Thursday, May 05, 2005


Idol update, lost in translation

American Idol got off to a dubious start this evening, with an ensemble performance of "Bridge Over Troubled Waters" that sounded like a very bad college glee club. But it became pretty clear that Bo Bice--that shaggy-maned, coke-snorting son of the South--deserves to win. Meanwhile, after the usual theater-of-cruelty manipulation by the horrible Ryan Seacrest, Scott Savol was chucked off the show. The guy had his problems, including spotty pitch control and that unflattering stubble thing, but there was something very genuine about him. So go figure. An additional gripe: last year, I read that Bob Dylan might do a one-shot judging gig on American Idol, and I'm crushed that he never showed up. (Oh, to hear Anthony Federov sing "Idiot Wind.")

I've been tied up all day with deadline chores--I'm writing a novel with one hand and a new afterword for the paperback edition of Amazonia with the other--which is why I haven't done any blogging until now. But I did want to return to something I touched on in an earlier post: the perils of translation. It's on my mind partly because I've been corresponding with the Japanese translator of Amazonia, who's going far beyond the call of duty--reading the books I mentioned (Nicholson Baker, which makes me feel good) and watching the movies (Dumb and Dumber, which makes me feel guilty.) This degree of diligence is hardly the rule among translators, even very gifted ones. And in that sense, every sentence you translate is a disaster waiting to happen. There are so many ways to foul up: distortions, misreadings, cultural allusions or echoes that go over your head. I hope and pray that I haven't stepped in too many pails of milk myself. And when I get too cocky about my skills, I remind myself of the Italian version of Lolita I once picked up in Rome. In a certain passage, Humbert Humbert mentions Old Faithful--a famous geyser in America, a biblical-sounding obscurity anywhere else--and I was pleased to see a footnote below. But as the translator helpfully explained, Old Faithful was a particular kind of American airplane. Nabokov would have had conniption fits. As a translator, all I can do is shake my head and mutter: There but for the grace of God...

Hi, just wanted to say, first, that I'm enjoying your blog. Came for the literary stuff, stayed for the Idol analysis.

Funny how perceptions differ. At the end of the opening song, I said to my wife: "That was pretty good for one of their group songs." Anyway, I find I'll miss Scott too--at first he seemed (and to some extent still does) like every mean kid I ever encountered in school. But, funny thing about these shows--the more I saw of him, and his frequent appearance in the bottom three, and Simon's obvious dislike of his looks (and distaste for his continuing presence), and his own overcompensating bravado, the more I felt like I understood his obnoxiousness. His weird little lip-chewing thing after he was booted, so strangely touching, just sealed my grudging affection--you just know it's the kind of anything-but-crying "hardness" that someone learns to resort to when they've grown pretty sure that nobody's going to share their tears. Geez, it's as if I've developed some ersatz long-distance insight into what makes him him. (Does that officially makes him a media-age celebrity?) Forgive the pretentious analogy, but it's sort of like when I read Moby Dick* for the first time: that whole long midsection of chapters about whales, whaling, whale anatomy, whale folklore, etc, had me almost dreading picking up the book and resuming...and yet, when Melville got back to the "plot" of the book, I felt sorry in some unaccountable way to see that stuff end.

*Moby Dick reference not meant as cheap dig at Scott. Though as a cheap overearnest effort to prove I don't come to the litblog just for Idol stuff, the jury's maybe still out.
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