathered with the mustard of moral ambiguity. No sir, you can’t get shit like this at Quizno’s, coupon or no coupon. Unless you work there and are involved in some kind of all-Salvadorian, all-Quizno’s love triangle.

I suppose it’d be ungentlemanly to go into too much detail, but suffice it to say dating an emotionally fragile woman of a (vastly) different culture and, let’s face it, different generation, ain’t always cookies and sugar plums, for God’s sake. As an adult, I’ve become as optimistic a person as the cumulative elements of my being will allow, but occasionally, by which I mean frequently, I wonder about that fine line between practical optimism and just ignoring all the signs. I’ve always had the suspicion that I could get along with any girl who’s halfway decent. How hard is it to get along? But then the challenge of narrowing down “the one” becomes nearly impossible, since, how do you know when good is good enough? No relationship is perfect. There’s a classic Del Amitri lyric I like:

I suppose because there’s beautiful girls in this town, I’ll stay here til I’ve chosen one.
And I suppose love’s like a hunt, really, the hounds have fun until the fox gets bagged.
And not one girl in this town will ever fall in love with me; they’ll get dragged.

And then:

I suppose that it [love] grows like a tumor, spreads like a rumor,
Like the grass, grows an inch in every day
And I suppose that before I even know it,
The tide will start flowing and the drum beneath my jacket will say:
“You know you need her everyday.”
She is the moon and she showed me her face.
She is the house and she opened the gates.

Sometimes I get to feeling just like the cynical-yet-assertive Justin Currie of 1985, my Hammering Heart pushing me ever forward from one futile romance to the next, fully aware of my mistakes, but loving them more than any woman. We relish the conquest for love, the “hunt” for that ultimate goal, that happy ending, but at the end of the day, our hearts start hammering, the tide starts flowing, and our inner clocks start buzzing that it’s time to bag the fox, perfect or not. Then it’s up to us to make the most of it. Currie never makes that point, though he was unquestionably aware, even as a young man, that love often calls for a certain amount of denial. The closest thing to a love song on the band’s debut album is entitled “Deceive Yourself (In Ignorant Heaven)”.

So I’m living on my own now, but still tethered to a half-hearted romance. Meanwhile, I’ve met someone in town. She is the dark water we are warned not to drink. I’ve weaned myself into adulthood on this dark water. She’s got scars on her arms. Dozens of them, from years of habitual wrist-cutting. She’s on anti-depressive meds and has attempted suicide more times than the combined number of girlfriends I’ve had in the past who have attempted suicide, and that’s a lot. This is the sign of a worsening pattern. I say with no false modesty nor–believe me–intended boastfulness that I think she’s falling for me. I’ve been the right guy in the wrong place at the right time enough to know the signs. And although I’ve enjoyed her company so far, any woman who makes my current girlfriend look like a normal person can only serve to frustrate me in the grand scheme. Or maybe I’m just sick of the pattern, finally. Burned out. Because I know how it’ll go. She’ll reel me in and reel me in, then just when I’ve gone too far, sacrificed my security and my pride, she’ll get bored, or “cured”, and run off. These suicidal girls. They love their false alarms.

I’ll be honest, man. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. Living alone is great. But I can’t stand to be alone. I’ve got a good woman who demands nothing. Maybe all it takes to make things work out is for me to convince myself that they already are.

“Hammering Heart”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=65yFoFdauMg

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