Lost In Translation

In my job, people are forever telling me that my approach to the English language is all wrong. I believe that grammar, spelling, and punctuation carry equal importance with the ideas that a writer expresses. They claim that my insistence on correctness is, at best, backward, and, at worst, hateful and possibly racist. They say spelling is obsolete “since we have spell check,” and that grammar and punctuation are unimportant “because there is just so much information out there.”

I maintain that, in the era of BIG DATA, grammar, spelling, and punctuation have become more important than ever before. When only professionals wrote for public consumption, we could feel safe that they possessed the organizational skills and precision of presentation to tell us exactly what they meant. Now, anyone can transmit anything to an audience of indeterminate size. If they do it sloppily, our entire informational existence will become “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” There is no electronic shortcut that can tell us what a person is really thinking. That Shakespeare guy really knew a thing or two, didn’t he?

On one end of the spectrum lie the small, careless, ignorant errors: Hot Dog’s $1. I never understood that one. It’s actually more trouble to do it wrong. Or the graffiti on my grammar school walls: Class of “83.” As if it really were some other year. In a recent article from Sky & Telescope on line, Bob King and/or the editorial staff wrote it’s as a possessive. You don’t put an apostrophe in his or hers, do you?

“So what,” you’re asking. “It doesn’t matter as long as everyone knows what you mean.” Well, that’s where the lack of discipline required to produce correct grammar has greater consequences. Consider, if you will, the recent controversy between the Pope and Donald Trump. When asked about Trump’s proposed wall to keep Mexican immigrants from crossing into the United States illegally, Pope Francis made a statement which was translated into English by the Vatican Press Office. It said:

And then, a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the gospel. As far as what you said about whether I would advise to vote or not to vote, I am not going to get involved in that. I say only that this man is not Christian if he says things like that. We must see if he said things in that way and in this I give the benefit of the doubt.

That’s interesting, and not only because Trump call himself Presbyterian, not Catholic.

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“All I want is a wall. Is that too much to ask?”

If the translation represents the Pope’s words accurately, then the Holy Father has blundered. His job consists of guiding believers in the areas of faith and morals. This means he acts as Christ’s representative on Earth, telling the world proper beliefs and how to  act on those beliefs. He could certainly say that a person’s actions or words were not Christian. He could recommend someone seek forgiveness for a transgression against another person. But he, as a human being, cannot judge another person. If actions could permanently disqualify a person from God’s grace, the Catholic sacrament of Reconciliation would not exist. In addition, many people misunderstand this sacrament itself. The priest in the confessional does not forgive the sin; only God can do that.

So, what if the pundits are correct, and the Pope’s words were mistranslated? John Leo believes that the English version of Latin and Italian thoughts might be inaccurate.

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“That’s not what I said!”

He seems to be offering a typical modern excuse for an important theological misstatement. But that’s also quite dangerous. Catholics who do not speak Italian or Latin depend on this translation service to deliver the Pope’s guidance to them. Hiding behind poor translation is sloppy and irresponsible. Some might argue that certain words do not translate exactly from one language to another. Exact translation produces different nuances of meaning. If this is such a case, the Vatican Press Office has a responsibility to tell us what the Pope meant by his words. I have a hard time, though, believing that they could not differentiate between criticism of an statement and judgement of a person.

So let’s all focus and get these things right, shall we?

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It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Recently, I heard a couple of colleagues at work talking about a proposal to make the Monday after the Super Bowl a national holiday. I don’t know if they simply wished for this to avoid having to leave parties early or if elected officials were/are actually considering such a plan. Remember, there was once debate in the House of Representatives about mandating the format of college football playoffs. Isn’t it also strange that many of us would hide our heads in embarrassment if the United States government created a national football holiday, but would think nothing amiss if the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies officially closed all businesses during soccer’s World Cup?

I, for one, am never in favor of more government intervention in my day-to-day existence. I also have never understood why so many people consider the ultimate tribute to a great national figure like a civil right leader to be a paid day off for state employees.

Call me crazy, but wouldn’t it be better for children to go to school and have a full day of lessons about what Dr. King did? I’m such a curmudgeon.

If we ever did get time off for sports, I would propose the opening Thursday and Friday of the NCAA basketball tournament. Talk about a time when nobody does anything related to work! Ever since streaming service began, the NCAA has included a “Boss Button,” which instantly switches the viewer’s screen to something seemingly-work-related if a supervisor strolls in. People push the button between 2.5 and 3 million times in an average year. Think about how many views go undiscovered. Consider too that only the opening Thursday and Friday games of a three-weekend-long tournament happen during normal business hours. It seems that we as Americans just must watch.

But I would never propose shutting down the country just because so many people are slacking off instead of working. I’ll bet shopping and the viewing of pornography constitute a much bigger portion of wasted office hours, and those continue year-round. No, the celebration properly called March Madness speaks to so much of what makes us Americans that it deserves to have universal observation. So, what do we all love so much?

  1. We all feel a real kinship with the institutions represented by college athletes. It always drives me nuts when I hear people talking about a professional sports team and calling them “we.” “We would have won last night if Bird had only hit that jumpah.”

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[“I always hated that accent.”]

These people don’t work for the Celtics, or any team they talk about, for that matter. On the other hand, if I attended the University of Arizona, I actually have something in common with the players. I have every right to say, “We lost in the first round again.”

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[“Just shut up, all right?”]

2. Lots of our greatest memories in sports come from the NCAA Tournament. For me, let’s start with 1979. Larry Bird’s Indiana State team met Magic Johnson’s Michigan State team in the national championship game. Their rivalry would pretty much define NBA basketball for the next decade. In 1982, I watched freshman Patrick Ewing and Georgetown attempt to defeat a North Carolina team sporting Michael Jordan, James Worthy, Sam Perkins, and Matt Doherty, and come darn close to doing so. In 1983, against a Houston team that was one of the most talented of all time (Akeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, etc.), North Carolina State’s Dereck Wittenburg threw up one of the worst air balls in basketball history, only to have Lorenzo Charles bail him out and dunk the ball for a national championship win. That game was so exciting that my father just couldn’t bring himself to make me go to sleep, although it was more than two hours past my bedtime. In 1984, Georgetown finally got its championship, only to be stunned by Villanova the next year in probably the most surprising upset ever. I’ll never forget the look on my best friend’s face when his Connecticut Huskies won it all in 1999. It’s the only time I ever drank champagne over a sporting event. By far the sweetest moment, though, came in 1997, when Arizona finally emerged victorious. After having lost in the first round to East Tennessee State in 1992, Santa Clara in 1993, and Miami of Ohio in 1995. [Don’t forget Wichita State in 2016.] Yes, my alma mater has to be the worst good college basketball team of all time. But we keep watching and hoping.

3. College basketball is so much better than the professional game. Lots of people criticize the way the system of college sports handles athletes. They point out that most are just performing to make money in television appearances for the school, and hardly ever engage in serious academic pursuits. Their athletic scholarships seem to be the equivalent of a salary, since they are worth tens of thousands of dollars every year. I think these criticisms are off base. If the point of college is career training, what better job could a person get after he is finished with college than that of a professional athlete? Nobody with a degree in electrical engineering earns even a small fraction of the signing bonus a star receives. But the truth is most of the players in the NCAA tournament will not play professionally. Some see their college days as a long-shot attempt to receive consideration from pro teams; some know that they will earn a living as coaches, athletic trainers, commentators, or some other sports-related job that does not involve playing; and some just play for the experience and comradery that come from being a part of a team. In each case, the fans see a player playing his heart out, leaving it all on the floor, and reacting with genuine emotion. This may be the last time he is on such a stage. On the other hand, as soon as someone gets a lucrative guaranteed contract, I believe all of the passion goes out of him. A professional sport is a job like any other. If someone can put out less effort and prolong a career, he will certainly do so. He will follow the money and leave a team to play for a rival, regardless of the love the hometown fans have for him. Not so in college.

4. Everyone loves an underdog. As long as they’re not sending your team home early, everyone roots for an underdog to take down one of the perennial powers. Think the colonies vs. Great Britain, the 1980 U. S. Olympic hockey team vs. the Soviets, or Butler making it all the way to the NCAA championship game in 2010 and 2011. Consider Northern Iowa’s 2016 tournament experience. First Round:

But they could not bask too long in that glow. They had to play another higher-seeded team two days later. Still, they led by twelve points with 44 seconds to go in the game. Sure thing right? Not exactly.

5. It’s better than soccer. I know Europeans and South Americans go crazy for “the beautiful game,” especially the World Cup. But the players are all professionals, and national teams are essentially short-lived all-star teams. In college basketball, the squads have forged brotherhood through the long winter season, and that is apparent when you watch them play. In the World Cup, or any other soccer competition, there is a great deal of strategic advantage in playing for a tie. It can keep you alive to move to the next round. Just ask Texas and Northern Iowa about playing for a tie.

Yeah, I’m convinced. Bring on the national holiday.

Under the Weather

The last twelve months have been really strange ones for me in terms of general health. Most years, I have one severe bout of allergies in March or April when plants start to bloom and pollen fills the air. But, when I say severe, I mean feels-like-the-flu-with-bodyaches-and-chills severe. There is usually a period of two or three days when I simply do not leave the couch. I’ll put on an entire series such as Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and sleep through most of the episodes.

The following week, I generally sound awful because I lose my voice, but I feel so much better overall that getting up and facing the day actually becomes a pleasure.This provides my answer to the age-old philosophical question of whether a thing can exist in the absence of its opposite. For example, can we really appreciate capitalism if communism has died a lingering death throughout the world? In this case, I would argue in the negative, because since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet Union, U.S. voters have lurched decidedly to the left, expecting the national government to take care of more and more of what they need.

But back to illness. I know that I tend to take my academic and athletic abilities for granted, and this carries over into my expectations for the state of my health. [Notice I didn’t say “wellness?” That word irks me almost as much as “blog.”] I am extremely fortunate in that I have no long-term health concerns of any kind. Because of that, I have come to believe it’s important to feel lousy once in a while so that you appreciate how good it feels not to be sick.

This past fall, you’ll remember, I had a lingering multi-week sinus infection that made it painful to turn my eyes to the side or be in any kind of bright light. It was unpleasant, but I figured I was done being sick for a good, long time. Then, two weeks ago, my wife came down with a draining, plugging, sniffling, coughing head cold. Because it happened in the week between leaving her old job and starting her new one, we both figured it came from a long-needed relaxation and drop in the adrenaline on which she had operated constantly. It took her almost exactly a week to start feeling better. By that time, guess who was feeling sick.

Correct. Twice in nine months is just too much. I refused to be stopped by a tiny little virus. And by this time, I had additional motivation to carry on. The weather was beautiful. (See how that makes the title a double entendre?) It was the second week of March at a temperate latitude, and the daily high temperatures reached the 70s. I put away the cyclocross bike and went out for daily road rides!

To my surprise, I felt almost as if I had attained mid-season form. My average speeds were surprisingly high. My pedaling felt smooth. My shoulders and neck did not complain about spending multiple hours in a riding position. Best of all, I could breathe. My nasal passages and lungs felt better than any over-the -counter decongestant could have made them.

So, what was going on? It occurred to me that I may have unwittingly experienced performance-enhancing drugs. Decongestants are on the banned stimulant list for UCI bicycle races. But I think that if I experienced congestion, then the ephedrine would just have put me back to normal. My fitness level would have been just whatever it already was, right? If that were the case, something had made me stronger than is normal in March. For the first time since the Carter administration, I did not go cross-country skiing a single time over the winter. It just never snowed enough here. That would mean cyclocross got me strong and fit in just a handful of rides. I’d call that plausible, since a cyclocross rider has to work hard just to maintain any speed at all in snow, mud, and grass. Plus, jumping off and running up hills while carrying a heavy steel bike can’t hurt.

I prefer, though, to believe that I was embodying what Nietzsche believed his Super Man would do: put himself through physical challenges in order to prove his strength and superiority to others. Why climb Mount Everest? Because it’s there. Why go out and put yourself into oxygen debt when you’re feeling sick? To show those germs who’s boss. I do know that when I relaxed in the evenings after my rides, the pressure, congestion, and post-nasal drip returned.

I think from now on, I’ll just ride the microorganisms off my wheel.