Sunday, April 25, 2010

Questions of Translation and Publication

A study by the MOTIF (Observatoire du Livre et de l'Ecrit en Ile-de-France) on the comparisons in book translations between Paris and New York - the two capitals of translation - came out this week. It has some interesting results :
  • Between 1993 and 2000, 37,000 English written books were translated into French in Paris, when 640 French-written books were translated into English - which makes them 1/5th of all translated books in NYC.)
  • 71.7% of the books translated from English were published in Paris (=3/4) whereas 15.8% of the books translated from French in the U.S. were published in New York. (the other major center is in California). This is also due to the fact that a great deal of French books are also translated in the U.K and in Canada.
  • The number of translated books increased by 50% between 19990 and 2000 and books translated from English make it for 59% when French books make it for only 10%.
  • French is the most translated language when it comes to literature.
More interesting is what is translated :
Novels make up for 50% of all translated books on either side, but more best-sellers come from NY when more prestigious writings come from France, such as poetry and plays.
As you can see on this list, Simenon a Belgian writer who wrote detective stories) is the most translated author, followed by Jules Verne, Balzac, Dumas, Hugo and...Annie Ernaux. But the popularity of these books is on average rather limited (less than 10,000 copies sold), despite exceptions like Suite française by Irène Némirosky (1.5 million copies sold) or novels by Emmanuel Carrère, Amélie Nothomb or Anna Gavalda.
According to an American publisher quoted in the study:
"In the United-States, French authors are suspected of being formal and self-absorbed ('nombrisliste'), whereas American writers come to France with the aura of the prestige of "la littérature américaine" (American Literature)." (my translation)
Well, this, somehow does not surprise me. It is all a question of perception (and the American view may be somewhat justified since unfortunately, it is not the most humbled ones - think of Nothomb or BHL- who get some media coverage in the US.... ).

According to the study, there are many three main reasons why fewer books are translated from French into English :

1. The current decline of the teaching of French is part of the reason why American readers are less likely to be interested in French authors (and the study emphasizes the importance of universities and teachers in inciting their students to discover new foreign authors).

2. The disappearance of independent bookstores, which is even more acute in the United-States than in France.

According to another publisher :
The problem […] is that there are almost no more independent bookstores in America now. 80% of the sales are done by the big chains. The big chains, they don’t give a damn of the literature or the genre they have… When the independents represented 50% or 60%, they were always ready to take two or three copies, some of them would keep them one month after receiving them, while the chains, if you haven’t sold in six weeks, they are back in your stock, which is part of the problem.
3. The other barrier is cultural isolation :

According to a prestigious (unnamed) US publisher :

Finding an audience for translated books can be more difficult because the cultural barriers and the American reading public is less international in…Europeans are part of an international confederation anyway... we’re not. So a lot of Americans have never been abroad, and so there’s a…how would you say, a kind of myopia about the rest of the world that Americans are susceptible to.

This last point is particularly interesting as similar views are often expressed when it comes to other cultural items, such as movies or music, but also concerning the news. In fact, it seems to me that this isolation has actually increased even though the world is becoming more global and more interconnected.

The entire study is worth browsing if you can read French (PDF here). Ironically, it does not seem to have been translated into English.

Mighty Powers

Like many Europeans, I never saw this week's travel crisis coming. I was totally unaware that a volcano in Iceland could disrupt my daily life in France and have serious economic consequences for our entire continent. Sure nobody died and it was much less dramatic than the earthquake in China or Katrina, but the very fact that our globalized world can be put at a standstill is unexpected, and there is an eerie sense that things could easily go wrong again, or get worse, and for longer.

In a typical English style, this week's Economist found that "the idea that humans, for all their technological might, could be put in their place by this volcano—this obscure, unpronounceable, C-list volcano—was strangely satisfying, even thrilling.", referring to Edmund Burke's concept of "sublime" - something beyond hat possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation.

But they also believe in human resourcefulness, and think that "The apparently sublime power of the volcano was largely the result of an initially supine reaction." and that, had the eruption continued, our "interconnectedness would undoubtedly have provided ways to keep Europe supplied, though probably at substantial cost and with a fair bit of lasting disruption.".

I like their optimism, but I am not sure I share it.This may have been a little volcano and we may have been unprepared and may learn our lesson (or not!) but there is a bigger volcano nearby whose next eruption is, according to vulcanologist long overdue.
Katla is getting a lot of attention because past eruptions of Eyjafjallajokull seem to have acted as harbingers of eruptions by its larger neighbour. Although there is no geophysical evidence for a causal relationship, neighbouring volcanoes can share some plumbing, and only when that plumbing started gurgling into action would its existence become clear. Volcanologists disagree about the importance of this possible link, but they agree that Katla's next eruption is overdue—it last went off in 1918—and some suspect that its tardiness may translate into a particularly impressive show of strength.
Katla's eruptions can be 100 times larger than what is going on at Eyjafjallajokull. A big eruption, thought to be one of Katla's, left ash all across northern Europe about 10,300 years ago. When explosive volcanic eruptions in Iceland and elsewhere in the Arctic are large enough to insert significant long-lasting hazes into the upper atmosphere, they seem able to change weather patterns around the world. There is some evidence for their weakening the flow of the Nile and disrupting monsoons.
The eruption of Laki, an Icelandic volcanic fissure, in 1783 sent poisonous gases across Europe.
Another concern is that Iceland's volcanoes, especially those under its central ice cap—which, other things being equal, will produce more explosive plumes if they break through—seem to show a cycle in activity, perhaps due to the hotspot that feeds them. On this reading of the record, activity can be expected to increase for the next 40 years or so. The past few decades have been one of the quiet patches. It seems likely that the first 50 years of jet travel across the North Atlantic enjoyed particularly clear skies. (The Economist)
Yes, there are lessons to learn and the world will probably not end in 2012 in an impressive apocalyptic fashion. More likely, a bigger eruption could have massive economic consequences, an impact not only on air-travel and economic exchanges but also on agriculture which might result in lack of food, huge impoverishment possibly coupled with upheavals and social unrest.
Sure we would cope, adapt and eventually recover but there is only so much humans can do in face of such powerful powers and it sure wouldn't be fun and I would love to do without this sort of "sublime", thank you!

NOTE: I wonder if a movie will ever be made out of this scenario - something less dramatic, than the usual disaster movie, but more convincing, a sort of long painful span of suffering. Hard to encapsulate in a 2 hour drama, I imagine;

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Flag Desecration and Freedom of Speech.

From a European perspective, the presence of US flags in front of people's houses is a distinct feature of the American experience. Flags are usually not so proudly put on houses in Europe.

Blame it on a history of dangerous nationalism or on cultural differences, the fact is that Americans tend to be much more outspoken about their patriotism then the Europeans.
So it makes sense that the desecration of the US flag should have serious consequences and be considered a serious crime in the US (see here or here). There is even a United-States Flag Code which gives a set of rules as to the Dos and Donts of how to handle the flag.

France in particular has always had an ambiguous uneasy relationship with its flag which has been associated with far-right extremists who have used it for their agenda. (think of the Fête des Bleu-Blanc-Rouge for instance). The current French president decided to re-claim the flag and other symbols of the Republic, probably because he thinks it is important but also because it pleases his right-wing electorate. In the meantime, the booing of the national anthem at a few soccer games caused outrage and led to the passing of a law that makes it a criminal offense to insult the French flag or national anthem in public, (up to 7,500 euros and 6 months in prison) in 2003, when Sarkozy was Minister of the Interior0

Well, this week, things went one step further when this photograph of a man wiping his butt with the French flag won a prize at an exhibit in the “politically incorrect” category. The picture was shown oat the exhibition organized in Nice by FNAC, the French book and music store giant and then by the free newspaper Metro.

The picture may be of a very bad taste, (well, that may be the point) and apparently, France’s Minister of Justice Michele Alliot-Marie did not like. That's her own right, but for her to demand the “criminal prosecution” of its authors is even more scandalous and over the top.
“I want the person who committed this outrage to be punished, and possibly those who published it,” Eric Ciotti wrote to a government ministry, who is a deputy from President Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP party, calling for an investigation.
It seems that the FNAC and the photographer played a low profile and the picture was quickly withdrawn from the contest in Nice after complaints from veterans' groups.
The problem is that since this "desecration of the flag" took place at a private cultural event, it is not covered by the law and is only an offense, not a crime.
Never mind, France’s Minister of Justice Michele Alliot-Marie believes the law should just be changed :
"Presumably the law has the legal means to punish such an intolerable act against the French flag," said the minister's spokesman."If the existing law proves incomplete in this regard, it should be revised." (BBC)
So is France becoming more American? Hardly. Something major is missing: the First Amendment to the US Constitution which guarantees freedom of expression and freedom of speech and makes the US Flag Code more or less irrelevant. (Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that punitive enforcement would conflict with the First Amendment right to freedom of speech.).
Given the current level of crime in France, it seems to me that Mrs Alliot-Marie has better things to do and should addressed the real issue of crime and stop messing with people's bad taste.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Here we go again with the Burqa.

The big news here in France is that Sarkozy has decided to rush through legislation that will ban women from wearing the full Muslim veil (covering the face) - that in spite of the warning from the Conseil d'Etat (the highest legal body that gave an advisory opinion) that a ban on the full veil would not find full legal justification.
This is typical of the way Sarkozy has been governing this country - who cares if the law can be applied, what matters is the perception that his right wing electorate have. So goes his thinking.
Unfortunately, this is an old French disease as France already has too many laws that cannot be enforced, and this one will only add to the lack of credibility of the legislative body in France.

More importantly, it is a very shocking idea that the state should tell people what to wear or not to wear in the street. This clarly contradicts freedom of expression and freedom of religion guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

I too find it revolting to see women covering their faces (which is common in London), and I do agree that because it makes communication very hard (if it not impossible), it cannot be compared to a nun 's habit or to the hijab (the 'regular' veil covering a woman's hair), but I don't think my disgust is a reason to compromise on hard fought rights of freedom of expression.

Of course, Sarkozy and his cliques framed the debate not in religious terms but as an issue of women's right. Even, then, I fail to see how a law would help. Either these women wear the full veil because they are forced to, and the law will only confine them even more to their homes, or it is a choice of theirs and a ban is not about "them" and their (the women wearing them) rights but about our discomfort and our fear that Salafist and Wahhabist extremist views might be taking hold.

Can a law really curb extremism? Certainly not. The problem of extremism is about what is going on in their heads. My strong belief is that only education and economic integration can change anything (the few obstinate extremists that will remain must be accepted as the cost of any free society) but such long-term solutions are not very sexy, and they don't play well in this dogmatic age, especially with this French president.
I like the way the left-wing newspaper Libération has reported the news :
"France is struggling to cope with a painful social crisis… And what does the government put forward as a key measure on its programme? A law on the burqa: a piece of cloth worn by few hundred women — 2,000 according to the highest estimates.". (Libération)
Besides, when it comes to the dignity of women, I like that this blogger suggested that other phenomena undermine the dignity of women, it be plastic surgery or prostitution.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Eruption and disurption - Trying to make sense of the chaos in Europe.

More weird news concerning the volcanic eruption / air disruption which grounded about 7 million people:

It now appears that.... :
  • The decision to close air-space over much of Europe was based on a computer model operated by the Meteorological Office's Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre, which prompted a warning from the Met Office, which triggered the wider European ban, via Eurocontrol, the Brussels-based air traffic control centre.The warnings from the Met Office were not based on empirical scientific evidence, but on a “model” running on mathematical projections. (Telegraph)
  • The European sky was partly re-open not because of scientific analysis of the cloud but because airlines conducted some 40 or so test flights of their own.... and it was fine! (So they say). (FT). Talking about empirical evidence!
So have the authorities overreacted? Are we to trust airlines?
  • Well, there have definitely been some problems as some NATO F-16 fighter jets flying over Finland had serious problems with their engines. (Reuters), as did a Belgian F16.
In the even-weirder category, the British navy is sending ships to rescue stranded passengers (FT) (although this may be a bit of a political stunt given the elections coming up in 10 days and the political fallout of the current chaos). Of course, the British love to re-play Dunkirk all over again.
The Guardian calls this the new swine flu, and blames the authorities for not making risk-assessment :
"The slightest risk cannot be taken or someone might blame the regulators, whose job is not to assess risk but avert it. Even an airline company, with everything to lose, is not allowed to assess its own risk."
In all fairness, this is a new situation and protocols have clearly not been established. It makes sense that the risk depends on the concentration of ash in the cloud - something computer models don't seem to be able to figure out.
What is clear is that no one knows much about anything:
European authorities were not sure about scientific questions, such as what concentration of ash was hazardous for jet engines, or at what rate ash fell from the sky, Mr Ruete, the EU’s director-general for mobility and transport, said. “It’s one of the elements where, as far as I know, we’re not quite clear about it,” he admitted. (FT)
Interestingly, the system is different in the U.S.

While the US system leaves air carriers with the responsibility to determine whether or not it is safe to fly “the American model is not a model of less safety”, he said. “You just need to look at the statistics to see that.”

Under European rules, member states have the power to decide whether or not their airspace should be open. But decisions during the past week have been guided by computer models from the Volcanic Ash Centre in London and Eurocontrol, an organisation that co-ordinates air travel. (FT)

The Germans seem to have started measuring the concentration of dangerous volcanic ash in the air.... It's about time, I'd say.

Meanwhile, this is far from over as a new ash cloud is coming towards the UK and probably to the rest of Europe. Meanwhile the Icelanders are relieved that this crisis is not of their own making.
In any case, the fact that volcanic activity in Iceland and the ash clouds may last for months and cast a more or less persistent haze over Western Europe (depending on the winds) is a scary one for this day and age. (NPR)

NOTE : Yes, there could be dire consequences in the months to come or some good news in the short term but scary scenario in the long term.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Myth of American Social Mobility.

One of the major differences between Europe and America is that Americans have a greater acceptance of income inequalities than Europeans because they believe that everyone can move up the social ladder and that the United-States is a land of opportunity.
Contrary to Europeans most Americans believe that success is not determined by force beyond their control but by their hard work and skill.
In early 2009, hardly a sunny period, 71% still agreed that hard work and personal skill are the main ingredients for success.
How much of this is true and how much of it is a myth rooted in an old national narrative?
According The Economist this week, the social mobility that existed between 1947 and 1973 has increasingly become a myth :
Between 1970 and 2008 the Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality, grew from 0.39 to 0.47. In mid-2008 the typical family’s income was lower than it had been in 2000. The richest 10% earned nearly half of all income, surpassing even their share in 1928, the year before the Great Crash.

This is not something that I find very surprising, even it goes against popular belief. In 2008, I posted the results of an OECD report that showed that the United States was the country with the highest inequality level and poverty rate across the OECD, and unfortunately the income mobility does not offset the rising inequality (FT).

In fact, it seems , "parental income is a better predictor of a child’s future in America than in much of Europe".
In western countries, education is one of the keys to social mobility and unfortunately income inequality has been accompanied by a widening gap in college attendance. One of the reasons may be that American universities may have become too money-addicted and may not admit enough people on the basis of their intellectual ability.

Unfortunately, policies of income redistribution seem out of the question in the U.S., yet it seems that if people were better informed they might accept some changes, and the media are certainly to blame.

As Jon Stewart pointed out this week, while there has been some outrage over the fact that 47%of the population pays no taxes (mostly low-income workers or people on fixed incomes, such as single mothers qualifying for income support and the elderly.), the news that Exxon/Mobil paid no U.S. income tax last year, even though the oil giant raked in more than $45 billion in profits (because its subsidiaries are domiciled in the Bahamas, Bermuda and the Cayman Islands.)

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Clearly the notion of income redistribution will would offend many people, but only up to a point and it really depends on how you build the narrative. An alternative may be policies that help equalize opportunity. What is necessary though it that the American people stop entertaining the myth of "American exceptionalism" and start facing the reality of today's world.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Air Travel Chaos

Like many other people, I could not take my flight from Paris last night. This is the travel travel disruption since 911 and there's no telling how long it will last. It depends on how long the volcano will spew ash and on the weather. They say the volcano eruption may continue for months and more flights may be disrupted, depending on the wind. Almost two-thirds of all transatlantic flights into European airports have been canceled.
The cloud is so up in the air that you really can't see anything and the sky over Paris is actually quite blue right now!
My vacations may be spoiled but I'll have my ticket reimbursed. At least I'm not stranded in some foreign country without being allowed outside the airport for not having a visa and don't have to pay for hotel rooms with my own money.
In the strange news category, I just read that the French air controllers were given a drill exercise for this very situation only a month ago - the script was indeed an ash cloud from a volcano in Iceland over Europe. It was sheer chance that it happened that way and apparently it helped them deal with this situation.
It'll be interesting to see the consequences of this chaos, especially if it lasts for some time. Already, the impact for the airlines and for the economic sector based on just-in-time delivery can be felt and could only get worse.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Shameful Video

There is no doubt that the video footage from a U.S. military helicopter of Iraqi journalists being killed is extremely damaging to America's image in the world, and its impact has been underrated by most US media.

On Tuesday this video made the headlines on the French 6 o'clock news (which is actually at 8) and so did it all in the rest of the world. The reaction was moderate - a war expert was interviewed and pretty much explained that these things happen in war. One might agree this is just the ugly side of war, the "unfortunate" consequences of urban warfare - but that is the very reason why such images must be shown.

The American public has been shielded for too long from such graphic views of the human cost of war, just as the French see nothing of the war of their own troops in Afghanistan. It won't stop the war but might make the anger of some people in the world a little more understanding.
Just imagine the impact of those images in Iraq or in the Arab world. If that's hard to figure out, imagine the reaction in the U.S. if the people on the ground had been Americans and the people shooting had been Iraqis, Russians, or Chinese?

What is particularly disturbing is that this footage looks like a video game in which soldiers sound like gamers shooting from a distance and enjoying it. It is different from WWII or the Vietnam bombings because the shooters are both at a relatively safe distance and at close range visually. (It is even worse when you think of the thousands of unmanned Predator aircraft firing from a base miles away.)
I can believe that flying in an Apache makes it harder to dissect the video even if it is electronically and mechanically stabilized and since I have never been in a war situation, I cannot even begin to fathom what it must be like for these guys.
That being said, it is even harder to understand how the US Military could have concluded that the Apache crew acted appropriately and did not break the rules of engagement when it fired at the van which was trying to pick up the wounded (it also seems hard to miss the two kids sitting in the front seats).
In fact, this is not only a breach of the rules of engagement, it may be a war crime altogether :
As the New Yorker reminds us :
The Rules of Engagement and the Law of Armed Combat do not permit combatants to shoot at people who are surrendering or who no longer pose a threat because of their injuries.
The Geneva Conventions state that protections must be afforded to people who “collect and care for the wounded, whether friend or foe.”.
I am no legal expert but it does make sense that this is awfully wrong and it is disgrace that most U.S. media spent more time this week on Tiger Woods than on this terrible event.

And, as we are reminded by The Economist, we even know of this video simply because two of the people who were killed were Reuters employees.
How many other civilians were killed in similar circumstances whose names we will never know, because they had no powerful Western employers to publicise their deaths and file FOIA requests?

Meanwhile the NYTimes reports that U.S. military has accepted responsibility for the deaths of three women (two pregnant women, a teenage girl) by the joint Afghan-international patrol searching for a Taliban insurgent. (the two men, who were later determined not to be insurgents). But it also seems there was a cover-up :
The Times of London reported that Afghan investigators claimed that American forces not only killed the women but had also “dug bullets out of their victims’ bodies in the bloody aftermath” and then “washed the wounds with alcohol before lying to their superiors about what happened."

Until this is confirmed or proven wrong, the suspicion remains. What a shame that the rage of many Americans should be about healthcare and not about what is being done in the world in their names!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Expressionless Women of No Age.

Last week, I watched a new episode of "Law and Order, Special Victim Unité, called Bedtime. It was, as always, very well written, but what struck me were the guest stars. Four of suspects were former well-known actresses in their 60s - two of them I hadn't seen in years.
Morgan Fairchild was known in the 80s, when I was growing up, and Jaclyn Smith, who played Kelly Garrett in Charlie's Angels. I was in shock when I saw them. Not because they had aged (that much, I actually expected) but because they had not. Well, in fact, they did look different. Just not their age. Of course, I quickly realized that this was the result of plastic surgery. Only it looked really bad.

Morgan Fairchild, who was never the most expressive "actress" in the world looked even more impassive and callous than in her youth. Look at this picture from the show, does she look like a 60 year old woman? Well, does she look like a real person. It's reall awful.

But I am even more disappointed at Jaklyn Smith since I had a crush on her when I was a little boy. In her case, it is not so much that she is expressionless, it is that.... there is something about her mouth that just does not look quite right. Kind of remind me of Michael Jackson. Seriously. It's just not right.

I don't get it. Why do so many actresses have to do that? It shows and the result is horrible. As I am getting older, I find that there is a lot of charm in a few wrinkles here and there, but I also see how awful the alternative if plastic surgery usually is. It take away human feature and makes women like like manikins.
I can see why a few changes might help but anything major like what these actresses did is indignant. It makes their faces so impassive that they can't even show one weenie bit of emotion.

Of course, this is not only American. French actresses do it too (Catherine Deneuve is a good case in point), but it seems to me that age is more acceptable in Europe. Maybe that has to do with being an old continent.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Jon Stewart on Sarkozy

Sarkozy's condescending comment did deserve this much from Jon Stewart. The French president really couldn't help it - you can tell. He enjoyed it. Just look at his smirk. It looks like G W's when he was able to finish a sentence! ;-)
The Pravda in English goes as far as calling it an "attack" (see Nicolas Sarkozy Attacks the US.). For the French who know him, this hardly an attack, just his usual aggressive self.

Anyway - I enjoyed this (obviously) fragile Anglo-American alliance against the French! :-)

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