PICK OF THE WEEK: Olga Zilberbourg

Sun Oct 3 10, Makeout Room

(Evan Karp)

For a week filled more with parties than readings, I’m going to dip into the archives for today’s pick—all the way back to Litquake (can you believe it?). The following is from the Barely Published Authors event.

Olga Zilberbourg reading “Sweet Dreams”

Having reached the age of 55, my mother has decided to try out retirement. She won’t stop working—there are no opportunities for advancement in that—but she’s decided to branch out and signed up for an advance English class after work. Her older sister is taking the same class, and my mother can’t let her sister surpass her at anything. This week, the teacher assigned them a few song lyrics to translate. My mother, determined to be an A student, messages me for help.

Is there anybody out there?

“It’s Pink Floyd,” I tell her, “from The Wall. Pink is watching Gunsmoke on TV, the wall inside his head is almost finished and he can’t help wondering if there is anyone who can help him break it down from the outside. Is there anybody out there? It’s his distress call.”

“Wow,” my mother says. “I better send you the entire exercise. I’m getting it all wrong.”

“Fine,” I tell her, “but I already know English. Don’t be so American.” My mom types quickly and I am barely able to catch up. “Love changes everything. What does this mean?” There is an 11 hour time difference between St. Petersburg and San Francisco, so what’s 9pm her time is 10am for me, and I had just had my morning coffee and opened my inbox. I need to get some work done, but then there is never a good time to talk. When it’s evening—my time—she is at work herself, and she never has time to talk to me when she’s working.

Love changes everything.

I don’t see two ways to interpret this. What does she think it means? “That you must love every change that happens to you,” she explains. She fails to see that “love” in the sentence is used as a noun and “changes” is the verb. In her version, love becomes the command—an order—love the changes! Obviously she needs help. I’ve been encouraging her to learn English for years now. Once in while she talks about making her retirement final and coming to live with me in the U.S. Knowing English would really help then.

“What’s the subject of the sentence,” I ask. And she immediately writes back: “The sentence has no subject. It’s a subjectless sentence.” I remind her that this is unlikely, that, in English, every proper declarative sentence must have a subject, and when she considers this proposition, she finally gets it. “Love changes everything. Wow, this is so backward,” she writes.

I wonder how my aunt is doing with this exercise, and if she’s got her son—my cousin—helping her from Sweden. The two sisters could be helping each other, practicing their conversation skills when they get together for dinner, or meet at the country house to prune the apple trees or to pick strawberries, but no. I know English so much better than she does, and why should I help her? My mother scoffs at the suggestion. “Let her fend for herself. She would do the same for me.”

It’s easy for me from across the ocean to fantasize about the communal life back home, but conversations like this quickly remind me how things really are. Everything between the two sisters is a competition; even when they pick strawberries together, they carefully weigh each other’s crops to see who scored better. Both my mother and my aunt have managed to jettison their children to the other side where the grass is greener, and now all they have is each other. My mother has no time to revel in her success. She is anxious to move on.

Everybody’s looking for something.

“What does this mean?” “That’s Eurythmics, ‘Sweet Dreams.’ What does it mean to you?” “I think it means that everyone is spying on everyone else.” This is not translation so much as diagnosis. Clearly, there is nothing I can really do to help her.

I am almost ready to sign off when I get a message from my cousin. “Everybody’s looking for something—translate, please.” “You should know this,” I write back. “This is English 101.” “I am in the middle of a meeting. No time to chat,” he responds. This is the most I’ve heard from my cousin in over a month. And despite the curtness of his message I sit back in my chair and giggle at the computer screen. It’s 11am already and my morning is shot, but I don’t mind it anymore. What if our mothers did indeed learn English this way and moved closer to us? I’d have to learn to be a lot more flexible with my schedule then. To love the changes.


There are so many reasons I like this. First, it’s pretty hilarious. I really like stories that hinge on misunderstandings, especially when they’re language-based. Second, it’s short and sweet. When the narrator sits back and giggles at her computer screen, I catch the drift of her mood shift that has happened just as she’s been on the phone, translating her mother’s ridiculous assignment when she has more important things to do. This is a typical situation, in a way, but one that might tend to produce anger or resentment or, at the very least, a sense of anxiety. If I handled every phone call I got this way I would no doubt be way more productive, even if I had fewer hours to work with. So let this story—and this pick—be a reminder.


This coming week » is a good week for pajamas. You can catch Josh Mohr and the colonists of Portuguese Artists Colony today at 5pm for free if you wear pajamas, and then tomorrow check out Cat’s Pajamas for a mix of words and music—Alan Kaufman, Julie Indelicato, and Jelal Hyler in the mix. On Monday January 3 Quiet Lightning starts off its second year. If you know of any more events, send em this way.