Sunday, November 25, 2012


SANDY STORYLINE: A new project called Sandy Storyline has launched in beta, and calls itself a "participatory documentary about Hurricane Sandy and efforts to recover and rebuild our neighborhoods." Anyone in areas affected by Sandy can share their experience by calling the phone line, or uploading photos, audio or text from online or their cell phone. It's a beautifully designed site, which makes sense because the talented folks at Housing is a Human Right are involved (listen to my podcast interview with that group's leaders here), as are the MIT Center for Civic Media, Cowbird,, Occupied Stories, and others. The Sandy Storyline reflects the grassroots nature of the Occupy movement; to my mind, the Storyline is not just about efforts to recover and rebuild, but the project itself constitutes a kind of recovery and rebuilding. 

Central City, from
HEALING HISTORIES: Speaking of storytelling sites about hurricane-hit areas, I recently learned of and checked out Healing Histories, a collection of stories about the Central City district of New Orleans, organized by themes such as "Our History," "Our Homes," and "Our Neighbors." This pie-slice-shaped piece of land, right next to the famed Garden District, is known mostly for its high crime rate, but these professionally produced stories pull different threads out of the neighborhood's history and life, as residents talk about their efforts to build a true community. Compared to the participatory nature of the Sandy Storyline, this site feels a little top-down, but the strong stories and excellent presentation make for an interesting stroll through a neighborhood seen in a new light.

Friday, November 23, 2012


Ralph Appelbaum, image from Ralph Appelbaum Associates
Ralph Appelbaum Associates was founded in 1978, and is now the largest interpretive museum design firm in the world. Among its most famous commissions is the permanent exhibition at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., which marks its 20th anniversary in 2013. Below are selections from a 1998 interview I did with Ralph Appelbaum about the USHMM exhibition design. Throughout the interview, Appelbaum emphasized that the design process was a team effort, citing the work of, among others, the Museum's first director, Jeshajahu "Shaike" Weinberg, documentary filmmaker Martin Smith, scholar and filmmaker Michael Berenbaum, as well as his own firm's staff. (A related post on this blog is my 2009 podcast interview with USHMM curator Steve Luckert.) 

Where did the Holocaust stand in your imagination before you began the design process? 

It clearly stood as a seminal event in my life. I was born in ‘42, and read the books that one reads since the war, and was always engaged in it because I grew up in a Jewish household. My folks had grown up during periods of antisemitism that affected them in their careers. And so, I was aware of it as part of the family story—what my mother went through in America, and father went through in America.  

The Holocaust is one of the most talked-about historical events. How did you think about designing an exhibition that would make a new and powerful statement? 

There was a decision when we started the project to try to create a new body of visual and written information. We fielded photo researchers in all twenty countries affected by the Second World War. We also, through the curators, developed a comprehensive timeline of all the events that occurred. With an ultimate goal of expanding the dynamic [of victim and perpetrator], to add a third player, who was the bystander, and to deal with the dynamic of what happened between these three characters. To look at it not so much as an event of what Germans did to Jews, but what human beings can do to each other, given the right set of conditions. And to play it out without utilizing information that we couldn’t corroborate. So you never see the number six million, because we couldn’t actually corroborate the exact number.  

Tell me about the basic structure of the story the Museum tells.  

The story is told as a play in three acts, with the first floor being all the events that led up to the invasion of Poland. The second floor deals with the actual war against the Jews. The third floor deals with the aftermath and resolution of the event. Even knowing those three big building blocks is very powerful for many visitors who don’t know about it at all.  

You’ve talked about creating an experience in time and space for Museum visitors. What does that mean?  

Let me describe an older generation of exhibit-making. The museums were essentially generic in their type. They look like the Met or like the British Museum or like many museums, with the great steps and Ionic columns and a pediment and a central hall with a dome, or not, that led off into a collection of galleries which oftentimes grew opportunistically. One gallery didn’t necessarily relate to the next gallery. If it was a natural history museum, you could have Northwest coast Indians next to New York state farms next to meteorites. Museums grew as knowledge grew, and most of the collections were held behind a window, in a protected showcase. And where the viewer was really an observer. The newer thinking behind museums is to create an environment that uses more of the available tools of environment-making: media, video, performance art, theater and lighting and performance and smells and temperature and an interior architecture that make the story come alive. There are parts of [the Museum] where you’re constricted in your movement, because the story is a story of constriction and isolation and compression.  

How did the question of the Jewish core of the Holocaust play in the exhibition design? Was there a concern that an event with a Jewish core would not be of interest to non-Jews? 

The first question we asked ourselves was, "Why should Americans care about an event that happened in Europe to Jews forty or fifty years ago?" And we realized the answer [was] in the last words of the preamble [to the U.S. Constitution], which was to insure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. And so the very first image that anyone sees when they enter the Museum is American GIs who are entering Germany and are parking their trucks around a giant funeral pyre of burned bodies, wondering, what is this about? And you can see the trucks belching smoke in the background, and everyone [has] their goggles off and dirt on their faces. It’s an amazing photograph that we printed very large. And the second thing people see are the very first color photographs taken by George Stevens as he entered the camps and entered Europe with the First Army, showing Americans the very first American photography of the event. And the next thing you see is an Army photograph of a lone survivor of a death camp, and then a picture of Eisenhower looking over the camps and a letter from him saying that if anyone wants to know what really happened here, ask [him]—offering to bear witness to what he saw, and ultimately why it’s important for Americans to care.  

The possible use of human hair in the exhibition was hotly debated. The hair itself didn’t end up in the exhibit, but what was the significance of the debate?  

As we were looking for evidence, I found myself in a room almost knee-deep in human hair, and we asked if we could get some, and they said yes. To us it seemed to play out the message of the story. When it was presented, it caused the most dramatic upheaval in survivors, who were pretty tough folks. But they felt this was going a step too far. Women survivors who sat on our board … felt it was just too painful. When they had their heads shaved, it was a symbol of the loss of their personhood. There were other people who felt that maybe it’s their mother’s hair in that pile. And so instead, we sent a photographer to Germany to take a photograph of the room where all the hair was stored, and that’s what appears in the Museum, is a large color photograph of this room of hair. ... When we designed the entrance to the railcar, everyone went through the railcar. And one of the women survivors on the committee said, “Look, I’m not going through that railcar again. There has to be a way for those of us who went on those railcars to not be in them again.” And so we created a special bypass that allows people to avoid that part of the experience, because of her, that one person, really. It seemed to us, as long as one person said it, what could we do? 

Does this mean that you as designers are ultimately responsible to Holocaust survivors? Are they the final arbiters in the design process? 

No, but how could one not? It’s rare that one can tell a historical story while the participants are still alive. It’s still journalism then, in a way. I think it is appropriate to have sensitivities to the living. That doesn’t mean that one day, years from now, some of these items wouldn’t come back on display. But no, I wouldn’t say that it was for them. We understood them as critically important parts of the story, but not the only part of the story.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012


Literary translator Gregory Rabassa, photo from SUNY/Albany
Many years ago, I studied Russian, Spanish, and some American Sign Language. I idolized translators and interpreters, and one of my biggest heroes was Gregory Rabassa, most famous for his translation of Gabriel García Márquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude." (His 2005 memoir is also a real treat, "If This Be Treason: Translation and its Dyscontents.") Here was a guy whose translation of one of the greatest works of 20th-century literature was reportedly praised by García Márquez himself as being better than the Spanish original. I got a chance to speak with Rabassa back in 1998. We met at a coffee shop near his apartment in New York City, and I was pleased to find that this titanic figure was thoroughly friendly. Here is a little snippet from our interview. 
Assuming that there’s no such thing as a perfect translation, what is the next best thing?

That depends on the definition of translation. The fact that there’s no such thing as a perfect translation is part of the definition of translation. We think too much in terms of the ideal, that translation is possible in that sense. I don’t think it is. Translation is an approximation.

Is it possible to translate culture?

That’s the problem. Words are culture. When you translate something—back to the idea of perfect translation—you really aim to translate the spirit of the word rather than the word. Too much emphasis is given on the translating the word.

Does the translator ever play the role of editor?

No, I think the translator should leave that to the editor. That goes to the parable of the editor, the writer and the agent who are on safari. They got lost from their group, and suddenly found themselves in the middle of the desert, no palm trees or anything, and they get to the end of their rope. Finally, they see palm trees in the distance, and they hope it’s not a mirage. They get there, and it’s an oasis. In the middle of the oasis is a nice little pool of water. So the agent and the writer plunge into the water, they’re drinking it, and they look up and see the editor pissing into it. They ask, “What in the world are you doing?” The editor says, “I’m making it better.” Which is what editors always say they’re doing. Translators shouldn’t edit, except with the assent of the author. Translators do edit somewhat, but it’s minor. You don’t really improve; you drop prepositions, you change the syntax a little bit, verb forms.

Can different translations of a book change the entire meaning of a book? Can they be that radically different?

It has to do with time, I think. The originals last, but translations get dated so easily. In Russian, Constance Garnett did a wonderful job of introducing the stuff, but the translations are no good for us anymore, because we’re in the 20th century and they sound very Victorian. I knew something was wrong when I first read Russian novels. I could see that Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy were two completely different people, and yet they sounded alike [in Garnett’s translations]. I thought, this couldn’t be. What it was was that Constance Garnett was making them both sound like her.

Technical translators have to have expertise in engineering or whatever other field they're working in. Do literary translators have to be experts in literature?

No, I don’t think so. The only expertise would be, I think you would have to have read, a lot of reading, so that expressions can come back out of you. The experience would just be building up your literary sense. You’re not analyzing, unless you’re asked to write a preface.

Have you ever considered re-translating books you’ve already translated?

They’ll all be translated again. Translations just don’t seem to last. I don’t like to re-read a translation of mine ten years later, because I start getting second thoughts.