Katherine Gregor

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Katherine Gregor (a.k.a. Scribe Doll) is a literary translator and scribbler who has also been an EFL teacher, theatrical agent, press agent, theatre director, complementary medicine practitioner, and one or two other things. Perhaps that's why the literary characters she relates to most are Arlecchino, Truffaldino, Gianni Schicchi and Scapin, and feels empathy with crows, squirrels and cats. She lives in Norwich, Norfolk. (Photo courtesy of Rosie Goldsmith @GoldRosie )

If Martin Luther had taken some Vitamin C...

In my final year at University, where I was reading for a degree in French Literature, thanks to a new syllabus tried out by the French Department, I was allowed to specialise by choosing four options.  I was only too happy to drop 19th-century Romantic moaning (as I saw it) and 20th-century anxiety and depression (as I saw it), and throw myself into (again as I saw it) the certainty and serenity of the Middle Ages, 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries.  This covered, among others, a course entitled "Literature of the Reformation".  

 

Eager to get ahead, I took a walk to the Theology Department, and asked if I might attend the relevant lectures, to gain better knowledge of the historical and religious background of the French literature I was about to study.  Dr F., a specialist in the subject, was thrilled with my enthusiasm.  "Yes, of course, you're very welcome to come to my lectures. It will be a pleasure to have someone from the French Department," he said in his soft Irish accent, green eyes sparkling with eagerness to share his scholarly passion. 

 

His classes were popular, and for good reason.  Dr F. not only seemed to know everything there was to know about the Reformation, but – unlike some of his fellow academics – was a good communicator and a charismatic teacher.  And, yes, he was also a very good-looking young man.  

 

Then, one day, he set an essay about Martin Luther's doctrines.  "Oh, no, that's all right," I said. "I shan't trouble you with extra marking –" (Meaning: I don't want to have to write an extra essay on top of my French Department workload.)

"Oh, please do write it.  It will be a pleasure to have your essay, too."

He may have added something about how interesting it would be to have the point of view of a non-Theology student.

I was stuck.

 

It was approaching midnight before the morning the essay was due.  I sat in my room with a mug of coffee, staring at a blank page from my Oxford pad, with no idea whatsoever what to write.  I glanced at Owen Chadwick's book about the Reformation, on my desk.  I hadn't read it yet and it was a little too late to start.  I chewed on my pen, put another Lyons's coffee bag into my mug, reached out for a chocolate hobnob, and thought of Martin Luther.  The monk who married a nun.  The monk who brought Protestantism to Germany.  I suddenly remembered something else Dr F. had mentioned: that Martin Luther suffered from constipation, and spent a considerable amount of time on the loo, where he thought up many of his theories.  Constipation.  I wondered why.  Come to think of it, what caused constipation? I decided to take a little break from the essay and consult my slowly-but-surely growing collection of layman medical and nutrition books.  I had recently developed an interest in medicine, health and anatomy/physiology, and read anything I could lay my hands on on the subject, and which was formulated in a language I could understand.  While leafing through my books, I remembered once accidentally causing myself diarrhoea by taking an excessively high dose of Vitamin C.  Consequently, would a regular intake of ascorbic acid or a diet rich in Vitamin C alleviate constipation? I knew that chronic constipation contributed to toxicity in the blood stream, which – I assumed – could then affect one's perception.  I also suspected that spending hours shut in a toilet, just waiting for your body to make up its mind to evacuate unwanted matter, could give you a lot of time to think and develop philosophical hypotheses.

 

Suddenly, I was on a roll, chasing after a crazy theory.  I scattered all my nutrition books on my desk.  I can't remember the exact details of what I thought I discovered on that long autumn night, twenty-five years ago.  What I do remember is not going to bed at all and writing pages and pages about the effect of a vitamin or mineral deficiency on our cognitive abilities and even emotional states, about the optimum dose of specific vitamins in terms of units and milligrams, of the anti-oxidant effects of ascorbic acid, otherwise known as Vitamin C, and its benefits to – among many other things – a healthy digestion.  Having been drilled by my French academic education that every essay should follow the Introduction-Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis-Conclusion pattern, I set out to prove that Martin Luther's theological doctrines and thought process was heavily influenced by his chronic constipation which, in turn, had been caused by a vitamin deficiency.  If Luther had taken some ascorbic acid, there may not have been a Reformation.  QED.  I wrote and wrote, almost feverish with enthusiasm for my "discovery".

 

By morning, the top knuckle of my right middle finger was black with ink, and, despite the total lack of sleep, my eyes were wide open with satisfied excitement and elation.  I picked up my essay and, after a quick breakfast, went to put it into Dr F.'s pigeon hole.

 

A week later, we all got our essays back.  Dr F. kept mine till last.  I waited impatiently to see what mark I'd received.  He approached my desk with a slightly puzzled expression.  He handed me my work.  There was a slight frown.  "I'm afraid I haven't marked it," he said.  "To be honest, I didn't quite know how to.  What you say is very interesting but, well, it doesn't really belong in the Theology Department.  I'd say take it to the Medical Department, but there isn't one here..."

 

He was very kind, not once suggesting I'd been a smart arse.  I collected my work with a sigh of slight disappointment.  In retrospect, I realise I was lucky he didn't throw me out of his class.  He stopped setting me any more essays, though.

 

 

Scribe Doll

Recent Comments
Ken Hartke
How do you explain the Huguenots?
Sunday, 14 August 2016 23:04
Katherine Gregor
I wouldn't even try... :–)
Monday, 15 August 2016 10:58
Rosy Cole
I don't know, Katia, these tiresome academics with tunnel vision... :-) Just think, if Richard III had been anywhere near a blacks... Read More
Monday, 15 August 2016 13:55
803 Hits
10 Comments

Translator or Writer?

I used to write.  A lot. I never set time aside to write but grabbed it as and when I came across it.  At home on a Sunday afternoon, when I had a twenty-minute Tube journey and could get a seat, in a coffee shop between clients, in a classroom while my students were sitting a test.  I wrote while working as a teacher, and as a theatrical agent. I produced short stories, plays, half a novel and a weekly blog.

 

I write even more now.  Two or three novels a year, short stories, non-fiction and even the odd play.  My style is more versatile than before.  Historical novels, crime, travel, popular women's fiction, high-brow women's literature, fairy tales for children.

 

And yet now I can't even manage a blog post scribbled à la diable once a week.

 

Because I now work as a literary translator.  I spend all day writing, yes, but writing other people's words.  Correction.  The words are mine but I choose them with care, so they may convey other people's intentions as faithfully as possible. 

 

In order to achieve this, I must shut away my own inner Scribbler in the basement, under lock and key, to stop her from interfering with my work on behalf of other writers.  I must become a medium, a go-between, a bridge.  I must be creative enough to produce a text that doesn't limp, supported by the crutch of its original language, but one that walks head high, freely, and at the same time remember that it is animated by invisible, yet ever-present, strings.  A ventriloquist's job, in a way, for which one must develop impeccably-controlled, obedient muscles.  Creative – and shrewd enough, at times – to know when it's judicious to improve on the original text, which, sadly, is all too often under-edited – if edited at all – because of misplaced and unhelpfully exaggerated reverence towards the original author on the part of the publisher.  After all, you need to watch your back.  When critics and readers like the book you've "Englished", then you'll be lucky if they take the trouble to mention your name at all (and this omission can, in itself, be a compliment to your seamless translation), but if they don't like it, they sometimes blame it on the translation, in which case they do mention your name.  You're not there to protest, "But I'm not responsible for this piece of overwritten, self-indulgent crap! I just translated it!" And so, very often, you tweak the odd word, rearrange a sentence here and there, polish a paragraph, or carry out a barely perceptible cosmetic procedure.  Even so, tempted as you may be to act like Cyrano with Christian, you restrain yourself, always remembering that, as a literary translator, you are the servant of the text and not its master.

 

In the evenings, after a day of translating, I go and let my inner Scribbler out of the basement.  In the beginning, as I unlock the door, she bursts out, flings her arms around me, spins around the room, tap dances on the ceiling, and runs out into the sunshine glad of the exercise after a day in the basement.  I pick up my fountain pen and write to my heart's content, pouring out on paper all the ideas I've ignored during working hours.

 

As my workload increases, I let out the Scribbler later and later, often long after the sun has already set.  She greets me with a warm smile but I can see that she is disappointed to have missed out on the daylight.  As time goes by, sometimes several days pass before I can go down and unlock the basement.  I notice that my Scribbler doesn't smile any more but trudges up the stairs and slumps on the sofa, complaining that she's tired.  Never mind, I think, we'll spend some quality time together over the weekend.  I pick up my fountain pen but the words come out with difficulty, spasmodically, and I can't get my current translation project out of my mind, no matter how hard I try.  

 

That weekend, the first of many, is spent on translating.  A publisher has given me an extra book to do.  Sorry, please help me out, it's urgent.  OK, I say.  I need to keep on the right side of this publisher.  And other publishers.  I need the money.  

 

When I next see my Scribbler, I notice she's put on weight around her middle, and her shoulders are hunched.  She huffs when she sees me, and goes to vegetate on the sofa without a word.

 

I have three books to translate at the same time, so I can't see my Scribbler for a little while.  I forget how long exactly, but not very long.  When I finally go down and unlock the door, Scribbler isn't standing there as usual.  I look inside the basement room.  She's sitting on the floor, her eyes blank, her complexion grey, lethargic.  There's no persuading her to come out.  "I have the whole day off," I say.  "Let's spend it together."

"I'm too tired," she replies.  

"Tired? But you haven't done anything for days –"

"Years," she replies, interrupting me.

The shock silences me.  Has it really been years since I've written anything substantial of my own? I can't believe it, I won't believe it.

I go back upstairs alone, take out my notepad, unscrew the cap of my fountain pen.  The nib leaves blank scratches on the paper.  The ink has dried up.  I find the bottle of black ink and syphon some in.  I draw a squiggle in the corner of the blank page, then stare at it.  And stare at it.  Then I write "Word".  I can't think of anything else to write.

 

I go back down to the basement and slowly pull Scribbler up from the floor.  My ventriloquist's muscles are now strong enough for me to lift her but hers are too weak to stand up unaided.  I put my arm around her and gently lead her out of the basement room.  She rebels.  I coax her.  She takes slow, sporadic steps.  Her movements are jerky, uncontrolled.  It's a struggle to climb the stairs.  She groans, she moans, she shouts, "I hate you!"

Tears are streaming down my face.  I wish I could tell Scribbler I'm sorry.  "Come on Scribbler," I say. "We're nearly there.  Just a few more steps and we'll be back in the sunlight."

She looks up and I see the light from the upstairs windows glow in her eyes. 

"Come on, Scribbler, just one more step."

 

Scribe Doll   

 

 

 

     

Recent Comments
Stephen Evans
I hope your Scribbler will stay for a while, if this is the charming result.
Tuesday, 09 August 2016 23:52
Katherine Gregor
Thank you. I'm thinking of letting Scribbler move back in with me, and buying a muzzle for the Translator instead.
Thursday, 11 August 2016 21:00
Rosy Cole
We don't always appreciate how draining empathy can be. I hope you can get a little respite to recharge powerfully and take care o... Read More
Wednesday, 10 August 2016 10:14
1151 Hits
8 Comments

Summer Night in Trastevere

Streets bustling with tourists who walk slowly, looking up, right and left, mouths half open, stopping abruptly to take a photo, holding up the locals, those whose footsteps have a specific destination, who no longer look at the sights because they carry them within them.

 

Italian, French, Japanese, German, as well as Old and New World varieties of Spanish and English bounce off the terracotta walls and escape towards the sky.  Waiters outside restaurants displaying tourist menus catch your eye and gesture invitations to sit at outdoor tables covered with crisp, white tablecloths.

 

Standing or sitting against the walls are sellers from ethnic groups as varied as their merchandise.  Wreaths of plastic and fabric flowers to be worn by girls and young women over their straight, long hair, like Mediaeval maidens.  Silver rings, bangles, bracelets and earrings arranged on brown or black velveteen.  The sellers have Native American features.  An Italian with fine brushes and a large magnifying glass is offering to write your name on a grain of rice.  A South-East Asian is selling a large variety of embossed, leather wrist straps.  A large-bosomed, wide-hipped Central African woman in a brightly-patterned dress and headscarf sits on a low camping stool.  There's a wooden bowl full of seashells at her feet, and a square of grey cardboard that says, You can see everything in the shells. She makes me think of the character of Minerva in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.  Rolls of colourful scarves stacked on foldable stalls, jewellery made of wood, paper butterflies you can stick on the wall, towers of straw hats.  A bearded, long-haired man, pale eyes glowing from his suntanned face, is reading tarots on a makeshift table, a candle flame inside a glass jar casting the shadow of its ritual fire dance on the card spread.

 

In Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere an artist is trying to create a painting in a set amount of time.  He's practically juggling with cans of spray paint, like a histrionic cocktail barman.  The acrid, chemical smell of the paint pierces through the inviting aroma of pizza, olive oil and rosemary that fills the air.

 

A slim young man who could be from the Indian subcontinent is shining a peculiar kind of torch which casts a multitude of bright green dots on the sampietrini and the arches of the Basilica, where the regulation beggar blesses passers-by and reaches out, palm upwards.  I think what fun it would be to shine one of these on the façade of Norwich Cathedral or Castle, but the seller is asking sixteen euros for it.  "Two years' guarantee," he keeps assuring me as I walk away.

 

Santa Maria in Trastevere is lit in a soft golden glow, gently illuminating the 13th-century mosaics.  High up on the campanile, protected in her niche, the Byzantine face of Saint Mary, severe yet oddly accepting, watches over the piazza.

 

 

Scribe Doll 

Recent Comments
Rosy Cole
A picture full of vibrant life and atmosphere, Katia. (Can't help feeling more than a smidgeon of envy.) It's twelve years since I... Read More
Sunday, 31 July 2016 23:48
Katherine Gregor
Thank you, Rosy. I only wish I'd had the time to write it in situ (how do you do italics on this site?) when I could have include... Read More
Monday, 01 August 2016 09:30
Nicholas Mackey
I feel I'm in the place and in the moment with your 'ciné vérité' style of writing. My wife and I were in Italy last year and wish... Read More
Tuesday, 02 August 2016 22:26
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6 Comments

Santa Sabina

When we were in Rome, a couple of weeks ago, I insisted we go and see "my favourite church in Rome".  The first church I ever liked, to which I owe my introduction to, and love for, early sacred music.

It was all because I was a teenager with a crush.  

I was sixteen and attending the French Lycée Chateaubriand in Rome.  In the morning, I'd leave home earlier than I needed to, in order to reach the Aventino, where my French soon-to-be first boyfriend and his family lived, and, with some luck, "happen" to find myself on the same bus as he.  This required major planning with the help of maps, bus time tables, and psychic abilities to be able to predict when the Rome buses would actually be running.

That morning, through over-eager miscalculation, I arrived on the Aventino nearly an hour before I'd expected to.  The winter morning daylight had barely broken, and not wanting to loiter in the street, in the cold, I walked into a church.  Santa Sabina.

I'd never seen a church like this before.  From an early age, I had been both drawn to and frightened by churches.  I'd always found something unnerving and menacing about High Baroque Roman churches.  As a child, I couldn't find the right words to articulate what it was, exactly.  Now, I realise it evoked for me something deeply powerful and unforgiving.

Santa Sabina was different.  An open, wide nave with two rows of plain stone pillars, and no seats for the congregation.  Further down, before the altar, a separate, secluded area where, I guessed, there were a few seats, although from where I stood, hidden behind the first pillar, I couldn't see who was there.  But I could certainly hear them.  A regular, repetitive, lulling chant by male voices.  Gregorian chant, although I didn't know that's what it was called, then.  Nor did I know that Santa Sabina was a 5th Century church, and that the singers were Dominican monks.  All I knew was that, for the first time, I was in a church that I not only found far from menacing, but positively inspiring in a way I'd never known a church to be.  I felt a strong pull, a deep sense of longing, like the yearning to come home.  So new and yet so familiar.  

I was mesmerised by the regular, even chanting.  It wasn't imposing, like the great masses in the large basilicas.  It was deeply comforting.  A balm for my anxious soul.  I listened, entranced, leaning against the quietly strong, gently reassuring stone pillar.  I wanted to stay there for ever.

After that day, and even when, a few months later, I started going out with my French boyfriend, I would often leave home early, just so I could go and stand in Santa Sabina, behind the pillar, for a few minutes, and immerse myself into that dimension of peace created by the ethereal, and at the same time comfortingly grounding, music.

Scribe Doll

Recent Comments
Rosy Cole
A beautiful post, Katia. It's certainly one that 'resonates' deeply with me. Often I've listened to Gregorian Chants at the end ... Read More
Monday, 11 July 2016 12:45
Katherine Gregor
I agree with everything you're saying, Rosy. I often put a CD of Gregorian chant on a timer when I go to bed. It feels like it c... Read More
Monday, 11 July 2016 15:36
Rosy Cole
Thank you. I'll look out for that.
Tuesday, 12 July 2016 13:25
912 Hits
3 Comments

Latest Comments

Stephen Evans We Don't Say Goodbye
15 June 2018
Sound advice Ken.
Ken Hartke We Don't Say Goodbye
13 June 2018
I may have posted this before -- I sometimes need to revisit it. I occasionally need to give myself ...
Katherine Gregor Rise
12 June 2018
I like it!
Katherine Gregor R. R. R.
12 June 2018
I hope you're right. Thank you for your comment.
Rosy Cole R. R. R.
12 June 2018
The real strength you gained from this, I believe, is the interior knowledge, not necessarily recogn...

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