A Soundtrack to Growing Up

Not long ago – I forget where – I read an article in which several writers listed the most influential books of their childhood; books that changed their lives and inspired them to become writers.

Inevitably, I thought back to my own childhood, trying to recall the books, or even one book, that had made a definite impact on me, whether mentally or emotionally.  For a long time, my mind was a blank.  I was disappointed and somewhat embarrassed.  Had I read nothing, as a child? Eventually, memories of swashbuckling novels by Alexandre Dumas, detailed longitudes and latitudes in Jules Verne, the cosiness of Louisa May Alcott’s poor but ever so good Little Women, and the exaggerated to the point of being unrealistic bad luck of Victor Hugo’s characters, began to trickle through.  Even so, I can’t honestly say that a book ever inspired me to write. 

In many ways, reading was tantamount to homework for me while I was growing up.  I started to read at six, in Italian, and was sent to an American school at seven.  At eight, my grandmother began teaching me to read Russian.  At nine, we moved to France, so it was learn French or get kicked in the shins during recess.  No sooner did I get used to reading in one language, than I had to change.  

My mother actively discouraged me from reading fiction in my mid-teens.  “Novels are for children,” she used to say, leaving on the kitchen table books about philosophy, mysticism, medicine, history and – above all – self-improvement.  At least, that’s how I remember it.  Then, at high school and university, I read what I was told to read, while an increasingly frayed non-fiction book on some highly-cerebral topic moved from my bedside, to my rucksack, to my desk, to my handbag, then back to my bedside.  The bookmark progressed at a snail’s pace...  

What did inspire me to start writing, paradoxically, was music.

I can remember every significant episode of my childhood, adolescence and early adulthood, as accompanied by music.

According to my grandmother, when I was about three I avidly watched the Italian children's song contest Il Zecchino d’oro on television, and asked my mother to buy me the record of one of the songs.  I couldn’t yet hold a tune but kept repeating a couple of words from the refrain.  We went to the record shop but the seller had no idea which song I meant.  I just said those couple of words over and over again.  He humoured me, and began playing one record after the other.  I kept shaking my head.  Then, finally, after half a dozen or so, there it was – and with the refrain I’d remembered.

My earliest musical memory was one evening, when I was about four, a new Phillips record player being delivered to our flat.  I’d already gone to bed but got up and went into the living room.  My mother was trying out the new record player with a 45rpm of “Strangers in the Night”.  I stood in my pink pyjamas, transfixed by Frank Sinatra’s voice filling the room.

I always wanted Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1 to be played when I built houses with my Lego blocks.  When I lost my first milk tooth, I asked my mother to tell the tooth fairy to bring me Swan Lake.  We didn’t have much money at the time, so my mother said the tooth fairy was too small to carry the heavy records.

When I was about eight, my mother sat with me on the Persian rug, the libretto of Puccini’s Turandot open on her lap.  She played the records and told me the fairy tale about the cruel princess and her three riddles.  I was swept away by the power of the music, so violent and yet so tender.  Everything about it felt so important, so overwhelming.  

A couple of years later, my grandmother allowed me to stay up late and watch The Flying Dutchman on television.  The hairs on my arms stood up at the colourful chords in the Overture.  I could feel the despair of the wandering Dutchman, and Senta’s devotion to him.  

I began writing poems and stories when I was twelve.  I’d come home from school, do my homework, then put on a record and, once enveloped in the world created by the music, start scribbling away, trying to convey words on a page the immensity of the emotions music triggered in me.  I wrote fairy tales with the mystery and melancholy of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade and Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2.  I wanted my words to engage in the haunting, spinning dance of Prokofiev’s Cinderella and Stravinsky’s Firebird.  

When, at the age of nineteen, I moved to Cambridge, a nightly helping of Evensong at King’s instead of the dinner I had to skip because my landlady served it at 6 pm, gave wings to my bicycle on my way back up the only hill in Cambridge.  Once back in my freezing attic room, I tried to write like the moonbeam trebles that rose and quivered beneath the fan vaulting, like the counter tenors that gave a strange, eerie yet fascinating edge to the responses, like the booming, thundering organ chords pushing against the stain glass windows.

The one and only time I was consciously influenced by advertising, it was because of music.  I didn’t know what it was.  It accompanied a clip of a pretty French girl with a heart-shaped faced and a dark, glossy bob, walking down the street, taking off her beret, looking back because she thought she heard someone call out her name, Lou Lou.  I was twenty-two.  I went to have my hair cut in exactly the same bob, bought a beret, and went to the department store to buy the perfume advertised in the spot – “Lou Lou” by Cacharel.  The magic of mesmerising music only worked so far, though.  Once the sales assistant at the perfume counter produced the baby blue and burgundy bottle – which I found deeply unattractive – and let me smell the fragrance – which made me wince and walk away – I’m afraid I went and spent my treat money on a bottle of “Cabochard” by Grès, instead.  Still, the mysterious, longing tune remained in my head for years until, one morning, they played it on BBC Radio 3, and gave it a name – Fauré’s “Pavane”.  And so I tried to write words and sentences that would reproduce its wistfulness, its haunting quality, its sophistication.

Even now, I often play a CD to spur me on when I write.  

I hear music in my head when I write.

I think I write words because I cannot compose music.

Scribe Doll

Recent Comments
Ken Hartke
Every time I try to make a list of important books in my life I find that the list changes... never the same books. Music usually ... Read More
Monday, 08 June 2015 01:46
Katherine Gregor
I think words are ultimately limiting. Music conveys the infinite. Thank you for commenting, Ken.
Monday, 08 June 2015 07:43
Orna Raz
Dear Katia, As a child I loved the books by Erich Kastner and I read them over and over again. I loved reading the part about you ... Read More
Monday, 08 June 2015 02:42
2514 Hits

Eight Complaints of a Literary Translator

One: A couple of weeks ago, my mother’s doctor said he charged £25 to write a (short) letter about the state of her health. I commented that it was more than people would often pay me, as a literary translator.  His response: “Yes, but I studied and I have a qualification.”


I am used to the self-importance of doctors.  Moreover, this kind of rudeness requires only one kind of response: ignoring it.  


Or else posting it on Twitter in the original English and other languages, then mentioning it in a blog.


Two: An author is haggling over the price I’ve quoted for a translation. She tries the usual tactics: “But I could get someone else to do it for half that!” (What’s stopping you?) and “But I’m a freelancer, I don’t have a regular salary!” (Newsflash – I’m a literary translator, so I’m a freelancer, too).  I don’t budge.  She then says, “But I’m a single parent with two children to raise on my own!”


Paying to have your book translated off your own bat is the Vanity Project par excellence. It is not a necessity, like food or healthcare.  Would you go into Tiffany’s, Fifth Avenue, and haggle over the price of a bracelet because you’re a single mother?


Three: A publisher offers me a job, and asks how soon I can do it.  Always a potentially explosive situation.  I can, of course, put aside what I’m doing at the moment, burn the midnight oil, work fourteen hours a day, but why do that if I don’t have to?  The publisher gives me no hint as to their schedule, and appears to throw the ball in my court.  So I give my time estimate.  The publisher gives the job to somebody else, telling me the translation was really urgent.


Four: As above, but the publisher’s question is, “How much would you charge?” then the job is given to someone else because my estimate is “beyond their budget”.


In the name of Saint Jerome*! If it was that urgent or if you had a fixed budget, why didn’t you just say, “I need it for such or such a date/This is my budget for this – can you do it for then/for this much?” in the first place, instead of playing power games?!


Five: I give an author, who assures me he is perfectly fluent in English, a translation of his novel and encourage him to make comments and/or corrections.  None of his suggested changes are grammatical.  We spend a total of sixteen hours on Skype, while I teach him basic English grammar, and wish I had charged him double.


Six: An author queries the stylistic choices I have made in my translation and, no, her English is not very good.  She wants it to be closer to the original in idioms, syntax, word order.  I try and explain that a good literary translation cannot always be literal. That a reader mustn’t, even for one second, feel it’s a translation, but a book in its own right.  “Oh, but I’m very protective of my work,” she says.  “It’s like my baby.” 


When your baby eventually goes to primary school, will you sit in the classroom and tell the teachers how to do their jobs?


Seven: I receive a copy edit with track changes in red on every single line of my work.  It’s not just corrections.  The copy editor has re-written my entire translation.  It will take me longer to go through the “suggestions” than I did translating the whole book.  I ring the eager beaver and get, “I haven’t changed that much, it just looks worse than it is because of Track Changes.” 


Yes, dear, I’m familiar with Track Changes.  I’ve been using it since before you left school.  There’s so much red in my text, it looks like it’s positively bleeding.


There are the writers, the translators, and the copy editors.  The boundaries should be clearly defined.  


Eight: A newly set-up, enthusiastic literary agent wants to meet me to offer me a “unique opportunity”.  


I visualise: the opportunity of translating a beautifully-written, meaningful novel that has won the Strega or the Goncourt prize, getting paid at least 11 pence per word, and the prompt payment of an advance, as well as of the outstanding balance at the end of my work.


I get: “We feel you’re the right person to look at our list, choose a book you really believe in and are passionate about, find a publisher interested in buying the translation rights, then put them in touch with us.


I blink.  “And what would you be paying me for, effectively, doing your job?”


“Well, we’re new you see... but we’re looking for someone who really believes in us and our books, so that we can grow together.  And if you find us a British publisher, then we’ll definitely put in a good word for you as a translator.”


I walk away, smiling, with Anglo-Saxon expletives mentally directed at the “enthusiastic” agent.


* Patron saint of translators



Scribe Doll

Recent Comments
Orna Raz
Dear Katia, this is brilliant, and so true about so many literary projects. On FB I joined a group with the curious name "Things ... Read More
Sunday, 31 May 2015 20:56
Katherine Gregor
Thank you so much, Orna. So glad you enjoyed it. Actually, I love my job... only sometimes it's fun to have a moan about the mor... Read More
Sunday, 31 May 2015 21:41
An entertaining read, Katherine, and a most enlightening view of the problems a translator has to face!
Monday, 01 June 2015 13:06
2077 Hits

Tallis versus Byrd – when you lack the appropriate vocabulary

“You can really tell if it’s Byrd or Tallis from the first few bars?”


H. likes some Early and 16th Century music, but is more of a Romantic and 20th Century man.  He likes passion in music.  I like post-white-ruff composers but need serenity and the reassurance that the world makes sense.  So we meet in the middle, at J.S. Bach.


I know that, sooner or later, he will test me.  My eyes dart around the room and I chew on the inside of my cheek.  “Yes,” I finally reply.


It takes six months.  Then, one day, he remembers and pulls out a couple of CDs from the shelf.  I sit on the sofa, ready for my aural exam, somewhat anxious I’m about to fall flat on my face in a sticky puddle of embarrassment.


He plays the first few seconds of eleven separate pieces.


“Byrd.  Byrd.  Tallis.  Byrd.”  I get ten of them right, even though I can’t actually name the pieces.


H. gives me an enquiring look.  I’ve never had to explain it before, and I realise that, as I try, I lack the fundamental music terminology to express my thoughts.  My ears seem to know but the road between them and my mouth hasn’t been built yet.


Thomas Tallis is harder, I start saying.  Like a white light, a moonbeam.  William Byrd is gentler, with copper and gold tones.  Tallis is like white stone – limestone – cool to the touch.  Byrd is like timber – like mahogany – smooth, with a warm red sheen to it.


Then, in Tallis, there’s that straight line, can you hear it? (H. looks at me with good-humoured amusement.)  There’s always that very straight, constant line, like a laser beam, running through the music, and all the rest rises and falls around that constant, ever-present, blindingly white line, whereas in Byrd, it’s like bursts of deep reds, browns, burnt sienna and maybe a hint of forest green.


Tallis is a glorious, glamorous display of music as architecture.  His music bounces off stone fan vaulting and flies across the ether.  Byrd is more intimate, more wistful, a caress. 


There is daring and confidence in Tallis.  There is hope in William Byrd.



Scribe Doll

Recent Comments
Stephen Evans
Such an extraordinary period in music, and how lucky we are today to have such faithful renderings. I like both Tallis and Byrd ve... Read More
Monday, 16 March 2015 04:38
Katherine Gregor
Yes, I like Palestrina but, Like Tallis, I prefer hearing his music in a large, vaulted cathedral, than on CD. On CD, it sounds a... Read More
Monday, 16 March 2015 08:22
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One finger for every pie.

One colour for every intention.


The first thought that flashed through my head when I saw the gloves.  I was in a Norwich shop called ‘Head in the Clouds’ – apparently, UK’s oldest head shop.  I didn’t know what a head shop was, until a friend explained it to me, a few weeks ago.  Knitted gloves with garish stripes, like a Naïve rainbow.  I want these gloves.  


When I was twenty-five, I wore black leather gloves with tiny golden clasps on the wrists.  So fine, I could fumble for small change in my purse without taking them off.  In those days, I would ensure that my shoes, handbag and gloves matched.  Never one brown, the others black.  I would never, ever have worn anything so loud and garish, so look-at-me.


I decide to buy the gloves as a fiftieth birthday present to me from my twenty-five-year-old self.  The self that wishes she had been less afraid, had had the courage to be herself, and live, instead of spending the next quarter of a century only dreaming, planning, rehearsing.


When I bring them home, I notice that they give off a slightly overpowering, heady scent.  It’s what you always seem to smell in crystal and New Age shops.  I think it’s sandalwood.  I lift them up to H.’s face.  He immediately retreats with a snort.  “Camden Town, 1971.”


I call the shop and ask what the scent is.  The sales assistant is enthusiastic.  “Oh, it’s Nag Champa.  It’s very popular – we have three different kinds.  Next time you come in...”


As politely as I can, I explain that I don’t actually like the smell – but reassure her that I’m not complaining but merely enquiring.  Just curiosity, that’s all.


I make a mental note to fumigate the gloves in frankincense when I am next burning some.   


Rainbow gloves with red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise, blue and purple stripes.  Red thumbs, orange index fingers, yellow middle fingers, green ring fingers, turquoise little fingers.  Gloves not afraid to be noticed – and they invariably are noticed and commented on when I go shopping, see friends or stop off for coffee.  A friend says they particularly stand out in contrast with the rest of my – conservative – appearance.


Bright, bold colours to empower my hands, to endow them with creativity and courage.  A finger for every intention on my fiftieth birthday.


Red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise.

This finger for writing.

This finger for music.

This finger for drawing.

This finger for translating.

And the little finger for... for discovering new skills.


Both hands for receiving and accepting gifts.


I’ve done my preparing, my growing up, my sowing.

The time has come for doing, for living, for reaping.  For enjoying.


Half a century.  Wow.  Fifty years young.


As Georges Guétary says in An American in Paris, I am now "old enough to know what to do with my young feelings".




Scribe Doll

Recent Comments
Monika Schott
Loved this so much, Katherine, a wonderfully meaningful way to celebrate turning 50! Read it smiling the whole way through. x... Read More
Sunday, 08 March 2015 21:02
Katherine Gregor
Thank you, Monika!
Sunday, 08 March 2015 21:14
Happy birthday!... Read More
Sunday, 08 March 2015 22:28
1843 Hits

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