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The Malachite Translation

MoskvaSounds a little like a Robert Ludlum novel, right?  But no, I’m referring to a collection of P. P. Bazhov’s traditional tales of the Ural Mountains and the miners who worked there.  It’s entitled The Malachite Casket in English (Malakhitova︠i︡a shkatulka in transliterated Russian).

The stories are very well known by Russian speakers, and Sergei Prokofiev’s last ballet, The Tale of the Stone Flower, is based on these tales.

I didn’t know what malachite was when my parents gave me the book, though I sort of knew what a “casket” was (a coffin?).  But I fell in love with malachite, a copper ore, as soon as I saw it.  Here’s what it looks like:  Unknown-2

And the “malachite casket” of the stories is a jewelry box, not a box for a dead body!

I was reminded of these beautiful tales when I was recently reading two books on translation – one a 2013 compilation by various translators entitled In Translation, and the other Edith Grossman’s 2010 book, Why Translation Matters.  She ought to know; she has written the best translation of Don Quixote in half a century (no mean feat!).

We owe a debt to translation that most of us, I think, tend to forget.   Unless we read French, we have not read Perrault’s original (written) versions of Unknown-3“Cinderella,” “Sleeping Beauty of the Wood,” “Blue Beard” and “Little Red Riding Hood” (you may be unpleasantly surprised at some of these stories, especially if all you know are the Disney versions!).  Unless we read German, we have not read the Brothers Grimm’s “Hansel and Gretel,” “The Fisherman and His Wife” and “The Bremen Town Musicians” (don’t read “The Girl With No Hands” or “All-Kinds-of-Fur;” they’re very creepy).  If we don’t know Classical Greek, we can’t read Aristophanes’ original comedy  The Birds, no Latin and and we can’t read Ovid’s original Metamorphoses – and to bring in a more contemporary note, if we don’t know Swedish, we can’t read the original of Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  Jules Verne didn’t write 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in English and Nobel Prize winner images-2Gabriel García Márquez didn’t write One Hundred Years of Solitude in English (it was brilliantly translated by Gregory Rabassa). These works are all translations from other languages into English.

We English speakers are spoiled because there is so much written originally in English, and so many authors want their works translated into English.  We can all too easily fall into feeling that anyone important – Shakespeare, Dickens, Faulkner – already wrote in our language, so why bother with anything from another language?

Why?  For two reasons.  One is that many important things have been written in other languages (however you want to define important); another language furnishes another window on the world, other points of view.  That’s what makes translation so difficult – and makes getting it right so essential.

And the other reason?  Because so many works written in other languages are so wondrous.  I have never stopped loving The Malachite Casket.  I don’t know how good a translation mine is – but I have never forgotten the characters:  the Mistress of the Copper Mountain, Danila the Craftsman who longs to make exquisite goblets of malachite, Katya, who dares scold the Mistress for stealing her man by showing him the Stone Flower, Tanyushka who leans against the malachite wall of the Tsar’s palace in St. Petersburg and simply melts away…  Open another window on the world and add what you see to your own vision.  Translation does matter.


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Best Food to Remember

The most formative year of my education was the year I went to the University of California’s center at the Facultad de Filosofía y Letras in Madrid.  It was there that I learned to speak and understand and DREAM in Spanish – I picked up a Spanish boyfriend and acquired a taste for true Spanish food.  No, not Mexican food, which is wonderful in its own right – SPANISH food.  Spain.

restaurante-y-tienda-lhardy_2199071This is a picture of one of the best restaurants in Madrid, Lhardy, on the Carrera de San Jerónimo; it’s been in existence since 1839.  Rich people and wanna-bes in 19th-century novels (and real life) were always sending for Lhardy take-out:  croquettes, pâte, fois gras… whether they could pay for it or not.  Eventually, of course, if they didn’t pay, Lhardy stopped accepting their orders.

I couldn’t afford Lhardy when I was 20 years old (and I hadn’t even  heard of  it until I read Benito Pérez Galdós’  nineteenth-century masterpiece, Fortunata y Jacinta).  But I did just fine eating a tremendous amount of one of the cheapest and most typical dishes in all of Spain:  tortilla de patatas.  Potato omelet.

1352438193_b043643ab9_mOf course tortilla can contain any number of ingredients besides potatoes:  peas, shrimp, asparagus, eggplant, ham, mushrooms, red peppers…   But the classic one is just potatoes, olive oil, salt and onion.  I watched my boyfriend’s mother make tortilla and learned how to do it – but she didn’t use onions.  It wasn’t till I remembered a description of a tortilla in a nineteenth-century novel that I started putting onion in mine.

I’ve seen many tortilla recipes; generally speaking, the more complicated and fussy it is, the further it will be from an authentic tortilla.  Try the recipe in Claudia Roden’s monumental  The Food of Spain.

I came home, started graduate school, got married and started teaching in Boston.  When I turned 30, one of my colleagues, María Paz, invited me over to lunch to celebrate my birthday.  She asked me what I wanted her to cook for me:  “Tortilla and flan and whatever else you like,” I responded immediately.

María Paz was from the southern Spanish city of Córdoba; I’d tasted her cooking before and knew it would be a good lunch.  It was.  And she taught me how to make something else I loved:  flan (caramel custard).  Now there are many kinds of flan, from all over the Spanish-speaking world:  orange flan, flan made with condensed milk, cheese flan, and so on.  But again, for me there is only the simple classic one, the one I remember from Spain and that María Paz taught me to make:  eggs, milk, vanilla and sugar (some of  it caramelized).


When I was a kid, I refused to touch custard.  It was supposed to be a dessert (I’m told my grandmother made wonderful custard), but it rhymed with “mustard,” which was certainly NOT a dessert.  How could it be any good?  It was not until I lived in Spain that I learned how delicately delicious it could be.  Maybe being a young adult instead of a kid had something to do with it.

I continue to make flan to this day.  Sometimes my family asks me if I want to order it when we go to a restaurant.  I sniff disdainfully and remind them that I don’t need to eat anybody else’s flan; mine is the best.

Other people agree.  My friend Nancy, a brilliant cook, tasted my flan at a family celebration and asked me for the recipe.  Flattered, I said of course and handed her my recipe book, open to the appropriate page.  As I turned away to continue cooking, she said, “Marti… I can’t read this.”  I turned back, and suddenly realized that it was written in María Paz’s handwriting – in Spanish, naturally.  No wonder Nancy couldn’t read it!

There are other delicious dishes that live on in my heart and on my palate - gazpacho andaluz, empanada, crema catalana – each with a story behind it that makes it memorable for a lifetime.  When you travel, be sure to notice what the people of the area eat, and try it yourself.  Sometimes people can’t believe you want to eat something as ordinary as their regular fare.  Sometimes you may not like it after you’ve had it.  But always give it a try.


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Armchair Student

My daughter went to a school with one of the best biology departments in the country.  She majored in biology, graduated summa cum laude, and went to UCSF for her doctorate.

But her college also demanded a History of the World class that lasted for two years; she chose the school for that reason, too.  History, science, art – she loved it all.

Sometimes I mourn the fact that one has to concentrate on only one thing in graduate school (I’ve been to graduate school too, so I know).  What a pity not to be able to keep taking other subjects…

A few weeks ago, I got an e-mail from her:  “I thought you might be interested in this…”  And a link.  I clicked on it – and what should it be but a class in Egyptology, taught by two professors from the Autonomous University of Barcelona!images

I e-mailed her back:  “Looks fascinating – are you interested?  Too bad you’re completely tied up in science and can’t do some humanities!”  She responded, “It’s a free internet course.  I signed up already.” images-5

Who would have imagined?  I looked at it more carefully, listened to the two professors explaining what they were planning to teach (in Spanish, of course!) and wrote back to her, “OK, you talked me into it – I’m on board.”  I thought she might be sorry she told me, but no:  “Good!  Now if I get confused you can help me.”

Nor was that all – she told me she’d signed up for another class, Greek and Roman mythology, taught by a professor at U. Penn.  I looked at that one, and signed up for it too!   I apologized for seeming to stalk her, but she e-mailed me back:  “Don’t apologize, this will be fun!  Maybe. I dunno. I’m nervous about the Spanish one…”


I had never forgotten a class I sat in on at Currier House, taught by a brilliant Indo-European scholar, Gregory Nagy, on the Iliad, the Odyssey, Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days.  Now I would have a chance, decades later, to retake the class.  And retake it with my daughter.  All I had to do was get the prescribed editions and wait till April, which is when it’s  scheduled to start.

I was so excited that I called my sister and told her about the mythology class.  I sent her the link, in case she wanted to take it.  No, she was more interested in a class on English common law; she thought she’d sign up for that one.

Then I e-mailed my friend Julia, a native Mandarin speaker and a former software engineering manager who switched to working for an education nonprofit some years ago.  I sent her a link to 6 classes in Mandarin, including one about Chinese opera, which I knew she had a weakness for. images-5

She e-mailed me back immediately:  “I love it!  And that’s just the one short page you sent me.  I can’t wait to be retired so I can take all these classes!”

What is it that makes us want to go back and learn?  My father was a child of the Depression; his father died when he was six.  He was never able to save up the dollar required to become an Eagle Scout then, let alone find the money to go to college in the hardscrabble 1930s.  He worked until he was 63 and then retired.  He started taking painting classes then, and a year before he died, he enrolled in junior college and began taking history classes.  He got an A in images-5his first class, American History, and the professor asked him to become a tutor (American history was a requirement, and many students had difficulty with it).  “They’ll pay you,” she offered.  “I don’t need to be paid,” he said.  “I’m happy to do it.”

So for all of you armchair students out there, listen up.  Here’s the link to the outfit that’s offering my classes: . Full disclosure:  I have no connection to them, except the two courses I’m signed up for.

If it’s time for you to get back to class (in the comfort of your own living room), here’s your chance.  Anything from Constitutional Struggles in the Muslim World to A History of Art for Artists, Animators and Gamers; take a look at the class listings.  I just want to warn you about one thing:  my mythology class starts on April 22, and I’m going to need one of the library’s copies of the Robert Fagles edition of the Odyssey.  If you want to take the class, you can get out the second copy, get another copy on Link+, or you can use the online texts at  And if you don’t know how to use Link+, ask a librarian!















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Costa Rica – ¡Pura Vida!

My daughter has been nagging us to go to Costa Rica ever since she was there a year ago.  So now we’ve gone and come back, and I have to compliment her taste:  what a wonderful country!

I can’t do show and tell about all the fascinating things we did, but here are a few:

We started at Playa Flamingo in the northwest; lovely beach, no undertow.  Very lazy day, until sunset, under a gibbous moon, we set out to try and find a green turtle laying her eggs.  We actually weren’t fussy; we’d take leatherbacks, too.

It took about 4 hours to find a turtle; we were about to give up when our guide motioned us over.  He’d found one.  Her head was in a sandbank, and she was digging a hole with her hind flippers.  He placed a small infra-red light behind the hole, so we could see, and she couldn’t (her head was in the sand anyway…).

It took the better part of an hour for her to be satisfied with the depth of the hole, stop digging and begin to lay.

And here is what the eggs looked like.  IMG_0492


Okay, so it’s not exactly National Geographic quality.  But being there that night and seeing these eggs actually being laid was more exciting than I can say.



The next day we took a riverboat ride through the Palo Verde National Park.  It’s full of migratory birds, monkeys and crocodiles.

Let’s start with the capuchin monkeys, who were apparently curious about the intruders.

First, a look from afar.  Floating on the river, don’t have tails, which is weird, but otherwise…  Now for a closer look….



A curious monkey jumped onto the bow of the boat, bounded from human shoulder to next human shoulder, in the blink of an eye snatched a cigarette from someone’s shirt pocket and jumped back to the tree, while his cohorts from the troop scampered around on the roof of the boat.

The one with the cigarette took a taste of it, spat it out in disgust, and threw it into the river.  Sure, it’s littering – but that’s a smart monkey!  We were warned, incidentally, not to try howling back at the howler monkeys – they apparently take the sound as an intruder trying to horn in on their territory, and they promptly begin to mark it as theirs.  You don’t really want to know how they do THAT.

And now for one of the big bad boys of the Palo Verde National Park:  a three-meter crocodile!

crocWith a smile that would make an orthodontist happy…




On the way to our next riverboat ride at Caño Negro, we stopped at a place called Restaurante Las Iguanas.  And here’s why – this is only a little corner of the tree full of iguanas!

180576_10100131463477964_7331209_nBy the way, there used to be a time in Costa Rica when many people ate iguanas, both because it was custom and because they were hungry (iguana is still eaten in many parts of the Americas – but not in Costa Rica).  The nickname for these reptiles is “gallo del árbol” – “chicken of the trees.”

Just one more photo of a river animal, I promise.

When this bird, an anhinga, gets wet in a rain shower, it dries off in the sun and it looks like this – kind of reminds me of Mexico’s pre-Columbian feathered serpent god, Quetzalcoatl… 182479_10100131482370104_7838825_n

I could go on for hours, looking at the pictures and remembering.  What a magnificent place.

Oh, and the title of this post?  “Pura vida”?  It’s supposed to be a flashy way of saying “things are great,” it means something like “the best of life.” Very much native tico (=Costa Rican) slang.  Now used for the tourists to mean “you’re welcome;” sorry about that.  I’m a Spanish speaker, and when I said thank you to a Costa  Rican, they invariably replied, “Es mi gusto” – “the pleasure is mine.”  ”Pura vida” is too slangy to be used to another Spanish speaker from outside the country.

Oh, well – wishing someone “the best of life” isn’t so bad, even if it’s kind of made-up…

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The New Year didn’t start out well.

I sat down on my desk chair on New Year’s Day, the cushion behind my back went flying (not well fastened to the chair), the chair flipped over, and I flipped backward until my head was abruptly stopped by a wooden filing cabinet.  OWW!!

My husband heard me yelling and came running up with an icepack, which I kept on the lump on my head for 2 hours.  I made him look at my eyes – nope, pupils the same size.  Then we read for awhile and went to bed.

The next day I was so tired I couldn’t go to work.  They tell me my daughter called me, but I don’t remember. I just kept dozing and waking up for the rest of the day.  Finally my son called in the late afternoon:  “Mom, I got Dad a great birthday present!”  He told me the title of the book.  He was expecting me to laugh.  I didn’t respond.  He said, “Mom, I hear you fell; what happened?”  I said, “Well, I sat down on the edge of my desk chair. . .”  And I stopped.  I remembered exactly what had happened, I just didn’t have any words to say it.  My son said, “Oh, never mind, we’ll talk later.”  He hung up and called my husband and said, “Something’s wrong with Mom.”

17143Yes, something was wrong.  My husband took me to the Emergency Room, where I stayed for the next 24 hours, while they took tubes of blood out of my arm, sent me for MRIs, CT-scans, x-rays, echocardiograms, looking for every awful thing imaginable.  Finally they sent me home and the next day the neurologist called:  it was a delayed-reaction concussion.  Everything else was ruled out by the lack of evidence on all the scans.  Concussions, unless they’re large bleeds to the brain, generally aren’t visible.

I’m all right now – though I sit down gingerly on my desk chair.  I don’t want a repeat performance!

But when I was (reluctantly) watching the San Francisco – Green Bay football game on January 12, every so often a picture of Alex Smith flashed on the screen.  He’s the quarterback who was sidelinedimages-3 by a concussion on November 11, giving an opening to the star of the playoff game against Green Bay, 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick.  Smith has been symptom-free for weeks – but he’s also been sitting on the bench.  Doubtless he won’t play for the 49ers again this season.

My heart ached for him as everyone cheered for Kaepernick – no wonder so many players of all ages refuse to confess to a possible concussion.  Walk off the field and who knows if you’ll walk back on?  Not because you can’t, but because the coach has replaced you – permanently.  And yet when he was taken out of the rotation, Smith was taken out of the way, at least for awhile, of repetitive brain trauma.  Is that a bad thing?  Alex Smith is an adult; he’s the only one who can decide.  But every year, thousands of children end up with concussions, most often from sports, and who makes a decision for them?

For more information, look at Dr. Robert Cantu’s new book, and several important websites:

Concussions and our Kids









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