Archives for August 2004


As a pendant to yesterday’s name translation post, here’s something that leaped out at me from George Packer’s Letter from Athens in this week’s New Yorker, which begins:

Omónia, in the heart of Athens, is a working-class district of six- and eight-story concrete high-rises built in the nineteen-sixties on the bones of old garden houses, in an enormous development scheme that Athenians now regret. Even with its streets festooned with colorful Olympic flags and its traffic thinned by newly constructed sections of the Athens metro, Omónia is dense and oppressive. This is where a good many of Greece’s new immigrants live or hang out—Albanians, South Asians, and, in the back streets and cafés around the Hotel Joker, off St. Konstantin Street, Iraqis.

In the first place, the accent on “Omónia” is strange, because he doesn’t put accents on any other Greek names; later in the paragraph he refers to “Karaiskaki Stadium,” not Karaiskáki. But what I want to talk about is “St. Konstantin Street.” This is utterly bizarre. The normal way to render Greek “Odos Agiou Konstantinou” is “Agiou Konstantinou Street” (or, with nods to actual pronunciation, “Ayiou” and/or “Konstandinou”), which reproduces the Greek genitive form (‘street of St. Constantine’). It’s odd enough to want to translate the name (note that he doesn’t translate Omónia to ‘Concord’), but what’s up with “St. Konstantin”? There’s a Bulgarian resort called Sveti Konstantin that’s sometimes called St. Konstantin in English, but why on earth would you translate Greek “Agios Konstantinos” into a Bulgarian form? In English, the only way to render the name of the Byzantine saint is St. Constantine. Where are those famous New Yorker fact checkers?


Last week’s New Yorker had a review article about World War One, “The Big One” (not online), by one of my favorite essayists, Adam Gopnik. I want to highlight one sentence that shows Gopnik’s light touch with an allusion:

History does not offer lessons; its unique constellations of contingencies never repeat. But life does offer the same points, over and over again. A lesson is many-edged; a point has only one, but that one sharp.

This is a clever variation on Archilochus‘s line poll’ oid’ alopex, all’ echinos hen mega ‘The fox knows many tricks, the hedgehog only one./ One good one’ (Lattimore’s translation), which served Isaiah Berlin (another of my favorite essayists) as the springboard for his famous essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” I doubt many readers will have caught it, and it’s certainly not necessary to understanding the passage; Gopnik must have done it primarily to please himself. I like that.


Gôgueule: Google è walon (in Walloon). Pattavau l’ twèle! (Thanks to David for the link.)


Last year I had a brief entry ON TRANSLATING NAMES (whose comment section degenerated lamentably and had to be closed); it’s a subject that’s long interested me, and I’m glad to report that there’s a detailed discussion of it in a pair of articles (Part 1, Part 2) by Verónica Albin (a freelance medical translator and Lecturer in Spanish at the Center for the Study of Languages at Rice University). I’ll quote a few paragraphs to whet your appetite:

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I’ve rarely been so happy to read a scientific paper as I was to read “A ‘Paradigm Shift’ in Finnish Linguistic Prehistory,” by Merlijn de Smit. It’s a takedown of one of the absurd nationalistic revampings of the “conventional paradigm” of linguistics (these people love Kuhn) that seem to be springing up everywhere these days, in this case “a hypothesis on the origins of the Finns and Finno-Ugric populations immensely popular, and raising great controversy, in Finland and Estonia.” Like all such hypotheses, this involves throwing out the traditional (“old paradigm”) family tree that is at the base of scientific historical linguistics and substituting various vague and untestable notions of relatedness and influence. I’ll let you read the details in de Smit’s lively paper, and will quote here only the following stirring paragraph, with every word of which I am in emphatic agreement:

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I’m reading a powerful, important book that I can’t with a clear conscience recommend. The book is War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, by Chris Hedges, a journalist who’s been covering war zones since El Salvador in 1982 and has gotten fed up, and I have a hard time recommending it because reading it will give you a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach and cause you to think even more poorly of humanity than you may already. You can read excerpts here and here and decide whether you’re interested; I’ll just present a few things of LH interest.
First is a striking collocation (from p. 77), the first time I’ve seen the alternate plurals of medium used in the same sentence, and nicely differentiated: “The destruction of culture sees the state or the group prosecuting the war take control of the two most important mediums that transmit information to the nation—the media and the schools.” Since media has become specialized as “a collective term to refer not to the forms of communication themselves so much as the communities and institutions behind them” (AHD), the plural of the more general sense has to be mediums.
Here’s a long quotation (pp. 33-34) about the artificial distinctions created between the Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian “languages”:

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Geoff Pullum at Language Log has propounded an interesting conundrum, which I will repeat here both to propose my own (probably simplistic) solution and to remedy the deplorably renewed lack of comment function at the aforementioned group weblog. Geoff quotes the following sentence from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (in context here):

“I quite agree with you,” said the Duchess; “and the moral of that is—‘Be what you would seem to be’—or if you’d like it put more simply— ‘Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.’ “

Geoff’s question is whether the Dutchess’s simplified/expanded sentence is grammatical; he says “After four or five careful attempts to make a judgment on this, I find I still can’t decide.”
I approach it as I used to approach math problems in my long-ago days as a math major, namely by stripping away extraneous material. The phrase “or might have been” is grammatically extraneous; the two occurrences of “not otherwise than” are logically extraneous, since “Be not otherwise than what you are” is logically equivalent to “Be what you are.” We are left with “Never imagine yourself to be what it might appear to others that what you were was what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.” Now, “Never imagine yourself to be…” requires a nominal construction to follow it; that is to say, in order for the sentence to be grammatical “what it might appear to others that what you were was what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise” would have to be grammatically equivalent to “what you are not” or the like. It seems reasonably clear to me that this is not the case, or (if you’d like it put more simply) that the grammatical knot Mr. Carroll has constructed cannot be untangled without the use of a Gordian sword. But I am not so confident of this that I am not amenable to being corrected by readers whose analytic skills are not inferior to my own.

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In the course of a (distressing) NY Times article (by Greg Winter) about the increasing numbers of American students acting like jackasses abroad, the following puzzling locution occurs [NB: grammar fixed thanks to a comment by elck]:

“That will eliminate the student who goes to Australia and just hangs out on the beach and drinks beer,” said David Macey, director of off-campus study at Middlebury. “It will probably clean up virtually all hats.

I have no idea what the sentence I’ve bolded means; can anyone inform me? For obvious reasons, I’m particularly interested in this usage. (Thanks to Bonnie for the link.)
Update. I think MollKW, in the comments, has cleaned up this hat:

The initial “t” of “that” was dropped as a typo (a common enough one, as Googling for “all hat” shows) and they ran a spelling/grammar check without being too careful about proofreading. Experiment shows that the grammar checker in Microsoft Word by default corrects “This will clean up virtually all hat” to “… virtually all hats”.

QED, and bravo!


I finally got to see Visconti’s Il gattopardo (The Leopard) for the first time in years (it was sold out last weekend, when my wife and I went into Manhattan to see it; see MISCONOSCENZA for links on novel and movie), and I was struck by its vindication of Pound’s famous dictum that “the natural object is always the adequate symbol.” The movie opens with an exterior shot of a grand villa; the camera slowly circles through the brilliant Sicilian light as it approaches and we begin to hear the sounds of a religious service from within. Then the camera enters a window, and we move into a dark room where people are sullenly listening to the thousandth repetition of the Ave Maria. After the Prince brings the proceedings to an abrupt end, he walks into another room; in the course of the following scene the words “È la rivoluzione!” [It’s the revolution!] are spoken, and at that moment the Prince is standing in front of a tall narrow window through which a breeze pushes a filmy white curtain. The sudden incursion of light and air is the perfect image of revolution in the context of this man and this house, where the dark comfort of age-old aristocratic habit is about to be invaded by new people and new ideas—to which the Prince is drawn, as we cannot help being drawn by light and air. But Visconti is no Pollyanna about revolution; the next scene, not in the book, is an extended street battle for Palermo, with Garibaldi’s redshirts frantically trying to drive out the royal troops. It’s long, confused, brutal, full of smoke and noise and the anguished cries of women; we’re left in no doubt as to what revolution means in practice. But the idea of it, the “breath of fresh air,” is intoxicating and seductive.

Later we see the Prince in his observatory; much is made of his astronomy in the novel, but in the movie it’s almost ignored except in this scene, where the sight of his telescopes, without a word being said about them, brings forcibly to the mind the idea that this man sees farther than those about him. There must be a thousand words about his comet-hunting in the book; this picture by itself has the impact of all of them.

Other things are lost, of course; when the Prince’s hunting companion Don Ciccio tells him bitterly that his “no” vote in the Plebiscite was not counted, we miss the author’s remark that “una parte della neghittosità, dell’acquiescenza per la quale durante i decenni seguenti se doveva vituperare la gente del Mezzogiorno, ebbe la propria origine nello stupido annullamento della prima espressione di libertà che a questo popolo si era mai presentata” [part of the sloth for which the South would be reproached in the coming decades had its origin in the stupid annulment of the first expression of freedom this people had ever been allowed] (the entire passage is here in Italian). Books and movies are different things, with different virtues. But a good director can use images to communicate directly and efficiently things that take a writer many words, even pages, if they can be said in words at all.


In the Russian-ruled Transdniester sector of Moldova, authorities are cracking down on use of Latin script:

Now, the Transdniester authorities are cracking down on the last remnant of unregimented social life there: the Latin script. Last month, in the climax of a campaign to compel the exclusive use of the Cyrillic alphabet, authorities decreed the closure of the six surviving Latin-script Moldovan schools. The Soviet-style police have seized several by force, and is besieging several others. The OSCE’s High Commissioner on National Minorities, Rolf Ekeus, coined an appropriate term in condemning this assault on schools: “linguistic cleansing”.
Unfortunately, the OSCE has relegated to the High Commissioner’s office a problem which is not one of national minorities at all. Indeed, Moldovans form the absolute majority of the native population, with Ukrainians the second largest group, and Russians the third largest element.

Thanks go to afrophile for the link.