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Amsterdam history as hope

“In England, we build castles for nobility. In Amsterdam, they build them for the poor.” – an aristocrat remarking on Amsterdam’s home for the elderly

Like many people around the world, the pandemic has made me question the city I live in. It’s so easy to see the ways the government and my fellow citizens have fallen short. I’ve also spent the year researching and writing about the city’s BIPOC history, which is a difficult story to live with. Then, a nighttime walk reminded me why I have faith in Amsterdam.

I ended up on the Magere Brug, Amsterdam’s famous Skinny Bridge. We were in a partial lockdown, so my walk there was much darker than normal, in both senses of the word. Our city’s renowned nightlife has once again been suspended. The streets were nearly empty, and the businesses that normally spill light onto the cobbled streets were dim.

So, what was the sight that stopped me halfway across the Amstel? As I looked towards the city center, I saw the Hermitage Museum, which occupies a building that 17th-century Amsterdammers built so that the elderly poor would have a place to live and be taken care of. It was a time where old age was a terror to all but the rich, but Amsterdammers joined together to build a home full of light and space for those who had nowhere to go. Past that, I saw the City Hall where the world’s first gay marriage was celebrated. To the right were mansions owned by Jewish families at a time when other countries had pogroms and the Inquisition.

I stood staring as the cold seeped into my bones. (Like a good child of the American Midwest, I wear my autumn coat far too long into winter.) I saw yellow light spilling from large windows in every home, reminding me of the citizens who’d welcomed arrivals like me from every corner of the globe. I saw the Skinny Bridge’s twin, which is named after a man named Walter Suskind who saved 600 children from concentration camps during the Nazi occupation. I saw the headquarters of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, which grew out of the international women’s suffrage movement.

I walked down the river to see a beautiful light display that’s part of Amsterdam’s yearly festival of light art. This city has drawn artists like Nina Simone, Rembrandt, Jason Sudekis and Brendan Hunt, aka Ted Lasso and Coach Beard. When I got to the bridge overlooking the artwork, there was a group of people watching it. Some were chatting in Dutch, others in accented English. Someone was playing a Christmas carol on their phone.

Amsterdam isn’t a perfect place, and it is struggling with the same fractures that many cities currently are. But we have a long history of welcoming people who are different and caring for the vulnerable. A view from the Magere Bridge reminded me of what the Amsterdam can be and gave me hope for what it will be.

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Black Archives Icons

The Black Archives in Amsterdam is a precious resource for understanding the city’s history. Since the summer of 2020, it’s been decorated with a mural of five men and women whose legacy shaped Amsterdam. When the mural was defaced, it prompted me to record a series of stories about these icons for Dam Daily on Broadcast Amsterdam.

The following links are for entire shows, which are fabulous. If you just want to hear the Black Archives Icons stories, they’re around the 45-minute mark.

If you’d like to know more, you can read my introduction essay on Medium. The rest of the stories are in the Medium archive for #BlackArchivesIcons.

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My 1st Remembrance Day

As we just spent Remembrance Day isolated, I thought it would be nice to repost what I wrote about my first Remembrance Day. I’d moved to the Netherlands just four days earlier.

At 8pm on Remembrance Day, the Netherlands stops to observe two minutes of silence for the suffering people endured in World War II and the Holocaust. When I say the country stops, I am not speaking in metaphor. The trains are held in the station in advance of this time. All traffic stops. TV and radio stop. In a country of 17 million, a full 90% stand still and silent at 8pm on May 4. In Dam Square, the King lays a wreath on the National Monument. He is joined by so many people that the crowd not only fills the five-acre square but spills down all the streets connecting to it.

The first thing you notice are the noises. An unsilenced text alert. The calling of the gulls that circle the square. But a silence greater than the lack of sound soon smothers all other senses. After more than a decade of New York City, we’d thought Amsterdam was quiet. In these two minutes we learn what a silent Amsterdam actually is. Silence reverberates off the cobblestones. It rustles through the crowds. It echoes off the buildings, filling the spaces of the absent traffic murmur and whooshing trams. Finally, we hear something we last heard in an empty field between Peruvian mountains. In this city of seabirds, for the first time we hear the beating of their wings.

When the ceremony continues, we fall a little bit more in love with our new country. Veterans and survivors of that terrible time are presented to the king and lay a wreath in front of one of the eleven urns in the monument. They do not bow, nor curtsy, nor perform any of the deified rituals associated with royalty or presidency. They offer a polite nod of the head, which the king returns in equal measure.

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Money Heist in Trans-lation

It’s been a week now and I keep thinking about a scene in Season 4, Episode 6 of Netflix’s La Casa de Papel. No, not THAT SCENE. As a translator and as someone who cares about trans identity, the earlier introduction of a trans character stuck with me. 

In the scene, two old friends are reunited after one has transitioned. Her old friend understands that she is a woman now, but has trouble understanding that she’s always been a woman. To explain, she tells him what she used to do after they pulled jobs.

Cuando Juanito terminaba de robar contigo, se iba a su casa, a su cuarto. Se ponía su musiquita, se hacía su buen porrito, se pintaba los labios rojos que yo tenía, divina, rojo Ferrari, y cogía el porrito y se tumbaba en la cama. Y en esos ratos, en esos momentos, sola, tranquila, guapísima, en esos momentos era yo de verdad.

The English subtitles said:

When Juanito got out of a robbery with you, he’d go back home into his room. He’d put on a little music. He’d roll a little joint and put on some red lipstick. Italian lipstick. It looked wonderful. And he’d take his joint and he’d lie down on the bed and right there, in that moment, alone, relaxed, looking gorgeous that was the moment I was me, for real.

If you haven’t been paying attention to trans identity, this seems fine. If you have, but you don’t speak Spanish, you might assume that the writers mishandled it. The Spanish writer didn’t.

There is no he in the original. She uses gender-neutral reflexive verbs and possessive pronouns. The only time a gender appears in the original line is in the adjectives at the end. Sola, tranquila, and guapísima are all feminine.

The Spanish writer handled it beautifully. Leaving gender ambiguous between the character’s deadname and her feminine description of herself subtly highlighted the dissonance between her friend’s assumption and her experience. Most ways to write that line would have used gendered words throughout. Instead, the Spanish writer’s choices created this lovely moment.

That’s why context is so important in translation. Most translation engines would see Juanito at the start of the sentence and automatically translate se and su to he and his. How would you program an algorithm to understand a scene about gender identity and transition?  

On the other hand, many human translators also default to he/his when translating se/su. It’s easy to see how translators could do that here if they weren’t aware of the language around trans identity or didn’t have a way of asking about the intended meaning.

I have no idea if Netflix is using a translation engine or a human translator. I’ve never seen a translation engine handle slang so well, so I would assume there’s a person somewhere in the chain. I don’t know if this was the translator’s failure to understand trans identity or the company’s failure to give English subtitles the time and resources needed for true accuracy. Either way, a beautiful scene got lost in translation.

Featured image Season 4 poster of La Casa de Papel, copyright Netflix

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