Archives for December 2010


Joel of Far Outliers has been reading American Missionaries, Christian Oyatoi, and Japan 1859–73, by Hamish Ion, and as usual he shares with the rest of us particularly appetizing snippets; I was particularly interested in Legacies of Hepburn’s First Dictionary of Japanese, 1867:

Although Hepburn was discounting the early work of his friend Brown in claiming his was the first dictionary, it was an immense achievement, far surpassing any nineteenth-century rival. … Even though Hepburn’s dictionary might have been more suited for those using colloquial speech than wanting to acquire the written language, it remains Hepburn’s greatest contribution to opening Japan, not only to missionaries but also to the English-speaking world. … In September 1872, the Japan Weekly Mail noted that the second edition of the dictionary “is a fresh encouragement to foreigners in this country to pursue the study of the Japanese language, and to the Japanese it will afford invaluable assistance in the study of ours.” The newspaper predicted that its print run of three thousand would be quickly sold out. It was close to a century later – in the early 1960s with the publication of the Nelson dictionary – before another American missionary produced a dictionary that would have a similar profound impact on those learning Japanese. The Hepburn system of romanization of Japanese, which the earlier dictionary first introduced and the Nelson dictionary used, remains the standard system of romanization.

I wish all of my readers a happy new year, and I personally hope it’s considerably better than the one now ending.


Over eight years ago, in the very earliest days of LH, I posted a bitter complaint about the habits of the translator of the novel Ali and Nino: “She kept all the Arabic, Persian, Turkic, and Russian terms from the novel in their German guises (the book was written in German), which produces an effect in English that is at best barbarous and at worst incomprehensible.” A year later I had a similar complaint about a translation from Hungarian. Now here I am, back to kvetch about the same damn thing. I happen to have both the English translation (The Case of Comrade Tulayev, 1951) and the French original (L’Affaire Toulaev, 1949) of the best-known novel by Victor Serge (a Russian revolutionary who was born in Brussels, wrote in French, and passed from anarchism to Bolshevism to a disillusioned sort-of-Trotskyism, and who will always have a place in my heart for his wonderful remark to the Leninists he turned away from: “All right, I can see the broken eggs. Now where’s this omelette of yours?”), so I decided to read them simultaneously. The translator, Willard R. Trask, practiced a slavish fidelity to French orthography that produces extremely annoying results.
I first realized the problem on page 3, when Serge’s Romachkine was rendered “Romachkin” instead of the appropriate Romashkin. On page 7, Macha was kept intact instead of being changed to Masha. (On page 8, a salacious sentence was omitted, but that’s another issue.) On page 15 Kouznetsoff (i.e., Kuznetsov) shows up as “Kutzetsov,” whether through translatorial incompetence or typographical sabotage being impossible to determine, but on the very next line Guépéou has its accents stripped to appear as the absurd “Guepeou” rather than, as it should be, GPU (the secret police, successor to the Cheka and precursor of the NKVD). On page 29 there’s a mysterious “Vorogen district”; this should be Voronezh, but here the error is Serge’s (the French text has “Vorogène”). On page 36 the name of one of the protagonists is given as “Erchov”; it should be Ershov or Yershov (the character is an analogue of NKVD head Nikolai Yezhov). It’s not just Russian names that are bollixed up, either; on p. 41 Serge’s Sinkiang, which should have been kept intact, is transmogrified into “Tsingkiang” for reasons known only to Trask. (Oddly, a few pages later he manages to correctly turn “Mao-Tse-Dzioun” into Mao Tse-tung.) What on earth did he think he was doing? Even if he didn’t know the first thing about Russian, he knew that no English-speaker was likely to pronounce “ch” as “sh”—”Macha” can only be read as a female equivalent of “macho,” unless it’s given an equally inappropriate Germanic “kh” sound (as in Mucha). And what is an English-speaker supposed to make of “Guepeou”? Shame on Willard Trask, who failed in the most basic task of a translator, that of producing an intelligible text in the target language.

[Read more…]


Harry Eyres has an interesting Financial Times review of a couple of new versions of Le Petit Prince; what I wish to call your attention to here is this bit:

But for translators, the questions and problems are not so speculative but eminently practical. How, for example, do you translate that famous opening request by the Little Prince, which in French consists of the words: “S’il vous plaît … dessine-moi un mouton.”
It sounds simple but mouton in French can mean either sheep or lamb. Sarah Ardizzone and Ros Schwartz, in her beautifully judged Collector’s Library version, come to different conclusions for excellent reasons. Schwartz opts for lamb because “‘Please … draw me a sheep’ … was not something I could imagine a child saying spontaneously.” Ardizzone takes the opposite view: “I actually like the plosive, slightly cartoony sound of ‘sheep’. I didn’t want any echoes of ‘lamb of God’ in what is already a spiritually charged text.” Ardizzone’s sheep had another advantage: it enabled her to translate the Pilot’s exasperated “Il me broute avec son mouton celui-là” (literally, “He gets on my nerves with that sheep/lamb of his”) as the brilliant “I wish he’d stop bleating on about his sheep.”

But surely mouton can mean only ‘sheep’; ‘lamb’ is agneau. Or am I wrong? (Thanks, Paul!)


I just learned that Denis Dutton has died at only 66. Others knew him as a professor of philosophy or media commentator; to me he was the guy who ran the website Arts & Letters Daily, which I read every day (and occasionally corresponded with him about) back around the turn of the millennium and sporadically in the years since—it was always thought-provoking, but there was just too much else to read. If I knew that he was a native Californian, I’d forgotten it; he got his PhD in philosophy from the University of California Santa Barbara in 1975, so I might have passed him on the street when I was visiting my parents in that lovely city all those years ago. Since 1984 he’s been teaching at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. His voracious and wide-ranging interest in ideas and his enthusiasm for sharing them will be greatly missed.


It’s very hard to translate Joseph Brodsky into English. God knows he never managed to do a decent job, and his approved translators tended to be bullied into falling in line with his ideas (see Daniel Weissbort’s From Russian with Love for details). So I was delighted to visit Jamie Olson’s The Flaxen Wave and find his translation of Brodsky’s “Рождество 1963 года,” “Christmas, 1963.” It begins:
The savior was born
into fierce, brutish cold.
Shepherds’ small campfires blazed in the wasteland.
It continues with a flawless feel for Brodsky’s sense of sound and rhythm. Read the whole thing; it’s only ten lines.


Phil Gyford (who runs the indispensable Pepys’ Diary site, one of the few I visit every day no matter how busy I am) has a lament for what’s happening to the printed book. He ordered a copy of Volume 9 of the Latham-Matthews edition of Pepys’ Diary (he gets a new one each year), and discovered that it was different from the beautifully printed books he was used to:

The paper is smooth and crisp, like the kind of paper you buy in reams to feed through your temperamental inkjet printer. It’s smooth, without the grain and texture of standard book paper. It’s also thinner: text from the reverse of the page, and even from the page after that, shows through, as you can see above.
Then there’s the printing. Like the cover, there’s something slightly off about it. Not only does the paper look like slick office paper, but the printing looks like it’s been churned through an office photocopier. … The newer version looks and feels inferior, cheaper, like a shoddy print-on-demand, self-published volume. And yet it costs the same and there’s no way of knowing what you’re getting. I assumed this volume would be the same as all the books I’ve bought in the same series, by the same publisher, in the same edition. But something’s changed, with no clue on the item’s Amazon page. …
When publishers appear to love their own books so little, when they’re apparently happy to pass off a print-on-demand photocopy of a book as a full-price volume, it’s hard for the reader in turn to feel much love for these gradually disappearing objects.
I want to love books, but if the publisher treats them merely as interchangeable units, where the details don’t matter so long as the bits, the “content”, is conveyed as cheaply as possible, then we may be falling out of love.

When a commenter says “Reissued and backlist books are often printed via POD instead of offset because of the riskier nature of producing thousands of copies and warehousing them,” Phil responds “That the books are printed on demand isn’t the issue. I don’t really care how they’re printed, I care about the result and how it’s marketed. If the final object is shoddy but it’s sold as being the same as previous, higher-quality, items then that’s not an improvement to anyone but the short-term profits of the publisher.” It probably won’t come as a surprise that I agree.


A quick rundown of the LH-related presents unwrapped today:
Travels in Siberia, by Ian Frazier
Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman
The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition
Proper English: Myths and Misunderstandings about Language, by Ronald Wardhaugh
The Slang Dictionary; or, The Vulgar Words, Street Phrases, and Fast Expressions of High and Low Society by John Camden Hotten (London: John Camden Hotten, 1869) (Google eBook)
My daughter-in-law found the last at a library sale and knew at once I had to have it; it’s worth it just for the list of Very Important New Books at the back. (The blurb for one of them: “One of the cheapest and most amusing books ever published. There are so many curious matters discussed in this volume, that any person who takes it up will not readily lay it down. The introduction is almost entirely devoted to a consideration of Pig-Faced Ladies, and the various stories concerning them.” Italics in the original.)
And my excessively generous younger brother gave me four movies: Wild Grass (Alain Resnais), The Flower of Evil (Claude Chabrol), The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (Eric Rohmer), and Alexandra (Alexander Sokurov). Not to mention some Tabu Ley Rochereau. I’ll be absorbing all this for a long time… after I finish the blasted editing job I’m in the middle of.


I’ll be opening most of my presents tomorrow, but I already have a couple of LH interest: Viktor Shklovsky’s Theory of Prose and Rasskazy: New Fiction from a New Russia, edited by Jeff Parker. For the discovery of the latter I am indebted to Lisa Hayden Espenschade, whose enthusiastic post led me to add it to my wish list. And as I wrote to jamessal and AJP, who jointly sent me the former:

Not only do I love Shklovsky’s writing for its own sake, but his approach to criticism is far more appealing to me than most; I always come away from him feeling like I’ve learned more about how literature works.
I opened it at random to page 3 and saw the sentence “Hey, you with the hat, you dropped a package!” This book was clearly meant for me.

To all of my readers who are celebrating the holidays: happy holidays!


Mark Liberman has a post at the Log about the U.K. term jobsworth (OED: “Brit. colloq. (depreciative). A person in authority (esp. a minor official) who insists on adhering to rules and regulations or bureaucratic procedures even at the expense of common sense”), which was as new to him as it is to me; it comes from the U.K. expression “it’s more than me job’s worth”, meaning “I’d lose my job if I let you do that.” A commenter adduces the German colloquialism Überzwerg, literally ‘superdwarf’: “typically a minor official who uses petty rules and regulations to make life uncomfortable for those he has power over.” (The definition is illustrated by an appalling story about a train trip.) These are both excellent words, though the second would need to be adapted to be adopted (“superdwarf” or “overdwarf”?).
There’s also an interesting thread about the value of comments for a blog, in which nice things are said about the commenters here at LH; as I write there, “There are a number of blogs I stopped visiting when they stopped having comments, and I would not bother maintaining Languagehat if I were just talking to myself — it’s the commenters who make it interesting for me.”


Enrico Brignano is a comedian from Rome whose ten-minute Dialetti italiani is a tour de force of mimicry. Once he stopped speaking standard Italian I couldn’t understand more than a word here and there, but his stage presence is compelling enough that I didn’t care. He goes from north to south, and your reward for sticking it out is a simultaneous performance as Godfather and cat. (Hat tip to IndigoJones.)