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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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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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Turtles, breadfruit and growing

In September we got back from a trip to Kaua’i.  Here are a couple of exciting things we experienced.

We went snorkeling, which we haven’t done in 6 years.  I had forgotten how beautiful the fish are – Moorish idols, cleaner wrasses, and the Hawaiian state fish, the humuhumunukunukuapua’a!

What I really wanted to see, though, because I’d never seen them in the ocean before, were turtles.  So we went on a snorkeling tour, and our wonderful guide Kiley took us to a place where she said she’d seen turtles.

First she pointed out a female turtle (you can tell because of the short tail)  on the bottom of the lagoon.  Pretty exciting!  Then about 5 minutes later, she poked me frantically on the shoulder and pointed. And this is what I saw, swimming gracefully toward me:

A green turtle, as big as my dining room table, looking as if it were winging through the water in my direction.  I had to scramble to get out of its way  – you can’t be within 5 feet of a turtle, they’re protected.  They’re called green because of the color of their underflesh (which I hope I never see), not because of the color of their shell.

What a magical moment!  Seeing an animal in captivity and seeing one in its natural habitat are two very different things.

We also went to the top of Mount Wai’ale’ale  – it’s a mile high, and gets an average of 450 inches of rain a year!  It’ doesn’t really rain all the time, it’s more like mist, but the effect is pretty much the same.

After we’d seen the misty view, we went back down to the rangers’ station/museum, a couple of hundred feet below.  There I bought a beautiful print depicting the discovery of  ‘ulu, the Polynesian food staple, breadfruit.  The print looks like this:

You can see the misty clouds that we saw on Mount Wai’ale’ale – and the waves beneath the outrigger.

There are many Polynesian myths about the discovery of  breadfruit.  This particular one is Hawaiian, about two fishermen who became lost at sea between Hawai’i (the Big Island) and Maui.  The mist became so thick that they were unable to tell sea from sky.  As they wandered, they came upon a mythical floating island, Kanehunamoku.  There was a breadfruit tree there, and the two men dug it up and took it back to Hawai’i, where they replanted it and it took root.

There is a double meaning (=kaona) to this story:  “whenever you come upon fog and confusion, you will always come upon ‘ulu.”   “Ulu” is the verb “to grow,” as well as the Hawaiian word for ‘breadfruit” – so fog and confusion, while sometimes troubling and frightening, can also help us grow and show us new solutions to problems.

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Anansi, Anansi – let him come, let him go

Kids love tricksters because tricksters have to use their wits to survive, because they can’t simply impose themselves by brute strength, unlike parents (and older brothers and sisters)!

Every culture has tricksters, whether in human or animal form:  Coyote, Hare, Monkey, Fox, Spider, Loki, Iktomi, Prometheus, Hershele Ostropolier…  One of the most far-flung is Kwaku Ananse, the Spider Man, originally from West Africa.  He has had other names – Anancy in the Caribbean, Aunt Nancy in the American South, and variants of the name wherever the West African diaspora has gone.

In the best-known and earliest story published in the U.S., A Story, A Story, Anansi climbs to heaven to ask Nyame, the Sky God, for stories.  Nyame is astonished and amused that such a little being, “so small, so small, so small,” could imagine winning such a great boon from the Sky God.  Finally he tells Anansi that if he brings Osebo the leopard of the terrible teeth, Mmboro the hornets that sting like fire, and Mmoatia the fairy that men never see to Nyame, the stories will be his (when Anansi catches Mmoatia, those who know the story of the tar baby will recognize the trick!).

Thanks to Anansi’s cunning, the Sky God rewards him with the stories which will become the patrimony of all human beings.  Do we have a better explanation for how people learned to tell stories?  Maybe – or maybe not.  Gail E. Haley begins this tale with the words of an African storyteller:  “We do not really mean, we do not really mean that what we are about to say is true.  A story, a story; let it come, let it go.”

Like many folkloric figures, Anansi is picked up by other storytellers, like Eric Kimmel, whose hilarious Anansi and the Moss Covered Rock turns the Spider Man into an anti-hero – the trickster tricked.

Anansi is walking through the cool forest when he discovers a magic rock that makes people faint and remain unconscious for an hour after they say certain words (“Isn’t this a strange moss-covered rock!”).  After he has fainted twice, Anansi knows how to use what he’s learned:  he persuades the other forest animals to say the magic words, and then runs back to their homes and steals their food while they are unconscious.

This is a fine trick, and Anansi is delighted with himself as he steals food from Lion, Elephant, Zebra, and more animals who think Anansi is their friend.  But all the while, Little Bush Deer has been watching from the thickets, and she decides to teach Anansi a lesson.  I won’t tell you how she does it – just that Anansi ends up back in his house with all his food (and everyone else’s) gone.

There are many, many tricksters – Monkey, Hawai’i's Pig Boy,  Bre’er Rabbit…  As the song says, there are lots of people who get in trouble just to pass the time!  Have your librarian introduce you to them.


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Bound for Glory

This summer is Woody Guthrie’s centennial, and it’s being celebrated all over this country and in many others:  Canada, Austria, Germany, the Czech Republic…  In fact, there’s a Guthrie Family Concert at the Mountain Winery in Saratoga this Saturday, August 4 with Woody’s son Arlo and the grandchildren Cathy, Annie, Sarah Lee and her husband Johnny Irion.

You can find a great deal of information about Woody; his music is all over YouTube, and there are still people alive who knew him, sang with him and were inspired by him:  Pete Seeger, Ronnie Gilbert, Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Judy Collins, Tom Paxton, Hoyt Axton, Bob Dylan, Woody’s son Arlo, Bruce Springsteen… and three generations of topical and folk song singers and writers.

Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma on July 14, 1912.  Both of his parents were musically inclined, and Woody became so at an early age.  In his autobiographical novel Bound for Glory, he wrote,“If there was anybody around … that did not play some instrument I did not see them…”  He was a middle-class child until the age of eight, when his father’s real estate business failed; then the Guthrie family slipped into poverty.

Tragedy followed him all his life:  from his 14-year-old sister Clara’s death by fire in 1919, the catastrophic Dust Bowl of the 1930s, his mother’s death of Huntington’s disease, his daughter Cathy’s death in a fire at the age of 4; in another fire years later, he was crippled by terrible burns that left him unable to play the guitar or write with a pen, and finally his own death of Huntington’s disease in 1967.  He had had symptoms of this degenerative condition, for which there is no cure, for at least 20 years.

Despite all this, he is remembered for the dozens of songs he wrote that have become American classics.  The lyrics were his own, but he frequently used melodies from traditional songs like “Pretty Polly” (for “Pastures of Plenty”), the American folk song “John Hardy” (“Ballad of Tom Joad,” Woody’s 17-verse version of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath – yes, listen to the song and read the novel, they’re both beautiful), the gospel hymn “Oh My Lovin’ Brother” (“Hard Travelin’”), “Wildwood Flower” (“The Sinking of the Reuben James“), and so many more.

His songs about the Oklahoma migrants to California (“Okies”), people pushed off the land they had owned or sharecropped for generations by the Dust Bowl and the banks, struck a chord because he shared their experiences:  riding freight trains, hitchhiking, living under bridges and in “Hoovervilles” (shanty towns built by homeless people during the Depression).  He was astounded at the beauty and color of California after living in the grey Dust Bowl of Oklahoma and Texas – but as he pointed out wryly in his song “Dough-Re-Mi,” California was no Garden of Eden; migrant workers were chased and beaten by police, saw fruit sprayed so it was inedible, and were met with signs in all too many places:  “No Okies Allowed Here.”  It was not only the “Okies” that struck the chord; one of his most famous songs, “Deportees,” is about a plane wreck that killed 28 braceros in the Central Valley.  They were being sent back to Mexico after doing farm work in the U.S., and he was infuriated by the fact that their names were never published.

In 1941 the federal government hired Woody to write a series of songs about the immense dams being built on the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest.  After a month – only 30 days – , he had written 26 songs, including “Pastures of Plenty” and “Roll On, Columbia”:

Green Douglas firs where the waters cut through/Down her wild mountains and canyons she flew/Canadian Northwest to the ocean so blue/Roll on, Columbia, roll on.

Here are some of his New Year’s Resolutions from the next year, 1942:

“Write a song a day.  Change socks.  Keep the Hoping Machine running.  Dance better.  Learn people better.  Don’t get lonesome.  Make up your mind.  Help win war – beat fascism.”

There is so much more to tell about Woody Guthrie’s too-short life.  For kids:

Woody Guthrie : Poet of the People

This Land is Your Land

For adults:

Ramblin’ Man:  the Life and Times of Woody Guthrie

Pastures of Plenty:  a Self-Portrait

But the only way to really understand why Woody Guthrie was such a touchstone for so many singers and songwriters, to say nothing of just ordinary people who heard his music, is to listen to it:

Nursery Days

Children Songs of Woody Guthrie

Woody Guthrie Sings Folk Songs

Dust Bowl Ballads

And then listen to the others who were so inspired by him:  Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, Bess Lomax Hawes, Cisco Houston… it’s impossible to name them all.  But you don’t have to name them – just sing the songs.  And write your own.  You can use music from other songs, as Woody did (and as Bess Hawes did when she co-wrote “Charlie on the MTA”).  After all, as Woody once said about his songs, “If you want to learn something, just steal it – that’s the way I learned from Lead Belly.”

So start singing – Woody would be proud!


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