9

Lost in Translation

A few years back, I got on a ‘best films of all time’ kick, telling myself that I’d watch the highest-rated films from the silent era up through whatever year it was. I dove into silent films with a vengeance, curious to see Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin in their heyday, as well as seminal films such as Nosferatu, Metropolis, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and The Passion of Joan of Arc. I thoroughly enjoyed them all. (Watch them. Watch them all.)

Because these were DVDs, most of them had commentary tracks. So I’d watch them without the commentary first, then again with commentary. Sometimes multiple times, if there was more than one commentary track. (No, I’m not OCD, why do you ask?)

I forget which silent film I was watching — I only know it was one of the Charlie Chaplin films — when the commentator (Leonard Maltin) remarked on a unique aspect of silent films that had never occurred to me before, and which has forever changed the way I consume them when I do so.

The scene was Chaplin, as the lovable but hapless tramp, waddling down the middle of a railroad track, oblivious to the fact that there is a giant steam locomotive approaching him from behind. The train gets closer . . . and closer . . . and closer . . . and then just as it’s about to hit him, he blithely steps off the tracks, avoiding certain death by mere inches.

He never once reacts to the fact that he has narrowly escaped death. Because he never turned around to see the train. Because . . . it’s a silent film. He couldn’t hear it. Wait. What?

As I watched, I was tense. “There’s a train coming! Get out of the way, you idiot!” And as he stepped off the track, there was a corresponding release of tension. The “Whew!” moment when the hero narrowly escapes whatever peril the world / villain has in store for him. I had bought into the world entirely.

Maltin made me aware of something I had never considered while watching: we, as the audience, accept the fact that these are silent films. Only certain things make noise, even though we don’t hear them, the character does. Dogs barking, someone calling their name, dropped plates shattering on the floor — they “hear” all of this, and react to it.

But the train? He couldn’t hear it, or even feel the vibrations through the tracks. Because in the world of the silent movie, if the character doesn’t react to it, the audience knows that it is truly silent.

Never mind that in the real world, he would have heard the train approaching and leapt to safety long before death was nigh. Steam locomotives were among some of the loudest machines in the environment at the time, and yet he gave no indication that he heard it.

If a passer-by had shouted, “Hey! Look out! There’s a train!” the tramp would have “heard” and reacted. But not a train as it barrels down on him. This is remarkable if you stop to think about it. It’s never explained. You just get it.

Now. What if this were a short story, instead? Or a “talkie” film? It simply wouldn’t work at all, because we wouldn’t buy the premise.


A scene that always bothered me in the first Harry Potter film reminds me of this. There’s a pivotal scene in chapter 10 of the book in which Harry and Ron, already best buds, Seamus, Hermione, and a bunch of other first-years are attending Professor Flitwick’s class, and he is teaching the students the spell for levitation of an object.

“Now, don’t forget that nice wrist movement we’ve been practicing!” squeaked Professor Flitwick, perched on top of his pile of books as usual. “Swish and flick, remember, swish and flick. And saying the magic words properly is very important, too — never forget Wizard Baruffio, who said ‘s’ instead of ‘f’ and found himself on the floor with a buffalo on his chest.”

It was very difficult. Harry and Seamus swished and flicked, but the feather they were supposed to be sending skyward just lay on the desktop. Seamus got so impatient that he prodded it with his wand and set fire to it — Harry had to put it out with his hat.

Ron, at the next table, wasn’t having much more luck.

“Wingardium Leviosa!” he shouted, waving his long arms like a windmill.

“You’re saying it wrong,” Harry heard Hermione snap. “It’s Wing-gar-dium Levi-o-sa, make the ‘gar’ nice and long.”

“You do it, then, if you’re so clever,” Ron snarled.

Hermione rolled up the sleeves of her gown, flicked her wand, and said, “Wingardium Leviosa!”

It all works well on paper, and we, the readers, accept it without much thought. Because we, as readers, can’t actually see the swish and flick of the wand, nor hear Flitwick say the words.1 But then, neither can Ron, Harry, Seamus, or Hermione. We gloss over that fact while reading. It’s just part of the world.

And then the movie came out. And there is Professor Flitwick standing in front of the class, and he clearly says, “Wingaaardium leviooosa!” and equally clearly demonstrates the wand action. We can hear him and see him do so right there, in Technicolor and Dolby Surround.

And yet . . . only Hermione can apparently use her ears and eyes, because none of the other young witches and wizards gets it even close to right. We hear them mangling the pronunciation — Ron manages something like ‘wingardria leviosaaa — and hideously over-exaggerating the subtle swish-flick of the wand.

But we had just seen and heard the correct pronunciation and wand actions as Flitwick demonstrates them moments before on screen. Which Hermione then duplicates in her condescending tone to Ron.

What worked perfectly in the book simply made no sense on the big screen. Something bothered me about it immediately, but I didn’t really close in on what it was until much later when it dawned on me. It’s the same as Chaplin’s silent locomotive.

It would have made more sense if, say, Flitwick had a thick accent of some sort the students weren’t used to hearing, such as Russian.2 But with Flitwick and the students all being some flavor of British, they’d have grown up at least hearing the various accents spoken around them all their lives (on TV, if nothing else), and would get awfully close.3

Which brings up another point. There are languages that have sounds which English does not, and languages without sounds English does have. Would a Japanese witch be simply unable to cast the levitation spell because the ‘w’ doesn’t exist in her language? Would a wizard with an l/w lisp be likewise unable, because he couldn’t properly pronounce “leviosa”? Would he wind up with a wombat on his chest?

But I digress. :)

I find it interesting, is all, how sometimes the medium in which something is presented plays a huge role in whether the thing makes sense to the audience, and how translating it to another medium loses something fundamental.


  1. More importantly, Flitwick never actually speaks the words ‘wingardium leviosa’ in the book. (I checked.) I guess we’re supposed to either believe that the students read the words in their book — and Flitwick inexplicably never teaches them the proper pronunciation — or he did so off-scene.
  2. Rowling does, in fact, do this later, in the character of Bulgarian wizard Viktor Krum, who can’t pronounce Hermione’s name, and whose speech Rowling portrays phonetically, for example, in this question he asks Harry: “I vant to know vot there is between you and Hermy-own-ninny.”
  3. In the same way that, although I was born and raised entirely within the state of Alabama, I heard accents from all over the United States on television all the time, and knew that ‘dawg’ and ‘dwaug’ both meant the same four-legged, barky animal. I had an internal translation table. The same as a British kid would have had for ‘translating’ between a Geordi accent and a Scottish one.

8

Missing in Action?

So. Where have I been? I made all those posts about improving stuff and then, basically, disappeared.

I have made quite a few changes. The first one was ordering the FitBit Flex. I received it in the mail before the last couple of posts went live (I pre-wrote them and had them scheduled to publish). I wore it for a couple of weeks to get a “base level” of sleep and activity, just to see what it would say. More on that below.

I also implemented the sleep schedule thing, where I quit using my alarm clock altogether. The startling innovation was to simply go to sleep early enough that I would wake up naturally in plenty of time to get to work at a decent time. That was the biggest, most wonderful change. I haven’t awakened tired a single time since I did that. The alarm always made me feel kind of logy all day, because it would wake me up in the middle of deep sleep. More on that shortly.

I’ve cut back severely (as in more than 50%) on my YouTube subscriptions. I went through and ruthlessly deleted any channels for which I didn’t automatically think, “I must watch their latest video.” I’ve also added some new ones, but for the most part, they’re shorter videos. And every time one of my remaining subscriptions puts up a new video and I think, “Meh,” I unsubscribe.

I rearranged all of my podcasts into eight categories, and prioritized those so that I have playlists for various activities. The Fiction and Serialized Fiction categories are mostly for driving, since that’s when I can pay deeper attention and I’m not distracted (mentally) by other things. The other categories (General, Writing, Education, Skeptical, Entertainment, and Video) are for when I’m doing other things, such as working or browsing Facebook or whatever. To handle all of the back-issues of podcasts I have sitting on my hard drive, I add one old, unheard episode of each podcast to the proper category so that I pretty much have to listen to all the archived stuff before I get to the new ones. So I’m making good headway on getting through all those back episodes. Plus hearing some great stories and interviews and such along the way.

I did join 750 Words. The site’s owner was willing to work with me on the whole PayPal thing, and I was able to mail her a check for a year’s worth of membership. There’s a slight problem with that right now, and I’m unable to get to the site since May 1, but I’m hoping that will get cleared up post haste.


What I have discovered in all this is that I do not, as I previously thought, sleep seven hours. I sleep until the sun wakes me up. It didn’t seem to matter what time I went to bed, if it was after midnight. I’d wake up when the sun came into my bedroom and thwacked me right in the face. So I put a dark curtain on that window, and that has helped me sleep past sunrise. The earlier I go to bed, the more contiguous, good sleep I get. (Kind of a duh, I know.)

The FitBit has several options, such as wearing it on your dominant or non-dominant hand. Well, thanks to Things (see below), I’ve been wearing it on my non-dominant hand but claiming that it is my dominant hand. I find that it’s not very accurate, but it’s not accurate in a consistent way. So having the base level helps me more accurately define whatever step-based (or distance-based) goal I might want in the future.


But since shortly after I did all of that, everything has been on pause. Back in July of 2013, I fell at work and caught my entire body weight on my outstretched right arm. This . . . did things to my shoulder and elbow joints. Bad things. (Compression fracture in the elbow and torn rotator cuff and tendon in the shoulder.) Exacerbating the healing process is the fact that I am exceptionally right-handed. As I’ve said in other places, if my right hand is Albert Einstein, my left hand is that one weird kid who eats bugs and has conversations with hammers. It has not been a fun nine months.

Because the accident happened at work, I’ve been having to wade through the constant red-tape-laden swamp of dealing with Workers Comp. It took me until after I made my last post to get approved for surgery to fix my shoulder (the elbow healed on its own).

On April 18th, I finally had shoulder surgery. Outpatient, arthroscopic surgery.

After about 3 days — and several doses of the good pain meds — I could type for short periods of time, and over the intervening two weeks, I’ve gotten slowly more able to use my arm for longer periods of time and for things which require more flexibility and strength. It’s not by any means back to normal, yet.

But what this does mean is that my sleep schedule is screwed up majorly because I don’t sleep well on my left side or with a shoulder that hurts if I put it in the wrong position. I can’t write much because my shoulder aches if I overuse it. It’s hard to put on shoes or a belt because of the shoulder muscles I apparently use to tie shoe laces and tighten a belt. I’m getting better, and fairly quickly, all things considered. But it is a process, and so certain things have had to take a back seat.

As soon as I’m able to drive, wear shoes and belts, and work again, I should be able to put some of these other planned things into play.

But for now, I’m mostly working my way slowly through the podcast backlog and napping a lot in my armchair.


If you’re at all interested in the amazingly “fun” process I’ve gone through in dealing with Workers Comp, I’ve blogged a lot of it over on my LiveJournal blog. It’s for ranting, which is what I tend to do when I talk about this whole process for very long.

Warning: For the first few parts, I don’t think I use too much NSFW language, and I try to make each rant as amusing/entertaining as possible, because I know people don’t like to read long rants. Part 8, however, is mostly a profanity-ridden tirade. I just wanted you to be forewarned.

Workers Comp Swamp: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8

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