Holy trinities and double whammies

One of the things I was most excited about when I was accepted into a Master’s program called ‘Translation in Theory and Practice’ was not having to dread the Holy Trinity of Dreaded Small Talk Questions anymore. The Holy Trinity of Dreaded Small Talk Questions is as follows:

  1. How are you?
  2. What do you do/study?
  3. What do you want to do/be when you grow up?**) This question is rarely phrased this way, but this is exactly what it boils down to.

The first question can usually be answered in a relatively straight-forward manner, but the other two form a double whammy. When I was getting my BA, it was pretty much impossible for me to answer the second question succinctly— which is kind of the point of small talk. Getting a liberal arts degree in a country that contains only a handful of liberal arts colleges puts a considerable strain on your ability to converse with people you don’t know all that well but know well enough to, you know, have to converse with them.

When Dutch people ask you what you study, they expect a one-word answer like “psychology” or “law”. Pre-BA me, however, had to answer that question with “English linguistics and literature oh and film,” and then spend the rest of the conversation having to explain how I could possibly be studying three subjects at once and where this magical university that allowed its students to study several subjects at once was located and what else made it different from ‘normal’ universities. All of which would precede the “but what kind of job can you get with that degree?” punchline.

But then I got my Bachelor’s degree and moved on to grad school, and the future was bright. So bright. Okay, so technically the program I’m doing is a specialization of a Master’s in Linguistics, and technically I’m sub-specializing in Literary, Legal, and Multimodal Translation, but still. Translation! Suddenly, I could parry all three Holy Trinity of Dreaded Small Talk Questions with one-word answers. How are you – fine; what do you study – translation; what do you want to do when you grow up – translate.

The next time there would be a birthday party/family gathering/obligatory chat with a person coming over to see my parents, I would be ready. I would be unstoppable. I would be able to battle my way through the Holy Trinity of Dreaded Small Talk Questions swiftly and efficiently, and the conversation would be free to move on to infinitely more interesting questions, such as what was the last movie you saw and who is your favorite author and when was the last time you had a really great pizza. You know, stuff that matters.

My hope was shattered when a friend of my mom’s came over to see her and, at some point, engaged me in aforementioned obligatory chat. The first two answers went down relatively well. I’m fine, thank you, how are you; translation, yes, translation, very interesting, yes; what can I do with that? Well, hold on to your hat— translate.

She stared at me, bug-eyed. “Translate?”
“So after this you can become a translator?”
“But what would you be translating?”
“Okay, but what kinds of texts?”

And with a heavy heart, I abandoned my triumphant one-word answer approach.

(I have since learned that this conversation could have gone less smoothly. For example, people sometimes think I’m studying to become an interpreter. I am not. The clue is in the words. People who study translation can become translators; people who study interpreting can become interpreters.)

The Holy Trinity of Dreaded Small Talk Questions remained, and remains to this day, the Holy Trinity of Dreaded Small Talk Questions. Fortunately, not having to dread the Questions anymore was only one of the reasons why I was excited about this Master’s program. Another reason was that I was expecting my bilingualism and my interest in linguistics, literature, and writing to dovetail perfectly into a love of translating— which they did.

If you’re wondering what exactly is so interesting about my current field of study and, hopefully, future line of work, stay tuned for some adventures in linguistic interference, false friendship, and other concepts that arise in the realm where two languages intersect.

Image credit: comic

A house is a house is a house

Once upon a time there were two people who thought it would be a good idea to buy a house built in 1924.

Those people were my parents, and that house is the house I moved back into after graduating college. It’s a fine house, a big house, but allow me contextualize that year. 1924. That’s before ballpoint pens were invented. Before the legendary Leonard Cohen graced this earth with his presence. Perhaps most shocking of all, it’s before IKEA was founded. How does one even furnish a house without the help of IKEA?

Old houses have got their charm, but they require upkeep. The only act of home improvement I personally find absolutely essential is getting a Wi-Fi system that doesn’t conk out whenever it feels like it, with a signal that reaches every remote corner of the house, i.e. my room, preferably all the way to my bed. Alas, my parents consider matters such as painting and gardening to be of much more pressing concern. Continue reading

The curse of constant connectivity


It’s a truth universally acknowledged: we’re addicted to our smartphones.

We’re slaves to Twitter, ensnared in Facebook’s mighty jaws. We Instagram every meal we eat. The instant our attention wanes from a task at hand, every second we spend waiting for our train to show up— we grasp at every opportunity to grab our cell phone. We wake up to blink blearily at the WhatsApp messages our friends send us at 3 AM. Maybe they’re out drinking; maybe they’re in a different time zone. Hell, maybe they just felt like texting us in the dead of night. “It’s always beer o’clock somewhere,” has turned into “It’s always social media o’clock somewhere.”

Sources in support of this claim are everywhere. Can’t turn on the television without stumbling straight onto a heartfelt complaint about the superficial and unrepresentative quality – or rather quantity – of communication in this age of constant connectivity. See also: YouTube. Continue reading

The stubborn language whore in the attic

In the Netherlands you can take pretty much as long as you like to finish university. Where I live, it’s not unusual to run into guys – they’re usually guys – in their late twenties who have been studying for eight years and still haven’t gotten their Bachelor’s degree (but have developed an impressive beer belly instead). The Dutch government once tried to remedy this situation by implementing a langstudeerboete, a fine for students with a study delay, but it got dismissed almost the minute it went through.

This reminded me of the following. In my hometown, there’s an alley which used to be a no-bike zone. The Dutch are big on cycling, obviously, and when it comes to cycling, traffic rules usually get ignored. Red lights? One-way lanes? Ha! Similarly, the idea of a no-bike zone simply does not exist in the Dutch conceptual system. Flocks of school kids, students on rattling hand-me-downs, mothers with toddlers front and back, elderly couples on tandem bicycles; everyone cycled through the no-bike alley. Cops used to guard it on either side to fine every culprit, but to no avail. We persevered in our fundamental right as Dutch people to turn the world into one big bike lane until, one day, the cops were replaced by this sign:

Cycling permitted; bonus points for not knocking pedestrians off their feet.

There’s this Dutch proverb, de aanhouder wint – literally ‘the one who persists wins’. The Dutch are stubborn. We do not bend to legislation; legislation bends to us.

To return to the subject of studying:  Continue reading

Curriculum vitae imaginationis

#5 on the list of ‘Required Documents for Application to this Master’s Program’: an updated curriculum vitae (résumé). According to the explanatory note, a curriculum vitae is “an overview of your personal details, and your educational and professional background”.

I wonder, should someone who doesn’t know what a resume is even be allowed to apply for a postgraduate degree? Also, why specify that the resume has to be updated— isn’t that kind of obvious? No, prospective student, don’t send us the Comic Sans MS document you wrote in Microsoft Word 97 with nothing but some babysitting to boast. We want experience! We want extracurricular activities! We want sweat, unpaid internships, after-school jobs in shoe stores and downtown cafes— anything to prove your dedication to responsibility and hard work!

When I was five or six years old, it was my life goal to own a petting zoo. I wouldn’t stop penciling meticulously designed floor plans into the margins of my primary school notebooks. Rabbits would go here; goats there; horses would get a pasture of honor in front of my house. Countless drawings and frustrated teachers later, I had perfected the farm’s architecture to a point where I had no idea what else to add. Continue reading

Five favorite movies of 2012

While the world is celebrating the birthday of Baby Jeebus, as my brother calls him (merry Christmas everyone!), I’m secretly looking forward to New Year already. New Year’s Eve is the holiday for people who like lists, clean slates, and philosophical pondering. In recent years, I’ve gotten into the habit of writing an ‘end of year report’ just to have a coherent overview of what happened my life over the past twelve months. This report invariably includes an ‘art’ section – hey, I have to live up to the Bachelor of Arts title I’m receiving in a few weeks – with my favorite movies and books of the year. I thought, why not share?

1. Intouchables
Back in March, I called Intouchables “the most hilarious and heartwarming movie I’ve seen in 2012 so far”. And when I go through the list of movies I’ve seen in 2012, this was the one that really called out to me. It’s just so good. Everything about it is right – the story, the cinematography, the acting. It’s fantastic.  Continue reading

Brand new shoes

It’s a string of loosely unrelated bad decisions that lead up to this moment: you sitting by the side of a bicycle path one warm summer evening, shaking rainwater out of your new pair of shoes.

It hasn’t rained all day.

Figure that one out, you silently challenge the people cycling past you—an old couple, a man and his safely helmeted daughter—who stare in puzzlement at your bare feet and the drenched sock in your hand. You cast them an insipid smile. What do they make of it, you wonder; a prank? An act of bullying? A girl steering into a ditch because she was distracted by her iPhone? Their minds’ attempts at working this image into a coherent narrative could very well be more imaginative than what actually occurred.  Continue reading