Archives for January 2014

Some Links.

1) Jon Hamilton of NPR News has an interesting interview (audio and transcript) with researchers studying how the brain recognizes the sounds used to form words. I was particularly struck by this:

This let them see precisely what different brain cells, or neurons, were doing as each bit of sound passed by. And [Edward] Chang says they realized that some were responding specifically to plosives, like the initial puh-sounds in Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers. Meanwhile, other neurons were responding to a particular type of vowel sound.

2) Peter Pomerantsev has an excellent primer at LRBblog on the linguistic situation in Ukraine; if you’ve fallen for the simplistic “Russians in the east, Ukrainians in the west” cliché, you need to read and assimilate it. As he says, “The big winner from the conceptual division of Ukraine into ‘Russian’ and ‘Ukrainian’ spheres may well be the Kremlin.”

3) The AHD Tumblr has a guest post by Susan Steinway, Archivist Coordinator at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, about the original paper ballots from the early years of the American Heritage Dictionary’s Usage Panel, a subject of great interest to me; as I wrote Stan, who sent me the link, “I still remember the thrill I felt when I got the first edition of this magnificent dictionary and how I happily spent hours mentally arguing with the usage panel.” I rolled my eyes at the chest-thumping mini-rants (“Good God, No! Never!”) and appreciated the reservations expressed by Malcolm Cowley (“There is always the danger that we, the so-called authorities, should become too damned pedantic”) and Isaac Asimov (“My opinions are strong, but not necessarily authoritative”).

Rilke or Not?

A friend writes that she remembers working with an interactive system called «Примус» [Primus] back in the ’80s that when you started it up displayed the following greeting:

«И он уже не тот, что был в начале
Чужие судьбы, став его судьбой,
Признав, его уводят за собой.»

Райнер Мария Рильке

Which might be Englished something like this:

And he is no longer that which he was in the beginning
Others’ fates, having become his fate,
Having recognized/acknowledged, take him away after/behind them.

Rainer Maria Rilke

I figured if it were genuine I should be able to google it in English and/or German, but I came up empty; on the other hand, it might be a loose translation, so I thought I’d check with the Varied Reader. Anybody recognize it, or is it one of those pseudo-quotes that infest the internet?

It turns out to be from the last stanza of this poem, “Читатель” [The reader] (1908), which means the original German must be this… but the German doesn’t have anything corresponding to the Russian, as far as I can see!

Ghent Word Test.

This test from the Ghent University Center for Reading Research has been making the rounds (I found it via Erin McKean’s Facebook feed), and it’s fun and educational, so I’m passing it on for the general delectation. My results: “You said yes to 93% of the existing words. You said yes to 0% of the nonwords. This gives you a corrected score of 93% – 0% = 93%. You are at the top level!” A warning: they say “Do not say yes to words you do not know, because yes-responses to nonwords are penalized heavily!,” and this so traumatized me I didn’t say yes to what turned out to be perfectly acceptable words like expletively and gauntleted; if I had realized that normal derivational forms were OK, my score would have been higher. (On the other hand, there’s no way I would have said yes to verticillastrate; I still have trouble believing it’s a word.) The last time I checked the MetaFilter thread about it, the highest reported score was 96%. Have fun!

New Sappho!

Sorry, I try not to overuse exclamation marks, but this is genuinely astonishing news: two poems, previously unknown, by Sappho have turned up, one of them complete with the five final stanzas complete [thanks, TR!]. Here is James Romm’s Daily Beast piece about it:

The two poems came to light when the owner of an ancient papyrus, dating to the 3rd century A.D., consulted an Oxford classicist, Dirk Obbink, about the Greek writing on the tattered scrap. Dr. Obbink, a MacArthur fellow and world-renowned papyrologist, quickly realized the importance of what the papyrus contained and asked its owner for permission to publish it. His article, which includes a transcription of the fragmentary poems, will appear in a scholarly journal this spring, but an on-line version has already been released.

And here (pdf) is Obbink’s draft paper, with the text (in both diplomatic and articulated versions) at the end. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to read the poems; I wanted to get the word out first! (Via Athanassiel’s MetaFilter post.)

Update. Here’s my quick attempt at a translation:

But you keep repeating “Kharaxos is coming
with a full boat”: that, I believe, is for Zeus
and all the gods to know; you should not be
thinking such things;

you should send me instead with strict instructions
to pray fervently to Lady Hera
that Kharaxos might arrive and bring his
ship safe and sound here,

finding us safe as well. As for the rest,
let’s entrust it all to the gods—fair weather,
after all, can come from a heavy gale
all of a sudden.

Those to whom the Lord of Olympus chooses
to send a god, one who will help them forthwith
out of their troubles, they are the blessed onesfortunate
and very wealthyblessed.

We ourselves, if Larikhos should raise
up his head and one day become a man,
we will be from the troubles that weigh us down
freed in an instant.

[Line 7 formerly read “that she might arrive here bringing Kharaxos”; thanks for the grammatical heads-up, TR!]

William Weaver and Translation.

Antony Shugaar has a good piece on the NY Times Opinionator site about his experiences in Milan in the ’80s, working for a super-fancy Italian art magazine where he met all sorts of interesting people, including the great translator William Weaver, who recently died. There are lots of nice details about translating Italian (“The Italian author refers to someone falling face-down onto the asphalt: the Italian reader knows that asphalt is what sidewalks are made of; streets are made of cobblestone or slabs of granite”), but what I want to feature here is this discussion of dealing with dialect:

I remember one specific comment on translation technique that was pure Weaver. The great white whale of Italian postwar literature is “Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana,” by Carlo Emilio Gadda. It’s a big, ungainly philosophical treatise of a murder mystery, interlarded with rich seams of dialect of all kinds: Roman, Neapolitan and various minor subdialects of the areas between those two cities. Gadda was an austere Milanese scholar, the opposite in personality and style of these overemphatic, swaggering, loud forms of speech. But Gadda was an acute observer and a gifted mimic. And the “Pasticciaccio” — “That Awful Mess,” in Weaver’s rendering — takes gleeful delight in lampooning, personifying and ultimately embracing these dialects, Italy’s equivalents of Brooklynese, Bronxese and perhaps Boston’s Southie accent.

“What did you do about the dialect?” I asked him, at one of our lunches. He laughed, and replied, “Oh, I just left it out!”

At first glance, it’s a little like translating “Moby-Dick” and leaving out all references to boats. But I understood. Weaver explains it better in his introduction to the English edition: “To translate Gadda’s Roman or Venetian into the language of Mississippi or the Aran Islands would be as absurd as translating the language of Faulkner’s Snopeses into Sicilian or Welsh.” Weaver asks the reader, therefore, “to imagine the speech of Gadda’s characters, translated here into straightforward spoken English, as taking place in dialect, or a mixture of dialects.” In other words, supply the boats yourself.

Makes sense to me. (Thanks, Bonnie!)

Bernstein’s Mandelstam.

Ilya Bernstein wrote me with a Google Books link to his new collection of Mandelstam translations, The Poems of Osip Mandelstam (Ilya Bernstein, 2014). I gave it a polite look, then found myself hooked and unable to do anything else (like work) until I’d looked through the entire thing, frequently comparing his versions with the originals. I had, frankly, stopped expecting to find any published translations that represented what I considered a faithful approach to one of the greatest poets of the last century; pretty much every other Russian poet has fared better in English translation. (That’s why I started translating him myself; see here and here for examples.) As I wrote Ilya,

These are superb translations, some of the best I’ve seen — you have a wonderful ear for English rhythm, which is (to my mind) the most important factor in translating a poet like Mandelstam. A solution like “My vision damp enough, my mind not too too clever” must have taken a lot of turning over possibilities in your mind and on your tongue. It’s an indictment of American publishing that you have to put out the book yourself.

But he corrected me on the last point, saying:

I’m not sure that it’s an indictment of American publishing that I’ve put out the book myself — I like having it freely available online (since most of the things I read fall into that category). My favorite books are in the public domain, and I like being in their company. As long as readers find their way to it, I’m very happy with this format.

An admirable attitude! So go immerse yourself in his renditions of Mandelstam poems, mostly from his later period (though he starts off with the 1918 “Tristia”: “I have learned the art of departure/ In loose-haired lamentations of the night…”); I could pick out a whole bunch of lines I love so much I want to share them (“Oh, how much dearer to her is an oarlock’s creak”; “I inhaled the clutter of space”), but since I can’t copy-and-paste and am inherently a lazy person, I’ll just assure you that you’re getting as close to the original as you’re likely to get in English. Well, OK, just for the heck of it, here’s a comparison of the first four lines of this 1937 poem, first in two versions put out by commercial publishers and then in Bernstein’s:

I sing when my throat is damp, my soul dry,
Sight fairly moist and the mind clear.
Are the grapes in good condition?
The wine-skins? And the stirrings of Colchis in the blood?

–tr. James Greene, Selected Poems (Penguin, 1991)

I sing when my throat is moist, my soul dry,
my vision is humid enough and my conscience plays no tricks.
Is the wine healthy? Are the wineskins healthy?
Is the rocking in Colchis’s blood healthy?

–tr. Richard & ‎Elizabeth McKane, The Voronezh Notebooks: Poems 1935-1937 (Bloodaxe, 1996)

I sing when my throat is wet, my soul is dry,
My vision damp enough, my mind not too too clever.
Is the wine wholesome? Are the wineskins sound?
Does my blood quicken with Caucasian fervor?

–tr. Ilya Bernstein (2014)

You be the judge.


The OED’s ancient (1888) etymology for brothel goes as follows:

Etymology: Middle English broþel, < Old English broðen ruined, degenerate, past participle of bréoðan to go to ruin: a variant of brethel n. [“A worthless fellow, good-for-nothing, wretch.”]

The modern sense arises from confusion with an entirely different word bordel n. (q.v. [ < Old French bordel ‘cabin, hut, brothel’]); the brothel was originally a person, the bordel a place. But the combinations bordel-house and brothel’s house ran together in the form brothel-house, which being shortened to brothel, the personal sense of this word became obsolete, and it remains only as the substitute of the original bordel.

That’s still about as much as can confidently be said, but there are a couple of weaselly bits there (right at the start the punctuation between the two forms in “broþel, < Old English broðen,” and later on “a variant of”), and etymologist Anatoly Liberman, ever eager to explore new terrain, sinks his teeth into them in this OUPblog essay. Among the interesting things he has to say is that bordel “existed in Old French”:

Its root (bord-) is a Germanic word, akin in sound and meaning to English board. From an etymological point of view, bordel designated a small board house, a hovel (-el is a diminutive suffix) and only later acquired the meaning that has stayed without change to this day.

He goes on to say “I would risk defending and developing an etymology offered in The Century Dictionary but disregarded by all later authorities,” and although I don’t necessarily buy it, it makes enjoyable reading (though Liberman’s odd puritanism can be offputting; he talks about “the unhealthy popularity of our F-word in the remotest countries of the planet”). Anyway, read the whole thing if the topic is of interest to you; thanks for the link, Kobi!

Tweaking the OED.

A NY Times interview with Michael Proffitt, the new chief editor of the OED, is well worth reading if you are interested in lexicographers and want a sense of where this one might be steering the greatest lexicographic enterprise in the world. I must admit these bits made me twitch:

“As much as I adhere to the O.E.D.’s public reputation,” he said, “I want proof that it is of value to people in terms of practical use.”
. . .
Although the O.E.D. survived the Internet upheavals that devastated other reference works, it has yet to capitalize fully on the potential online audience. Mr. Proffitt is eager to do so, perhaps with lower prices, certainly with tweaks to the website and less stuffy definitions.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with practical use and a decrease in stuffiness per se, but I am uncomfortably reminded (as I said in this Wordorigins thread) of libraries that get rid of all books over ten years old (if they’re not getting rid of physical books altogether, because digital is so much cooler). By all means bring the OED into the present, but don’t even think of lowering its standards in the name of alleged practicality or fear of stuffiness. (Thanks for the link, Eric!)


While reading the sports section over breakfast this morning (a lifelong habit), I plunged into an AP story headlined “Tiger opens with a 72 at Torrey Pines” purely because it was there — I care nothing about golf — and was pulled up short by this paragraph:

“Even par is not too bad, but I didn’t play the par 5s worth a darn today,” Woods said. “Obviously, that’s (tantamount) to try to get any kind of scoring on the South Course. You’ve got to take care of the par 5s because there’s not a lot of holes you can make birdie here. Subsequently, I didn’t finish under par.”

Tantamount? (thought I) — that makes no sense here. What on earth did Woods actually say? So I googled another phrase from the quote and got this USA Today story, which has the actual quote:

“Well, even-par’s not too bad, but I didn’t play the par-5s worth a darn today,” said Woods, who won last year’s Farmers by four shots. “I played them even-par. Obviously that’s paramount to try to get any kind of scoring on the South course … “

Paramount. Of course. A perfectly good word which some idiot at the AP changed to the meaningless (in context) tantamount. It is of paramount importance to know what words mean before editing them; to change a perfectly good word to one that will cause readers to lose the train of thought is tantamount to treason against your language and your profession.

Shooting Stick.

My wife and I are continuing to read Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time (we’re approaching the end of the third book, The Acceptance World), and the second time the expression “shooting stick” came up (“There were the same golf clubs and shooting-sticks and tennis racquets…”), she asked me “What is a shooting stick, anyway?” I didn’t know, so I had to reach for a dictionary, where I learned that it is (in the words of the AHD) “A stick resembling a cane, pointed at one end with a folding seat at the other, typically used by spectators at outdoor sporting events.” The OED explains the origin (as well as giving a couple of obsolete senses):

shooting-stick n. (a) Printing a piece of hard wood or metal which is struck by a mallet to loosen or tighten the quoins in a chase; (b) slang = shooting-iron n [“a firearm, esp. a revolver”]. (obs.); (c) a walking-stick with a handle that may be opened to form an impromptu seat, first used by shooters.

The two citations for the last sense are:

1926 E. P. Oppenheim Golden Beast i. xvii. 163 Judith had already disappeared, swinging her shooting stick in her hand.
1967 Guardian 23 May 2/6 The shooting sticks will prod the roots of every stately garden.

Are you familiar with this odd-sounding but useful term?