Jacob Papadopoulos runs ahead of me, past the turnstile and the shag teddy bear mascot, launching his petite 50-year-old body gracefully into the hard plastic seat of the ride. He resembles a trapeze artist more than a distinguished classics professor at Manatee Springs University. He grabs hold of the raised metal bar in front of him and bounces up and down in his seat. “Hurry up!” he calls after me as though I am his mother rather than his junior by 20 years, which is about the same amount of time that he’s had tenure. I know he wants to hit up as many rides as he can before the day is through. Our meeting is just one among many, and I am but a measly assistant professor at Crystal River Community College. This ride is a single-seater, so I grab the seat directly behind him and stare at the thick, salt-and-pepper hair on the back of his head. He unzips his black over-the-shoulder bag, anticipating.
The metal bar drops onto my lap, and a park worker with purple highlights in her hair walks down the line of connected cars, pulling upward, making sure that we are all locked into the ride. She reminds me of my students—the nose piercing, the hair, the age of a recent graduate. She glances at Jacob’s open bag but doesn’t say anything. She eyes me more suspiciously, perhaps because I’m wearing a hoodie in this heat. Only as the cars slowly launch forward and we pass the amusement park worker waving at us does Jacob turn around. The car ascends skyward, slowly. My long curly hair tumbles behind my shoulders. The beat of the tracks is as percussive as a typewriter or machine gun fire. I follow the trail of sweat on the back of his neck. I imagine it pooling at his temples, dripping onto his dark-rimmed glasses. When the car pauses at the top, he reaches over and attempts to hand me his conference paper.
I lunge forward to catch it, but the rollercoaster car quickly dips, and the A4 papers, which Jacob has only paperclipped instead of stapled for some reason, quiver in his hand. The car accelerates. The wind pushes the papers apart, spreading them as though they were the wings of many doves. As the car hurtles downward, I grab the edges of the papers, temporarily connected to his hand. The car takes a sharp right. One of the papers falls behind me, smack onto the face of another rider wearing a bright orange beanie. I’ve never seen this man before. I can’t tell if he is another researcher with our conference or a tourist, one of the parents watching his kid perform with a visiting marching band.
“Don’t lose that!” I call out behind me, praying it’s the former.
The person grabs the paper with his fist, contorting it into a small wad. His face appears redder than mine, even with my rosacea. My chest tightens. I don’t think he’s attending the conference. I stuff the papers in my hand into my jeans pants and lift my sweatshirt so that it covers them and they are safely secured and hidden under my clothing.
Jacob’s empty hand is dangling in front of me. The ride will end soon. I fumble with the many flash drives in my hoodie pocket, riffling through until my fingers graze the one meant for him, the one to which I attached an old conference lanyard, the kind that I used to wear around my neck with my nametag. I push my body as forward as I can with the bar trapping me in my seat, so that the lanyard can reach Jacob’s hand. But it’s not far enough. The cars suddenly descend at 90 miles per hour. I drop the flash drive and it miraculously makes contact with Jacob’s hand, before ricocheting off of it and into the man-made lake below us. I scream. The sound of my voice is drowned out by the tourists’ squeals and shrieks of glee. I have to grip the bar in front of me. My splitting headache throbs as though Athena is about to emerge, which seems appropriate, given that Jacob’s paper is, no doubt, about some arcane linguistic anomaly indicating evidence of lesbianism in ancient Greece.
The sound of my voice is drowned out by the tourists’ squeals and shrieks of glee.
The cars return to their entry point. Everyone’s hair is standing on end, including my own red tresses. Jacob hops off the ride, stands tall, and strides away with confidence. His posture is the opposite of my own. My shoulders slump with exhaustion and disappointment.
“See you next year, Bashe!” he calls out. He must believe that I’ll make it work next year. I’m far more pessimistic. He does not turn back. He knows it’s too dangerous. The man with the orange beanie throws the wad of paper with Jacob’s concluding paragraphs into the trash bin. Damn it. He gives me a look. My pulse quickens. He knows what we’re doing is illegal in the state of Florida. But I’m not sure if he’s going to report me.
I make a beeline for the exit. Just outside the ride, I speed through a decorative maze of crayons, pencils, erasers, stuffed animals, and action figures the size of automobiles. I catch my breath near a bulletin board featuring numerous bright red posters. One features an old alarm clock and says, “Translation aggravation? Time to upgrade! Parents, remember to check for the latest updates to your kids’ school software” next to a QR code. Another reads, “Concerned citizens report prohibited speech. Call” followed by a hotline number. A photograph of the smiling governor holding a gun is haloed by the phrase “Words are ammunition.”
Under a squat palm tree, Lisa Miyazaki, an associate professor at the University of Clearwater, is eating cotton candy, waiting for me. She grabs my arm and hands me a manila envelope. I can feel the floppy disk inside. My stomach is queasy. I understand the desire for secrecy—she is writing about Chibchan languages, after all—but where am I going to find a floppy disk drive? I quickly place the envelope alongside Jacob’s paper under my sweatshirt. I hand her one of my flash drives containing my paper.
She smiles and whispers without making eye contact, “How’s your conference experience been so far, Bashe?”
Every year, the convention of Florida-based translators is held at Illusion Land in Orlando. We researchers call the convention “Delusion Land,” because what used to be panels and presentations held in stuffy, windowless conference rooms no longer exists. In fact, our research has been contraband since the recent implementation of state-government-sponsored translation software, an automated process that is rarely correct, particularly because it likes to omit words whose etymologies indicate histories that don’t align with the views of the state. All alternative translations have been forbidden ever since. Many languages have also started being outlawed. Only the most popular languages are surviving. Most interactions between conference participants take place in line or near snack huts. Papers are never delivered orally, only swapped mid-rollercoaster-ride on archaic technology that is harder for the government to catch us using. The process perpetually frustrates me. It’s inadequate, and I feel incompetent.
I attempt to hide my despair. Pretending is something I’ve always done at academic conferences, well before the ban. I put on a fake smile, a familiar mask. “Not bad,” I tell Lisa. “I got closer this time.”
I am one of two Yiddish translators at the conference. My grandmother, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, spoke Yiddish as her first language, and she taught me as I grew up in Miami Beach. Only a handful of native speakers still survive. Every year, I have tried and failed to exchange papers with Jacob. Both of us are trying to keep our languages—ancient Greek and Yiddish—alive, but often our notes fall out of our hands from the propulsion of the coaster. Sometimes we only get pieces. And yet, we try, again, every year, meeting at the same area of the park—Toy Land—to try to get the transmission right. While the task seems Sisyphean, we haven’t completely lost hope yet. My grandmother taught me the power in small acts of civil disobedience. She said that sometimes mundane, daily acts of protest—of living our lives on our own terms, literally and figuratively—are what keep us alive or, at least, make our lives worth living.
My grandmother taught me the power in small acts of civil disobedience. She said that sometimes mundane, daily acts of protest—of living our lives on our own terms, literally and figuratively—are what keep us alive or, at least, make our lives worth living.
I ask Lisa, “How’s it going for you?”
She shrugs. Out of the corner of my eye, I spot the same man who was sitting behind me on the ride. He is standing with a woman and two small children, all wearing matching orange beanies. The woman is wearing a t-shirt that says, “SSE,” which stands for “Speak Standard English.” He stares back at me in disgust. Lisa, noticing his expression, dashes away from me.
With the papers and envelope stuffed under my clothes, I swish with each step. I pass a vast array of animatronic teddy bears and aliens. I walk up to a large booth with a series of stools, sit down with a crunch, and Antonio Marimò, a professor from Otter State University, immediately takes a seat next to me. We both pay to play a water gun shoot-out game.
“You’ll never believe what the machine is brewing today,” he says as the game begins. The “machine” is the AI translation program that the government has put all of its faith in.
“What?” I ask him.
“There’s a new rule: no mixing the sacred and the profane. It won’t allow any biblical references to be paired with everyday, ‘base’ speech.”
“Well, there goes Yiddish literature,” I say.
“It effectively makes the first chapter of Primo Levi’s Il sistema periodico untranslatable.” He lowers his voice. “It’s as basic as no more ‘goddamn.’”
“That’s not the worst of it,” he adds, even more quietly. I strain to hear his voice. “It removed the word ‘abortion.’ Now all ‘abortions’ are just translated as ‘murder.’”
Acid rises in the back of my throat. I stop shooting water at the target. “That’s disgusting.”
“Keep playing,” he whispers. “Don’t draw attention.”
I press the trigger, and the gun continues shooting out water.
He adds, “I mean, forget about any words describing human sexuality that aren’t incredibly homophobic, transphobic, or misogynist.”
“At this rate, barely any words will be left,” I say. The machine is programmed to leave no room for interpretation, or, for that matter, humanity. “What are we going to do?”
The machine is programmed to leave no room for interpretation, or, for that matter, humanity.
“We can only keep doing what we’re doing.” We have to continue to rebel by sharing our translations with each other, by trying to teach each other and the next generation older languages so that people can continue to translate after we’re gone.
But it doesn’t seem like that’s enough. Our work is happening entirely on paper, digitally or virtually, on floppy disks and flash drives. Our money is still going into the hands of this place, this system. It feels too complicit.
A series of bells and alarms go off. The game has ended, and Antonio is the clear winner. After he gets his prize—a studded cowboy hat—he hands me an envelope with his conference presentation, and I hand him a flash drive.
He scurries away without saying goodbye, and I survey the area around me. Nearby, the man in the orange beanie is talking to an amusement park security guard. As he points and gesticulates at me, I see his rage boiling over, his self-righteousness, all for the wrong reasons. He hates me because he thinks I am making this place unsafe, but doesn’t he see that without words to express ourselves we cannot exist peacefully. I feel frozen, mesmerized, unable to run or hide or argue. I cannot hear a word this stranger is saying, but I speak his mannerisms fluently.
Publab Fellow 2023
Thaïs Miller (https://thaismiller.wordpress.com/) is the author of the novel Our Machinery (2008) and the short-story collection The Subconscious Mutiny and Other Stories (2009). She is a PhD Candidate in literature, pursuing a creative/critical writing concentration, at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She received her MA in creative writing for social activism from New York University in 2011 and her BA magna cum laude with honors in literature and a minor in music performance from American University in 2009. She has taught literature and creative writing at UC Santa Cruz, UC Berkeley, UC Berkeley Extension, and the Gotham Writers Workshop.
Edvard Munch (1863-1944) was a Norwegian Expressionist painter. His works are concerned with human mortality and mental anguish, and he is best known for his 1893 painting The Scream. “Two Women on the Shore” uses the color woodcut technique to express themes of love, death, and loneliness.