Saturday 28 May 2011

Online translation, and how to fix it

I was curious to see how the French press was covering the recent case of alleged rape of a New York City hotel maid by Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the "DSK case." So I googled Le Monde and clicked on "Translate this page." I found the relevant article and started reading:
This morning of Sunday, May 15, surprise, disbelief and dismay we have literally seized. Faced with an unprecedented form of moral and political adversity, it was felt across the need to increase the size of the event as to avert, in the sacred union of silence suspended image tarnished our country . After this time a strange stupor, the debate has resumed its rights to explore what is known as"DSK case. In the maelstrom of comments, how can you find? If we remember that the stakes of this is not to throw the dogs privacy or personality of a man down, but a specific sexual charge in a criminal proceeding defined, we see a new divide has emerged in the French debate. Evident in some way, as we now accuse each other of having to account for a master of global finance or compassion for a poor immigrant maid, it is not so simple to understand.
I'll spare you the rest of the article, which went on at great length in similar obscurantist vein. I ran the translation by a friend of mine, a retired professor of English. He said it sounded like it was written by one of his graduate students. Case closed: there's a big problem with online translation.

But how to fix it? I pondered the problem. Suddenly the scales fell from my eyes and the solution presented itself with blinding clarity: double translation. By that I mean, translate something from English to another language; then re-translate the translation back into English. It's like getting a second opinion from another doctor, or a second set of eyes to look at the company's books, acting as a check on the first. The logic of my methodology was so sound I could hardly wait to apply it on a translation website.

What better way to test double-translation than on the lyrics of a well-known popular song? And for scientific precision, what better language to use than German?

First the translation to German:

Oh, mein Honig! Oh, mein Honig! Befördern Sie besser schnell und wollen Windung wir;
Ist nicht Sie das Gehen? Ist nicht Sie, zum Mann-Führer, zerlumpter Meter-Mann gehend?
Oh, mein Honig! Oh, mein Honig! Lassen Sie mich Sie Alexander bringen
Großartige Standplatz-Blaskapelle, ist nicht Sie das Mitkommen?

Kommen Sie heran und hören Sie! Kommen Sie heran und hören Sie! Das Lumpen-Zeitband von Alexander!
Kommen Sie heran und hören Sie! Kommen Sie heran und hören Sie! Es ist das beste Band im Land!
Sie können spielen ein Signalhorn-Anruf wie Sie hörte nie vorher,
So natürlich, dass Sie Krieg führen wollen!
Das ist gerade das bestest Band, was, mein Honiglamm ist!
Kommen Sie vorwärts heran! Kommen Sie vorwärts heran! Lassen Sie mich Sie bei der Hand nehmen
Bis zum Mann, bis zum Mann, der der Führer des Bandes ist;
Und wenn Sie sich sorgen, den Swanee in der Lumpen-Zeit gespielten Fluss zu hören,
Kommen Sie heran und hören Sie, kommen Sie heran und hören Sie das Lumpen-Zeitband von Alexander!

Now the re-translation back into English:

Oh, my honey! Oh, my honey! Carry better fast and want bend we;
Is not you the walking? Is ragged meter man not going you, to the man's leader?
Oh, my honey! Oh, my honey! Let me you bring Alexander
Great stand brass band, is not you coming along?

Approach and hear you! Approach and hear you! The scoundrel-time tape of Alexander!
Approach and hear you! Approach and hear you! It is the best tape in the country!
They can play a signal horn-phone call like you never heard before,
So of course that you want to lead war!
This is just the bestest tape what, my honey lamb is!
Approach forward! Approach forward! Let me take you with the hand
Up to the man, up to the man who is the leader of the tape;
And if you worry to hear the Swanee in the scoundrel's time played River,
Approach and hear, approach and hear the scoundrel-time tape from Alexander!

Clearly I was on the right track, but something told me I had failed to capture the piquant flavor of the original lyrics. Perhaps my choice of German had been a mistake. What's needed here is art, I thought, not science. Why not try Russian? After all, the song's composer-lyricist, Israel Isidore Baline, was born in Russia, and the language and music of the land was in his blood. Anyone who has heard his beautiful Russian Lullaby would agree. Surely English-to-Russian-to-English would yield more idiomatic results.

О, мой мед! О, мой мед! Лучше торопите и давайте блуждать;
Разве Вы не движение? Разве Вы не идущий к лидеру-человеку, рваный человек метра?
О, мой мед! О, мой мед! Позвольте мне брать Вас Александру
Великий духовой оркестр стенда, не Вы приход?

Продвиньтесь и услышьте! Продвиньтесь и услышьте! Полоса Времени Тряпки Александра!
Продвиньтесь и услышьте! Продвиньтесь и услышьте! Это - лучшая полоса на земле!
Они могут играть, звонок горна как Вы никогда не слышал прежде,
Настолько естественный, что Вы хотите принять участие в войне!
Это - только bestest полоса, что, мой ягненок меда!
Продвиньтесь вперед! Продвиньтесь вперед! Позвольте мне брать Вас за руку
До человека, до человека, который является лидером полосы;
И если Вы хотите слышать Реку Swanee, сыгранную во время тряпки,
Продвиньтесь и услышьте, продвиньтесь и услышьте Полосу Времени Тряпки Александра!

About, my honey! About, my honey! Hurry is better and let's wander;
Unless you not movement? Unless you not going to the leader-person, the fragmentary person of meter?
About, my honey! About, my honey! Allow me to take to Vas Alexander
Great wind band of the stand, not you arrival?

Promote and hear! Promote and hear! A strip of Time of the Cloth of Alexander!
Promote and hear! Promote and hear! It is the best strip on the ground!
They can play, the call of a forge as you never heard before,
So natural, that you wish to take part in war!
It - only bestest a strip, that, my lamb of honey!
Move ahead! Move ahead! Allow me to take you by the hand
Up to the person, up to the person who is the leader of a strip;
And if you wish to hear River Swanee played during a cloth,
Promote and hear, promote and hear the strip of Time of the Cloth of Alexander!

Now that's more like it. There's something majestic, almost mythic, in that "strip of Time of the Cloth of Alexander." Once we get a few scansion problems smoothed out, we'll get Rebecca Kilgore to record the new version (she could sing my computer manual and make it sound good) with Dan Barrett on signal horn-phone and Jon-Erik Kellso blowing forge.

Then maybe we could do the same with songs from the big tape era.

Monday 23 May 2011

"Satan with the small moustache"

Before December 7, 1941 and U.S. entry into Wold War Two, American pop culture, reflecting a large segment of public opinion, was reluctant to face the reality of the war raging in Europe and the Nazi menace. Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley were still mainly in the business of diverting Americans from their Depression woes. Notable exceptions were the films Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) and Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940).

By late 1940 and early '41 American involvement in the war was growing ever more likely, and conscription had been enacted. Patriotic themes began to emerge in movies but they were largely unserious. The military-themed finale of the 1940 Busby Berkeley musical Strike Up the Band with Mickey Rooney (in uniform) and Judy Garland is a smugly self-confident paean to American readiness and invulnerability.

As far as I know, this Irving Berlin song is the first pop song to deal specifically with "Satan with the small moustache," preceding by one year (and one declaration of war) Spike Jones' 1942 hit record of Der Fuehrer's Face . Without ever mentioning Hitler by name, this may be the only pop song ever to treat him in a non-comic manner. Berlin registered the song for copyright on January 14, 1941 and introduced it on the radio program ASCAP on Parade on February 1st. Mildred Bailey and the Delta Rhythm Boys recorded it on February 24th.

Irving Berlin's patriotism was heartfelt and serious. He once said, "Music is so important. It changes thinking, it influences everybody, whether they know it or not." He also said, "Songs make history and history makes songs."

If ever a song exemplified Berlin's theorem, this is it.

Saturday 21 May 2011

What I got for Christmas in 1949

This photo was taken in St. Giles Hospital in Brooklyn, my home for nine months following the polio epidemic of the summer of 1949. Do you recognize my Santa Claus? His career was just beginning then, so he wasn't yet famous. Eventually he would become such a beloved figure there's now a park, a school, and a bridge named after him. Those wanting to play the guessing game should stop reading here.

Old Brooklyn Dodger fans already know it's Gil Hodges.

If the photographer had followed me for another half-hour or so, he would have found me in the semi-private room to which I had just been assigned, along with my new roommate, a black kid named Freddie.

Until then I'd been residing in the boys' ward, where I had my radio, my Victrola, and the 78s Dad would buy for me. Thus equipped, when time allowed, I became the self-appointed disc jockey of the ward, complete with smart commentary while I changed records. This wasn't much of a stretch from my career plan at the time, which was to be the Dodgers' play-by-play radio man, if not their first-baseman.

Musically speaking, my daily DJ program for the boys wasn't all that scintillating. My record collection consisted of the top pop hits of the day, as dictated by Martin Block every Saturday morning on WNEW. By the end of 1949 the swing era was moribund in white America. Pop music was in a pathetic state, having declined to the point where the top hits were insipid novelties or sappy ballads. (For a rundown of the dreary hit songs of that season, see my previous post "Wild Bill Meets Rag Mop.") I think the most swinging record in my collection was Bing Crosby's Chattanooga Shoeshine Boy.

So the first days of the dawning 1950s found me in a semi-private room with my new friend Freddie. I never learned why we were chosen to receive such a boon, or who paired us up. I suspect a kindly Irish nurse who took a liking to us and once took a snapshot of us together. We didn't know why we'd gotten the room; we just considered it a terrific Christmas present.

Freddie was a couple of years older. I never asked him what his medical problem was; I can't recall that we ever discussed the unfortunate circumstances that had thrown us together in this hospital at this time. I do remember that we bantered a lot, listened to records, and generally hit it off. Like fellow-prisoners-of-war, I imagine, we had a common, unspoken understanding of the main task at hand: to make the best of a crappy situation.

Freddie and I especially enjoyed "riffing" on jokes, usually the same old jokes. The nurses couldn't understand why we laughed at the same jokes every day; this only added to our pleasure in running our routines into the ground. For example, Freddie would insist that his uncle was some kind of famous piano player, and I'd say something like, "Yeah, right, and my uncle is Harry Houdini." It was part of our daily shtick. Freddy: "My uncle's a piano player." Me: "Getoutahere!" (For the uninitiated, "getoutahere" is Brooklynese for: "I'm sorry, dear friend, but I doubt the veracity of your statement, as it lacks the corroborative detail needed to give verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.")

Meanwhile the boys in the big ward weren't denied my daily DJ program of pop hits; Freddie and I and my Victrola and 78s would spent part of each day there. After a while I noticed that while I was busy spinning platters Freddie and a few of his black friends were listening to a radio way down at the other end of the ward. One day my curiosity got the better of me and I wheeled myself over to see what they were listening to. I saw that their radio was tuned to part of the dial that was terra incognita to me.

Until then my radio universe was WEAF, 660 on the dial, where NBC network shows like Jack Benny's could be found; WOR 710 where Superman was able to leap tall buildings in a single bound; WJZ 770 where The Lone Ranger returned us to those thrilling days of yesteryear, and where The Shadow was able to cloud men's minds so they could not see him; WHN 1050 where Red Barber and Connie Desmond described the Dodger games; and WNEW 1130 where Martin Block presided over the Make-Believe Ballroom. But now, thanks to Freddie and his friends, I had discovered a new world on the radio dial, to the right of WNEW 1130, where I had never strayed before. I know for a certainty that none of my boyhood friends in all-white Bay Ridge had ever been there. This new world was WLIB 1190, where the disc jockey was Joe Bostic.

I was thunderstruck: the records Bostic was playing were so much better than anything I had. I remember Dontcha Go 'Way Mad and Sugarfoot Rag by Ella Fitzgerald and Sy Oliver; Limehouse Blues and I Want to Be Loved (But Only By You) by Lionel Hampton and the Hamptonians; Harry James' Back Beat Boogie; September in the Rain and Nothing But D. Best by George Shearing; For You, My Love by Nat "King" Cole and Nellie Lutcher; records by the Jimmy Lunceford and Lucky Millinder bands, as well as "TD" and "JD," as Bostic called the Dorsey brothers; Caldonia by Sugar Chile Robinson; Baby, It's Cold Outside and The Hucklebuck by Pearl Bailey and Hot Lips Page; Tippin' In, Cherry, and Don't Cry, Baby by "the twentieth-century Gabriel" Erskine Hawkins. Many of these records found their way, via Dad, into my collection.

With these new acquisitions my daily DJ programs took on a new, more pungent flavor. From then on, the boys' ward was rockin'. There were a few weeks there when I thought Erskine Hawkins' Corn Bread and Hawk's Boogie were the hottest things ever put on wax. The one time I went too far was during the loud, honking, r&b-style tenor saxophone solo in the middle of the Cole-Lutcher For You, My Love, played at top volume. A highly irritated nurse told me in no uncertain terms to turn it down and never play that record again. I did play the record again, when the nurse wasn't on duty, but I still can't listen to that solo without feeling somebody's going to yell at me.

One day while Mom and Dad were visiting, Freddie again pulled his "my uncle is a piano player" gag and I decided to call his bluff. I asked him for the name of this alleged uncle, so Dad could pick up pick up one of his records. "Ha!" I said to myself, "I've got him now." Freddie gave us a name we didn't recognize.

To my amazement, next visit Dad brought in a record with Freddie's uncle's name on it. The label, yellow and black and new to me, said Atlantic on it. One side was I Can't Give You Anything But Love; the other side was Skylark.

Freddie hadn't been kidding after all: his uncle was a piano player, one for whom my admiration has only grown through the years. It's an admiration not based on sanitized, sentimentalized memories of an early chapter of my life. It's based on music. I may still get nostalgic when I hear Erskine Hawkins records but I no longer mistake them for masterworks. On the other hand, the more I listen to Freddie's uncle the more I'm convinced that he's one of the true originals and geniuses of jazz history: an endlessly inventive, swinging improviser, daring harmonist, individualist, composer, and rhapsodist without equal.

I didn't realize it then but something new and valuable had been added to my life, transforming and enriching it immeasurably, forever.

Freddie and I got out of the hospital about the same time, in early June 1950. That's when the nurse took the snapshot. He visited me once in Bay Ridge, then we lost touch. It took me many, many years to realize how much I owe to him, starting with the record Dad brought me that day in the hospital.
Thank you, Freddie.

Tuesday 10 May 2011

How Nehemiah Klein probably saved my life

"Our lives are immersed in a sea of chance. Everyone's existence is a meeting point of a multitude of accidents." So wrote J.P.M. de Sá in a book called Chance: The Life of Games and the Game of Life. To that bit of wisdom you can add: blessings come in all sorts of disguises; and all's well that ends well.

I met Nehemiah Klein in 1956-57 when we were freshmen at Cornell. We hit it off and had a lot in common. We were both Brooklyn kids who agreed about pretty much everything important in life: baseball, the Dodgers, politics, classical music, Gilbert & Sullivan. When June, 1957 rolled around, I assumed we'd be making plans to share an apartment sophomore year, as our limited budgets required. To my surprise, when I brought up the subject, Nehemiah told me he'd decided to room with Peter Dickerman, another freshman from Brooklyn. I didn't say so, but I was a bit hurt. Nehemiah explained his decision: he and I were too much alike. He wanted to room with someone with different interests; "someone I can learn from" was the way he put it. Left scrambling for a roommate, I chose Eric Compton, a decent, jovial fellow I barely knew, a math major who liked classical music and was curious about jazz.

As it turned out, poor Nehemiah had a semester from hell. He and Dickerman couldn't have been more of a disaster as apartment-mates. After a few weeks and several major fights, one of them physical, they stopped speaking to each other entirely -- for the rest of the school year. Meanwhile, Compton and I spent sophomore year co-existing quite nicely.

Nehemiah and I remained friends. The snub had been a trivial one, quickly forgiven and forgotten, with no lasting after-effects save one: all the good things that have happened in my life have flowed directly from his bad decision in 1957.

Jump-cut to 1962. Two years out of Cornell, I'm spending a Saturday evening sitting in the Figaro, a Greenwich Village coffee-house, with my friend Eric Compton (whom, you must remember, I would never have known had Nehemiah roomed with me sophomore year). In walk two college girls, one of whom turned out to be Brooklyn Girl. The other girl was an acquaintance of Compton's -- a perfect excuse for them to join us at our table. We spent the evening yakking, drinking coffee, and playing Password (still a good parlor game, with simple rules). Brooklyn Girl and I were teammates in every Password round, and we were unbeatable -- the first clue that we had a special chemistry.

The evening ended, we left the Figaro and the girls headed for their subway station. At the last possible moment before BG descended the steps to the underground station, I summoned the courage to call out to her and ask for her telephone number. The rest, as they say, is family history. Baseball may be a game of inches, but life too can be a chancy thing, a game of inches, moments, of opportunities seized and opportunities missed.

I was pondering all this last Sunday, Mother's Day, as Brooklyn Girl and I sat around a festive dinner table with Brooklyn Baby and her Atlanta Guy, and the three grandchildren. As we celebrated I said a silent thanks to Nehemiah for choosing the wrong Brooklyn kid as his apartment-mate in 1957.

If Nehemiah had chosen the right Brooklyn kid 54 years ago, today there would be no Brooklyn Baby, no three grandchildren. They would never have existed. What would have happened to BG and to me is anybody's guess. Maybe it's an exaggeration to say Nehemiah saved my life; maybe not. Maybe he saved BG's life, too. She and I have often speculated about possible life-scenarios for us had we never met. Many of these scenarios are not pretty. As for Atlanta Guy, he'd probably be driving aimlessly around Terre Haute today thinking, "What the hell am I doing here?"

Thinking about the whole chain of circumstances and accidents gives me that eerie It's a Wonderful Life feeling.

As far as I'm concerned, the misery Nehemiah endured with Dickerman sophomore year was a sacrifice made on my behalf, one that made my life's happiness possible. When you bunt with a base hit in mind (as Nehemiah did) and you're unsuccessful (as Nehemiah was) but you advance the baserunner (that would be me), you still get credit for a sacrifice. Ask any official scorer.

This story is told with the express permission of Nehemiah Klein, who went on to a distinguished academic career. He and I remain in contact via email. We have a MAD pact. (For those too young to remember the Cold War, that stands for Mutually Assured Destruction.) Our agreement is this: I won't tell any Cornell anecdotes about him without his consent. In return, he won't quote any of my undergraduate poetry.

Friday 6 May 2011

Swingology 101: a seminar in Pres and Herschel

"Fellow swingology students, we request that you all rise now and join in our alma mater, Swinging at the Daisy Chain."

That's the way radio announcers, eager to establish their hepcat bona fides, used to speak when introducing jazz. It's what lucky listeners tuned to stations along the Mutual network heard as announcer Leslie Williams introduced the not-yet-famous Count Basie band from the Hotel William Penn in Pittsburgh one night in early 1937.

The Basie band, still in its formative stage, had recorded Daisy Chain a few weeks earlier, in January 1937, their first record for Decca. The studio version, impeccable and swinging, features Basie's piano, Buck Clayton's muted trumpet, and eight bars of Herschel Evans' tenor saxophone; no Lester Young. This broadcast performance is something else entirely. Like all live performances, it has a loose, expansive, spontaneous feeling rarely achieved in a recording studio. Most important, Professor Basie has largely discarded the studio chart in order to showcase, as he often did, the very different tenor saxophone styles of Lester Young and Herschel Evans -- not exactly a battle of the saxes, but a study in contrasts. Here we're treated first to a chorus of Pres at his best, then a chorus of muted Buck before Hurricane Herschel blows in at 1:25 with that big, soulful, "Texas tenor" sound of his.

Herschel Evans' career was tragically brief. He joined Basie in the mid 1930s and died in February 1939, not yet 30 years of age. Aside from his all-too-few records with Basie, he's on eight sides in a band led by Harry James in 1937-38, and four sides with Mildred Bailey in 1937. That's it. Ardent devotees -- and I am one -- must forever be content with a chorus of Herschel here, eight bars there. Just one reason why this air-check is such a treasure.

Pictures of Herschel are as rare as his recordings. Here he is on the left, Buck Clayton on the right, both resplendent in their work attire.

Serious swingology students may want to compare and contrast the saxophonic styles of Lester Young and Herschel Evans, but your assignment today is simply to enjoy. During the ensemble riffing near the end of this wonderful performance, you'll hear Jimmy Rushing exclaim, "My, my, my, my!" echoing my sentiments exactly. As an alma mater, Swinging at the Daisy Chain sure beats Far Above Cayuga's Waters(I'm reliably informed that the Daisy Chain was a New York brothel. Don't tell the dean.)

Thursday 5 May 2011

Emilio Caceres

Feeling dull and listless? Lost your get-up-and-go? Here's some music to put a spring in your step.

Texas-born clarinetist-saxophonist Ernesto "Ernie" Caceres (1911-1971) is a familiar figure to jazz fans. He recorded and toured extensively with Eddie Condon, Bobby Hackett, and Jack Teagarden, and later played in the Glenn Miller and Billy Butterfield bands. For reasons unknown to me, his older brother Emilio (1897-1970) was content to stay put in San Antonio, leading a swing orchestra through the 1930s and '40s. Though Emilio's recordings are rare, it's immediately clear that his technique, tone, and time put him in the top rank of jazz violinists.

This one is called Jig in G by Emilio Caceres Y Si Orquestra del Club Aquila. If the chord changes sound familiar, I do believe it's our old flame Hello, Lola! in disguise.