COMPARING ONLINE TRANSLATORS.

Ethan Shen has done a research project comparing the three major free translation engines available online; here are his results to date:

This paper evaluates the relative quality of three popular online translation tools: Google Translate, Bing (Microsoft) Translator, and Yahoo Babelfish. The results published below are based on a 6 week survey open to the general internet population which allowed survey takers to choose any language, enter any free-form text, and vote on the best of all translation results side-by-side (www.gabble-on.com/compare-translators). The final data reveals that while Google Translate is widely preferred when translating long passages, Microsoft Bing Translator and Yahoo Babelfish often produce better translations for phrases below 140 characters. Also, in general Babelfish performs well in East Asian Languages such as Chinese and Korean and Bing Translator performs well in Spanish, German, and Italian.

Below Figure 1, showing the comparisons in detail, come some interesting results like this:

The extent of Google’s lead varies dramatically from language to language. In some languages such as French, the strength of Google Translate’s engine is overwhelming. However, in several others like German, Italian, and Portuguese, Google holds only a very slim lead when compared to its biggest competitors….
One possible explanation is that large additional bodies of parallel English-French text are available from the government of Canada for which are official documents are translated into both.

Interesting stuff, and I’ll have to give Bing a try.

ANDERMANIR SHTUK.

That odd phrase is the title of a new novel by Evgeny Klyuev (Russian Wikipedia) mentioned in Lisa Hayden Espenschade’s latest post at Lizok’s Bookshelf, a typically informative list of the 2010 Big Book award finalists, with commentary. The one that is most immediately appealing to me is Oleg Zaionchkovsky’s Счастье возможно: Роман нашего времени (Happiness is possible: a novel of our time), but unquestionably the most intriguing title is carried by the book Lisa lists as “Evgenii Kliuev – Андерманир штук (Something Else for You – (?) I found a translation of the Russian title phrase in this article by Catriona Kelly).” The Kelly article is behind a paywall, so I tried Google Books on the phrase and got hits like “А вот, извольте посмотреть, андерманир штук — другой вид” [And here, if you'll be so kind as to look, andermanir shtuk — another view]; “А вот, извольте видеть, господа, андерманир штук хороший вид, город Кострома горит, у забора мужик стоит” [And here, see, if you would, andermanir shtuk, a good view, the city of Kostroma is burning, a peasant is standing by the fence]; “А вот андерманир-штук — Бонапарт на тулуп меняет сюртук со стужи да кушак подтянул потуже” [And here's andermanir shtuk — Bonaparte is exchanging his frock coat for a sheepskin coat because it's cold, and pulling the belt tighter]. As I wrote in Lisa’s comment section, I presume it’s from German, something like anderer Manier Stück “another sort of thing” (which is not actual German, but some Russian must have invented it on the basis of whatever the real German phrase is).
From the same Lizok post I learn that Jamie Olson, who translates Russian poetry into English and teaches in the English Department at Saint Martin’s University, has started a blog about Russian poetry, The Flaxen Wave. It looks promising, and I expect to be checking in on it regularly.
Update (October 2013). I have come across a variant in Alexander Veltman’s 1835 story Эротида, in the context of a game of cards: “Но вот ‘ander Stück manier!’ поносит он свою даму” ["But now he reviles his queen ander Stuck Manier"]. The early date brings it much closer to the 18th century (see comment thread below).

CHUKOVSKY VI.

I’m still reading Chukovsky’s Diary, 1901-1969 (see this post), and I’ve come across a couple of short, striking passages I wanted to share. (Russian below the cut.) On endings:

Amazing! English writers don’t know how to end their works. The best of them turn to the most shameful commonplaces. They start off brilliantly, all fresh energy and muscles, but the ending is trivial, cobbled together from cliches. I’ve just finished Far from the Madding Crowd. Who would have expected Thomas Hardy to turn into such a vulgarian! Everything is perfectly predictable: one villain ends up in prison, another in the grave, and the third, the hero, after the requisite anxieties and impediments ends up in the arms of Bathsheba, the woman he was meant to marry.

And on plagiarism:

[Sologub] had a playful way of talking about his plagiarisms. “[Aleksandr] Redko found a passage I’d plagiarized from a trashy French novel and printed it en regard. All that proves is that he reads trashy French novels. What he didn’t notice was that at nearly the same spot I’d cribbed five or so pages from George Eliot. Which proves that he doesn’t read serious literature.”

I disapprove of plagiarism, but that’s pretty funny.

[Read more...]

EGIPETSKAYA MARKA COMMENTARY.

I’m now reading Mandelstam’s dense 1927 novella “Egipetskaya marka” (“The Egyptian stamp”), and in trying to look up the odd word финолинка [finolinka], evidently a sort of night light (which turns out to occur only here in all of Russian literature), I ran across this LJ site, dedicated to a line-by-line analysis of the story. (It began in April 2009 with a post about the title and is now nearing the end of section 5; here‘s the archive for 2009, and you can click on the link at the top to get to 2010.) In the post relevant to my search, it is suggested that финолинка is a distortion of филаменка [filamenka] ‘filament lamp.’ The site is going to be very useful to me, as it would be to anyone engaging with the story in Russian, and I thank Alik Manov for maintaining it.
Incidentally, the story is available in English in the excellent collection The Noise of Time: The Prose of Osip Mandelstam, edited and translated by Clarence Brown; “The Noise of Time” (Shum vremeni), Mandelstam’s quasi-autobiography (comparable to Nabokov’s Speak, Memory), is one of the classics of Russian literature.

FANBOY.

Those of you who spend any time on sites where technology is discussed will doubtless be familiar with the term fanboy, meaning ‘someone so emotionally attached to a tech product or company that any perceived attack will send them into a defensive frenzy.’ (The company involved is frequently Apple, for doubtless complicated historical reasons that I’m happy to say I’m ignorant of.) Harry McCracken of Technologizer has done some digging and come up with Fanboy! The Strange True Story of the Tech World’s Favorite Put-Down, and since I always enjoy a good etymological investigation, I’m sharing it here. The gist of it is that although the OED has a cite from 1919 (Decatur Rev. 2 Oct. 6/2 “It was a shock to the fan boys when Cincinnati.. beat the Chicago White Sox”), its current use dates from a 1973 fanzine created by “two fans who took Marvel Comics, the work of Frank Frazetta, and other matters a wee bit too seriously,” called Fanboy. McCracken also points out that the Merriam-Webster definition, “a boy who is an enthusiastic devotee (as of comics or movies),” is incorrect, since a fanboy is not necessarily a boy (the OED has it right: “a male fan (in later use chiefly of comics, film, music, or science fiction), esp. an obsessive one”). Don’t miss the comment by Jack, who points out that McCracken has overemphasized the priority of the fanzine and has other sensible things to say (“All language is spoken. The written word is the extremely temporary capturing of language”). Hat tip to Dave Wilton at Wordorigins.org.

MASTDAIT.

The Macmillan Dictionary Blog has a guest post by Yuliya Melnyk called “The influence of English on the Russian language”; it’s short and pretty superficial, but this struck me: “Many words are produced in Russian slang every day; they have English roots and Russian affixes, e.g.: mastdait, which means ‘criticize’, comes from English must die…” I’m sure glad she told me, because I don’t think I’d ever have figured that out if I saw мастдаить in the wild. It seems it can be used intransitively as well, because one Google hit has “Ну как, рулит или мастдаит?” which seems to mean “So, does it rule or suck?” Are my Russian-speaking readers familiar with this oddly formed loan word? (Thanks for the link, Stan!)

GOAT SONG.

I wrote briefly about Konstantin Vaginov here, and since I’m currently engaged in reading Soviet works from 1927, I’ve finally gotten around to his magnum opus, the novel Goat Song (Козлиная песнь). I must say, I’m disappointed. Among other things, it’s apparently a roman à clef about the circle around Bakhtin in mid-1920s Leningrad, and I’m sure if you were part of that circle or knew people who were (which in the incestuous intellectual world of early Soviet Leningrad was everybody who was anybody), it was a lot of fun to read, just as I enjoy reading a short story written by a friend of mine a quarter century ago about the circle I hung out with in NYC. But for me, much of it was a fairly tedious dip into what I suppose must be called early postmodernism, with a lot of ostentatious intertextuality and toying with the puppets the author has created as characters. Of course, I may simply not have been in the mood for it, and I’ll probably give it another try someday. At the moment, however, I’m very much looking forward to the next items on the agenda, Mandelstam’s “Египетская марка” (“The Egyptian Stamp”) and Tynyanov‘s “Подпоручик Киже” (“Lieutenant Kizhe”). Then some Zoshchenko, and on to 1928: Vremya, vperyod!

PALE FIRE: A GRIPE.

This Ask MetaFilter thread has made me grumpy, and I trust you’ll forgive me if I vent a bit here. Before I do, I will state for the record that Pale Fire is a wonderful book and I’m glad Nabokov wrote it. But, as with Pachelbel’s Canon, I’m starting to want never to hear of it again.
The thread starts with the perfectly good question “What’s the next Nabokov book for my book group? Not Pnin, Lolita, or Ada.” The first half dozen responses are an interestingly varied lot: people suggest Bend Sinister, Laughter in the Dark, Invitation to a Beheading, Lectures on Don Quixote, and Despair. Then comes the fateful suggestion of Pale Fire, and suddenly everybody and his brother is chiming in: “Pale Fire ++. My all time number one,” “I’m nthing Pale Fire. It’s really fantastic,” “Pale Fire is my favorite book in the world,” “Pale Fire for sure,” “Pale Fire is excellent and fun,” “I’m all about the Pale Fire“….
Now, the gimmick of the novel is that it consists of a series of extended annotations to a longish poem, and if you put the annotations together with the chatty index you can work out the actual story, as opposed to the nutty and self-serving one the annotator is trying to tell. It’s loads of fun, and I have no objection to anyone enjoying it; I certainly did. But it’s essentially a gimmick, and to mistake the enjoyment of working out a gimmick for the enjoyment of reading a great novel irritates me.
Furthermore, I have read too many blorts of enthusiasm about the poem that is at the heart of the novel; it’s true nobody in the MeFi thread has mentioned it, but I’m getting all my gripes off my chest here, so I’m going to announce that I don’t think it’s a very good poem. It’s clever, of course, and well phrased—this is Nabokov we’re talking about—but Nabokov was not essentially a poet; he wrote a few genuinely good poems in Russian (and a couple of excellent translations into English before he decided readable translations were a bad thing), but here he is simply providing a plausible MacGuffin for his crazed-annotator plot. (I hope and trust he would agree with me.) To mistake a MacGuffin for a real poem, let alone a great one, irritates me even more.
So there you have it. Pale Fire: enjoyable, but in my opinion second-rank Nabokov. Which is better than 95% of everything else, of course, but I still don’t like seeing it waved onto the victor’s podium by popular acclamation. If this be elitism, call me Cincinnatus C. and sentence me to death for gnostical turpitude.

I’M(N)A GET.

Several years ago Mark Liberman had a Log post investigating the contraction I’ma for I’m going to; today he has an update in which he reproduces a snippet of Art Blakey introducing his musicians from the famous “Night at Birdland” recording of February 1954 with a quintet that was a forerunner of the Jazz Messengers he was to lead for over three decades, one of the most influential groups in the history of American music. Here’s how Mark transcribes it: “Yes, sir, I’ma stay with the youngsters. When these get too old, I’ma get some younger ones.” What I (like others in the comment thread) hear in the second sentence, however, is “I’mna”—i.e., a reduced “I’m gonna,” a different form. Listen to the clips at the Log and see what you think; theoretical issues hang on it!
On a non-linguistic note, I will add that the “youngsters” were Horace Silver on piano, Curly Russell on bass, Lou Donaldson on alto sax, and the immortal (though dead too young) Clifford Brown on trumpet. It doesn’t get much better than that, and I urge anyone with any interest in jazz to get this wonderful two-disc set (Vol. 1, Vol. 2).

BEDSIDE LANGUAGE BOOKS.

Nothing earthshaking in this Economist column by Robert Lane Greene, but it’s nice to see Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage getting some love in such a respected venue. Thanks, Kattullus!