Tango in Russian.

I was so tickled by the link Dmitry Pruss (aka MOCKBA) provided here that I thought I’d feature it; how can I, who began studying Russian in Argentina and still loves hearing Carlos Gardel, resist a site that features gorgeous images, clips of tango music and dancing, and lyrics in Spanish and Russian? Without further ado: Переводы стихов танго [Translations of tango lyrics].

And while we’re on the subject, I was intrigued to see that OnEtDi has a more specific etymology of tango than I was aware existed (it’s usually “perhaps of African origin”): “from Argentine Spanish tango, originally the name of an African-American drum dance, probably from a Niger-Congo language (compare Ibibio tamgu ‘to dance’).” Anybody know more about this?

Translating Alice.

Andrea Appleton at smithsonian.com reports on a new publication:

Middle Welsh and Manx, Lingwa de Planeta and Latgalian. In its 150-year history, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has been translated into every major language and numerous minor ones, including many that are extinct or invented. Only some religious texts and a few other children’s books—including The Little Prince by French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry—reportedly rival Alice for sheer number of linguistic variations.

But the real wonder is that any Alice translations exist at all. Penned in 1865 by English scholar Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, the book’s delight in wordplay and cultural parodies makes it a torment for translators.

How do you write about the Mouse’s tale without losing the all-important pun on “tail”? Some languages, like the Aboriginal tongue Pitjantjatjara, don’t even use puns. What about when a character takes an idiom literally? [...]

A massive new work, Alice in a World of Wonderlands, devotes three volumes to exploring such questions. Published by Oak Knoll Press, the books include essays by 251 writers analyzing the beloved children’s book in 174 languages. The essays are scholarly but peppered with anecdotes illuminating the peculiarities of language and culture as they relate to Carroll’s book. [...]

Language and typography scholar Michael Everson says the novel’s inherent difficulty is part of its appeal. “The Alice challenge seems to be one that people like because it’s really fun,” he says. “Wracking your brains to resurrect a pun that works in your language even though it shouldn’t, that sort of thing.” For instance, an early Gujarati translator managed to capture the tail/tale pun for readers of that western Indian tongue. When someone talks incessantly, it is often conveyed through the Gujarati phrase poonchadoo nathee dekhatun, which means “no end in sight”—allowing the translator to play on poonchadee, the word for “tail”, with poonchadoo.

I love the Gujarati example, and there are other goodies at the link (“In the Swahili edition, the Hatter wears a fez and the dormouse is a bush baby”). It’s amazing how clever people can be at coming up with corresponding wordplay. And I should note that the article doesn’t mention one of the more famous and successful versions, Nabokov’s Аня в Стране Чудес.

Jabotinsky’s Hebrew II.

I’ve gotten to another good passage on language in Halkin’s Jabotinsky (see this post); the context is Jabotinsky’s founding of the Hebrew publishing house Hasefer:

One of Hasefer’s first volumes, issued in 1923, was a slim collection of Jabotinsky’s Hebrew poetry translations. In it were selections from Poe and D’Annunzio, the whole of Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat, and sections of Edmond Rostan’s Cyrano de Bergerac. What made it noteworthy, however, was not its content but its use of the Sephardic diction that Jabotinsky had first heard in Basel in 1903, together with the Sephardic system of poetic scansion. Although the Hebrew spoken in twentieth-century Palestine had adopted the Sephardic pronunciation, nearly all prominent Hebrew poets of the day were still adhering to the Ashkenazi rules of composition. Jabotinsky’s translations had an impact on the younger generation of Hebrew poets and helped speed the transition to a Sephardic prosody that took in the 1920s.

A second, more radical change that he promoted never attracted many followers. This was the Latinization of the Hebrew alphabet for purposes of phonetic clarity, an idea in keeping with similar spelling reforms undertaken at the time, such as the simplification of Russian and Yiddish orthography in the Soviet Union and the Latinization under Atatürk of Turkish’s Arabic script. It was a symptom of Jabotinsky’s ambivalent attitude toward Jewish tradition that he, the ardent lover and proponent of Hebrew, had an almost dyslexic difficulty with its written characters—“those damned square letters,” he once called them—and wished to exchange them for an alien system that would have severed the language from its ancient roots. Happily, few of its users agreed with him.

(Tsk tsk, such editorializing!) The last proposal reminds me of Nabokov’s wishing that Russian were Latinized.

Charles Tomlinson, RIP.

I was shocked to learn from wood s lot that the wonderful poet Charles Tomlinson has died. As Michael Yong’s Bristol Post obituary says:

He was one of the first English men of letters to appreciate the great achievements of the American poets of the mid-20th century, particularly the work of William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Yvor Winters, Louis Zukofsky and George Oppen – all of whom he came to know personally – and his poetry showed from the start, particularly in its versification, a strong American influence.

That’s doubtless why Yanks like me responded so readily to his work (Wallace Stevens was another early influence). Go to the wood s lot link for Michael Schmidt’s Guardian obit and a beautiful pairing of Tomlinson’s short poem “Reeds” with a color photo by Mark Woods (the proprietor of the s lot); he also quotes a majestic longer poem which I will reproduce here as an appropriate read for this late-summer day:

        IV. The Fireflies

I have climbed blind the way down through the trees
(How faint the phosphorescence of the stones)
On nights when not a light showed on the bay
And nothing marked the line of sky and sea—
Only the beating of the heart defined
A space of being in the faceless dark,
The foot that found and won the path from blindness,
The hand, outstretched, that touched on branch and bark.
The soundless revolution of the stars
Brings back the fireflies and each constellation,
And we are here half-shielded from that height
Whose star-points feed the white lactation, far
Incandescence where the single star
Is lost to sight. This is a waiting time.
Those thirty, lived-out years were slow to rhyme
With consonances unforeseen, and, gone,
Were brief beneath the seasons and the sun.
We wait now on the absence of our dead,
Sharing the middle world of moving lights
Where fireflies taking torches to the rose
Hover at those clustered, half-lit porches,
Eyelid on closed eyelid in their glow
Flushed into flesh, then darkening as they go.
The adagio of lights is gathering
Across the sway and counter-lines as bay
And sky, contrary in motion, swerve
Against each other’s patternings, while these
Tiny, travelling fires gainsay them both,
Trusting to neither empty space nor seas
The burden of their weightless circlings. We,
Knowing no more of death than other men
Who make the last submission and return,
Savour the good wine of a summer’s night
Fronting the islands and the harbour bar,
Uncounted in the sum of our unknowings
How sweet the fireflies’ span to those who live it,
Equal, in their arrivals and their goings,
With the order and the beauty of star on star.

(I strongly suspect there should be a period after “unknowings,” but the Poetry Foundation text doesn’t have one, and since I no longer seem to have my copy of the Selected Poems I can’t check it against a printed copy.)

The Micheal Breathnach Club.

I read Dan Barry’s long NY Times story on hurling because of my interest in Ireland, and I was pleased by “The Connemara team, from the Micheal Breathnach club in Inverin (named after an early-20th-century Irish writer, in keeping with this country’s celebration of the word)…” I’d enjoy rooting for the Mets even more if they were the New York Walt Whitmans.

One thing puzzled me:

On the Connemara side, players sat with hurleys in hand as their wiry manager, a school psychologist named Rory O Bearra, encouraged them in the language of Irish.

Mark your men, lads! Catch the ball — ball to hand! Move the ball quickly. Short grip on the hurley. Hit the man or hit the space with the ball. Let’s go, lads, let’s go!

I presume “the language of Irish” refers to the Irish language, and the passage in italics is translated therefrom, but it’s possible that is intended to mean “the quaint English dialect of the local Irish people”; it’s an odd locution, so it is.


Nupepa is:

Another place to talk about Hawaiian-Language Newspapers! Please note that these are not translations, but if anything they are just works in progress. Hopefully the English gets across the overall intent of the articles. Please comment if you come across misreads or anything else you think is important!

It’s lots of fun if you enjoy Hawaiian and/or old newspapers, and the comments are interesting too; this marriage announcement from 1913 got a response “Thank you for putting this up. Oscar Opiopio Apana was my grandfather’s (Frank L. Apana) brother.”

Harvard Sentences.

The Harvard Sentences are a set of phonetically balanced sentences used for testing audio circuits. If you’ve ever wanted to hear them spoken aloud, the Open Speech Repository has you covered: American English, British English. They also have files in Mandarin, French, and Hindi. (Thanks, Trevor!)


My wife asks interesting questions about words, and the most recent was “Why do we say ‘bedridden’?” I opened my mouth, realized I didn’t have anything useful to say, and turned to the dictionary. The answer is simple but unpredictable, and since others may well be interested, I’m sharing it here. The Online Etymology Dictionary has a good summary:

bedridden (adj.)
also bed-ridden, mid-14c., from adjectival use of late Old English bæddrædæn “bedridden (man),” from bedrid, from Old English bedreda, literally “bedrider, bedridden (man),” from bed + rida “rider” (see ride (v.)). Originally a noun, it became an adjective in Middle English and acquired an -en on the analogy of past participle adjectives from strong verbs such as ride.

So it was originally ‘bed-rider,’ which makes sense, and due to the sort of morphological scrambling languages are subject to, it looks like it means ‘ridden by a bed,’ which doesn’t.

The Barbarian Beard.

Victor Mair has a post at the Log full of the kind of detailed historical/philological investigation I love. A correspondent wrote that “in Chinese the word for beard (胡子) has an archaic root meaning ‘foreign,’” and Mair, who had long “wondered if all of these expressions [húshuō(bādào) 胡说(八道) 'nonsense; ridiculous; bullshit,' húrén 胡人 'barbarian,' húzi 胡子 'beard,' húnào 胡闹 'act wild; be mischievous,' etc.] … had something to do with wild, bearded barbarians from the west,” decided to look into it. He says:

… it begins to get really tricky, because it is possible that certain non-Sinitic peoples to the north and northwest were thought of as hú 胡 because they had hú 胡 (“beards”) and that these hú 胡 folk behaved in a very hú 胡 (“wild; uncontrolled; unruly”) fashion. But this is a semantic and etymological minefield upon which we must tread cautiously.

Some points to consider:

1. The earliest meaning of hú 胡 is generally considered to be “tissue drooping down under the chin of an animal (e.g., dewlap)” — note that the character has a “flesh” radical.

2. By extension, it came to mean “part of a weapon that hangs down”, and this is probably also how the meaning “beard” arose (“the pendulous mass of hair under a man’s chin”).

3. Hú 胡 also developed the meaning of “neck” (the part of an animal behind the thing hanging down) and “broad; large”, which I’ve written about extensively in Victor H. Mair, “Was There a Xià Dynasty?“, Sino-Platonic Papers, 238 (May, 2013), 1-39. See esp. p. 9 where the Old Sinitic reconstruction of hú 胡/鬍 (“beard; bearded person”) is given as *’ga (in Jerry Norman’s spelling system according to David Branner), together with cognates in Tibetan.

There are a bunch more points, some speculation, and an image of “a band of musicians with a dancer on top of a camel’s back.” Check it out.

Jabotinsky’s Hebrew.

I’ve started Halkin’s Jabotinsky: A Life, which is excellent (thanks, Paul!), and I thought this passage on language was worth posting:

Jabotinsky also covered the congress for Odesskaya Novosti, in which he published four long dispatches. The first two dealt with caucuses he attended. One was held by the Mizrachi, the religiously Orthodox Zionist party; struck by its moderateness, he deemed it capable of collaborating with secular Zionists. The other was convened by a Hebraist faction that demanded Hebrew’s adoption as the official language of the Zionist movement and of a future Jewish state. (The congress itself was conducted in German, with delegates free to use Yiddish, Russian, or Hebrew if they wished.) While confessing that he did not understand spoken Hebrew well enough to follow the proceedings, Jabotinsky was impressed by the speakers’ fluency and predicted that their goal would be accomplished in Palestine because Hebrew alone could serve as a lingua franca there; he was also struck by the Sephardic diction used by some of them, which he judged more exact and pleasing than the Ashkenazi pronunciation he was familiar with. The experience spurred him to take up the study of Hebrew again.

A quibble: while the book is in general very well proofread and copyedited, it consistently uses “Odesskaya Novosti” (‘Odessa News’) for what should either be Odesskiya Novosti (representing the prerevolutionary spelling) or Odesskiye Novosti (the modern version); as it is, it matches a feminine singular adjective with a plural noun. Tsk, I say, tsk.