Richard Ben Cramer and “What It Takes”

There was no shortage of praise for Richard Ben Cramer upon his death earlier this month. The author of What It Takes was widely lauded for writing probably the definitive campaign narrative, a hefty but breezy tome following eight candidates in both parties during the 1988 presidential campaign. If that sounds like another époque, it was; campaigns move at the speed of technological change and this one was no different. But it speaks well of Cramer’s reportage and writing that I can still recall scenes, set pieces and character-making elements of many of the candidates in his book which I read more than 15 years ago. It’s a peculiar irony that all the candidates he wrote about outlived their author.

Almost universally praised now, Cramer’s book was met with tepid reviews and sold poorly when it was released in 1992. Cramer was so despondent he never wrote again about politics. Little wonder. Although a driving, detail-littered book, the 1988 campaign was hardly era-defining. The book’s release date, four years after the 1988 campaign, was smack in the middle of the 1992 campaign. That year would give us our first baby boomer president, an aggressive campaign style that presaged the Internet age, and the full blooming salaciousness that Gary Hart’s peccadillos only winked at. If only Cramer had dedicated his awesome energy and focus to 1992, or 2000, or 2008, what then? Game Change would have looked like spare change by comparison.

What It Takes’ other glaring flaw is Cramer’s unwillingness, or inability, to take his narrative all the way through to the end – that is, from the early, earnest primary contests, through the horrible winnowing of the losers to the party conventions and then on to the general campaign and Election Day until the final winner is standing above it all: the President-elect of the United States, leader of the world’s greatest democracy, master of the Free World. But Cramer’s book ends abruptly – with an epiloguous glance back at Election Day, Michael Dukakis returning to govern Massachusetts in defeat – before the general election gets cranked up. And in that sense, Cramer has written the longest first volume ever put to press. So it will always feel unfinished to me.

Cramer’s prose is kinetic, intimate, profane, almost gonzo – hardly, I imagine, how those running the campaigns think of themselves, channeling the Kennedys or Reagans. But with that inside-the-bullpen perspective came something revelatory to me when I first read it: the candidates themselves. Cramer’s remarkable subjectivity, his willingness to look out at the world from the candidates’ eyes, I had never experienced before. With remarkable humanity and sympathy Cramer sketched these very different and driven individuals during some of the most extreme moments of their lives. The campaign is only one of those extreme moments. What It Takes taught me that their vantage point was a valid and important one.

That is probably Cramer’s greatest bequest to political reportage. These men and women may not be exactly like you or me – that, the book makes dramatically clear — but they’re worth understanding, wherever it is they stand.


How To Write for Translation

A conversation with a colleague recently posed a question that I’m surprised I hadn’t considered before: How do we write for effective translation?

Surrounded as we are, especially if we are anglophones, by competent speakers and writers of English, and with machines translators at our fingertips, it is easy to forget that translation is still an important and necessary function performed well by professionally trained people so that we can communicate with one another across the language barrier

But sometimes, as in the case of my colleague, a professional translator is not available (for reasons of cost, time or convenience) so a few hard and fast rules may be necessary to help the non-professional make good translations. (And I’m sure the professional translator would appreciate the effort to make their job easier.) The following, therefore, is similar to a previous post I wrote on speaking effectively through interpretation, for it requires the same attention paid to language and how it is used in the day to day. But it departs from speaking because of the usual attention paid to grammar, structure, and rhetoric in most drafted documents.

This presumes that you are not a poet, journalist or literary writer of some kind who is otherwise focused on the craft of molding the language; in that case it is the job of the translator to transmogrify your work into another’s language (on which see Edith Grossman’s excellent book, above). For the rest of us, these guidelines will help you, and your translator, make yourself understood in another language.

Rule #1: Write as literally and as simply as possible. Use language that is commonly understood and definitions that are confined to the first or second entries in most dictionaries. You will get no extra credit, as it were, for elaborate hidden meanings, double entendres, or word play, because most words are stripped of their additional load-bearing meanings when translated into another language. If you want or need to use such complex meanings clear in another language, you need to describe them as such in the text.

Rule #2: Avoid complex sentences and elaborate subordinate clause structures. These are either likely to confuse the translator or, if they are translated more literally, not to come out in a way that is comprehensible in the foreign language. At the same time, sentences should not be so simple that the flow of thought is cut up in the chop.

Rule #3: Avoid metaphor and simile, especially obscure or culturally unique metaphors and comparisons; purge cliche. Metaphors have a bad habit of translating poorly (think of “the mother of all battles”). As with Rule #2, if you must use a metaphor, explain it, its background and relevance. Cliches should never be used unless absolutely necessary and literally true.

Rule #4: Purge jargon and acronyms whenever possible. This is generally a good rule for solid writing in any case, but often it is not possible, especially with technical or professional writing. If jargon or acronyms are not commonly understood, the Associated Press rule is best: spell it out on first reference and refer to the acronym. As necessary explain the context of the jargon, acronym or organization.

Rule #5: Set off and explain terms of art and other important language. You may need to communicate terms of art or other important words that has precise or specific meaning in your own language. (For example, legal jurisdiction in English is usually translated as competence in French. But competence in English has an entirely different meaning.) It will be important to separate these terms with quotation marks, or italics, and then explain or define them so there is no risk of a mistranslation.

I’ve been told that English, particularly American English, is perhaps too blunt and straight-forward, that its grammatical structure encourages punch and pith rather than thought and consideration. That may be. So you may want to take into account cultural sensitivities, perhaps by talking to your translator about pleasantries, honorifics, and sign-offs that are considerate and sensitive rather than brusque. But for certain there again you’ll want to make sure that it translates well.