Archives for November 2007


Here’s a splendid misappropriation of an English phrase that’s made its way around the world, mostly unbeknownst to the speakers of English itself: Mark Liberman at Language Log reports on the international term making off, meaning “The recording of the director and actors describing the making of a film.” There is discussion at Mark’s post of the mechanism of of becoming off, which is interesting, but what delights me is the variety of languages to which the term has spread. Mark lists Spanish (“un tutorial podría ser un making off”), French (“Il s’agirait d’une video du making-off du film Titanic”), Portuguese (“Participar do ‘making off’ dessas fotos maravilhosas”), Italian (“Così mi è venuta l’idea del making off, che nella prima stesura rappresentava quasi il sessanta per cento del film”), German (“Nachdem es ja jetzt hip ist über alles und jeden ein Making off zu machen”), and Dutch (“Vandaag is op het net het making-off filmpje opgedoken waarbij je de ‘gangster’ aan het werk kunt zien”), and Slavomír Čéplö (of the wonderful blog bulbulovo, sadly in hiatus) adds Slovak (“Prosim ta ked by si mal niekedy cas mohol by si uploadnut nieco z nasledujucich making off´s”—”note the English plural, the Slovak plural would be ‘making off-ov’“), Czech (“V upoutávce na making off zvolili dost úsměvné věty”), Polish (“Strona składa się z 4 dużych części: portfolio agencji, nagrody, szkolenia i making-off, czyli kulisów produkcji”), Hungarian (“Föleg ha egy making off-ot megnézünk a GT-röl”), Finnish (“Making off-pätkät on tarpeellisia varsinkin muille videoita tekeville”), Maltese (“ma nafx imma waqt li kont qed nara il-making off u rajt lil kristina…”), and of all things Breton (“Aze e vo kavet ganeoc’h pep tra diwar benn pennoberenn Diwan, interview ar c’hoarierien, ur making off, an arvestoù c’hwitet gant hag all hag all”). This is truly remarkable, and I’d love to see somebody research the timeline: when it got started in which language, and what lines of transmission it followed.
And of course speakers of all those languages assume it’s a perfectly good English word!


Benjamin Zimmer at Language Log has a fascinating post on “the speech patterns of northeastern Pennsylvania,” taking off from a YouTube video called “Heynabonics,” heyna or haina being apparently a tag question characteristic of the region:

Putting haina on the end of a statement makes the statement a question. It doesn’t matter who you’re talking to, or when the thing happened. “You’re going dancing Friday night, haina?” means “Are you going dancing Friday night?” “He did that last night, haina?” means “Did he do that last night?”

There are interesting parallels with (and possible influences from) Pennsylvania Dutch and Hindi, not to mention British innit. Well worth your attention.


No-sword reports on a phenomenon that is completely unsurprising (given the human capacity for delusion) but about which I knew nothing: “spurious syllabaries invented, promoted, and possibly even believed in by people who just could not accept the idea that Japan needed China’s help to learn how to write.” The “obvious problem”: “they are clearly based on the modern Japanese phonetic system rather than its eight-vowelled ancestor as would be expected—nay, required—of any syllabary in use before the Heian period.” He links to some of the sillier examples (“The Ahiru moji are a sadly transparent copy of Hangul, right down to the unnecessary detail of copying the use of the /N/ circle to mean ‘no initial consonant'”). Read it and laugh.


I spent today at Mount Holyoke College, at the Books to Blogs & Back program: a set of “interactive activities and exhibits relating to the history of book creation and publication,” a talk by Jason Epstein about “how new digital technologies make the book publishing industry obsolete, but not the book itself” (he’s involved with a company that sells on-demand book vending machines), and a panel discussion on “The Past and Future of the Book” with Terry Belanger talking about how books as physical objects will survive as prestige objects (like horses) even after their utilitarian functions have been taken over, Sven Birkerts prognosticating about how the internet is going to turn us into a “hive mind,” and (by far the best to my mind) Lisa Gitelman taking a sceptical look at predictions of literary doom (including “how in 200 years moral panic about reading novels has shifted to moral panic about not reading novels”). It was all very stimulating, and I picked up a free (if heavily marked-up) copy of Se questo è un uomo by Primo Levi (the Italian original of Survival in Auschwitz, which I already had), and when I got home I found waiting for me the copy of Time of troubles, the diary of Iurii Vladimirovich Got’e: Moscow, July 8, 1917 to July 23, 1922 (“Among the few diaries available from inside early Soviet Russia none approaches Iurii V. Got’e’s in sustained length of coverage and depth of vivid detail… . This remarkable chronicle, published here for the first time, describes the hardships undergone by Got’e’s family and friends and the gradual takeover of the academic and professional sectors of Russia by the new regime.”), which I had only learned about last week and had found for a couple of dollars on Amazon. A good day.
Oh, and today’s NY Times has a feature by Roger Mummert, called “In the Valley of the Literate,” on the Pioneer Valley (where I now live): “There are many explanations for why the valley is so rich in bookstores and author readings, but two are paramount: many book lovers live in the valley, and so do an extraordinary number of writers.” I had lunch today (with Songdog and his wife) right next door to the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley whose photograph graces the start of the article.


A NY Times story by Joseph Berger (print version) is the first thing in a while that’s given me a bit of hope about the American educational system:

Seven-year-old Cooper Van Der Meer is learning Spanish as a second language.
That’s right. This American native is lucky enough to be in a school system that considers the acquisition of languages so important in today’s polyglot, globally entwined America that students start learning a foreign language in kindergarten…
Martha Abbott, director of education at the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, said that while there is no reliable data on the trend, her organization keeps learning of more school systems that think paying for elementary school language teachers is money well invested.
Since September 2006, all students in grades one through five in Loudon County, Va., have been given 30 to 60 minutes of Spanish instruction each week. Last year, officials in Fairfax County, Va. — which, with 165,439 students, is the nation’s 13th-largest school system — decided to expand the study of foreign languages to all 137 elementary schools over a seven-year period. Twenty-five Fairfax schools provide 30-minute lessons twice a week in Spanish, Japanese, Arabic, Chinese or French starting in the first grade. Ten schools have ambitious “immersion” programs where math, science and health are taught in a foreign language.
Paula Patrick, the Fairfax system’s foreign language coordinator, said Americans have for too long had a “mind-set that everyone else in the world could learn English.” Her district is receiving appeals from businesses that need global-ready travelers and from a health care industry that needs translators.
The growth in language instruction is also taking place in college. A survey by the Modern Language Association released yesterday found a 13 percent increase in language-course enrollments between 2002 and 2006, with a 127 percent increase in the number of students taking Arabic.

Now if they’d just start teaching the basics of linguistics in elementary school (language changes and that’s OK, different people talk differently and that’s OK, grammar is part of how you speak and not something an authority imposes on you…) I’d be a happy man. (Thanks for the link, Bonnie!)


Benjamin Zimmer at Language Log reports on the absurd censorship of profanity at the august and prim NY Times. When it gets to the point that you’re calling movies “****” and bands “********,” you really need to rethink your policies.


This AskMetaFilter question begins:

A few months ago, my wife posted on her a blog an article that appeared in the September issue of Vogue. It’s about Ashley Javier, an exclusive New York hair stylist, whose penthouse shop is in a “rough part of Manhattan”:
When he arrived on Twenty-eighth Street, “This place was harrogatha! Harrogatha!”
Neither one of us knows the word, and my wife included in her blog entry a request for a definition. No one has come forward, and I’m beginning to go crazy.

A fair amount of pointless guessing followed; finally, someone contacted Mr. Javier and posted the result:

When Ashley moved to NYC 15 years ago, he befriended Paul Rutherford of Frankie Goes to Hollywood fame.
So harrogatha (pronounced huh-RAH-gutha) is a term that he picked up from Paul and it means that something is so horrible, so horrendous, so bad that it’s practically infectious.
Ashley’s not sure where Paul picked it up, or if he made it up.

So there you have it. You can simply admire the pluck and resourcefulness of the AskMeFi crew (and raise an eyebrow at the fecklessness of the Vogue reporter, who didn’t bother to explain the word), or you can incorporate this silly but memorable vocable into your own usage and try to get it into the next edition of your favorite dictionary.


My wife showed me a story in the paper about the new Lamborghini Reventón, pointing to where it said the v in the name was “pronounced like b.” She asked what this meant, and I said I’d investigate. It turns out the car “is named after a fighting bull according to Lamborghini tradition” and its “namesake, owned by the Don Rodriguez family, is best known for killing famed bullfighter Felix Guzman in 1943” (Wikipedia), which means it’s a Spanish name. Now it becomes clear what happened. The letters b and v are pronounced identically in Spanish, as a bilabial stop (/b/) at the start of a word and as a bilabial fricative (like /v/ but using both lips rather than the lower lip and upper teeth) between vowels, so it’s clear and accurate to say the v in, say, Veracruz is “pronounced like b.” Unfortunately, in Reventón the v is between vowels, so to say it’s “pronounced like b” would be technically accurate (if you mean “pronounced as b would be pronounced in the same environment”) but wildly misleading. The fact is that the closest thing to an accurate pronunciation of the Spanish word, unless you’re a Spanish speaker, is re-ven-TOHN. I’m not sure whether Lamborghini is promoting the “like b” thing because they genuinely misunderstood, or because it was a clever marketing ploy; at any rate, confusion is widespread, and you can see the result here: “It sparked a debate with Jeremy Clarkson claiming the ‘v’ in Reventon is pronounced as a ‘b’ – making it Re-bent-on. After speaking to Lamborghini yesterday, we can confirm Jezza was right.”
The funniest thing about the name, though, is that in Spanish reventón means ‘burst,’ or—in an automotive context—’blowout, flat tire.’


Almost exactly two years ago, I posted The Translation Wars, about the history of translations from Russian and in particular the latest darling of the publishing world, the team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (or Volokhonskaya, as her name would normally be rendered). There I mentioned their forthcoming translation of War and Peace; it has now come forth, and the NY Times Reading Room blog has just finished a group reading of it, in the midst of which they paused for a discussion of The Art of Translation. I found it fascinating, and I think anyone who enjoyed the discussion in my previous post and its thread will feel the same. Sam Tanenhaus, the moderator, raves a bit about P&V and then says “I’m curious to know what others think, and to know what passages have impressed them — for ill as well as good. Does anyone in the group dislike this new translation — or find others superior?” I don’t think he was prepared for what he got.

The first responder says “Garnett keeps the flow of the sentence and the work going more smoothly so I am not tripping over this or that detail… With this current translation I feel an awkward stumbling that I sense doesn’t have to be.” The second says he loves the novel: “As far as comparisons between translations, I can tell you that my well-worn copy is a paperback version of the Signet Classics translation by Ann Dunnigan, and without laying the passages side by side, there’s nothing really in the Pevear/Vokhonsky translation that seems to me an improvement over the Dunnigan translation.” The third had the same reaction: “Frankly, I did not see enough of an improvement to justify buying the new book. I was all set to buy it after reading so much about how it would now be the definitive translation, but after the comparison test I decided to reread the Maude.” The fourth: “Both are good, but on the whole I find the PV a little clunky, and the Briggs more fun to read.” The fifth concurs: “I think the new translation is fine but I don’t find it all that different from earlier translations I’ve read, in particular by the Maudes and by Ann Dunnigan.”

All of this made me very happy—first, that so many people are going to the trouble of comparing translations, and second, that they’re refusing to jump on the P&V bandwagon, even when unsubtly prodded to do so by the moderator. Consensus so far (from non-Russian-speakers): meh, it’s OK but no big improvement, I’ll stick with my previous favorite. This is an admirable slap in the face to the marketer’s THE NEW THING IS THE GREATEST EVER! YOU MUST HAVE IT!!

But then Pevear himself comes along and provides a long defense of his own translation (listen up, you peons, I’ll explain to you why mine really is as superior as the pull-quotes say). This struck me as unfair; the moderator’s already got his thumb on the scales, why should Pevear get to bully people too? But one respondent says “Shockingly, Richard Pevear believes that Richard Pevear was right in each of his choices,” and another agrees that P&V are “stilted, unnatural and stiff” and says he does not believe that Pevear has dealt with that accusation. Then Michael Katz, Professor of Russian Studies at Middlebury, says he doesn’t agree with Pevear about the importance of Tolstoy’s use of “transparent,” Timothy D. Sergay says he is one of the “Russian-English translators and literary scholars with proficiency in both languages… who object in principle to the general method the team employs and the results it produces,” and Dmitry Buzadzhi and Sara Gombert weigh in with a detailed criticism of P&V for making “that which is ordinary and unmarked in the original stand out in translation.” Pevear returns with a huffy and defensive response (“the rumors of my ignorance of Russian are somewhat exaggerated”), whereupon Sergay rather too politely backs down. It’s all great fun, but I regret to report that Mr. Tanenhaus couldn’t tolerate it; in his outraged response, he says “O.K, gang. No more Mr. Nice Guy Moderator. Today, the gloves come off, which is to say: In re this translation, many of you are — how to put this? — off your rockers. The translators don’t need me to defend them — and, as it happens, Richard Pevear has posted his own response. But here’s the opinion (from the November 22 issue of The New York Review of Books) of Orlando Figes, the eminent historian of Russia…” There follows a quote from Figes’s adulatory review and a long rehash of the P&V talking points (Tolstoy isn’t “smooth,” yada yada). Whassamatta, Sam, can’t take a little dissent? If the almighty Times puts its imprimatur on a translation, the rest of us should bow down and worship? If you don’t read Russian (and I think you don’t), you don’t really have any business pronouncing on the superiority of P&V; you’re simply taking Pevear’s word for it and trying to enforce conformity.


The International Literary Quarterly has just put its first issue online:

We strive to publish the best in contemporary literature while shunning all ideological affiliations. Indeed, the driving force behind The International Literary Quarterly is that it be a broad church in the world of letters, a forum for outstanding poetry and prose, whether in its original version or in translation, and for criticism that is trenchant and thought-provoking.
Issue 1 features recent work by three of Scotland’s leading authors (W.N. Herbert, Robert Alan Jamieson and Laura Marney); translations by Suzanne Jill Levine, who has also contributed some of her own work, and Thalia Pandiri; previously unpublished fiction by Lydia Davis, Gabriel Josipovici and Carol Novack; new poetry by George Szirtes; and an essay on the Italian author, Curzio Malaparte, by Daniel Gunn. All of these contributions are published alongside artwork by the review’s Art Editor, Calum Colvin, the distinguished Scottish artist.

It looks like a very worthy publication, and I greet it warmly. (Found, as so many good things are, at wood s lot.)