Monday, June 20, 2016

Branford, Connecticut

The Branford population in Connecticut is decreasing. They have lost two of their esteemed citizens.

To be wholly accurate, Branford has lost one, and the other Branford, North Branford, has lost one as well. The two towns are just east and north of East New Haven and are not adjacent, but do share a name.

And it is that similarity that was spotted when a read of the Thursday NYT obituaries was done. The sole two obituaries that day told us Gregory Rabassa, 94, departed Branford, and Richard Selzer, 87, departed North Branford two days apart. I really can't remember reading two NYT bylined obituaries on the same day where the subjects were from liked named towns in the same state.

The NYT obituary page editor, Bill McDonald has done these hidden common denominator obituary placements before. It's almost as if you can ask your obit reading buddies if they spotted the similarities.

And it's not just the town names that are complementary. The occupations have similarities, despite one being an award winning translator and the other being a surgeon.

The first obituary in the layout is that of Mr. Rabassa, a noted Spanish translator, Spanish to English, whose sendoff is  written by Margalit Fox. Apparently, his translation work was as crafty as the works he translated, working with Spanish authors who later won awards, notably Garcia Marquez, who won a Nobel Prize for literature.

Ms. Fox is the perfect obit writer for Mr. Rabassa. I have to think that Mr. McDonald probably didn't assign the piece to her randomly but purposely gave her the ball. Margalit is a linguistics expert whose books reflect the origin of languages and phrases.

And to lead us into the nuances of translations into English, Ms. Fox dissects the choice of the words "a hundred" or "one hundred." Which would you rather have? A hundred dollars, or one hundred dollars? (My question.)

Well, that's like asking which weighs more: a pound of feathers or a pound of lead? One is decidedly denser, but the weight is the same. As would be the purchasing power of a hundred George Washingtons, or one hundred George Washingtons.

But to Mr. Rabassa, the two words while meaning the same in a financial transaction, do not sound the same to the reader. And it is in words that Mr. Rabassa puts his heart.

It is amazing that a man who can sweat over such distinctions lived to be 94. Surely the lesser of us who embarked on a career of such parsing and tortuous word decisions would have suffered a nervous breakdown and death years before becoming a nonagenarian.

Ms. Fox takes us through other language twists that leave the obituary containing passages in Spanish, along with Mr. Rabassa's English outcomes. The art of translation never occurred to me until now. I'm probably never going to read enough Spanish to English translations to see what choice Mr. Rabassa might have made when conveying the Spanish word for cojones into English.

He might have left it alone, or settled on "balls," "nut sack," or "brass ones." I'll never know. Likewise, the Spanish word caramba. Would it be, "surprise!"  "yikes!" or possibly "holy shit!" I know I'll never know. Maybe it would depend on who is  uttering "caramba."

The second obituary, placed underneath Mr. Rabassa's is that of Richard Selzer, 87, North Branford, who was a surgeon who took up writing after retiring from the OR in 1985 at the age of 58. Initially, he wrote horror stories, then other forms of fiction that contained a medical theme to them.

And while he did no translating, he created his own words when he felt there was nothing in the dictionary that expressed what he was trying to say with precision. The guy would have been hell to play Scrabble with. Especially if he brought his scalpel and started waving it about when challenged.

We was an artist in residence at Yaddo, the artist's colony at Saratoga Springs, 10 times. This makes me sorry I never bumped into the guy to ask if at Yaddo did he ever cross the road and head for the track at Saratoga?

When I worked for a major health insurer I became friendly with the retired surgeon who was assigned to work with our fraud division. He didn't write, but he did tell the story of the patient who kept coming back to see the doctor who kept amputating sections of his leg. The surgery wasn't necessary, and when the patient realized it and took the doctor to court for malpractice so much surgery had been already done that the poor fellow's lawsuit was thrown out of court because he didn't have a leg to stand on.

You have to hope that was fiction.

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