SONGS OF EMPOWERMENT: WOMEN IN 21ST CENTURY POPULAR MUSIC

First, a note. This is the first post I publish on the date it has been written after four months of silence, caused by the cyberattack that affected the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona on 11 October 2021 (the blog is hosted by UAB). I was confident that the texts were not lost, as I keep separate copies, but at one point I did believe that I would have to rebuild the whole blog from scratch (eleven years posting, more than 500 posts). This didn’t happen, but I learned an important lesson about the fragility of digital media and its ephemerality. Last week I posted the twelve posts I wrote between 11 October 2021 and 10 January 2022. The ensuing five weeks of silence between that date and today are due to my finally losing the impulse to write without imagining an audience. I don’t know who reads me, and I have never checked statistics, but I realize that every blog needs an audience, if only an imaginary one. So, thank you for being there.

In those five weeks I have been extremely busy editing the tenth e-book I have published with UAB students (see the complete list here). The book is called Songs of Empowerment: Women in 21st Century Popular Music) and it can be downloaded for free (in .pdf and .epub) from the digital repository of UAB. In its more than 300 very entertaining pages, the reader can find the students’ analyses of a selection of more than 60 songs by currently active women artists using English in their lyrics. Each short essay consists of a biographical presentation of the artist, followed by a commentary on the song, mainly focused on the lyrics, and of the music video. The songs run from 2000 (Kylie Minogue’s “Spinning Around”) to 2021 (Charli XCX’s “Good Ones”). The book is not, however, a history of women singers in the 21st century, but a selection based on the students’ preferences. It is a sort of snapshot of what music by women sounded like in the Autumn of 2021, when I taught the subject from which the e-book derives. And, yes, it comes with a Spotify list, compiled by one of the students.

This is the first time I have ever taught a course on music, and this requires some kind of justification being, as I am, a Literature teacher. It is obvious to me that most of us, born in the 1960s and later, who choose to study for a degree in English did (or do) so out of an interest in Anglophone music. I have always been a keen reader but my initiation into English was through the songs which I would try to translate painstakingly as soon as I bought any new album. Music, however, meaning basically pop and rock, has never been an integral part of English Studies degrees in Spain, and although I constantly told myself that I should teach a course on this topic, I procrastinated until I lost the ability to work while listening to music. With the time devoted to music reduced practically down to zero, I decided that the chance was gone to present myself before students pretending I knew about current trends. This changed last year when I supervised a marvelous BA dissertation by Andrea Delgado López on Childish Gambino’s music video “This is America”. Andrea also did a research internship with me that we used for her to produce a booklet called American Music Videos 2000-2020: Lessons about the Nation. Andrea wrote for each of the twenty-five videos analyzed a short essay presenting the singer(s), the song, and the video, and this gave me the idea for the e-book.

I told my students in the ‘Cultural Studies’ elective (2021-22) about the projected e-book, candidly confessing I had no idea about what was going on in the world of popular music in 2021. They would have to teach me. Since I believed that we could not cover everything of relevance in one single volume, we focused on the women artists, and I will focus next year on the male artists with my MA students in a similar project. I brought to class a very long list of about one hundred women singers, all of them active, and asked students to choose two each, which they did, adding some new suggestions. I gave them, then, as much freedom of choice as possible, though I made sure that the main names got due attention (some, like St Vincent or Kacey Musgraves, will be probably missed, though, perhaps also Alanis Morrissette). I extended this freedom of choice to the songs, which students selected on the basis of their preferences and also thinking of whether the song and video combination would be productive enough for their essays. In a feedback session which I held at the end of the course, some told me that had been a major difficulty, since many favorite songs had no music video, or because they found the videos less interesting than the songs. I happen to like music videos very much as a strange bastard child of cinema and advertising, so there was never a question of focusing only on a song. Given, besides, our lack of training in music, I feared that students would be unable to write even a few hundred words on lyrics which are often very basic at a poetic or literary level.

Something quite peculiar has happened in relation to the main thesis behind the e-book. I originally announced that we would organize the class presentations of the songs and videos (used as a rehearsal or pre-draft of the essays) around the question of whether the songs women pop singers sing today are empowering. Little by little, we lost track of that question, as we worried mainly about how to continue the presentations with no internet in the classroom because of the cyberattack. We became so interested by the particularities of each singer—from mainstream Jennifer Lopez to indie Mitski, and so many others—that the notion of empowerment lost focus. We did discuss it all the time indirectly, mainly by commenting on the artists’ self-presentation and whether their choices could be called feminist and other issues such as race or class; it seemed to us that depression and abuse, a constant in most singers’ biographies, were somehow antagonists to any notion of empowerment. However, as I went through the second final draft of the essays, I noticed that the students had not missed at all the notion of empowerment, and had in fact addressed their essays mostly to explain how this is not in contradiction with women having been radically disempowered by patriarchy. That is to say, the common thread in the e-book is how women singers, despite being in some cases quite powerful, are constantly subjected to abuse (mental, physical, even commercial) and must send each other a message in favour of self-empowerment. This message is not sent, as I assumed, by songs that celebrate natural strength but by songs that candidly admit that strength is often born of vulnerability. In that sense Madonna, though still the Queen of Pop, is not representative but, rather, Rihanna, whose battered face we all remember and, indeed, Lady Gaga.

Although with variations, most of the songs in the e-book (and, believe me, they are a very representative selection) hold the same discourse: the singer describes how she fell in love with a man who turned out to be either abusive or simply disappointing, next how hard it was to break up with this man because of the strong hold of love on her mind and body; and, finally, how this experience brought empowerment by teaching the woman that she, and not a man, should be the centre of her own life. I found that with few exceptions (such as Shania Twain’s “I’m Gonna Getcha Good!” and perhaps Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP”), the expression of female heterosexual desire for men had been replaced by the expression of a constant disillusion with heterosexual love and masculinity. With the songs women not only express their personal feelings but aim at giving other women support, inviting them to discuss their own views of love. The classic love song with the triad “I love you”, “I want you”, “I need you” has been replaced by “I once loved and wanted you, but now I don’t need you anymore”; “I will survive” is now “Of course I will survive, why shouldn’t I?” Secondarily, there is also a parallel discourse on femininity, which on the one hand expresses great admiration for women’s superiority (Ariana Grande’s “God is a Woman”, Halsey’s “I Am not a Woman, I’m a God”) and at the same time a certain acknowledgement of imperfections (as in Celine Dion’s eponymous song), which must be accepted as they are. I have no room here to comment on each of the sixty plus songs—please, read the book—but I think these are the main lines.

In class another topic that came up recurrently is how much pressure these women singers must endure from the social media. Since music videos became popular after the establishment of MTV in the mid-1980s, women singers have had to accept a constant exposure of their bodies to the public gaze. Videos, photoshoots and even performances are subjected, however, to a limited time frame. Social media are not, which means that female singers must now be posting on a daily basis about their activities, their looks, and their private lives trying to please fans but also battling haters. Just a week ago Charlie XCX announced on Twitter that she is taking a break from social media, tired of the endless monitoring and the angry comments by her own fans: “I’ve been grappling quite a lot with my mental health the past few months and obviously it makes negativity and criticism harder to handle when I come across it—and of course, I know this is a common struggle for most people in this day and age.” So it is, indeed, but because of how the lines between being a celebrity and being a pop artist have been blurred, many women singers like Charlie XCX are bearing a brunt that few other professional must endure. It seems to me that the pressure is much lighter on the male singers.

Next year, as I have noted, I will be dealing with the men in current popular music. I do have a list already of bigger and lesser names, and I’m bracing myself for the barrage of sexist, misogynistic lyrics, particularly those coming from rap. I am telling myself, though, that these lyrics must be analysed, also the music videos, from a perspective as constructive as possible. I don’t know, however, what the resulting e-book will tell us. I just hope it is not called Songs of Entitlement, though my deepest fear is that it will.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the posts is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/

THE RISK OF ERASING AUTHORSHIP: THE STRANGE CASE OF J.K. ROWLING

NOTE: This post was originally written on 10 January 2022, but it’s published now because of the cyberattack that UAB suffered then and that caused the temporary suspension of this blog

The streaming on New Year’s Day of the show Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts (HBO Max) may have brought back many sweet memories to the original Potterheads, but was no doubt marred by a conspicuous absence: that of J.K. Rowling. Warner Bros., the franchise owner, explained that Rowling had been invited but declined appearing; others noted that what was being celebrated was the film series, not the novels, and, hence, Rowling’s participation was not required. I have not seen the reunion show, precisely because I believe that there is no point to it without Rowling’s presence. Not only is she the author of the original book series but, as it is well known, she also guided adapter Steve Kloves in his task; let’s not forget that Rowling wrote part of her series (1997-2011) as the films (2001-2014) progressed. Having Kloves and Rowling sit down together to discuss how this overlapping process worked should have been a must for the show.

What irks me most about Rowling’s absence is the hypocrisy: everyone knows she is now a hindrance in the path of the franchise because of her controversial tweets against the Scottish legislation allowing transgender individuals to choose their gender identity regardless of their biology (a similar law has been submitted in Spain by Minister for Equality Irene Montero). Rowling has been branded a TERF (a Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist), harassed on social media and at her own doorstep, cancelled by the same fans who used to treat her as almost a goddess. Articles about how Rowling has become Voldemort abound, which I am sure would amuse her villain could he read them. Far from apologizing for her transphobic remarks, Rowling has insisted on presenting her views whenever a controversial issue connected with transgender individuals arises, which has only worsened the situation. I don’t wish to discuss here, however, Rowling’s views but the impossible situation in which the Potterheads have placed themselves by reacting negatively to them. My thesis is quite straightforward: you may wish to cancel an author for their opinions, even when they are not expressed in their texts, but if you take that step, you also need to stop finding pleasure in reading their work. The alternative that is now emerging –erasing Rowling’s authorship but still celebrating Harry Potter– is, I insist, hypocritical and downright wrong.

I read in the article by Fatemeh Mirjalilli “Harry Potter Needs to Move on without J.K. Rowling” (https://www.slashfilm.com/722404/harry-potter-needs-to-move-on-without-j-k-rowling/) that Roland Barthes’s ‘death of the author’ theory applies to Rowling’s case. If you recall, Barthes (1915-1980) argued in his 1967 short essay (originally published in English in the avant-garde American journal Aspen) that “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author”. He meant, in agreement with other French theorists like Julia Kristeva, Jacques Derrida or Michel Foucault (in a way all descendants of the Russian formalists), that literary criticism had been paying excessive attention to the person behind the text, when actually only the text matters. Certainly, the analysis of Literature had been bogged down by the Romantic biographical approach that views texts through the lens of the author’s biography to an absurd, often brutally gossipy extent. Yet, I have always believed that Barthes et al. were great double-dealers attempting to shift the authorial spotlight from the Author to the Critic. I don’t think Barthes would have quietly accepted the death of his own authorship. Unfortunately, his school succeeded and then went too far, so that it is now habitual to read literary criticism (or by analogy film criticism) in which the text appears to have magicked itself into existence with no actual author. Or articles like Mirjalili’s.

The ‘death of the author’ theory has been applied to Rowling already in academic literary criticism, which tends to ignore her biography and reads the Harry Potter series mainly in the absence of the Author, as Barthes suggested. Quite another matter is fandom. What Mirjalili means is that Barthes had given us permission to cancel authors and erase their authorship, which is not the case at all. One thing is saying that Charles Dickens’s texts are open to interpretation beyond what he intended them to mean, and quite another to claim that we are free to take his novels into our hands and deny he had an essential role in writing them because we don’t like his misogynistic views. This is what seemingly is being done to Rowling. There has always been fan fiction about the Harry Potter series (that is, fiction based on Rowling’s characters but prevented from being commercialized to respect her copyright), but Mirjalili is proposing that she hands over her work to the fans for them to do as they wish with it, even eventually erasing her authorship. I am sure this is how the classic author we know as ‘Homer’ was constructed, but this is the 21st century and we have strict views about authorship, beginning with the fact that the law prevents you from stealing it, regardless of the opinions which the authors may voice in their social media. No matter how great a fan you might be, you will never be the author.

Going down a truly dark path, ‘the death of the author’ may be taking a very grim meaning in the Harry Potter case. Rowling does not want to relent, that seems clear enough, and will go on tweeting for as long as Twitter allows her. It is very unlikely that she will accept the erasure of her name from the credits of the films based on her work, or the ones she is herself writing (for the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them franchise), since she enjoys internationally acknowledged legal rights protecting her work. I don’t see any judge granting an association of Potterheads the right to do with Rowling’s work as they please, to develop new fiction or, God forbid, rewrite her original novels to include more diverse characters, on the grounds that they feel offended by her tweets. This means, literally, that the only hope for those who think that Rowling should be kept apart from the Harry Potter franchise is that she literally disappears, even though, naturally, in the event of her demise her heirs would want to defend their own legal rights over her legacy. Talking about ‘the death of the author’ does have this sickening underside: that it runs the risk of becoming too literal, if only as morbid wishful thinking.

The Potterheads who still love anything connected with Harry Potter but hate Rowling’s TERF persona are thus stuck in a no-win situation, complicated by the specific nature of Harry Potter as children’s and young adult fiction. The series is too closely connected to their personal emotions and growth for them to abandon it with no regret; one can renounce rather easily an author read in adulthood but the impressions formed in childhood are quite another matter. Much more so when the text itself is not the actual problem but the opinions which the author has voiced about other issues decades after the beginning of its publication. I am serious when I say that the process of cancelling Rowling must be appallingly hurtful for many Potterheads, for she is not just one among many authors read in childhood and adolescence, but an astonishing exception among them. I have not heard any of my students referring to her as a personal idol, or a kind of surrogate parent, but Rowling created a world in which many young readers felt they were truly themselves. Discovering that this beloved, trusted woman has actually very different opinions from what is now common sense among most Potterheads must be, I insist, devastating. If she is not Voldemort, she feels at least like Dolores Umbridge. This massive generational disappointment must be also hurting Rowling, no doubt, and possibly threatening her emotional wellbeing and sense of personal safety, yet here she has the upper hand, for whereas she may have been emotionally invested in the process of creating the wizarding world, she created it at the margins of the fans and can do without them. The Potterheads, in contrast, depended on Rowling for their emotional fulfilment, hence the sense of betrayal once they have reached an age in which they understand that she defends politically incorrect opinions.

At this point, my impression is that the Harry Potter franchise is starting its decadence and J.K. Rowling will not survive its fall as a writer, though I guess that she is rich enough to live off benefits of her brainchild to a very old age even without her fans’ support. I leave it in the hands of sociologists to research what percentage of her readers will be cancelling her in the short and the long term, and in the hands of her publishers to report the slump in sales that is already possibly happening. I don’t think that the confrontation over the transgender rights she is disputing will abate; this is no storm in a teacup, but an unfolding process with deep ramifications we are very far from understanding (but that could be better understood with more dialogue). I have tried here to separate the novels from the author but the fact is that because of her transphobic tweets many see now the Harry Potter heptalogy as too homogenous in racial, sexual and class terms to be acceptable any more. Not everyone has been charmed by the series, but what is now happening is possibly unique in the annals of literary history: when has a writer ever been abandoned by their readers, like Rowling is being abandoned, but not his/her world?

Fans cannot, I insist, deprive Rowling of her legal rights over her work, pretend that she is disconnected from the franchise, wish that the author’s death did really apply to her case if only in Barthes’s metaphorical sense. Harry Potter belongs to J.K. Rowling to the day her heart stops beating, and until then she needs to be acknowledged for her merits. Criticism of her demerits as an author is also part of the literary game she accepted playing when publishing her work but Potterheads cannot call themselves by that name and reject Rowling’s authorship at the same time. For good or for bad, this is inescapable. Fans can imagine a more diverse, politically updated version of Harry Potter, and negotiate with her in which directions the franchise can evolve, but the original text will always be hers. That’s a way in which an author, pace Barthes, can never be killed unless we cancel copyright when we cancel authors. Perish the thought.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the posts is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION: WRITING INSIDE SOMEONE ELSE’S BORDERS

NOTE: This post was originally written on 20 December 2021, but it’s published now, months later because of the cyberattack that UAB suffered then and that caused the temporary suspension of this blog

I’m borrowing for this post the famous phrase “location, location, location”, coined by Harold Samuel to describe the three things that matter most in the real estate market. I won’t be dealing with property, however, but with the limits in the choice of settings for fiction, inspired by a film and a novel. The film is Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel (2021) and the novel Víctor García Tur’s L’Aigua que Vols [The water you want] also of 2021. Though vastly different, both are incursions into a community by a foreign storyteller who might not be best qualified to tell the story precisely by reason of his being an outsider. I question here the assumption that authors are free to tell any tale they please regardless of where it is located, with some caveats about nationalism and national history.

When he made in 1992 the truly horrendous 1492: The Conquest of Paradise, with Gerard Depardieu playing Christopher Columbus, English director Ridley Scott was asked many times why he had wanted to make this film instead of leaving the matter to Spaniards. He always replied, increasingly annoyed, that no Spanish director had showed any interest in commemorating Columbus as a national hero in the 500th anniversary of his first American landing and, so, the story was his to tell. This elicits two immediate contradictory reactions: a) fair enough, b) did Scott personally ask all Spanish directors about their intentions? Actually three reactions, the third one of dismay, since a variety of Spanish directors have indeed told the story of Cristóbal Colón; Scott was clearly not familiar with them nor interested in their films.

The Last Duel seems affected by a similar situation: since no French director had bothered to tell this notorious rape revenge story, set in 14th century France, why shouldn’t Scott tell it? The answer is that, as many reviewers and spectators have noticed, we may be no longer willing to accept films in which the original languages and national cultures are replaced by English and by a generically Anglo-American approach. There have been thousands of Anglophone films set in non-Anglophone locations, of course, but somehow The Last Duel makes this artifice particularly annoying. Imagine a French film set in the American west in which all the characters speak French simply because that is the language of the film producers, and you will quickly understand how wrong Scott’s film is. Add to this the socio-cultural distance between the 14th and the 21st century, and between Scott’s post #MeToo context and his historical material, and you have the explanation for why The Last Duel has failed at the box office.

I know that the point I am making is close to pure nonsense if we think of the long tradition of telling stories set in other lands which proliferates in Anglophones cultures. Although Italian by birth, Romeo and Juliet have always spoken English, even in the film version by Italian director Franco Zeffirelli. Shakespeare’s blatant cultural appropriation is not usually disputed by Italians, just as Danes don’t bother to complain that the characters in Hamlet should be speaking Danish. I think, however, that this type of cultural colonialism is suspect, to say the least. I am imagining now what it would be like to have Ridley Scott come to Catalonia to make a film about, for instance, the execution of Lluís Companys –the President of the Catalan Government murdered by Franco’s regime in 1940 with the Gestapo’s collaboration– in which not a word of Catalan was heard because the whole cast spoke in English (would Edward Norton play Companys?). No matter how that would help to publicize Companys’ tragedy internationally, I would be mightily annoyed as a Catalan native. If, supposing, Scott were interested in Companys (after all, the subject matter of The Last Duel is far more remote), then the best thing he could do would be to put his production machinery at the service of a Catalan director, such as Manuel Huerga who has already worked on a film on Companys, or put himself at the head of a Catalan team, including a Catalan cast, so that the film’s credibility would be enhanced as much as possible. In The Last Duel any credibility the film might have is thoroughly destroyed by the American accents and American body language of actors (and film screenwriters) Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, totally impossible to accept as feudal French aristocrats.

Am I saying that a ‘to-each-their-own’ approach is the only narrative possibility? Not quite. What I am saying is that even though in many cases it makes sense to accept the artifice and conventions of filmmaking, the structure of feeling regarding this matter may be changing. It was easier for Ridley Scott to convince us in 2000 that New Zealander-Australian actor Russell Crowe was a Roman general than it is now to propose that we accept Matt Damon as a medieval French warrior, and not just because the Roman civilization is long gone whereas France is very much alive. The principle that Quentin Tarantino established in Inglorious Basterds (2009) by which film characters should speak realistically in their own languages or with an accent if they spoke another language has never caught on, nor has the idea that cultural-linguistic barriers need to be acknowledged. Watching the rather overrated Encanto this Christmas, I was really appalled by Disney’s insistence that using accented English for Colombian characters who logically should only use Spanish makes sense. It does not, and it should not.

Now for the novel by Víctor García Tur, L’Aigua que Vols, a text written in Catalan but set in Québec. Again, I acknowledge that I am defending an almost non-sensical argumentation if I think that my favourite Catalan author, Marc Pastor, has set some of his novels (like Bioko or Farishta) in exotic locations, using only Catalan as the language for all his characters; the same goes for Albert Sánchez Piñol’s La Pell Freda, in which the main protagonist is Irish. That did bother me (why couldn’t this guy be Catalan, I wondered?), but less than I am bothered by the Quebecois family in García Tur’s novel, perhaps because Pastor and Piñol write in the tradition of the exotic novel inherited from the Anglophone nations, whereas García Tur is writing in the realist tradition that is prevalent in Catalan. Funnily, I had a conversation with the author at the time when he was writing L’Aigua que Vols, and he was very much surprised by my point of view. Even more funnily, he writes in the postface that he understands the dangers of writing about a foreign community which he does not know first-hand, and promises not to do it again. He then proceeds to announce that his next novel will be science fiction, a genre in which writers are far freer to choose who they write about.

L’Aigua que Vols tells the simple story of a family reunion called by the matriarch, 76-year-old Marie, a widow and former theatre actor. The four siblings –JP, Helène, Laura, Anne-Sophie– visit the downtrodden house by the lake, bought by their late father, and get updated about the state of each other’s lives. They speak plenty but cannot be really said to communicate, and nothing terribly dramatic happens until the end of the novel, though in a rather subdued way. As I read the text, written in a beautifully flowing Catalan, I was thinking of those enjoyable French films, such as Guillaume Canet’s Les Petits Mouchoirs (2010) and its sequel, which always make me wonder why we don’t have any movie that effective in Spanish or Catalan. At the same time, I was always wondering at each turn of the page, why García Tur’s characters were not Catalan, and why their ramshackle home was not located by a Catalan lake. As I read, I was all the time under the very uncomfortable impression that they were dubbed, which was very much complicated by the author’s note presenting the Catalan text as a translation of a French-language Quebecois novel published in 1996. What a complicated pirouette…

It took me a while to understand why L’Aigua que Vols is not set in Catalonia, though at the same time I hope I am totally wrong. The novel is set in 1995, the date of the second (failed) referendum for independence in Québec; the first one was held in 1980. The siblings discuss their preferences, with Laura being very much in favour of independence and even attempting to buy her brother JP’s vote for the cause, though this is not centrally a political novel. At one point, however, JP gives a rather long speech about how tired he is of the whole independence debate, and how he envies Parisians because they don’t wake up in the morning thinking of their nation. They just go on with their life. JP also argues that it must be nice for people in ordinary countries unencumbered by independentist issues to complain about their nation. In contrast, he says, the Quebecois can never criticize their nation because it feels disloyal. My impression is that this is how García Tur feels about Catalan independence but he chose a roundabout route to express himself, putting his own feelings and opinions in the mouth of a Quebecois character. His novel is, then, a sort of roman-à-clef where everything Quebecois stands for something secretly Catalan. I just wish this was not the case, and the novel was overtly about Catalonia. It just would feel more authentic.

To conclude, what I propose is that each storyteller carefully considers their choice of location, beyond their first impulse. If tempted to set a story elsewhere, within someone else’s borders, the question to ask should be why this is necessary. Can a local person tell the story better? Why is the foreign location necessary if the tale can be set within one’s own borders? And always consider the opposite possibility: would Ridley Scott be happy with a French-language film about Queen Victoria?, would García Tur enjoy a novel in Quebecois French with a cast of all-Catalan characters set in Catalonia? I may be limiting the scope of much fiction, historical or contemporary, but I believe these are questions that need to be addressed. Location, location, location…

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the posts is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/

THE BEST BOOK ON SECONDARY CHARACTERS: ALEX WOLOCH’S THE ONE VS. THE MANY

NOTE: This post was originally written on 13 Decemeber 2021, but it’s published now, months later because of the cyberattack that UAB suffered then and that caused the temporary suspension of this blog

As far as I know, Alex Woloch’s The One Vs. the Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel (2003) is the only book attempting to theorize the secondary character (note that he calls them ‘minor’). I have found books on secondary characters in specific authors (for instance, Wisdom of Eccentric Old Men: A Study of Type and Secondary Character in Galdós’s Social Novels, 1870-1897 by Peter Anthony Bly of 2004) and a volume studying how secondary characters have become protagonists in, for instance, Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (Minor Characters Have Their Day: Genre and the Contemporary Literary Marketplace by Jeremy Rosen of 2016). Not, however, any other monograph on the concept of the minor character.

After writing about some secondary characters (Sirius Black in Harry Potter, Anabella Wilmott in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall), I have come to the conclusion that quite often the conceptual centre of fiction can be found in their characterization. We tend to pour our critical energies into the study of the protagonists, but not only is there plenty to say about the secondary characters –just think of Romeo’s friend Mercutio–; it is also the case that in literary criticism we don’t know how to distinguish between the near-protagonist secondary character (Samwise in The Lord of the Rings) and the basic ‘spear-carrier’ with one line. We don’t have a theorization that helps us say with certainty what type each character is and perhaps it is about time we develop a classification into levels that can determine whether a character is secondary, tertiary, quaternary, quinary, senary, septenary, octonary, nonary, or denary, if there are indeed only ten levels.

Woloch is not interested in this classification but he tries hard to move beyond E.M. Forster’s division in Aspects of the Novel (1927) of all characters into flat and round. It is possibly not at all Forster’s fault but literary theorists have spectacularly failed to elaborate a more nuanced categorization, seemingly satisfied that, after all, flat characters do not require literary analysis. Woloch demonstrates quite the opposite by offering fascinating readings of the minor characters in Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations and Le Père Goriot, among other texts such as King Lear, proving that the development of the protagonists cannot be understood without them (think of Elizabeth Bennet and Charlotte Lucas), that the space of the major characters is conditioned by the space minor characters occupy in the novel (think of Pip and Abel Magwitch), or that it is not always easy to decide who is the protagonist and who the secondary (think of Goriot and Rastignac). Woloch does not answer questions that have always baffled me –how do writers know when a secondary is needed and how many are required for a plot to work–but he comes up with a number of intriguing ideas and concepts, certainly worth considering.

Thus, he refers to character-space as “that particular and charged encounter between an individual human personality and a determined space and position within the narrative as a whole” (14), making characterization mostly a matter of narrative structural needs. In his view, the character-system results from the combination of all the character-spaces into a “unified” narrative world, though he clarifies that by character-system he means specifically “the combination of different character-spaces or various modes through which specific human figures are inflected into the narrative” (32, original italics). In this way, Woloch discards romantic views of the character as a pseudo-person colonizing the writer’s imagination (the view mostly sustained by writers who claim that characters come ‘whole’ to them as if they were people), and foregrounds the idea that a novel is always a construction in which different elements must be balanced.

Woloch understands novels as spaces in which the characters vie for attention, with the protagonist assuming most of it in tension with the minor characters. This works well for Pride and Prejudice, in which the first chapter does not immediately present Elizabeth Bennet as the protagonist, portraying instead her family nucleus (parents and sisters). Yet, there is no doubt in Great Expectations, dominated by Pip’s first-person narrative voice, that the six-year-old scared out of his wits by Magwitch in the first chapter is indeed the protagonist. We do notice, as Woloch does, that he is a ‘weak’ protagonist, that is to say, a first-rank character excessively shaped by his minor companions, but, still, he is the focus of the novel. What I don’t quite see is why Woloch gives potential protagonism to, at least, the first circle of secondary characters. There are novels in which Miss Havisham and Estella are the protagonists; even Austen’s dull Mary has a novel to herself. Yet, we are in no doubt ever that the protagonist is distinguished from the rest because the plot is focalized through her or him, whereas in the case of the minor character this doesn’t happen, or only very occasionally. I wish we could see the bizarre proposal scene in Pride and Prejudice through Mr. Collins’ stubbornly biased perspective, and it would be great if novels could be written in this multi-angle way but the asymmetric structure of characterization is just a fact of fiction. Quite another matter, of course, is that we find minor characters so attractive that we are not satisfied with their limitations (hence their becoming protagonists in other novels, as Rosen has studied).

What puzzles me most about Woloch’s theorization is that despite taking great pains to detach characterization from cultural concerns and placing it squarely in the field of literary theory, he ends up invoking a labour theory of character to explain how nineteen century novels work. Here is a key passage: “The nineteenth-century novel’s configuration of narrative work–within the context of omniscient, asymmetrical character-systems–creates a formal structure that can imaginatively comprehend the dynamics of alienated labor, and the class structure that underlies this labor. In terms of their essential formal position (the subordinate beings who are delimited in themselves while performing a function for someone else), minor characters are the proletariat of the novel; and the realist novel–with its intense class-consciousness and attention toward social inequality–makes much of such formal processes” (27, original emphasis). Woloch is interested in tracing a connection between the abundant cast of characters in 19th century fiction and the new class awareness resulting from the emergence of a working-class because of the Industrial Revolution. Just as in life, he seems to argue, the upper classes rely on the alienated labour of the working classes, in the 19th century novel the protagonist holds that status by ‘exploiting’ the services of the minor characters. When the Modernist novel was introduced, the social panoramas of the realist 19th century novel were reduced down to the protagonist’s individual consciousness, though we might say that the readers’ preferences have always favoured the larger cast of characters which survives in popular fiction (think of a Ken Follett novel). It is mostly true that 20th century literary novels are far less comprehensive in their approach to society, with authors being far less ambitious than Balzac in trying to depict the whole ‘human comedy’. Yet, I remain unconvinced by the connection traced between class issues and narrative needs in Woloch’s argumentation, particularly because the 19th century novel is so blatantly middle-class and so resistant to opening up to the working classes except for melodramatic reasons (Gaskell included). Or maybe I misunderstand Woloch.

After teaching Great Expectations for so many years, I have been thinking for a while of writing an article about it taking into account the secondary characters. I was about to embark on a piece about Joe Gargery as an abused husband, when I came across John Gordon’s essay in the Dickens Quarterly arguing that Dickens is misogynistic in characterizing Joe’s wife Mrs. Gargery as an abuser. I have no idea why a man wants to defend an abusive female character just because she is a woman, when in fact Dickens builds very persuasively the case presenting Joe as a victim of abuse in his childhood (by his father) who, like many victims, later marries an abuser confusing abuse and love. The lesson I am drawing from this is that I should focus, following Woloch on structural needs and character-space examining another key secondary character.

In fact, I have read Woloch in search of a theoretical framework to analyse a minor character I had already chosen after discarding Joe: the lawyer Jaggers. The idea I will be defending is that minor characters play a role without which the plot collapses, whether tertiary and beyond can be dispensed with. Thus, Biddy, it seems to me, is not essential to Great Expectations which can well be imagined without her, no matter how much she enriches it, whereas Jaggers is the narrative fulcrum on which the whole plot hinges. Jaggers, I have noticed in my umpteenth reading of the novel, makes a crucial decision that he only very reluctantly acknowledges when Pip discloses he knows who Estella’s biological parents are. A man who shows no feelings whatsoever, Jaggers tells Pip, referring to himself in the third person:

“Put the case that he lived in an atmosphere of evil, and that all he saw of children was their being generated in great numbers for certain destruction. Put the case that he often saw children solemnly tried at a criminal bar, where they were held up to be seen; put the case that he habitually knew of their being imprisoned, whipped, transported, neglected, cast out, qualified in all ways for the hangman, and growing up to be hanged. Put the case that pretty nigh all the children he saw in his daily business life he had reason to look upon as so much spawn, to develop into the fish that were to come to his net,—to be prosecuted, defended, forsworn, made orphans, bedevilled somehow.”

The ‘confession’ follows: “Put the case, Pip, that here was one pretty little child out of the heap who could be saved”. Knowing that the father believed the girl to be dead, Jaggers bargains with the mother, his murderous client, to give him her daughter as the price for his services, not knowing yet where he will place the girl. Dickens needs to link Jaggers to Miss Havisham at the right moment and so she eventually tells Pip: “I had been shut up in these rooms a long time (I don’t know how long; you know what time the clocks keep here), when I told [Jaggers] that I wanted a little girl to rear and love, and save from my fate. I had first seen him when I sent for him to lay this place waste for me; having read of him in the newspapers, before I and the world parted. He told me that he would look about him for such an orphan child. One night he brought her here asleep, and I called her Estella”.

Everything that happens in Great Expectations follows from Jaggers’ decision to save one little girl “out of the heap” –doesn’t this deserve an article? So, yes, I’ll make sure to write it, and then will start thinking about teaching a course on the most attractive secondary characters –what a challenge to find them!

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the posts is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/

MUSINGS ON WOMEN’S SINGERS: BETWEEN POP AND ROCK

NOTE: This post was originally written on 6 December 2021, but it’s published now, months later because of the cyberattack that UAB suffered then and that caused the temporary suspension of this blog

This semester I am teaching, as I have been narrating, a course on Cultural Studies based on analysing a selection of 60 songs by currently active women singers. Each student works on two singers, and I myself chose to work on Kylie Minogue and, after some hesitation between other options, Shirley Manson from Garbage. I offered my first presentation on Minogue’s “Spinning Around” without any glitch, except, as I could see, that students were a bit dismayed that I had chosen a bubbly pop song and a music video focused on Ms. Minogue’s display of her fabulous derriere in her iconic golden hot pants. The reception of my presentation of Garbage’s much more aggressively feminist “The Men Who Rule the World”, with lyrics by Manson and part of their most recent album, No Gods No Masters (2021), was, however, far more tepid, not to say cold.

I am sure that I used the same enthusiasm as for Minogue, and that the song and the video are no worse than many others we have enjoyed in class. It seems, though that I made a mistake in using a quotation to describe Manson’s reputation. Here it is (this comes from an article by Dayna Evans published in 2017, so please add four years to the ages mentioned); see https://www.thecut.com/2017/06/shirley-manson-garbage-returns-with-blondie.html. Manson states that

“[Debbie Harry and I] are some of the few women left who do what we do in the way that we do it. We’re getting rarer and rarer. I think people understand that this breed is dying.” She pauses, and adds, “Literally dying”. Harry and Manson belong to a generation of women musicians who, as she puts it, “write their own music and aren’t chasing pop success,” but Manson worries that the bloodline is thinning. Patti Smith is 70. Chrissie Hynde, 65. Courtney Love, 52”. (…)
For Manson, many of the music industry’s current megastars fail to pass her rock litmus test. “Rihanna is the closest thing we have in the pop world to a rockstar”, she muses, adding that she’s a huge fan of pop music. “If Rihanna wanted to make rock music, I’m sure she could. But unless you’re playing rock music, you’re not a rockstar”.

This elicited some comments in class about Manson’s patronizing attitude towards pop stars, triggered, I assume, by the perception that the much younger Rihanna (33 to Manson’s 55) is a much bigger figure than Manson herself. My students are around 20-22, so it is not surprising that they had never heard of Garbage, formed in 1993 and most popular between 1995 and 2007, when they disbanded (they reunited in 2010). Perhaps I didn’t help matters very much by stressing that Manson is my own age and that I admire her for a cool I will never acquire (but, then, the same goes for Minogue, aged 53). The question is that, clearly, if asked to choose between Manson and Rihanna, my students would opt for Rihanna. To my chagrin, they did not even like that much Chilean artist Javiera Garcia-Huidobro’s video for “The Men Who Rule the World”, with its clever cut-out artwork and its merger of the images of Manson and Metropolis’ Maria. A student found its anti-patriarchal imagery too overtly phallic. I’m miffed, most of all with myself for not being able to transmit Manson’s appeal.

The Shirley Manson fiasco started a conversation in class about why pop is more appealing than rock for women. I grant that I introduced the wrong bias in the course by focusing on solo singers, which has limited the presence of frontwomen in rock bands (I was more worried about excluding girl bands, which I am not really interested in). This means that we are more focused on pop than I originally conceived, though at the same time this has made the course (and the future e-book we are writing) more coherent.

In the notes I sent my students after class, I referred to some passages in the article by Joanca of November 2021 for Spinditty, “Why Did Rock Music Decline, and Can It Make a Comeback?” (https://spinditty.com/genres/rock-music-comeback). Joanca writes that “Girls and women 40 and under mainly purchase pop music. Despite the success of some later female rockers like 10,000 Maniacs and Alanis Morissette, modern rock still seems to have a problem attracting female buyers”. Joanca grants they doesn’t know why women and girls are much less interested in rock music, “but perhaps the feminist movement is one reason. The overt sexism and masculine nature of rock may have been a turn-off to girls raised with ideas of female empowerment. The rise of strong women in pop music, like Madonna, may have made it more appealing to girls and women as both listeners and artists.” I find that this is a good point, and in fact I ended up arguing in class that Madonna’s legacy is right now much bigger than Mick Jagger’s, whose most obvious male successors I fail to spot.

This other article, of March 2021 by Dorian Lynski, “Why Bands Are Disappearing: ‘Young People Aren’t Excited by Them’” (https://www.theguardian.com/music/2021/mar/18/why-bands-are-disappearing-young-people-arent-excited-by-them, considers the gradual fall of rock from another perspective, less focused on gender. The article was sparked by a comment from Maroon 5’s lead singer Adam Levine in the sense that there are no rock bands left –to which Shirley Manson angrily replied “What are we? CATS!?” What Levine meant is that there are no new rock bands making it to the charts; he was in fact issuing the same complaint Manson had voiced in the quotation about the ageing generation of women in rock. Several arguments are considered regarding the problem of the dwindling number of bands, most boiling down to the impact of the digital technologies: equipping a band to play live and funding their records is expensive in comparison to working with a laptop alone in your bedroom; social media seem better geared towards solo pop stardom. I believe that the popularity of Korean and Japanese boy bands contradicts the impression that watching guys together on the stage has lost its appeal, as another argument goes, but I do believe that what has gone is the sexual appeal of the rock music instruments, above all the electric guitar. Somehow, heterosexual women no longer fall for that (is there anything more pathetic than a rock groupie today?), whereas they never mastered the art of appropriating the electric guitar for themselves. I don’t mean by this that women can’t play rock, what I mean is that they have not generated an appealing iconography –or one as appealing as that of pop stars. Women rock singers may have fared better (I still believe that cool Manson is a case in point) but with very few exceptions like the ones she names, and others like Sharleen Spiteri of Texas, female rockstars are not rocking. Could it be, allow me to be flippant, that electric guitars don’t go well with dresses?

This does not mean that there is an insurmountable divide between rock and pop, or that each genre is gendered, with rock being male territory and pop, female. What it means is that none knows very well what the white guys that used to be the most visible fans of rock music are consuming. Possibly, Spotify has the key to the mystery. My students claim that the women pop singers we are studying have an audience composed of other women and of LGTBIQ+ persons, with, perhaps, a tiny minority of cis-hetero men. They say that, most likely, white men are listening to non-white men in the rap and reggaeton territories, unless music’s best-kept secret is that they are indeed following mostly women pop singers. I don’t think the audience for rock is lost for good, but I don’t think either that young men are pouring their energies into playing rock music. Maybe here is the key: rock needs a certain type of energy that you don’t see young white guys possessing today, and that young women are applying to pop (rap included). Perhaps what we are seeing is an extension of the listlessness that has young men do worse than young women in school and university to the world of music, but that’s just speculation. After all, black men seem to be doing fine as rap musicians, having never been truly interested in rock.

Manson might be right, then, to worry that popstars are not rockstars, being a rockstar herself in her mid-fifties, with no obvious female disciples. Perhaps they are to be found in the indie labels, and the problem is that it takes too much effort for rock lovers to find them given the dominion of the charts and of the Spotify pop lists (though I assume that Spotify might have a list of women indie rockstars). Manson is wrong, though, in assuming that there is a hierarchy in which rockstars are placed above popstars, which is what annoyed my students. I could imagine Rihanna patronizingly say that “If Manson wanted to make pop music, I’m sure she could. But unless you’re playing pop music, you’re not a popstar”. I hope Manson has not fallen in the classic patriarchal trap of pitting talented women against each other so that we fail to build the solidarity and sorority that should help all women singer march forward.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the posts is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/

TOWARDS A NEUROEDUCATION (AND SOME MARXIST MUSINGS)

NOTE: This post was originally written on 29 November 2021, but it’s published now, months later because of the cyberattack that UAB suffered then and that caused the temporary suspension of this blog

Today’s post is written in reaction to Francisco Mora’s volume Neuroeducación: Sólo se Puede Aprender Aquello que se Ama (2013). Mora is a doctor in Medicine and Neuroscience, not a pedagogue, but he has been working for years on ‘neuroeducation’, that is to say, the field proposing that education could be much more effective if we understood more precisely how the human brain works. This sounds appropriate, in the same way that one supposes that coaching in sports improves the more the coach knows about the trainees’ anatomical features and capabilities. However, I was disappointed by this particular volume since it seems that we are still very far away from adapting education to the stirring of particular areas of the brain. Mora offers, in short, no recipe to remake education so that exercises can be devised to stimulate, as I say, key brain areas. Proof of this is that when dealing with the major problem of how to turn on students’ curiosity he offers the following advice (I’m paraphrasing):

1) Begin with something provoking.
2) Present a mundane question based on everyday experiences that the student can relate to.
3) Create a relaxed atmosphere, so that students feel comfortable; never judge their contributions as being below standard or inadequate.
4) Give time enough for all students to accomplish tasks.
5) In a seminar context, avoid asking direct questions; elicit questions from students themselves.
6) During lectures insert elements that are shocking, surprising, disruptive and so on…
7) … making sure they don’t cause anxiety.
8) In a seminar context, invite students to participate actively.
9) Reward with praise good contributions by students (questions, comments).
10) Help students find the answer to a question, rather than give it to them.

Deep sigh… For this we don’t need neuroscience but plain pedagogical common sense. Of course, if you are the kind of teacher who thinks that transmitting information through lectures in which students needn’t intervene is the best pedagogical method, Mora’s advice must be knew to you. But I do hope you are not that kind of teacher.

Let me go back to the subtitle of Mora’s book, Sólo se Puede Aprender Aquello que se Ama, that is ‘you can only learn what you love’. In theory, the best teachers are those who make you love those matters you were initially indifferent to, or even hostile. Yet, I believe there is a limit to that kind of miracle, and this sudden falling in love with some matter possibly corresponds to the teacher tickling an area of the brain so far dormant. I do not think, however, that in my thirty years as a Literature teacher I have turned any non-readers into readers, though it might be the case that I have interested some students into certain texts. Likewise, even though in my days as an undergrad a good teacher who is now my colleague (Mireia Llinàs) got me very much interested in Linguistics that was not enough to sustain a firm vocation in this area of knowledge, and I ended up embracing what appears to be my natural area of interest, Literature.

I have thought plenty about why some persons, like myself, love reading while others never get the habit. My provisional neuroscientific conclusion is that our brains are wired so that we get pleasure out of that, in the same way the brains of persons who enjoy practising sports get pleasure out of exercising. Education, as we understand it today, supposes that mind and body can be trained to read and to exercise as basic skills that humans require to lead productive lives. Yet, I remember with glee the day at the end of secondary school when I was finally free from the physical education class which had made me so awfully uncomfortable since the age of six. Why this discomfort? Because I was measured against what my colleagues could do, not what I could myself do –none bothered to check, for instance, that I was much better at dancing than at running. I assume, therefore, that many of our students in the English Studies BA feel the same glee when they pass the last compulsory Literature class. For, your see?, ‘you can only learn what you love’, and you cannot learn the beauties of Anglophone Literature if you don’t love reading to begin with. And that, it appears, has to do with your brain’s nature.

So here’s the catch: the neuroeducators like Mora use a general model for the human brain but are possibly missing the nuances of each individual human brain. As education works, we teach children up to the age of 16 the same contents, supposing that this is what they all need to become responsible citizens and persons mature enough to embark on the next stage of their education. The system, however, is producing students who are either so uninterested that they quit, or students who learn to navigate the system even though they never really care about a great deal of what they are being taught. I don’t think there has been ever any single student in primary and secondary education who has enjoyed learning all the subjects, not even those children with the highest grades. Neuroeducators are telling us that if we knew how children’s brains work we could iron out everyone’s difficulties in learning and teach kids with less mutual embarrassment the current curriculum, designed, let’s be honest, with little care for truly awakening a love for learning.

Perhaps it’s the other way round. If we understood well the leanings of each human brain, we could adapt education to each child’s abilities and thus engage this child in his/her education from the beginning. Suppose, for the sake of argumentation, that neurologists find there is an area of the brain that indicates a person has great mechanical skills, perhaps even of an engineering type. Why would this person spend his/her complete childhood never developing those skills, being fed instead a dry diet of matters they will never care for? Same with any other kind of skill, and always supposing a correspondence could be found between certain folds in the brain and certain skills. Try to think of this: those of us with scholarly inclinations adapt more or less well to the current type of education, which is based on producing exercises; but if we were subjected to an education based on working with our hands, we would be probably do poorly. However, few of the persons appalled by the fact of so many children are quitting secondary school ever consider whether the problem is the rigidity of the scholarly model of education.

Am I saying that this should be Brave New World and people should be educated according to a neurological analysis of their brains taken at age three, before school begins? Not really, though I think that any perceptive teacher can see that teaching, for instance, mathematics to certain kids (like me) is a waste of time for teacher and student; or that short kids will never make basketball players. What we do instead when a child does not care for a subject, or for education on the whole, is to dismiss that child as a born loser in the worst case scenario and as an educational failure in the slightly less worse. If we go down the path which Mora’s rumination opens, then, there is no failure on the side of the child but on the side of the system which has failed to understand his/her abilities and provide him/her with the best possible education (particularly at a secondary school level).

As the system works now, in the cheapest possible way, all children are forced into the same mould. It cannot escape anyone’s attention that children from richer backgrounds do better, not because they are more intelligent but because they receive more personalised attention that can bring out their best skills. There are the same number of potential future doctors or designers in each social group, or of crane operators and short-order cooks, but whereas kids from wealthier backgrounds are always being monitored for their skills to bloom, kids in poorer backgrounds are told that they can only do well under exceptional circumstances that require extraordinary commitment either from the individual or from the family. And that hard, low-skilled work is to be their lot.

I am sure you are all horrified by the possibility of that brain scan that will show at age three how each individual should be educated to make the most of their abilities. But perhaps what might be truly scary for the upper echelons is that the scan might show that the brains of little kids show little differences across social classes. I don’t think this is where neuroscience and neuroeducation are going but, as you can see, they may have revolutionary consequences not even Marx could dream of. Yes, some people’s utopia is other people’s dystopia.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the posts is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/

FESTIVALS AND THE ART OF INTERVIEWING AN AUTHOR

FESTIVALS AND THE ART OF INTERVIEWING AN AUTHOR

NOTE: This post was originally written on 22 November 2021, but it’s published now, months later because of the cyberattack that UAB suffered then and that caused the temporary suspension of this blog

Two weeks ago I participated in the new Barcelona festival devoted to the fantastic, understood as science fiction, horror/gothic and fantasy in all the media, not just print fiction. The event is called Festival 42 in celebration of the answer that Arthur Dent, the protagonist of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker Guide’s to the Galaxy, gets from super-computer Deep Thought to his question about the meaning of life. Coordinated by author and creative writing teacher Ricard Ruiz Garzón, the festival has been finally celebrated five years after Eurocon 2016, and two years after the I Seminar on the Genres of the Fantastic, also curated by Ruiz Garzón. It could have been celebrated earlier if it weren’t for Covid-19, but better late than never.

Barcelona, a UNESCO City of Literature, has quite a good number of literary festivals, some directly organized by the town council. Among the latter, BCNegra, devoted to detective fiction and held every February is no doubt the biggest one, as corresponds to the popularity of the genre and the efforts of the festival’s founder, the late Paco Camarasa, to publicize it. I myself took some timid steps after Eurocon 2016 to set the ball rolling and start a festival devoted to the fantastic but, lacking the contacts and the energy, I let the project go. Fortunately, Ricard Ruiz Garzón was available to offer Barcelona his own project, brilliantly culminated in five intense days at cultural centre Fabra i Coats (https://www.barcelona.cat/festival42/en/).

I have been unfortunately too busy to see all of the festival, but I intend to catch up this weekend, seeing some of the videos online (https://www.barcelona.cat/festival42/en/transmedia). I have already written here about the matter of the dearth of fantasy translations from other foreign languages apart from English into Catalan, a topic inspired by what I saw in the festival, and I would say that this is my only objection: Festival 42 had too many English-language writers, and too few authors from other foreign languages. I believe that the Spanish fantastic was well represented (I’m told that Edmundo Paz Soldán is the man to follow, and I have his novel El delirio de Turing already in my hands), and of course, so were the Catalan authors (please do check Víctor García Tur). Yet, I wonder why debutante Naomi Gibson, author of Every Line of You, deserved an invitation (despite her international success) while authors in other languages with longer careers did not get one. This is, in any case, a very minor critique of a festival that has been born with terrific ambition and that has announced with its long programme that it is here to stay. I’m not sure that the name, which only the cognoscenti will get and which lacks a direct reference to the fantastic, is the best possible choice, but starting the festival is in itself a triumph.

Ruiz Garzón contacted me last summer to be the interviewer of British author Richard K. Morgan for Festival 42, which both made me happy and dismayed me a bit. I interviewed Morgan back in 2016 for Eurocon (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LYL_Ls3uhJo), and that was a satisfying but also quite intense experience, coming after a previous written interview with this interesting British author. I subsequently published an article on his novel Black Man in the journal Science Fiction Studies, and interviewed Morgan again in writing on his most recent novel, Thin Air (2018) for the journal I co-edit, Hélice (Autumn-Winter 2019 issue). The Festival 42 interview has been, therefore, my fourth encounter with Morgan. It is always a pleasure to be able to talk with a writer, being myself a non-writer (at least of fiction), but I must say that live interviews are quite a chore. I am, besides, quite uncomfortable seeing myself online, but there am I.

My experience of interviewing authors live before an audience is reduced to the two encounters with Morgan and one with Ian McDonald (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DzDg_BxJZ1A) and I cannot, therefore, say that I am a practised interviewer. I have also interviewed Roddy Doyle, Patricia Anthony, and Nick Hornby in writing but the point is the same. Interviews in writing are not, in any case, as stressful experiences for me as live interviews because no audience is there watching you bungle your English out of sheer nervousness, and I can go over the interview with the interviewee to iron out inconsistencies or misunderstandings. In a live interview, there is no second chance: whatever is said, stays said, and on video universally available. Then, there is the matter of translation. In the interviews with Morgan we used English (also Spanish for the Q&A with the audience) and I needn’t worry about translation–except for how awkwardly simultaneous translation works on the online videos. In the interview with McDonald, however, we had no money for any interpreters and since I couldn’t see myself interviewing and translating, I used a PowerPoint in which you could see the Catalan version of the questions, and two of my students took turns offering consecutive translation from English into Catalan. A bit odd, yes, but I think it worked.

The hardest part of a live interview is understanding your audience and keeping track of time. I have interviewed Morgan and McDonald in the context of festivals attended by readers familiar with science fiction, horror and fantasy. Morgan is now, after the success of the two-season Netflix series based on his novel Altered Carbon (2002) much better known than he was in 2016, but even so the audience was in the hundreds for the Eurocon interview and about fifty for Festival 42. All, though, had seen the series, except myself and I was worried that this might show… For the McDonald interview, the audience was also about fifty but possibly only a handful had read his works. Problem number one, then, is that there must be a balance between presenting the writer’s career in a general and in a detailed way. I saw some interviews in Festival 42 that went straight to discussing a particular novel, but, being a teacher and not a journalist, I did give an overview of Morgan’s career (as I did for McDonald) in the same didactic way I would use in class. In both cases, I did ask as many questions as I could about the craft of writing, and not just about specific novels, because that’s what I personally enjoy in live interviews with authors. My impression is that authors enjoy discussing technical matters and I am always curious about issues such as whether they plan or improvise, if characters ever take the lead, why certain scenes are necessary, how locations are chosen, and so on.

As for keeping track of time, this totally kills me. Before interviewing Morgan, I attended with him Desiré de Fez’s interview session with Carmen María Machado, and to my horror and consternation I saw de Fez keep the conversation going with no notes and never glancing at her watch. That’s when I got really nervous. That’s the difference, of course, between an experienced journalist and an amateur like myself. Or not, I’m not sure. In the session before Machado’s, experienced interviewer Borja Bilbao had to start the Q&A question, as he sheepishly granted, before he had even asked half the questions he had prepared for Stuart Turton. He had simply prepared too many, though the worst-case scenario must be one in which the author gives very short replies and the interviewer runs out of questions, ooops. In my case, I had written thirty questions, the same number I used for the Eurocon interview, but this time Morgan, very relaxed, gave such long answers that I had to skip also about half of my questions. I must confess that I didn’t even hear some of his words, so anxious was I to cover all the main angles and not exceed my 45 minutes. To be honest, I think I only truly enjoyed the conversation when I saw it online. This does not mean that was my last live interview, just that I admire journalists now more than ever for being able to do interviews days after day.

In the two cases, with Morgan and McDonald, I have had the chance to socialise over a meal before the interview, and that is the truly fun part of doing interviews: conversation. The live interview is not for oneself but for the audience, but when socializing I can ask my own questions and learn. Morgan told me privately basically the same things he explained in the interview about his involvement in the Netflix series but I learned more in conversation since I could ask more nuanced questions without worrying whether someone else would be interested. Selfish, I know! But if I think about it, I’m not sure I will ever accept doing another interview without that perk.

To conclude, I have written this post sharing my experience because interviews are not experiences we usually discuss as scholars, much less live interviews. Of course, writers’ interviews are common in print (I see that the Paris Review continues its marvellous task, https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews) and in video online: you can see interviews with practically any writer you want. What is less common is for scholars to interview writers live. This may happen in the context of conferences, but in festivals and other events such as book presentations, it is more common to have journalists or other authors play that role. I have often been annoyed by that situation, as I believe we scholars are underused in these public occasions, and I am just saying with my post today that we are here, and available. Just a little nervous, perhaps.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the posts is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/

THE PROBLEM OF TRANSLATIONS (AND A COUPLE OF PROBLEMATIC SOLUTIONS). PART 1: THE ROLE OF MACHINE TRANSLATION

This is the English translation of the article in two parts originally in Catalan, which I published in the web El Biblionauta (https://elbiblionauta.com/ca/, November 2021). Here is the second part.

In Douglas Adams’ humorous novel The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy (1978), a small, yellow animal known as a Babel fish is used, inserted into one’s ear, as the solution to the problems of universal interlinguistic communication. We’ve all dreamed of a device that fulfils a similar function without the inconvenience of having a living creature near the brain, and a lot of effort is being put into that. Google, it seems, is working to build a universal interpreter inspired by Star Trek, an app (I suppose) easily installable on cellphones. While finding a way to translate live speech, as we all know Google Translate, other services like DeepL and Word itself (in an often overlooked menu option), help us translate written texts from one language to another with an increasing degree of efficiency.

Five years ago, Google Translate, launched in 2006, was in fact transformed into Google Neural Machine Translation (GNMT), a service that uses an AI-managed neural machine algorithm capable of processing contextual meaning, a feature that partly explains the drastic improvement of machine translation. I guess DeepL works the same way. In recent weeks, as I have already written here, there has been a heated debate about the use of this type of translation in the Spanish subtitles of the Netflix mega-success, the South Korean series Squid Game. As ATRAE (Asociación de Traducción y Adaptación Audiovisual de España) has complained, the multinational Iyuno, of which Netflix is a client, has used automatically generated subtitles for the first time, later revised by a human translator, charging a third of the usual fee (that is, between 60 to 100 euros for a 100-minute film). Post-edition (as this practice is called), ATRAE protests, threatens to destroy many jobs and lower the quality of subtitling. AVTE (Audiovisual Translators Europe) already published last September the Manifesto on Machine Translation (https://avteurope.eu/2021/09/13/press-release-avte-manifesto-on-machine-translation/) where it warned of the deep damage that machine translation will do in the short and long term in the audiovisual field and where it defends the need to achieve better collaboration between human translators and companies that offer powerful machine-based machine translation services.

This debate has not reached the literary world, but I want to start it by taking science fiction and the Catalan language as a case in point. I do not have a clear idea of the fees charged by translators but I understand that a novel of 300 pages in English can cost a few thousand euros (between 2000 and 4000?) to translate. If we think of a sales figure between 100 and 500 copies, we already see that business is limited, even impossible. I don’t quite understand, if I think about it, why there is a certain secrecy around the money it costs to publish a science-fiction book in Catalan, but when I asked several publishers what volume of business they hoped to generate I only got elusive answers. I was going to write that this is a topic for another debate but it is quite the opposite: it is a matter for this one. If we do not know clearly what a translation costs, it is difficult to solve the problem of how to fill the gaps in the publishing market for science fiction in Catalan. I leave aside the delicate issue of subsidies, which is perhaps the real focus of the debate.

The proposal I make below will not please anyone and could even shock many. I take as a case study the English author Richard K. Morgan, whom I just interviewed at Festival 42 and whose work I know entirely in the original English. Morgan has published nine novels (https://www.richardkmorgan.com/books-more/), six of which have been translated into Spanish (one of them, Altered Carbon, twice due to the author’s disagreement with the first translation and the subsequent breach of contract with the publisher). His trilogy about super-soldier Takeshi Kovacs, recently adapted by Netflix, is about to be completed in Spanish, the language in which you can read the first novel (Carbono modificado), the second, Ángeles rotos, and soon the third, Furias desatadas. Also translated are his first novel, Leyes de mercado, and the fantasy trilogy Sólo el acero, El gélido mando, and La impía oscuridad. In contrast, the author’s favorite novel among all the ones he has written and, for me, the best, Black Man (known in the United States as Th3rteen) will probably never be translated into Spanish (unless, of course, Netflix also adapts it). When I insisted to his publisher in Spanish that this was a good work, he replied that he had no doubt that it was, but that it is a novel too long and too little known to be translated. I understand that. It could always be the case that a larger publisher takes over Black Man but assuming that this does not happen I make here a controversial proposal: I would recommend Morgan, and all authors in a similar situation, to subscribe to a machine translation service, pay a translator to review the generated text, and self-publish, either on their own website or on platforms like Amazon (or Lektu … or El Biblionauta).

If no publisher is interested in paying for a translation into Catalan and publishing it, or has no resources, I think Morgan (or any other author in a similar situation) could follow the same method and self-publish in our language. I anticipate the furious protests of publishers and translators, but in all honesty, what should an author do who wants to find a new market in a new language but cannot find a publisher? Is it fair for a work to go unpublished in another language because it’s too expensive to translate or publish? The authors have so far accepted the rules of the game according to which a foreign publisher is the one who chooses to buy the rights and commission the translations, and surely they already have enough work to write for them to embark on new and strange adventures in the world of self-publication. As far as I know, authors never commission translations but expect foreign publishers to do so because it is logically cheaper for them. It’s all a matter, however, of working out expenses. If authors conclude that it is worthwhile to self-publish a translation managed by himself (or his agent), whether using human translators or revised machine translation, there is no obstacle for them to move forward. It all depends, as I say, on what expenses they care to assume.

I have no intention of antagonizing translators, a professional guild that deserves all my respect, nor publishers, but, perhaps because of the imagination of science fiction authors, many things are changing in the field of translation. I had the impression that the use of machine translation was much less widespread than it is in institutions, business and professional fields, but friends who are professional translators have frankly acknowledged to me that they are now basically engaged in revising texts translated by AIs. It could be argued that machine translation is too little advanced and requires deep revisions as expensive as a translation from scratch but this is a diminishing hurdle, as those of us who use machine translation know (I mean in non-literary tasks).

The vision of a world where only AIs are translators and there are no human beings trained in the profession should frighten us all, and it frightens me very deeply, yet I must make the problem of where translation is heading visible. It would be somewhat ironic that science fiction becomes the genre in which revised automatic translations into Catalan could proliferate, but it would be an irony consistent with the very nature of this genre. Perhaps rules can be set, so that only works that no publisher wants to publish, or for which there is no human translator into Catalan, are translated by combining the work of AIs with human work, but it is truly a pity that we cannot access works in other languages because the laws of the publishing market hinder it. If there is no market for some works in some languages (I’m not just talking about English) it would be logical to look for other strategies. These, by the way, should always be legal, no translation can ever be made disrespecting the rights of authors on their work. Thinking of the authors, I think, as I say, that revised machine translation and self-publishing are the most appropriate paths.

If you find this proposal unacceptable, we can focus for the time being on the first proposal (see the first part of this article) and turn El Biblionauta into the seat of a polyglot council of wise readers that can help publishers make beneficial choices for everyone, relating to what science fiction could be translated into Catalan, using human translators and beyond the English language.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the posts is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/

THE PROBLEM OF TRANSLATIONS (AND A COUPLE OF PROBLEMATIC SOLUTIONS). PART 1: THE SELECTION OF ORIGINALS

This is the English translation of the article in two parts originally in Catalan, which I published in the web El Biblionauta (https://elbiblionauta.com/ca/, November 2021).

It is common to celebrate from time to time the novelty of the publication in Catalan of foreign works of science fiction or fantasy, but it is not so common to reflect on the dynamics that make it possible for these works to reach our language. And on the contrary: although not so often, we are happy when we receive news of the translation of a work of the fantastic in Catalan into a foreign language, despite not even knowing how these little miracles happen. I therefore open a reflection on this topic that will lead, as will be seen, to two bold proposals described in two different articles, one of which is sure to create controversy (see part 2).

So far, things work as follows: publishers decide independently which authors and books they want to translate into Catalan, buy the rights, commission a translation, have it corrected, publish it, and sell it to the reading public with more or less success. However, there is no committee that carries a list of works which would be interesting to translate into Catalan (or from Catalan to other languages), so that in the set of translated works there are always important shortcomings of both classics and novelties. Some works were translated a long time ago but are out of print, others were not translated at the time of their highest popularity and it seems that they will never be translated, and current authors do not find anyone to publish them in Catalan even when they are known. in their language and, why not say it, in Spanish.

The first proposal I make, then, is to make El Biblionauta the headquarters of a committee of science fiction, fantasy and horror readers in Catalan that can advise local publishers and turn the market for books translated into Catalan into an environment. much more consistent than it is now. I’m well aware that readers are volatile and that we don’t always buy the books we want to read (which is why there are libraries, friends, and various illegal resources). I would say, however, that if between 100 and 300 people express the opinion that it would be desirable to translate certain foreign titles, Catalan publishers would so do more confidently than simply relying on their own intuition, or sales in the original language.

The committee’s idea is also applicable to the translation of Catalan into other languages. When I translated Mecanoscrit del segon origen into English, a novel that had already been translated into fourteen other languages but incredibly not into English, I realized that neither the publishers nor the institutions (whether the Institut Ramon Llull or directly the Conselleria de Cultura) monitor which Catalan books are translated into other languages. To be fair, the IRL does offer a database of books in Catalan that could be of interest to translate (https://www.llull.cat/catala/literatura/books_catalan.cfm ) but this is not specific enough in relation in science fiction, fantasy and horror. I don’t see why the readers of El Biblionauta shouldn’t be in charge of managing a list of Catalan works in these genres that would be desirable to publish in other languages. Obviously, it would be easier for Catalan publishers to look at the list of foreign works recommended by readers than for foreign publishers to look at a list of Catalan works, but it’s all about getting started.

In the middle of writing this article I had the pleasure of being a spectator at the new Festival 42 (https://www.barcelona.cat/festival42/ca) of the round table ‘New genre classics in Catalan: A boom with Adams, Dick, Le Guin, Butler, Matheson, King, Poe, Bradbury, Lovecraft and those who will soon follow…’, moderated by Miquel Codony and with the participation of Jordi Casals, Jordi Llavoré, Antoni Munné-Jordà, Martí Sales and Isabel del Río. The table was a celebration of the work that publishers such as Males Herbes, Mai Més Llibres, Chronos, Laertes, Raig Verd, L’Altra, Periscopi, Pagès, Kalandraka and Edicions SECC, among others, have been doing for about ten years in two ways: expanding the list of Catalan translations of foreign science fiction, fantasy and horror classics and recovering out-of-print editions, updating them. This is a very laudable job, without a doubt, but I myself was in charge of questioning a very important point in a brief intervention, when I protested, as an English philologist, that English is too important in this boom. The word ‘classic’ can’t be limited to English-language science fiction, I insisted, but that’s what’s happening right now.

This is not a new opinion in my thinking but it’s true that a conversation during the festival with Italian publisher and novelist Francesco Verso opened my eyes a little bit more. Verso commented to me that, as the University of Rochester’s Three Percent website warns (https://www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/about/), only 3% of all books published in the United States is a translation, including books of all genres. Rachel Cordasco, a friend of Verso, has an impressive database of speculative fiction works translated into English on her website SF in Translation (https://www.sfintranslation.com/) and has just published Out of This World: Speculative Fiction in Translation from the Cold War to the New Millennium (2021), described as a guide. Verso himself is pursuing a truly international language policy as a publisher, looking for translators of all possible languages, as he told me, and remunerating them in the same way as English translators to encourage them to do more work. The website of his publishing project (https://www.futurefiction.org/) includes a world map where many authors can be found outside the Anglo-American sphere.

A very important problem, then, is that neither readers nor publishers of genre fiction in Catalan know enough about other languages. To be better informed you can use resources such as Francesco Verso’s map, Rachel Cordasco’s website and guide, or academic books such as Dale Knickerbocker’s, Lingua Cosmica: Science Fiction from around the World (2018). This book is part of the growing wave of interest in the Anglo-American academic world for speculative fiction in other languages, of which the new book Science Fiction in Translation: Perspectives on the Global Theory and Practice of Translation, edited by Ian Campbell and in which I myself participate, is also part. In my review of Knickerbocker’s volume (https://www.revistahelice.com/revista_textos/n_27/Helice 2019 Fall-Winter MARTIN ALEGRE BABEL FISH URGENTLY NEEDED.pdf) I complained about how frustrating it is to read a book of this kind full of very attractive reading suggestions lacking translations. The editor, on the other hand, complained about the lack of academic specialists in speculative fiction written in languages other than English or in non-Anglo-American territories (there is, for example, African science fiction in English).

It is easy to understand why the current translation boom is basically linked to the Anglo-American classics since they are the ones we all know, but I think there is an important contradiction between the status of Catalan as a small language among those spoken in world, and the little attention we pay to science fiction in languages similar to ours. This leads me to think that the committee of wise readers I was talking about should be polyglot, if not individually at least as a whole. Both Francesco Verso and my co-editor at Hélice magazine, Mariano Martín, are admirable polyglots, and their mastery of diverse languages gives them a comparative knowledge of the space of international science fiction that is simply incomparable. Hearing them engage in a conversation about Bulgarian science fiction a few days ago was a pleasure but, again, a frustration because no text is translated into Catalan.

So I get to the point where I have to express a very strange feeling: I miss the Catalan translation of genre books (science fiction, fantasy, horror) from other languages whose existence I am unaware of. As Francesco Verso told me, we have reached a situation in which not only first-class classics but also second- and third-rate works in English are being translated because they reach us through the powerful Anglo-American distribution machinery. Meanwhile, first-rank works in other languages –both classics and novelties, in large or small languages– go unnoticed, just as Catalan works go unnoticed among international readers. I understand that it is too much to ask that Catalan readers and publishers suddenly become polyglots aware of the current state of the science fiction published abroad, beyond the English language, but that is what we need. Either we do this or we look for bilingual or polyglot people who can inform us and, above all, who can translate into Catalan other traditions yet to be discovered.

In the second part of this article, I explain the role that artificial intelligence could play in this process. Keep reading …

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the posts is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/

SQUID GAME AND THE DANGERS OF MACHINE TRANSLATION: A WARNING

NOTE: This post was originally written on 1 November 2021, but it’s published now, months later because of the cyberattack that UAB suffered then and that caused the temporary suspension of this blog

I am not following Netflix’s South Korean mega-hit Squid Game, being currently off the platform, but I have noticed that the series has attracted much controversy about an issue few people really care about: the quality of the subtitles. What is remarkable is how different the controversies are depending on the linguistic area. For English speakers the problem seems to be whether the subtitles are truly accurate and how much is lost in translation. For Spanish speakers that was also the issue until the audiovisual professional translators called attention, a couple of weeks ago, to the use of automatic translation for the subtitles. I find the problem of accuracy far less urgent right now than the matter of automatic translation, which is not being properly addressed and will have huge consequences in the near future. See how.

As we all know, English is the dominant audiovisual language but the immense popularity of some foreign-language series on the streaming platforms, and the generally low quality of dubbing into English, has forced many spectators to use subtitles. I’m following a CNET article, “Still watching Squid Game on Netflix? Change this subtitle setting immediately” by Jennifer Bisset (https://www.cnet.com/news/watching-squid-game-on-netflix-change-this-subtitle-setting-asap/) to present the problem affecting the spectators using English subtitles to follow the series’ original Korean-language dialogue. All was more or less well until Korean Tik-Tok and Twitter users started protesting about how much the English subtitles missed, from glaring errors to matters of nuance. Bisset warns, like others have done, that although perfect accuracy cannot be achieved, the English subtitles option works much better than the English Closed Captions option for the deaf and hard of hearing, which most spectators use. The English CC subtitles, she explains, are “often autogenerated” and, in Squid Game apparently “a closer match to the English dub than the English subtitles”. The English subtitles which she recommends are not, unlike the English dub, forced to adapt translation to lip-synching, and are, thus, more accurate, though not necessarily error-free, as many Korean speakers have also pointed out. It’s, then, a case, of choosing between the bad and the worse, but not an experience exclusive to this series or to the English-speaking world. As I know from having watched thousands of English-language movies and series with Spanish subtitles the errors are many. They often show that this kind of translation is done in a hurry by underpaid translators lacking sufficient experience (apologies to the ones who are experienced but anyway underpaid).

For the Spanish case, I’m following the article by Héctor Llanos Martínez, “Los traductores españoles protestan por los ‘mediocres’ subtítulos de El juego del calamar, hechos por una máquina” [Spanish translators protest against the machine-made ‘mediocre’ subtitles of Squid Game] for El País (https://elpais.com/television/2021-10-14/los-traductores-espanoles-protestan-por-los-mediocres-subtitulos-de-el-juego-del-calamar-hechos-por-una-maquina.html). Llanos reports that ATRAE, the Asociación de Traducción y Adaptación Audiovisual de España, has complained that Netflix employs a multinational company specializing in automatic translation, Iyuno (https://iyuno-sdi.com/), which produces subtitles later edited by a person working at a third of the translators’ habitual rate. This technique, called post-edition, is what we all use when automatically translating a text that we later revise. According to ATRAE, a translator receives 60 to 100 euros for supervising a 100-minute film, which is awfully low, though getting 300 euros for translating the whole movie doesn’t look too good, either. The ATRAE spokespersons have noted that the AIs generating automatic translation do not understand context, subtext, or wordplay and miss many nuances that a human translator would not miss (though, as I have noted, subtitling is not at all the most accurate type of translation). ATRAE suggests that Netflix may have been unaware of the controversial methods used to translate Squid Game, apparently the first series using post-edition, in view of the care it put into the correct translation of La casa de papel (Money Heist). Llanos comments that Audiovisual Translators Europe (AVTE) had already blacklisted Iyuno in 2020. He also notes that Netflix has declined to make any comments.

AVTE, precisely, released last September an 18-page long Manifesto on Machine Translation decrying the practice (https://avteurope.eu/2021/09/13/press-release-avte-manifesto-on-machine-translation/). The 10 points of the summary include the following declarations: “We do not believe that fully automated localization processes are likely to happen anytime soon”, “Although proponents of MT claim that efficiency gains are guaranteed, fixing a poor translation can take longer than translating the same text from scratch”, “To reinforce sustainability, translators’ working conditions need to be improved”, and “Translators are often not aware that their work is used to train MT engines, nor are they remunerated for this”. This only shows how desperate the situation is beginning to be for professional human translators. We all know, having the experience of using Google Translate, Word’s own translation feature, or other automatic translators such as DeepL that MT has improved enormously in the last five years. In fact, we have all contributed to that, for the AIs are learning from the texts we ask them to translate, constantly improving with practice. I have no idea what I am saying here but Google Translate, which launched in 2006, switched in 2016 to Google Neural Machine Translation (GNMT), MT which uses an AI-powered neural machine translation algorithm capable of processing contextual meaning (much closer to a human brain, then). That explains the dramatic improvement.

My own use of MT means that what would take me 90 minutes to translate from scratch can be ready for uploading in 20 minutes, or less, of revision, which is a great advantage. So, sorry ATRAE and AVTE but in five more years, MT might be as accurate as any human translator, if not more, being already incredibly faster. “Fixing a poor translation” might be by then a concept entirely of the past. I have nothing against translators, quite the opposite: they are professionals I admire profoundly. Yet, it would be naïve to think that any manifestos can stop the march of technology and, above all, the march of greedy, mean capitalism in its search for the lowest-priced acceptable translation. Squid Game’s post-edition methods are just the first sign of what is soon coming. I am not sounding a death knell for professional translation but being realistic.

To my immense surprise, two friends who work as professional translators in public institutions (not as literary or film translations), acknowledged to me recently that the use of MT is common, and that their job consists now of revising rather than translating from scratch. I assume this is the same in many other professional and business environments, and I also assume that many academics with little money to spare from their research projects might choose post-edition translation over the far more expensive translation from scratch. One thing we must be clear about is that MT cannot work without revision: you may take Google Translate and have your academic article translated into Mandarin Chinese believing it to be accurate, but only a native speaker of the target language can determine accuracy. It might well be, then, that translators are sought in the future mainly as revisers. This is the part that scares me very much, not just because the wages of professional translators might be drastically cut and their extremely important task undermined but because if the profession is so badly hit that no young person wants to train as a translator, we run the risk of losing translation altogether as a human pursuit. The vision of a world in which all translators are AI is a frightening dystopia, as it would put a most important tool of human communication outside human reach. Many people believe that a native bilingual person, or someone who learns a second language, can easily translate but becoming a translator requires serious professional training. Who, however, would think of investing long years in that kind of training to compete with super-efficient AIs? And how many people really understand the long-term danger of trusting all translation to AIs?

On the other hand, MT opens up new possibilities worth considering that might enrich the cultural field. Suppose you are an author seeking international publication but failing to find interested foreign publishers. You are being told that the cost of translating and revising your book is too steep, and that expected sales make taking risks of this kind pure gamble. Well, you could self-translate using MT, pay for a professional revision and market your book directly in, say, five foreign languages, through Amazon, or similar platforms, or your own website. Just to give an example, this week I will be interviewing for the new Festival 42 British author Richard Morgan, a relatively well-known SF author whose novels Altered Carbon, Broken Angels and Woken Furies have been adapted by Netflix using the title of the first book. Both Woken Furies and Black Man (known as Th3rteen in the USA), Morgan’s own favourite novel among his production, remain untranslated into Spanish because his publisher lacks the resources. Why shouldn’t Morgan pay for MT plus revision (by a professional translator or an academic like yours truly) and have the novels published as he chooses? He owns copyright, after all. I am well aware that this may sound as anathema to professional translators, but I am contemplating the same process to translate into Spanish my own book Masculinity and Patriarchal Villainy in British Fiction: From Hitler to Voldemort, in view of the dozen Spanish publishers that have rejected it. And, yes, MT has a downside for authors, as you will see if you check MT and copyright on Google: the generation of illegal translations of foreign-language work which do not respect author’s copyright. You might find your own book on Amazon translated into another language, but let it be known that this is illegal, as copyright always belongs to you. So, get there before others do…

A last matter worries me: if I use a translation tool to translate this post, the copyright is still mine, in the same way the copyright of the original text belongs to me and not to Microsoft’s Word, which I use to write it. The software to write and translate is a tool, and not an entity which can own copyright. However, being an avid reader of SF I am familiar with the trope of the AI which becomes sentient and demands to be seen as a full person. If AIs are eventually granted a legal status as persons (as some animals are being granted now), this means that whatever they do, including translation, will be subjected to copyright laws (human translators retain copyright over their translations). The singularity so often announced might happen in 2099 rather than 2022, but it will certainly happen, unless of course climate change wipes us all out. So, brace yourselves for a very strange world in which literary translations, to name the ones closest to my heart, will be signed by AIs bearing personal names. Brave new world… though not for professional translators and, as much as like the idea of AIs, for human cross-language communication.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the posts is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/

GENDER ISSUES AND DOCTORAL STUDENTS: THE QUESTION OF MOTHERHOOD

NOTE: This post was originally written on 26 October 2021, but it’s published now, months later because of the cyberattack that UAB suffered then and that caused the temporary suspension of this blog

Here is an excerpt of the talk I gave the doctoral students in our programme yesterday, 26 October 2021. The talk, intended to be of interest for both language and Literature/culture students, is called “The Long March Toward Equality and Why We Can’t Get Rid of Gender Studies” and in normal circumstances, I would have uploaded it onto our digital repository but that is also inaccessible, as are the personal and institutional websites.

I have called this brief talk ‘The long march towards equality and why we can’t get rid of Gender Studies’ because I am here to call attention to two matters: one, that gender equality has not been achieved yet after 230 hundred years of feminism (if we count from Mary Wollstonecraft’s publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792); the other, that for that reason the academic disciplines invented to address this issue are still necessary, though I wish they were not. In an ideal world, Gender Studies would not be necessary because gender would not be an issue. People are not divided into lovers and non-lovers of chocolate and discriminated on that basis, and for that reason we don’t see the need to have Chocolate Studies. But as long as those other than cis-gender, heterosexual men are not treated as full citizens, we need Gender Studies. Regrettably.

Gender Studies has a long history as an academic discipline, though it started with another name, Women’s Studies in the 1970s, and in California, in imitation of Chicano Studies. Next came Lesbian and Gay Studies, and from the 1990s onward Gender Studies, Queer Studies and Masculinities Studies. The labels are still very problematic, and so we have many degree programs calling themselves ‘Women and Gender Studies’, and other problems, such as the fact that Gay and Queer Studies co-exist but do not overlap, or that Masculinities Studies not always has room for gay or queer men. In case you are wondering, Gay and Lesbian Studies tend to follow an essentialist approach, based on the idea that a homosexual identity exists as such, whereas ‘queer’, a word appropriated by academia from slang, refers to the fluidity in sexual identity, though within limits. Queer heterosexuality, which I myself defend as a sign that we heterosexuals are not always normative, has never been really accepted. Here at UAB, by the way, we have a BA in Sociocultural Gender Studies, and an inter-university MA and PhD program called, precisely, Women and Gender Studies. We also offer a postgraduate degree in ‘Male Chauvinist Violence’ (or ‘Violencias Machistas’), which as I have told the organizers urgently needs a new title.

For those of you who are confused about issues now causing plenty of confusion, allow me to say that gender refers to the cultural construction of identity habitually based on sex, which is part of the biological nature of our bodies. In essentialist models, dominant until the 1950s and still in the most traditional view of gender, there is a total correspondence between sex and gender, so that a female is a woman and a male is a man. Today we are in the middle of an immense revolution which has destroyed this model to replace it with a constructionist approach, which denies not only that there are two genders but also that sex is binary. The turmoil is immense as gender identity is combined with gender expression, biological sex and sexual orientation, adding to this mix the advances in medicine that make bodily transition if not easy at least quite possible to a great extent. You will have learned of the new laws now guaranteeing, for instance in Scotland and soon in Spain, that a person may legally claim a gender identity different from that of her body; that is to say, I might be able soon to legally register myself as a man but keep intact my female body. This has opened an immense debate, which is overlapping with a growing homophobia even in countries like ours where homosexual marriage has been legal for almost two decades. Many things happening at the same time, creating much confusion.

Apart from my own research, I must note that in my teaching I am following a project-oriented methodology and I have published with the BA and the MA students several e-books on gender (all available from the digital repository of UAB). The two most recent are Gender in 21st Century SF Cinema: 50 Titles of 2019 and Gender in 21st Century Animated Children’s Cinema of 2020, both by the MA students. Now I am at work on yet another volume with the fourth-year BA students in my Cultural Studies course, which is provisionally called Songs and Women in 21st Century Pop. A number of interesting things are happening there: last Thursday a student presented a song by Demi Lovato, who has recently come out as gender-fluid, and she used all the time the pronoun ‘they’ to refer to the singer. The student, Andrea Hernández, asked me whether a gender-fluid person has a place in a book about women, and I had to think hard about this, before I replied that Lovato’s presence will enhance what we are doing together. Students are very savvy about gender and sex, and are far ahead of me in the use of the new vocabulary. Two of them, currently transitioning, have informed me they no longer want me to use their dead name (that is to say, their legal name). Another uses her gender-fluid name, which has made me think of whether calling myself Sare would define me much better than my name Sara. I don’t know yet.

Gender issues affect everyone, including doctoral students. Here are some interesting figures. In 2017-18 there were in Spain 79.386 doctoral students, of whom 39.886 were men and 39.500 women. Good! Spain was, besides, the third country in Europe with the highest number of doctoral students, after Germany and the United Kingdom, but with a much better balance in gender terms. Now, here’s the problem which these figures conceal: the average age for new doctors in Spain is 35 for men and 33 for women (the figures are for 2010, but I don’t think they have changed). The average age for new mothers in Spain is 31,1 (for 2019); it used to be 25,8 in 1985, the first year when statistics were kept. This means that most female doctoral students must be struggling with the decision to be mothers, whereas male students do not face the same problem. In Spain 95% of men under 30 are not yet fathers and there is no data about when men become fathers for the first time on average, but come sense and mundane experience suggest that paternity need not interrupt a man’s doctoral studies in the same way maternity may affect women.

Current statistics, common sense and personal experience, indicate that motherhood is a major obstacle in any professional career. BA and MA women students have often told me that they do not need feminism because they are guaranteed equality by the educational system, and this is basically true. Most BA students in Spain are women, even though it must be noted that some degrees have a big majority of women (85% in English Studies, 70% in Medicine) whereas women’s interest in STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) is waning. I recently met my good friend Carme Torras, a major robotics engineer (and a science fiction writer), and she told me that in her research group of 60 only 8 are women, despite her example and mentorship. Anyway, the point I was making is that young women are under the impression that there are no boundaries limiting their education but they tend to become aware that the boundaries are there indeed the moment motherhood becomes a possibility. One of my female doctoral students recently told me all her friends are getting married and having children, which makes her feel very odd. Her thesis has become not only something she very much wants to write but a key factor in her private life, which is hardly the case with male students. I myself don’t have children (just for personal reasons, not because I thought they would be an obstacle in my academic life) but I have seen my women colleagues bravely combine motherhood and excellence in professional achievement in ways I can only admire. It must be very hard.

If you are wondering about the Spanish university and what happens once you have a doctoral degree, this is the situation: at the top level, there are fewer women than men who are full professors (around 20%), most likely as a consequence of the difficulties in combining being a mother with being a top academic; at the bottom level, more women than men are being hired but this is happening just when university jobs are at their lowest point in terms of pay and stability. A university full of underpaid and overworked young associates is always a disgrace, but if being a mother in a full-time job is hard enough, imagine what it is like when you are combining two jobs and writing a doctoral dissertation. Sorry if I sound too unfair to the young men writing doctoral dissertations and trying to start an academic career, but even if you are committed fathers, the truth is that pregnancy is still carried out by biological women. There is a certain pretense that this is no obstacle and any woman can carry on doing research until she goes into labor, but this is rather callous and oblivious of what it really means to have a baby grow in one’s body. As I say, I have never had a child but it only needs a bit of empathy to understand that the process must be intense physically and mentally, and not always compatible with a PhD. Of course, universities are not totally blind to this issue and UAB has made the provision of allowing pregnant doctoral students and/or recent mothers to take a break (I’m not sure about recent fathers). This is fine, but still a partial solution since the arrival of a baby will necessarily disrupt the life of any PhD student and perhaps what would be needed is a crèche for these cases. I know that I am sounding more and more utopian, but this is what feminism is for.

It is in a way very positive that the problem I am discussing is how motherhood and doctoral studies combine, for this means we need to think of the almost 40000 women pursuing a PhD in Spain as an established collective and not as isolated cases, as it used to be in the not too distant past. Perhaps a matter we are not discussing in all this debate is why, if a person may obtain a master’s degree by the age of 23, doctoral dissertations take on average ten more years to complete for women, twelve for men. We could have much younger doctors easily if the system offered more grants and in this way both men and women could complete their dissertations before hitting thirty and being ready to embark on parenthood if they wish. There would always be persons who start their doctoral studies past thirty but it would be desirable that they were exceptions. Younger doctors might be intellectually less mature (sorry!) but since having a doctoral degree has become just the minimum requirement to start an academic career, this is an option we need to consider. I know that as academic careers work today, the problem of when to become a mother would be just pushed onto the next post-doctoral phase but that is the stuff of another debate. Or of the same one: all we need are more grants, and a crèche for each university and adjusting to the reality that the persons embarking on doctoral studies and academic careers are adults also embarking on the project of forming families.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the posts is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/

A CONFERENCE ON TEACHING INNOVATION: SOME NOTES

NOTE: This post was originally written on 11 October 2021, but it’s published now, four months later because of the cyberattack that UAB suffered then and that caused the temporary suspension of this blog

I do not know if you have noticed this but there seems to be here in Spain a certain proliferation of teaching innovation conferences recently, by which I mean about the last four years. Some conferences have been around for much longer than that (and I have been running the Department workshop Teaching English Language, Literature, and Culture TELLC for seven years now), but suddenly a new crop is materializing, with acronyms such as CIDICO or CIVINEDU, perhaps in imitation of the more veteran CIDUI. I am not in the habit of attending teaching innovation events because I usually find them too general to be of application to my own teaching–hence my setting up TELLC with my Department colleagues–though possibly this is the wrong stance. I decided, then, to correct my prejudiced view by attending two weeks ago the fifth CIVINEDU Virtual Conference on Educational Research and Innovation.

Before I sum up what I learned, which was plenty, I’d like to defend virtual conferences; they, it must be noted, pre-date Covid-19. For those of us who do not particularly like travelling for professional reasons and who find the cost of attending a conference quite steep (particularly international conferences), virtual conferences are always a good idea. I do know the social aspect is missing but debate is far more intense. In an in-person conference you’re lucky if you get two or three questions from the audience, after travelling hundreds of miles and spending hundreds of euros. In, for instance, the CIVINEDU conference (cost 80 euros for speakers, 45 for attendees), some speakers got dozens of comments and questions, as online debate was kept open for a few days, not just the 90 minutes of the specific session. I am not saying with this that all conferences should be virtual, but that it would be very useful to keep virtual conferences alive even after Covid-19 is over for good. Virtual conferences are, besides, far kinder to the planet than the events that require very high mobility and that leave a high carbon footprint, a matter we, the academic community, must also consider.

At CIVINEDU I attended the three plenary talks and saw the video presentations by 21 speakers in two days, pretty intense I should say. I mostly selected presentations dealing with university teaching in the Humanities (the conference covered all levels and all areas), but made the point of attending at least a couple of presentations about Science degrees, which was interesting, too. There was a total agreement in all I saw that the students’ learning should always be the main focus of teaching, and that teachers should be, above all, guides and by no means the protagonists of what happens in the classroom. I totally agree with that view.

As happens in all conferences, my view is very partial and another set of papers would lead to different conclusions, but the presentations I attended showed a preoccupation with the emotional stability of students, how to keep their attention engaged, and using social networks skills for improved teaching. I marvel at how often the word ‘gamification’ could be seen in the titles of papers offering the most varied advice about how to turn boredom into excitement. I have already expressed here my prejudice against this concept. In my modest view, we are going in the wrong direction by trying to have students feel excited all the time in class, when actually we should train them in accepting that learning cannot always be exciting. I attended an excellent presentation which defended the creativity of boredom but, beyond that, I think that modern pedagogy is too invested in the idea of excitement. My impression is that a student who expects excitement from classroom activities will be twice bored if classes happen to be less exciting than expected. I do not know enough, in any case, about gamification to radically disregard the whole trend, but I am asking for caution.

Something that worried me very much in the presentations addressing the emotional wellbeing of students, very much affected as we all know by Covid-19, is the underlying assumption that we, teachers, are perfectly stable persons. We are not. I do not mean that the profession is full of whacky characters, though we possibly have a higher ratio than most professional sectors. What I mean is that it is somehow implied that we can transmit knowledge about our area, train students in it and contribute to their emotional health as if we were robotic machines. I try to do my best not to cause unnecessary distress and keep my students as happy as possibly, but I am a highly stressed, often unhappy person and I do not see anyone worrying about that. By this I mean that I am pretty average, and I think that possibly 99% of my peers are subjected to human emotions that impact their teaching. A teacher can only be an efficient guide for students if s/he is reasonably stable in emotional terms when stepping into a classroom, a position increasingly harder to sustain with all the pressure put on us to perform at all levels, not to mention the job instability of the associate teachers. A presentation, I must note, did comment on emotional coaching for teachers, but my impression was that this is right now a luxury few universities can afford.

Another presentation commented on the mismatch between the competences employers sought in new graduates and the competences students had actually acquired. The same speaker offered a second presentation about whether talent was missing or had been made harder to spot with the implementation of the competence system. We started introducing the new degrees back in 2009 and since then we have been describing what we do, both to the Ministry and to students, in lists of competences. I doubt, however, that any of our graduates pays much attention to that. We should check, but my guess is that at the end of their studies no graduate is thinking of competences but of knowledge acquired. The most absurd aspect of the competences, however, is that we were never allowed to use the verb ‘to know’ in them because the corresponding committees agreed that acquiring knowledge was secondary to learning how to do something. You should have seen, though, my students’ faces when I told them that the main mission of ‘Victorian Literature’ was not just to have them acquire knowledge about this area of the Humanities, but guiding them to produce basic academic writing. What the competences of the course describe is for them secondary to the fact that they need to read and know about authors and texts, as in traditional teaching. Haven’t we forgotten, I ask, to tell students about how we actually teach and they are supposed to learn?

It occurs to me that this is a major problem. A presenter described how she established a weekly encounter with her students during lockdown to discuss how they were coping with the situation brought about by online teaching and so on. I found it a wonderful idea because we speak too little about teaching with our students. When we do, great things happen. For instance, in one of the TELLC workshops, two students expressed their view that our instrumental subjects were a waste of 24 credits for students who already had the B2-B1 entrance level our degree requires. They suggested replacing them with language courses focused on academic writing, and this is what we have started doing. I have kept the TELLC workshops open to students but I realize that we need another type of forum. I am sure students do have many more ideas about how to teach and learn, but they have no mechanism to discuss them with us, for fear of offending teachers and jeopardizing assessment. And, yes, I have indeed thought of an anonymous mailbox for suggestions, but I still hope the conversation can be started face-to-face. In the end, if you think about it, perhaps the main problem of any teachers’ forum is that we speak to each other of what we think students feel or might welcome, but do not ask them directly. This is like discussing with your best friend how to have better sex with your couple, without ever asking your couple.

There was a paper that drew particularly good criticism and many positive comments. Did it offer a ground-breaking teaching technique? Perhaps the solution to keep students gleefully entertained and the teachers happily engaged in class? No… The presenter simply drew attention to the design of our classrooms. Eleven years after the start of the new degrees, which supposedly eschew lectures for more collaborative teaching, we still work mostly in classrooms designed for a large audience to face a speaker. See the problem I have now, for instance: I have 65 students in my Victorian Literature class sitting in benches, in rows of eight seats (I think). My platform is placed to the left, and I stand about two metres from the closest student. The ones at the back must be about ten to twelve metres away from me. With their facemasks on, I can’t understand them, which forces me to teach less than thrilling lectures, shouting like I’m possessed (I refuse to use a microphone, the last thing I need!). If, instead of the compact sitting arrangements, students were in individual chairs, I could have them work in small groups and I could move around talking to them. Yet this is a luxury we only have in the smaller classrooms. Why the benches have staid put is easy to understand: in the last ten years, the school where I work has only had money to keep us going, not to consider any major investment. If you ask me, the whole building should have to be redesigned, but that is as impossible as demanding that university classes have a maximum of 30 students.

Oh, yes, I had forgotten about that. The most frequent comment to papers that called for better guidance of students was, ‘yes, I love the idea, but with one hundred in my group, how do I do that?’ I know that in smaller universities classes of 30 students may be the norm, but in big universities like my own, we may have up to 140 students per group. This is insane. Yet, there is a complete taboo around discussing the issue of group size for the simple reason that if we took it seriously many universities should double their staff. And, as things are, we have trouble enough trying to secure tenure for those who have been around for ages as associates. I will insist again and again that in my time both in primary and secondary schools the habitual class size was 40-45, and little by little 25 became the ideal. I don’t know whether this is the actual size of most primary and secondary classes but a class of 40 kids, we all know, is an aberration. In contrast, nobody remarks on the number of students in university classrooms, or if we do it, this is only in terms of the teachers’ workload. Beyond that–how can anyone guide efficiently groups of more than 30?–there is the matter of students’ rights. I think that a fundamental right is that your teacher knows your name in, let’s say, the first two weeks of the course, and can accordingly pay attention to you as an individual person. With more than 30, this cannot happen (or happens at the cost of a great effort).

The main lesson learned at the conference, in short, is that there is plenty of good will and good ideas to make teaching and learning better, but that, as long as the universities keep their old architecture, limited staff, and big groups of students, there is little that can be actually done. What most speakers proposed, from gamification strategies to flipped classes, passing through small group tutorials and so on, involved an increased workload, which perhaps some of us, tenured teachers, can assume but not so our associates, who make up now more than 50% of our teaching staff. I do not mean that the bottle is half empty and nothing can be done, but that the very concept of innovation must refer to what can be done, not mostly to what could be done if only things were better.

Now tell me what it’s like for you, whether you’re a teacher or a student.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the posts is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/