Saturday, September 19, 2009


On a recent trip to Seattle I learned that a Capitol Hill landmark, Vivace, had been knocked down and the lot paved over. It's being done in the name of light rail mass transit, so I can't complain too much. I'm facing similar changes in Logan, where building seems to go on at a furious pace, in spite of what I'm told is a pretty serious recession. There's a MONSTER new Walmart in Cache Valley now on the south end of town. It's easily the ugliest building I've ever seen, with the other monster Walmart a few miles to the north running a close second. There's no light rail planned for Logan but at least it's good to know that everyone's consumer needs are being met here in the Intermountain West.

But the loss of Vivace was a blow. The coffee there was outstanding and it had a tradition and a vibe that the new place a few blocks further up Broadway just can't replace. The old location wasn't perfect. For one thing, the restroom hadn't been cleaned since the King Dome was demolished. If you anticipated a call of nature, it was best to bring a hazmat suit. A little inconvenient, but it just added to the legend. Legendary or not, many buildings along Broadway were knocked down during the year I was in Germany. By contrast, during the year I'm in the US, I anticipate that no buildings in Essen will be razed. Even with the current renovation of the Bahnhof and other preparations for the 2010 Kulturhauptstadt celebration there's just very little demolition. Germany is stable. People stay put. For the most part, the new must accommodate the existing, and where it doesn't, such as the new Limbecker Platz development in Essen, most people are not pleased. There are some people in Logan who are not pleased by our second Walmart store, but mostly it's just me and a few other malcontents out on the fringe.

On the road back to Logan from Seattle I unknowingly stopped at what is apparently another Washington coffee monument. It was very early on Sunday morning and I had pulled off I-82 in Yakima to find some breakfast. Nothing seemed to be open along the main street and I was ready to get back on the highway when I noticed a little hut in a parking lot with cars idling in front of it. It was an espresso drive-thru called Dreamgirls, according to the Yakima Herald, one of several businesses springing up that people are calling "Sexpresso stands." The concept is simple: your coffee is served to you by a young woman in her underwear.

I think this may be a bonus for some, but I found it just a little disconcerting. When you give your order, where are you supposed to look? Is it impolite not to leer? Should you hand the payment for your purchase directly to the barista, or just tuck it into her waistband? Is it appropriate to make casual conversation, such as "Isn't it hard to walk with your underpants all wedged up in your butt crack like that?" I teach life drawing from time to time and have no particular problem with naked people. But then, they're usually not making me a double latte. The bottom line (no pun intended) is that Dreamgirls was open and the coffee was excellent: what's to complain about?

When I returned to Logan I was curious about the Dreamgirls and gave them a quick google. There were news stories and blog postings listed. Lots of photos and they have a MySpace page. I visited the page and was suitably underwhelmed, but they do have their fans and some even leave them comments. Here's an example of a recent one:


I guess that just about sums it up for me too.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Titles Translated


In his book, Bambi vs. Godzilla, David Mamet claimed that Shadow of a Doubt was Alfred Hitchcock's best film. I watched it again this past week and I'm ready to agree. From the opening scenes of Newark with the Pulaski Skyway looming overhead to the gee-whiz innocence of Santa Rosa, California, I was completely captured by Hitchcock's meticulous control of each image and the economy with which he drives the story. Filmed during the war years, I was curious to see if the film was released in Germany and looked it up in the IMDb (Internet Movie Database.) Yes, it was shown in Germany, but only after 1947 when it was released as Im Schatten des Zweifels, a sensible title and essentially a direct translation of the original. That kind of common sense is more often the exception than the rule.

About a year ago I wrote a post about another film, Krabat. It's based on a wonderful children's book written by Ottfried Preußler that's a classic in its original German, but virtually unknown in the English speaking world. I wondered why, until I heard the title of the English version: The Satanic Mill. My guess is, the books were probably brought directly to the landfill, still hot from the presses. The original title, Krabat, is simply the name of the main character. What was wrong with that? Were they trying to appeal to some previously untapped diabolical niche market?

Titles often suffer in the other direction too. The German market seems to prefer titles that explain and clarify as opposed to the American preference for the laconic. So, while on this side of the Atlantic movies are trending more and more toward one word titles,  in Germany those titles are often given a little boost.  The 1989 James Belushi film, K9, becomes Mein Partner mit der kalten Schnauze in the German speaking world.  Hitchcock's 1948 film,  Rope, became Cocktail für eine Leiche in German.  And the 1980 comedy Airplane was translated as Die unglaubliche Reise in einem verrückten Flugzeug. A translation like that doesn't do anything to dispel the stereotype that Germans have no sense of humor.

Sometimes it seems as though translated titles are a reasonable response to the expectations and conventions of the target culture, but often they're just a mystery to me. When Disney made Erich Kästner's German classic, Das doppelte Löttchen, into the Parent Trap in 1961, the name change probably made a lot of sense. After all, would the average American know that Lotte or the diminutive, Löttchen, is a standard girl's name in German? The Parent Trap is a snappy update and makes the title accessible in English. Then the film was dubbed into German and released under what may be the
clumsiest title I ever heard: Die Vermählung ihrer Eltern geben bekannt. Does the passive voice really set the tone we want for a children's comedy? When Disney remade the Parent Trap in 2002, German translators had a chance to get it right and title the film Das doppelte Löttchen, but instead they opted for Ein Zwilling kommt selten allein. OK, I'll admit, it's an improvement over the first attempt (it was a pretty low bar) but does, "A Twin Comes Seldom Alone", really hit the nail on the head? Ich don't think so.

Mostly I enjoy the translation of concepts from one language to another. I looked up the English expression "dumb down" today in an Eng/Deutsch on-line dictionary and discovered the wonderful expression, "das geistige Niveau herunterschrauben." I can't wait to use it in a sentence.  But bad titles always bring out my inner curmudgeon. The American title, Vanilla Sky, for the Spanish film, Abre los ojos, just seems dumb to me. Also, bad titles often reveal too much about a film. The German title for Hitchcock's  Vertigo: Vertigo - Aus dem Reich der Toten, is a good
example. The viewer needs to be puzzled by the events of Hitchcock's story and the German additional subtitle, "from the empire of Death," changes the viewer's experience of the film for the worse. Ultimately, I think we can lay the blame for all these bad titles at the door of marketers that don't trust their consumers.  Hitchcock had faith in his audience and his audience rose to his expectations. With too many titles, marketers try to "dumb down" the content  and almost always to the detriment of the film or book being translated. Luckily, the making of bad titles seems to have its own built in punishment and is therefore probably self limiting. Just ask the English language publisher of Ottfried Preußler's Krabat as they sit on 100,000 unsold copies of The Satanic Mill. Sie haben die geistige Niveau des Titels herunterzuschrauben versucht und sind selber schuld.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

I've been working on a new website since last January that would offer an overview of my work as a painter. My first website was developed back in the mid 1990's: the dark ages of the Internet, and I needed the services of specialized technicians to update it. The new site is flexible. I can configure it and customize it myself and, most importantly, keep it up to date with my newest work. The site is ready to go live now and includes some of the work I did in Germany this past academic year. I'm currently re-stretching the paintings from the sabbatical for an upcoming show and as I get them stretched, I'll be photographing any that were overlooked in the confusion of the move. As those images are ready, I'll be posting them too. Please visit and let me know what you think.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

When words fail

I still enjoy keeping up with events in Germany even though I'm living back in Utah now. In previous years that could be a little tricky, but the miracle of high speed Internet has made it almost too easy. I can remember years ago, sitting in front of a tinny short-wave radio trying to raise something interesting on Deutsche Welle and having to settle for a listing of ship sailings out of Bremerhaven. Now WDR offers all of their audio content free on their web page. I enjoy the music on Funkhaus Europa, but I also like listening to the news on WDR 2. Sometimes I have trouble choosing among all the great options and it doesn't make much sense to try to listen to them both at the same time. WDR 5 offers a lot of their content as podcasts and so I don't always have to choose. Today, for example, I listened to a good piece that was broadcast yesterday as a part of their Auf Ein Wort feature.

Today, September 1, is the 70th anniversary of Hitler's invasion of Poland and the Polish/German relationship was the subject of yesterday's Auf Ein Wort. In the Ruhrgebiet it's common to meet people with Polish surnames. Mostly, their grandfathers or great grandfathers came in the past to work the coal mines or in heavy industry. I know Poles who visit Germany regularly and Germans with Polish friends and in-laws. So on the surface, it might appear that the relationship is an easy and friendly one, but then again, it's hard to forget the speed and efficiency with which the German Wehrmacht invaded and occupied Poland. And no other victim of Nazi aggression has a stronger reason to complain. Fully ten percent of the Polish population died in the war. It's not a thing many are likely to quickly to forget, nor would we expect them too.

Most of what I know about the invasion of Poland comes from my multiple readings of Art Spiegelman's graphic novel, Maus. I read it first in German as a part of, what in my house, we call the "comic book method" of language study. I only got about 40% of the text that first time through, but the pictures helped a lot. As a rule I don't usually read books that are written in English in translation but this book is probably a good exception to that rule. The main character is Vladek, Spiegelman's father, and his difficulty with German syntax comes across as more genuine in German. Plus, the Nazi/cat soldiers are scarier auf deutsch.

German Chancellor Willy Brandt made a famous gesture of reconciliation with Poland in 1970 when he fell to his knees after placing a wreath at the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto, but it wasn't well received by everyone at home. According to a survey done by Der Spiegel after the event, 48% of West Germans felt the gesture was over done. His opposition tried to use the symbolic action against him in a vote of no confidence held by the Bundestag in 1972 and Brandt survived by only two votes. If Poles want to see that as a fresh affront though, they should also remember that a short time later Brandt won re-election by a landslide: the best showing ever by his party (SPD) in a national election.

According to Wolf Scheller, the author of the Auf ein Wort piece I listened to, we shouldn't have any over ambitious expectations for friendly relations between this current generation of Germans and Poles. German and Polish catholic bishops celebrated a mass together today to commemorate the 1939 invasion, but the wounds are deep. Scheller suggests that it will take a new generation of citizens and that Germans and Poles need to get to know one another better for true reconciliation to take place. But gestures like Willy Brandt's certainly can't hurt. He was asked often about his actions and explained them this way:

Under the weight of recent history, I did what people do when words fail them. In this way I commemorated millions of murdered people.

After reading Maus again this past year for the third time, I'd say his actions were justified and courageous.