Saturday, January 12, 2008

To translate or not translate: The great Australian slanguage

The dilemmas faced by the Australian novelist writing below are ones that I too am often racked by. I would dearly love to use the great and vivid resources of my native Australian speech in what I write but that would make a lot of what I write incomprehensible outside Australia

It was the good news every first-time Australian author hopes for: an American publisher eager to buy the US rights to my novel Listen. I probably should have expected what followed: "They want to make a light line edit, just to Americanise any sayings or words." No cause for alarm, especially when I've heard of some authors being asked to change the setting of their book from Australia to the US. (In 1980, the US distributors of Mad Max insisted on dubbing the whole movie, convinced that American audiences would not be able to cope with Australian accents, let alone slang. "No worries" became, nonsensically, "Don't worry", and not even in Mel Gibson's voice, which must've been galling for an actor born and raised in Peekskill, upstate New York.)

As it happens, I spend half my time in the US. A handful of American friends have already read my book and it's true that occasionally a word or expression has stumped them. "What is an arvo," [afternoon] one asked, "and where can I get one?" Our use of pissed to mean drunk is completely baffling, since in the US it means angry. It's true too that, as my Australian agent Fiona Inglis grumbled, "We have had to work out what sidewalks and sophomores and jelly donuts are, can't they use a bit of nous and work out our expressions?"

But since it's not my intention to baffle any reader, I was sanguine about this light line edit. It's exciting to have your novel published overseas, but changing Aussie expressions and customs for local markets can get out of hand So why did my bottom lip start trembling when I got the edited manuscript back from my editor in New York and saw that "big-noting yourself" might become "bragging" [not the same at all], that a beaut bloke could turn into a great guy, or that a strong man might lose his Mallee and become simply fit as a bull? [The normal Oz expression is: "Fit as a Mallee bull"]

It's not as if all the characters in Listen speak dinky-di Strine, but they are Australian, and I like the way Australians speak. The world is homogenising fast enough. Don't get me wrong: I love my American editor, Allison Dickens, at Plume, a US imprint of Penguin. How could I not love someone who in her first email to me said: "Listen is exactly the novel I wanted to buy when I came to Plume last fall. Thank you for writing it for me!" I'd met her, ( knew she "got" my book, with all its many characters and their complicated lives. I wanted to make things easy for her. But not to the extent of allowing "sooky" to become "emotional" [should be "wussy"]

Then there was the title. My German publisher, Heyne, had said simply that Listen didn't work as a title there, so they renamed it Ein Leben Lang: A Long Life, but having the sense too of lifelong. I understand that a title that works in one country may not work in another. So when Allison told me she was getting less than enthusiastic responses to Listen in-house at Plume - "a little quiet" and, more brutally, "flat" - I knew we'd have to come up with something new. A hundred back-and-forth suggestions later, the US title is likely to be Without a Backward Glance, a phrase that Allison lifted from the text: apt, evocative and (we hope) memorable. On this matter at least, everyone seemed happy.

But another, perhaps even bigger issue had been raised; something that had never occurred to me, and no one had commented on before: underage drinking. If you'd asked me, "What about the underage drinking in your novel?" I would've said, "There isn't any; you've got the wrong book." But wait: there are a couple of references to the possibility of underage drinking occurring, at a 16-year-old's birthday party, for example. And look: on page 355, three teenage girls having dinner with the mother and a grandparent of one are "allowed a glass of wine each".

My American editor wanted to remove every one of these references. In the margin beside one where a teenager is offered a glass of wine (which she refuses) by her aunt, Allison had written, "Let's take this out, since it wouldn't happen here." But, I thought, it isn't set here. It's set in Australia, where it might very well happen, so let's leave it in.

The more I thought about this, the more peculiar it seemed, especially since the equally glancing references to pot-smoking and the several fairly detailed sex scenes had gone unremarked. Then someone told me that a mother in Virginia was jailed for 27 months for having supplied beer and wine at her son's 16th birthday party. She'd taken the keys of any guests who arrived by car, so there could be no driving: everyone was to stay the night. No one got drunk; indeed, many of the kids, when tested, had no alcohol in their systems. No one got hurt, and this woman had no previous record of any kind, not even a traffic fine. She was originally sentenced to eight years in jail, reduced to 27 months on appeal. And if you look online at any of the numerous blogs and chat sites presently discussing this matter, you will see that many Americans are of the opinion that "she got what she deserved".

None of this, may I say, had been any kind of issue for the German publishers, and I note that on the appropriate page of Ein Leben Lang, "die Madchen happily ein Glas Wein trinken". True, every word had to be translated and "chook" [chicken] was clearly not going, to make the cut, and probably not "daggy" either.

Their cover also features a photograph of Uluru, a little odd for a novel that only manages to get as far out of Melbourne as Wilsons Promontory, with occasional visits to a farm in Somerset, England. My German publisher was a little sheepish about this. but swore she knew what she was doing, and clearly did, because in May, its first month of release. Ein Leben Lang sold 12,000 copies.

In New York, still debating the alcohol references in my novel, I asked my US literary agent for her opinion. "When it comes to kids, people here are uptight," she said. "In the end, do you want to risk losing even a single book sale just to keep the scenes in?" A perfectly valid question, to which my unhesitating answer was "yes". I put this to my editor, who (and this is why I love editors) said, "This is your decision, what you change or don't change. I always say, it's your name on this book, not mine."

She also suggested a glossary for Australian words and expressions that just could not be replaced, or which I couldn't bear to lose. It's not a long one, but at least my American readers will now have the opportunity, to find out what an arvo is, and a wowser [which is in fact originally an American expression], a bunny-rug, and a shag on a rock. And I feel quietly confident that they'll be better, happier people for it.

The article above appeared in the "Review" section of "The Australian" on January 12, 2008

Extra years at school pay dividends?

I have not read the original study behind the article below but I have inserted some comments about initial doubts that come to mind

Forcing students to remain at school increases their income over their lifetime, with new Australian research showing every extra year of education adds 10 per cent to their salary. A study by Australian National University economists Andrew Leigh and Chris Ryan found that the increased income was almost three times the wages students lost by staying at school. "States that raised the school leaving age in the 1960s substantially increased the lifetime earnings of individuals," it says. "Recently announced increases in the school leaving age ... are likely to have a beneficial effect on individuals growing up in those states." The school leaving age in most states is 16 but many states recently introduced requirements for students to remain in education, training or a job until 17.

The findings contradict a report by the Centre for Independent Studies last month, which rejects the idea that providing more education and training will improve the job prospects and wages of high school dropouts. In the paper, CIS social research director Peter Saunders argues the best way to help the bottom 25 per cent of school leavers is to increase the number of unskilled jobs, not to give them better skills. "The solution to the skills shortage lies in policies like delayed retirement and increased female participation in the workforce," Mr Saunders said. "The solution to unskilled joblessness lies in generating more unskilled employment."

Dr Leigh, a research fellow at the ANU Research School of Social Sciences, said yesterday the issue of increasing the proportion of students completing school or an equivalent qualification was a matter of long-term social policy. "The Government ought to think of the skills shortage in terms of the life chances of somebody who gets 10 years of schooling in a modern economy," he said. "Having a good base of general skills is going to be the most valuable thing we can give kids these days. "I'd love to pay less for a plumber but we should be more worried about what a high school dropout is going to earn 20 years from now, not whether we have cheap plumbers or someone to drive a truck at the mines."

The study, to be published in the international journal Economics of Education Review, is the first to estimate the economic benefit of staying at school, comparing the effect of raising the school-leaving age and the age at which students started school. Dr Leigh and Dr Ryan used income data from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia survey of about 12,000 people, including those aged 25 to 64 years who had completed school in Australia. For every extra year of school, the gross income was 13 per cent higher. [This is of course a naive research method. Comparing the earnings of people who stay on at school versus dropouts is completely uninformative. The dropouts would mostly be the dummies who would have done badly anyway. The naivety of this method is why the next two methods were used]

The study then examined the length of education determined by when people started school. Most states have a single entry date with students having to turn a certain age, often five years, by a cut-off date. As a result, some children born within a month of each other start school a year apart. If both leave school aged 16, the first student will have an extra year of schooling. With this measure the researchers estimated income increases of 8 per cent a year for the extra year. [There's something a bit fishy here. Did they look only at kids who left school promptly at age 16? I doubt it, as that would have been an unrepresentative subset. But if they looked at all kids in the cohorts concerned there is another problem: Doing just one extra year would leave the kid with an incomplete qualification. So many will have gone on to do two extra years. This creates another selectivity bias. The improved results may be because of the brighter subset of the sample who did not drop out and who never intended to drop out]

The study then examined the effect of governments raising the minimum age at which students can leave school. Students forced to attend an extra year earned about 12 per cent more a year. Comparing the three methods, the study estimates the benefit of extra education is 10 per cent a year in increased income, even after taking into account the lost earnings from starting work later. [Similar comments to the comments on the second study above plus the very dubious exactitude of comparisons between different State education systems]


Leftists approve uranium mine

AUSTRALIA'S fourth uranium mine is expected to be up and running by the end of the year with a key approval secured yesterday. The Honeymoon uranium mine, 80km northwest of NSW town Broken Hill, has had its Mining and Rehabilitation Plan (MARP) approved by the South Australian Government.

Uranium One Australia executive vice president Greg Cochran said construction of electricity and water supplies for the mine would start immediately, with the aim of producing the first uranium in the last quarter of 2008. The South African company had hoped to be in production by March but issues including a review of the mine's design had pushed the time frame back, Mr Cochran said. "A huge amount of work had gone into the MARP and the final document is a blueprint for best practice in establishing a uranium project," Mr Cochran said. "Construction work on infrastructure at the Honeymoon site will be carried out according to our schedule of commencing production later this year. We have started employing personnel and, once production reaches steady state levels, we expect to employ approximately 60 people at the mine."

The Honeymoon mine will use the in situ leach mining method, which involves pumping water-diluted acid underground, where it collects uranium, and then recovering it on the surface. Mr Cochran said the company still had to get its radioactive waste management plan approval from the Environment Protection Authority, which was imminent following the MARP approval. The mine is expected to produce about 400 tons of uranium oxide a year for seven years. Mr Cochran said Uranium One had revised the budget for the mine but was yet to release a revised figure from last year's working number of $48 million.

Acting Minister for Mineral Resources Development Michael Atkinson said the mine would add about $40 million to the state's export figures. He welcomed the 60 new jobs that would be on offer. Opposition resources spokesman David Ridgway welcomed the approval but said the Government had to do more to ensure infrastructure investment in SA kept pace with new mining developments. Australian Conservation Foundation nuclear-free campaigner David Noonan said the mine would pollute groundwater with uranium waste - a claim which is denied by the company.


Most destined to lose battle of the bulge

MILLIONS of Australians are locked in the battle of the bulge - and most are destined for defeat. New research shows about half the adult population made New Year's resolutions to fight the flab. And most of the estimated 2 million Victorians who plan to lose weight in 2008 want to shed at least 10kg. But experts say many are heading down the wrong track, turning to fad diets, self-help books and other doomed quick fixes. "We know that most people who lose weight on a diet will regain it and most of those will regain it with interest," Deakin University nutrition expert Dr Tim Crowe said. "Not seeking out the latest quick-fix Hollywood fad diet should be No.1 priority."

But the national Newspoll survey found such quick fixes were exactly what most people pinned their hopes on. It found 55 per cent of people surveyed were looking for an easy answer, while just 42 per cent of men and 32 per cent of women intended to consult a doctor.

Dietitians Association of Australia spokesman Dr Trent Watson said individually tailored advice from a professional was essential. Dr Watson said diets, pills and wonder foods proclaiming fast weight loss should be avoided. "If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is," he said. Dr Watson, from Clued on Food, said sensible weight loss of 1kg a week for men and 500g a week for women could be achieved with healthy eating plans. Healthy diets were based around foods from the four core food groups: fruits and vegetables, breads and cereals, meat and dairy. But it was important to allow for the odd treat....

The Newspoll survey of more than 2000 adults, commissioned by drug manufacturer Abbott Australasia, found half of Australians made New Year resolutions to lose weight. But just a quarter of them believed they would achieve their goal. Of those who went on a diet at the start of 2007, 68 per cent had gone back to their old ways within six months. The weight loss rollercoaster is fuelling a boom in sales of self-help literature, with eight diet books in the top 10 bestsellers list this year.


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