Not So Lost in Translation

On Sunday, I attended a wonderful literary gathering entitled, “The Translated World: Reading and Discussion on Art and Translation.” It featured eight local writers, each assigned to discuss how they use translation in their writing. Those writers were Angela Carter, Stan Galloway, Shannon Curtis, Cliff Garstang, Indigo Eriksen, Chad Gusler, Susan Facknitz, and Paul Somers. The session was moderated by Michael Trocchia and held in a wonderful used book and record store in Staunton, Virginia, named Black Swan.

If you’re thinking the obvious meaning of translation–translating from one language to another–that’s only part of it. In the arts, translation also means bringing something from one context to another or bringing something non-linguistic to the linguistic in symbolic form.

The basic definition of translate is to move from one place to another, and that did bring to mind an archaic use of the word translate I read in some old English mystery or the other. However, as several of the writers pointed out translation has no fixed meaning and is relational to the person doing the translating.

Before the session started a few of us were talking about translating but in that basic sense of rendering one language into another. Imagine my chagrin when I discovered translation as a multi-layered concept. Then, I realized that in my writing, I take historical events and “translate” them into fictional stories, keeping the history intact but  changing the context in which the events get perceived.

Hey, I’m not a rube after all.

Perhaps the most vivid depiction of translation was Indigo Eriksen’s presentation, wherein she read a poem she had written and a local student of Vietnamese decent played the music the poem evoked in her. Duyen Phan played a one-stringed Vietnamese instrument called a dan bau. Google it and watch a video of someone playing it because I can’t being to “translate” how it’s played except to say it’s extraordinary. Then, Eriksen and Phan changed the translation by having Phan play the music and Eriksen read a poem the music evoked.

Dan Bau

A dan bau


Phan concluded by playing well-known western music on the dan bau, and, again, words are paltry in attempting to describe the ethereal sounds this instrument made in such young hands. This was a perfect physical representation of what translation means in art.

And did I mention I love where I live where such great opportunities for expanding my literary knowledge exist?

Staunton Jams

There are many positives to living in a small city, chiefly you have all the amenities you had in a larger one, just on a more manageable scale. I loved living in Alexandria, VA, where I was minutes away from all the dining and activities in Old Town and, when the traffic wasn’t a bitch, twenty minutes away from work and the Capital of the United States. Washington, DC, always invigorated me–still does–but the years of mismanaging traffic and growth made me seek something less complex for retirement.

Staunton, VA, fit the bill: a relatively stable population, a good local economy, magnificent views of the mountains, farmers markets where the food really is local, and plenty of cultural amenities. Several weeks ago, I decided on a whim one Thursday to go see “Hamlet” at the American Shakespeare Theatre right in downtown Staunton. I got a remarkable seat, within arm’s reach of the stage, which would not have been the case had I attempted the same at the Kennedy Center or even Arena Stage.

The area is also proud of its “roots music,” in fact, music of any kind. Staunton’s “main” street, which is really Beverly St., boasts many restaurants that feature excellent music. One restaurant has an outdoor concert area, which backs on condominiums in the old YMCA building. A few residents have complained, but I say they need to lighten up and enjoy the music. (Interestingly, the people complaining about the music, which is mostly bluegrass or folk, are “immigrants” to the area like myself. The difference is, I like loud music.) In the summer, in an area of the city called “The Wharf” because, I believe, there used to be a somewhat navigable river there, Staunton hosts “Shakin'” on Thursday evenings. These are all local bands or from nearby, and they always draw a crowd. Why, there are even carriage rides around Staunton–just like Old Town.

The unofficial end of the outside music scene in Staunton is “Staunton Jams.” Local officials cordon off a block of Beverly street, and from noon until ten at night bands rock the downtown. They range from headbangers (yes!) to new age to cover bands, and they are all good. Imagine blocking off a similar space in Old Town. When that is done for parades in Alexandria, the gridlock backs up miles on the Capital Beltway. In Staunton, that block was easy to circumnavigate, and there was no gridlock. I was able to park a block away, which wouldn’t have been the case in Old Town or DC.

I love my new city, and I hope I don’t turn into an anti-growth NIMBY, but all the things that appealed to me about living in Alexandria and near DC are here, but I can actually enjoy them without battling traffic and crowds. I’d just like it to stay that way, so if that makes me a NIMBY, I’ll deal.

Here are some pictures from Staunton Jams.

This is the extent of blocking off the street. In Old Town or DC
this would mean saw horses, jersey barriers, police tape,
and SWAT.
The stage is ground level, easy for the acts to move in and
out, but also great for interacting with the bands, who didn’t
mind if you shouted requests at them.
Yes, you could get this close to the stage, and in
this picture you can see some of the great downtown architecture.
The children had fun with sidewalk chalk, in this case,
road chalk. The children had lots of activities, and in
addition to taking a seat on the curb, you could bring your
own chairs to sit on–that would never go over in security-
conscious DC.