Archives for November 2004


Unable to sleep last night, I pulled out a little collection of Alexander Kushner (a wonderful St. Petersburg poet; here‘s a pdf file of his 2002 speech “Poetry and Freedom”) and opened it at random to a poem whose first stanza is:

Skuchno, Gogol’, zhit’ na etom svete!
No poveet medom inogda
Ot pushistykh zontichnykh sotsvetii!
Chudno zhit’ na svete, gospoda!
[It’s tiresome, Gogol, to live in this world!
But sometimes there’s a honeyed breeze
from the fluffy zontichnye sotsvetiya!
It’s wonderful to live in the world, gentlemen!]

I didn’t know the words I’ve left in italics, but it was clear from their roots they had something to do with umbrellas (zontik) and flowers (tsvet), and I was too sleepy to bother going downstairs to look them up. So today I did, and it turns out zontichnyi is ‘umbelliferous’ and sotsvetiye is ‘inflorescence.’ Neither meant anything to me, so I looked them up; an inflorescence is a characteristic pattern of flowers on a stem, and one of the several varieties is an umbrella-shaped form called umbelliferous.
So how do you translate that? In Russian, both are perfectly ordinary-sounding words, and even if the average Russian doesn’t know exactly what a sotsvetiye is (I hope my Russian readers will enlighten me about this), it doesn’t carry any of the forbidding “incomprehensible technical term” air of its English equivalent. Nabokov, of course, would have rendered the line “From the fluffy umbelliferous inflorescences,” and quivered with pedantic joy as he did so; for the rest of us, that would risk clubbing the poem over the head with a hundred-ton hammer. But if you don’t, how do you keep it from losing all specificity and becoming a banal reference to sweet-smelling flowers? Ah, the endless troubles of translation…


Don’t make comparisons: the living are incomparable.
I had come to terms with the flatness of the plains
with a sort of fond fear.
The curve of the sky was a disease to me.
I would turn and wait for some service or news
from my servant the air.
I would get ready for a journey
and sail along the arcs of travel that never began.
I am prepared to wander where there is more sky for me,
but the clear anguish will not let me go
away from the youthful hills of Voronezh
to the civilised hills, that I see so clearly in Tuscany.
    —Osip Mandelstam, 18 January 1937
tr. Richard McKane and Elizabeth McKane
(from The Voronezh Notebooks: Poems 1935-1937)

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This is probably all over the internet by now, but I just discovered (via MetaFilter) that Google has a beta search for scholarly publications called Google Scholar. I tried searching on Abkhaz and got 304 results; interestingly, the first page is mostly linguistic material, with the political stuff (“Ethno-Federalism and Civic State-Building Policies. Perspectives on the Georgian-Abkhaz Conflict,” “The Georgian-Abkhaz Conflict in a Regional Context,” &c) coming later. I’ve already turned up a paper on “Kartvelian substrate toponyms in Abkhazia” by T Gvantseladze and R Tchantouria (HTML, pdf) with fascinating information on local toponyms:

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Jane Kramer’s New Yorker article “Taking the Veil,” about the French law (Article 141-5-1 of Law No. 2004-228) forbidding conspicuous religious symbols in public schools (not online), has a couple of problems dealing with French that I thought were worth mentioning here. First is the odd quote on p. 64, claiming that Chirac called the veil “the siege of a politics of Islamization.” The first noun clearly represents the French word siège, which in most contexts (and certainly this one) means ‘seat, locus’; I can’t imagine how this mistranslation got past the editorial staff of one of America’s most prestigious magazines—as written, it doesn’t even mean anything. The other glitch is a quote from a feminist lawyer named Linda Weil-Curiel, who says (according to the magazine) “I’ll take Chirac, with all his casseroles, because his position on [the veil] has been, well, noble.” Casseroles? I’ve packed up my French slang dictionaries, so I can’t look it up, but I shouldn’t need to; the New Yorker shouldn’t be using any foreign slang whose meaning is neither known to every literate English-speaker nor obvious from context. Tsk, is all I can say. That and: can anyone tell me what casseroles means in this context?


Julia Mayhew, whose poetry blog Eagle’s Wing had been inactive since May, has begun posting poems again, making me (and other fans) very happy. Her latest:

There used to be
only one tree.
There was a storm.
It was so muddy the
water was brown
and the tree drank
it and it turned
brown because of
the muddy water.


Language Log has a tradition of “guess the language” challenges, but the answers are usually posted the next day, which doesn’t give much time for working on them; the latest will be up for a week at least, which should allow more people to get in on the fun. So if trying to figure out overheard languages is your thing, go on over there and listen to the three mp3 files and see what you can come up with. I’ve got a general idea, but I’ll have to refine my guess when I have more leisure (today has been taken up with househunting). Tally-ho!
Update. If anyone’s been trying to solve this, the answer is available here; it fits with my general guess, but I don’t think I would have been able to come up with the specific language.


A NY Times article by Marc Lacey, “Using a New Language in Africa to Save Dying Ones,” tosses together a mishmash of vaguely related topics and tries to make them cohere; fortunately, I don’t have to bother going over it in detail, because Mark Liberman of Language Log has already done so. His summary:

Lacey (the article’s author) does start out by talking about “[making] computers more accessible to Africans who happen not to know English, French or the other major languages that have been programmed into the world’s desktops”. So he may have in mind facilitating a new kind of computer-mediated literacy training among those who don’t know English or French. Or maybe he’s thinking about bringing interaction with networked computers to people who are not literate at all, using images and speech technology. Those are both interesting ideas, but it’s odd to write as if the way to to accomplish such things is to put African languages on an equal footing with English or French in the use of Microsoft Office. Mix in references to endangered languages, text messaging in Amharic, machine translation among English, Afrikaans and Sotho, problems of borrowed vs. created technical vocabulary; stir well; and bake till done.

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Take a look at this very attractive timepiece, created by Bob Harris:

I actually just kinda made it for myself as a reminder that the rest of the world is big and has been around a long time, something to keep the current mess in perspective. The characters are in Greek, Arabic, Mandarin, Cherokee, Babylonian, ASL, English, Mayan, Hindi, Roman, Thai, and Ethiopian, in that order.

Thanks to Derryl Murphy for the link!


I had meant to blog this back in March, when it appeared in the NY Times, but forgot; fortunately, it was reprinted in the International Herald Tribune, where it is still online, so I can tell you about it now, complete with link. A review by Geoffrey Wheatcroft of The Coming of the Third Reich by Richard J. Evans includes the following biting remarks on translation:

Writing in a self-confident tone, Evans has a few quirks, like translating every turn of phrase, even those in common currency.
There may be something to be said for rendering Führer as “leader,” but the baffling “struggle for culture” turns out to refer not to some worthy artistic aspirations but to what is well-known in English and German as the Kulturkampf, Bismarck’s repressive campaign against the Roman Catholic Church. And to translate the names of newspapers – Frankfurt News for Frankfurter Zeitung, Berlin Daily News-Sheet for Berliner Tageblatt, Racial Observer for Völkischer Beobachter – is just silly. At one point Evans cites a contemporary article from The New York Times. A German historian might well do the same, but he would call it The New York Times, and not translate it into Die Neuyorker Zeiten.

“Silly” is perhaps too mild; I prefer “bizarre.” Just another example of the havoc wreaked by the inflated egos of overbearing writers who refuse to listen to their editors.


An article by Ayenew Haileselassie* explains how the syllabary used in Ethiopia, with its more than 300 characters, has been adapted for use on mobile phones:

Ge’ez evokes the ancient and the religious, the chanting of priests in long robes; parchment manuscripts and gold and silver crosses of the old days. The Ge’ez alphabet, also known as the Ethiopic writing system, has always been a source of pride for Ethiopians whose country happens to be the only African country with its own alphabet. Nonetheless it has been regarded as a drawback to the assimilation of information and communication technology with its ungainly 300 plus characters.
From the old typewriter to the new computer and the newer mobile phones, everything has worked with the 26 letters of the English alphabet, consisting of 10 times less characters than its Ge’ez counterpart.
Nothing is a debacle to imaginative souls. Ethiopia will not have to discard its literary tradition to embrace modern information technology.
Young Ethiopian researchers at the Addis Abeba University are making sure the numerous characters of the Ethiopic writing system are only a challenge to be overcome, not a hindrance to its slow but sure integration into the information era. Actually, they stated boldly in their research that the “Ethiopic writing system has now entered the wireless revolution.”…

Thanks to John Hardy of Laputan Logic for the link.)
*The name Haile Selassie, incidentally, means ‘Holy Trinity’ or ‘Power of Trinity’ in Amharic